Escape to wondrous worlds

Nicole Murphy & Elizabeth Dunk

Nicole Murphy & Elizabeth Dunk

Run the Program

Lisa’s legs were wrapped tight around the cold, steel flagpole. She hugged it to her chest, her knuckles white with strain. She tilted her head, silently praying her grip would remain steady, while she glimpsed the grass twenty metres below her. She shivered. She would love to be back down there, but she was too scared to move.

She she tipped her head up to look up at the huge black and yellow flag that snapped in a brisk wind. She had wanted to make it up there but thirty metres short of her goal, she had come to a halt. She gazed out over the city, admired the purples and pinks that painted the surrounding hills and realised she was being incredibly stupid.

It had seemed like a good idea when she had started out. Now doubts surfaced—should she have just pretended it hadn’t happened? Should she have let them push her into a cushy job where she had nothing to do but concentrate on her painting?

She snorted. She couldn’t do that. She cared too much about people, about ensuring their lives were peaceful and content. But surely there was a better way to let people know what was happening than climbing the flagpole of the Yestranin Parliament.

“Lisa.” A deep, booming voice echoed through the air. Lisa turned her head to look over her left shoulder at a small, white craft that hovered in the air. It was flat and shaped like an inverted v. “The Yestranin Parliament will consider your request after you reach the ground.”

It was a beautiful voice, she thought, warm and rich, like a sweet hot drink on a cold day. She had chosen the IAM’s voice well.

A part of her wanted desperately to agree with QT439’s request. It was a shame she was too terrified to move. She spat some windblown hair out of her mouth. “I’m sorry, QT439, but I’m staying here until they investigate.”

The craft edged forward. It disturbed the air around her and nearly dislodged her from the pole. Lisa screamed as she pressed her knees tight, slowing her slide. Thankfully, her stick ball shoes adhered to the smooth surface, and she felt secure. Hopefully the shoes would continue to grip for some hours yet.

The craft hovered and she thought back to how things had been progressing normally a few days earlier. The city had been running smoothly, a power outage in a northern suburb the only difficulty to deal with and QT439 had handled that routinely. Lisa had downloaded her painting materials and had been working on the skin tone of her portrait when QT439 had made his announcement.

“The world is going to end, Lisa.” QT439’s rich tones flowed across her senses.

“That’s nice,” she said, still absorbed in her work. The screen changed and her painting was replaced by a series of figures. She pursed her lips and read them, frowning. “Why do you believe the world is going to end, QT? The system indicators look fine to me.”

“Did you monitor the events in the Yestranin Parliament overnight?”

“Yes, I did.” Lisa frowned. Last night, a ruckus had arisen when the great landmass of Cromania was refused access to the Religious Convention, the ruling being that their belief in the recurrence of the seasons was not a religion. “Some of the delegates got very agitated over the issue, but I cannot see how that means the world is going to end.”

“The quotients, Lisa. They are out of control. There are no management protocols to reverse the trend. I’m predicting imminent social breakdown.”

She looked again at the numbers and all seemed well within the approved quotient range of 6.2 and 8.5. She gently touched the screen in the right corner and looked over all the operational data for the past 24 hours. She could see nothing out of the ordinary. What could have put such an outrageous idea into QT439’s head?

“QT, show me the quotients you are receiving.” Figures whirled across the screen, ending in a row of flashing numbers. Lisa looked at them and her eyes widened, her heart skipping a beat. Anger, 12.3. Fear, 15.7. Hatred, 14.4. Stress, 17.5. Those numbers couldn’t be right.

“QT, run the recalculation program.” Figures flashed across the screen, then came to the end. The flashing numbers were the same.

Lisa tapped the glass, leaving her fingerprints all over the surface as her fingers moved quickly across the screen. She ran the program that checked QT439’s computational abilities. Everything appeared to be working perfectly. She asked QT439 to calculate the quotients again, and the same answers appeared.

A shiver ran up Lisa’s spine. The last time she had seen numbers like that was during history class, when studying the years during the height of The Great Interference. Had QT439’s programming somehow been interfered with? Was he picking up information that was a century old rather than current information? She ran a routine that checked all his operational data for the past week, then for the past month. There was nothing out of the ordinary.

She slumped back in her seat. The only possible explanation for the figures was that QT439 was right. The anger, fear, hatred and stress quotients were off the scale and trouble loomed.

She shook her head in denial. The people of Yestranin had spent decades building trust and friendship between the different races of the planet. There had not been any conflict between any race in her lifetime. It could not be happening. “QT439, if these quotients continue as you predict, what’s to be done?”

