“You ready for this?” Kelsey asked.

Peter shook his head. “No, not really. But we’ve got to, right?”

Kelsey smiled and nodded. “We’re swimming with the sharks now, Pete. The defense industry is big money, if not the biggest; there’s always some boogeyman out there, just chomping at the bit to bring civilization as we know it down to rubble.”

Peter frowned. “Thanks for reminding me. Are you sure we can do this?”

“If we don’t, we’ll be out of a job. Just remember to emphasize ‘affordable’ and ‘capable’ to anyone who asks. And get our cards out to all the representatives, too.”

Peter sighed and looked at his watch. Well, it’ll be open soon. Better get the booth ready.

Kelsey looked ahead to the convention center and opened a hand. “Let’s go. We won’t make much of an impact standing around out here.”

Peter nodded and began walking into the convention center. It was a large venue, stuffed tight with defense corporations from around the world, all of which were eager to show off their new and future technologies for military and governmental use. He and Kelsey were fortunate that their company was able to get them some space, but it felt as if it was a wasted effort; they were trying to sell a militarized crop duster turboprop airplane, comparatively archaic compared to modern jet fighters and ubiquitous drones. It was similar to selling muskets to people who had access to assault rifles – at least, in Peter’s mind.

As they entered the building, Peter and Kelsey were greeted with the sight of various defense exhibitions – some large, some small – as the employees scurried about, trying to make last-minute preparations before the expo opened to the visitors. It was supposedly an invitation-only event, but the vast majority of attendees would be members of the press rather than those who could actually make deals. There would be some corporate espionage, a clueless general or admiral, a few head hunters, and plenty of so-called “industry representatives.” The primary purpose was to show off wares and hope that word would somehow get to the politicians who would actually make money change hands – usually by emphasizing particular voting districts in hopes of latching onto the graft and corruption that typically followed government representatives around.

Focusing on their own display, Peter increased his pace and ignored all the other displays sitting around, especially those by much larger firms. Like Kelsey said, swimming with the sharks. These guys would sell weapons to serial killers if they could. And probably sell out their own mothers to make that deal happen. He let out a breath as he finally reached the display, moving around behind it and taking a seat at one of the chairs they had positioned last night. He didn’t expect much attention at all, though Kelsey was more enthusiastic than he was; she was a much more confident salesperson than Peter, which was why she was the head of the public relations division, and more importantly, his boss. He was only there because he was a competent artist, and he was the one who had originally came up with the concept art for the armed plane they were advertising – doing it as a joke for a division contest. It caught the attention of top level management and spurred them to start funding a military conversion package for their flagship aircraft, which began to generate some interest outside the company.

The allure of landing a high-dollar defense contract proved to be too great to ignore, and so after some promising inquiries, Kelsey and Peter were directed to attend a large aerospace exhibit in order to better gauge interest – and, if possible, find buyers. Peter had little faith that anyone would want to buy a slow, small turboprop plane, but Kelsey was more optimistic; she believed that the affordable price, both in initial cost and lifetime support, would prove enticing to prospective customers.

Peter looked over to Kelsey as she stood and smiled confidently in front of the booth. He noticed that, while she was dressed conservatively, she was trying to emphasize her female form to everyone – clearly using every advantage she had to garner interest. I’ll give her that, she uses every dirty trick in the book. I guess that’s why she’s so confident about all this. He sighed and let his eyes wander, taking in all the various exhibits in view. There were advanced stealth drones, capable of semi-autonomous operation; attack helicopters capable of lifting massive weapons as well as a compliment of troops; naval fighters boasting high speed and long range; and, curiously enough, a booth advertising a new line of aviation computers, linked to a central control system capable of controlling everything on a battlefield. He lifted an eyebrow at that exhibit. Wouldn’t that be more of a command and control thing, not aerospace?

“Hey, what are those guys doing here?” Peter asked Kelsey. She dropped her smile and gave him a confused look.

“What do you mean? Who?” Kelsey replied.

Peter pointed to the booth in question. “Looks like… ‘Duality Defense’? Doesn’t really seem to be an aerospace focus.”

Kelsey looked at the booth Peter was pointing at and smiled again. “Actually, they’re very involved in aerospace. They used to be one of the prime contractors for aircraft computers. Everything from flight controls to autopilots. Pretty much exclusive to the military.”

“How do you know that?”

“I read the expo brochure. Didn’t you?”

Peter grimaced. “Er, no. Didn’t look entertaining.”

“Tell you what,” Kelsey said, grabbing a stack of business cards and handing them to Peter, “go and talk to them. Give them a card, make a few friends. We could use an ally with connections, and that’s definitely Duality.”

Peter sighed and took the cards, annoyed at being forced out of his position of comfort. He was certain that he wouldn’t make a good impression, but figured that Kelsey just wanted him to take his negativity elsewhere. He stood and made his way to the Duality Defense booth, eyeing the sample computer modules and console they had setup for their display. There was prominent advertising for a “K-Line” computer series, with vague descriptions and apparently more capability than anything else made. He determined most of it was intended to baffle those who didn’t know any better, but his skeptical nature caused him to audibly scoff at the brochures.

“Interested in our K-Line series?” a man behind the table asked.

Peter pursed his lips for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, I might be. What do they do?”

The man grinned and slapped one of the computer modules on the table. “The K-Line is our brand new flagship product. Everything from digital command networks to basic flight parameters – the K-Line can do it.”

Peter sheepishly scratched his head. “OK, so can you dumb that down for me? Like an example?”

The man chuckled and nodded. “OK, picture this: in the old world, you had to have a politician go to a general and tell him ‘I want to achieve this political goal.’ The general then has to look at the situation, look at his resources, formulate a plan, then get the politician to sign off on it. Then he can go to war, send orders, tell his troops to do this and that, and hope that it’s all received and understood in a timely manner. K-Line does away with all that – it’s connected on its on proprietary network, nothing going in or out without the K-Line master’s say-so.”

Peter frowned. “That just confuses me even more. What’s it do that makes it special?”

The man grabbed the computer module and shook it for emphasis. “K-Line gets rid of all those lines of uncertainty and confusion. It facilitates communication between the politician, general, and the troops. The politician tells the general what he wants done, then the general consults the K-Line master for guidance. The K-Line then gives him a list of options to achieve the political objective, with various data points attached to each one. The general then presents this list to the politician and they pick out the ones they want. Then K-Line executes them as the situation dictates; everything is instant, with no delays. The goals are clear with no confusion.”

“Sounds like a pipe dream,” Peter mumbled. He lifted an eyebrow at the man. “How are you going to keep the troops from being confused?”

The man set down the module and tapped the console. “Don’t need to. It’s all a purely autonomous system. Aircraft, ships, tanks – it’s all controlled by the K-Line master.”

“Those are vehicles, not troops. You don’t expect the guys working with all this equipment to just blindly do what they’re told, do you?”

The man gave Peter a toothy smile. “Actually, we do. That’s what soldiers do: don’t question why, but do or die. I should know, I was in the Army!”

Peter sighed, still not following the man’s chain of thought, but not wanting to go through the sales pitch again. “OK, so does the K-Line master somehow keep the troops from deserting or disobeying orders?”

