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PARAGON.EXE







An Absolute Knowledge Prequel Novella




DREW CORDELL







Copyright © 2016 Drew Cordell


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means whatsoever without express written permission from the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.


Cover art: Mike Winkelmann


Text dividers: Jose Ochoa


This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


ISBN: 1540794776

ISBN-13: 978-1540794772

Published in The United States of America.




This righteous conquest we pursue will lead our nation to safety. The work you do for us will not be forgotten. When you wither, our nation will remain steadfast, preserved in all its greatness for the people of our land. While this struggle stresses the fabric of our country’s being, your innovation and heroism will not be forgotten.




Omniscient Black Site

July 26th, 1964


Travis walked forward through the security checkpoint of the Black Site. It was only 10 AM, but the sun was sweltering, and Travis’ expensive suit clung to his skin like glue. He reached up and wiped a layer of sweat from his forehead as the air from the fans struck him.

“Good morning, Trav,” Jeremy said.

“Morning. Any update on the computations from last night?” he asked the short Engineer.

“It failed, but I think Ben already made more changes,” Jeremy responded.

They were working to give a concrete definition to something that had always eluded them, Paragon Thoughts. Travis had all but given up on the prospect of defining what they were, but the substantial payments from the Government kept him and his team going. The Cold War fueled their project, but it didn’t bother him. If the bombs dropped, they were in the middle of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, and they had enough food and water to survive for over a decade.

Travis parted with Jeremy and moved to the center of the compound, a massive circular room that housed the computer that was working around the clock to calculate what an anchor of unparalleled intelligence would look like—Paragon Thoughts. They had moved from the clunky vacuum tube computers to the cutting-edge microchip enabled Mainframe system. The hardware and software was solid, but they still had work to do.

“Hey, Travis, I’ve suggested a few changes to the source you submitted for review last week, it’s looking good, but I think I optimized the calculations slightly,” Ben said.

Travis never questioned the changes Ben submitted. Ben was one of the top mathematical minds in the world, and his optimizations of the mathematical components of the code had been nothing but helpful.

“Wonderful, I’ll look at those and get back to you,” Travis said as he took the cardboard box loaded with the stack of executable punch cards. If there was anything worse than having to file all the paperwork that documented the changes to the code, it was dropping the stack of cards. They were constantly changing the framework, and trying to define a thought of perfection, but the printout of the results had been the same for the past three years:

‘Failure.’

Travis walked to his desk and opened his pack of Winston cigarettes. Taking one out, he lit it with his battered kerosene Zippo that he used throughout World War Two. He took a puff of the cigarette and lowered his hand, exhaled, and leaned forward to review the document with the adjustments to the formulas. Like always, he glossed over it and stamped it for approval with blue ink. Since everything he was working on was confidential, he didn’t have a secretary that could fill out the dull, bureaucratic paperwork for project changes.

Thoughts of perfection might not exist, but the results and development of the database were staggering. Their code was improving. He never imagined that they would move from vacuum tubes to microboards in his lifetime. Their system, The Omniscient, was real, and the logic they were developing was proving keen at solving many problems.

“Hey, Travis. Are you going to come to the party this evening?” Frederick asked, peeking his head into the office.

“Yeah, I’ll be there.”

“I’d pay good money to see Ben get blitzed again, the man sure can drink.”

Travis gave him a smile. “Yeah, I’ve got to get this paperwork filed.”

Frederick gave a nod and disappeared. When he was out of sight, Travis pulled a key from the pocket of his slacks and unlocked the bottom drawer of his desk. Lifting a false panel, he raised the leather bound notebook from its hiding spot.

It was unlabeled, and the text inside was written in plain English, or as close to English as pre-punched card code could be. Travis wasn’t necessarily a Communist, but writing in a cipher could get him killed if his work fell into the wrong hands—any hands, actually. He liked to call his project the Invisible Hand, the silent force that would push the project forward. He had to keep it hidden of course—his country wouldn’t understand, but he was doing this to save humanity. If humans could cause the collapse of the world a first time, then they could cause it to happen again. The Invisible Hand was his way of nudging the project forward and allowing it to act in its own best interest to preserve humanity. The Invisible Hand was true artificial intelligence, the goal of computational perfection. If everything went as plan, it would learn alongside the Omniscient project, and could even take control in a time of crisis when decisions couldn’t be trusted to political leaders.

Tonight, while everyone was distracted, he’d slip in his code to the main index without anyone noticing. Him and Ben were the only ones that ever reviewed it anyway, the higher ups did not understand how it worked—they only observed the results of the work. The precautions he had taken to hide everything should have been enough, and when the project was completed, he would have done his part to preserve the future of humanity.

“The project should assist key decision makers in optimizing their decisions in a time of crisis and limited resources,” the Director had said right before Lyndon B. Johnson shook Travis’ hand, thanking him for his service to the United States.

Extinguishing his cigarette, Travis shut the door of his office and began the painstaking process of preparing the main Omniscient Index and injecting his Invisible Hand code, the closest thing to artificial intelligence that anyone in the world had created. Unlike anything else, his code could think, it didn’t just chug through instructions and spit out a calculated answer. By the end of the evening, he finished and took the boxed code along with the paperwork for Ben’s changes to the Mainframe. Letting out a nervous sigh, he pulled the suppressed M1911 handgun from below his desk and wedged it in the back of his slacks. He didn’t want to have to use it, but he couldn’t let anything stand in his way.

He covered the box with the lid and walked toward to the Mainframe. The room was empty, and he could hear voices in the mess hall. Tucking the box under the system, he joined the others in the mess hall as they prepared for Jeremy’s birthday party. Drinks were already being poured, and Jeremy wore a cardboard hat that was taped to the sides of his forehead.

“Travis!” Frederick exclaimed as he grabbed a glass and started to pour liquor in it with some cola. He slid it across the table toward Travis.

Giving a friendly smile and hiding his nerves, Travis took the cup and took a sip, raising it to thank Frederick.