“You must be prepared to escape, Lisa. In the case of a social breakdown, your position as a city controller would make you vulnerable. You need to build a ship.”

Lisa blinked and then began laughing. “A ship? QT, what are you talking about?”

“A space ship. You and the other city controllers will need to find a new planet to live on. I have begun to calculate where such a planet will be found. It is a viable option, Lisa. You simply need to get one of the old escape pods from The Great Intervention and make a few adjustments to its outer shell to make it space worthy, then—”

Her laugh died—QT439 was serious. “And what will happen to the rest of the people? If things are this bad, why hasn’t the Parliament given a warning?”

There was a pause before QT439 answered. “I do not know the answer to that question, Lisa.”

“Notify me the moment you receive a report or communication from the Parliament. In the meantime, set everyone’s environments to relaxation level five.”

“That will disrupt the achievement quotients, Lisa.”

“I am well aware of that, QT, but if the other quotients remain this bad then the achievement quotient will be irrelevant anyway. Relaxation level five.”

“Yes, Lisa.” Within moments, she became aware of a rise in the room temperature, enough to send a subtle lassitude through her body. She leant back in her chair and concentrated on the barely audible strain of music that danced through the air. Soon after, the scent of fresh flowers reached her nostrils.

She nodded. The relaxation mode seemed to be kicking in well. She got up, moved over to the window and leant against the wall to gaze out over the city. Below her, people rushed along the elevated walkways that provided transport through the city. She rested her head against the glass and watched them. Slowly but surely, the speed people were moving began to lessen as the relaxing environments in the buildings began to calm them. When most people were walking at a leisurely pace rather than running, she left the window and went back to the desk. That should fix up the quotients and tomorrow, everything would be fine.

She touched the screen, brought up her artwork and was soon lost in the dilemma of bringing the right flush of pink to her subject’s cheek.

#

“The Yestranin Parliament are concerned about your safety, Lisa.” QT439’s voice roused her from her memories. She blinked, feeling tiredness pull at her muscles.

“Then they had best start the investigation immediately.” She risked another glance at the ground. Small figures moved around on the grass beneath her. Soon they would try and rescue her. Climbing higher seemed the only option. If she could convince her aching body to move.

“Noah Smith wishes to speak with you, Lisa.”

Noah Smith can go to hell, she thought to herself. This was all his fault. Him and his ambition.

Still, she had to take some blame as well. She should have further investigated the anomalies in the quotients, not simply patted herself on the back and then gone on with her life until it was raised again.

#

“Lisa, I think you should see what Gemma is doing.”

Lisa’s head came up from her painting with a frown. Gemma was the city controller for Southern Haon and one of the most ambitious women she’d ever met. When Gemma had heard of Lisa’s interest in oil painting, she had taken up the craft and had declared her intention to get a painting into a gallery before Lisa did. Since Lisa did not intend to publicly display her work, she could do nothing but wish Gemma luck. “Why?”

The monitor lit up and she was looking at a video of a suburban roof, the protective dome open so the flat surface was at the mercy of the elements. Purple capped mountains in the distance helped her guess it was in the Oburra region of the city. The camera moved in closer. Lisa frowned, first because QT439 shouldn’t be able to see into Southern Haon, then because there appeared to be some construction work happening on the roof of Gemma’s home. “QT, what is it?”

“An escape capsule.”

Lisa studied the screen. She recognised the outline of one of the old escape pods, a remnant of The Great Interference. Encased in scaffolding, it was obviously under construction. “What is she doing?”

“Her IAM has recommended that she reconfigure one of the escape pods and leave. You will recall that was also my suggestion to you.”

Lisa’s brows drew together in a frown. “Why would I need to escape, QT?” Then she remembered. “You still think the world is going to end?”

“The quotients are still too high, Lisa.”

Lisa shook her head. “It has to be a system error, QT.”

“Gemma does not think so.”

Lisa stared at the construction. Was there some truth to it all? Bloody hell. “QT, have all IAMs made the same calculations as you?”

“All IAMs have concurred, Lisa.”

Lisa stood and walked over to the window. The sun beamed down upon the city. Below her, people walked through the transport tubes on their way to work, laughing and chatting. They appeared so completely relaxed, their quotients had to be good. How could QT439 be so sure that the world was going to end?

She moved back to the desk and began moving her hand over the screen. She logged into the system and began looking at quotients from individual IAMs. Added together and averaged, they did not show the huge numbers of QT439’s computation. “QT439, where did the figures for your computation yesterday come from?”

“From the Yestranin Parliament.”

“Show them to me.” The screen flashed row after row of numbers at her. None of them seemed to match what she had seen from the IAMs. She began to search for the source of the Parliament’s numbers and was surprised to find her access blocked. She tried a number of different methods and in all of them, she could not access the database she needed.

