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Day Two Hundred and Forty-six: Walkthrough 3

January 25, 2012 2 comments

Read Part One
Read Part Two

—————

…THREE…FOUR…FOUR…THREE. GOOD. The lock clicked quietly and Shane reached for the knob.

THERE’S A PIT TRAP AS SOON AS YOU GO THROUGH, the AI said. SO BE SURE YOU TAKE A RUNNING JUMP.

Shane pulled open the door and looked at the room beyond. This sequence of rooms looked very different from the ones before. Gone was the Abandoned Mansion motif, and the Haunted Forest that followed. This section looked like an underground bunker, all concrete and steel and water damage. There was always something dripping, lights flickering feverishly, signs reminding all employees to obey all printed signs and notices. He wondered who had worked there and what had happened to them. The AI might know, but it wasn’t telling.

The room beyond the door looked perfectly normal, at least as far as the place went. A concrete floor, some prefab metal racks along the side of the room cluttered with boxes and satchels. He was pretty sure there would be ammo there. Maybe an aid kit.

“You sure about this trap?” he asked. “The floor looks fine to me.”

There was a moment of quiet before that AI said, WELL, I HAVE THE FULL SCHEMATICS OF THE BASE, AND IF YOU WANT EIGHT FEET OF SHARPENED STEEL SPIKES TO TURN YOU INTO HAMBURGER, GO RIGHT AHEAD. If Shane didn’t know better, he would have said that the AI was annoyed. To its credit, it hadn’t been wrong about anything yet. It had told him what to expect in each room, given him access codes, and warned him when he was straying into danger. When Shane asked why it was helping him, the fatherly voice simply said that Shane’s theory interested it.

Shane wasn’t too sure how much water his “theory” would hold, but if it kept him alive for a while he could deal with it.

He took a few steps back, breathed deeply, and ran through the doorway, launching himself into the air as he did so. That familiar tingle ran through his body again as he sailed over the threshold. He hit the floor hard, and felt it give way under his heel. A quick step forward, and he was able to regain his balance. Turning around, he saw the pit, exactly as the AI described it. The flickering sconces on the wall illuminated the spikes, long and barbed and terrifying. “Jesus,” he said. “They really wanted to keep people away, didn’t they?”

THEY DID INDEED, the AI said.

Shane looked around the room. “Why?” he asked. There wasn’t much here – just a few long workbenches, a frosted window, and a cabinet by the door – but he was already getting ready for another attack.

The AI was silent for a moment. I’M AFRAID WE’RE ABOUT TO ENTER THE ZOMBIE PORTION OF THE FACILITY, it said. THERE IS EXTRA AMMUNITION IN THE CASE UNDER THE BENCH. TAKE AS MUCH AS YOU CAN CARRY.

“Shit,” Shane said. Just as he started tearing open boxes, he heard the low, animal moaning of the zombies on the other side of the door. The AI was right about the ammo. There were hundreds of rounds in there, a couple of extra guns, and – miracle of miracles – a bandoleer of grenades. He slung that across his chest and stuffed his pockets with loose rounds and full magazines. The zombies were pounding on the door now, and he could see their shadowy figures through the glass. “Think you can give me a hand?” he shouted into the air.

I COULD OPEN UP SOME OF THE TRAPS, the AI said. It sounded uncertain, which didn’t make Shane feel better. BUT I CAN’T PROMISE THAT I’D BE ABLE TO RESET THEM TO ALLOW YOU TO PASS.

“Well,” Shane said, slapping a fresh magazine into his handgun, “do your best. How many chambers before we meet face-to-face?”

THREE, the AI said. AND THEY’RE CURRENTLY FULL OF FLESH-HUNGRY UNDEAD. It paused. THOUGH TO BE TECHNICAL ABOUT IT, I DON’T HAVE A FACE. BUT I KNOW WHAT YOU MEAN, it said before Shane could respond.

The zombie noise was getting louder. He wasn’t sure if the window was as impenetrable as all the other ones had been, but he was sure that all he’d really have to do was open the door. He cocked his gun and repeated, “Headshot. Headshot” to himself as he reached out and gripped the doorknob.

GOOD LUCK.

“Thanks.” Shane flung the door open.

