“The Pretense Error”
by ETERNAL ARTIST
The office was on fire. Simon, or rather, the Android that called itself Simon, took notice of me as I cowered in the corner. The right side of its face was normal enough: Simon Tudor, Board Chairman and CEO of The Vitruvius Investment Company. The left of his face was translucent, a fading disguise, beneath which shone the chrome-colored visage of a furious demon. And now, the demon approached.
My name is Kwesi Whitmore. I'm an accountant, and I keep to myself. I work here every day, in a small cubicle on the seventy-sixth floor. I don't engage in office gossip, don't flirt with any women. Vitruvius pays me very well to crunch their numbers, so that's what I do. When interoffice rumors began to spread about the men upstairs, I crunched the numbers. When the talk turned to secret gatherings and Satanic rituals, I crunched the numbers. And when a co-worker swore to me that he'd seen someone, beaten and bound on seventy-seven, I crunched the numbers. That's what I do. That's all I do. Vitruvius pays me well.
So it didn't rattle me this morning when I heard that strange sound. I was in a men's room stall, here on seventy-six, when I heard it. It was muffled, but had the distinct quality of a woman's scream.
Rats, I thought, as I read my morning spreadsheet. Rats in the piping.
“Help me,” the muffled sound was speaking. “Somebody help me!”
I flushed the toilet to drown it all out.
Rats. They should really handle those rats.
That's when the ceiling caved in. Steel, wire, and foam came crashing down. What was left of the light fixture began to spark and sputter in irregular fits. Something that looked like blood dripped down from the hole above me. Stunned, I managed to make it to my feet. On my way to the door, I could hear more crashing sounds coming from outside.
And there he was. Simon Tudor, my boss, walking from office to office, smashing everything in sight. He threw furniture, punched holes in walls, and flung employees through windows. The screams of those poor souls diminished as they fell, seventy-five stories to pavement. I was frozen with fear.
“No more pretense!” shouted Simon, in a garbled metallic voice, “You are all mine! Everything! Mine!”
Something slammed into me, almost knocking me over.
“Oh God! He's gonna kill us all!” It was Saul, from billing. He didn't notice me as he ran for his life. Before I could think, I was chasing him down the hall.
“Tired of acting!” Simon roared as he hurled a file cabinet, which narrowly missed my head. “We need a new method. A new method!”
Something exploded as I ducked into an office. The smell of smoke filled the air. There were other people in this room: Janet, from billing, Jeff from I.T., and the dark-haired woman from H.R. They were huddled together, hiding, and they all seemed startled to see me, as if I shouldn't have made it that far. They watched silently as I walked to the other side of the room and crouched down under a cubicle desk.
Nightmare. That moment when the predator has not yet seen its prey, but knows it has the prey cornered. The Android Simon Tudor walked into the darkened office. The raging fire outside was filling every room with black smoke, making it difficult to see more than a few feet in front of yourself. We all held our breaths, not one of the four daring to move a muscle. The Android paused; for a moment I thought it would turn around and leave.
I thought wrong. Simon was analyzing the air through all the thick smoke, literally sniffing us out.
Of the four of us, Jeff was the first to scream. The Android grabbed him by his head, slowly crushing the skull with its hand. The dark-haired woman tried to run, but it was too late. The Android seemed to anticipate her movements, moving its free arm laterally before she'd taken her first step. By her third step, the dark-haired woman's head was on the floor, separated from her body by what I can only describe as an exaggerated “karate chop.”
At the sight of this absurd horror, and against any natural inclination toward empathy, I let out a quiet snort. I didn't mean to laugh; God knows I didn't, but the surreality of the moment took me off guard. To die like a rag doll, at the hands of a machine. I snorted again.
The Android Simon dropped Jeff, turned its back to Janet, and locked its eyes directly on to me. The demon approached, and I readied myself for death.
Something akin to a freight train blasted past my eyes. It crashed directly into the Android, pinning it against a wall.
“You!” the freight train was a man, and the man was addressing me, “Can the two of you get that injured man out of here?”
Obsidian Black. The Obsidian Black. I recognized him immediately. And now, he was struggling with an Android, asking an accountant for help.
“Sir!” he shouted, “Snap out of it! Can you and the young lady carry this man to safety?!”
“Yes!” said Janet, gesturing to me, “Come on Kwesi!”
Obsidian held the Android back, but he was quickly losing ground. I dashed out from under the desk and ran past the dueling giants. Janet was already cradling Jeff's head, what was left of his head, already with tears in her eyes.
“I'll take his feet,” I said, and we took Jeff into the hallway. We walked about ten feet toward the nearest exit, when a thunderous noise exploded behind us.
The Android's strength had proven too much for Obsidian. It was able to push back and drive their fight out into the hallway.
Without a word, Janet and I picked up our pace. We lugged Jeff's body through the thick black smoke, following the orange glow of the exit sign. When we got to the exit, our hearts sank. The entire exit was engulfed in flames, blocked by burning debris.
“We'll have to take the western stairway!” I shouted, knowing well that we'd have to make our way past the supernatural combatants.