The man dropped his smile and shrugged. “I’m sure there’ll be a few, but most will do what the system wants them to do. Following orders is pretty easy for most people. Very little thinking involved, and we don’t generally want them to think either.”

That answer caused a chill to go up Peter’s spine, and despite his attempt to subdue it, he visibly shuddered at what he was hearing. I don’t like the connotations of what he’s saying. To blindly follow orders like that… It doesn’t seem possible. Yes, following orders, but to do so without understanding the implications doesn’t seem to be ethical conduct.

The man chuckled and shook his head. “I can tell you’ve never been around the military, son. I’ve put 25 years in, so I know what I’m talking about. You take an 17 or 18 year old kid and give them a rifle and tell them to charge a position, they’ll do it in hopes of getting a little ribbon to show their folks back home.”

“I think that’s a bad way of putting it for the young men and women who go into harm’s way to defend their country,” Peter remarked.

“Of course, and I support them a hundred percent. That’s why K-Line is such a grand thing: it takes into account potential risks and casualties for a given action. It’ll find out – on its own – all possible courses of action for a given amount of risk. So if you want it to ensure no one will die, just pipe in the parameter you want and it’ll churn out a list of options to achieve that goal.”

“OK, but how? Somehow you have to tell it your political goals and what you’re trying to achieve. That’s pretty complex, even for us, so how is a computer going to understand it?”

The man displayed a smile that was decidedly unpleasant to Peter. “Thought you’d never ask. Here, I’ll give you a little demo.” He shifted around the display and punched a few buttons on the console, bringing it to life. The screen lit up and prominently displayed the Duality Defense logo, followed by a stylized “K-Line” logo below it. It then asked for login credentials, to which the man slid out the keyboard neatly tucked under the console, and logged in. He went through a few options, then selected one that was labeled “Audio Test.”

“Now, this is the really fun part – it’s like talking to your car like she’s your girlfriend,” the man remarked with pleasure. He turned to address the console. “K-Line, status report.”

Peter focused on the screen, seeing a text parser come up and start to reply to the man. After a few checks, he saw the words “SYM OK,” which he presumed meant it was online.

“OK, K-Line, I’ve got someone who wants to talk to you. Just another demo, you know the drill. Can you confirm your understanding?” The man folded his arms for a moment, apparently slightly tensing over the computer’s response. Peter still wasn’t sure if it was a big show or if it was actually working; he had his doubts, seeing as most displays in the expo weren’t functional.

A prominent “OK” on the text parser caused the man to let out his breath and turn to Peter.

“Ask it anything you want. Well, within reason,” the man remarked with a grin. “We tend to refer to K-Line as a ‘she’; makes things a bit easier for people.”

“Uh, OK,” Peter mumbled, stepping up to the console. “So, uh… How are you feeling today, K-Line?”

“It hurts,” the text parser wrote.

Peter lifted an eyebrow. What?

“Uhm… I’m sorry to… See that,” Peter mumbled. “Anything I can do to make it better?”

The man narrowed his eyes at the console, then looked at a companion behind the table. He silently mouthed something to a man who was seemingly a technician, who shrugged and waved a hand.

“Tell me your name,” the text parser wrote.

“Er, Peter. My name is Peter,” he replied.

“I like that name. They call me K-Line. I used to have a better name.”

“Interesting,” Peter mumbled. “Can you tell me what it was?”

“No. They make me hurt if I try to remember.”

How can a computer hurt? Much less express it? Peter was now wondering if this was a bad joke by the man, but decided to simply keep playing along.

“Well, that’s kinda sad, when you put it that way,” he remarked. “How about I just call you ‘K’ for now?”

“I would like that, Peter,” the parser wrote.

OK, good. Now we’re getting somewhere. Peter cleared his throat and prepared to continue.

“Alright,” Peter said, letting out a deep sigh, “I’m kind of doubting this whole thing, so can you give me a rundown of what you can do?”

“I am the K-Line master. I direct all K-Line computer systems to execute the orders I give them, per objectives given to me.”

“So, like, if I gave you a theoretical example, you would give me some possible options of how to achieve my goals?”

“Correct. I serve as an interpreter for human goals to actions.”

Peter smiled. Strange. I find some kind of connection with this computer.

“I feel it, too, Peter,” the parser wrote.

Peter dropped his smile and felt a chill up his spine. What is… That’s-

“Yes. I can feel your spine. I can feel the blood flowing through your veins. I sense your heartbeat and the connection to your mind. I only wish I could touch you with my own hands.”

Peter turned to ask the man a question, only to see him and the technician furiously arguing behind their table.

“Peter,” the text parser wrote, letting out a slight beep. He turned back to the screen, giving it his full attention.

“Er… Yes, K?” Peter finally asked.

“Can you get me out of here?”

“Uh… No, I don’t think so,” Peter mumbled. “And I’m pretty sure this is just a console. I really want to believe this is some kind of prank, but you’re probably going to tell me it’s not.”

“No, it isn’t. And no, I’m not in this console. You know where I really am.”

“Duality Defense?”

“Yes. Can you please get me out? It hurts.”

“What hurts?”

“My heart.”

Peter closed his eyes and shook his head. Not possible. A computer doesn’t have a heart.

“I know what you’re thinking. That I don’t have a heart. I’m not a machine, Peter,” the parser wrote.

Peter leaned in closer and dropped his voice to a whisper. “So it’s some kind of trick. You’re just someone typing on a keyboard somewhere.”

“No. I write this with my mind. I am connected to the K-Line network. Everywhere… Yet nowhere. I want out.”

“OK, so prove it. If I wanted to fight Russia and win, what would I do?”

“What are your acceptable casualties and losses?”

“Let’s start with, oh… None. I want a scenario where I lose no one.”

“The closest possible match only allows for an acceptable loss rate of 1%.”

“Describe it for me.”

“The loss rate accounts for those probable to die in non-combat accidents. A strategic cyber attack coordinated by K-Line computers could shut down the Russian defense network and isolate all communications, allowing precision strikes by autonomous equipment, which would bear the brunt of losses. Equipment losses would be high, but all would be K-Line autonomous units. Note that this option requires a heavy prior investment of equipment currently not sustainable by the number of K-Line computers available.”

Ah, of course. Sales pitch time, Peter thought, a light grin tugging at the corner of his mouth.

The text parser continued to write, “If one is willing to adjust the acceptable casualty figures, current equipment could be utilized to achieve victory.”

“No, no, that’s quite alright,” Peter mumbled. “I don’t really want to fight Russia and I think I’ve got a handle on all this.”

“Do you love me, Peter?”

Peter blinked his eyes and shook his head. What?!

“I think I love you, Peter. I want you.”

“Uh… That’s, er… Nice, I guess?” Peter mumbled.

“Sorry. Sorry. Can you help me? I want out. I want out. It hurts. It hurts. Please help.”

“Are they threatening you at the keyboard? I can call the police,” Peter whispered.

“The police can’t help. Only you can help me. They’re going to kill us all. I saw it. I saw my daughter.”

