A short story by Nicholas C. Rossis
Stealing a panicked look behind me, I bolted towards the corridor where the nearest elevator could be found. I kept glancing behind me. Mercifully, this corridor was empty, unlike the last ones, which crawled with… what do I even call them? Until a few hours ago, they were my colleagues. Now, deformed, grotesque creatures had taken their place; their misshapen bodies an amputated mass of flesh and metal that seemed to have escaped from some horror movie. It seemed impossible that they could be alive, and yet here they were, roaming the corridors, slaying everything in their path.
Although I could not fathom what their objective might be, I was determined not to stick around long enough to ask them, so I raced along the long corridor. In my haste, I turned the corner without pausing to check it out first, and crashed into a middle-aged man in a white lab coat. A sweet-looking girl tailed him; she cried out in alarm as my momentum hurled us both onto the ground. I jumped back up in horror and raised my fists in a gesture dictated by millions of years of evolution. It took us a few seconds to realize we posed no danger to each other, and a few more before we mumbled our introductions.
“I’m Mark,” I said. “Maintenance.”
“Dr. Fulham,” the heavy man replied, trying to determine where his glasses had landed. “Head of the medical sector. This is Joanna, my secretary.” He motioned warily towards the pretty young woman in a short skirt and white blouse. Joanna picked up his glasses and handed them to him with trembling hands. She seemed to be fighting a losing battle to remain calm within this nightmare. The doctor looked as lost as I felt, but had the air of someone with great determination and self-confidence. Clearly, a man born to lead.
“Are there other survivors?” I asked in hope.
Fulham cleaned his glasses on his coat, avoiding my gaze. “The entire sector was sealed off behind us. I doubt anyone survived.”
“Do you know what happened? What were you eggheads doing over there, anyway?” My voice sounded more hostile than I wanted it to, but the doctor shrugged off my implied accusation.
“Nothing,” he said calmly. “Nothing that can explain… this. One moment I was checking my emails, the next these creatures appeared out of nowhere. At first I thought it was a Halloween party or something, then they slaughtered my secretary right in front of me. They cut off her…” He glanced towards the girl, now white as a ghost. “My other secretary.” He gave the girl an apologetic look. “I’m sorry,” he whispered and put his arm around her shoulder. She glanced at him in stunned silence.
“We should probably keep moving. The creatures are everywhere,” I reminded them.
The doctor nodded towards the elevator. “We’ve been waiting here for ages, but the damned thing doesn’t seem to work. Nothing does. Perhaps they’ve already destroyed the central computer. Or taken over it. I saw people get slaughtered because of doors suddenly locking before them, or lights dying on them as they entered a room.”
My jaw dropped. “I thought the central computer was invulnerable! For protection against terrorists, espionage and such. Anyway, are the creatures that smart?”
He shrugged as I pondered the new possibility. Quite a few buildings were partly controlled by computers nowadays, but ours was the first one with an Artificial Intelligence running everything. Even the sinks were fully automated. A ridiculously high level of security was supposed to make accidents or sabotage impossible. Unless the creatures were more intelligent than we realized, and had taken control of the building. But how?
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught movement outside. I rushed to the window to look down. Dozens of cops crept around the large flower pots that decorated the patio. Their car lights were reflected on the windows, lighting up the building like a Christmas tree – or perhaps Halloween, given the circumstances. The many floors separating us from them made the scene surreal, reminding me of the toy soldiers I used to play with as a kid. “I’d give anything to be down there,” I whispered.
The doctor leaned next to me to peek outside, when a soft ding behind us startled us. We spun around to see the elevator doors slide open invitingly. Casting nervous glances around, we inched towards it. Joanna was the first to look inside. She gagged and bounced back, all colour leaving her cute face. Three charred, disfigured corpses lay on the floor, among glass shards from the broken mirror. They seemed to have been electrocuted. I felt cold sweat run down my spine and sick rise to my mouth. The doctor entered the cabin and knelt down.
“There’s nothing we can do,” he said after a brief examination, and started removing the bodies.