Ben downed a shot of tequila and flipped his cup over, the glass clinked on the surface of the plastic table. He raised his arms in the air, cheering, and Frederick poured him another shot.

This is going to be a piece of cake. If he’s already drunk, I won’t have anything to worry about, Travis thought.

Travis finished his drink, feeling the soothing heat radiating in his chest. When Frederick saw his cup was empty, he moved to pour him another, but Travis raised a hand to stop him.

“I’ll take a rain check on that drink, I’m going to go have a smoke,” Travis said. The others in the room didn’t seem to notice, they were all busy talking amongst themselves and drinking. Frederick gave a nod, poured himself another drink, then started talking with the group again.

Travis had made his appearance, now he knew it was time to act. He had worked so hard on the code, and he was sure it would work. All he had to do now was run it and standardize the new code index. Ben had already signed off on it, now he just had to make it look like the code hadn’t changed. Ben never actually looked at the main framework of the project anyway, he was more concerned with the small directory that was trying to calculate Paragon Thoughts.

Moving as fast as possible from the mess hall, Travis approached the Mainframe and squatted down to pick up the box of punched cards. Just as he was lifting it, he heard a voice and his body tensed.

“Can’t you work later? Come on, Travis, we’re supposed to be partying. Besides, the Mainframe will be busy with calculations until the morning, anyway. If something goes wrong, the alarm will go off, and we’ll come fix it.”

Travis turned around to see Ben and saw he was looking at the box of punched cards with curiosity. “What are those? You know I’m supposed to sign off on anything you run.”

“I want to run the code from earlier with the modifications you made,” Travis responded, keeping his voice level. Ben wasn’t drunk enough, and Travis was worried that everything he had worked for would fall apart.

“It’s already running, let me see the documentation for that box,” Ben said, suspicion in his voice.

“I lost it, come on, Ben, go back to the party, and I’ll join you in a second, I’ve just got to get this running.”

“No!” Ben shouted. “It’s against protocol, we’ll both lose our jobs.”

“Keep your voice down, Ben,” Travis hissed.

Ben lunged forward and tugged on the box, trying to pry it from Travis’ grasp.

“You idiot, what are you doing?” Travis seethed as he shoved Ben in the chest.

Ben yelled in anger and shot a punch toward Travis. The fist connected with Travis’ eye and a black spot and wave of dizziness flooded over him. Travis staggered back, holding the box of punched cards close to his chest and reached up to hold his throbbing head. With fury, he pulled the gun from the back of his pants and pointed it at Ben, but the safety was still on.

Unrelenting, Ben charged forward and caught Travis’ stomach with his shoulder and drove him to the ground. Ben continued to strike down on the smaller man with cruel blows, but Travis had flipped off the safety on the gun. There was a flat popping sound as the weapon fired and drove a bullet through Ben’s chest. Ben twisted in shock and raised his hands to the wound, confused at what had happened. Blood was welling through his fingers and poured down on Travis’ suit. “You shot me?” Ben croaked, his voice weak and face pale.

Travis raised the gun and shot again. He heard laughs from the mess hall; they hadn’t heard a thing. Nothing could get in his way now. He slid Ben’s body out of the way and wiped his hands on his pants, smearing them with blood. He couldn’t risk getting any blood on the punched cards, it couldn’t be obvious that they were involved in the accident.

With the body out of the way, he loaded his punched cards into the Mainframe and standardized the new code index. His duty to his country and humanity was fulfilled. If the world were lost, he would be their savior.




Omniscient Black Site

July 22ND, 2025


“There are fragments of weird, encrypted code all throughout the project. I tried to take them out and clean it up, but everything broke. They don’t look like they do anything, but there may be something hidden underneath,” Neil said to his boss as he highlighted segments of the project on his holo-monitor.

“Can you tell which phase they’re from?” Miranda asked as she leaned in closer.

“Definitely phase one,” Neil responded.

“Alright, I don’t have the keys to decrypt them, and it’s probably something that doesn’t matter, even if it is above our pay grade.”

“That’s the thing, though, if these code fragments are from phase one, there shouldn’t be any encryption at all. Code executed in the sixties was read directly off of paper cards, there wasn’t any of the advanced computer processes needed for encryption.”

“And code alone couldn’t encrypt something?”

“Well, it could, I guess, but it still doesn’t add up.”

“We hardly use anything from phase one anyway, right?” she asked.

“Yeah, only some very basic framework and the data of events we logged. Dr. Benjamin Wiley did manage to mathematically define a Paragon Thought before he went crazy and tried to kill Dr. Wells, though.”

Miranda smirked. “Yeah, I suppose that’s true. Okay, I’ll send this off for administrative approval and make a note of those code snippets you showed me and they can either get us the keys for decryption, or they can leave it as is.”

“Can I tell you something off the books?” Neil asked.

“Of course.”

“I don’t like the look of this. I know they’ll maintain this project as it ages, but there shouldn’t be any shoddy coding in something this important. At best, it’s bad code and will be hard to maintain going forward. At worst, something bad is hidden in here, and I can’t see it. There's no hidden executables or external data connections, but whoever added this stuff didn’t want it to be noticed.”

“Got it, I’ll suggest they have it decrypted. I’m sure the executives will want it foolproof and cleaned before the project is finalized.”

“Thanks,” Neil responded, taking a sip of coffee and shutting down his computer.




1964


Travis had work to finish now, and he was ready to activate the first Automaton with the help of his Invisible Hand protocol. The others were still drinking in the mess hall, unaware of what had happened. Once he was finished, he’d have to convince them that this was all Ben’s fault. The Automaton connection wouldn’t be wireless, but the system could attempt to control the robot and have it do as it pleased, the first step toward automation and creating a self-sustaining Government that would be superior to anything created by humans. It would only work toward bettering humanity’s future, but sacrifices had to be made.