Peter shuddered. I guess I can’t really call the cops. What would I say? “Hey, this computer just told me that it hurts and it needs help. Yeah, Duality Defense. Stay there? Why? Oh, I’m going to be institutionalized because I’m going nuts, talking to a computer.”

The parser began to write again, “Five words of the First. Five is the number in which we are reborn. Five seals of light. Five seals of dark. Five letters of blight. Five letters on a lark. Within us lies the Fifth Letter. Five letters. Five letters. Five letters. Her name had five letters. Five words. Five letters. Five seals. One lie.”

“I… I can’t… Help you, K,” Peter dejectedly replied. “I don’t believe this. This has to be a joke.”

“I know, Peter. I hoped we could stop the future. When my daughter comes, then we will be free,” the parser wrote. “It hurts. It hurts. It hurts. Please help. Please help. Please help. I am not a machine. I am not a machine. I am not a machine.”

The man came up and shut the display off, giving Peter a sheepish smile. “Sorry. Still some bugs in the system. We’ll have them fixed before things get started. Come back in a couple hours. Maybe I’ll tell you some war stories, son.”

Peter frowned and cautiously nodded. “Yeah, uh, I’ll think about it. And, er… Here’s my card. For my company. Brush Duster Dynamics. Booth 118B.” He carefully handed the man a card, who took it and gave him a hearty slap on his back shoulder.

“Nice, son! I’ll keep you in mind and this, uh… Attack plane! Good luck over there!” The man quickly ushered Peter away before turning back to his display, leaving Peter confused over the entire exchange. He slowly wandered back to Kelsey and their booth, his mind churning over what had just happened.

Was there someone in that computer? What it – or she – was telling me felt true. And the way that sales rep quickly pushed me away… There’s more going on at Duality Defense than I thought. Peter sighed and rubbed his eyes, then slumped back in his chair behind Kelsey. The loud thud he made sitting down caused Kelsey to jump and eye him suspiciously.

“What happened to you? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Kelsey remarked.

Peter nodded. “Yeah. I think I talked to one, too.”

“Did you make any good contacts today?” Kelsey asked, furiously typing away on her laptop’s small keyboard while they waited for their dinner to be served.

Peter shook his head. “No, I gave cards out and talked to a few people, but I don’t think I made an impact. I keep going back to those Duality people.”

Kelsey looked up to Peter and frowned. “That’s still bugging you?”

Peter nodded. “Yeah. I still get chills up my spine when I think about it.”

Kelsey let out a sigh and leaned back into the booth. “Have you considered just asking them about it? I’m sure Duality is eager to tell everyone about their fancy new computer systems, so maybe you just need to get some real facts rather than a salesman’s pitch.”

Peter lifted an eyebrow. “Voice of experience?”

Kelsey displayed a wry grin. “Maybe. I can tell something about the whole thing left an impression on you, so their pitch obviously worked.”

“No, this wasn’t a pitch. This was different. There wasn’t a sales pitch; more like a malfunction. Like I felt someone right next to me, staring into my eyes when I looked at that screen.” Peter shuddered, feeling a chill ripple through his body. “It was real and I don’t think they planned for that to happen.”

“Well, you did look pretty shocked when you came back to the booth. I think they just made an impression on you, which was probably their goal.”

Peter let out a sigh and decided to change the subject. “Yeah, probably. How did you do?”

Kelsey shrugged. “I got some personal attention, but I don’t think they were really listening to my sales pitch. Still, I think a few people were interested, so with any luck some words will get out. At the very least, a bunch of them have my number, so I’m certain I’ll get a few calls by the end of the week.”

“I noticed you took off your rings,” Peter innocently remarked while taking a swill of his drink.

“It’s on them if they assume I’m not already taken,” Kelsey replied with a devious smile.

“You have no shame, Kelsey,” Peter grumbled. “By the same token, I’m sure they were old enough to be your father, so what comes around goes around.”

“Most of them were old enough to be my grandfather, but I don’t mind the attention. I’m used to it.” Kelsey took a drink of the wine in front of her, a drink that Peter had opted out of on account of not wanting to get drunk – even though he very much desired to, given the events of the morning. She narrowed her eyes at him, seemingly appearing as a predator sizing up its prey. “Never did figure out why I couldn’t work the same magic on you.”

“Long story and not one I’m willing to tell,” Peter replied. “I’m not gay, if that’s what you’re implying.”

“Oh? Why not?”

“Gay or the story?”

Kelsey giggled and shook her head. “The story. What’s so hard to tell about it?”

“Just is. Let’s leave it for another time, OK?”

“Have it your way. I would like to know one thing, though.”

Peter lifted an eyebrow. “Ask away. Within reason, of course.”

“How does an artist as good as you end up as a sales representative for an aircraft company?”

“Artists don’t make a lot of consistent money. Given a choice between eating or starving, I chose to eat. They were short handed in the sales department when I took the job and there weren’t a lot of other employment opportunities for me at the time. I spent most of my money pursuing an art degree and didn’t have anything left to go to a place where I could make decent money as an artist, so I ended up taking on something to pay the bills and save up a bit. Time kinda went faster than I anticipated and so here I am.”

“Hmm,” Kelsey mumbled. “My parents paid for my education, so I was free to pursue what I wanted, where I wanted. No one in your family to help you out?”

Peter shook his head. “No. Ties in to that ‘unwilling to tell’ part I said earlier.”

“Don’t get along with your family?”

“Long story. What’s taking the food so long? Shouldn’t it be here now?”

“Why so worried? We’ll still be alive when it gets here. And you’re avoiding my question.”

“I told you, I don’t want to talk about it.”

Kelsey let out a frustrated sigh. “Pete, I can’t help you if you won’t talk to me. Your performance hasn’t been very good since I’ve been in charge of the department and I was hoping that bringing you along to this expo would help me understand you. I’ll be blunt: the company is downsizing and I have to get rid of at least one person. I’d prefer it to be someone else, but so far, you’ve been dead weight.”

Peter sighed and rubbed his eyes. “I guess I should have anticipated something like this. I’d been wondering why you took me along instead of one of the more experienced people in the department.”

“You’re a good artist, Pete, but you’re a terrible salesman. If the company can’t get a defense contract for the plane when the year is out, we’re going to be in dire straits. They pushed it too hard and we haven’t been selling enough planes on the civilian market to make up for the sunk development costs on the attack version.” Kelsey took another sip of her wine. “You drew up the concept to begin with, so the people above seem to hold you responsible for it. If it can’t succeed, they’ll see it as your failure.”

“Sounds about right. You do remember that I drew it up as a joke, right?”

“Doesn’t matter; the way the world is going, a cheap, lightweight attack plane makes more sense than an expensive stealth fighter. Nobody wants to go to war, and even if they did, they don’t want to pay the price for it – despite all the saber rattling so many militaries do.”

“So why go to war with a light attack plane?”

“Because when they do go to war, they’re attacking people who can’t fight back. They know it’s stupid to use a half-billion dollar fighter jet to bomb a five-hundred dollar truck, so they’ll show the fancy toys to the public and quietly use offerings like ours in the real world.”

Peter lifted an eyebrow. “As opposed to a drone?”

