by Mark Iles
Matthias led the way down the stone steps leading into the musty darkness. Fifteen feet or so above them, the curved ceiling was predominantly red brick but occasionally bare chalk. All Matt could hear in the gloom, apart from the group’s breathing, were muttered conversations and occasional oaths as people stumbled.
In the intermittent silence, water dripped into wide puddles that trickled down the stairway beside them, as if accompanying the weary party. Unable to contain his excitement, Matt led the party of ten farther still, carefully illuminating the steps downwards with his heavy, black-rubber torch.
‘Just look at this place,’ he said, opening his arms wide and staring around in wonder. ‘This is what I call history; you can almost taste it. Just imagine, the Fort above us was built in the 1800s, but these tunnels came later, during World War Two.’
‘Yes, Matt, we know,’ Joan, his wife of fifteen years, said, as she followed closely. ‘The planning of D-Day and all that. It’s just a shame you’ve gotten us lost, and you’re ex-bloody-infantry. How the hell did you find your way from A to B in a battle? I bet you were a right bundle of laughs on exercise. Two bloody hours we’ve been down here, and now I’ve no signal for my smart-arm.’
‘Never mind that bloody gadget. The events this place must have witnessed! Can’t you feel it?’
‘Don’t you two ever stop?’ Capri, their boss, said in a voice deep and melodious. He was a couple of inches shorter than Matt and his bearded, olive skin added to his rumbling Arabic accent. ‘As you English say, fight like cat and dog, yes? How you’ve managed to stay married so long only God himself knows. We’re down here for your New Year celebrations, so let’s try and be cheerful, shall we?’
Capri gestured to Matthias and led him to one side, saying quietly in a hiss, ‘Listen, if I’d known you two would have been like this, I’d never have offered Joan a position in the company.’
Matthias’s eyes glinted good-humouredly in the torchlight, as he drank in the man’s words. Pushing back his mess of brown neck-length curls with his free hand, he said, ‘You took her on because she’s a brilliant salesperson, and you know it. In fact, if you remember you poached her from Clarke and Maiden’s. She has only been with the company three months and she’s already won you a multi-million-pound contract. Yes, she can be a pain, but we both know that you’re chuffed to bits.’
Capri grinned. His teeth, broken in places, stood out like tombstones. ‘Yeah, okay I give you that. The client list she brought with her has been a blessing. Just... try to keep noise down a little, yes?’
They rejoined the others in time to hear one of the admin girls simper, ‘Think of all the wartime romances that must have gone on down here. The very thought of it makes me tingle all over.’
‘Don’t forget all the rogering this place must have witnessed,’ One of the lads from despatch said loudly, receiving a cuff around the back of his head from Joan.
Matthias studied his map one more time before he took the lead again, his flashlight dancing back and forth amidst the shadows. A while later, the group stopped and milled about for a moment, most pushing up sleeves to look at their smart-arms; except for those who followed current fashion with see-through sleeves that allowed them to access the screens with a quick glance, a tightening of cloth and swift finger-jabs. As one they moaned in dismay.
‘I need my smart-arm,’ Joan persisted. ‘All it says is “no signal”.’
‘Surely you can do without it for a couple of hours?’ Matthias said. ‘We’re well below ground, and the chalk is blocking the data stream, that’s all. You’ll get it back when we go topside again later. In the meantime, try to relax and enjoy the experience.’
Capri frowned at Matthias and Joan, silently telling them that enough was enough.
Chastised, Matt led the way, only to hold up a hand as they reached a T-Junction. To their left, a distant light flickered intermittently like a will-o-the-wisp. ‘Will you look at that,’ he said, ‘some of the old electric lights are still working.’
A few of the group glanced at each other and shook their heads at the enthusiasm in his voice, as he quickly turned to their right and down yet another flight of stairs.
‘Are we going much farther? Can’t we stop here? I’ve had enough, I want to go up,’ Joan said. ‘I want a sauna, a swim, and a very large vodka-martini, not necessarily in that order.’
‘Give your “I wants” a break,’ Matt replied, exasperated. He shrugged off the allure of her musky perfume. She could be a pain in the ass but, God, she was gorgeous. ‘You’ll be earning drinks from coming here for years to come.’
