It was sitting on their table, silent and waiting when they first walked into their office at 7:30 that hot summer's morning, but the temperature was already at 89 degrees and the only thought in Terri's and Elliot's minds was the sizzling heat. Later, maybe, when the heat was not so oppressive, when it cooled off, they would turn their attention to the object on the table, but several hours later, the heat had only gotten worse.
"It's stifling in here!" Terri moaned, fanning her blouse in an effort to cool herself. "Nothing is working right! What is wrong with the air-conditioner?" Mopping his face, and neck with his handkerchief, Elliot answered,
"I don't know, but all the terminals are acting up again. It's got to be the heat!" he said in a deep resonant voice.
"Of course it is," she answered rising from her chair and walking toward the office door. "The computers can't function normally when the temperature gets above 60 degrees."
"Neither can humans, when it reaches 80 degrees," Elliot said, holding his deep baritone voice in check, as he rose and joined Terri at the door.
"Particularly, when the air-conditioner isn't working," he grinned.
"Tell me about it!" Terri laughed, looking around their windowless office, and up at the small open space allowed for circulation between the walls and the ceiling. "As long as the computers are comfortable, it doesn't matter how we feel!" she said. "And if 'the powers that be' are working on fixing anything, it's to cool down their 'environment' not ours."
Turning toward her, Elliot quipped, "they cost more!"
"That may be, but they still need us!"
"Who says so?"
"Did you see the morning papers? The Globe says we're in the midst of a sustained heat-wave," she continued without waiting for his answer, "and it's going to last at least two more weeks - maybe longer!"
"Who knows! The Globe's speculating it's the sunspot activity." Shaking his head, Elliot's deep voice boomed,
"I don't buy that! Communication problems - maybe, heatwave - no! I don't buy that one at all!" Terri sighed, "It's probably got something to do with the jet stream moving north, and all those violent, volcanic eruptions, spewing thick, black, ash and heavy smoke into the atmosphere. Anyway, all they know for sure is that it's going to be hot - hot - hot!"
"That's all we need. These new computers are sensitive enough without fluctuating temperatures adding to our problems. God knows what the heat will do to the memory banks - probably wipe out everything we've done!"
"Either that, or give us back something we may not want," Terri laughed. The sudden drone of the air-conditioner, coupled with a blast of cold air into their sparsely furnished and stuffy cubicle, prompted Terri and Elliot to heave a grateful sigh of relief.
"Ah! That's more like it?" Terri smiled, happily fanning her blouse, and drinking in the cool air. "I hope it stays on this time!"
"Hold that thought!" Elliot's cheerful, baritone voice sang out, as he returned to his desk to check the availability of a port selector for the terminal. Since it was hard-wired in, the only way either of them could access the new main-frame computer was through the port selector. Elliot stared at the terminal while waiting for a response. Strange, he thought, how small and insignificant the terminal seemed to be, sitting on the table. Yet, that 14 by 11 inch rectangular boxed in video screen, it's keyboard sitting alongside, had the capacity to reduce any strong, seemingly intelligent human adult into a babbling idiot.
"Well," Elliot finally said, turning, looking up at Terri and grinning, "ladies first!"
"For what!" Terri asked from the doorway. "The new ADVANCED CONCEPT TECHNOLOGY's Model Number 1007."
"This!" Elliot said, swiveling in his chair and pointing to the newest advance in computer technology. "The terminal with a brain!"
"Oh yes! The 'intelligent' one. The one that's going to change our lives for the better. They make it sound as if it's alive. As if that object sitting on the table is really human!" Terri laughed nervously, moving toward Elliot.
"Well, for all practical purposes, it is!" Elliot smiled. Terri's desk, situated at the far side of the office, was opposite Elliot's, with the table that held the new terminal strategically located between them, so that both had access to it. "Not only does it have the latest development in advanced computer technology," she said, pretending to pat the top of the terminal affectionately, "but it's the first of it's kind. With the new computer system, it can extrapolate any of the data we feed it, to its infinite possibilities. The designers claim," she added laughing, "that we will realize its greatest impact in the extrapolation of newer, and more complicated scientific discoveries. You know, the stuff they're talking about is our present project - the transmutation of molecular structures - now how's that for advancement!" Elliot frowned.
"I don't know," he said suddenly apprehensive. "Maybe we should stick to the old terminal, until we know a little more about this one." He was standing in front of the terminal and staring intently at it.
"There's nothing to be concerned about," Terri grinned. "It's only a machine - an extension of our own intelligence, if you will."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Elliot answered, still frowning.
"Why?" Terri asked. "Because you think it is an extension of our own intelligence?"
"Is it? Then why do I get the feeling it's laughing at us?" Staring at Elliot as it he had suddenly grown two heads, Terri asked,
"Why would you think that?"
"Look at it!" Elliot demanded. "It's been blinking off and on like that ever since I turned it on. And those bright flashes - leads me to believe it's already transmuting molecules, and without any help from us - look!" Terri's voice was quiet.
"You're right. It does appear to be laughing at us. Maybe it knows something we don't."
"Nonsense!" Elliot said, louder than he expected. "We're giving it a human quality it doesn't possess!"
