Running down the hallway of the cubicle complex as the building lights flicker on and off, running as fast as possible but still moving in slow motion, alarms sounding… It’s getting closer, the shadowy figure that’s following… Pushing the body to move faster, but still it’s like treading through thick water… Breaking out into the daylight and reaching the subway station, but the subway doors slam shut just as it’s finally in eye sight, and the train slides along the tracks quickly disappearing, but work will start soon, can’t be late for work, heart thumping… Jogging to work, have to get to work, passing the same street signs over and over again; lost? Which way is it? At the dishwashing station, and suddenly Enforcers are surrounding, yelling, raising weapons, no! Bracing for the blow, Enforcer’s arm raised, and it comes down… In space now, orbiting the bright blue and green planet in a capsule, such brilliant colors, captivated… The world slowly turning orange, red-hot, colors burning, the planet starts dripping—-no, no! It’s melting away, dripping into space…
Agnes’s dream bled into Ramona’s room, as she blinked her heavy eyelids with some effort, her mind still being tugged upon by unconscious fantasies. Where am I? What room is this? How did I get here? Her thoughts spun woozily and she rubbed her face with the cushion she was sleeping on, lying sideways on the couch. Her hip and shoulder ached from having slept in the same position all night, and she sleepily rolled herself over to her other side, still orienting her hazy thoughts. Her eyes shut again and she drifted off once more, sinking into a brief slumber…
Until her brain rustled itself again and she came to, and she laid there, gazing around the room in between slow blinks… Ramona… The room was silent, and while it was shadowy and dim, there was light filtering in from beyond the plants, through the frosted panes on the ceiling and walls, like simulated daylight…
Once more Agnes shut her eyes for a short snooze and awoke when the light in the room was brighter. She groaned a little and sat herself up on the couch, then paused, out of breath, exhausted by the energy exerted in the small amount of bodily movement after lying totally, lifelessly unconscious for twelve hours as her body recuperated and mind processed. She looked around herself at Ramona’s room, observing her surroundings and blinking frequently, glancing at the air mattress Ramona had set up only a few feet away, even though Agnes had ended up falling asleep on the couch anyway.
“Ramona?” Agnes called out, wondering if she was somewhere tucked away in this studio-like apartment, but as she feared, Ramona did not respond.
She called for Ramona again, but it sounded more like a plea. As Agnes realized what that meant—-that Ramona had already left to possibly sacrifice her life for the Slanted soldier cause of destroying the super-computer that was going to potentially take over the world—-Agnes began to feel the uncomfortable sensation of disappointment in her chest. Feelings of desperation formed, and deep regret that she had slept through Ramona’s departure. What if she never got to speak to her again, hear her voice? They had only had a day together, and yet Ramona was already the best friend Agnes had ever loved.
Slowly, Agnes stood herself up, taking the stance one groan and one small movement at a time; her body was stiff indeed, although her mind, as she shifted back to an awakened state, felt relieved from the needed rest. She stepped over the emptied broccoli chip container lying on the floor and got herself to the bathroom right away to relieve herself, then afterwards looked around the apartment blankly again, searching for a direction. What was she supposed to do today—-not think about the fact the Slanted soldier army was going to destroy the world for the sake of saving it, and that some of her new friends were apart of this war?
A picture on Ramona’s wall caught Agnes’s attention. It was partially shrouded by the voluptuous body of vines that poured from a hanging pot like a mutant octopus, and so it was easy to miss. Agnes had happened to catch a glare on its glass frame, and the refracted light beckoned to her vision. She walked across the hardwood floor to it, brushing away a few vines to see it plainly.
It was a tattered photo, the crease lines heavily diagramming where it had once been folded and pressed upon itself, worn soft along the edges. The photo was black and grays, and it captured a moment where a young girl with a small nose and wild, curly dark hair hugged a man’s neck as he held her upon his back, and a tall woman with a stripe of dull horns peeking through the hair on her head, was beside them; her face was turned upward in mid-laugh at the young girl riding upon the man’s back, the man in an open-mouthed grin and looking down, in the laughter of the image.