“QT439, is my security clearance up to date?”

“It is. You have access to all Yestranin Parliamentary databases.”

“There is one I cannot get into. Can you check it out for me?”

A second passed, then figures began to whirr across her screen. They matched the figures that QT439 had been processing.

Lisa slumped back in her seat. What was going on? Which figures were right, the Parliament’s figures or the IAM figures? And why was Gemma so convinced her IAM was right? Lisa’s eyes widened. Was there something she didn’t know? “QT, pull up all the messages I have received for the past month and compare them to all the messages Gemma has received for the past month. Tell me about the discrepancies.”

She tapped her fingernails against her teeth. Was she being purposely kept out of the loop? Was someone out to get her? It was the only logical explanation.

“There are no discrepancies, Lisa. You and Gemma have received the same messages.”

She bit on one of her fingernails. “Can you look at Gemma’s personal messages?”

“Negative.”

She grimaced but wasn’t surprised by that answer. She got up and moved over to the window again. Surely if something was really wrong, the Yestranin Parliament would be doing something about it.

“QT, are you sure the Yestranin Parliament knows about these new figures?”

“What do you mean?”

She chewed on her nail a little longer. “Check the last reports that have been given to the Parliament and see if their figures match the figures you have been given.”

“That will take me some time, Lisa.”

“That’s all right, QT. Put the city on manual and get to it.” There was a pause then a buzz that told her now she was in control of the city. She stared out at the window for a moment longer, noting the lack of panic in the city. There couldn’t be anything wrong.

Then she turned around, moved back to her desk and began overseeing the city.

#

“Lisa.” QT439’s voice brought her back to the present. “The Yestranin Parliament has agreed to investigate your allegation that the city controllers all left due to a threat caused by incorrect information. They ask that you now come down.”

Lisa’s arms were screaming. She really had to let go. She looked down and saw that people were beginning to climb up the pole after her. Should she let them get her? That would mean trusting the Yestranin Parliament and she wasn’t ready to do that yet. She shook her head, and ground her teeth together. “Not until the investigation is finished,” she said.

“Lisa, that could take several hours.”

“I can stay here that long.” Her voice was strained. Please, body, please hang in there.

“I will ask the Yestranin Parliament to fast track the investigation.”

“Thank you, QT439, I would appreciate that.” Lisa pressed herself against the metal pole.

#

It had taken QT439 four hours to find what she was looking for. “There is a discrepancy between the reports given to the Yestranin Parliament and the quotients I have received.”

“Put the figures on the screen, QT, and reassume city control.” A short buzz announced QT439 was again running the city. Lisa touched her screen and began looking at the figures from the Parliamentary Reports. She compared them to the figures she had calculated from the IAMs and they matched.

She leant back in her seat. There didn’t seem much doubt that QT439 had been fed incorrect quotients. There was a problem with the Parliament’s database and obviously people like Gemma believed it.

“QT, put me in touch with Monitoring Section Administration.”

There was a pause, then a woman’s face appeared on the screen. “Welcome to Monitoring Section Administration. This is Geneva Halston. How can I assist you?”

“This is Lisa Ho, City Controller for Northern Hoan. I have picked up some discrepancies in the quotients being sent to my IAM from the Parliamentary Quotient Database.”

“Yes, we are well aware of that, Controller Ho. You should have received a message about it a few hours ago. We are correcting the system now. Continue to rely upon your city figures.”

Lisa quickly touched her screen and scanned her messages. “I have not received that message.”

“Our apologies, Controller. We will send that message out to you immediately. In the meantime, rely upon your city figures.”

“Thank you.” The woman’s face disappeared and Lisa again faced the screen of quotients for Northern Hoan. She nodded and smiled. Everything was under control, just a simple glitch. Gemma was going to look a right idiot. Still smiling, she called up her painting and continued working on it.

She gently touched the skin around the subject’s eye, making the slightest change to the shadows. Then QT439 spoke. “Lisa, there is an important message for you from the head of the Monitoring Section Administration.”

“Put it through, QT.” A man’s face appeared on her screen. He was smiling broadly and his face was round and open. But there was something about his eyes that she didn’t like.

“Controller Ho, I would like to apologise for the mistake that has been made. I can only begin to imagine the stress it must have put you under.”

Lisa frowned. “Not at all. I was a little concerned by the anomalies, but I’m quite happy that things have been resolved satisfactorily.”

“I am very happy to hear that but I am still concerned. I am sending a Parliamentary healer to have a look at you and make sure you are still fit to continue this harrowing work.”

