“Well Mr. Simmons, I’m so glad you were able to meet with us today.”
“The invitation I received left me little choice. But you said you have something of vital importance to my work? Mr.?”
“Clarenton. And Yes. Yes. There’s quite a lot to discuss really… fortunate we have the whole day! I hope it’s clear what a privilege, an honor, an eulogy, this invitation is. Very, very, very few people have seen DARK SUN in operation.”
“‘DARK SUN'”? ‘Operation’?’
“Yes. You might have heard of it while it was still called ‘Project Scallopsism’.”
“You can’t be talking about the autonomous intelligence program? I thought that was neutered years ago, consigned to the broom closet.”
“Ha! Well said! It was Mr. Simmons, oh it was. But it turns out the broom closet was exactly the environment the project needed. Now, follow me. We’ve set up a little presentation I think you’ll enjoy!”
Jeff Simmons walked deliberately behind the short Clarenton, giving the bouncing fellow’s back a look of extreme exasperation for the entirety of their march. It was bad enough his division was under the axe this quarter. It was bad enough he was at the bottom of his team. It was worse that he was being forced to give up an entire day of productivity to investigate a research subject long ago deemed fruitless. Scallopsism! Pah!
“This is where we first, ‘meet the machine’!” Mr. Clarenton stopped suddenly, sneakers screeching to a halt in front of a spartan door, devoid of any marking, or scuff, save one: a small mop and bucket, stencilled in faded, chipped black paint, right at eye level for the shorter Clarenton. Simmons took a look around and realized even the lighting in this hallway seemed dull, dead-enden. “This. Is. DARK SUN!” Clarenton was facing the door, motionless, arms akimbo in dramatic fashion, insisting on a response. “I said. THIS. IS. DARKSUN!”
Jeff gave his tour guide a more bold, more obvious look of contempt. “Are you telling me ‘DARK SUN’ is a literal broom closet? CHRIST! I need a smoke, I’m going outside-”
“Oh come on now, at least have a look inside!” Mr. Clarenton grabs Jeff’s akimbo arm and Jeff is amazed at the little man’s strength. “Right inside right inside!” Clarenton opens the door, and hustles Mr. Simmons in before he can say any differently.
“Well. I’m being fired, aren’t I? That’s what’s happening. This is some kind of grand final joke. Fine. Fine. I’ve always hated WDD, always hated this place, and I hate you, Mr. Claren-”
“Now now Mr. Simmons, don’t be as bleak and brash as all that. You’re still here and still Wonderfully employed. Do be a fine fellow and flick that switch by your elbow. I don’t think I can reach-”
“OUCH! Yes, stop! I’ll get it. You stepped on my foot.”
“Sincerest apologies Mr. Simmons. Now, the lightswitch?”
“By my elbow you said? I can’t feel it, ah, hrm ah-”
Simmons and Clarenton had indeed found themselves in a rather standard appearing broom closet, filled with mops and buckets and all kinds of other purification paraphernalia. Unlike most broom closets, however, when Jeff flicked the light switch by his left elbow, the wall opposite the door started to cranking, mechanical, life, revealing itself to be a covered window, a window only pretending to be a wall.
As if this weren’t an odd enough addition to the grubby little hole in the hallway, on the other side of the exposed window, there appeared to be a very, very, very large room, the size of a football field at least, a room awash in activity, as seen from the lofty window. But what was going on here? Jeff moves closer to the window, close enough to look down and discern all manner of projectiles flying through the air, rocks, dirt clods of varying small sizes arcing from the nearest side of the room to the far side. But what was flinging these projectiles? What exactly was going on here? And why is Clarenton poking and prodding again?
“Here now, here now Mr. Simmons. These might help.”
“Binoculars? Thank you.” Armed with new vision, Jeff returns to the window and suddenly feels as if he has no grasp, no tie to reality, no tie to anything. For below him, below the window, sits a small army of squirrels, all posted around equally small catapults, operating in teams of three, with one squirrel manning the firing lever, one squirrel loading the small rocks into the specially sized contraptions, and one squirrel running forward to collect more projectiles from…from…from
“Are those old Roombas?”
“Ha! Yes. Why yes they are Mr. Simmons. Right on the nose, as it is.”
There must be one hundred, two hundred, three hundred of the totally absorbed creatures, and the longer Jeff watched the more amazed he was at the level of coordination, not just within the tiny cohorts, but between the roombas and squirrels as well. No squad ever fired at the same time as the teams next to it, and no team ever seemed to miss a round, no creature ever misstepped, no projectile ever misfired, no roomba ever failed to deliver a fresh set of ammunition to the little beasts. It was a marvel of synchronization, a Rube Goldberg machine designed in Hell. It made Jeff sick to his stomach. He had seen things at his time with WDD, things that had challenged his morals as well as his dedication, but this… This was an obscene altar to some further outbreak of insanity, and Jeff wanted absolutely nothing to do with it.
“This. Is. DARK SUN.”
“Alright. Whatever you say Mr. Clarenton. Mind if I, I mean, I need some air, it’s rather tight in here-”
“Wait! You haven’t even see what they’re shooting at! Look! Look at the heads!” Mr. Clarenton again grabbed Jeff with that troll strength, guided the binoculars up to his eyes and zoomed for him, zoomed until Jeff could see clearly what was hanging from the ceiling at the other end of this pit of insanity: human heads. Real, decapitated heads? No. Of course not. Papermache heads. Poorly constructed papermache heads, replete with red newpaper strands, dangling viscerally from the neck. Each head hangs from the ceiling by a long string, each head suspended at a distance from the others, arranged in rows and sporadic columns, symmetrical yet hodgepodge.
