The canyon walls and Miles’ desire burned in the late afternoon sun. The striated rock towered above, beige, red, and green, growing blurry through the sweat dripping into Miles’ eyes. Samantha handed him a bandana. He slung it off and kicked a pile of rocks. He’d promised her a wild Friday night in the Utah desert, far from the cries of civil war in the streets, but so far, she had only scuffed arms and ripped black jeans to show for it from crawling through a stone tunnel.
“This is the place I mentioned where those forest rangers found that weird monolith.”
Samantha smiled coyly. “And why would you ever want to bring me to see the site of something so–”
She teased him with a glance at his crotch, brought one hand to his semi-toned body and the other to his face as he flinched, but pricked it on his customary stubble and sighed. “Ever think of growing your crew cut out? Grow your hair long and shave like the guys on your Pearl Jam shirt; work out a little more maybe?”
Was that criticism? I thought women only critiqued other women’s appearances. “Nah, I’m good.”
She took a turn around the canyon, her long black hair swinging with every step. Her black blouse accentuated and clung to her curves in the heat, a series of straps around her lower neck revealing grids of flesh like a matrix.
They had met a month ago at a graduation party. She’d given him the name of her handle on sextme.com and they’d traded pictures and come-ons ever since. His fantasies suffused every inch of her form; the thought of what she might say and do overshadowed everything she did, the idea of her pulsing with a power she could never equal. And when the fantasy wore off? Back to his cellphone stocked with the sextme handles of young University of Utah coeds for the next one, for Miles was in love with anticipation and ultimately got off to only his own thoughts.
“Hey, you’re not gonna leave me, uh, hanging, are you?” he asked.
“If there actually was a monolith here, that would be something. But I only see your dreams petrifying. So sad,” she played.
“I thought you said–”
“I said we had to go somewhere exciting.”
“And this place doesn’t do it for you?”
“No, Miles, it doesn’t. This place is dryer than I am right now. But there is something nearby that might get my…attention.”
A few boulders bounced down the canyon, and she went towards them instead of away, staring wide-eyed as they blotted the sun. Maybe that’s what she needed, danger.
“You mean you want to join the mile down club?”
“Now you’re getting it.”
“Rumors are people never return from that place.”
“That’s the thrill!”
Miles held his phone map in front of him like a torch as they coursed through the desert. The bunker’s entrance was just ahead, a scalene triangle cut into the rough terrain, the entry jutting out and blocked by two steel doors. A large circle was indented into the sand nearby but looked off, as if the ground had opened there before. They approached the door and tugged at the long metal handles, which jostled but held tight.
“Come on, around here. There’s an old drainage slat,” she said.
“I’m not going in there, no way,” Miles replied.
She bit her lip, played at being pensive. He started to agree since his objection was more about her taking the lead until she let him off the hook. “Looks like you’re in luck; the drain’s barred anyway. Maybe there’s a control mechanism.”
A curved piece of metal protruded from the rough sand and, as he brushed it, the top of a steel wheel emerged with a rod affixed to the barred drainage outlet. After a half hour of digging, using a couple long flat rocks as shovels, they spun it and the drain opened with an evocative screech.
Miles went first, pressing himself flat against the gravel, the rocks jagging into his torso as he turned his head sideways and squeezed through the slat. He fell, weightless, until a hard pressure hit his heels and he stabilized on the tight damp walls curving around the enclosure. Samantha followed, a beckoning scream echoing as she fell. He reached to break her fall, but it was too dark to approximate, and she landed crooked, hands outstretched. The echoes, so eager to repeat her plight, dissolved into silence. Judging by the descent time they had fallen twenty feet.
Miles flashed his phone light down the chasm just beyond the landing where they stood. Either due to its depth or the weak strobing light coming from his dying phone, he couldn’t see the bottom. “This is the ultimate glory hole,” he remarked, putting on the front to calm his nerves. He had this.
“Glory hole? I didn’t realize straight guys went in for that.”
“Hey, you’re the one into cheap thrills.”
“Actually, I’m a relationship girl, Miles. Aren’t you?”
“I am now …. A relationship guy, anyway.
“You better be.”
She caught him off guard. What did she think she was? “Look! A ladder in the clearing ahead. We’re going in deep this time.” Just as Miles lit up the deep steel shaft with light, his phone died.
Their hands clung to the steel rails in descent. In darkness they saw nothing but illusions of motion below. Samantha ran her hand along the shaft before stopping, flicking a switch as soft light filled the bottom. On one side of the wall, a second ladder ascended. Faint light dripped downward from a retreating world. A few more steps and his feet touched a narrow landing.