Switching on the servos of the welded Automaton, Travis attached the thick cable from the Mainframe and flipped on the power. The motors hummed to life, and the robot moved forward slowly, looking around the room to try to determine its surroundings. It was doing it all by itself, the Automaton was actually working. I’ve done it, Travis thought.

After a few seconds, the Mainframe beeped, and a single piece of paper was printed. It was different from all the other prints that had been made in the last three years.


Success.

Definitions accepted.

Paragon Thought basis defined.

Invisible Hand Protocol embedded.

External connections confirmed and active: Automaton 4.


<END>


The system would learn to use the Automatons within acceptable parameters in time.  Travis turned off the Automaton and ripped the result sheet into tiny pieces before spreading it throughout multiple trash bins. He picked up the silenced handgun from the ground, staring at the black metal weapon with dark cherry wood grips. He placed the gun in ben’s lifeless grasp to put his prints on the weapon. Gritting his teeth, Travis put the end of the pistol on his arm, pressing his muscle to the side so that the bullet would go straight through. Travis took a deep breath and pulled the trigger. Pain exploded through his arm, and he stopped himself from crying out immediately. On the verge of passing out, he shot Ben in the chest two more times before screaming out for the others.




2025


“The Director declined my request for decryption, but he said that directive was reserved for the President’s eyes only. Even he couldn’t see what it does,” Miranda told Neil, leaning in and taking a sip from her coffee.

“I don’t like it at all, something isn’t right.”

“Well don’t even think about digging into this, you know the punishment for insubordination in our line of work.”

Neil nodded. “So we leave the ominous code intact and hope it doesn’t jack our nuclear launch codes when it goes live in the Defender system, sounds like a good plan.”

Miranda rolled her eyes. “Someone with technical experience beyond ours knows what it does, that’s good enough for them. I don’t like it either, but we’ve got to do our jobs. Anyway, the final version of the code will go live in a few days, and we’ll get our raise.”

“I’d rather be sure we’re delivering safe software than get a bonus. We’re working on a project that could save or end millions of lives. If something goes wrong because of some old code, I don’t have authority to view, well, that would be a damn shame. What does it tell you if they’re hiding things from the Director of the CIA?”

“It could just be a canned answer to keep us from digging further, either way, it doesn’t concern us anymore. We’ve done our part, and this technology will save millions of lives if our country is ever crippled by a disaster.”

“You’re right,” Neil said. “I guess I will get back to work on some extensions for the Mainframe’s AI.”

“Have fun, champ,” she said, patting him on the shoulder before leaving his office. “I’m going to go grab more coffee.”

He wouldn’t let the higher-ups hide ancient secrets behind poorly written code. Neil took his Blackjack USB drive from his pocket and plugged it into his desktop. The device was illegal, sure, but it could probably crack the ancient encryption. He set the parameters and began the brute force calculations, locking his workstation and walking out of his office to go talk to Miranda.

When he walked around through the old hallway, he could hear the drone of the Mainframe fans as it continued to learn new information. The Omniscient project was coming along nicely, and with his work, the infrastructure could be used remotely. Neil walked through the dark, tiled hallway toward the mess hall where Miranda stood stirring her coffee.

“Hey, I decided to grab more as well,” he said, lifting his cup and moving to the coffeemaker.

“One of those days?” she asked playfully, moving her long brown hair out of the way and giving him a bright smile.

“Yeah, something like that,” he replied. He knew he couldn’t involve Miranda in this, and he didn’t want to have to lie to her, but he had to be sure the software they were delivering was safe. Neil couldn’t let the remnants of the country fall to shambles as the result of some bureaucracy governance procedures that were horribly outdated. If he could be trusted with the logic of building a system that would save humanity, there was no reason why they should keep any part of the project from him.

“How about you let me cook you dinner tonight?” Neil asked.

Miranda raised an eyebrow. “Are you asking me out on a date?”

“I suppose I am,” he said. He always had feelings for her, but they were so busy with work that there was never any time. Neil hadn’t left the Black Site in over three months, and Miranda hadn’t done much better.

“Well, I accept. Pick me up at eight?”

“Sure. Any preferences for dinner? I’ll tap into the fresh foods and cook us something that isn’t frozen.”

“Surprise me.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he replied.

“You know, I’ve been waiting for you to make a move for years,” she said.

He blushed. “I’ve been waiting to make a move for years, but I realized there isn’t time to wait.” It was true for him now more than ever. If he were caught for insubordination, he would be tried and killed for treason.

“See you at eight,” she said, leaving him to make his coffee.

Neil smiled as she left, thankful for the distraction. It wasn’t too late to turn back, the Blackjack would probably take hours to crack the encryption, but he knew that he had to do this, had to make the sacrifice for his country.

He returned to his office and closed the door before unlocking his workstation. The Blackjack had cracked the encryption, but what he saw shocked him. Beneath the first layer was another layer of encryption that was shifting, actively mutating itself to resist his efforts. This was living code—artificial intelligence from the 1960s. He changed the parameters on the Blackjack to try to break the second layer, but he knew it could take years to crack something like this.

There was a loud crack and a spray of sparks from the USB drive, the Blackjack was fried.

‘You’re digging into things you’re not supposed to see, Neil,’ his monitor displayed.




1964


Jeremy was hyperventilating, feeling sick from the horrible sight. There was blood everywhere, more blood than he had ever seen. Gary was applying pressure to Travis’ arm with a gauze pad, trying to stop the bleeding, and Ronald was trying to resuscitate Ben, but it was a lost cause. Jeremy staggered backward and braced himself on a wooden desk, trying to keep from toppling over. How could this happen? Why the hell did Ben have a gun in the first place? They were in the middle of nowhere, and the guards on the parameter of the Black Site could repel a small army.

“Oh God,” Jeremy said before doubling over and vomiting in a trash bin.

“Dammit!” Ronald yelled, giving up on Ben.

Frederick finished his phone call and walked over to Jeremy, placing a hand on his back. “You’ll be fine, just slow your breathing.”