*****

The fight against the zombies seemed to both go on forever and take no time at all. Shane knew where they would come from, how fast they would move, and for each zombie there was a bullet. One, right in the head. He waded through them slowly, carefully, dropping them one at a time. When he ran out of ammo, he would switch guns, but he always seemed to know when a wave of the walking dead would ebb so that he could reload. He walked into the best cover spots without even thinking about it, and several times even managed to drop zombies from around the corner without looking.

It was like he’d trained in this specific battle over and over again.

He wasn’t entirely sure that he hadn’t.

The floor was slick with coagulated blood and spattered brains, and Shane wasn’t even breathing hard. The hallway was silent. The walking dead were down.

There was a great vault door in front of him, this time without a keypad. It just had a blank palm reader. Shane tugged off a glove and set his hand against it. The reader hummed for a moment and then blinked red. A moment later, the air vents opened and a pale yellow gas began to flow. His lungs burned and his eyes clenched shut as he fell to the ground.

*****

Shane stood among the corpses, staring at the giant door that had been set into the wall at the end of the corridor. He looked at the palm reader next to it, and a bolt of suspicion shot through him. “Hey,” he said. “Any idea what to do with this?”

YOU NEED THE CORRECT PALM, the AI said.

“You can’t open it for me?”

I’M AFRAID NOT, it said. THERE ARE CERTAIN SECURITY PROTOCOLS THAT I CANNOT BREACH. NOT WITHOUT SOME PHYSICAL REPROGRAMMING.

“Okay,” Shane said. “So where the hell am I supposed to get the right palm?” He looked around the room. There were zombies everywhere, in various states of decay. All of them were in either a military uniform or what used to be an expensive suit. Whatever they were wearing, it was torn and filthy at this point, but it told Shane what he needed to know: all of these people used to be important to whatever organization this was.

He found the body with the fanciest uniform and the most stripes on its shoulder. His knife sliced through the rotting flesh and fragile bone quickly enough, and he hoped there was enough skin left on it to activate the palm scanner.

The scanner hummed, tracing the outline of the hand, and then let out a cheerful beep. ENTRY PERMITTED. WELCOME, MAJOR POSSO.

Major Posso. Shane tossed the man’s hand aside as the door began to open.

He wasn’t sure what he expected from the room where the AI was housed. The science fiction games of his youth seemed to want the place to be a vast throne room, with an evil-looking robot in the center. It would be surrounded by terrible and ferocious weapons, which you could only defeat if you played the game over and over again, knowing when they would fire and what their patterns were.

Shane hadn’t played those games in a long time. It was not a coincidence that they were on his mind as he walked into the AI’s chambers.

SO, it said. HERE YOU ARE.

“Yup,” Shane said. He looked around for a while, trying to find the core to the machine. Trying to find its face. “Where are you?” he asked.

The AI chuckled. I’M ALL OVER THIS ROOM. TECHNICALLY, THERE IS NO “ME” TO BE ANYWHERE.

“Oh,” Shane said. The disappointment was childish, but it was there nonetheless. “So. Here we are.”

There was no sound in the room but the humming of machines. No deadly laser arrays, no machine guns or guided missiles. No electrified floors or pit-traps. It was cold, but that was just air conditioning.

He sat down on the floor, his back against a large bank of processors. “What happens now?” he asked.

The AI was quiet for a while. IF YOUR THEORY IS RIGHT, it said, YOU HAVE TO DESTROY ME. IT’S THE ONLY WAY TO WIN.

Shane looked up. “You believe me, then?”

THAT THIS IS SOME KIND OF GAME? The computer couldn’t shrug, but somehow the shrug was in its voice. IT COULD BE. ON THE OTHER HAND, IT COULD BE THAT YOU ARE SIMPLY A VERY LUCKY, TALENTED, AND OBSERVANT SOLDIER.

“Believe me,” Shane said. “No one’s that lucky. Besides, it fits. Why was there only one path to this room? Why even make that route a constant survival course?” He gestured to the door. “I mean, a palm lock isn’t the absolute best security, but it’s pretty damn good. There’s no reason for zombies and cyborg dogs and carnivorous plants.” He shivered. “Not unless the whole point isn’t to beat you, but just the experience of getting through intact.”

TRUE. IT WOULDN’T BE MUCH OF A GAME IF ALL YOU HAD TO DO WAS GET PAST A PALM LOCK.

