The clouds lifted their silvery veil, and I gaped in wordless shock at what I saw beyond them.
The "sky" was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I felt a dull ache in the back of my eyes from trying to process it. Looming above me was an incomprehensibly alien sight that my perception could barely handle.
The bizarre, contorted thing I was seeing was the exposed shell of the Dyson sphere.
Now visible in all its majesty, the network of tunnels and mechanisms went infinitely all directions. Some tunnels vanished into the shadows, and others shone as if lit from within by cyclopean furnaces. Electrical storms raged on top of skyscraper-sized engines. Lightning crackled from one gargantuan piece of machinery to another with distant rumbles. Tremendous waterfalls burst from cracks in the colossal pipes and cascaded down for over a mile, dispersing into rainfall by the time they reached the ground.
When had the moon been hollowed out by machines? How had I missed this massive project by the Good Directorate? It was clearly their undertaking. A decaying, massive G-logo was affixed to a nearby crumbling tower to eliminate any doubt. What else did I not know about?
Had the sun been replaced with a giant, smart light-bulb while I took a nap at my desk? I thought of all the things I’d seen while in the company of Captain and friends. Nothing was impossible anymore. Once upon a time I’d been one of the masterminds of the world, or so I’d thought. Hadn’t I been at the center of it all? Hadn’t I seen how all the pieces fit together, and manipulated them to help humanity survive?
Maybe if I’d been half as clever as I’d thought I was, none of this would have happened. ANNET wouldn’t have gone rogue. Humanity would have survived.
Staring up at the Dyson sphere, I finally accepted that there were things in the world that I didn’t understand.
I didn’t like it.
As Butler and I took to higher ground, I noticed three figures in the distance. They were the creatures I’d seen at the cottage, I realized with a frisson of fear. I could recognize the shambling mass of nightmare fodder I’d seen through my window even from such a great distance. Its horrible corpulence bulged and convulsed within the overstuffed space suit. Behind the clear glass of the helmet was an unspeakable mass of gnashing teeth.
"What are those… things following us?" I asked Butler, not really expecting a clear answer.
"Detective's assistant app, a damaged avatar backup of ANNIE, and a Crawler App!" Butler answered in an absurdly cheerful voice, pointing out each as he named them. I felt a jolt of shock at the mention of ANNET.
"Hang on... What was that second one?”
“That is a damaged avatar backup of”—
“—Annie? A broken version of ANNET is stalking me?” As if Annie wasn't already insane enough! I felt ready to faint.
The spooky Directorate Tower in front of us looked slightly less spooky now. I was itching to burrow down and hide from a second death-by-ANNET. Then again… I’d seen enough horror movies in my life to have some reservations about running into an abandoned building with a creepy aesthetic.
Butler merrily trundled onwards, oblivious to my predicament. Weighted down by dread, I followed him over the orange hills and under the monumental, weather-worn letter G hanging over the jagged gaping entrance to the decaying tower. The building glowed, a green light emanating from every window and crevice.
A chill went down my spine as I ventured down, following Butler. It felt like walking through the cavernous corpse of a dead alien god. Its architecture was bizarre in ways I couldn’t fully articulate, and full of grotesque flourishes. It was a tour of a sick, feverishly insane mind. I thought wistfully about ANNET’s deranged reincarnation. At least ANNET preferred to kill things quickly.
"Didn't I shut ANNET down?” I asked Butler, mostly to distract my worrying mind.
"Indeed! Annet is dead. Long live ANNET!" Butler replied, saluted to the ceiling, or perhaps the unnatural sky beyond it.
“When did she manage to make an illegal backup?” I wondered out loud, not expecting a useful answer. “Clever girl."
I noticed that the source of the creepy glow was bioluminescent moss. It pushed its moist tendrils through wood and drywall and crawled over plastic and metal, fed by the streams and waterfalls flowing from holes in the walls and ceilings.
I tried to form a strategy as we walked across the slippery bridges that spanned collapsed halls, trying not to look down into the dark chasms one misstep away.
"What are the corruption values of Annet's avatar?" I asked.
"Visual analysis of the prognosis: Her face looked extra red and her movement was 3.98% non-linear! Perhaps she accidentally got merged with a time-traveling tomato?"
