by Daniel Eavenson
Warren Fox sat behind the monitor of his computer, relaxing. In his hand, a piping mug of coffee gave off a waft of steam as he put it down into the beverage receptacle of his chair. He looked out the window to his idyllic neighborhood. Children ran about the street, laughing and playing. His neighbors did minor yard work and home maintenance. As he sighed contentedly, his chair automatically reduced the incline by a few degrees, a subtle reminder that he was supposed to be working. He peered back at the computer and assured himself that the world hadn’t ended yet.
Warren stood and stretched his back. Looking around his home office, he took stock in his life for a moment. The office was what some would call spartan, but to Warren it was simply efficient. The furniture was supplied by the national government, like most homes, but his was a little nicer, a fortunate perk from his position. The room’s other decoration all came from his wife. Soothing pictures of vistas from around the world decorated all of the walls. The paneling of the room was a soft oak grain that helped to ease the exacting square quality of the prefabricated cubicle room. Under the desert vista hanging on the back wall was his office computer, a technological marvel that seemed more so when juxtaposed against the calming background of his small office. The monitor was a thirty-inch screen set in solid titanium. Various input devices littered the desk housing the computer. Warren liked the old classics. A click-and-keyboard type, his wife called him.
The small machine was capable of instant communication with any duplicate machine. The “instanet”, as it was called by the college crowd, enabled the computer to gather huge amounts of information from all over the world with the click of a few buttons. Most of this power was lost on Warren, whose job was fairly easy. All he had to do was keep the world from blowing up.
The computer, most of the time, provided a faint red glow that played off the oaken paneling to a nice effect, like a forest in the early times of the sunset. This came from the map that dominated the display of the monitor. It divided the world as it stood today. The Seven Great Nations, each one dominating its respective continent, were revealed on the map in their distinctive colors. Data streamed in windows over each nation. The data showed statistics that concerned each nation’s standout characteristics and gave a bird’s eye view of the health of the world. The streams of data glowed in varying colors and intensities. Usually the glow was somewhere between a bright orange and a rose color. The effect on the room was quite soothing. It was Warren’s job to monitor the map and report. He had greater responsibilities, but he rarely considered them. They were superfluous, and served only to feed his visibility to other users of the instanet. It was odd to think that his few hours spent in this room were often greatly discussed in the never ceasing electronic playgrounds of the world.
Warren was pulled from his wool gathering by the calling of his other important job. He stood from the chair and walked over to the door and stuck his head out looking for the caller. A bit of throat-clearing brought his vision down to his son, Benjamin. He was looking very studious in his Saturday best for some reason. Benjamin’s head was usually a tousled auburn explosion, but now was arrayed in a clean part with only a few whispers of escaping hair reminding Warren of its usual state. His miniature version of Warren’s own face was hidden behind some of Warren’s own reading glasses, oversized on Benjamin’s five year old head. Little khaki pants and a collared shirt completed the look of a micro office worker. Warren put on his serious face to address his apparently very serious son.
“Yes, young man. What can I do for you?”
Benjamin reached into the single shirt pocket on his chest and unfolded a piece of paper held out in front him and began to read.
“Father. I have been assigned? A report about the history. Leading to the creation of the Cong-romerate? May I please use your computer to complete this assignment? Mom said it was ok. Oh! I mean acceptable.”
It took Warren a minute to parse out the request between his son’s attempts to use a few words that were apparently new to him. Warren plucked the paper from his son and looked to see that his wife had actually notarized the speech with a kiss and some X’s and O’s, and signed the bottom. He caught a whispering laugh and some stifled laughter from the door to the kitchen down the hall. Smiling he scrubbed his son’s hair back into disarray and scooped him up.
“Let’s see if this assignment can be completed before the end of the common work allotment.”
He laughed a little more at the momentary confusion of his son, whose face brightened a little when it became clear that they were going into the office. Once there, Warren took a seat in the office chair and sat his son in his lap. Benjamin wasted no time avoiding the antiquated keyboard and mouse that Warren had been previously using and instead nabbed a halo input and placed the device onto his head. The clear plastic device resized itself to Benjamin and snuggled its exposed metal probes behind his freshly tousled hair. As Benjamin navigated the computer, browsers and other information gathering programs sprung to life on the machine obscuring the primary map in the background. Benjamin twisted around to look at his dad through the lenses of the halo.
“Dad? What’s a conglowmerate?”
“The Conglomerate is my boss.”