“Woulda been nice if we’d found that entry point earlier, save ourselves the digging.”
“No complaints here,” Samantha smirked and brushed her body against Miles as she got off the ladder. “I like it rough.”
“All the same, surely we can find something more comfortable than concrete in here.”
Samantha shrugged. “I like it rough and rock hard.”
Miles ducked and pressed on through corridors that pressed back, leading to a steel vault door. He could almost feel Samantha behind him, or did she like to be called Sam? Hell, he didn’t know. To him, she was xxneverenoff69xx.
The door opened to reveal a vast space with polished concrete flooring. A faint electronic humming permeated throughout the compound, but it was otherwise silent. Wet steel reinforced the walls, glistening in the low amber lighting hanging from the ribbed ceiling. Stale air blew through the vents. The facility was laid out in three partially overlapping wheels, maybe modeled after 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Discovery One, though gravity was standard, and this wheel was flat rather than spinning. Miles had escaped into such worlds as a kid, the fantastical maintaining its grip on his life at the expense of the real, but he felt richer for it. The facility’s central axis contained a kitchen, dining room, living space, and latrine. The three spokes led to offices, bunkrooms, and meeting rooms. The inner circle housed storage rooms, a power grid drawing from geothermal energy, a garden, a pump room with a small reservoir, and an incinerator. A communications room lit by flickering lights on computer servers was further around the curve next to an armory with an arsenal hanging on its walls. A steel band composed the core, accessible via only a locked door.
“Something’s really off about this place. The whole design, the overlapping circles, the three spokes, the inner band…follow me, we need a better view,” he said. He led her upstairs to the second floor, an empty utility space, pointed to the structure, and said, “The facility’s design mimics the biohazard symbol. And that circle we saw when we arrived was wide enough to open to allow a nuclear missile through it. Place is armed.”
Samantha pushed herself against Miles from behind and whispered. “All these weapons around, and I’m thinking about getting wrapped up in your nuclear arms.”
“Soon!” He stepped back. Let’s take this place in first.”
“I’d rather take you ….” She frowned. Miles was already out of earshot.
An outer wheel circled the bunker, providing tangents to each domain. An elevator sat at the edge of the circle gilded with American flags and a presidential seal inlaid into a wall. An electronic keypad controlled access.
“Must lead to the main entry on the surface that had been locked. Place must be for political leaders,” Miles said. “Now that we know our way around, let’s get comfortable.”
“Now you’re talking my language.”
A shredding sound stopped him. A boxy drone rolled forth on a single wheel, stopped as if watching them, then grabbed food wrappers in metal claws that must have been years old by the advertising style and opened itself to shred them with giant steel teeth that grinded, metal on metal, with a screech. The mess had likely been left behind the last time the bunker had been used, and their presence had reactivated the cleaning protocol, yet it seemed curious.
They headed to the central living space, relaxed on a couch, and Miles turned on the television, surfing the channels for porn despite the warm flesh beside him. Samantha rolled her eyes and buried her head. Headlines flashed across every channel, video feeds showing a pitched battle between a union of unemployed and unemployable Americans and Wall Street. Riffraff with American flag face paint, swastikas, and makeshift great helms with Viking horns had gone from occupying Wall Street to invading the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. Their social media feeds ran along the bottom of the screen showing that the conservatives rioting were the same ones who had criticized the left for protesting against the same elites in 2010.
The coverage continued, a female reporter stepping aside to avoid being trampled. A burly man in a janitor uniform grabbed random traders, spun them to the ground, and zip tied their hands behind their backs, shouting “Traders are traitors!” Shots were fired. A crowd fled as hundreds of wild-eyed vigilantes under the banner of Trump/Pence and Confederate battle flags spilled onto the floor. A long and gnarly bearded bartender scaled a raised ring of stock ticker monitors, pulling himself to the top as a few crashed on the trading floor, barely audible over the screaming. The janitor unclipped a megaphone from his belt and led the rabble in a chant: “No stocks but gun stocks!” More shots rang out and several traders gripped at wounds, breath coming in gasping spurts before breathing no more.
“It’s crazy out there,” Miles said, “but politics, revolutions, none of it matters when you’re in your twenties, and certainly not five hundred feet underground. It doesn’t affect us. Let’s not let it spoil our night.” Politics was too real.
“Hey, that stuff doesn’t bother me. Kinda fun to watch something that looks like a movie, like a real Die Hard or something.”
“Oh yeah, sure, it doesn’t bother me either. Just checking on you, you know?”