Agnes discerned it was a photo of Ramona and her parents before Slantia ravaged Spinen and slaughtered both of them; perhaps it was the only picture Ramona had of the three of them. In the background of the picture, there was a field of tall, exotic grass and leaves, the land rolling with trees.
It was such a beautiful photograph, and Agnes felt herself fall in love with it and the memory it represented—-a memory Agnes herself didn’t have, but felt she was a part of by proxy of experiencing this special memento and knowing Ramona’s vibrant personality. For a moment she forgot herself and lived inside that photo.
Sighing, Agnes resumed the present moment and went to the refrigerator and programmed it for an omelet and a cup of coffee, which promptly formed inside it. She sat at the wooden two-person table beside the refrigerator, quietly eating her breakfast as her coffee cooled.
Ever since Ramona confessed the night before that the Slanted soldiers planned to destroy the planet so to save it from the super-computer The Slant, Agnes had felt bothered by this knowledge. She understood that Ramona had explained it was only way for them to truly obliterate this machine so that it could never rise to power again, and that they had taken great lengths to extract innocent civilians from the planet so they could avoid the fallout; however, this solution still didn’t sit right with her. Agnes resented Slantia on both a personal and philosophical level, but there was no way the Slanted soldiers could have saved everyone. And as she sat there, she couldn’t get that image of the Earth dripping out of her mind, the image that disturbed her dreams…
As she stewed over this, she started to wonder what the difference was between the machine and the Slanted soldiers. The intentions of the Slanted army was to save the world from the great nation of Slantia’s reign, which was led by an intelligent super-computer, but how was their plan much nobler than Slantia’s? Slantia destroyed countless nations and committed numerous acts of genocide upon the global population, and how was that much different than the plan to destroy the world? While Agnes agreed with the Slanted army’s cause, “I Destroy the Great Machine,” she thought that their plan seemed somewhat dismissive of human life and culture.
And so Agnes sat there, confused, because while she wanted to help the Slanted soldiers, she also didn’t want the world to be destroyed. If she hadn’t found herself in the bizarre, unlikely position of being kidnapped by an alien, here to find out she was actually being rescued to meet her long lost twin and contribute her silvovia fork, Agnes herself would still be on Earth. And she’d be there, thinking that the Machine, her country of Slantia, was the penultimate greatness in life. It was only because she was plucked up and tossed into this peculiar adventure that she wasn’t about to find her new home in the Desert, to die with the rest of the planet.
She chewed over the last bite of her omelet, the egg squishing easily between her teeth. One of the things Senga had said to her was that it wasn’t her fault if she had been ignorant her whole life, because now she knew, and now she was trying to do better things about it. Even though Agnes had given her life to fueling Slantia’s cause, it was when it’s corruption was finally exposed to her that she was able to see the light and sever allegiance to that evil entity.
So then wasn’t it all about redemption? About recognizing when we do something wrong or make a bad decision and learning from it, doing better? Agnes sighed and looked across the room at the picture of Ramona and her parents, it but a small rectangle mounted behind some plant life.
Then Agnes had a thought. At first, it was more of a wish, but then as she rubbed it between the hands in her mind, it began to have some weight to it. She wondered if there was a way to change the goal of the Slant… If it was such a powerful resource, what if they were able to manipulate it, or change the programming. She wondered if they could merely tweak its coding—-not that she knew much about computers or super-computers—-so that rather than aim to gain power and enslave humans, its purpose was to protect and serve the good of all creatures?
Agnes almost threw away the thought, supposing that the Slanted soldiers had probably already considered that and knew something Agnes didn’t that meant it was an impossible task. But Agnes persisted with this thought as she sipped her coffee, its electric, dark flavor washing over her tongue and running down her throat, and then realized if she was going to do anything about it, she would have to be quick with it.