His employer, the national government, was a civilian organization that managed the day-to-day interactions that happened between the Seven Great Nations. The scope of their power was mostly limited to economic modulation and trade-enabling between these monolith powers. At least that was the case until the invention of the instanet. This massive leap in the speed of communication enabled enough cultural bleed-over. Racial and social barriers nearly evaporated overnight, and with the instanet becoming a popular place for both the intellectual and culturally inept to participate on the world stage, there was an ever-broadening of activism and politicized ideals. Many believed that the next inevitable step was the dissolution of national borders and the creation of a world government. Fearing the chaos of such a great shift in the political and economic landscape of the world, the governments of the time decided that they would form an overarching bureaucracy that would maintain some stability in the world and at the same time guide the future into maintaining the status quo. Though the bureaucracy had form, it had no formal name. At some point though, some blogger or instanet personality tagged it the “Terran Conglomerate”. It stuck. Eventually the nations diluted themselves into the Seven Great Nations, but there were no real changes except for lines on a map and the flags people carried to sporting events and to parades celebrating the hero of the week.
Hero of the week.
He thought of himself that way. “The man who keeps the world at peace.” That was what they put under his picture on the cover of almost every instanet site and publication the week he obtained his new position. That was almost ten years ago now, but it still seemed like every Monday he was sure his computer would display the message he knew, or hoped, would come. “We’ve made a horrible mistake. This posting has been terminated by the governing body of the Terran Conglomerate.” When the message didn’t come, he’d chuckle to himself and wonder aloud how many other men wished to be unemployed at the start of every work week.
He attempted to explain this in terms that Benjamin could understand. While he was speaking, a text editor opened and recorded some of what he said. There were a lot of question marks and spelling errors populating the page.
“Ok. I guess I get it.” Benjamin looked down into this own lap and then fingered one of the probes pressing into the space just under his hairline. He looked back up at Warren and said, “Dad, I always thought you were the Conglomerate?”
Chuckling, he replied, “No Benjamin, thank God, I’m not. Here let’s find you a source on me. Better than me and my bad memory, anyway.”
A verbal search returned a bevy of hits, including his biography in Wikipedia. He scrolled down through history taking his memory to that day ten years ago when he was first approached by a representative from the Terran Conglomerate. He had finally retired from a major technological company, rather wealthy and younger then he deserved to be. He had personally made some of the software that now controlled the instanet. The technology had been acquired by the fledgling Terran Conglomerate, and the financial windfall to the company had led to a retirement-sized bonus for himself. As the Terran Conglomerate expanded its influence, the members of the bureaucracy realized that the biggest problem with maintaining the status quo of the planet was that people were always trying to blow it up. Certainly wars had become a thing of the past, as nations had grown more and more interdependent, but that hadn’t stopped corporations from coming up with new and exciting ways to kill people. Leaving the nuclear age meant that new planet-destroying weapons needed to be made to replace the aging nuclear arsenals of the world. Currently, the big guns were space platforms loaded to the brim with ionizing gamma cannons, IGCs. These nifty gizmos would create a new kind of energy field that would kill off everything that was alive, and leave all the valuable resources behind without all the terribly inefficient destruction and fallout one usually associates with a weapon of mass destruction. Of course, no one was really daft enough to fire one of the twice damned things, but then some country or other would feel the need to stretch their muscles and toss stink-eyes about during TC meetings. To resolve the issue, a failsafe was devised. They would place a single man in a remote area and give him sole veto on the operation of the IGCs. If anyone fired one of the IGCs, the man they chose could instantly cancel the operation. To aid him in his decision he would be given all the current information on each nation so he could properly weigh the pros and cons of total human extinction. Everyone agreed it was a fabulous idea. The man they chose was Warren Fox.
Thinking back he supposed he should have realized that his position would be purely for show. In the beginning he and his wife had spent sleepless nights taking shifts to monitor that kaleidoscope map. Every trip to the bathroom was an exercise in anxiety. After several weeks of the world not ending, though, he began to take more pleasure in his family and the little responsibility that his enormous responsibility allowed him.
After speaking a little more on the topic he looked down at Benjamin. He was staring studiously at the screen and words were quickly popping into being inside the text editor. He watched as Benjamin stored all his notes and links into a compressed file and emailed it to himself.
“Ok Dad. Thanks.” Benjamin removed the halo and placed it back on the desk where it expanded back to Warren’s size.
“Dad when can I get a halo for my computer?”
“You know how you mother feels about extended use of those things on growing minds.”
“Just ‘cause she’s a neuro-doctor she thinks she knows everything.” Benjamin had a sour look on his face that evaporated as Warren pinched one of his squirmed up little cheeks.
“It’s because she’s your mom that she does know everything. We’ll ask again next birthday, ok?”