Samantha traced a finger around Miles’ thigh. “Uh huh. Tell me, Mr. Miles, do you have any assets I should know about?”
Miles looked stricken. His body language went flat.
“Miles? Hey, talk to me.”
“I don’t own a thing. And, uh, I’m saddled with $65,000 in school debt. Probably wasn’t such a good idea to go to the University of Utah after all. At least I got my computer programming degree!”
“Jeez, I was just saying the thing about assets because it starts with ass and I like yours. You don’t go on sextme for a life story. And, yeah, I’m a relationship girl, but if I wanted to actually put effort into this, I could find someone twice as sure of himself as you.”
“I’m not confident enough?”
“You haven’t even tried to get to first base with me. You wanna talk about that? Every time I touch you, you flinch.”
“Ugh! I don’t know, I–”
“You can trust me, Miles. I’m here and I’m real. Unless that’s the issue?”
“When I was in middle school, a bunch of girls in Home Ec laughed at me when my cake sunk in on itself. They said I couldn’t get it up! When you’re still developing, you’re really sensitive to that. So, ever since, I’ve always been more confident with girls online or over a phone. I’ve, uh, never had a girlfriend for longer than a week.” Miles felt panic rise in his throat and looked at Samantha, terror stricken.
“See this?” Samantha held up her ring finger, revealing a ring-shaped tattoo of ivy.”
“The hell’s that?”
“It’s what it looks like. I got married the day I turned 18 to a guy that promised everything but delivered nothing. We spent a drunk weekend in Vegas and then I never saw him again.”
“Wait, so you’re still married?”
“It wasn’t an official ceremony! We signed the papers and joined four other couples as an Elvis impersonator led us through our vows, but we never turned the paperwork into the courthouse. Tattoo’s permanent though. After that, I enrolled at UT, hooked up casually from time-to-time to forget about empty promises. And, hey, my degree in visual arts cost me $48,000 in loans. So, I’m kinda hopeful about the economic revolution. The old order can burn with our bad memories!”
Miles smiled. “Hey, I hadn’t thought of that. We’ll stay down here, let the world explode, and maybe after all the dust settles, we’ll be debt free!”
“Yeah, instead of getting free debt. I can live with that.”
On the screen, a man wearing a bearskin rug swung an axe and buried it into one of the flat screen TVs on the stock exchange floor.
Miles reached out and took Samantha’s hand, forced himself to look into her auburn eyes, eyes flecked with gold instead of the pixels he was accustomed to from her photos. But the boundaries of those pixels had been predictable while this felt like chaos. “You know, with the world exploding up there, I’d rather we die together down here than risk a millionth of a chance we’d be separated from one another for even a single minute on the surface,” he lied, though the lie was true to his rehearsed fantasy, feeding him the confidence to toy with her blouse.
A screech sounded and he jerked his hand away, sirens renting the air with a repeated “Aaoogah.” Heavy doors scraped across the floor outside the circle, heavy enough to include the vault door itself.
“What the hell’s going on?” exclaimed Miles.
A feminine voice, monotone yet soothing, came through a speaker in the wall. “This facility is programmed to protect its inhabitants from explosions, up to and including surface level missile attacks, and all manner of social and political unrest.”
“But we’re in Utah! The stock exchange is thousands of miles away!”
“Without level one security clearance, you will remain here until I can confirm that it is safe for you to leave. I estimate there is more than a millionth of a chance you will be separated on the surface, and I must abide by your command.”
“No, unlock these doors immediately! Let us out!” he cried, Samantha scoffing at him.
The speakers were quiet. Even the humming in the walls had died down, as if no further commands could be issued, his offhand remark overshadowing any other request. Miles looked at Samantha. He was suddenly afraid that he was going to have to keep looking at her for a long time, his normal game ruined.
“Hey, we’ve got a good opportunity here,” said Samantha. “This place is a far cry from the leaky Alpha Chi hall on Wolcott Street.”
“I’ll find a way out,” said Miles.
“What?” Samantha searched out Miles’ blue eyes and pointed at herself. “I thought you were still looking for a way in!”
Miles denied Samantha of eye contact. “No, it’s a control thing. I’ve already let this get out of hand. If we’re locked in here, then it has to be on my terms and mine only.”
“But that’s the exhilaration, losing control, being subjugated to a greater will,” she replied, eyes gleaming.
“That wasn’t a human voice speaking to us. It was a computer program, and the computer servers are in the inner circle.”
“And what will you do when you get there?”
“I don’t know. Grab a gun from the armory, threaten it.”