She scurried across the room to the screen she had been watching the night before, and fiddled with the remote until the screen lit up, playing an episode of a cartoon with talking cacti, and then navigated to the “Contacts” list programmed on it. Senga was the top contact, and Agnes tried to call her, but when attempted, an error message appeared that Senga was not accepting calls that day. Gabe was another recent contact, so Agnes called him next.
Gabe answered and the screen became a giant video of his face, a clear image of the pores and blemish scars on his face, although he was remarkably clean-shaven. “Ramona, aren’t—-oh, Agnes!” he said, as Agnes stood before the screen so that the top of her head was cut off from his image of her. “I can’t see you all the way—-sit down!”
“Gabe! I’m so glad I got you,” Agnes said, backing up a couple steps and sitting down on the couch. She could see the image of herself in a small rectangle at the corner of the screen and touched her hair, patting it down where it was sticking up on one side. “I need to talk to Senga! It’s important!”
“I’m running late as it is,” he said, his background moving as though he were walking across a room, his short dark hair shining as he passed underneath fluorescent lights and skin looking washed out. He was speaking to Agnes through the video on his watch, and the shot jostled. “I was supposed to be thirty minutes early and now I’ll only be fifteen minutes early.”
“Gabe, I have a really important idea for the Slanted soldiers!” Agnes cried. “It’s urgent!”
Sighing, Gabe asked, “You’re at Ramona’s?”
Ten minutes later, Gabe was shuffling down a hallway while Agnes did her best to keep up a few paces behind him. Her jumpsuit made a swishing noise as her pant legs rubbed together.
“You’re lucky I had to pass by Ramona’s anyway,” he grumbled. “Of course, now I’m going to simply be on time. What’s your idea?”
“The Slant,” Agnes breathed heavily. “We shouldn’t destroy the world… we should just re-program it… to preserve life… and peace.”
Gabe stopped in his tracks and turned around abruptly. “How do you know about that?!” he snapped, throwing up his hands and whipping around to look at her.
Still marching along, Agnes replied, “Senga—-”
“Of course,” Gabe interrupted, shaking his head and resuming his stride. “She’s too proud! Always going around sharing confidential information… Like bragging…”
Agnes huffed and they came to an intersection of hallways; Gabe veered right, narrowly missing running head-on into an oncoming scaly gentleman pushing a cart.
“Excuse me, sir… Well, I hate to break it to you Agnes, but your idea is not going to work out,” he said matter-of-factly. He held up an index finger as he spoke, even though Agnes was behind him. “That thing is beyond further programming. We would just have to build a new AI to replace it totally. And that is not something I have the time for on such short notice.”
“You can build an AI?” Agnes asked, amazed how casually he spoke of it.
“Well, I’ve done it before, and I’m doing it now!” Gabe burst, perturbed by her surprise, as though she under-estimated his ability. “Since you just know everything now, I might as well tell you that’s exactly what I’ve been working on tirelessly the past few months,” he hissed over his shoulder, trying to lower his voice as a group of people walked by them.
Agnes was impressed, although it made sense; Gabe was a very logical person and skilled in the area of being particular. She could easily imagine him hunched over a motherboard, small tools in each hand, carefully doing whatever it was that engineers did with that equipment, which was beyond her.
A few moments later, Gabe approached a door on the left labeled in a blue neon sign “Tenroom,” and whispered to Agnes. “Be quiet, be cautious, be agreeable,” he instructed, raising his thin eyebrows and pursing his lips. “This is where a lot of commanders converge.”
With a nod and heavy exhale, Agnes whispered, “Thanks,” and then Gabe opened the door and led them in to another office.
It was an office with glass walls, and he navigated them through a couple rooms set up almost like a translucent labyrinth, all ordinary and with people bustling about so the pair of them weren’t noticed other than a few random glances. Gabe touched his palm to a screen mounted to a wall and they stepped into a little atrium beside another glass-wall room where they saw Senga seated in front of a screen at a desk, speaking to a gentleman in a Slanted soldier uniform decorated with a few bursting machine cog patches and pins. His dark hair was fluffy and combed back, and his young, distinguished face was handsome. They could hear his voice somewhat muffled through the glass walls, and it was deep and charming. Neither Senga nor the man noticed Gabe and Agnes waiting outside the room and the two commanders maintained eye contact as they spoke and nodded.