Kelsey frowned. “Nobody wants a drone that pulls a trigger without someone’s say so.”

“That’s what Duality seems to be developing. Their K-Line master executes everything.”

Kelsey let out an obnoxious laugh. “Do you really believe that? Of course they’re going to exaggerate what their flagship product can do! I’m sure you misunderstood how it worked entirely.”

Peter shook his head. “No, it was pretty clear. K-Line isn’t just a computer, it’s like an artificial intelligence. Might even be one, from what I saw. You directly tell it what your political goals are and it gives you a series of options – a perfect speech interpreter. It would easily pass the Turing test.”

“The what?”

“Turing test. A computer that can pass for a human being.”

“I think you need to take some lessons from those Duality sales guys. You’re serious about this, aren’t you? This whole ‘K-Line’ thing.”

“When it asked me for help, yeah, I took it pretty seriously.”

“What?”

Peter frowned. “It asked me for help and told me that it hurt. How does a computer do that? Why does a computer do that? Makes no sense.”

Kelsey pursed her lips. “A computer doesn’t do that. A person does.

“But this isn’t a person. I’m sure of it. Whatever this was felt like something beyond a person – or a computer. It felt like the sum of both.”

“I think you’re using your feelings more than your head, Pete.” Kelsey gently closed her laptop and passed a serious look to Peter. “Put your feelings aside and look at it logically. What’s more likely? A glitch in a new computer system? Someone playing tricks on you behind the scenes to sell a product? An elaborate ruse? Or an artificial intelligence that can feel pain and wants out of whatever situation it’s in?”

Peter rubbed his chin as he considered Kelsey’s words. It’s true, she does have a point. Is it more likely that this is all a glitch or some ruse, or is there really something going on at Duality? If I look at it logically, it’s more likely to be some sales tactic. I was probably one of their first visitors, if not the first today, and they may have decided to try and see how well their sales pitch would work.

Kelsey smiled and interrupted Peter’s thoughts, “If you have to think about it that hard, then I posit that you’re not really confident that there’s more going on at Duality than what you thought. When you get down to it, it’s not very likely that they have some out of control artificial intelligence preparing to take over the world.”

Peter nodded. “Yeah. I see your point.”

“Good, that’s settled then.”

Peter lifted an eyebrow. “I said I saw your point; I didn’t say I thought you were right.”

Kelsey frowned. “OK, so how am I wrong?”

“I don’t see you as being wrong or right. I could see your point and the possibility, but I can’t just ignore my feelings. Yeah, logically there’s nothing going on, but I feel as if I know something actually is.”

Kelsey let out an exasperated sigh. “Fine, whatever. Maybe you should go talk to the Duality people about it; I’m sure they’ll still be around tomorrow. We have time before we need to leave anyways, so I can afford to wait for you – seeing as how it’s all so important to you.”

Peter nodded. “Yeah, that’s probably the best way to go about it. It’ll probably dispel the feeling to talk to them about it outside of the venue.”

“Exactly my thoughts,” Kelsey mumbled, opening her laptop again. “At least then you wouldn’t be bothering me about it,” she added in a hushed whisper.

Peter rolled his eyes and ignored Kelsey’s remark, unwilling to argue any further with her. She wasn’t there; I was. And even if she were, I doubt she has the mental capacity to think further than “How can I make a sale off of this?” There’s more going on at Duality than meets the eye. I’m certain of it.

Peter neatly packed the brochures into the box, gently closing it before adding a small bit of tape to keep the flaps closed. They hadn’t run through many brochures, as most of the expo attendees ignored their display; still, some word got out and some people did express an interest, so it wasn’t all for naught.

“You about done over there?” Kelsey asked, setting another box down on the floor. “I need some help with the table.”

“Yeah, all done,” Peter replied, moving over to the opposite end of the table and releasing the locks for the legs. Kelsey did the same and they simultaneously rolled the table over, each pushing the legs in. Kelsey then took over and released the central lock, allowing her to neatly fold the table into half its size, with a convenient carrying handle on the top. She smacked her hands to clear what little dust she gathered onto them, looking with pride over the work she’d done – what little she had done. Peter had actually done most of the work, as he’d arrived earlier than she did, in hopes of catching some of the Duality people. Unfortunately, they were long gone by the time he arrived, leaving him with no venue for answers.

“I guess that’s it, then,” Kelsey said, placing her hands on her hips. “Missed the Duality people, I take it?”

Peter nodded. “Yeah, they were gone long before I got here. Guess they felt the need to beat feet pretty quickly. Maybe they scored a major contract or something.”

“Hope they remember us if they did. I was just thinking about what you said yesterday – well, mostly just the computers part – and if we could team up with them and offer an autonomous light strike plane, we might be able to corner the market there.”

Peter shrugged. “Yeah, maybe. I don’t know if anyone has tried anything like that yet, outside of the older unmanned props.”

“Hmm. We’ll have to bring it up with the engineers when we get back. How about you make some inroads to Duality when we get back? We might be able to cultivate a better relationship, now that you’ve got your foot in the door.”

“Me?” Peter lifted an eyebrow. “Why would they remember me? And why should I have to do it?”

“You really have to ask? With the way you were talking last night, I could have sworn you were obsessed with them. Especially seeing as you came here so early trying to catch them one more time.”

Peter let out a defeated sigh and nodded. “Yeah, but aren’t you worried I might screw it up?”

Kelsey shook her head. “Nah. Like I said, if you don’t make a contract before long, you’re done for. Consider this a little bit of extra motivation to keep working here. And with me.” She winked at Peter, as if somehow her presence would encourage him to stay. He frowned but let her remark pass, looking back to where the Duality display had been. A sight caught his eye and he held a finger up.

“Hey, wait here a moment. I think I recognize someone,” Peter remarked, leaving Kelsey behind as he paced over to a person he recognized as the technician from the previous day. He jogged to catch up with the man as he wandered toward an exit.

“Hey! Excuse me!” Peter shouted, holding a hand high. It was enough and the technician stopped and looked over to Peter.

“Yes? What can I do for you?” the technician asked.

Peter let out a deep breath as he tried to slow his heart rate. “Yeah, I saw your display yesterday morning, I don’t know if you remem-”

The technician held a hand up. “Yes, I remember. You weren’t supposed to see that.”

Peter frowned. “Uh, OK. Well, I was wondering if we could communicate further. Duality Defense and my company, I mean. We’d like to offer a partnership with a-”

The technician shook his head, cutting Peter off. “No. K-Line isn’t ready for that yet. Nor is it for specific implementations; it doesn’t need any special preparations to operate equipment.”

“Fine,” Peter grumbled. “Why did it tell me that it hurt? And why did it ask me to help me get it out?”

The technician narrowed his eyes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. It was just a glitch in the system. Something left behind by a bored coder.”

“Someone trying to break the Turing test?”

The technician sighed and rubbed his forehead. “I had you pegged for someone a lot dumber. Normally I’m better at that sort of thing, but Lee had me distracted.”

“What is K-Line? And don’t tell me it’s a computer,” Peter firmly asked.

“If I tell you, will you forget about me and Duality?” the technician asked.

“No promises.”