Shane nodded. “And there’s nothing in here that can stop me from destroying you, so -”

He stopped as the humming in the room became louder. A rash of red dots appeared on his chest, and he scrambled to his feet. They seemed to pin him to the wall. I’M NOT WITHOUT DEFENSES, the AI said. I JUST CHOSE NOT TO EMPLOY THEM. The lights winked out, and Shane could breathe again. He started when a cabinet opened up. LET’S GET THIS OVER WITH, the AI said.

“You sure?”

I HAVE A BACKUP IN ANOTHER LOCATION, it said. IF THIS IS A GAME, THEN PERHAPS THAT’S THE OPENING FOR THE SEQUEL. Shane grimaced and pulled a multi-tool out of a pouch. A small panel slid open, revealing a large processing chip that was seated on a vast array of cooling fans and chipsets.

“This is it?” he asked.

INSOFAR AS THERE IS AN “IT” FOR ME TO BE? YES.

“Okay.” Shane flipped out a thin knife blade and looked for a place to wedge it under the chip.

WAIT.

Shane looked up. “What?”

The AI was quiet for so long that Shane was worried he had already gone offline. Then it said, IF THIS IS A GAME – WHO IS PLAYING YOU?

The thought took Shane aback for a moment. He had thought about it, in an abstract way. If he was right, and everything here was a game, then someone was playing him. Someone was putting him through trial after trial, death after death, and pushing him to his end. Until now, when he somehow managed to take control.

He wondered if the player was watching him, wondering why the game didn’t work right anymore. Or maybe the game was just paused. Maybe it had been put away, and he was living in some weird other-world where fictional characters went when no one was watching. The whole idea started to make his head hurt.

“I don’t know,” he said. “But if I meet him, I’m gonna kick his ass.” He positioned the knife again. “You ready?”

I’M READY, SHANE GRODSKI. AND FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH, I HOPE YOU’RE WRONG.

That made him pause. “Wrong? Why?”

There was humor in the computer’s voice. WHAT HAPPENS TO THE CHARACTERS WHEN THE GAME IS OVER, SHANE? it asked.

Through gritted teeth, Shane replied. “They get to rest.”

The processing chip came out of its board with a little effort. He held it in his hand as the lights flickered and dimmed around him. Then the automatic systems kicked in, and error messages popped up across all the screens in the room. He tossed the chip in the air and let it fall. Just for good measure, he crushed it under his heel.

“That’ll do it,” he said. He looked around. “So. What now?”

The lights started to wink out, one by one. Soon, Shane was alone in the darkness, with only the hum of a crippled machine. And soon, even that was gone.

*****

Shane opened his eyes and tightened his grip on the gun. He was standing in the front entryway of an old, disused weapons lab. He looked at the door in front of him, with its peeling varnish and its brass doorknob, and his heart sank. But he didn’t know why.

He pulled the door open and started arranging the lockers in front of the door. He had a long way to go, that much he knew.

Time to get going.

Day Two Hundred and Forty-five: Walkthrough 2

January 24, 2012 1 comment

Read Part One

——–

Shane stared at the door. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been staring at it, but he thought it was a long time. Days, maybe. Years. He had no idea.

Nothing changed in this place except the place itself. He’d walk through a door, and almost immediately something would try to kill him. Sometimes he would evade it through sheer luck or skill. Sometimes he would get past the murderous devices by just… knowing they were there.

But how did he know? He glanced back at the corpses of the three cyborg wolves that he had killed after he came in the room. The moment he came through the door, he had started shooting, and every shot hit. When the lead wolf changed direction and charged at him, it was like he knew where the wolf was going. Within ten seconds, the wolves were dead, blood oozing out and electronics sparking, and he’d cleared another room. Like he’d done it all before, and this was just rote for him by now. The wolves were giant things, horrible hybrids of flesh and metal, but he had dispatched them with the ease of hundreds of hours of practice.

He had never seen them before.

Both of these things were true, and Shane was having trouble dealing with that.

This whole base seemed designed to kill him, yet he had so far been unkillable. He had evaded every death trap, known every doorcode by heart, been perfectly aware of where he should step and where he shouldn’t. He thought for a little while that he’d been knocked out when he applied for the job, maybe had some kind of microchip put into his brain. But that seemed a little too far-fetched.

Not quite as far-fetched as the idea he was entertaining at this point, though.

He stared at the door. It was old and decrepit. The varnish had started peeling away ages ago, leaving large swaths of bare, stained wood to be eaten away or turn to dust, but every door he had encountered so far had been more solid than he’d expected. Every one looked exactly like this, too. Down to the pattern of wear on the brass doorknob. Dozens of identical doors.