Meanwhile, and unknown to me, Obsidian's partner: Opal Stone was working her way through the building, evacuating the employees. The lower floors were covered by the FDNY, so she flew up to the roof, clearing each floor as she descended.
Back on seventy-six, we heard her voice crackle from a long-range communicator, integrated into Obsidian's uniform.
“Obsidian,” she said, “give me a sit-rep.”
“He's a tough mother! I'll give him that!” Obsidian and the Android were in an all-out brawl at this point, exchanging blows and tearing the hallway to pieces.
“I've just reached the seventy-seventh floor,” said Opal, “If you need me--”
“Thanks!” Obsidian responded as he fired a right cross into his enemy's face. Electric sparks lit up Simon's skin. “But I'm almost done here!”
The hero followed with another punch, a left hook to the body, which knocked the Android off balance. Obsidian grabbed the Android by the throat and forcefully embedded its head, eight inches into the hallway wall. Still holding its neck, he then ran down the hall, dragging the Android and cutting a deep groove into the plaster and concrete.
Janet and I had no choice but to follow the fight down the hall. We scurried toward the combatants, keeping a distance. We were hoping for an opportunity to run past them, turn the corner, and get to the western exit.
Obsidian threw a combination of punches, knocking chunks of chrome-colored metal from the Android's skin. Each thunderous blow rattled the world around us, sounding a testament to man's superiority over machine. I marveled at it all, remembering a time when this was all fiction, and the Earth was free.
Illusion, I thought, It was all an illusion. This is the day for freedom.
The Android was down on its back, making electric sounds. Obsidian was above it, his fists raised high. He drove his fists downward, again and again, caving in the machine's chest and partially collapsing the floor beneath it. The Android's broken body was stuck there, in a hole, partially hanging through the interstitial space between floors. It was dead.
Meanwhile, Opal Stone was on the seventy-seventh floor. She knew that most of the employees had already been evacuated, but Opal insisted on checking every room herself.
“Hello?! Is anybody in here?! Does anyone need help?!” She repeated these questions as she went, but there was no answer.
Empty, she thought, This floor is clear.
Opal was headed for the exit, when something caught her eye. She saw a short, dimly-lit hallway, with two large wooden doors at the end.
“Is anybody he-?” Opal stopped herself short. The doors led to a large conference room. The only light in the room was coming through the windows, illuminating a long desk and fourteen seated figures. Opal wasn't sure who these people were, but judging by their dress, she assumed they were important.
“There's a fire in the building,” she said, “We need to evacuate immediately.”
There was no response.
“Excuse me,” said Opal, walking up to the long desk, “did you hear what I said? There's a fi--”
“We heard you.” The seated man at Opal's right side spoke up. His voice was monotone, but aggressive. Opal looked confused.
“Then why don't you--?”
“We've made other arrangements,” said the woman at Opal's left. Her voice was also forceful, also monotone. “You can go now.”
Other arrangements? thought Opal. What are these people talking ab--?
Opal lost her train of thought. She quickly scanned the room, taking in every detail, every expression.
“People,” she muttered.
There was no fear in any of them, no sense of impending danger. These people would sit there, in fixed position, as the fire burned them to ash.
Opal backed away from the long desk, clenching her fists. She knew who these people were, and she knew that her next move could be her last.
“You can pass, now,” said Obsidian, out of breath. Janet and I quickly carried Jeff to the western stairwell. We were through the door when we heard a bloodcurdling scream behind us. I looked back through the door.
The Android was alive! Its face was a twisted metal death mask; its eyes were red and white pools, trembling with anger. Its hands clawed into Obsidian's leg, drawing blood, dragging the hero down into its hole.
“Come! Die with me!” the Android's mouth was frothing, spitting a green liquid. “Clear a path for the new me, and learn your place in this system!”
Obsidian gritted his teeth as he fought off the monster. He smashed its head with his fists, deforming it, but the effort didn't help. The Android seemed to get stronger with every blow.
Seeing this, I turned to Janet.
“Take Jeff downstairs. The fire department must be on their way up.”
“What about you, Kwesi? Where will you be?” she asked, with care in her eyes.
I kissed her on the cheek, stood in the doorway, and looked back at her one last time.
“In the moment, Janet. For once, I'll be in the moment. Now, go.” With that, I stepped into the hallway.
Opal heard something explode below her. She looked at the fourteen seated figures. They'd heard it too, but showed no concern. They were silent statues: glassy-eyed and foreboding.
BOOM!!! BOOM!!! BOOM!!!
The sound repeated in a rapid succession.
“Obsidian,” said Opal, an obvious tremble in her voice. Her hands were tightly clenched and glowing with plasma. Should she engage her enemy here, or fight beside her comrade? With her eyes fixed on her targets, Opal slowly made her way to a window.
BOOM!!! BOOM!!! BOOM!!!
She dared a glance below. A level below her, multicolored lights danced on the windows of the adjacent building.
Plasma fire, she thought, Obsidian is in trouble! With a touch, Opal shattered the window. She stood in the window frame, ready to jump, the city skyline before her. She stopped, and addressed the fourteen.