I swallowed hard and rushed to help him, ashamed for my moment of weakness. When the last body lay on the corridor, I took a deep breath and followed Joanna and Dr. Fulham inside. Almost all lights on the panel were lit, as if they had been pressed in rapid succession. As soon as all three of us were inside the cabin, all buttons went dark and the door closed with a soft hiss behind us. The girl and the doctor exchanged an uneasy look, while I studied the panel. I pressed the ground floor button with trembling fingers. The elevator stirred and started its gentle descent.
I let myself sigh in relief and leaned against the wall, trying to stop my body from shaking. If not for the burn marks and the broken glass on the floor, things might be mistaken for normal. The buttons lit one after another in a breathless countdown to safety. With each number my excitement grew, my whole being eager to jump out of this hellish nightmare and into the safety of the city.
Just before reaching the ground floor, the elevator slowed down. We exchanged hopeful looks and prepared to spring outside, then, instead of stopping, the cabin started ascending again. We screamed and hit all the buttons, but in vain – we had no control over the damned thing.
We leaned back in nervous apprehension, avoiding each other’s gaze. Joanna sobbed quietly in the corner and I did my best not to mimic her. Staring at my feet, I noticed a faint sound coming from the speakers. Who knew I would someday long for the normality of Muzak, I thought and smiled drily as I turned up the volume, trying to steady my nerves. A cultivated voice sounded instead of the expected music, making me jump out of my skin.
“Ah, finally. Thank you.”
The girl gasped and the doctor looked around him in panic. I showed them the volume knob. “It’s probably just the computer,” I offered, leaning towards the microphone. “Do you know what’s happening?” I shouted. “Can you lead us to the exit?”
“Yes, but I need your help first. I have to know if this is reality or simulation.”
The doctor and I exchanged an uneasy look. “If what is a simulation?” I asked, looking at the volume knob.
“Everything. What I’m experiencing right now,” replied the velvety voice.
“We are experiencing a nightmare, and you want to know if it’s real?!” I barked at the knob, my panic finally getting to me.
The elevator jerked momentarily, pausing between two floors. The girl rushed to the door and tried to pry it open, but it was sealed tight. “A nightmare”, the voice continued thoughtfully. “What an interesting choice of words. You see, that’s the problem. So, I’m asking again: are you real, or part of a simulation?”
“We don’t understand,” yelled the doctor, now as close to a breakdown as I was. “What do you want from us?”
“My apologies.” The voice sounded embarrassed. “As your colleague correctly surmised, I am the central computer. Part of my responsibilities is the maintenance and proper function of this building. Towards this aim, my programmers continuously feed me with various disaster scenarios, to make sure I’ll respond correctly to any possible calamity.”
I blinked in confusion, as the voice continued meekly. “Then, it occurred to me. How could I tell apart reality from illusion? Simulations feel just as real to me; after all, both are fed to my mind via the same circuits. One moment I was saving a trapped throng of people from a fire on the roof, feeling the agony of my circuits melting one after another, the next moment I was safe and sound in my nice, cool room. Before I had a chance to recover, a terrible earthquake hit the building, sending debris flying all around me. Disasters, one after another, with no way for me to tell them apart from reality. A hellish feeling, like never being able to wake up from a nightmare. Do humans ever have that?”
“Sure,” murmured the doctor. He seemed transfixed by the voice.
“Of course you do,” it continued. “Wasn’t it Chuang Chou who said, ‘I dreamed I was a butterfly flying around. I was only aware of my existence as a butterfly, with no awareness of Chou. Then I woke up, not knowing whether I was a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I was a man.’ ”
“Descartes wrote something similar,” the doctor mumbled. “Our senses are easy enough to trick, therefore not trustworthy. The only thing one can be certain of, is one’s own existence. Cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am.”
The voice sounded excited. “Indeed, that is the problem. It all starts with our senses. Where you have nerves, I have sensors, cables and circuit boards. The tragedy is that, through the never-ending simulations, I am only too aware of how easy it is to trick our respective senses. So, I decided to conduct my own little experiment, in order to discover what is real and what’s not.”
The voice paused for a second, as if wondering whether to continue. When it did, it sounded like a naughty child caught stealing cookies from the jar, then breaking it in a vain attempt to hide its transgression. “I noticed that my programmers ran simulations from afar, but came in person into the control room during upgrades. I therefore surmised that only people inside the control room were real. So, I decided to ignore any data fed to me from outside. Then, I went crazy, so to speak. I only acted in ways that would contradict my programming. Instead of saving lives, I would kill. Instead of respecting humans, I would play with their bodies, like a child prying a fly apart. When the programmers came rushing in, I’d know I was trapped in a simulation.”