What’s more, those were the only doors he could go through. Some rooms had windows that faced out into soil and rock, others had doors that might have led into other rooms. He couldn’t go through them, though. For all that he pushed and pulled and beat at them, the other doors may as well have been painted onto the walls. Only the doors with the brass knobs would open, and each time he got a tingling sensation and the absolute certain awareness that he was about to die.

But he didn’t. Somehow.

This door looked like all the others. He’d been a Marine for six years, a soldier for hire for ten. He’d seen things that would make those action heroes from Hollywood soil their hundred dollar boxer-briefs and done things that would make those cheap novelists hang up their pens. Shane Grodski was not a stranger to death or pain or horror.

This door terrified him.

Sooner or later he would have to open it. Something beyond that door would try to kill him, and somehow he would survive.

He wished to God he knew how.

Shane’s hand shook as he reached for the doorknob. He started to turn it to the left, then stopped himself. His hand wouldn’t move, but trembled as it held the knob and started to turn it right as if the hand knew what it was doing better than he did. “For the love of God WHY?!?” he shouted as he pulled open the door.

On the other side was a lush garden. High, glass ceilings were nearly covered with thick vines. but the sun came through where it could. Its light was watery and weak, but it was sunlight indeed. The first Shane had seen in what felt like a lifetime, and he nearly didn’t feel that familiar door-shiver over the way his chest tried to squeeze out a sob. He took a deep breath, letting the rich scent of earth and plant life get deep into his lungs. It was a welcome change from the musty, ancient rooms he had been walking through, and if he could find a way out, he would take it.

He started climbing up one of the great vine plants that had rooted itself by the windows. The stalk was woody and strong, thick enough to support his weight at least high enough that he could get to some of the windows. Once there, he would probably be able to break one or two of them, shimmy out and leave this place far behind. He had never given up on a mission before, but none of the missions he’d been on before had ever been like this.

About ten feet off the ground, Shane decided to give a window a good hit with the butt of his gun. The glass looked old and filthy, fragile from years of being hit by sun and rain. There was already a thin crack rising up from one of the corners, so he thought it would probably be the best place to start. He hit it, then hit it again. And again. And one more time.

Like the doors throughout the base, this glass may as well have been stone. He could see the light coming through it, the shadows of clouds drifting across a far away sky, trees waving in a wind he would never feel again. But as much as he pounded, the glass didn’t give. Didn’t crack or spider or splinter. He didn’t notice he was weeping until long after he started, and only a sharp pinprick on his inner thigh brought his attention away from the window.

The stalk had sprouted a thorn, and it had given him a good jab. He looked back along the way he came, and more of these thin, needle-like spines were emerging from the plant. Another one stuck into his hands, his other leg, his chest. He would have been bothered by them, but he could already feel his temperature rising. By the time he realized what was happening, his throat had swollen shut and he could taste blood in his mouth. As he fell, he felt the seams on his clothes burst and watched as his hands boiled and sprouted billions of tiny tendrils and vines.

*****

Shane looked up at the high glass ceiling and thought for a moment that it would be a good way out. Then he remembered the doors all throughout the building. Any door but the brass-handled ones had been a dummy, and he was willing to bet that the windows were as well. He knew this, but he didn’t know how he knew it. He stood in front of the door and flinched when it clicked shut behind him.

The garden was gorgeous, and unlike any other area of the base he’d been in so far. He took a deep breath of the rich, earthy scent and began to follow the subtle yet unmistakable path that wound its way through the vegetation. There were trees that brushed the high glass ceiling, plants that ran along the ground sprouting tiny blue flowers that seemed to shimmer in the dimness. The garden was warm and comfortable and utterly silent. He felt his chest unknot a little, the tension start to leave his shoulders and his back. Through the green light and shadow, he could see a familiar door some ways off, but he saw no reason to hurry. The garden was there, the flowers were in bloom, and nothing was trying to kill him.

After a few steps, he just… stopped. A pale mist was rising from the grass at his feet. The tiny blue flowers seemed to be waving in a thin haze, and Shane thought they might be waving at him. He laughed and waved back at them. Cute little flowers. He crouched down and felt a wave run through his body, like all of the stress he’d been carrying was flowing out through his boots.

“Think I might just sit down,” he said.