“Their meeting must be running a little late,” Gabe whispered, leaning down to Agnes, close to her ear. They were almost the same height, but Gabe was a few inches taller, and didn’t have the hunch in posture that Agnes did.
They heard Senga say something, although it wasn’t clear, and then yawn. “Excuse me!” Senga apparently said with a wave, trying to play it off.
Agnes watched as the man on the screen replied, straining herself to hear anything he said, but having to watch his lips to fill in the gaps: “That’s fine. Yawning is just your body preparing itself for more work!”
At least that’s what she thought he said, and Agnes tilted her head curiously. Senga had just glanced down at her tablet and then made another comment, back to business, turning to show its screen to her camera so that the man could see it. “Fastest flight of fighter ships in the galaxy!” Senga said, nodding. They spoke for another couple moments, and then ended their exchange.
It was then that Senga noticed Gabe and Agnes, and she showed surprise as she waved them in. Gabe stepped up to the glass wall between her office and the glass atrium, and then stepped through it, much like passing through the bubbles in their office yesterday, Agnes thought. She hesitated, then pushed through the glass wall as well, the soft, malleable obstruction pushing itself away to allow her pass through.
“Agnes! What in moon’s name are you doing here?” Senga cried, hands up. She was smiling, but not necessarily excited, just inquisitive. She was wearing her typical gray Slanted soldier outfit and her hair looked especially fluffy and white. “We’re just about to start getting in positions…”
“Well, I had a really important idea!” Agnes said excitedly, her chest finally slowing from the jog-like pace they took to get there.
Gabe stood beside Agnes, his face pointedly blank, eyebrows raised again. “Yes, an idea,” he repeated. He shrugged and pulled at his ear a little bit.
Senga stood up from the desk and gathered her tablet and jacket. “Let’s walk as you tell me,” she said. “Gabe and I need to be at Dispatch soon.”
Agnes almost groaned—-she had just caught her breath, and now she needed to do more walking! These Slanted soldiers had such long strides! Nevertheless, she obliged, and followed the two out the way they came and back to the hallway.
“So what’s your idea?” Senga asked as the Tenroom door closed behind them. Senga and Gabe walked in front while Agnes walked to the side of Senga.
“This morning I got to thinking, ‘You know, it’s awful dastardly to destroy a whole planet,’ don’t you think?” Agnes started. “And then I was trying to come up with a way we could avoid doing that, while still taking down the Great Machine. And then it came to me! Let’s just hack the Slant and make it work for us! Convert it to a machine for good, not evil.” Agnes smiled and waited expectantly for Senga’s reaction.
Gabe scoffed at hearing this plan again, and Senga kept silent for a moment. “I like it…” she began, trailing off, clearly timing her “but” so as not to immediately reject it, but rather gradually reject it. “But… I don’t think it would work out, although it’s good thinking!”
Agnes’s heart sank and she felt a little defensive. “Okay… May I ask why not?” She was so excited to have had this idea, and had secretly started fantasizing about how much Senga and Ramona would praise her for devising this win-win plan. Agnes almost felt angry.
“I already told you why!” Gabe said, shaking his head.
“We’ve already got this plan, and it’s not so easy to just re-program an AI after it’s had decades to expand and distribute itself,” Senga explained. “I bet it has mechanical agents all over the planet doing its bidding and gathering information for it, feeding back to the source.” Senga looked at Agnes, who was looking rather glum, and frowned, still keeping her pace. “I’m sorry,” she added. “I wish we could do it your way. I don’t like the idea of destroying Earth, either.”
Agnes sighed and stumbled a little as the bottom of her shoe skidded on the floor and made a squeaking noise. “It’s fine, at least I tried,” she resolved. “I’ll just have to trust your plan is the best way to do it.”
“It is a very Sumerian notion, burning the earth and then flooding it to start over,” Gabe commented.
