alone on the road – part 1

Alone on the Road
This short story was inspired by this image, titled “Alone on the Road” by Bastien Grivet. I saw this image posted on r/WritingPrompts by user maybeIfailed here. It’s been broken into two parts and I am almost finished with the second.

Jake sat down his morning coffee and plopped into his desk chair. Mornings were quiet. Peaceful, even. His favorite time to work, especially before all his coworkers came in. Unlike most of the people who worked at DualObis, Jake actually liked his job as a systems administrator. For a single guy, it paid well and there were benefits. Plus, work never followed him home. After 5:30 PM, he was free to do as he pleased.

Once his computer had booted up, a notice popped up on the screen.

REMINDER: MONTHLY SECURITY SCAN

Jake groaned. “Is it that time already?” Monthly security scans were mandatory, but definitely not something he enjoyed doing. After all, DualObis was a software company. It specialized in health and finance. Jake had seen the software. It was not much different from competitor software. Nothing worth filing a patent over, anyway. He could see no reason why anyone would care to break in, yet the responsibility fell in his lap.

He tapped a few keys and brought up the security scanning software, ArmaScan. Fast and effective, it was the best on the market and was generally known to be maintained by a group of black-hat-gone-whitehat hackers in Europe somewhere.

Jake sipped his coffee while the software updated itself. Once it was done updating, Jake set it to perform a full security scan of the entire network and its systems and hit ‘Go.’

After half an hour, it was done and displayed a final report. Everything looked normal, but he found a blinking red notice at the bottom:

HIDDEN HOSTS DETECTED: 6

He clicked on the number 6, which took him to a listing of six hosts and ports that he’d never seen before. “What the hell? That can’t be right.” Jake tried sending a simple ping to the host, wondering whether ArmaScan’s update had brought a few bugs along with it. Sure enough, the hosts responded and given the short response times, they were close. Probably inside the building.

By that time, a few people had filtered into the office, including Jake’s boss, Tom. Jake hit a button to print the contents of his screen and got up to show Tom what he’d discovered.

Tom was munching on a breakfast bagel, spilling crumbs all over his keyboard. He looked up from his display. “Jakey boy!”

Jake hated that, but forced a smile. “Hey Tom, I found something strange I thought you should see,” he said. “I told you, man. Stop using company ink for your porn collection.” Tom chuckled at his own joke as he looked over the paper. Somehow, Jake was able to keep from dying of laughter. “What is this?” Tom asked.

“It says it found six unexpected hosts, but they aren’t documented anywhere I can find and I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen them before. I pinged them and they’re real.” Tom’s expression changed, and he gave Jake a hard look, but then his smile returned. “Okay, Jakey boy. I’ll look into it.”

Jake returned to his desk, sipped his coffee but found it cold, and resolved to getting some work done before lunch time.

Ten minutes later, Tom poked his head out of his office and motioned for Jake. “Jakey!” Jake, still less than enthused by his nickname, shuffled his way back into his boss’s office.

“Good news, Jakey. This went all the way to the big man and he wants to see you.” Jake didn’t like the way Tom emphasized the words “big man.” It felt like he was going to have an impromptu meeting with God and he hadn’t prepared a speech. “Looks like you found something important for once,” Tom joked. “They want to see you up there right away. Sounds serious.” Tom’s eyebrows moved up and down.

As he made his way toward the elevator, Jake felt sick to his stomach. Today had started out so quiet. So peaceful. Now, all that was ruined. If Jake had it his way, he’d never have to interact with other people. People devoid of souls, anyway. This place was crawling with them. Feeling his palms start to sweat and his mouth starting to go dry, he scanned his badge and pressed the top button on the elevator.

After what felt like too short a time, the doors opened, but Jake’s legs didn’t want to move. The offices at the top of the building were completely different than the dreary, fluorescent-lighted rat’s maze of cubicles down below. These offices had glass walls, marble floors, normal lights and some kind of soft piano music that seemed to come from the walls. It was like a separate world.

Jake caught the doors as they were about to close again, and found it in him to step out of the elevator. No one was at the reception desk. “Hello? Anybody there?” he asked, then waited. There was no response. His heart was a drum and his stomach was a fist. Not seeing anyone, he darted for the elevator just as the doors were about to close again, just making it inside.

“Floor?” said a voice. Obviously startled, Jake’s attention snapped toward the man that was standing near the button console. Instantly, a thousand questions tried to squeeze through the thin door in his mind, the most obvious being: where the hell did this guy come from? Thinking it better to just leave that one alone, he finally responded, slightly out of breath. “Uh.. first floor, please.”

“Not a problem,” replied the man, who gave him a once-over and then pushed the button.

Now Jake’s mind was racing a bit. Who was this guy? Had he witnessed Jake’s awkward indecision? Did he know the CEO? Why was he on the top floor? His eyes were directed toward the ground while the elevator car moved slowly downward. Funny, it had seemed so fast on the way up, he thought.

He could feel the man’s eyes on him.

“Everything alright?” the man asked.
“I’m fine,” Jake responded. “Probably something I ate.”
“I see. And this wouldn’t have anything to do with Peterson wanting to see you this morning…”

Calvin Andrew Peterson was the name of the CEO. To his friends, he was Cal. To some, including those that didn’t necessarily think he was the best choice when he replaced the last CEO, he was just Peterson. Everyone else just knew him as the CEO.

That got Jake’s attention. His eyes looked up to meet the man’s. He was smiling. The elevator dinged. “You made the right choice.”

“Right choice? What do you mean? What choice?” asked Jake.