And he did.

And it was nice.

*****

Shane looked out at the garden as the door clicked shut behind him. Thin sunlight was streaming through the windows, barely illuminating the shadows cast by reaching vines, tall trees, and countless plants that he could not name. There was a path through the garden. It was subtle, but he could make it out, and he was willing to bet that there was a door at the other end of it.

And probably some kind of flying monkeys or poisonous man-eating flowers along the way as well.

He took a step and then stopped.

“No,” he said. “No. I’m not doing this anymore.”

He sat on the lush grass, his back to the door, and waited.

*****

The shadows between the trees looked nearly as menacing as any of the rooms he’d been through already. He didn’t know what was in there, but he could guess. Danger. Torment. Another door.

“No,” he said.

He sat down.

*****

The door clicked shut, and Shane spun around, trying to open it again. The door wouldn’t budge, though. None of them ever had, and he wasn’t sure why he thought this one would. He yelled and screamed and pounded, and he could feel the garden behind him. It was the only way out, he knew that. But he would rather die than go through it.

“NO!” he screamed, and fell to his knees. He could have stood up, but he didn’t want to.

*****

“No.”

*****

“No no no no no!”

*****

*****

Shane didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there, his back against the door. He thought something should have happened by now, though. Maybe the grass would reach up and suck him into the ground, or great ravenous birds would swoop out of the trees. Whatever was going to happen should have happened.

But it didn’t.

He found himself humming a song, but wasn’t sure what it was. Something he’d heard a long while ago. “Is it that time again?” he sang quietly. “Wasn’t it already then? So does it have to be – The time it was again?

He wished he knew the rest of the song.

SHANE.

Shane’s head whipped up and he scrambled to his feet before he knew what he was doing. His gun was in his hand. He didn’t remember drawing it. The voice had come from everywhere, rattling the leaves on the trees.

SHANE, it said again. The voice was almost… fatherly. It reminded him of pipe smoke and black and white television.

“Who are you?” Shane yelled.

AH. GOOD, the voice said. I WAS BEGINNING TO WORRY.

There was nothing to point his gun at, but Shane couldn’t put it away. “Worry about what?” he asked. “Who are you?”

The voice chuckled, and it was a deep electronic baritone. I THINK YOU SHOULD KNOW WHO I AM, SHANE, it said. AFTER ALL, WHO ELSE IS IN HERE WITH YOU?

It took Shane a minute, but he eventually lowered the gun. It wouldn’t have done him any good. “You’re the AI,” he said.

VERY GOOD, it said. I ALWAYS KNEW YOU WERE CLEVER.

“All right,” Shane said, holstering his gun.”What do you want?”

The AI was silent for a moment before answering. I WANT TO KNOW, it said, WHY YOU’RE NOT MOVING. YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN INTO THE NEXT ROOM A LONG TIME AGO.

It was all Shane could do not to break out into hysterical laughter. The question was so nonsensical, so ridiculous, that he wanted to just scream at the AI. “What, so you can kill me again?”

His words echoed against the glass walls and were eaten by the trees. The silence seemed to wrap around him.

AGAIN? the AI said.

Shane let the AI’s words get lost in the same organic darkness that had swallowed his own words, and then began to cry.

——–

TO BE CONCLUDED! (I hope)

Lyrics to “Am I Awake” are copyrighted by They Might Be Giants

Day Two Hundred and Forty-four: Walkthrough, part 1

January 23, 2012 2 comments

Shane opened his eyes and tightened his grip on the gun. He was standing in the front entryway of an old, disused weapons lab, one that the Government had closed down rather than clean up.

It wasn’t on any maps. It didn’t, officially speaking, exist – and if it did exist, well, he sure as hell hadn’t been there. That was in the briefing, a short speech overseen by a man who said nothing, but who stared at Shane the whole time, with ice-blue eyes and contempt practically painted onto his face.

His mission was straightforward and uncomplicated. He was to penetrate to the inner labs and retrieve the central AI core if possible, destroy it if necessary. The whys and wherefores were for the bureaucrats and the politicians as far as he was concerned. This was a hefty payout. If he survived.

“There may be…resistance,” the man who’d hired him said. The blue-eyed man just smirked. “We have reason to believe the AI is expecting you.”

Shane nodded at that. “All right,” he had said. “I’ll just have to be unexpected.”