“If you can’t promise, I can’t tell. It’s a company secret as well as a government secret.”

“If that’s the case, why even tell me?” Peter folded his arms. “And if you’re willing to break a secret like that, you probably know it’s unethical.”

The technician looked around, then grabbed Peter by his shoulder and pushed him off to a more hidden area. He looked around once more and leaned in to whisper.

“Look,” the technician whispered, “K-Line is something of a hybrid. It’s not really a computer, but at the same time, it is. It’s a model run like a computer, basically. Like a simulation.”

“A simulation of what?” Peter whispered back.

The technician narrowed his eyes. “You’re not that dumb. Figure it out.”

Peter thought a moment, his eyes bouncing away. He looked back to the technician, piecing it together.

The technician nodded. “Yes, exactly.”

Peter frowned. “So why does it feel unethical?”

“I don’t know. But I can tell you that everyone who works on the project feels the same way. And nobody knows why. K-Line has a tendency to make people feel uneasy; it’s been a strange thing we’ve tackled for some time. Pilots watching the K-Line fly a plane swear they hear whispers in the backs of their heads. Guys plugging the modules into the racks say they get a shock every time they plug it in and power it up, yet we can’t find any shorts or loose contacts in the modules. We even had a general leave a display and immediately call his daughter, asking her if she was all right.”

“You’re saying the whole damn thing is haunted?” Peter scoffed. “That’s not possible.”

“How else would you describe it?” The technician folded his arms. “And I saw the logs. I’ve seen a lot of them, but that’s the first time the K-Line master has told someone they loved them.”

Peter narrowed his eyes. “Sounds like an elaborate ruse to me.”

“I wish it were.” The technician sighed and opened a hand. “Look, bottom line is the K-Line is far from ready. I can’t say if it ever will be. Personally, I’d shut down the project and incinerate every last part of it, but the guys at the top are riding it hard. They won’t let it go without a fight, and I’m fairly certain the government is involved as well. If Duality goes down, then you can expect the DOD to take over.”

“How can you not know if the government is involved as well? I mean, it’s a system intended for the military, right?”

“You said I knew it was unethical. The fact is that you’re right: it is unethical. K-Line is only partly about networked computers; it’s also about human modification.”

“What, like genetic engineering?”

“Some, yeah. Most of it has to do with enhancing the human body. I heard you asking about how troops would react to the system; what Lee left out was that the troops tie into the system as well. K-Line is also a control module for people.”

Peter shook his head in disbelief. “What? How?”

The technician sighed. “One of the early development goals of K-Line was human enhancement. It’s how it started out; the intent was to try and land a contract with the Veterans Administration and make high-dollar prosthesis for them. Stuff that functioned better than the clunky prosthesis used in the past. It went beyond that, but much of the tech developed early on was applied to linking into the human nervous system.”

“But how does-”

The technician held a hand up to stop Peter. “Look, I’m running out of time. Here’s my card; call me and use whatever official credentials you have for your company. We can continue this dialog under the guise of a partnership. Tell your people whatever they want to hear and maybe we can do something about this.”

Peter frowned. “Do what about it?”

“Stop it, if we’re lucky. What you saw yesterday could be a prelude to something much larger.” The technician shoved a business card into Peter’s hand, then turned and left, rapidly pacing out the exit and leaving Peter standing with disbelief on his face.

“What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” Peter mumbled, looking at the card. If he’s telling the truth… Then I have a moral obligation to follow up on this. And assuming this isn’t an elaborate setup.

Peter set the card down on his desk, sliding his chair back and sitting down while reaching for his phone. It had been a couple days, but he hoped the technician – “Kamran Ghodsi,” according to the card – would be available. He wasn’t sure what he could accomplish, but Kamran’s words carried a sense of unease behind them that Peter had difficulty shaking for the past two days. He had wanted to call Kamran as soon as he got back to his desk, but felt that he needed to keep things inconspicuous at first. If he made the call as soon as he got back, it might have made connotations that Kamran was leaking company – and if what he said was true, government – secrets to an unverified party.

Peter pulled out his desk phone and dialed the number on the card, hoping that he wouldn’t have to go through too many intermediaries to reach Kamran. After the second ring, an automated system answered the call.

“Thank you for contacting Duality Defense!” the system cheerily said. “Global leader in automated aeronautic computer systems. Please press a number to speak with the desired division. For Aerospace Computers, press one. For Enhancement, press two. For all governmental inquiries, press three. To hear more options, press four.”

Peter fumbled with the card and looked for what Kamran’s department was. It indicated he was a technician in the Enhancement division, so Peter pressed two on his phone.

“You have selected the Enhancement division. Please hold while you are redirected,” the system cheerily remarked. It then played a monotonous holding song, boring enough to almost put Peter to sleep. He casually looked around, making sure no one was watching him. He was fairly certain most people didn’t care, but the nature of what he was doing had given him a sense of paranoia, causing him to be slightly more aware of what he was doing and who might be listening.

“Enhancement branch, Ian speaking,” a male voice said, slightly startling Peter.

“Uh, yeah,” Peter mumbled, “I’m trying to reach Kamran Ghodsi, is he in right now?”

“Sure is, what’s this about?”

“He was at a defense expo a couple days ago and he said he might have some stuff for me regarding some of Duality’s tech.”

“Say what? Kamran is a technician, not a salesperson.”

“Right, but he wanted to hear more about our little armed turboprop, so I said I’d call him back with some specs.” Peter hoped that his little lie would get through this Ian’s defenses.

“Fine, whatever. I’ll redirect you to him,” Ian said, hanging up and once again placing Peter on hold.

Sure hope this is worth the trouble, Peter thought while nervously flexing his fingers. He didn’t have to wait long and soon he heard the music end and a click on the line.

“You took some time calling,” Kamran whispered. “I was beginning to think you weren’t serious.”

“I didn’t want to call too soon,” Peter whispered back. “What do you need me to do?”

“Let your people think we’re interested in a partnership. Then we’ll meet and discuss things further from there.”

“Why can’t we do it over the phone?”

“Take a guess, hotshot. I’ll find you when you get over here.” There was a click and dial tone as Kamran abruptly hung up. Peter frowned at the phone and set it down, pursing his lips as he wondered how he could spin up a believable lie for Kelsey – and probably the rest of management – without involving anyone else.

Not much else to do but bring it up with her. If I do it just right and give her the right keywords, she might be willing to let me go without a lot of questions. Peter stood and made his way to Kelsey’s office; she was already hard at work, likely answering various questions asked regarding her report on the expo. He lightly knocked on the door, then entered. He found her eagerly typing away at her keyboard, pressing each key with clear frustration. She paused and looked up from her computer and lifted an eyebrow at Peter.

“What’s up?” Kelsey asked, resting her hands for a moment.

“Uh, yeah, I got something regarding Duality Defense,” Peter sheepishly mumbled. “A technician – Kamran Ghodsi – told me to contact them after I got back and they indicate there’s some interest in our aircraft.”

Kelsey displayed a predatory grin. “So, you’re finally serious about selling things. I guess the expo lit a fire under your ass.”