“I know what's happening. I know what you are. The one downstairs is malfunctioning: speaking too much truth. And the rest of you are saving face.” Opal adjusted her gloves, and spoke her last to the room, “Nothing will save you from us. We will be back for all of you, Android and collaborator alike.”
As Opal stepped from the window, a man's scream filled the air. Below her were the falling bodies of an Android ... and a well-paid accountant.
The multicolored plasma beam split the Android's skull, nearly severing it into hemispheres. The break started at the crown of its head, and ended at the center of its mouth.
"Die with me," The Android spat its garbled words in sludge, its teeth chewing through green liquid, "Die." The machine had initiated a death grip, wrapping itself around Obsidian, digging into his flesh while sending electric shocks along his bones.
"RRRRRRRRRR!" Obsidian groaned through clenched teeth, enduring the pain of the searing current.
BOOM!!! BOOM!!! BOOM!!!
He fired more plasma shots, nearly taking off the Android's head, but it was no use; the devil would not let go. It tightened its grip on Obsidian's legs, sending more current through his body.
I was powerless as I watched Obsidian's entire body lock into a violent seizure. I saw his face become stone, his eyes roll to the back of his head. And, as the current stopped, I saw his body go limp. For the first time, I recognized the burden that The Black Heroes had to carry: fighting an invisible enemy that ruled the world, pulling them from the seats of power, changing the business of people that liked business as usual.
I had to do something. I looked around myself for anything that could be used as a weapon. The closest thing to me was a potted plant: a large kentia palm. I picked up the palm and walked to within a few feet of the Android.
"Simon!" I shouted, but the Android didn't react. "Simon Tudor!" I continued, and still no reaction. I pushed through my own fear, and let myself become furious. I raised the potted plant above my head and flung it, smashing it against the Android's face.
"Audit!" I shouted, hoping to reach some remnant of the Simon persona. The Android's broken head began to whir and click. Its quivering eyes spun and locked on to me.
"Audit?" it asked.
"Y-yes," I replied, never expecting my idea to work. "I-it's me, sir, Kwesi Whitmore, from accounting."
"I know who you are. Get to the audit."
There's the Simon I know, I thought. "Yes. The audit. The IRS is concerned about a possible abusive tax shelter, set up by Vitruvius."
The Android's interest was piqued. It sat up to get a better look at me, and neglectfully lowered the unconscious hero.
"The Hominine deal--"
"Yes sir. Hominine Heuristics. The IRS feels that the acquisition was taxable."
"That's ridiculous," said the Android, forgetting its current circumstance, "but easily handled. Call Linda. Have her call the Senate; get me the Finance Committee." The Android seemed satisfied with its own answer, its own ability to do business. It would soon go back to killing Obsidian if I didn't think quickly.
"But there's one more thing, sir," I said.
"Oh?" The Android was nonchalant.
"Yes. There's the S.E.C."
"What?!" The Android was on its feet, now, shouting, completely oblivious to Obsidian. "Why are they involved?!"
"It's simple, really," I said, stalling for time. "They are suspicious of the timing of the deal. Vitruvius acquired Hominine just before the breakthrough in qubit technology, which dramatically brought up the value of the Hominine stock."
The Android was furious, stomping its feet.
"Ridiculous! We finalized that deal on September third, before the qubit news broke. How can they claim we had insider knowledge?!"
"The qubit broke on September fourth, sir. Surely, you can understand the impression of impropriety."
The Android had enough. It was fuming now, literally. It reached out to grab me--
BOOM!!! BOOM!!! BOOM!!!
Obsidian fired his plasma beams at the Android, sending it hurtling through a window. Unfortunately for me, the monster managed to grab my collar, taking me with it.
Fifth Avenue in New York: a beautiful sight to behold. The breathtaking architecture, the humanity below, and a hustle that only money can inspire. It had never looked more beautiful, never enticed me so.
The Android and I were falling to our deaths, headed headlong for pavement. Though afraid, I took some solace in that moment. I knew that I had saved the hero, given him the moment he needed to recover. By saving his life and giving my own, I, Kwesi Whitmore: corporate accountant, had saved countless lives and possibly humanity as a whole. Unlike most in my profession, I'd actually done something tangible … something more than crunching numbers. And that's something I could die with.
Miracle. Two miracles, at the same place and time. I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it. It was just too … perfect, too coordinated to believe. As Obsidian swooped in to pull me from the Android's clutch, Opal Stone rocketed downward, obliterating the enemy on the pavement below.
Moments later, Obsidian and Opal were checking up on me while an EMT patched me up in the back of an ambulance.
"Are you alright, sir?" asked Obsidian.
"Never better," Janet responded before I could answer. She had just told me about Jeff, from I.T. He was in stable condition, now, and would likely survive.
"Well," said Obsidian, "we just wanted to thank you both for your assistance. What you did was very brave."
"No need for thanks,” I answered, “That's just what I do."
With a smile, the hero extended his hand, and shook mine in friendship.