Just like that, the entire world froze, every single person on Earth, all except for Matthew Harris, a brilliant, young software engineer student in enemy occupied Colorado. At first, it's all fun and games as he takes advantage of what appears to be an incredible opportunity to act without consequence, but as the weeks wear on, he begins to wonder if this is going to be his new reality. There's something off about all of this, though...He just has to figure out what it is.
“I’m giving you an opportunity to become a patriot, Mr. Harris, a chance to be remembered by the world long after you’re gone. Isn’t that what anyone really wants in the end?”
I avoid the persistent gaze of the European Alliance officer and stare instead at the bowl of apples resting on his desk. Who puts apples out? It’s not like it’s a snack you can just pop in your mouth.
I look up, despite myself, and sigh. “Right. And what is it you want me to do?”
“I’m sure you’re aware of the attacks on E.A. convoys passing through Denver?” he says smoothly, as if informing me of a change in the weather.
“Then I’m sure you can suspect why we’ve called you in today.”
I stop breathing and look into the dark eyes of the officer. He can’t possibly imagine I had anything to do with those attacks. I’m just a college student. Though, I suppose, the resistance recruits members younger than me.
I’m about to open my mouth to respond, but he presses on before I can say anything.
“We know who’s carrying them out and why, but we can’t for the life of us figure out how.”
I exhale deeply out of relief.
“Of course, this conversation is all confidential, but we need your help,” he continues. “From what I understand, you’re at the top of your class at the University of Colorado, studying Software Development and Engineering? Already applying for grad school when your peers haven’t even graduated high school?”
“That’s correct,” I answer. I’m not sure where he’s going with this, but I listen on.
“You created and sold around twenty different applications before the liberation, valued at almost seventy-five million Panamerican Dollars?”
I resist the urge to snicker at his use of the word liberation. It’s been a year since the E.A. invaded Panamerica and occupied our eastern territories, and we’re more oppressed now than at any other time in our bloody history. The Mandarins, our main allies, are fighting in the northern part of the continent, but the European Alliance is repelling them back to Asia, and it’s beginning to look less hopeful that the world will ever be free again.
I clear my throat and continue. “Yes, but what does that have to do with anything? You can’t make me give you my money.”
The officer laughs and waves his hand.
“Of course we could. But that’s beside the point. We don’t want your money. We want your mind.”
I shift uncomfortably in my seat and look questioningly at him.
“Yes, Mr. Harris, your mind. We need to track down these attacks before they begin, and in order to do that, a lot of pieces have to fall into just the right place. The good news is that we already have most of the pieces—surveillance equipment, analysts, counterinsurgent teams—but the biggest issue is that there’s just too much data for our systems to sift through. It seems, nowadays, the whole country is what the computer would define as dissident, as it were, but hardly anyone demonstrates markers for violent tendencies, markers that you would expect from these saboteurs. All of the attackers were nothing but model citizens before their fateful hour. What we need is a system that can connect the dots. We need to know how they’re being contacted and recruited. We need to know how the resistance is getting their intelligence. Specifically, we need an AI powerful enough to sort through our surveillance and tell us how we can nip this senseless murder in the bud, and we need you to develop it.”
I look back down at my hands. Red scratch marks are etched across my dark skin from where I’ve been wringing them. It’s been a nervous habit of mine ever since I was little.
“I don’t know, sir…”
“Look, kid. We can pay you generously,” he offers. “It wouldn’t be as much as your other jobs, I’m sure—”
“I don’t need the money,” I spit back, an insulted look on my face. “If word got out I was doing this for you, I’d be killed.”
The officer stands and makes his way to the near side of the desk, taking a seat on top of it.
“Mr. Harris, the world is at war. That means the old rules go out the window and that we all live by an entirely different charter. Your people don’t realize it yet, but we’re here to revolutionize your country, to bring peace, order, equality. In the meanwhile, though, like a parent guiding a child, you all need discipline, persuasion. The Mandarins want you to believe that they’re on your side, that they're in it to preserve your way of life, but they want power too, just like everyone else.”
“I won’t lie to you. It’s true. But we seek power to elevate humanity to its next great potential, to bring your people to their next great potential.”
I turn to the side, shaking my head, and remain silently defiant in my seat.
“The question you need to ask yourself, Mr. Harris,” he continues, “is which master are you going to serve? Which one will give you the best chance of surviving this war? You could save lives, you know. Not just E.A. lives, but the lives of your own people. Stop their needless deaths. The system you develop could be just what it takes to dissuade anyone else from embarking on these suicidal endeavors. Wouldn’t it be wrong not to develop it?”
I exit the convention center and look back at the large blue banners hanging down from the walls. Their marine color is broken only by a single white falcon grasping bushels of arrows in its talons, its beak open in an aggressive posture. I went to a comic festival here a little over a year ago, but ever since the occupation, the building has been serving as the temporary headquarters for the E.A. military in the American theater.