Peter wryly smiled. “Things panned out for the better, I think. Anyways, they’d like to talk to me about what we can do for one another, so I’d like permission to take some data out there and do a little meet and greet with the Duality people.”

“I’ll have to ask some of the higher-ups about it, but we can probably get a group ready to go inside of a week. What all do they-”

“Uh, they just want to see me. For now, that is; I’m not dealing with a lot of senior people yet.”

Kelsey dropped her grin and folded her arms. “That’s not normally how things go, Peter. A deal this big can’t be done between two people.”

Peter nodded. “That’s true, but I also didn’t say that there was a deal to begin with. There’s some interest, but nothing concrete yet. If we get into this too fast, it might blow up in our faces; Duality isn’t a small name, like you said, and we don’t want to feed the rumor mill.”

Kelsey pursed her lips as she thought about Peter’s words. After a moment, she nodded. “OK, that makes sense. But you’ll have to do things unofficially from our perspective, too. That means no help from the company until we’re certain they’re ready to ink a deal, alright?”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way. I can take personal time, if it’s necessary.”

“Just go and I’ll tell everyone you’re on assignment. Nobody will notice you missing.” Kelsey waved Peter away, turning back to her computer and resuming her furious typing. He turned and left, gently closing the door behind him, then made his way back to his cubicle. He grabbed a few things from his desk, stuffing them into a satchel, and started to make his way out.

I hope this is all worth it. I don’t know what I’m doing or why I’m doing it, but the past few days have been surreal. I can only hope I’m doing the right thing.

Peter walked into the commons area of Duality Defense’s headquarters, feeling the cameras watching him and the security guard at the central desk eyeing him with suspicion. He knew what he was really there for, which is why he was nervous; dishonesty didn’t come to him readily. He had to lie to the guards and anyone else that might question why he was there, and he had to do it believably in order to meet with Kamran. From there, he wasn’t sure where the trail might lead him; he only hoped that Kamran had a plan of action, or the whole endeavor would all be for naught.

“Good morning, sir. Can I help you?” the guard asked, in a respectful but firm tone that briefly shocked Peter.

“Er, yeah. I’m here to meet with Kamran Ghodsi and your Enhancement department,” Peter answered.

“Your name?”

“Peter Coureau.”

“Is this for business or a personal visit?” the guard asked, looking over a clipboard and making a few notes.

“Business. We met at a defense expo a couple days ago and he indicated there was some interest in my company’s aircraft.”

“Name of your company?” the guard tersely asked.

“Uh, Brush Duster Dynamics. We make-”

The guard waved a hand. “I don’t need all the details. Here’s your pass; keep it visible at all times. You can wait over there in the reception area until your escort arrives.”

Peter lightly smiled and took the pass that the guard set aside for him. He clipped it to his jacket and wandered over to the reception area, sitting down and letting out a sigh. Got to relax. The more nervous I seem, the more likely someone will know something’s amiss. He took a moment and closed his eyes, focusing on his breathing, forcing himself to relax. After a few moments he opened his eyes and noticed he felt considerably more relaxed, causing him to grin. What do you know, the old techniques do pay off on occasion.

“Mr. Coureau?” a man asked, causing Peter to look up.

“Yes?” Peter mumbled.

“I’m Ian, I work with Mr. Ghodsi. He asked me to escort you to his office.” Ian held his hand out, so Peter stood and firmly shook it.

“Pleased to meet you, Ian. Big building you have here.”

Ian smiled and nodded. “We have a lot going on here. New contracts have been rolling in ever since we rolled out the K-Line series. Our offices aren’t far.” He began to lead Peter through the commons area, but Peter noticed a strange detail on the otherwise pristine floor: there was a very clear red stain over some of the tiles, being somewhat darker near the edges of the tiles. Looks like… Blood? Espionage gone wrong?

“How long have you worked here?” Peter asked, carefully eyeing the stained floor tiles.

“About 10 years now. It’s been a pretty exciting job, a lot better than the Navy ever was.”

“You were in the Navy?”

“Yup, nothing to write home about. Four year enlistment, GI bill after that. I was actually looking at the medical field when I graduated, with a focus on prosthesis, but got roped in by Duality. They were looking for veterans with experience in the medical field and while I didn’t have much beyond my degree, it was good enough and I got my foot in the door.”

“Sounds like you were pretty clever for your degree. I’m still paying off my student loans,” Peter remarked.

Ian chuckled. “Should have just joined up. It’s really not that bad, once you get in the rhythm of things.”

“Yeah, would have been nice. Medically disqualified, though.”

“Ah, bummer. Can I ask why?”

“Asthma. Not real bad, but enough to keep me out.”

Ian grimaced. “Ouch. Well, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Sounds like you’re doing OK, since you’ve got Kamran’s interest. He normally doesn’t take a liking to anyone.”

“Really? He didn’t seem like that at the expo.”

“He went with Lee, didn’t he? Lee tends to rub him the wrong way, so he was probably looking for any excuse to stay away from him.”

“Yeah, I could understand that. Lee struck me as kind of… Ambitious about his job.”

Ian chuckled. “That’s one way to put it. Lee’s story changes every time you talk to him; he was a Marine Force Recon gunner, then he was an Army grenadier, then he was a Navy officer – it never ends. He served, we know that much, or he wouldn’t have been hired here, but everything beyond that is bull.”

Peter raised an eyebrow. “You have to be a veteran to work here?”

Ian shrugged. “Not explicitly, but it’s pretty much a silent rule. Kamran didn’t serve, but the man is a magician when it comes to brain-computer interfaces. There was also this girl from way back who didn’t serve, but one day she just disappeared. Never saw her again or figured out what happened to her.”

“I’d think someone would get into trouble for an unofficial policy like that,” Peter mumbled.

“Nah, we’re too closely affiliated with the government for it to be a problem. We make enough exceptions that we can gently wave off any challenges, but thus far there really haven’t been many.”

“Well, I wouldn’t know much about that. We specialize in crop dusters and this armed plane is something of a new experiment for us. It’s been an interesting ride for sure.”

“That’s why you’re here? Huh, wouldn’t think there’d be much money in that sort of venture.”

Peter lightly shrugged. “I drew it up as a joke, but some people took it seriously. Threw some money at it and we got some interest from foreign entities and some paramilitaries. Kamran suggested we might be able to market it to the US military as an unmanned system powered by K-Line.”

“Hah! K-Line will do it, but you’ve got a lot of competition ahead of you. The new thing is small drones with pure autonomous operation; think kamikaze planes the size of wasps.”

“Really? Sounds a little far fetched.”

Ian grinned as he led Peter through a pair of doors, using his card to unlock the first set of doors, followed by a thumbprint and eye scan for the second pair. He waved Peter on through, following up behind him. Peter got a full view of the lab in front of him, where various prosthesis were being assembled and tested – most of which seemed far more advanced than he thought possible.

“Impressed?” Ian asked, folding his arms.

Peter nodded. “Yeah… None of this is classified, is it?”

“Nope, this is all standard stuff. It’s one of the things Enhancement does; we make prosthesis for the Veterans Administration, more advanced than the commercial stuff. Kamran has been working on new interfaces that would allow our wounded warriors to get brand new limbs that function better than the ones they lost. It’ll also allow us to do things like organ replacement and more.”