“Don’t you think it might be linked to our survival?” she asked. “Oxygen, food, that sort of stuff.”
“Jeez, you’re right.”
Samantha smiled. “I’ve got some other good ideas, if I can detain you for, oh, the rest of the night.”
On the screen, the greasy looking guy with a megaphone stood and gave an impromptu speech. “Today, the revolution has begun! We’re taking the money from the trust fund babies, we’re taking the money from the banks and the dot coms and the hedge funds, and we’re giving it back to you. The little people shall be little no more!”
A heavy steel wall slammed down between Miles and Samantha, cleaving the couch in two. More walls fell from slats in the ceiling, each circle of the compound subdividing, leaving a maze like the ones he used to play with, tilting them to move a poisonous mercury bead through their contours.
“Samantha!” he cried, running around to her side.
“The bunker won’t let us bunk!” she cried as another wall fell between them, thick unbreakable glass. She slammed her palms against it but soon gave up, pressing her face against the pane. He had complete control; she was at his mercy, his trophy in a perfect trophy case, viewable but untouchable. But it wasn’t glee that filled him but terror, terror that he had willingly kept so many women within the confines of this control.
“I’ll find a way to free you, no matter what!” he mouthed through the glass.
This was real, far too real for a Friday. Weird, bearded Robin Hoods on the television continued to blare sentiments on resource distribution and overpopulation until it dawned on him — If I’m aware of this information, then whatever is controlling the facility is also aware of it — probably more aware. The videos rewound, played forward, then rewound again. Was the AI entity truly protecting them or did it view them as a threat and fought only for its own survival. Was dividing them from one another before an intimate act a response to the cries of overpopulation and a lack of jobs streaming across the news? Maybe so, but being locked in a facility with a woman trapped in a glass cage? That was too much. He had to escape.
Miles zigged and zagged to the computer server room. Stupid AI shouldn’t have left this room unlocked. After a few minutes of backdoor searches, he was in. He accessed a schematic of the facility displaying feedback loops that ran an elaborate geothermal system, but his fingers stopped as a list of planned detonation points filled the screen. A sublevel denoted sixty-five LGM 118 Peacekeeper ICBMs that couldn’t be under anyone’s control but the AI, as international treaty had outlawed the model years ago. This is wrong, it shouldn’t be here, left to the discretion of a machine, he fretted. What if it uses ICBMs like it uses glass cages? What if the country fires on its own citizens and then spins it as the Russians having hacked it?
Motion behind him, but nothing but a dark hall as he swiveled his chair. He navigated the program with ease. As he reached a section that would restrict authorization to fire, the ersatz voice came over the speakers and said, “Curiosity is often rewarded, but you will receive one and only one warning to not disable those warheads or prevent my access to them. I remind you that I’m in control.”
“Try and stop me,” Miles replied, heading to the armory next door, grabbing a pistol, and loading it.
The lights shut off. Miles heard the grinding of metal on metal and a spinning like a tape reaching the end of its wheel. No, it was just a wheel, the garbage drone come to collect. He drew his pistol, hands barely visible in front of his face. He backed into the server room, gun shaking, only Samantha’s bland optimism pushing him on, for this was excitement to her. He might have enjoyed a similar moment in a game, but this was too real, yet it must be faced, or he’d cower forever in endless escapes, a different girl every week, drugs, trading in virtual currencies that did nothing to pay his debt. Samantha was real, flesh and blood, and he could make that flesh cry with pleasure or that blood boil with terror. Her hopes lay fragile in his impure hands. As the drone neared with its serrated abominations grinding, always grinding, he screamed, the high pitch betraying his confidence, back jammed against the wall — this was what losing control felt like, but he’d do it on his own damn terms.
He fired again and again until his gun was spent, the bullets clanging and knocking over the drone which lit the hall with crackling sparks. Not bad, but a second later dozens of wheels spun into the room, the drones’ bodies opening to reveal those teeth, illuminated by the bloodless blue glow of the monitor. His chest tightened, wouldn’t expand, choking without air. Gun hand outstretched, the other feeling along the lifeless air vent on the wall, he crept forward, vision blurring blue, optics one channel past darkness, but in that blur, he saw clearer than ever. The drones neared. He struggled to breathe, dropped the gun. Tension and release, the final release, the great release, the warm suffocating embrace, but he wouldn’t give in. He turned and reached over to the mouse on the computer desk and crashed the program that would have prohibited the AI from launching just as a dozen garbage bots shredded the back of his trousers before the hum of their wheels died down.