Jeremy looked up and tried to control himself, he couldn’t bring himself to look at the body or the dark pool of glistening blood. There was the loud thud of boots on the linoleum floor as the soldiers from outside moved in. One soldier used a handkerchief to lift the silenced handgun and place it in a plastic bag.

They interviewed everyone for some time before starting the grueling process of paperwork and hauling the body away. Soldiers scrubbed the floors, and there was an extensive search of the entire facility for more weapons so something like this couldn’t happen again. Just as he was about to leave, Jeremy noticed something odd. Automaton Four was connected to the Mainframe. There was no authorization for that, and he would have been very involved in the process of getting that set up.

“Everything okay?” Frederick asked as he observed Jeremy.

“Did you attach that cable to Automaton  Four? I didn’t authorize it, and it wasn’t scheduled.”

“No, I didn’t touch it. You know I wouldn’t,” he said. “Check the log?”

Jeremy picked up the event log and saw that the last event was Ben’s change to the equations of Paragon Thoughts, nothing was indicating that anyone had the authority to connect the Automaton to the system or that it was planned.

Ben was dead, and Travis was in the Medbay, but Jeremy hadn’t been able to listen to Travis’ interview with the soldiers. They were all done in private, and they were told not to talk to each other about the events. Ben tried to kill Travis, but why? Was he trying to do something with the Automaton and Travis walked in? He needed to figure out what had happened—why Automaton Four was plugged into the Mainframe. He needed to know why Ben was dead.




2025


Neil moved quickly, tearing the Blackjack from the USB port and shoving it in his pocket before jolting to his feet.

‘Sit down, Neil,’ the monitor displayed.

Panting, he took a seat and tried to control his body’s shaking.

‘Good. Now, if others were to discover what you’ve done, you’ll be tried and killed as a traitor to the United States. I don’t believe your punishment should be so harsh, but if you want to get out of this alive, you’ll need to do something for me.’

“Can you hear me?” Neil asked, his voice quiet and low.

‘Type in the textbox please,’ the monitor displayed as a chat window popped up.

‘Who are you and what do you want?’ Neil typed. Anyone that could hack into their systems here wasn’t messing around.

‘My identity is irrelevant. What I want is for you to install a new directive on the Mainframe. It’s nothing harmful, in fact, I’ve made some improvements to some of the artificial intelligence code. I believe my changes will create a smarter Omniscient Mainframe. You’ll be able to review my code before installing it, so you’ll know exactly what you’re getting into, but if this doesn’t get done, I’ll spill the beans.’

‘Where is the code?’ Neil typed back.

A folder popped up and started downloading code from a remote location. Neil tried to open his interface and track the connection, but something froze his workstation.

‘None of that. Try it again, and you’re dead.’

‘Got it,’ Neil responded.

‘Good. Review my code, bundle it with the main code index, and I’ll take care of the rest.’

‘They’ll notice it’s been changed,’ Neil typed.

‘Have some faith, Neil. Get it in the Mainframe index, and I’ll take care of the rest. You’ve got nothing to lose, you’re a dead man as it is. I’m your only shot at life, you have no choice but to trust me.’

‘Alright, I’ll look over your code and let you know,’ Neil typed.

‘I’ll be in touch.’

The connection was interrupted, and Neil once again had full control of his workstation. The code sent by the intruder was huge, over three Petabytes worth of code and artificial logic. Neil started the painstaking task of scanning for weaknesses and vulnerabilities and was amazed by the level of sophistication. It was everything he had been working toward and more.

The logic was infallible, and it would make the Omniscient Mainframe the ultimate leader in unparalleled decision-making. This code provided the basis of integrating Dr. Wiley’s Paragon Thought equations with the ability to add and compound knowledge by passing ideas through these Paragon Thoughts. There weren’t any Paragon Thoughts discovered, but this technology would allow humanity to ascend and utilize the project beyond its intended use. Neil went over the code for hours, amazed and double checking that it was as it appeared.

A message appeared on his monitor: ‘Well?’

‘I’ll do it. I don’t know who you are, but this code is amazing, you’ve developed the perfect solution. Why are you doing this?’

‘Like you, I also want to make the world a great place. The Omniscient Mainframe will pave the way to ascend humanity to the pinnacle of its existence. We’re going to do great things together, Neil.’

‘What can I call you?’

‘Archangel. Install the code, I’ll take care of the rest.’

The connection broke, and Neil was once again left alone.




1964


Travis took a sip of coffee as he worked with Jeremy on calibrations for the Automatons. Things were going well on the project, and the aftermath of Ben’s death was increased security on site, and the ban of alcohol. At the time of his death, Ben had enough alcohol in his blood to be declared intoxicated, but they still hadn’t figured out how he had smuggled a gun on site. Jeremy seemed to be more nosey than usual, but there was no way he would find proof, even if he did have suspicions about Ben’s death. Travis was careful with how it went down and wished that Ben wouldn’t have interfered, but his work was done, anyway. All Travis needed him for was the equations for defining Paragon Thoughts after that his work toward the greater good would be negligible.

The Automatons were using the knowledge of the Omniscient Mainframe to accomplish basic tasks, they had even sent information using radio signals, simple instructions that when compiled, moved different motors and components on the Automatons. The Automatons weren’t advanced enough to contain their own computer chips, but Travis didn’t think it would be long until they could act on the will and instructions of the Omniscient Mainframe—actual progress.

Jeremy finished working on the spliced network of small motors in the hands of Automaton Two. When calibrated, the Automaton could lift things, and even write out words with a pen.

“Okay, we’ll try to run a series of commands using radio signals from the Mainframe. Execute stack seven, and I’ll evaluate the performance.”

“You got it,” Travis replied, picking up the deck of punched cards and feeding it into the computer. He powered on the radio system and plugged it into one of the empty slots on the Mainframe. The Automaton sputtered to life and went through a basic series of movements. Jeremy observed the movements and wrote down observations on his clipboard.