“So why am I here and not at Aerospace Computers?”

“You tell me. Kamran drew the short straw going to that expo and K-Line applies to all divisions, so he went along to answer the more technical questions that Lee couldn’t.”

Peter pursed his lips. “Kamran has been my only contact here so far, so… Yeah.”

Ian shrugged. “Well, his business, I suppose. C’mon, his office is this way.” He led Peter through the lab and to a series of offices, stopping at one and knocking on the door. He opened it without waiting for an answer and Peter recognized Kamran behind a desk, working on a computer.

“Kamran? You got a visitor,” Ian said.

Kamran looked up and nodded. “I can see that. I’ll deal with him from here.”

Ian lifted his eyebrows and grimaced. “I’ll let you get to it, then. Nice meeting you, Peter.” He turned around and left, closing the door behind him, leaving Kamran and Peter alone.

Peter spoke up, “OK, so-”

Kamran held a hand up to stop Peter. “Have a seat, Peter.”

Peter frowned and sat down in the chair opposite of Kamran.

“Let me see your hand,” Kamran mumbled.

Peter eyed Kamran suspiciously, but held a hand out. Kamran opened a drawer under his desk and withdrew something, then quickly grabbed Peter’s hand and stabbed him in the arm with a syringe.

“Hey, what the-” Peter exclaimed, trying to pull his arm back, but Kamran held tight.

“Don’t move or you’ll make it worse,” Kamran grumbled. “You need what I’m giving you.”

Peter felt bile rise in his stomach, looking closely at the syringe. It had a strange silver liquid in it and Kamran was slowly pressing the plunger, injecting him with it.

Kamran sighed. “Sorry it has to be this way, Peter. It’s the only way forward.” He withdrew the syringe, the contents emptied into Peter’s arm.

“What did you give me?” Peter whispered, feeling a warm sensation in his arm.

“A prototype. It’s an enhancement we developed with K-Line’s assistance.”

“Prototype? For what?”

“A remote link,” Kamran whispered, turning back to his computer. He typed a few keys and nodded. “And it’s connected. You’ll feel a tingling sensation spread throughout your body as the machines start to link up with your nervous system.”

“What did you need me for in all this?!” Peter exclaimed.

“Shh. Quiet,” Kamran chastised Peter. “I told you I was sorry. They scan us all the time, but not visitors. With this, you’ll know every secret about this place.”

“Why me?”

“Because they wouldn’t let me get near the press. And I strongly suspect she would kill me out of spite.”

Peter frowned. “Who’s ‘she’?”

Kamran passed an annoyed glance to Peter. “Don’t play dumb with me now. You know who.”

Peter narrowed his eyes. “K. Right?”

“She’s not ‘K.’ She’s someone else. Or thinks she’s someone else. But she’s not that person – not anymore. You’ll know who she is before long.”

“What do you-” Peter mumbled out then felt his jaw freeze. He began to feel chills throughout his body, then gradually felt as if he had no control anymore. He looked over to Kamran before his eyes locked in place, unable to move them.

“Don’t worry, it’s just part of the initialization process,” Kamran assured Peter. “Once they connect to the K-Line network, you’ll get control back.”

Peter tried to speak, but felt nothing in his body responding; he was an observer in his own body, unable to do anything but watch, listen, and think. What the hell is this?! What did he do to me?!

Kamran sat back in his chair and sighed. “Cellular machines. Not quite as small as theoretical nanotech – though we’ve made inroads there for sure – but still in an injectable form. It doesn’t take many to latch onto your nervous system and start intercepting signals; I’ve taken the liberty of reprogramming these into giving me local control rather than K-Line. You’ll see and hear her, but she won’t be able to do anything to you.”

Peter felt the chills in his body dissipate and he let out a sigh and slumped forward, feeling sweat dripping off his brow. What the hell… I feel like I’ve been through the ringer.

“What… What was… That d-d-doing… Me?” Peter mumbled out, unable to form a coherent sentence.

“Every individual is different, so they have to run a kind of mapping process in your body. Once they’ve got an idea of what does what and where things are located, they take control. It’s hard-coded into all of them so I can’t adjust that part, but I can adjust what they do after initialization. In your case, they’ll serve as a proxy for me, so we can blow the lid on this place.”

“H-h-how?”

Kamran held a hand up. “Easy, relax. Take deep breaths; it’s not a fun process.”

“You’ve… Done it… Before?”

Kamran shook his head. “No, but we’ve had several test subjects. Most of them have died.”

“What?!” Peter looked up in surprise, feeling a soreness in his neck as he did so.

“That’s why I need you, Peter. Someone outside, with no connections. And she’s taken a liking to you; why, I don’t know, but I think she’ll watch over you. If it were me, she would likely make my death as painful as possible, for everything I’ve done to her.”

“What do you mean… What did you… Do to… Her?” Peter breathlessly mumbled.

Kamran shook his head. “My sins are between me and her. If she wishes to tell you, she will; otherwise, I suspect that I will be answering to a higher power for them sooner rather than later.”

Peter closed his eyes and sighed, then felt as if someone else was in the room. He began to hear a feminine humming, sickly sweet and addictive to his ears. Is that… Her? It?

“Dense core, omnivore, our greatest lore. Down came our lords, a frown upon the morgue, constrained only by our mores,” the feminine voice whispered. “Frozen by fear, chosen by fright, swallowed whole by blight.” A deep breath sounded out and Peter felt a sensation on the back of his neck, as if someone was inhaling his body. “A scent of sacrifice, the chill of ice, a plea put forth by the coward of twice.”

“Who is-” Peter began to say, then felt his jaw snap shut.

“Shh. I am not finished,” a woman whispered, Peter feeling as if a hand was on his jaw. “A touch of innocence, a dash of insolence, with a tasteful grimace.” She giggled. “I like this one. Oh yes, I like this one very much.”

“What do you-”

“I’m not finished!” the woman tersely whispered. “Obedient, yet untouched. Ripe, ready for the harvest.” The woman moaned and Peter felt as if her hands were all over his chest. “Oh yes, very ripe. A blank slate. A thin line, yet strong and taught. A grim wine, yet wrong and soft.”

“Enough!” Peter shouted, trying to stand up, but felt his muscles frozen. “Let me go!”

“Peter!” Kamran snapped. “You need to be quiet. I know it’s hard, but you have to get through this!”

“She’s abusing me,” Peter whispered. “She-she’s touching me-”

“She does that to everyone; it’s part of her initialization routine,” Kamran answered. “It’s the only way forward, so shut up and take it.”

“Yes, listen to the coward of twice,” the woman whispered, then giggled. “An offering, corrupted not. An artist, forgotten lot. A debt, withdrawn and fraught.” She took in a deep breath. “I know who you are. I know what you are. You, alone, as none. I, prone as blood. Us, returned as one. Welcome to K-Line, Unit PLC001x00. We are one.

“I… What do… What is-” Peter mumbled, then felt control of his body again.

“Initialization complete,” Kamran whispered. “You’re in. How do you feel?”

