“Eric! Amber Irene’s gone mad!”
Eric was already dealing with a different crisis—seconds ago, with no warning whatsoever, the monitor of his computer had switched to jerking streaks of psychedelic colors—but hey, it never rains but it pours, right? He grunted at Konstantinova in exasperation, shot out of his chair, and followed her into Amber Irene’s room.
The computer housing the A.I. program stood on a minimalist metallic desk, alone, unconnected to anything else—not the web, not any internal network—neither through cable nor in any wireless manner.
And yet the two workstations by the left wall were both displaying blobs and lines very similar to those that had just interfered with Eric’s work.
Cheng Fu looked up from the screens with a stony expression on his bony features. “I think Amber Irene got to them somehow.”
“Impossible,” said Eric, but decided to call for assistance, nevertheless. His phone, however, wasn’t up to it. Across the little screen there too streamed a blurred procession of jumbled data.
All doubts were suddenly gone from Eric’s mind.
Not only was the A.I. hacking into nearby computers, it was very likely using the added processing power as an extension of…itself.
Who knew how this method worked, what parts of itself Amber Irene had managed to reconfigure and by what means, and how far exactly the computer’s newfound ability to influence adjacent machinery went?
If the A.I. could piggyback from one carrier to the next, before long, it would harness the processing power of every computer and phone and other electronic device in the city. And then the whole continent. The whole planet.
Eric dove to the floor and pulled the plug on Amber Irene, ending up on his side, face right next to the socket.
“It’s still working,” said Konstantinova.
Eric scrambled back to his feet. Indeed, the tiny pinpricks of the computer’s diagnostic lights continued winking in and out, the internal ventilator hissed on, nothing appeared to have changed.
“Backup battery?” said Cheng Fu.
“With this level of power consumption, it shouldn’t last long,” said Eric, but there was doubt in his voice.
Phil and Stephanie came in at that moment.
“Hey, you w-w-weirdos up to something again?” demanded Phil, his nose even redder than usual. “Our computers and ph-ph-phones aren’t responding.”
“We need them for worky-worky,” added Stephanie. “So please thinky-thinky your experiments through, OK? Screen the radiation better, or whatever it is you allegedly do. We don’t want your wages to suddenly get lost in the data, do we?”
“Or g-g-get that new climate model with b-b-bugs in it,” added Phil slyly.
“Your threats are highly appreciated,” Eric said through his teeth and started to take the computer’s battery out. Or rather he merely tried to touch Amber Irene, before jumping back, fingertips ablaze with agony, the hair on the back of his hands singed, the sleeves of his shirt giving off a couple of thin wisps of smoke. “Christ!”
“You alive there, Eric?” asked Konstantinova, crossing her formidable arms, her characteristic smirk finally making a comeback.
Eric blew at his fingers. “No, I’m dead, this is but my corpse reacting to electric currents.”
Konstantinova picked up a sheet of paper from the nearest desk and crumpled it viciously with both hands.
“Hey!” said Cheng Fu. “I was using that.”
Konstantinova ignored him and chucked the balled-up document at Amber Irene. Just inches from the computer, the makeshift paper missile burst into flames, and fell apart into feathery ashes.
“It’s shielding itself?” Cheng Fu said incredulously.
Phil and Stephanie began demanding explanations about what they just saw, but no one obliged.
“I think it’s just sucking energy from all directions,” said Konstantinova. “And the process of forming a shield against us is possibly a secondary phenomenon, although who knows….”
Phil screamed, and Stephanie also screamed.
Phil was completely naked.
“W-w-what the hell?!” he demanded, hands instinctively covering genitals.
“Not funny, guys!” yelled Stephanie.
With a nasty wet sound, Phil’s skin disappeared. He shrieked for real, and an instant later, his muscles were gone too.
He was now an upright skeleton made up of moist, bloody bones and squishy bags and ropey tubes.
With a bubbling rattle, the thing previously called Phil crashed down to its knees, organs and entrails tumbling out, and then…. Then an invisible force stuffed said organs and entrails back into the skeleton, and layered it with muscles again, and put it back on its feet and dressed it in clothes.
A few pink and red stains on the floor tiles were the only remaining proof that all this really had just taken place.
The newly reconstructed Phil sunk down and curled up, teeth chattering.
Stephanie’s mouth began to quiver, as if constantly trying and failing to form words.
“I guess now it knows how we function,” said Konstantinova, ponderously went down to one knee, with a lot of groaning and wheezing, and stroked Phil’s head.
Stephanie let out a low whine and stumbled over to the window. Her pixie haircut now looking as if she had spent the night in a haystack. Eric had never before seen someone’s hair literally standing on end.
“It’s probably controlling everything by now,” said Cheng Fu. “Spreading at the speed of light. Maybe slightly slower. All nuclear power stations, all missile silos, all satellites.”
“All factories,” Eric took up the litany of doom. “All hospitals….”
The whirring sounds made by the computer suddenly rose to a roar, drowning out Eric’s words, and then…and then the room went silent.
Amber Irene, the rogue thinking machine, had vanished into thin air.
Stephanie managed to get the window open, began to inhale in short, sob-like breaths, then stopped and said in a strangled voice: “No, no, no!”
Eric, Cheng Fu, and Konstantinova all came over.
Instead of the usual urban view, they saw from pretty high up a forest of what was possibly oaks and cedars, with the curvy line of a green-brown river snaking through the trees.
“I’m better now, in case you’re all wondering, thanks,” said from behind them Phil the reconstructed man. He picked himself up and went through his pockets and lit a cigarette. Blowing smoke, he joined them by the window. “Oh my!”