Benjamin hopped off his lap and walked to the door. He paused and turned back, looking Warren in the face. Benjamin smiled the way only a child can.
“Dad. I’m glad you saved the world.”
“Me to buddy. Where else would we put our stuff?”
Benjamin barked a little laugh and then left the doorway. Warren loved to make his son happy, especially when it could be done just by being himself.
After closing the browsers from Benjamin’s studies, he stood and walked to the closet door opposite the computer wall. On the back of the door was a small mirror. His wife always said it was a nice reminder of modesty for the man that keeps the world in order. He gave his chin a wag and walked out of the room and down the hall to the kitchen. His wife was there, humming something as she made small sandwiches and cut fruit for their lunch. He watched her assemble the small meal and load it into a picnic basket. He was about to say hello when he heard an abnormal beeping sound coming from his office.
He sprinted back to the computer and assessed the data coming in. He silenced the alarm and stared at a screen that seemed totally alien. The screen was giving off a pulsating red glow. The red was so dark. A deep red that soaked the room. It changed the usual forest-in-sunset feeling of the room into a slow burning forest fire. The visuals of the screen were even more disturbing. The computer was reporting that nearly all IGC weapons platforms were powering up and targeting population centers. For a moment his mind refused to process the reality of the information being presented to him. They were never supposed to actually activate the blasted things. He was never supposed to have to actually step in and play savior.
In the time it took to have these thoughts, his fingers were flying across the keyboard under the computer. He thought up a few more even ridiculous synonyms for Savior in the time it took to pull up the termination sequence and enter his codes. The screen cleared, and then displayed the map screen and began loading data. The screen began to pulse that sickly red color again. He blinked. He blinked again. The map was unchanged. Starting to get desperate, he pulled a manual from underneath the computer desk and began rifling through it looking for some error he’d made in the procedure. As he poured over the endless papers of the huge document, a man’s face bloomed into existence on screen.
“This is a recorded message. I’m sure by now you’ve realized that there is a problem with the computer. I am the person hired to create the budget for your position, Mr. Fox. The Terran Conglomerate, in their infinite wisdom, decided that it didn’t make for a financially responsible decision to invest money in a system that would never be used. I pray to God they are right and that this message is never displayed on the one piece of hardware that they were willing to commit for you. I’ve done what I could for you and your family. When you entered the code to deactivate the weapons platforms, an inverse gamma field was deployed over your property. The field will allow you and your family to survive the devastating event that is about to blanket the Earth. It was all I could do without being more audacious, or having more funds. I don’t know what kind of world you’ll find yourself in, but I wish you luck.”
As the message ended, a cold sweat broke out all over Warren’s body. He was halfway out of the room before he realized where he was running. He stepped outside his door into normality. The homes, the lawns, and street all seemed normal. It was also quiet. He smelled the wind before he felt it. The stench of burning raked his nostrils as the wind wound itself around him. The shock to his senses finally gave him realization. They were all gone. All the people were gone. Everything was slightly charred and pale, as if covered in a fine dust. The lawns were all brown or ash. All the green had gone out of the world. The horror of it all hit him and at the same time he tossed it all aside. His family. Where was Benjamin?
As he walked around the yard he found Benjamin sitting on the grass, staring vacantly out into the neighborhood. He ran to him at a speed he didn’t know he was capable of. His wife was collapsed in front of Benjamin. The boy had her head in his lap and was brushing the hair on his mother’s head. Warren felt for a pulse at her neck and found it. He felt all the air rush out of his lungs as he expelled a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding after running from the house.
Warren looked down into the tear-filled eyes of his son.
“Dad what did you do?” Benjamin began to wail; a keening sound that cut from bone to soul.
“Nothing. I couldn’t do anything. They…I failed.”
Warren looked back down into the eyes of his son, but they were held tightly shut. Benjamin gripped his mother’s head in his lap and he started to rock back and forth. Warren knelt beside him and held her hand. They waited for a few more minutes. When she did not wake, but Benjamin’s tears were spent, Warren picked her up and took her back into the house. Benjamin followed, pulled along by a hand in one of Warren’s belt loops. In time there were more tears. The computer provided no more information. The house provided no more convenience. They were three. There were together. It was all they had. In the years that followed, Warren knew there had never been anything else.
Daniel W Eavenson is a professional engineer and amateur author living and working in the Chicago-land area. He was born in the south of Mississippi but escaped in his early years. He’s the son of a Southern Baptist preacher and a teacher (recently turned court reporter). His love of science and technology led him to a career in Engineering. His dislike of corporate America has led him to writing sci-fi and fantasy. You can find Daniel on Twitter @Sinisterinfant and at his website at thegigpodcast.com