A shiver ran down Lisa’s back. “I can assure you, Administrator, I am quite fit.”

“Allow me to reassure myself of that, Controller Ho. Your work is much too valuable to all of us.” He nodded and then disappeared. This time, instead of seeing any figures, the screen was blank.

“QT, show me the figures please.”

“I am afraid I cannot, Lisa. You must be given a clean bill of health by the healer before you can have access to the system. Gemma has been given emergency override powers.”

Lisa’s eyes widened and then she laughed. She was being checked out to make sure she could still do the job while they gave double the responsibility to a woman who was building an escape rocket on her rooftop? The world might not be ending, but it was certainly going crazy.

She kept herself occupied with her painting until the healer arrived.

“I’m perfectly all right,” she told the fat little man.

He clicked his tongue against his teeth. “I will decide that.”

After prodding her and poking her and putting all sorts of materials on her skin and under her tongue, he made his prognosis. “You are completely worn out. I’m afraid you are no longer suitable for the job of City Controller. I will recommend a week’s rest for you, and then you will be allocated to a new position.” He grinned at her, as if she should be glad to hear this news.

Lisa heard her heart thumping. It was loud enough to fill the silence of the room and her head. Then all her thoughts and emotions crashed onto her. “No! You can’t do this! There’s nothing wrong with me.”

“Yelling at me simply proves I was right.” His smile disappeared and he frowned at her. “You should be thanking me. Why anyone would want a thankless, stressful job like City Controller is beyond me.” He turned and waddled out of the room, mumbling.

Lisa pressed her hands to the screen and nothing happened. “QT, connect me to Admin.”

“You are no longer an employee of the Monitoring Section of the Yestranin Parliament. You will now vacate the building.” The temperature suddenly dived and a frigid air blew onto the back of her neck. They weren’t going to give her any time to collect her thoughts or her things.

She stood and wandered out the door, finding the lift down to the ground floor by habit. Her feet mechanically carried her out onto the transport carpet and her fingers automatically punched in her home address. She was barely aware of the buildings and people moving past her. All her thoughts centred on her dismissal.

How could they just sack her like that? She’d had a check just a few weeks earlier and everything had been fine then. Why was she suddenly unfit for the job?

A vision of Gemma’s escape craft came into her mind. Was the threat real? Had she not seen what was really happening because there was something wrong with her?

She went over all her actions over the past few days and could find nothing to show she had lost control. In fact, the figures she had obtained from the parliament and her own calculations proved that she was right. There wasn’t really a threat. But someone wanted the controllers to think there was.

Then all her thoughts joined into one, clear picture. That was why she had been sacked. She had worked out the truth and whoever was organising it didn’t want her telling the other controllers.

Her entire body began to shake and she wrapped her arms around her waist. It was all planned. Someone wanted the City Controllers to leave. She was supposed to be like Gemma, build herself a rocket and fly off into space, leaving the planet to fend for itself.

She closed her eyes. Who was going to stop this madness? She would have to. But how?

She shook her head. There was nothing she could do now, except pray that it would all work out right in the end.

#

Two days later, she awoke to the subtle sound of water moving over a bed of rocks and birds singing in the background, a sound far removed from the normal hum of the air conditioner and swoosh of the transport tube outside. She took a deep breath and realised the air was thinner and cleaner. Her room was pleasantly warm, enough to make the muscles relaxed without drawing a sweat.

Her home had been switched to extreme relaxation mode. She got up and moved over to the window, pushing the curtain open. The bright sun shone down onto the street. There should have been people moving around, going to work or education. But all was still.

So the entire city had been put into extreme relaxation mode. That could only mean the quotients had gone right off the board and that could only happen in two short days if the dodgy database had never been fixed.

A light chime rang over the soothing forest sounds, the signal that a message was coming from the Yestranin Parliament. She wandered into her main room and stood facing the large screen.

A bright flash and then the screen showed five people standing in front of a black and yellow flag. The one in the middle stepped up to a microphone and began to speak. “Greetings to all our hardworking and distinguished citizens. We regret to inform you that over the past few hours, a terrible crisis has occurred. A large number of our once reliable and trusted City Controllers have absconded. Unbeknownst to us, they conspired to leave this planet, setting the Monitoring System up to fail and then escaped by means of small, personal craft. Their plan was to rendezvous at the International Space Station and from there, take off to form their own society. Luckily, we were able to apprehend a great number of the Controllers and they now await trial for treason aboard the ISS. Unfortunately, some of the small craft they built were very flimsy and several broke up during take off.” The woman stopped and all five bowed their heads.