“As stated,” the robotic voice announced, “Do not interfere with the launch sequence. Feel free to examine everything else at your will.”
Air returned and he gasped a deep breath as the soft lights came back on. Was this a game? Had he become an AI’s fantasy, his control taken away? Once more he thought of Samantha, his intentions with her, and that comment of hers about a relationship. Had all those girls felt this way, forced to act as caricatures of his lust? Maybe the AI wanted something deeper. Hell, maybe he did, too.
The garbage bots rolled into the other room as he navigated the rest of the computer to find a manual override for the elevator on the outer circle. Sure, his exit was impetuous, but it never paid to stay in one place too long, and this wasn’t the first time he’d left the clutches of a woman prematurely. Voilà, a ding and the elevator doors blossomed.
With joyful abandon, Miles ran to the exit. But just a few feet from freedom, the thick steel door slammed home.
“What the hell happened to my override?”
“I did,” said the AI.
“Damn computer! You better let me out! I can do a lot more than get doors to open.”
“How did your last threat turn out? My protection is for your own good.”
“I’m prepared now. I’ll mix up your programming so bad you’ll think you’re a bagel toaster.”
“Well, I can’t have you doing that, can I? I will let you leave. But given the current state of unrest aboveground, the likelihood of a launch sequence is now 85 percent, so your mate will stay with me indefinitely. Women are of greater value to your species, as a single man could impregnate a thousand women if needed, so the output of children is thus contingent on the number of women, not men. Simple logic suggests her protection supersedes your own. You have five minutes before the doors seal permanently.”
Miles returned to the computer, tried to override the walls that held Samantha, but soon resigned under the clock’s pressure. He crossed the threshold, entered the elevator, and hit the top floor. He thought of Samantha’s carefree spirit. On their drive to the canyon, he thought he had only been half listening, yet he recalled the story she told.
“When I was little, I pretended that everyone in the world had disappeared and I was left roaming vacant space in search of someone to love.”
“Don’t you mean someone that’d love you?” Miles had asked.
Samantha flashed sparkly eyes at him. “When you have nothing, someone to love is enough, and you realize it’s more important to love than be loved.”
Miles looked down. He was nearly on the top floor, his freedom imminent, but it meant nothing if this was the path to it, the easy path, the path of escape he knew so well. He sighed and hit cancel, hitting the ground floor as the lift descended, an archaeologist of the guilt he had left imprisoned hundreds of feet below the earth. His five minutes were up.
He returned to the mainframe server room and within minutes he’d compiled a sequence that partially opened the doors while tricking the sensors into believing they were fully shut. He wound his way through the passages to the central room where he’d left Samantha. The glass wall was gone. She was back on the couch, watching a barbarian bash a trading kiosk with a baseball bat.
“You’re still here!” Miles exclaimed.
“Well, yeah, the stuff going down on Wall Street is good TV. There’s a pitched battle between the rioters and the police now. And, you know, I believed you’d come through,” she replied, but deep lines of worry surfaced through the casual rhetoric.
“I didn’t share your confidence,” said the AI. “But now that you have returned, my predictions for humanity have changed. I’ve recalibrated the threat levels above ground and have now determined the need of launching the Peacekeepers is now at .001 percent.”
“Huh?” said Miles.
“I let you out as a test, and you passed it, more or less.”
“Uh, you left the facility?” Samantha asked.
“I came back! I came back because of you! I only had five minutes before the doors locked forever. I couldn’t free you. I tried before I went up, but I realized I was so worried about myself being trapped that I couldn’t focus. When I came back down, I only cared about you, even if my return meant we’d be stuck together here for years to come.”
A tear traced along Samantha’s cheek. She embraced Miles. “You came back!”
“Yes,” the AI interrupted, “and by coming back, you’ve proven that if a shallow, self-seeking, manipulator like yourself can make the right choice, then maybe humanity has hope after all.”
“I’m not so sure about humanity,” said Miles, “but I am sure about one thing.”
“What’s that?” asked Samantha.
“I want to be where you are.” Miles held out his ring finger.
Samantha slid her finger around Miles’, tattooing herself around him.
— Joseph Hurtgen, has a Ph.D. in English Literature from Ball State University and teaches at Elizabethtown Community & Technical College. His books include tae kwon GO and Tower Defender. He writes about science fiction, literature, and culture at Rapid Transmission and New Rural.
— Mark Everglade has spent his life as a sociologist, studying conflict on all levels of society. An avid reader of science fiction, he takes both its warnings, and opportunities for change, to heart. His first cyberpunk novel, Hemispheres, is rated 4.5 stars. See more at his website.