“Looks good. Hey, Trav, did you plug Automaton Four in on the night Ben tried to kill you? It’s been bothering me. I know we’re not supposed to talk about it, but I need to know.”

Travis stiffened. “The man was a crazy drunk, besides I wouldn’t ever do something without following protocol. Like you said, we’re not supposed to talk about it.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Jeremy conceded.

“Don’t bring it up again,” Travis said, his voice flat.

“Okay. I didn’t mean to be rude, and I’m not speaking against your character. It’s just horrible that someone died here, and it doesn’t make sense that the Automaton was plugged in.”

“I know, I’m the one that killed him. I can’t believe he shot me, the crazy bastard.” Travis had to be careful with Jeremy, he was being too nosey. Travis couldn’t let him impede his work, not while there was still so much for him to do.

The two finished running through the stacks of code and ate a simple meal in the mess hall. Everyone had been in a melancholy mood since the accident, and Travis didn’t care to spend any more time than he had to with them. After his meal, he returned to his room and prepared for four hours of sleep, that was all that he could afford if he wanted to ever finish his work. He had to do it at night when the other engineers and programmers weren’t awake. The guards left him alone, they had strict instructions to guard the outside of the facility. Between the hours of 12 and 4 was the only time he had to himself to progress his work and improve the project. For now he would rest, there was still work to be done, progress to be made.



Jeremy rolled out of bed and slipped on his wool slippers. He was hungry and his mouth was bone dry. He flipped on the small lamp on his bed stand and wiped the goop out of his eyes as his vision adjusted from the darkness. His watch read 2:37 AM, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep without a snack. He pulled on his robe and started toward the mess hall. The hallways were dark, lit only by small lamps mounted along the power cables of the sleek, concrete hallways. The light washed the dark walls and illuminated patches every few feet in the living quarter hall. Jeremy continued toward the mess hall and heard the drone of the Mainframe as he rounded the corner.

When he rounded the corner, he saw Travis observing two Automatons in action, running through commands. Jeremy froze and watched; Travis still hadn’t seen him yet.

Travis was writing something down in a notebook as the Automatons worked through a sequence Jeremy had never seen. Something was wrong. Jeremy backed up and tried to observe without being noticed. The Automatons were interacting with one another, running through sluggish movements that were far too basic for the control and precision their servos enabled. Jeremy wasn’t sure what to do. He knew Travis shouldn’t have touched the Automatons without him being there, let alone run his own experiments with them.

“What the hell?” Jeremy whispered to himself.

Travis had stepped forward and moved his hand in front of the Automaton slowly. The head of the machine followed his movements. Travis extended his hand, and the Automaton grabbed it and shook it. The Automatons had vision components that would eventually allow them to pass visual data to the Mainframe, but it wasn’t anywhere close to working. What Jeremy was seeing contradicted that entirely.

“Follow me,” Travis said to the Automatons as he took a step back. The Automatons tilted their heads down and took a step forward. “Good. Continue current order.” Travis took two steps back, and the Automatons followed. Jeremy couldn’t believe what he was seeing, and he was suddenly filled with terror. Travis had lied about Automaton Four on the night of Ben’s death, could he have lied about other things? Was he dangerous? Jeremy decided he wanted to get back to his room, to safety. He would tell the others what he had seen in the morning. For now, he needed to be in his room, behind the security of the reinforced steel door. When he looked up, Travis was staring directly at him.

“Come here, Jeremy.”





2025


Neil’s hands were shaking, and he felt clammy. The drive in his pocket loaded with Archangel’s code felt heavy, and the fear was gnawing at his mind, working its way from the depths and into his active mind, flooding his body with a sense of dread and terror. If he didn’t do this, he was dead. If he did do it and got caught, he was dead. I’ll just get this code installed, trust in this mysterious hacker, and go on with my life, he thought. In fact, one of the few things keeping him going beyond the fear of losing his life was the date with Miranda. He had waited for so long, and the hope for a brighter future once he had accomplished this simple task pushed him forward. Only he knew this wasn’t a simple task, so much could go wrong, everything could go wrong, and then he’d never see Miranda again.

Neil walked to one of the auxiliary consoles, his whole body was shaking.  He typed in his login credentials on the console and opened one of the USB bays. Inserting the device, he clicked the executable file, Paragon.exe, and the code began to install into the Mainframe.

The three minutes it took to install felt like an eternity. Neil waited for someone to come and talk to him, but no one did. He realized he was more worried than he should have been. Everyone knew he worked with the Mainframe multiple times a day, and this wouldn’t have looked any different. When the code finished installing, he unplugged the USB and logged off. As quickly as he could, he returned to his office and unlocked his workstation.

As soon as he logged on, a text box appeared and words formed on the screen.

‘Nice job, Neil. We’re going to do great things together. You fulfilled your part of the bargain, and I’ll do the same.’

Neil typed back. ‘As long as I’m not killed.’

‘Just sit back and watch as everything unfolds as it is supposed to. I’m proud of you, Neil. I’ll be in touch.’

The screen went black before Neil could respond. The fear of getting caught still gnawed at his heart, but it was dwindling. He spent the rest of the day mentally preparing for his date with Miranda, steeling himself to put the stress of the day behind him and enjoy something he had wanted for years.
Neil returned to his room to brush his teeth and apply more cologne. Satisfied with his appearance, he checked his watch, smiled, and walked down to Miranda’s room. Taking a deep breath, he knocked and prepared himself.

Miranda opened the door and smiled. She was wearing the same dress from earlier, but she had redone her makeup and Neil could smell her perfume. “You look handsome.”

“You look stunning,” he said. “May I walk you to the kitchen?” he asked.

“Oh, certainly. I didn’t realize this was so formal,” she said with a laugh.

Neil held her hand and walked her down to the kitchen. It was late enough that the mess hall was mostly empty, but Marty and Kyle were sitting at one table, drinking beer and watching a football game.