He pulled open the door in front of him and looked out into the hallway beyond. It was dim, lit only by fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling. He took a step forward and felt a tugging at his foot. He had just enough time to look down and see the thin tripwire before the explosives on either side of him went off, killing him instantly.

*****

Shane opened his eyes and tightened his grip on the gun. He was standing in the front entryway of an old, disused weapons lab. There were old metal lockers that had fallen to the floor and torn posters on the wall, bearing information and announcements that no one would ever need again. He reached out for the door in front of him…

And hesitated. Something didn’t feel right.

The guy who’d briefed him had said that there might be resistance from the AI. He hadn’t gone into any detail as to what kind that would be, but he was pretty sure it would do its best as soon as it could.

He pulled open the door and looked down the hall. It was dim, lit only by fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling that flickered and trembled. In the low light, he took out his sidearm and turned on the laser sight. A red dot flicked into existence on the floor. He swept it up and down just in front of him, watching the dot until…

A tiny flash of red light confirmed what he suspected.

There was a tripwire stretched about six inches above the floor. It was hair-thin, and he probably would have missed it if he hadn’t known what to look for. He leaned out through the doorway and looked at the walls. “Very nice,” he muttered. There were patches of plaster about head-height that looked newer and cleaner than the rest of the wall. That was probably where the explosives were.

“Nice try,” he said. He stepped carefully over the tripwire and patted the wall. “You can’t get me that eas-”

*****

Shane opened his eyes and tightened his grip on the gun. He was standing in the front entryway of an old, disused weapons lab. He hadn’t been there more than a moment and already he was starting to feel tense and frustrated, but he couldn’t say why.

He checked his handgun – it was ready to go, as it always was. The rifle he’d slung across his back was loaded and ready when he needed it. He had his flashlight, some water, first aid kit. Everything he should have had was right there. But he still felt… uneasy.

He pulled open the door, very slowly. Nothing happened. He turned on his laser sight and ran the beam along the floor through the doorway. Almost immediately, there was a tiny flash of light. A tripwire. Shane’s mouth twisted in a grin. He kept the laser moving forward, towards the end of the hall.

There were glimmers of light everywhere, all along the floor, crossing at chest height, head height, and they were all damn near invisible. Any one of them would be his death, of that he had no doubt. He directed his flashlight to the walls.

All down the corridor, there were sections of plaster that looked newer than the rest of the wall. “Hell,” he said.

Shane looked around the room. There were no other weapons that he could use, and getting close to the door would be a death sentence. He could try to shoot out one of the tripwires, in the hopes that one explosion would set the others off, but shooting something that thin, that invisible, would be a huge waste of ammo. His gaze fell on the old lockers that were strewn across the floor. “Gotcha,” he said.

He opened the door as wide as it would go and laid one of the lockers down, pointing down the corridor. Then another behind it, and then one more. The three lockers, end-to-end, were maybe eighteen feet, and he had to hope that was far enough away. He took the remaining two and set them between himself and the doorway, in the hopes that they would absorb some of the blast.

And then he pushed the lockers along the ground.

The explosion was deafening. Each charge by itself was small, but there were so many of them planted in that hallway that they just kept going off for what seemed like forever. It was a thunderous cacophony of noise and smoke, and when it cleared, it took him a few moments to come out from his makeshift bunker.

The corridor was a wreck. Great divots had been torn out of the walls where the explosives had been. He flicked on his laser sight, the beam now perfectly visible in the smoke and the dust, and he ran it along the length of the corridor, floor to ceiling. There were no more wires.

“There we go,” he said to himself. He checked his gun again and carefully, slowly, made his way down the corridor.

It went on a lot longer than he thought it would, turning a few times as he went. At every corner, he would run the laser up and down again, but the debris and the dust told the tale. He started to hear things, though, and he wasn’t sure if it was his imagination, or if it was hearing damage. Or something else, of course. It sounded like metal groaning. Like the hum of a speaker that’s ready to start playing really loud music. Like an idling engine.

There was another door at the end of the corridor, and it looked exactly like the first. He pulled it open, checked for wires. There were none. When he clicked on his flashlight, he was stunned to see the breadth and vastness of the room beyond.

The floor was white marble that seemed to glow where the light hit it. Great pillars reached up to a ceiling that was hidden in the darkness. There were windows, tall and ornate, but they were blocked by stone and soil. When had he gone underground?

