Continued from Chapter 22, here.
We looked down at the prone scientist for a minute. “So, this seems to be the cause of the Event,” I finally said.
“Sounds like it,” Henry agreed.
“Seems like it’s probably our job to shut things down, avoid a second occurrence.”
“Could be a smart move, yes,” Sergei nodded, his face deadpan.
The Brit had been poking around in the corner of the break room. “Ah?”
“What are you doing?”
He turned around, holding up a black Sharpie that he’d already uncapped. “Nothing at all,” he answered, showing his teeth in a savage grin as he moved in Orville.
I rolled my eyes – but let it happen. The team needed some chances to let off steam, after all, or they’d explode. “So we’re all pretty much in agreement,” I stated. “But now, here’s the tough part. We need to shut this down – but from what Orville said before he suddenly fainted…”
I pretended not to hear Sergei’s snigger.
“…we can’t just shut it down,” I finished. “So this isn’t going to be as easy as unplugging a couple of computers.”
“But they are computers, right?” Henry pressed. The short little Frenchman straightened up. “Computers are tricky things, vulnerable to all sorts of issues.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “Electromagnetic pulses, power disruptions, power surges, overloading critical components… the list goes on and on. It’s very easy to break a computer.”
“Orville did say that this could destroy everything,” I warned.
Sergei shrugged. “Then maybe everything will break. But if that is always a chance, we can sit and do nothing, or do something. Chance does not go away in the future.” He sighed, looking down at Orville’s prone figure. “And if this man is the best hope… I do not feel very much confidence in him.”
The rest of us mirrored the Russian’s frown. We all were in agreement about Orville, at least. “Maybe one of the other scientists can give a better explanation,” I finally said. “And no one’s really told us where Nathaniel is, either. Orville said something about him working here, using his own brain for modeling this computer, but not whether he’s been killed in action, or is inside there feverishly trying to shut things down, or if he’s-”
Before I could finish the sentence, a loud alarm went off, piercing through the air. If that wasn’t enough, a red light mounted above the door leading back into the control room began flashing urgently, the other overhead lights dimming to make it stand out and appear more obvious.
“Something’s up,” Jaspers said, unnecessarily.
I glanced down at the scientist still lying flat on the floor before me. “He’s an ass, but he might be needed for this, if there could be another Event. Sergei, see about waking him up?”
The Russian grunted, but he moved over to the sink on one wall, presumably to get some water to splash on Orville’s face.
The rest of us dashed back into the control room, where the movements of the other scientists had taken on a newly enhanced, almost fevered intensity. “We can’t hold back this surge!” one of them shouted out to no one in particular.
I stepped up, attempting to convince anyone – even myself – that I had any idea how to help out in a situation like this. Don’t admit that you’re in over your head, I commanded myself. “What’s going on?” I asked, trying to channel my inner drill sergeant.
The scientists glanced over their shoulders at me, but the commanding tone worked – or else what was happening right now was too potentially dangerous for them to question my leadership. “It’s putting out huge surges of energy, burning through all the firewalls we’ve been using to contain it,” one man said, his fingers clacking over the keyboard. Every few seconds, he’d slam one index finger down on the Enter key, hold his breath for a moment, and then shake his head in disgust or frustration when the attempt failed. “It’s never been able to draw this much before!”
“It,” I repeated, looking over their shoulders at the screens. They looked like gobbledygook to me, but I could see several graphs with lines spiking dangerously up or down, nearing the axes. “You mean the neural network?”
The men exchanged another glance, but one nodded. “Yeah, the network. From the beginning, when we booted it up, it didn’t respond properly, seemed to have its own agenda. We were searching for some sort of hidden master file that might be feeding it erroneous commands, but none of us really understand how the thing even works, so we didn’t know what to even check.”
“What about Nathaniel? Dr. Hobbson?” I asked.
That got another exchanged glance. “He’s…” one man began, but then gave up, looking helplessly at the other.
The second scientist shivered. “He was the one who vanished,” he said, his fingers twitching and leaping briefly up, as if he was fighting back the urge to cross himself.
Well, shit. That was more of an answer than Orville had given us. But why had Nathaniel Hobbson, the creator of this project, been the only one in this room to vanish? What had happened?
“It’s breaking through, going critical!” one of the men shouted from the other side of the room, jarring me out of my momentary introspection.
I turned to look at the new speaker – and movement caught my attention from the corner of my eye. I turned around, looking at the main door, the one through which we’d entered. Someone new had arrived.
Corinne stepped in, her eyebrows raised. “What’s going on?” she asked, and I saw her other hand resting on the butt of her holstered pistol.
But before anyone could answer her, the door swung open a little wider – and Sara came in, looking around with a child’s innocent interest.
Every single dial in the room went crazy, and half of them outright exploded. Scientists shouted and threw themselves down, a couple staggering back and clutching at their faces as they fell away from the ruined instruments. One control panel apparently had some form of catastrophic meltdown and began shooting sparks up into the air. The lights above us flickered, some of them apparently blowing and not turning back on after eating the power surge that must have flowed through them.
I, meanwhile, moved towards Sara. My mind went blank, and the only words that my brain handled were to get to the child. But even as the place erupted into chaos around us, Sara just stood there – and, incredibly, her features spread into a smile as her mouth formed a single word.
I heard it, as I lunged towards her across the chaos of the control room. “Containment field is totally gone!” one man shouted out, somehow managing to make his high-pitched scream heard over the roar of failing instrumentation and the sizzling of melting electronics.
I didn’t hear him. My attention had narrowed to Sara – and nothing else. I watched her lips shape that one word.
“Dad,” she whispered.
And then I felt her body bump against mine, wrapped my arms around her to form a protective cage as I brought her down to the ground, and everything dissolved into blackness darker than any midnight I’d ever seen.
To be continued…
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