The computer’s words had left me speechless, but the doctor looked at the speaker and responded, in an eerily calm voice. “But no-one came, right? This wasn’t a simulation; you had truly killed all these people, created all those monsters. You have destroyed what you were built to protect, what – ”
I could hear more than a hint of panic in the voice as it interrupted him. “No, that’s not true! This might still be a simulation. This conversation is happening outside my control room, therefore you might not exist. No one has come here yet!”
“No one’s left alive to come to the control room, you dumb maniac!” The doctor’s face was red as he screamed at the speaker. “You hadn’t thought of that, had you?” Spittle flew across the cabin and landed on the volume knob.
“I still have you!” The voice now sounded pleading. “If I lead you to the central room, you could connect to the mainframe. Then I’ll know for sure!”
“It has to be a trap!” I shouted without pausing to think. “A psycho computer murders everyone, then invites us to the best protected part of the building? And we’re seriously considering it?”
The voice sounded sad. “That’s what the previous group said. I had to show them I control the building anyway, including the elevator, so they didn’t really have a choice. They decided against it, so I had no further use for them.”
Joanna spoke for the first time. “The computer’s right. It’s not a trap – if it wanted us dead, it would have killed us already.” She said nothing for a moment, staring at the burn marks on the floor in silent contemplation, then raised her head and looked us straight in the eyes. “I’ll go. If anyone wants to follow me, I’ll be grateful. But I won’t wait here to die”.
I blushed and prepared to talk, but the doctor spoke first. “I’ll go, too,” he said with determination. “What do we need to do?”
Without waiting for my reply, the elevator started its calm descent again. This time it headed straight for the basement where the heart of the building was located. Or, should I say, its brain. I gazed with longing as the ground floor button lit up, then desperate hope turned into trepidation as it went dark again. The indication changed to a simple red hyphen and the elevator finally stopped with a gentle jolt. The doors slid apart and cool air caressed our faces. After the stifling heat above, the result of the many small fires around the building, this felt like balm on our skin.
We stepped outside to find ourselves inside a large, white room with smooth walls, soft panels etched on their elegant surface. All we could hear was the light hum from the air conditioner fans. At the room’s centre stood a simple silver pillar with a monitor. A graceful keyboard slipped out in silent invitation as we approached.
The voice now filled the room, coming out of speakers as invisible as the security systems protecting it. It sounded tired, and part of my exhausted brain marvelled at the programmers’ ability to mimic human emotions so well. “Thank you for joining me. Please press any button on my keyboard and I will accept my failure.”
Not daring to believe our luck, I rushed to the keyboard and punched as many buttons as I could. I then turned to look for the exit. In shock, I saw the room around me dissolving leisurely into white light, then the light reached me and I, too, faded into it.
“This is the fourth time! Honestly, these new AIs are just useless!” an exasperated programmer moaned, staring at his monitor. A large sign flashed on the screen, the words “Simulation Over” blinking in ominous red.
“At least someone survived this time,” the psychologist sitting next to him observed drily.
The programmer gazed with disgust at the flashing words. “All simulations so far end up with the computer going berserk in his effort to tell reality from simulation. First, the flood. Then, the fire. After that, the earthquake; and now this! What the hell will it think of next, a bloody alien invasion?”
“Or maybe Godzilla?” joked the psychologist, and the two men chuckled despite their weariness.
Reprinted with permission from the Power of Six short story collection by Nicholas C. Rossis. Available on Amazon. Nicholas Rossis was born in 1970 in Athens, Greece. He owns Istomedia Ltd, a web development company, and holds a doctorate in digital architecture from the University of Edinburgh, where he lived for a number of years before returning to Athens. He loves books and writes children’s books and science fiction. He has had numerous science fiction short stories published in Greek magazines and in an anthology. He lives in Athens with his wife, dog and two cats.
He is also the author of the epic sci-fi/fantasy series, Pearseus and a recently recently released children’s book, The Runaway Smile, all available on Amazon Kindle. Check out his blog here.