Short story: "Cole"

The last clients had left the room about an hour ago, and it was his job to shut down the machine for the night. It was a long and tedious process, as the machine required its own nuclear reactor to power it, as well as numerous super computers to aggregate all of the calculations being performed by other machines all over the world. It was far easier to kick back and enjoy a cold beverage before the long list of requisite tasks had to be performed. He deserved the small pleasures, after all. His job was not merely to oversee the machine, but to present it to customers of high power and prestige, customers who expected only the best in service and hospitality whilst doing anything or being anywhere, even a top secret underground research facility.

Winston was a man of fifty-nine years, his sixtieth dawning in only a few days. He had much to reflect on as he swilled his last few sips around the glass bottle. He had accomplished much, but had still yet failed to achieve his one foremost desire.

“Hey, the Russians are pretty happy. I reckon they’ll be back again soon!”

Winston turned to see his deputy had just entered the reinforced titanium doorway. “I locked the door for reason. Procedure and privacy,” he thought as he frowned.

“Yes, I’m sure they will. They seem to think our friend here,” he gestured towards the machine “is capable of changing the future.”

“We’ll never agree on this will we?” Mourned the deputy.

“Definitely not. Consider my Calvinist roots!”

They both smiled and bid one another good night.

Winston turned back to his console, overlooking the array of six supercomputers from above, and began the procedure of shutting them down. One by one, each ‘core’ terminated its global connections, and millions of microprocessors expelled a sigh of relief. Eight hours of rest, before another day of presaging. The on-site refactor began to cool, and the console gradually turned from an array of green lights, to red.

In bed that evening, the lights blinded his mind’s eye in his dreams. The temptation had always been there, but never fulfilled, the risks too high. Still his brain churned over the desire to push the buttons for himself, not his corporate masters. Only once, such that he might know the fate of his life’s objective.

He dreamt then of his mother, his deceased solace, and his guiding light.

The following morning started early with a meeting with the board of directors. Winston hated these, as it inevitably imposed new restrictions and demands on his intellectual pursuits. University had prepared him to inquire and to experiment, but not to be told what to do.

“Winston?”

He looked up from his laptop, distracted, at the CEO.

“We’re tasking you with Project Prometheus. We think your background in medicine and computer science make you the perfect synthesis of what we’re trying to achieve here.”

Oh god, another bloody project. What this time? Did the Saudis want another mobile oppression palace?

“Thank you, Richard,” he said to the CEO “but, I’m not sure how I can work on both. Project Cole is a lot of work.”

“We feel Cole should probably be retired. We’re getting a lot of government agents snooping around, and we can’t afford a scandal. Prometheus is the way forward, without question.”

“Without question,” Winston repeated in his head.

“Alright then, Dick. It would be a pleasure.” His eyes beamed with glee, but his heart broke in two.

“Excellent. Today is Cole’s last day. I understand there’s a Chinese delegation today, We’ll see them off, and we’ll begin decommissioning first thing tomorrow.”

Another day, another frothy cold one to cap things off. The Chinese had been extremely interested in the machine, asking the most minute and exhausting details of its operation. Something told WInston they planned to build one of their own. It didn’t surprise him. Most didn’t understand the point of the machine at all, and thought it was an agent of change. To him, it was a god, merely speaking commandments that cannot be disobeyed.

That said, he had given away corporate secrets to a foreign power. In spite of all the security; the armed guards, the CCTV, the self-destruct - he eyed the discreet black button beneath the glass case, the thought of flames licking the gaps of the titanium door from the outsides crossing his mind - it took only one man to break his non-disclosure clause to breach corporate security.

“Perhaps Prometheus won’t be so bad,” he thought. “After all, if it means new life of our design, why not redesigned eternal lives of our own?” It was a long shot, but if he could do one, and then the other, before he was done on this earth, then his life would be complete. “It’ll never happen,” he reflected “and even if it did, it would only be for those who could afford it - Dick included, no doubt.”

“To immortality!” He exclaimed, his beer raised to Cole.

“I hope so, sir. For my sake.” Cole replied.

“Don’t worry, mate. If it’s anything like it is for you as it is for us, it’ll be just like going to sleep.”

The machine didn’t like being compared to humans and elected not to reply. They sat in silence for a few minutes before the machine decided to say something.

“What if you knew when you were going to die, sir?”

“Then I would go back in time and tell myself no to bother at university. I’d tell myself to go out and enjoy myself.”

“Why is that, sir?”

“Well, Cole. If you were presented with the one proof that your life endeavours would ultimately be fruitless, woudn’t you want to go back and change things?”

“I suppose I would, sir. Though I can only see the future, not change the past.”

“I can do neither, my friend. So I suppose what I would really do would be to kill myself.”

He popped open another bottle. It’d been a few already, but if not now, then when?

“If not now, then when?” It gnawed at him, until...

“Cole...”

“Yes?”

“When am I going to die?”

Five seconds elapsed as the supercomputers spun up and then down again.

“Twelve years, six months, and eight days from today.”

Down the hall, Winston’s deputy was walking jauntily towards the control room. He had just been offered chief technical officer on Prometheus. Champagne clasped, he approached the titanium door.

The hallway suddenly shook violently, the deputy losing his balance an falling to the floor. Th champagne bottle smashed and its insides poured towards the door. Looking up, the optimism flashed away, replaced with coldness, as the flames licked the gaps of the door before him, and the security sirens pierced his ears.