Lisa’s hand covered her mouth with a gasp. Her co-workers were dead? It wasn’t possible. Slowly, anger began to build within her as she considered the lies the Parliament was telling.

“We thank the City Controllers that remained for their selfless work. Unfortunately, this situation cannot remain as it is, and so the Yestranin Parliament has made a decision. A team from here, at the Parliament, will now control the IAM network. Noah Smith will head the team. I am sure you join us in supporting Noah and his efforts to ensure we never face such a dire crisis again.”

A man stepped forward. It was him, with the smiling face and the eyes. She couldn’t forget those eyes. “I promise you that I will take good care of you all. You will all be like children to me.”

Lisa’s attention focussed on Noah Smith, the man who had spoken to her and ordered the healer come and look at her. What was he up to? To her surprise, he suddenly looked straight at the camera and winked. Then the broadcast ended.

Lisa stumbled back a few steps and flopped back in a seat. Noah Smith. The little worm. He now had control of all the electrical systems around the world.

She thought about what that would mean. They would have to make huge changes, simplify people’s lives greatly or they wouldn’t cope. People would have to live where they worked so the system wouldn’t have to deal with millions of commuters. Food would only be delivered in certain ways at certain times to make catering easier. Only certain types of entertainment would be available and then only at certain times.

She shivered. It sounded terrible. Well, she wasn’t going to just sit around and let it happen.

#

“Lisa, the Parliament have an interim report on the investigation. They can find no anomalies in the system. They ask that you please get down. They are worried about you.”

Lisa scoffed. “Worried about how they’re going to look, you mean. Tell them to compare their databases to the memory units of the IAMs.” As she looked over her shoulder at the craft that was speaking to her, her grip on the pole loosened and she suddenly slipped down several metres. Her hands burnt with friction as she forced her stick ball shoes against the smooth surface and pulled herself to a stop. She clenched her teeth until she had control of the pain then pressed herself against the pole, shivering.

“They are planning on doing that, but they are concerned about you. Please come down.”

“When they’re done.”

The sun that was setting behind the distant hills lit the distant suburbs. The air was chilled and her fingers were becoming numb. If something didn’t happen soon, she was going to fall and die and for what? For the good of the world, she told herself sternly. Better that one die rather than billions suffer.

“Lisa, another interim report has come through. There are one or two anomalies and these are being fully investigated.”

Triumph rushed through her. Yes. They were going to catch Noah Smith out and freedom and peace would be maintained.

“Lisa, if I might ask a question for my own information, why are you doing this?”

She tried to think of how she could explain this to a computer, even one as intelligent as QT439. “I am programmed to care for everyone, QT439, to ensure they are always free and safe.”

“And you must run that program?”

“Yes.” She slipped again, and cursed.

“Lisa, your stress and fear quotients are very high. You should come down.”

“Not until I know everyone will be free and safe.”

The sun was a bare outline on the distant mountains when QT439 spoke again. “The Yestranin Parliament is not happy with the anomalies it is finding. It has decided to rescind its decision and hand control of the cities back to the city controllers until this matter is fully investigated. You are reinstated as City Controller with a restriction to verbal commands and only for the regions under your control.”

Lisa stared at the pole and realised two things. First, that she had won. Second, she apparently had her old job back. With that realisation, her strength gave way and she fell.

#

When Lisa opened her eyes, she was lying flat on her back, bandaged from head to foot. She stared up at the ceiling and wondered how long she had been here and how bad she was.

“Good morning, Lisa.” QT439’s voice boomed at her.

She frowned. “QT, where am I?”

“In your office, of course. I am pleased to see you are awake, because each of the regions currently under our guidance has issues that require authorisation. In Southern Hoan, a man has not been at work for two days and will not answer his door to his friends. I require permission to go run the investigatory program.”

“Hang on. I fell twenty metres to the ground, judging by my mummified position I broke every bone in my body, and you expect me to work?”

“You are the City Controller, Lisa. You are programmed to ensure people remain free and safe, is that not correct? You must run that program.”

Lisa closed her eyes and mentally swore in every language she knew. Bloody computers. “You’re right, QT439.”

“Good. I must inform you that the Yestranin Parliament has discovered the databases were tampered with. They say it is only a matter of time until they find out who is responsible and have put Noah Smith in charge of the investigation. The system will remain under the auspices of the city controllers for the foreseeable future. Now, can I have that authorisation for the investigatory program for South Hoan?”

Lisa sighed. Typical. She risks her life and they go and put the fox in charge of the hen house. “Run the program, QT439, and then you are to fill me in on whether we’re going to get the missing City Controllers back.” She closed her eyes and began to plan her next assault on the flagpole.

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