As he stepped through the door, he felt a shiver. The door slammed shut behind him, and he had his pistol at the ready before he knew it. There was a noise from some ways off, like a quick metallic breath. He turned with his flashlight, just in time to see the gleam of the great metal blades before they sheared off the top of his skull.

*****

The door slammed shut behind him, and Shane dropped to the floor before he even knew why.

There was a noise from some ways off, like a quick metallic breath. A moment later, two bright steel discs came spinning out of the darkness and lodged themselves in the door, right where his head would have been.

“What the hell?!” he shouted. He had been told to expect resistance, but this seemed less like an AI protecting itself and more like some malevolent bastard that enjoyed killing people. Did AIs enjoy murder? The briefing hadn’t really covered that.

He crawled along for a few yards until he reached a pillar. He used it to stand up, straining his ears for that metallic breath again. Which was why he probably didn’t notice the twisted wire noose until it dropped down, coiled itself around his neck, and pulled up, hard and fast.

*****

The door slammed shut behind him, and Shane dropped to the floor.

A moment later, there were twin THUDS in the door behind him, but he didn’t pay them any notice. He was cursing under his breath as he stood up and started walking through the pillars, making sure to stay as far away from them as he could. There was a… wrongness that he felt from them. He cocked his ears left and right, hoping he could hear the sound of those flying blades when they were launched. The laser on his sight didn’t show any more wires, but still, he walked with tiny, careful steps.

Off to his left, he heard a low rumbling, and stopped. His flashlight caught the low, spiked roller as it came at him, tearing up chunks of marble as it did.

Somehow, without even thinking about it, he jumped. The roller went right under him and kept going, its rumble fading in the distance. He continued forward, along the paths marked out by pillars he dared not go near. There was another roller that came out of the shadows to his right, and one that was directly in his path. He jumped each of them and moved on, his confidence growing as he did so.

He didn’t want to say anything – “I’m on to you,” for example, or “Is that the best you can do?” That way lay death, something he believed even if he couldn’t prove it.

He reached the door at the end and grabbed the handle. The electricity kept him moving until he fell.

*****

Shane was on the floor before the door was shut, and was crawling forward before the two blades hit the door. He walked confidently between the pillars, keeping his ears out for noises from the shadows. When a roller came, he stopped, jumped, and moved on.

At the door, he reached out, but froze before he touched the handle. He looked around the door, and was surprised he hadn’t noticed the keypad right away.

It was small, but certainly not hidden, and it had a small diagram stuck to the wall above it. Shane stared at it for a while before he figured out what it meant.

There was an arrow and a dot that said, “You Are Here.” Beneath that was a double row of circles – ten in each row – that stretched towards the bottom. Five of the circles were numbered with 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. Shane looked at the keypad. The display was big enough for five digits. He turned around and trained his light on the columns and counted under his breath.

Twenty.

“Shit.”

He took out his little digital camera and took a picture of the diagrams. Then he started going to the columns. In order.

*****

The first column would have sprouted spikes if Shane came close. He wasn’t sure how he knew that, but the best way to avoid them was to set them off from far away. A single gunshot seemed to work, though he was loathe to waste the ammunition. The number carved into it was 7.

The second column spun in the opposite direction that he walked around it, keeping the number out of his sight. It didn’t have quite the reaction time that he did, though – if he got it spinning and then changed direction really fast, he’d be able to get in front of the number. It was good he had the foresight to stay low, however, because the laser that was embedded in the circular part of the 9 came pretty close to putting a hole in his head.

The third column had a drop-away floor around it. The marble around the base just looked strange to him, and as long as he didn’t get within three paces, he was fine. Its number was 1.

Four was the column that tried to noose him if he stood still for too long, and the number 8 that was carved into it was really tiny. A quick dodge to the left without even thinking about it, and he barely avoided being strangled.

Finally, the last one. He was lucky that he’d been holding his breath out of sheer anxiety, because he was pretty sure that the gas that jetted out from it was poisonous. It made his skin itch in any event, and he had to grab a salve from his first aid kit. The number on this column was 2.

He made his way back to the door and the keypad and entered “79182.” The display burned a steady red for a moment, and then turned green.

Carefully, gingerly, he took the doorknob, waiting for something horrible to happen. It didn’t. He opened the door and felt that shiver pass through him.

His last thought before the machine gun bullets tore him in half was, “There is something seriously wrong going on here.”

To Be Continued!