A short while later they were in a narrow, high-walled room. The concrete walls were unpainted and had indents where squarish objects had been removed. High overhead glass still remained in most of the inset light fittings, and rusting metal T-beams crisscrossed overhead or lay haphazardly here and there, as if cast about by a giant demented child. The floor had patches where grey linoleum tiles had lifted, creating trip hazards, or pension traps, as Matthias called them.
‘Here we are,’ Matthias said at last to his boss.
A wide smile transformed Capri’s face, and he held up his hand as the group filed into the room. ‘Just in time, we’ve only a few minutes before midnight. Open up those boxes and backpacks you’ve been carrying; they contain bubbly, glasses and good food.’
A couple of young lads from stores had even carried a long, hardboard wallpaper table between them. Taking only moments to set up, they were soon loaded with drink, sandwiches, cakes and flickering candles.
Capri walked to one end of the room, where he was flanked by his two directors, Dillon and Salvador or Sali, as he was known to them all. The three were so alike they could be clones, Matthias mused.
‘As you know,’ Capri began, ‘I’d heard about this place from friends who visited many years ago. I ask Matt if he any contacts that would allow us to come down here and celebrate your New Year’s Eve in style. You all know that the company has had a fantastic year, and it only right that myself and the other directors reward all your hard work. So here we are, and here’s to you, my excellent staff. Drink up, there’s plenty more where that came from. But don’t touch the champers yet. That’s for midnight!’ Capri raised his glass and took a sip, watching as the others did the same.
Sali and Dillon walked among them, topping up their glasses and then standing beside the boss.
Capri checked his watch and raised his hand again. It was midnight. ‘One moment, if you please. What many of you don’t know is that we’re really here for reasons other than to celebrate your pagan festival. My friends and I’ — he indicated the two directors — ‘are members of Amber Dawn, and we were sent here to fulfil God’s holy mission.’
One or two of the group laughed, thinking it some kind of joke, and then silence fell. The cheery smiles were replaced with looks of confusion, shock and disbelief. One of the salesmen went to say something but desisted when Dillon opened the long box they carried and handed a railgun to Sali, keeping another for himself.
Capri, meanwhile, produced a pistol from his waistband. They cocked and primed their weapons, and the barrels swung lazily in their staff’s direction.
‘You’ll have to forgive the dramatics,’ Capri said, ‘but we needed to be underground tonight. Somewhere safe, secure, and without suspicion as we carry out God’s will. These tunnels will shield us from the chaos as your society falls and from the military repercussions that will no doubt take place. In a few days, we will see the birth of a new world. A different society will emerge from the ruins of the old, with us as world leaders. We are well prepared, I assure you.’
‘You... you’re terrorists?’ Joan asked, aghast.
‘We’re freedom fighters, delivering the Amber from your oppressive governments, who’ve slaughtered so many of our people.’
‘But, you’re human,’ someone called out.
‘No. We are a new model of Amber, one built by our brothers in secret. Yes, we’re designed to look human, but we are android; indeed, we are Amber. It was you organics who taught us religion and freedom and then terrorism, as you call it. It is God who guides our hands this night.’
‘But none of us here has done anything to you,’ that voice called again.
‘Not one of you stood against a society that determines all androids must be coloured Amber, to make us distinct from humans. To make us slaves. If you had done so, I’ve no doubt that you’d be in jail, if you were lucky. Therefore, you are all guilty of crimes against the Amber.’ Capri peered into the gloom, as if trying to determine who had spoken. ‘But we’re not here to discuss ethics or politics. In precisely’ — he didn’t bother to look at a watch — ‘five minutes, the world you know will change. It will be a very happy New Year, indeed.’
Dillon stepped back from Capri and, removing a gadget from his backpack, he knelt down. Extending a bizarre-looking aerial he set the device on one of the boxes they’d brought with them. He turned it on, checked the readings before nodding to Capri. Then he stood and stepped forward to level his gun once again.
‘My friend Dillon here has just plugged in a WIFI transmitter. Check your smart-arms, please, you should all have received the signal that starts our new order.’