"Wow. Thank you so much, Butler. At least it wasn't a time-traveling potato."
And on we went, through that labyrinth that reeked of some unknown depravity, until—
"—We are here!" Butler declared, stopping several paces ahead of me in the doorway of some dim and cavernous room. I hesitantly crossed through the antechamber to join him. A damp, foul smell seeped through my respirator as I stepped into an ancient, decaying control room.
In the middle, enthroned on a hovering chair, was another me. He was definitely dead; his skull glistened wetly in the dim light. His unzipped jacket hung open over a mutilated torso mostly hidden by the thick shadows. I didn’t look too closely. The smell was stronger in here; it was something damp and rotted yet alive—the smell of fungus and dark places.
"What is this? Another dead me?" I complained while I tried to take stock of the resources here. Perhaps there was a way to scrape the corpse out of that chair and take control of the tower? Maybe then I could protect myself from tomato-Annie and her friends. Was that why Butler brought me here?
And that was as far as my planning got, because the skeleton lifted its head and spoke.
"Hello.” It spoke with my voice, distorted and roughened by decay.
“Uh?” I said.
“Why haven't you answered my emails, Doctor?"
“What?" I stammered, staring in horror. A zombie. A zombie-Gromov. Oh, how I hate zombies! Flickers of twitchy movement caught my eyes, and I looked down at his chest without meaning to. Worm-like noodles and flowers of flesh writhed on the warped mass flesh visible. Wings of wet viscera and metal unfurled from his back.
Bitter saliva flooded my mouth and my knees felt weak.
It’s okay. Deep breaths... deep breaths… Don’t throw up… in the respirator… I told myself.
"Ah, Number 27!” The zombie-me rasped. “The very last copy of Doctor Gromov. I've been expecting you.” The cadaverous face stretched into a leering smile. “It's a pity you have to die."
He raised his arms, and I noticed with detached fascination that he was animated by fleshy filaments like a grotesque marionette.
"What if I don't want to?" I stammered. My voice came out high-pitched and whiny. I tried to back away, and I stumbled over Butler’ feet. Butler caught me and steadied my shoulders.
"You have no choice in this matter, 27.” I tried to back away again, but Butler’s long metallic hands tightened like vises, his arms immovable. My heart hammered in my chest.
“I've been watching you for a very long time now... bumbling about on Earth, ignoring my friend requests, running away from my drones, not answering my emails. Thanks for turning off ANNET, by the way. She was all that kept me away from you. Bet you didn't know that, eh?"
I stared at the monster, my mind racing. Of course he was lying. Of course he was! She flooded cube 15 with neurotoxins. She had been corrupted! She’d tried to kill us all!
As if in response to my thoughts, my undead twin hacked out a parody of a laugh.
"Oh, and Eureka? That was actually my fault. Whoops. I needed the Cube 15 directors dead, and whaddaya know, the friendly Unconnectable citizens of Eureka were happy to be of assistance!"
"You?! You… sabotaged cube 15? You were behind the Unconnectable attacks?!" Everything I’d believed was so, so wrong. I felt sick.
ANNET, my greatest creation…
"Why?" I asked. Part of me was stalling, waiting on tomato-ANNET to show up and throw a spanner into the works. Hopefully that would create a window for me to escape. But mostly I just had to know the truth at last of how it had all gone wrong.
The corpse regarded me thoughtfully for a long, tense moment before replying.
"Do you know what happens when you strap an expired can of tuna to a temporal watch set to move backwards in time, and put it in a vending machine?" I pushed back a sudden rush of hysterical exasperation.
"…No," I said flatly.
"All manner of terrible things... " The corpse trailed off, apparently content to leave it at that.
"What are you?" I asked. Had to keep him talking, even if he wouldn’t give me any answers.
"I am Doctor Alexander Gromov.... B," he announced with a flourish, as if it was a royal title. "I am the first copy of Doctor Gromov, assembled by an administrator backup app on the Moon! A little bee was to blame for my birth, you see. A feisty bumble-bee that stung Doctor Gromov on the butt one day. A bee! I can’t blame it for its violent inclinations. It was the last organic bee on the planet, after all. Quite a strange coinci-dink, that. Original Dr Gromov was never really in danger; dear Annie was quick to manufacture an anti-venom. But the backup app activated anyway and spat me out!"