The man stepped out without responding, and quickly turned a corner out of sight. Jake felt cemented to the spot. What had seemed like simple cowardice now felt like a surreal connection between his gut instinct and a weird day spiraling out of control. He wanted to just get home and call in sick. Thankfully, he had some sick days left. Sometimes he needed to just disconnect and reset. That would do the trick.

As the doors were about to close, his focus returned to the ground. On the ground where the man had been standing, there was a key card. Jake tried to call out to the stranger, but the doors had already closed. Thinking he might be on some kind of camera, he shifted over until he was standing over the card, dropped his chap stick, then knelt down to pick it up, grabbing the card at the same time.

The key card had looked just like Jake’s. Well, it was the same shape, but it was obviously the card of someone important. Someone with a much higher security clearance. For starters, it was black, and Jake’s was white. It had the man’s picture on it, his name, his title, a few number sequences and not much else.

Joseph Lazarus
CSO, R&D

The elevator gave another ding as the doors opened again. Jake had reached the ground floor. He lifted his head and his heart skipped a beat. Not more than twenty feet in front of him stood the CEO surrounded by an entourage of security. They were discussing something with the lady at the front desk. She was shaking her head no. Jake’s hand instinctively reached for the Close button on the elevator panel, which he pushed repeatedly. As he did so, the woman’s eyes found Jake as he moved against the wall and out of direct line of sight. The doors began to close as heard a few voices bellow in unison, “HEY KID, STOP! WE JUST WANT TO-” Their voices trailed off as he began moving upward. Jake pushed the button for the top floor and had to use the wall of the elevator for support.

What the hell could they possibly want now? Jake wondered. Now he just wanted to get out of there. He wanted this to all blow over, but he felt trapped. This all seemed so silly. Logic told him he wasn’t going to be in any real trouble. They probably just wanted to talk to him about what he found. But what if that wasn’t it? What if he had seen something he wasn’t supposed to? What would they say about his card? How was he going to get out of this?

As if on cue, the elevator came to a halt. He had reached the twentieth floor, but panel went blank and the car began moving down again. Jake tried the buttons for any of the floors above floor 20, but none would work. Floor twelve. He tried pressing the emergency stop. Floor seven. Still, nothing worked. The car continued downward. Then he remembered the CSO’s card. Floor three. He looked for the slot, found it and inserted the card. The elevator stopped abruptly, almost causing him to fall over. There was a continuous buzzing noise. The panel of buttons lit back up again, only this time, there was one more button than before. Where did you come from? he thought.

With a surreal day becoming more-so unreal by the second, Jake had lost some sense of hesitation. He pushed the new button and stepped back, but nothing happened. Then he remembered the buzzing noise. He pulled the emergency stop button out and the buzzing stopped. He tried the button again, and it lit up. The car lurched downward for a moment, and then smoothly continued on past the first floor, passing the basement parking levels and landed on the mysterious unmarked floor. There was a soft ding and the doors opened.

Peeking his head out and seeing no one around, Jake stepped sheepishly out of the elevator.

He stepped into what appeared to be some kind of cross between a break room and a locker room. Lab coats hung on hooks. There were boxes of surgical supplies — gloves, masks and little shoe covers. There was also a coffee maker and a refrigerator. Near a door to his left, there were hand and eye washing stations. There were a number of posters on the walls with everything from safety information to a poster that looked like someone had held onto it from World War II that read, “Loose Lips Might Sink Ships” with a burning ship sinking into an ocean. Comforting, he thought.

Not wanting someone to come through the door, see him and immediately call security, Jake decided to try to blend in somehow. At this point, his expectation to get out of this without being fired or … worse, was … pretty close to zero. He put on a lab coat, some goggles, some booties, even a surgical hat, then picked up a clipboard.

Jake looked for a knob on the door, or some kind of handle, but found none. Instead, there was a scanning device next to the door. He fished for the CSO’s badge, and tried it. The little light on the device turned green and the doors slid noiselessly open.

Stepping into the room and onto a grated floor, the door closed behind him, and what seemed like an enormous fan came to life above his head. It seemed to replace all the air in the room and after a few seconds, it stopped and the door in front of him slid open.

Directly to his left and right were unmarked doors with badge scanners next to each. In front of him was a hallway lined with large windows, three on each side. In front of the windows was railing. Everything seemed blindingly white and, at first, his eyes needed to adjust to it. As he came to the first window, he looked inside and noticed a very large room that must have stopped ten or fifteen feet below him. The room contained what looked like some kind of futuristic gun attached to a machine set to fire it repeatedly. Each time the gun went off, it gave off no fire or smoke, but there was a large WHOOMP sound. Ten feet in front of it, there was a thick steel wall that shook furiously with each pulse, then emmitted sparks. There was a clock above the gun that read: 115 days, 15 hours, 23 minutes and 47 seconds that was counting upward.

Jake looked up at the window, which had a label. The label had a title along with some information, “SH.R.I.M.P. Cannon.”

“The SHort Range Ion Magnetic Pulse Cannon, or SHRIMP Cannon, will incinerate any biological entity within 100 meters’ range with its narrow 2″ beam. Time between charge and pulse is down to three seconds from ten in previous models, with the added bonus of having no overheating effect. As with previous models, there is no external energy required.”

Jake blinked. In his mind, he was contrasting what he was witnessing with what he knew about life at DualObis and they were like puzzle pieces that did not want to fit together, and yet here they were. His eyes scanned over the description for the cannon once again and the words, “biological entity” stood out. He kept running that over in his mind, not wanting to let the reality of that word bubble up to the forefront, but again — there it was. His eyes looked down to where the front of the steel wall was being repeatedly blasted with some kind of energy beam. In front of the wall was a pile of ashes. Realization hit him like a punch to the gut. He felt sick. He wanted to just wake up.

Just then, there was a DING from down the hall. The elevator doors slid open.