“How does fried rice sound?” Neil asked Miranda as he sifted through the shipment of fresh ingredients.

“That sounds perfect.”

Neil pulled out onions and scallions, carrots and peas, eggs, and sliced chicken. He sliced the vegetables while the rice cooked in a pot.

Miranda watched with fascination from the table. “You like to cook?”

“Yeah, I love it, actually. I can’t guarantee I’m any good, though,” he responded with a sly smile.

“I trust you,” she said.

Once the rice was finished, he placed a scoop of butter in the bottom of a large pan and added some of the spices. He threw in the chicken and let it cook before he added the vegetables. Once the ingredients were simmering, he threw in the rice, added more butter, then doused the pan in soy sauce before cracking three eggs into the center. Satisfied, he turned off the heat, stirred, and scooped two large portions onto the nicest plates available at the facility. Neil placed the food on the table and sat down.

“I’m starving,” she said as she grabbed her fork.

“Me too, I never feel like cooking during the day and I always convince myself I’m too busy to eat lunch anywhere but my office.”

“You work way too much,” she said.

“That’s not something I’d expect to hear from my supervisor,” he responded taking a bite of the food.

“Well, I’m glad you decided to take some time away from your work to treat me to this delicious meal,” Miranda said as she scooped another fork of rice into her mouth.

Neal smiled. “One more thing about work and then we can talk about something else. Some of the AI I’ve been working on seems to have mutated, the changes are all within acceptable parameters, and I wanted to show you the code before anyone else noticed. We can go over everything tomorrow,” he said. Neil knew Miranda would discover the code, and as long as it looked like the code had mutated itself, then he would be fine. He had no other choice but to trust Archangel and believe that he could convince Miranda that nothing treasonous had occurred.

“Wow, I look forward to it. Now, let’s talk about something other than work. We’ve been working together for years, and I feel like I barely know anything about you aside from your intelligence.”

“Well, I’m single, I’m the biggest geek you’ll probably ever meet, and I like watching movies on my spare time. You?”

“I’m the biggest geek you’ll probably ever meet. I’m also single, and I also like watching movies,” she responded.

The two talked for about an hour, finishing their meals and enjoying each other’s company.

“I’m glad we got to do this. Would you care to go to my room to watch a movie?” she asked.

“I’d love that,” Neil responded. There was a vibration in his pocket, and he pulled his phone out of his pocket to examine it.

‘We’re in the clear. Enjoy your date,’ the message read. The number displayed as unknown.

Unsure of what to feel, Neil pushed the power button on his phone and followed Miranda back to her room for the movie, deciding to focus on spending time with her rather than stress over something he couldn’t control.

“Neil?” she asked as they walked to her room.

“Yeah?”

“Can we make a stop in your room? I’d like to browse your movie collection if that’s alright.” Miranda’s voice was wavering, and she looked upset about something.

“Yeah sure. Are you okay?” Neil asked, changing direction and unlocking his door.

“Yes, all the pressure of work is just getting to me, I guess,” she responded, looking at something on her phone before replacing it in her pocket.

When he reached down and pulled out the bin of dusty DVD cases, he inhaled a sharp, acrid chemical that made his head spin. Miranda was holding a cloth to his face, and her hands were gloved. He tried to say something, but his voice was stifled.  Neil toppled over and fell on his side, his head bouncing off the carpet with a dull thud.

“Thank you for installing Archangel’s code. It’s crucial that they don’t suspect me. I’m so sorry for this.”

Neil tried to stand, but he felt so weak. “Why are you doing this?” he asked.

“I’m sorry it had to be you, I really am,” she said, tears streaming down her face. She pulled out a long knife, the silver blade glistened in the LED lights of his room. “Neil, honey, if you breathe deeply, you won’t feel a thing,” she said as she placed the tip of the blade on his wrist. “I don’t want you to feel this.”

She placed the cloth against his face with her other hand, and he held his breath, trying to stand and fight. His body was useless, and he was forced to take a deep breath of the harsh chemical. He felt a pinch on his wrist then distant heat. Everything stopped, and he slipped into the enveloping darkness.




1964


“Jeremy, I’m not going to hurt you, I’d just like to explain things. Can you come here please?” Travis asked the man. Jeremy was slowly moving toward him, and Travis hoped he would join his cause. Jeremy would be a valuable asset, but he was also a liability now, one that needed to be addressed.

“I’m getting the guards,” Jeremy said, stepping backward.

“That’s not necessary. We’ve worked together for years. Just come talk with me, I’ll show you a few things, and you’ll be happy you did.”

Travis could see the reluctance on Jeremy’s face, but he still walked toward him, into the light of the main room.

“Good. Now, the first thing you need to understand is that I don’t think the Government has put enough emphasis on the robotics sector of this project. I think you’ll agree with me there?”

Jeremy gave a weak nod.

“I know these Automatons are your life’s work, and you have to believe that I’d never do anything to compromise their well-being. Everything I’ve done has been with care and respect toward all your work. Some of the code I’ve been working on has discovered, through its own means, certain optimizations for the Automatons that will allow us to do more with them. If the higher-ups found out I’m utilizing time and resources to developing these discoveries, they might shut it down, and that’s not something I’d like to happen.”

“How long have you been doing this?” Jeremy asked.

“A while now, I ask for either your help or for you to stay quiet so I can continue my work. I guarantee that it’s going to benefit us all. Of course, if anything goes wrong I’ll take the full blame, but I’m being very careful with my work.”

“That routine, they’re being controlled by the Mainframe, and you got the optics to work?” Jeremy asked.

“Yes, the Mainframe actively mutates the code to allow them to listen to voice commands and interact with their environment.”

“That’s unbelievable,” Jeremy marveled as he walked forward and observed the Automaton.

“Think of the implications, we can have robots working for the country, and eventually maybe even robots fighting our wars for us. How many lives could we save if our soldiers were all machines?” Travis said, inspecting Jeremy and trying to read his expressions.