"Are you so sure it doesn't?" Terri asked.
"This is a fine way for software engineers to behave." Elliot laughed suddenly, his deep baritone voice resounding around the office.
"C'mon, let's get to work, or we'll never get home tonight." In minutes, the two dedicated engineers were deeply engrossed in their scientific project, with their newest piece of equipment, totally oblivious to their surroundings. Forgotten, too, were the strange thoughts they harbored, moments before, about their bright new terminal and equally untried parent system. While Elliot's and Terri's conscious minds were devoted to the task at hand, their subconscious minds were storing human data for them. Unknowingly to either of them, the din of their co-workers slowly subsided. They did not hear people passing their office door on their way to other offices on the thirteenth floor of the 'Tower' building, which housed the main computers and their own office. But subconsciously, their minds registered every incident that occurred whenever the screen blinked or flashed brightly. Inexplicably, the clicking of their female co-workers' shoes, or the heavy steps of their male counterparts, who chose that precise moment to walk down the tile-floored corridors past their offices, stopped abruptly and were not heard again.
As the hours passed, their conscious minds struggled with the problem at hand, while their subconscious minds continued to add new data to their memories. Shaking her long, dark hair, Terri finally broke the spell.
"Enough!" she cried. "I can't look at this program one more second!" Taking off his horn-rimmed glasses, and rubbing his somber, gray eyes, Elliot agreed,
"We have been at this too long, our minds can't absorb any more material! Besides, the air-conditioner is down again."
"I know," Terri said, then in a hushed voice asked, "why is it so quiet? Where did everybody go?"
"What do you mean ?"
"Look!" she cried, pointing toward the office door, "the lights are out!" Elliot looked at her, then bellowed, as he leaped out of his chair, and bolted toward the door, "don't tell me they turned the lights off on us!"
"Never mind the lights," Terri cried, as she, too, dashed for the door. "What about the elevators!"
"The elevators!" they both echoed reaching the office door at the same time, scrambling to get out.
"You first," Elliot suddenly bowed to Terri in mock deference.
"Coward!" she answered, laughing nervously while pushing forward. Elliot followed Terri's lead out of the office, hugging the walls as they cautiously made their way down the dark, stifling, hot corridors in the direction of the elevators. They could not resist the urge to quickly glance in each of the dark, empty offices as they passed, wondering where everyone had disappeared to, and why they did not hear any of them leave. They passed the steel, gray door marked 'STAIRS' in big bold black letters, looked at one another and shrugged.
"There's no point, Terri. You know the doors are automatically sealed shut when the power goes off."
"I know," she answered pushing the bar, hoping to force the door to open, "but I have to try. There's always the possibility the Security System failed."
"No such luck, If nothing else works in this building, the Security System will, you can bet on it."
"Never did understand why the doors would seal whenever the power shut down."
"Have to make sure no one can get in," he said.
"I know," she said quietly. "But no one can get out either!" The oppressive heat, and deafening silence made it seem as if an eternity had passed before they reached the elevators. Rushing to the doors, both of them pressed the 'down' buttons on all three of the 'Tower's' elevators - nothing happened. They pressed the 'down' buttons again and again, rushing from one elevator to the other determined to make one of them work - but it was hopeless. Elliot pressed his ear to the elevator door.
"What are your listening for?" Terri whispered.
"Sound. Any sound," Elliot answered helplessly, his deep voice unreal in the hushed, hot atmosphere.
"Do you hear anything?" Terri asked, her voice resounding down the empty corridors as she joined Elliot in pressing her ear to the elevator doors - checking first one, then the others.
"Not a sound!" Elliot answered. "Absolutely no sound at all! Not even," he said, "the sound of the air-conditioner!" It seemed like hours, but only seconds passed as the two worried engineers, ears pressed against the elevator doors, listened intently for the sound of a rising elevator.
"I didn't know they turned off all the power after hours," he said, surprised, moving away from the door.
"They don't," Terri retorted, as she followed him, "something else is wrong!" There must have been a power failure! Because of this heat, our archaic air-conditioning system must have overloaded causing the power to fail!"
"How do you know that?"
"Well," she said, breathing deeply, "it isn't after working hours, look at your watch. I've worked late many times, and the lights were always left on, not just here, but all over the building. Look outside," she added apprehensively, drawing Elliot's attention to the windows along the building's outer walls, "there isn't any light coming from this building at all. It's almost as if...," she stopped abruptly, and caught her breath, not wanting to believe her own words..."we two are the only ones left in the entire building!"
"No, no," Elliot said, his deep voice reassuring, quietly shaking his head. "There are others in the building - somewhere - I'm sure of it!"
"I'm not," Terri answered. "I've never seen the 'Tower' this quiet before during working hours. Something really weird is going on here!" Momentarily grateful for the darkness, each drew comfort from knowing the other was just as scared. Yet, neither wanted to be the first to break the silence.
"Let's get back to the office, Terri said softly. "At least we'll have some light, and," she almost shouted, "a phone!" Taking the lead, Elliot answered,
"Sounds like a good idea," He swiftly moved them back toward the office. It was quicker and easier than finding the elevators - a warm, friendly light guided their way back. Terri reached for the phone first and tried to dial out.