Then Agnes remembered the man on the screen, and asked Senga, “Oh, who was that man you were talking to, just now?”
The group walked around a cautioned-off section of the hallway, and Agnes peered at the large crack in the floor between the caution posts. Senga responded, “That man was another Slanted army commander, Arthur. He works in another division on this base.”
Agnes thought for a moment while their foot steps thudded along, and then replied. “Is he from Earth?”
“No,” Senga said. “He once told me he’s from a planet outside our solar system, but never specified which one. I don’t know a lot about him, actually.”
Frowning, Agnes started, then held her tongue, then started again. “Senga—-what did he say to you when you yawned? ‘Yawning is just your body preparing itself for more work’? Is that what he said?”
Senga shrugged, tucking a small lock of hair behind her ear and then scratching her cheek. “Yes, I think so. Why? How much did you listen to?” she asked, flashing Agnes a look.
“It’s just that—-that’s a Slantia saying. They taught us that in training camp,” Agnes said, sounding uneasy.
“Did they?” Senga laughed, waving her hand. “I never paid attention in training camp; I was still young when I escaped it.”
Agnes’s mind was swimming in thought. “Yeah, they did… My old instructor used to say it every time someone yawned, that it meant we were ready for even more work…” She reached out and brushed Senga’s arm so that she would look at her. “How would he know that if he weren’t from Slantia? Do people say that around here?”
Senga slowed her walk and looked thoughtfully at Agnes.
“No,” Gabe said, peering back at Agnes. “I’ve never heard anyone say that before. We don’t condone Slantia’s philosophies.”
“Senga, I’m sorry but have you ever had a weird feeling about that guy?” Agnes’s eyebrows converged in a weary frown.
Senga paused, and then slowly asked, “Agnes, what are you getting at?”
“It’s just—-I don’t know if he’s who you think he is. Do you—-”
Senga stopped and pulled Gabe and Agnes to the side, lowering her voice. “Agnes, be very, very cautious. If you’re getting at what I think you might be—-”
“I think I am—-”
“Then we have to proceed very, very carefully.”
In Senga’s office living room, Senga, Agnes, and Gabe sat on the couches among the plants, all their technology quarantined in the meeting room outside with Senga’s crew, who she had instructed to not allow entrance to anyone, except Ramona, whom they had paged.
“So what proof do we really have?” Gabe asked, exasperated with this silly side-mission. Today was the Day of Action and they were delaying the next item on their jam-packed itinerary to entertain conspiracy theories. “A random commander quoted a Slantia proverb? So?”
Agnes was feeling excited, although also a little nervous, at the high stakes of this accusation. At the same time, she was also feeling a little guilty for derailing their day, but she waved that away; she was sure that this Arthur guy was no good. “Well, Senga also said he claims to be from a planet far away, and that he’s very mysterious. Maybe he’s mysterious because he’s a descendant of the Slant.” She clapped her hands together and dropped them to her lap.
“It kind of sounds ridiculous and treasonous for you to say that,” Gabe said out of the side of his mouth, frowning.
“You sound like me two days ago, when Ramona showed up my door and shattered all my illusions,” Agnes countered.
Senga, who had been staring at a potted tree in the corner, thinking intently, chimed in. “This theory is actually beginning to check out,” she admitted, trailing off. Gabe and Agnes waited a moment for Senga to speak again, curious to hear her thoughts.
“He’s been with the Slanted army only five years, when most of the soldiers I’ve worked with have been fighting by my side for a decade, some, decades. And actually, the idea to destroy the world to defeat Slantia came from his team…”
Agnes frowned. “From what I’ve learned, that’s exactly what Slantia’s been doing—-destroying countries by burning them… Like Spinen…” Her voice trailed off suggestively.
“It wasn’t even Arthur’s original plan to do the Extraction process; he was content with letting everyone on the planet sacrifice themselves with it; it was our team that launched that initiative,” Senga added, shaking her head and sighing. “It seems it could be likely…”
Ramona burst through the door, interrupting their brainstorming session.
