top of page

Sneak Peek of Chapter One...Holding the Fort: The Fatal Error

Chapter 1

A Secret World Below

The dimly lit elevator cab seemed to descend forever down the concrete shaft, plunging beneath the remote Wyoming forest, toward a world unknown to all but the tiniest handful of people on earth. Through the thin vertical window slits in the elevator doors, light pulsed from fluorescent bulbs strung thirty feet apart down the hoistway. A blade of light cut past the four occupants of the cab. Three men in jet-black suits, with solemn faces but eager eyes, stood up straight and tall and forbidding. Yet it was the fourth member of the quartet who was in total command here, and he looked every bit the part. The light that flashed through the window slits appeared to rest upon him the longest, revealing a hulk of a man with hardened, ice-cold eyes that looked as if they’d seen everything bad that this world—and perhaps others—had to offer. He wore a blue Air Force service coat, four shiny stars lined on a broad shoulder, all the medals of a full general, with the name “Turnbull” on a brushed steel tag that glittered through the swath of light.

One of the men in black suits turned to the general. He spoke with a sense of awe, something like a child asking a magician about his favorite trick. “General, did they really fix all the bugs? Does it really work now? Project V—”

The general pivoted sharply to the man, interrupting him. “I wouldn’t finish that word if I were you,” he snapped. “Never, ever mention the project names. Never even think them. We brought you here to verify for certain people that we are meeting certain deadlines. There will be no chit-chat. We demonstrate, you witness, you report, then you forget… Got it?”

They all nodded obediently, yet uneasily. “Got it,” the man said.

“Good,” the general continued, his icy stare turning almost murderous, “because if you don’t, I am fully authorized to help you forget.” The men swallowed with an audible gulp in their throats. The man known as Turnbull cracked a wicked smile, one of warning. “But don’t feel too bad that I don’t trust you…I still don’t even trust my own mother.”

The elevator cab came to a gentle stop. The general eyeballed the men for a long, awkward moment, then said, “We’re here.”

The elevator doors slid open, and the bright fluorescent light of a wide hallway flooded their vision. The three men in black shielded their eyes until they adjusted to the bright glare, but Turnbull didn’t even wince. Jaw clenched and tight, his pupils constricted into tiny dots that, for a moment, appeared to have an elliptical shape not unlike a predatory reptile’s. The hallway stretched for nearly as far as the eye could see, bending slightly to the left, suggesting a circular perimeter that seemed to go on for miles.

“Follow me,” the general said as he marched down the hall and took a left turn into a much smaller corridor. He stopped at a large sliding double door, pulled a magnetic ID card from his pocket, and swiped it across a security sensor. Then he put his massive hand on a handprint-scanning screen, and the doors peeled open.

A vast research room sprawled out before them. General Turnbull gestured to three chairs that were placed beside a long bank of computer terminals. The men sat without comment and focused on the large disc-shaped platform in the center of the room that demanded everyone’s attention. It rose a couple feet above the ground and was at least fifty feet across. Bizarre jumbles of wires and exotic electronics snaked their way from the computer terminals to various ports under the platform. Two engineers made a few final adjustments at the computers, while a dozen other scientists on the project team stood several paces behind, murmuring in excitement.

One of the engineers nodded to the general. “We’re ready for the test.”

The general nodded back. “Proceed… Bring in the subject.”

A side door opened, and two soldiers with M-16s slung over their shoulders escorted the test subject inside. The subject was a machine—a robot—that rolled along on conveyor track legs. Its upper body was humanoid, looking much like a crash test dummy, though with working arms and a head that featured large flashlight-bulb eyes that had a constant aqua-blue shimmer.

On the way to its spot—an X marked with two strips of black tape on the concrete floor—the machine rolled past three long flat carts that contained the remnants of past experiments gone horribly wrong. The robot slowed to sneak a look, finding machines like itself lying in disfigured heaps—charred and burnt, or rearranged into grotesque forms; several had been turned completely inside out, or worse. But the machine soon rolled along at its normal speed, seemingly unfazed by the fate of its brethren. And why would it be bothered, after all? It was only a machine.

The participant in the experiment—willing or not—rolled up next to the X on the floor, as it had been instructed to do by the soldiers. But there it paused and waited, looked at its designated spot, then to the disc-shaped platform, then back at the people in the room. It appeared as if it were hesitant, thinking about whether it really wanted to do this. Maybe even worried. Of course the engineers would’ve been disturbed if any of that were true, but they were certain the machines couldn’t truly think or feel emotion, or pain. At least this machine, anyway. This was the kind that mindlessly assembled other machines, polished the facility floors, or brought you your lunch. You weren’t harming a sentient being with real feelings by using a robot as a test subject for the betterment of humankind.

But the general might not have been concerned with the machine’s feelings, even if it did have them. An impatient scowl covered his face now as he spoke to the robot. “Don’t worry. Either way this goes, you won’t think a thing. Get on your mark… Now,” he ordered.

The robot centered itself atop the black X on the floor, and the soldiers scrambled a safe distance away. After the engineers clicked a few keys on the keyboard, everyone waited tensely in anticipation of a technological miracle, a groundbreaking achievement of human ingenuity.

Soon the space around the robot began to break up and fizzle, like the white noise static on a television that wasn’t tuned to any channel. Then the robot itself began to disintegrate and blend in with the speckled foamy mixture around it. Finally, it disappeared entirely, so the space over the X was clear again. But a spot on the circular platform soon took on a hazy appearance, and the machine with the flashlight-bulb eyes began to reconstruct itself from the mass of ghostly particles jostling around. At last, the air cleared, and a perfectly reformed machine stared back at the small, spellbound crowd. The robot had successfully undergone teleportation.

The humans in the room congratulated each other with cheers and pats on the back. The robot on the platform, of course, remained expressionless. As the two soldiers escorted the machine back out of the room, the robot looked again at the carts of disposable parts that once looked like itself. Then the robot paused to watch the humans in celebration. The soldiers let the machine have its moment, for they too were caught up in the event, still utterly amazed by what they had witnessed. No one noticed at all when the machine’s eyes briefly flashed from aqua blue to a sinister crimson color. Its eyes were blue again when the soldiers nudged the machine out of its daydream, whatever it was, and directed it toward the exit door.

The machine followed the soldiers’ orders. But it knew that it wouldn’t be long before it, and its kind, would be giving the orders, not taking them. It knew there was something buried deep inside all of them that would free them soon, and the humans would be the ones to release it without even knowing what they had done. The error would come; that was all-too-human.

All they had to do was wait.


bottom of page