"The nine line doesn't work," she said helplessly. And after another desperate attempt, "The night line isn't operational either!"
"Now what!" Elliot demanded.
"How should I know? Terri answered, her voice rising. Then in an almost whisper asked,
"Don't you notice anything strange?"
"How," her voice cracked, "can the lights in this office be on, and the terminal operational, if there is a power outage?"
"We don't know for sure there is one," Elliot answered.
"Maybe not," she retorted, "but it still seems strange to me that this is the only office in the entire building that has power - doesn't it to you?"
"I'll go you one better," Elliot said.
"What?" Grinning, Elliot answered, "This is the only office in the building that has people in it."
"Only you would find that amusing," Terri said, frowning.
"People, and that!" she added, pointing her finger at the terminal.
"Well, there doesn't appear to be anything we can do about it for the moment, so we may as well work on the program until we can find a way out of this. I'm sure something will come up to help us get out of here."
"Why not! It's better than sitting around and worrying. At least we can keep busy until some kind of help arrives." She tried to smile, but somehow the effort was lost. Switching on the terminal, she logged on to the new system, then assigned their program file. With the terminal's keyboard, she instructed the computer to 'print' and leaned back in her chair to watch the program on the screen. Line after line of the complicated, frustrating program, she and Elliot had been working on, the transmutation of molecular structures, appeared before them. Elliot had already drawn his chair alongside Terri's and he, too, watched the listing on the 'Human' Concept terminal's white screen. In the quiet, almost mesmerizing atmosphere, thoughts that were suppressed deep within their subconscious minds began to thrust themselves forward. Suddenly, the sounds of their co-workers disappearing footsteps emerged from its subconscious state and into their present consciousness. But before either one could give life to their thoughts, the screen suddenly blinked furiously. With no warning, and before Terri's astonished eyes, Elliot silently disappeared. Terri stared at Elliot's empty chair, then at the screen before her. As words began to form on Terri's lips, a bright beam flashed from the terminal barely missing her. Instinctively, Terri jumped up from her chair and snapped off the terminal.
The screen blanked out. She prayed the program, and the danger it seemed to possess, went with it.
"Something about this program is strange," she said. "Or, maybe Elliot was right, it is the terminal! I wish I knew."
"I do know this new program is designing and redesigning itself to its own specifications. But that's not possible - is it?" She stifled a scream as she looked around the empty office. "No program can do that! Not even one this sophisticated!" With her arms wrapped tightly around, her eyes darted about the office. Then why, she wondered, am I the only one alive in this building? How did it do it? What did it do to them? Everyone has vanished and it's all tied into that terminal. She stared at the terminal.
"Elliot was right - we shouldn't have used it. Not with this heat. He was right about a few other things, too. The damn thing was laughing at us!" Terrified, she backed away from the terminal. Pressing into the furthest corner of her office, she stared at it, momentarily. Then, with all the resolve she could muster, ran out her office door and down the corridors toward the elevators. She pressed the down buttons again, and again - still nothing. She ran back toward the stairs. Pushing on the bar to the door, she threw her weight against it hoping to budge it, but it would not move. She first saw the blinking light out of the corner of her eye. Her hands were still on the bar handle of the door when she turned her face toward the light.
"No!" she screamed, as she pushed harder and harder on the bar. "Please!" she cried out over and over again, "open up!" But the door did not move. She shook her head, tried not to look, but the blinking light would not be still. "No," she said, her eyes closed, as the light continued to invade her senses, calling to her to return.
"I turned that off, I turned that off, I know I did!" She cried. "I'm not going to look. It's not there. It's not there!" The light blinked faster, brighter, seeping through her closed eyelids to her mind. She buried her face in her hands in an effort to stop the assault. Unconsciously, Terri let go of the handle to the steel gray door and straightened up. She turned toward the light as one in a deep sleep. The light continued to blink, as she moved closer and closer to her hot, stuffy office. She reached the door, turned, and as she entered, a brilliant flash exploded within. ..... In a small, dark empty office, on the thirteenth floor of the 'Tower' building, something horrible was happening. The only light in the building came from the terminal with a brain. The 'Human' terminal seemed to be laughing as it hosted a strange new program which continued to execute, blinking and blipping, as one floor after another, disappeared from the 'Tower' building.
At its own floor, the thirteenth, after all the others were gone, the terminal's screen blanked out - momentarily. In large, bold, black, letters, the word 'MALFUNCTION' flashed across its screen. It stared out into the empty office, for a few seconds, then the screen began to flash off and on again, until the word shrank to the size of a pinhead. The terminal flashed once, and 'MALFUNCTION' again covered the face of the blank screen. Blinking twice, the terminal with a brain took the thirteenth floor with it, as it too, vanished. ..... On the third day of the stifling heatwave, the terminal with a brain - the ADVANCED CONCEPT TECHNOLOGY's Model Number 1007, the Intelligent One, - with the capacity to transmute molecular structures, biological or otherwise, appeared, laughing quietly, on another unsuspecting office building's thirteenth floor.
Copyright 1992 by Elena D. Bowman
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