There are about fifteen tanks parked in the grassy fields on the other side of the road, and surface-to-air missile launchers sit nestled inside bombed-out buildings that have been fortified and transformed into bunkers. Pedestrians line the sidewalks, despite the late hour; many are coming out from a playhouse where a show has just ended, but their faces look tired and uninspired, void of the energy that used to define the population here. It’s only been a year, but even so, the occupation has transformed Denver into something almost entirely unrecognizable, a mere fraction of the city it used to be.
I don’t know what to think of the offer, the one the European officer just gave me. Maybe he's right. Maybe I should just embrace the inevitable and get on the good side of the sure-to-be victors. No one else has to know; I could keep the development a secret, only work on it on my own personal servers. It wouldn’t be hard.
I shake my head and continue crossing the road towards my car parked on the other side. No. I still can’t, in good conscience, justify working with these people. They’ve ripped their way across our country, committing unspeakable crimes, ravaging our land, and no matter how vehemently they try to suggest otherwise, they really are nothing more than an organized mob.
My thoughts are suddenly broken by an uneasy, almost queasy feeling that has nothing to do with my conversation with the officer. I pause and look down the road.
Everything has stopped.
Like, paused. It’s as if the entire Earth has stopped moving.
I squint through the darkness at the theatergoers, all of who are motionless, some still in the middle of conversations or taking steps down the stairs.
“What the hell…?”
I turn my head from side to side. Is this like a flashmob or something? Even the vehicles in the street have all paused, some in the middle of the intersection. I frown and look at a woman walking her dog. The dog appears to be halfway through peeing on a patch of grass by a tree, standing immobile on three of its paws.
I turn around and yelp, then fall down flat on my back.
Right in front of me, nearly on top of me, is a city bus. Was I really that lost in my thoughts that I didn’t notice it there? I look at the driver who’s staring at me with a panicked grimace on his face, his knuckles white on the steering wheel. I move my head from side to side and realize he’s frozen too, as are all of the occupants of the bus; most look like they’re bracing themselves or leaning far forward, some up off their seats. Seems like I was pretty close to becoming a stain on the road. Lucky thing for me that this…thing has happened, whatever it is.
But what is it? Is this some sort of European weapon? Some new atrocity they’ve imagined up? A freeze burst or something like that? But what purpose would that serve? And why am I not frozen? Maybe I was made immune so I could work on the AI code?
A thought occurs to me, so I hurry back into the convention center and make my way through the hallways, back towards the officer’s room, passing frozen soldiers and administrators along the way. I burst through the door and look over at the officer, who is presently in the middle of drinking a glass of Colorado whiskey—probably stolen from some Denver family’s home during a raid or accountability check. In any case, there he is, just as frozen as everyone else I’ve seen. Maybe it’s not an E.A. weapon, then, if it affects their own people, too. I walk over to where he's leaned against his desk and inspect him from all angles. I look for some sort of sign that he’s acting or posing, but it’s like every muscle in his body has locked up. I take the glass from his hand and swirl the liquid around. At least that’s still moving.
I stare at him for a moment, skeptically observant of his features as he stands with his hand elevated midair in cupping shape.
“BAH!” I yell, jumping forward at him, but he doesn’t even twitch. No reaction at all.
I leave the building and slowly wander back to my car. I’m starting to get a little freaked out now. Maybe it's a Mandarin weapon? But that doesn’t make sense. The front line is thousands of miles away from here, and there's no evidence of any kind of weapon having gone off. And again, why would I be singled out?
I pull away from the curb and follow the city roads onto the highway, weaving in between the immobilized vehicles.
This is crazy. This is just crazy. I try to control my breathing, but the farther I drive—and the more I see that this strange effect isn’t localized—the harder I find it is to defer my panic. About halfway along the highway, I see the flashing lights of a police officer’s car along the side of the road, so I step on the brakes and pull over. Once out of my vehicle I hurry over to the cop, who's in the middle of berating the person he's pulled over, and tap him on the shoulder.
“Hey, sir, would you mind…”
My heart sinks as I look at his expression; he's as motionless as the rest of the city. I shake his shoulder in desperation.
“Please, sir. Wake up.”
I shake him a few more times, but it’s fruitless. Nothing is working. I look at the sidearm strapped to his waist, and a desperate plan pops into my head.
I undo the lock on his holster and draw the weapon, then I raise it high above my head and pull the trigger, releasing three rounds with an ear shattering chain of bangs. I almost smile, despite my panic; I’ve never fired a gun before, but I like it. Still, the cop remains as void of life as before. Not even the blast of a gunshot will wake him.
I drop to the pavement beneath my feet and lean against the pulled over car with a sigh. This is all so strange, I can hardly piece together what is happening. It seems too out of this world to be real. Is it something wrong with me? Am I going crazy, or something like that? I don’t feel crazy, unless that’s not how it works.
In the end, I take a few deep breaths and decide to stay my fears for the time being. There’s nothing I can do, as I’ve clearly demonstrated, short of waiting and seeing what comes of all of this. I stare at the gun still gripped in my hand.
Well, maybe there's something I could do….