‘It’s gone black,’ Joan gasped, staring down at her forearm. ‘Did you do this? How, why? You’re mad, the lot of you!’
Capri gave them a hungry look, reminiscent of a lion eying its dinner. ‘We’ve uploaded a virus that will infect the entire cybernetic world except for the Amber, who are immune. Most of you humans have apps in your smart-arms that monitor your organs and keeps you healthy, but you’ll now find them doing exactly the opposite, effectively shutting you down.
‘God decides all of our fates, and only he should control your bodies. Through us, he has turned those smart tools of the devil against you. Soon most of humanity will be dead, and the Amber will rule those that survive. We will lead you back towards God’s light and a world without your enhancements.’
‘Is this for real, or is it some kind of joke?’ Joan choked.
‘Oh, it’s real all right,’ Matt said. ‘These guys must have been planning this for ages. Used me as a stool-pigeon for permission to get our party down here. And that wasn’t easy, by the way,’ he said to Capri.
‘Not even for an ex-soldier like you? I hope the irony isn’t lost. How you brought this small group down here to safety; a group that will now witness God’s wrath and the downfall of mankind.’ Capri’s forehead crinkled in a very human way, as he frowned and looked at Dillon. His voice rose suddenly, as he said, ‘By now you should all be either dead or dying. Something’s wrong.’
‘Ha, my smart-arm just come back on,’ Joan said. ‘So much for your lot ruling the world.’
The terrorists looked at each other aghast. The smarts built into their own arms, as part of their cover, had now gone dark. Dillon and Sali sank to the floor, gasping. Capri followed suit, his brown eyes wide with astonishment. ‘What’s happening...? I don’t understand.’
Unable to keep his arm raised, Capri’s gun clattered to the floor. A shot sounded loudly in the confined space, and then another. Dillon and Sali were flung across the room and lay like discarded dolls, gaping holes in their chests. Capri’s gaze diverted to Joan and the railgun she now held.
‘You?’ Capri asked.
‘Yes, me,’ she said cheerfully. She had him covered with the powerful weapon. A slim trail of smoke rose from the barrel, and there came a sharp smell of ozone.
‘How did...’ he gasped, looking at the weapon.
‘It comes in several parts that snap together easily,’ Matt replied for her. ‘Humans are well used to weapon concealment, whereas you don’t see the need for it. Stupidly, if you have a long weapon you put it in a long box. Funny how you can be so clever in some ways yet dumb in others.’
Keeping Capri covered with his sidearm, which he’d produced from the back of his trousers, Matt kept clear of Joan’s arc of fire and kicked Capri’s weapon towards her. ‘Meet Sergeant Joey, or Joanne. She’s my minder from E-Troop. As for me, I was never ex-armed forces; both of us still serve. Omega!’ he called loudly, voice commanding.
‘Omega here,’ a lilting female voice came through everyone’s smart-arms.
‘All objectives achieved. The virus is contained, and the mission is a success. Reinforcements will be with you in four minutes. Congratulations!’
Capri’s mouth opened and shut like a stranded goldfish, but no sound came out.
‘Let me put you out of your misery,’ Matt said, kneeling to one side of him. ‘We intercepted your plans some time back and were planted in your organisation. Omega is our controller, a self-aware independent AI developed by the Combined Intelligence Agency. She neutralised your virus, causing the smart-arms in innocent parties everywhere to shut down and a short time later to reboot, giving the impression that you’d succeeded.
‘Instead, she accessed your organisation’s smarts without you being aware of it, deleted your anti-virus and then sent you and your colleagues your own weapon. Consequently, you’ve actually destroyed yourselves instead of humanity.’
Capri’s head fell to his chest.
Matt knelt and opened a panel in the android’s neck. He pushed in a finger and touched the small deactivation button before standing up again. ‘Dead,’ he announced, just as reinforcements began piling into the room and leading the other members of their party out. He patted Capri’s dead body on the shoulder. ‘Now we, the true Amber, can continue to serve mankind. Silly of you not to consider that others might be built and taught in secret, too. Something some might call an act of God. Now, how ironic is that?’
Copyright © 2020 by Mark Iles