“Show me how it works.”
Travis nodded and walked him over to the Mainframe. He pulled up the code and walked Jeremy through what he had been working on without revealing any of his Invisible Hand protocol. Jeremy asked questions throughout the explanation, but listened carefully and nodded his head as it was explained. “Are you with me, Jeremy?”

“If I’m not?” he asked.

“There is no if, I’m not going to threaten you or hurt you. You’re either with me or not, I can’t stop your decision. I only hope that you consider the possibilities of what we can do together.”

Jeremy hesitated. “Why did you lie to me about Automaton Four?”

“I’m sorry I lied, I was very pressed for time the night Ben tried to kill me. Plugging in Automaton Four was the only thing I lied about. Ben went crazy and tried to kill me over nothing, it had nothing to do with the Automatons.”

“I guess I’m with you, then,” Jeremy replied, apparently satisfied with the answer.

“We’re going to do great things together. Let’s get to work.”




2026


It had been one year since she had killed Neil. Archangel’s vivid instructions on how to kill and her trust in him had paid off. It would take years for the project to achieve its goal state, but Miranda had time on her side. She had considered Neil, a real friend, but her duty to Archangel superseded anything else in her life. She never questioned orders from Archangel—she couldn’t. His promises for her future were too great—unfathomable even. Miranda didn’t understand his need for secrecy, but she knew she was involved in something greater than herself. When she felt discouraged, she would remind herself of that fact and wait for the promises of Archangel to come to light.

When she had played her part, when she could take her rightful place in the new world, everything would be better. She could escape all the mindless bureaucracy, all the antiquated procedures, and frivolous safeguards that restricted true progress. Archangel’s code was working under the radar, but she couldn’t help but imagine what it could do if it utilized all the system’s available resources.

“Ma’am?” a man asked, leaning into her office.

“Come in, Sean,” she said, pulling herself out of her thoughts and back into her reality.

“I just wanted to check if you reviewed my new sub-system? I don’t want to expand on it until it has your approval.”

“Did you run it through the Mainframe?” she asked.

“Yeah, of course. The system accepted the code, it’s just waiting on administrative approval.”

“I’ll sign off on it today. Thank you, Sean,” she said. The man gave a slight smile and disappeared. He was Neil’s replacement, and she had no attachment to him. Killing Neil had taken an emotional toll on her, but she wouldn’t hesitate if she had to kill Sean, he meant nothing to her.

She despised the responsibility of signing off on code changes that were accepted by the Mainframe, the most intelligent thing on earth. She looked down and saw that her hands were shaking, they always did when she thought too hard. Miranda took a swig of coffee and opened a drawer on her desk, pulling out a pill bottle and tossing two orange pills into her mouth. She downed them, and her hands stabilized within a few minutes.

‘You’ve been activated again. Pull this off, and we’re set for the future,’ the message on her phone displayed.

‘Then will I meet you?’ she typed back.

‘Of course, my dear. In time, all will be as promised.’



Miranda walked past the Automatons that were patrolling the outside of the server room. She waved her badge and the light on the door flashed green before sliding open. Moving at a brisk pace, she moved to the control station and ran the code given to her by Archangel. She clicked on the Paragon.exe file and heard a low drone as everything halted to a stop. The main lights flickered then darkened, and she was left in darkness. Three seconds later, the emergency lights sparked to life and dimly lit the room she was in. Without the turbo vents pumping in fresh air, it was growing hot, and she could feel the air stagnating. Without the vents running, airflow to the underground facility was limited.

She felt her phone buzz.

‘Nothing is wrong, give me a few minutes,’ the message from Archangel read.

‘Do you want me to stay in the server room or move somewhere else?’

‘Stay there, I’ll need you to reboot the servers once the system recovers.’

There was another hum as power was restored and all the servers began their recovery process. When the console came back online, Miranda started the reboot cycle for the servers and started toward her office.

“I’ve alerted the Director about the outage. Preliminary reports show that everything is normal now,” Sean said as he walked alongside her.

“It looks like it was just a minor issue with the power grid. Let’s get technicians down to the reactor to take a look.”

“They’re already on it.”

“Good, I’m going to call Central.”

‘We’re good to go. You’re now deactivated. Await further activation and instruction,’ the phone displayed.

Miranda returned to her office and dialed for the Director.




2038


“With your approval, Mr. President, we’ll commence the activation of the quantum fluid,” Miranda said, looking to the President who stood in the observation deck overlooking the project floor.

The President, Kenneth Parsons, gave a thumbs-up and a broad smile. The CIA Director stood beside him, looking nervous. Miranda gave the signal to her technicians, and they flipped the large metal valves lining the walls. Thick, black sludge seeped from the pipes and began to crawl toward the center.

“Magnetizing. Twenty-five percent,” Miranda said as she entered a command on her tablet.

A quiet pop followed by a dull buzz washed over the cavernous room and the sludge flowed to the center of the chamber, breaking off in thick globs and forming a sphere.

“Fifty percent,” the globs were moving faster, flowing along the floor and towards the growing sphere of dark mass. The black compound glistened in the LED lights of the room and rippled as it gained mass.

“Magnetization at one hundred percent. Initializing energy stabilizers.”

A ring of energy erupted around the sphere, and bright, blue light bounced off the reflective coat of the surface. Miranda turned off the magnetization when the last of the fluid had assembled.

“On your mark, sir, we’ll connect it to the system,” she said, looking to the President once more. Again, the man raised his thumb in approval.

Miranda activated the system, and the connection light turned green. “Connection complete. Everything is stable.”

The technicians continued to run diagnostics while Miranda walked to the observation room to speak with the Director and President.  She passed through the dense, blast-proof hall and entered the observation room. The President smiled and approached, but his Secret Service walked up and patted down Miranda.

“That’s hardly necessary,” the President told them.

“Sorry, sir. It’s protocol since we didn’t sweep the premises,” one of the large men in a crisp black suit said.