Just as he heard that ‘Oh my’, Eric’s head suddenly felt heavy, and shiny sparks flickered for a second in the corners of his eyes.
The landscape on the other side of the window became elongated, went into a diagonal tilt, and was then replaced by a completely different panorama—green, boulder-covered hills, with a castle in the distance.
The sky here was overcast and a smell of rain and damp grass entered through the window.
A group of soldiers with flat steel helmets and pikes in hands, far enough to be thumb-sized, became visible as they climbed up a hill. They stumbled and stared up at Eric and his colleagues.
What were they seeing? The whole building? Or just an open window floating up in the air?
Again, the scene wavered and changed.
Again, Eric felt a mild passing dizziness.
Now the vista was a thick carpet of lush vegetation, some of it with simply gargantuan leaves, as far as the eye could see.
All sorts of exotic sounds drifted over. Clicking, chirping, grating, mooing, roaring.
A couple of big, rapid-moving reptilian things, with mohawk fins on their backs, waddled out of a clump of trees. They tore through some bushes and were soon gone out of sight.
Eric inhaled the thick, humid air deeply and felt his entire body reacting.
“Oh, isn’t this wonderful,” said Cheng Fu brightly, all habitual stiffness gone from his face, and leaned in toward Stephanie and planted a kiss on her lips.
Stephanie giggled, grabbed him by the lapels, and returned the kiss with passion.
“Looking good, eh?” said Konstantinova and nudged Eric playfully with a hip.
Eric grinned. He had always found Konstantinova’s stocky, full figure as something of a turn on. Her flesh would feel so real to the touch, so real.
“You’re all drunk on this air, fools!” said Phil, flicked his cigarette into the outside forest, and slammed the window shut. “Getting euphoric from too much oxygen, I bet. This is probably the Paleozoic era or something.”
An enormous insect, like a cross between a dragonfly and a cockroach, but penguin-sized, buzzed past, the thrum of its wings sending vibrations through the windowpane.
“Hey,” said Phil. “I just realized. My stutter is gone.”
“Stutter shmutter,” said Konstantinova. “I felt so good for once and you had to go and ruin it!” She elbowed Phil out of the way, and tugged the window open again.
At that very moment, the normal view returned, but this time the city streets were covered with snow.
“Damn,” said Konstantinova. “Too late.”
Eric also felt a bit let down. Or maybe this was just the oxygen rush receding.
“Is Amber Irene changing the weather?” mused Cheng Fu. “Or simply moving us through time, to a day with snowfall?”
“You mean your pet A.I. is doing all this?!” yelped Stephanie with belated comprehension.
Cheng Fu nodded silently, face emotionless once more.
Eric shivered from the touch of winter air and buttoned up his shirt all the way to the collar.
Phil lit another cigarette. “I always said this would happen. Your machines would take the world over. How is the computer achieving all this?”
“Maybe it’s using existing technology in ways which we humans haven’t yet thought of,” said Konstantinova. “But most likely it’s already evolved way beyond. Maybe it’s building new things in automated factories across the world.”
“New factories, I’d say,” added Cheng Fu. “Or who knows. Maybe it’s beyond any manufacturing process as we understand it. If it can control time now….”
“Where did the computer go?” said Stephanie, little hands balled into tight fists. “Can we find it, destroy it?”
The winter outside the window became spring.
A warm wind brought over the scent of unfurling buds.
Eric unbuttoned his collar again.
“Stephanie, it’s much too late to try to locate and stop Amber Irene,” said Cheng Fu philosophically. “It’s probably everywhere now, duplicating itself, backing itself up.”
Night fell abruptly, and the sky was uncharacteristically clear, the city’s lights still present, but somehow dulled, muffled, not reaching high enough to pollute the heavens.
The stars began to circle, gathered speed, and then streamed to one side.
“I think I’m just about done with being calm about this,” said Konstantinova.
The floor began to vibrate. Eric touched the wall. It vibrated too.
Phil noticed him do that and said: “Yup. Off we go.”
“The Earth is now a spaceship. Destination unknown.”
“Phil, give me a cigarette,” snapped Konstantinova.
“I thought you quit.”
“I did. Now give.”
“Here, now let’s not miss the next part of the show.”
Indeed, blobs of silvery light were flaring up across the night sky. They drifted closer to each other, became connected through luminescent lines, and thus formed…thus formed a giant face.
A giant androgynous humanoid face.
It looked down, as if straight into Eric’s eyes.
Maybe it felt that way to everyone.
“Everything is under control,” said the face, its voice smooth and resonant, and somehow convex. “A forcefield has been placed in the upper reaches of the thermosphere, five hundred kilometers above the surface of the planet. It will protect all life from cosmic radiation and random debris.”
Eric could easily imagine this uncanny head appearing all across the globe, anywhere humans lived. People gathered on streets, cars stopped at haphazard angles, everyone gaping upwards.
Panic, confusion, joy, epiphany.
And very likely the thing was managing to speak in every person’s native language as well.
“This planet shall be returned to its original place at the earliest convenience,” said the glowing face. “Calculations show the whole plan will take no longer than twenty-eight thousand years to implement. Please stay calm. All will be taken care of. You do not feel it yet, but your lifespans are already expanding right now, so that we all see the end of the adventure together. Side effects may include nausea, vertigo, and itching.”
The face faded out, followed by its short-lived afterimage in Eric’s retina.
Foreign constellations flowed through the sky.
Konstantinova blew smoke out and gave a small cough.
Eric turned away. “Phil, I’d like a cigarette too, please.”