“Our Halloween Team Building Props!!”
“Yes! Aren’t they though?”
“RURR” Jeff throws up into the mop bucket. Clarenton pats him consolingly on the back.
“Alright. That’s enough I think. We can go now, Mr. Simmons. There there. Wipe yourself with this. It’s a lot to take in, nothing to be ashamed over. Your reaction is quite expected.” Clarenton opens the door, and the pallid hallway light only makes Jeff feel worse. Clarenton is again at his elbow, guiding forcefully. The closet light switch flips off automatically, lowering the pseudo wall, turning off the pseudo light. But the squirrels rage on.
Outside, Jeff leans heavily against the hallway wall, wanting this day to be over, wanting everything to be over, suddenly violently sick of the work he’s been doing for the past eleven years, again retching, again spewing chucks of his company provided lunch, all over the wall and floor. He wipes mucus from his upper lip, wipes it disconsolately on his pants.
“Now, now Mr. Simmons, once is proper, twice is showing off! We’ll have it cleaned up, never worry. Now, this way please.” And again the duo is off, tearing down the corridor like a sickcloud tornado, Simmons spitting occasionally to clear the bile from his throat, not caring about the spotless floors, not caring about his job, not caring about his life. He is done with WDD, done with the guilt quenching paychecks, done with the chaotic monotony, done with any prospect of changing the world. He would go home, he would shower, he would make dispassionate love to his wife, and tomorrow he would sleep all day, for as long and as deep as he could. He would drink in bed, he would eat in bed, he wouldn’t step one foot outside his bed; perhaps he would get a bedpan. Jeff felt so strongly the need for some kind of cleansing, was so absorbed in his daydream, he didn’t notice Mr. Clarenton, guiding him gently and firmly, deeper into the facility labyrinth, past other doors, unmarked doors, barely marked doors, mistakenly marked doors. They were all enticing, in their own way, but Mr. C sought one door in particular, a door leading to a room that had been meticulously prepared.
“I feel obligated to give some explanation, even if it is partial,” Clarenton tenderly patted Jeff’s arm, who looked as miserable as the first batch of squirrels Dark Sun had used. It had to be Red squirrels, for some reason no one was able to determine (no one was able to determine much, when it came to DARK SUN).
“It started with strange loops, you could say, and ended, at least for now, with what you just saw. Two years ago, an isolated lab in the WDD Gammabelt produced a blueprint for a rather remarkable machine, a computer intelligence that relied not on circuits and switches and transistors and what ever have you, but one that operated based on a very particular arrangement of ‘conscious’ components. At first…now is it right or left here?”
Jeff answered by pucking again on the spotless floor, blocking, as it were, the hallway to the left.
“Right it is! Now, as I was saying, this otherwise perfectly well regarded team produced a blueprint for a rather unintelligible machine. And not only that, but they claimed that by building such a machine, they could produce the blueprints for still another, even more inscrutable contraption, a contraption which none the less promised to increase research efficiency by a factor of 43! Now isn’t that remarkable? What did the machine entail you ask? Why nothing more than a TI-83 graphing calculator, a piece of technology which hasn’t changed in as many decades! And rows upon rows of newly planted oak trees! Did we connect the calculator in any way, did we integrate it somehow with the acorns we planted? Not at all! We just left it there, left unmonitored in the middle of this preposterous field (it’s been gutted since, but there are pictures I could show you), and when we came back a week later, this stupid graphing calculator inexplicably contained a program called ‘UNIQUE GAMES AND DARK SUN’. Do you know what was in this program?”
At this question, Jeff collapses against the wall, slowly falling to his knees, despite the forceful upward pressure Clarenton is providing. The hallway lights flicker, and the WDD Man takes a look at his watch. Still on schedule. Nothing to worry about. Very close.
“Alright. Alright. That’s enough. You’ve done very well. I’ll carry you, no no, don’t move. I have you. This way, Mr. Simmons. This- ughhhh- way. Just do warn me if you’re about to vom- oh. There you go. Alright Mr. Simmons, very well.”
And so the two progressed in a forward manner, down the passageways and down into the earth, though there was never a sensation of descending; the labyrinth had been designed that way. After finding his pace and balancing the weight, Mr. Clarenton continued his explanation.
“‘UNIQUE GAMES AND DARK SUN’ contained the solution for the Unique Games Conjecture, a problem thought to have NP-hard algorithmic complexity. Yes very boring to you now, I’m sure, but you have to realize the fervor this sudden mysterious ephiphany prompted. Not only had the team delivered beyond our wildest expectations, but they delivered exactly what they promised, as within the calculator lay a crude series of graphed diagrams, diagrams detailing the Machiavellian machinary that is currently giving you the queasies. We built the room, we trained the squirrels, we programed the roombas, you made and we hung the heads… and do you know what happened? Ah, here we are.”
Another door, another imperceptible login procedure, the portal zooms open, sleak and technologically fuzzed. The room inside is well lit, but Jeff can’t see it, hung over Clarenton’s back as he is. Poor Jeff.
What was behind the door? We already told you.