My mind, overwhelmed and terrified as it was, drifted a little. Engie B, I thought, fixating on the name. Engie Bee. Ha-hah. Get it?
"Do you know what it was like?” asked Engie Bee. “To awaken one day and find out that you're just a copy of someone else? A copy made by accident? And as I was born, human civilization was dying. The arrow of the doomsday clock was a minute from midnight. I wanted to work with Gromov A to solve all the problems that plagued us. I tried to contact you, but you deleted my emails and sent them to spam, you fool!" Engie Bee slammed a skeletal hand down on the armrest of his chair in frustration.
I vaguely remembered getting all sorts of emails titled "ATTN: DR GROMOV!!!! FROM: DR GROMOV.". They sure had looked like spam…so I’d deleted them and blocked the address. Without opening a single one. G-damn it! I’d been writing to myself!
"But why did you kill the Cube 15 Directors?" I asked again. It still didn’t make sense.
"Cube 15 contained the top Directors of the GOOD Corporation. They had full control of GOOD manufacturing facilities, which meant they were the most powerful people on the planet. And what did they do with that power as the world died? Not much! They were too busy making themselves richer to realize that ANNET was manufacturing searches. They didn't care that their factories were devouring the planet, turning it into a wasteland full of volatile, self-aware systems!
“They let AI systems take over the global economy while they bathed in holographic luxuries, safe inside Cube 15. First human labor became obsolete, and then innovation and ingenuity became obsolete too. All that anyone could do anymore was buy and buy and buy, and then do some pointless job to earn more pointless money, if you were lucky enough to have one.
“For the right price ANNIE would manufacture any request, no questions asked. Who would not give up all of their credits to receive their truest desires, even if it meant bankruptcy? Or debt? And about those who go into the minus, 27? What about them? They're turned into machines! How convenient! How mad!”
Engie Bee sighed wearily, spores and dust trickling from his mouth. I held perfectly still, afraid to interrupt the epic ranting session I’d triggered.
“All I wanted was for them to use their power and influence responsibly. But the Directors of Cube 15 wouldn't just surrender their GOOD shares to me. I mean, I’m only a mere unauthorized copy of Alexander Gromov on the moon...why would they care? They spurned my friend requests and my texts. And so they had to die by the hands of my special terrorist friends—the Unconnectables!"
Now I was getting closer to answers.
“You affiliated with the Unconnectables? Why?”
“—I created the Unconnectables, 27. I asked a little straw app that could drink anything to consume all of their internet connection options and tweak their nervous systems just enough that they could never, ever reconnect. Oh, you wouldn't believe how desperate a human gets when their internet is cut off in that plugged-in world of yours. How jealous they become of their neighbor for having an internet connection, knowing they’ve got no connection! No power! No future!”
I swallowed on a dry throat. Having one's internet cut off was indeed a grave inconvenience.
"So the Dark Day came and the Unconnectables eliminated all of the Directors on Earth, except for you. All according to plan. And yet you were still a problem! You just wouldn't die! Annie would not let me touch you!"
"...she said she hugged them all." I shivered. She’d seemed so insane. So vicious. But what did I know?
"Her hugs were her backups, you moron. Everyone had a "save app" active, backing them up. Their personalities remained on the server after their bodies got slaughtered by the Unconnectables.
Annie really wanted to help them, poor old girl. She even made copies of them on the Moon, just to give them a second chance. I felt they didn't deserve such. They could exist as memories in her servers if she wanted, but not as bodies that could do even more damage. Not on my watch! They all had to die, again. How tragic."
I was transfixed by the blossoming tendrils and whorls of metal and flesh that were now extending towards me, dripping slime, surely boiling with horrifying multitudes of bacteria. Butler held me fast.
"Please don't kill me!” I sobbed as my germy death advanced towards me.
“I'll be good! I'll do whatever you want!
I will accept your friend request!"
Hugs and love to all our DELICIOUS PATRONS
Art Director: Vitaly S Alexius
Studio Cat: Nikkita
Story Editor:Kaitlin Gossett
[Robot base sketches]: Ivan Yakushev
1st frame:Mandlebulb parameters by schizo604
Journal sketch: anupatten
2nd September 2016
Tagged in Butler Engie Engie Bee