“What the heck is going on? Agnes?” Ramona asked, looking around the room incredulously. Ramona’s hair was braided back and she had goggles hanging around her neck. “Why aren’t we at Dispatch?”
“Leave your devices with Heilly,” Gabe whispered, turning over his shoulder to look at Ramona, and pointing to the meeting room outside.
“Why—-” Ramona started, then turned and obliged. She came back a moment later and plopped down on the couch next to Senga. “Please explain.”
Gabe excused himself, muttering that he was going to check something, and then slipped back out to the meeting room, meanwhile Senga briefed Ramona on how Agnes had picked up on Arthur’s Slantian slip, and how details about his character were starting to make them question his credibility.
“Oh, I’ve never liked that guy,” Ramona said nonchalantly. “If you think he’s a computer, then I’m right there with you. One time, we were passing each other in the hallway, and I was walking pretty close to the wall, and instead of stepping aside so that I could have room to keep walking, he straight up shoulder checked me! Then he glared at me as if it were my fault.” Ramona shook her head and looked at her fellow females. “I just hate when guys do that.”
Senga and Agnes nodded and chuckled, but then Senga cut back to the tone of seriousness.
“This is a problem though. I wish we had just a little more substantial evidence proving that the Slant has infiltrated the Slanted army, because that’s a bold accusation. However, if it’s true, then we have a huge undertaking ahead of us, not to mention the seconds are ticking away until our whole army attacks Earth using silvovia lasers.” Senga sighed and rubbed her temples. “I just don’t know what to do with this information, and today of all days.”
“If we kill the Slant before the Slanted army attacks Earth, will that cause all of the Slant’s minions to die also?” Ramona asked. The women looked at each other, not totally sure of the answer.
“I want to say ‘yes,’ but also Gabe is the guy to ask,” Senga replied, cracking her neck. “I don’t know where he went…”
“Because if we can somehow sneak-attack the super-computer’s source, then we’ve killed two birds—-or one really big bird—-with one stone,” Ramona concluded, putting her hands up as though she had just offered this idea and left it floating in the air. “And if we destroy the Slant before the Slanted army destroys the Earth, then we can call them off,” she added.
“Right now, the Slant shouldn’t know that we’re on to Arthur,” Agnes said. “That’s one advantage we have.”
“True,” said Senga. “So how do we confront this AI? I still don’t think reprogramming it will work, unfortunately.”
Gabe re-entered Senga’s office living room and plopped back down on his recliner.
“Hopefully none of you formed any conspiracy theories about my absence,” he said flatly, but for Gabe, that was his version of joking. “But I just took a look at a few things on your tablets out there, and I think after my discussion with Agnes this morning, I’ve got something.” He cleared his throat and pushed up his glasses. “The AI I’ve been working on was for defense software; I created it so that it could protect our data and secure our network by learning and adapting to new cyber-threats, the unique and intelligent way that artificial intelligence can. This way, it can combat any offenses and battle other software without us even having to monitor malware or prompt any commands.” He paused, and no one said anything, so he kept going. “I think the easiest way to fight the Slant is to introduce a defense-oriented AI software to dismantle it. When it’s introduced to the super-computer, it will kick in to its defense functions, and it will be machine versus machine and a completely subdued, internal war of hyper-intelligence.”
“Sounds great,” Ramona said, clapping her hands together and standing up. “Easy! Let’s do that. How do we put them together in the ring?
Gabe shrugged. “I think we might have to visit its source on Earth.”
“We really need to hurry, then!” Senga said, also standing up. “The whole Slanted army is preparing to depart.”
“Are we really about to do this?” Agnes asked, as Ramona stood and held out a hand to help Agnes up. “Myself included?” She asked, just in case they were about to insist she stay behind like they had yesterday, although she still desperately wanted to be a part of the adventure. She heaved herself to her feet, and then looked hopefully at her friends.
“Well, of course! We can use all the help we can get for this one,” Senga said, smiling at Agnes.
Part XI and Epilogue will be published next Friday!