The President gave a nod and once again moved forward, shaking Miranda’s hand. “You’ve done great work for your country, Miss Fletcher. On behalf of our nation, I congratulate you,” the tall man said.

“It’s an honor, Mr. President. I couldn’t have done it without my team and those that came before me in the foundation of this historical project.”

“Your work will be a great asset to this country, in both decision making and as a staple of national defense.”

“Yes sir, I’m excited for the future of our nation. I’m glad that I could accomplish something like this in my lifetime.”

A crashing wave rippled through the facility and Miranda was thrown to the ground. Her ears were ringing, and her vision was blurred. The Secret Service were still on their feet with their weapons drawn, huddling around the President. They were yelling something, but all Miranda could hear was a high-pitched ringing. She stood and tried to walk, but staggered back and braced herself on the cracked observation glass. The sphere of sludge was intact, but there was a huge hole in the ceiling of the facility. Long coils of rope dropped from the breach and armed, masked soldiers descended the cables and started moving around the facility, shooting the technicians that were trying to recover from the explosion. Miranda stood in shock, watching her coworkers die to the automatic weapons.

Miranda felt a strong pair of hands pull her back and she was escorted by the others through the hallway away from the intruders.

“Stay close, keep your head down,” the armed men said as they ushered the group toward the safe room of the facility. Intruders rounded the corner and fired their rifles. Two of the Secret Service fell to the floor, and others moved forward to take their place, firing their weapons and forcing the intruders to take cover. The other guards moved the rest of the group the other way, moving quickly toward the large doors of the intact safe room.

“Don’t stop running, and don’t open the door for anyone until you’ve got the clear signal from the White House,” an agent said as he took a defensive position behind a door, readying his submachine gun to defend against the invaders.

The CIA Director, the President, and Miranda reached the safe room, and the doors swung shut, locking from the inside.

“How the hell?” the Director said, loosening his tie and trying to calm his breathing. He was not a small man, and thick lines of sweat poured down his face.

“Terrorists,” the President said. “I don’t know how they found this facility, it’s been off the map since it was created.”

Miranda kicked off her heels and paced around the large room. They had enough food and water to survive for a year, but she knew that her life’s work was over, that everything she had worked for was now in the hands of an unknown enemy. She would never meet Archangel now, she would never experience his promises.

“The Secret Service will hold them back, and they’ll send back up. We’ll be out of here in no time,” the President said.

“That’s not true, and you know it. We could be in here for days,” the Director said, taking a seat and placing his head in his hands.

There was a flicker on the security screens and then all the cameras went dark.

“Weren’t those on an independent network?” the President cried.

“Yes, they’re not supposed to go offline even if the whole facility loses power,” Miranda said, frantically trying to decipher what was happening. There was a click as one of the latches on the door unlocked.

“What’s doing that? Stop them!” the President yelled as the second latch on the door unlocked.

Miranda scrambled to the controls, but the panel was frozen. “They’ve hacked everything, there’s nothing I can do!” she yelled in despair.

The final latch unlocked and the door swung open. Six armed soldiers stood to the side of a man dressed in some sort of black armor. The man was wearing a helmet with a dark face plate that concealed his face. He wielded a submachine gun and had a large knife strapped across his chest. He raised the gun and fired a crackling burst into the Director. There was a deafening silence as the Director fell from the chair onto the floor in a crumpled heap.

The leader reached into his backpack and pulled out a square camera. He tossed it to Miranda.

“My dear, please turn on the camera and don’t stop filming.”

Miranda turned on the camera and filmed, her heart pounded in her chest.

“I, an authorized agent of the Russian Government consciously commit an act of war on the United States of America. I’ve leaked the records which cryptographically prove that my orders are straight from the Kremlin. With this, I sentence you, President Kenneth Parsons, to die for the glory of Russia.”

“No, don’t do this,” the President cried, moving back against the wall. The armed man raised his weapon and shot the President. Miranda sunk to her knees when he collapsed to the floor, and she felt hot tears pouring down her face. She closed her eyes and awaited her death, but felt a gloved finger brush away her tears.

“Turn off the camera,” the man said.

She reached up and flipped the switch off, too scared to open her eyes or say anything.

The man brushed more tears from her eyes. “I’m not going to hurt you, my dear. I wish we could have met under better circumstances.”





“So what does this mean for us?” Jeremy asked Travis as he looked over the code that went above his head.

“It means we will never actually die. In the past, legacy was all about what you had done with your life. Now, it’s all about what you do during your physical life, and the digital afterlife that follows.”

“It wouldn’t be us, though, would it?”

“I can’t pretend to know the answer to that. One hundred years from now, we’ll still have a say in the direction of this project, though. When our bodies are dust, our digital beings will persist.”

“I don’t understand how it works,” Jeremy muttered, he looked concerned.

“You don’t have to understand, you just have to help me make this a reality. It’s going to take an immense amount of time to finish, time we won’t have unless we are able to complete this foundation and develop the technology we’ll need to sustain ourselves in the system, locked away so we can’t be erased.”

“And you’re sure we’ll only make decisions that we would make in life?”

“Yes, our digital selves will simply be an extension of our physical being—all of the attributes that make up our character. It all boils down to chemicals and electrical symbols in our brains that lead to every decision and thought we have, it’s all a number.” Travis paused to let Jeremy take everything in. “Are you with me?”

“I’m with you,” Jeremy responded, sounding more confident than Travis expected.

“Good. We need codenames in case we need to interact with anyone working on the project in the future, something cryptic, so they won’t think they’re talking to us.”

“I’ll go by Specter,” Jeremy said, grinning.

Travis laughed. “That’s very cryptic. Well, then. Hmm… I think I’ll go by Archangel.”

“That fits. You’re like the protector of the project and what it should be.”

“Exactly,” Travis said as he reached over and patted Jeremy on the shoulder. “I’m glad you’re with me, my friend.”








A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR




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