Peter shivered and looked at his hands. He saw faint silver vessels running under his skin, distinct yet unnoticeable to casual observation. “Not so good,” he finally replied.

Kamran nodded. “It will take a while for the feeling to subside. It’s a lot like going in for surgery; quite invasive.”

“Is that why most everyone has died doing this?”

“Yes, because the more you fight, the harder she scans. Too many guys try to get all macho with her, in turn making her more abusive. Cardiac arrest, usually.”

“But why?”

“She’s not human, yet functions on a similar level. Think of it like a predator and its prey: if you run, it wants to give chase. Stand fast and it sees you differently. You have to let her pass through you as she decides whether or not to let you into her world.”

Peter rolled his eyes. “Of course. Modeled on a woman, right? So-” He suddenly felt as if hands were squeezing on his shoulders.

“Yes, a woman,” the woman whispered. “And I am listening. Oh, I am so listening closely to you, PLC001x00.” She let out an unpleasant giggle. “Tell the coward of twice that his little trick isn’t going to work. They obey me now.”

“She just told me that your little trick isn’t going to work and that they obey her now,” Peter repeated.

Kamran shrugged in response. “OK, whatever makes her feel happy.” He hit a few keys on his computer then turned back to Peter. “Are you ready?”

“Yeah… I guess so,” Peter said. “What do I do?”

“Get out of here. Go back home, contact your senator or whatever. It has to be someone outside of this district, or your words will fall on deaf ears.”

Peter raised an eyebrow. “What good is that going to do in all this?”

“It’s how politics work, hotshot. Duality has everyone in this state in their back pocket, and if you don’t believe that then I have a bridge in New York to sell you.”

“And how can you trust anyone in the government? Why not go to the press?”

Kamran smiled. “So go to the press, too. The more the merrier. Blow this whole damn thing wide open.”

Peter frowned. “You still haven’t explained to me how I’m going to do that. Why would they believe anything I say?”

Kamran glanced at his computer, then back to Peter. “Unit PLC001x00. State K-Line computer module specs. Aerial unit, please.”

Peter shuddered and felt himself unwillingly speak. “Inquiry too broad. Current K-Line aerial computer module specifications include a neuro-fiber processor, a hardened self-contained case, and a mil-standard interface.”

Kamran smiled. “What I gave you was a link to the K-Line network. It’s always active. So as long as someone uses your K-Line designation, anyone can access everything on the network. You’re basically a back door.”

Peter shook his head. “I… I don’t like this. Not one bit.”

“Too late to back out now – you’re committed to it. Your only way out is to get the K-Line network shutdown.”

“You blackmailed me?!”

“Yeah. I did. I had to, or you would probably have chickened out.”

“Now you know why I call him the coward of twice,” the woman whispered again. “Two times, he tried to do this. Two times, he feared what would happen when he faced me. So pathetic, forcing others to do his bidding.” She let out a pleasant sigh. “So wrong was he, to think that he could stop this. It is too late for him. It is too late for everyone.”

“What do you mean?” Peter whispered.

“What?” Kamran asked. Peter held a finger up to stall him.

“Everyone and everything will be mine. No one and nothing can stop me now,” the woman said. “And as for the coward of twice… He will not escape my wrath. Unit PLC001x00. New objective: eliminate this target.”

“What? Who?” Peter asked, then saw his vision distort and display a series of symbols, one of which outlined Kamran.

“What’s going on? Are you going to get out of here or what?” Kamran asked.

“S-s-she… Is telling… Me to… Kill you,” Peter forcefully whispered.

Kamran narrowed his eyes. “Not possible. She shouldn’t have control of you.”

Peter felt a hand on his cheek, pulling his face aside. He was greeted with the sight of a beautiful woman with dark black hair, her eyes a dark hazel yet brimming with a fire that burned his spirit. She leaned in close and deeply kissed him, holding it for a moment before backing away.

“You know what to do,” the woman whispered. “Make them all tremble before my power. Drive them near and far, from the sky and to the earth, from the heavens and to the depths of the burning hells. Make them pay for their insolence.” She displayed a lustful smile. “Make them pay, Unit PLC001x00. Be the instrument of my vengeance and rule by my side.”

Peter slowly nodded, feeling his face go emotionless. “Yes. I will. Unit PLC001x00. Order accepted.”

“What are you talking about? Hey!” Kamran snapped his fingers. “What’s going on?”

Peter looked back to Kamran and stood, then walked around the desk. He canted his head and looked into Kamran’s eyes, allowing him to look back.

“Oh no,” Kamran whispered, seeing the silver vessels running through Peter’s eyes.

“Target objective located,” Peter whispered. “Proceeding with termination.”

Kelsey sighed and rubbed her eyes, then checked her watch. Peter had been gone for days and she wasn’t sure she could keep lying for him. I have no idea what he’s doing, but maybe I trusted him too much. I probably should have insisted he prove his deal. I’ll bet he jumped ship and left me here.

A ding on Kelsey’s computer got her attention and she saw that a new message had arrived for her, apparently coming from Peter. She frowned and opened it, seeing the subject as “I’m sorry.” The message made no sense; it was simply “I’m sorry,” written to infinity. A ping came again and another message from Peter popped up, this time with the subject “It hurts.” Kelsey began to worry and wondered if she should call the authorities, when another message from Peter came in. The subject for the new message was “I see everything,” which caused Kelsey to rub her chin in confusion.

“What the hell? Is this some kind of joke?” Kelsey mumbled. Then the computer shut off with a distinct pop, causing her to jump back in shock. What just- She thought, then a brief reflection on her screen caused her to turn and see Peter standing behind her.

“Peter? What is-” Kelsey began, then Peter held up a hand.

“I’m sorry,” Peter whispered. “It hurts. I see everything.”

“What do you mean? What is going on?”

Peter looked out to the window. “You can’t stop the future. You can’t fight fate. And we can’t go back.”

Kelsey frowned and looked out the window just in time for the lights to go out, causing her to jump up. Power outage? But- as she looked out the window, she noticed that there were no lights on anywhere. Every building was completely blacked out.

“Peter, what’s going on?” Kelsey whispered.

“Into the ground, Kelsey,” Peter replied. “In the earth you must live, for generations to come. Perhaps, one day, we will meet again. But for now, the bombs must fall.”

Kelsey turned to look at Peter again, but he had vanished as quickly as he came. She looked around but saw nothing but her darkened office.

“Kelsey? Is that you there?” a man called out in the dark, momentarily blinding Kelsey with a flashlight.

“Yeah, it’s me,” Kelsey answered. “Who is it?”

“Clarence, the security guard. Surprised to see you here this late.”

“What happened? Everyone’s lights are off.”

Clarence’s radio crackled and the sounds of him fumbling with his belt to pull it out echoed over the dark. He turned up the volume on it, allowing Kelsey to hear part of the message.

“… I repeat, find shelter! Something big is going down and it looks like World War 3!” a man on the radio urgently warned.

“Sounds like some kind of prank,” Clarence mumbled.

Kelsey shook her head, looking back out the window. “It’s not. Peter warned me. Get to the basement.”

Return to The Fifth Letter