“I still can’t believe they’re doing this!” The first agent exclaims. A black car is cruising down the highway, adjusting for last-minute changes to its patrol route. Various other cars fly past, unknowingly carrying on with their own lives and routines.
“Why are you so concerned about this? You’re getting paranoid over something so mundane,” the second agent mutters as he watches the traffic pass them by.
“This is far from ‘mundane,’ Marcus!” the first agent retorts in anger. “Back in the day, we didn’t need machines to do our jobs for us! And guess what? We managed perfectly fine without them! Now they want to completely change what we do and how we do it! And for what?”
“You’re overreacting, Constantin,” Marcus rolls his eyes, anticipating the all too common rant on machines from his older partner.
Constantin is a senior data security agent, and while he is still physically fit, the weathered look of his skin and graying hair reveal that he is much older than he seems. A bullet scar on his left cheek and blood specks in his left eye, caused by the bullet’s debris, serve as a reminder of the violence that once plagued humanity. His technophobia and lack of filter regularly lead to arguments with the younger agents of the Data Security and Management Agency. However, with his experience in the field, there is nobody else that Marcus would rather have as a partner.
“I don’t think you get it, kid!” Constantin yells in an embittered tone. “Relying so much on these machines and high technology is going to come back and bite us in the ass! Even if we were to ignore all of the liability issues, if something were to happen to the technology, the government would have complete control! We’re becoming more and more obsolete, and soon enough, they won't even need us to do our jobs!”
“Okay, that’s absurd,” Marcus fires back lazily, accustomed to this argument. “They’re always going to need humans. Personally, I think that merging our bodies with machines will make us more effective agents, especially at decrypting. And besides, we’ve been in the process of replacing the government for years. By the time The Merge happens, the Oracle system will have taken over.”
“I don’t trust this business with the shady Oracle either, but it reminds me of the teenage whiz kid who can decrypt faster than anyone else,” Constantin remarks. “What’s the name, again?”
“Nous,” Marcus answers with a smile, “Nous sure is a miracle. It is rumored that the kid can even decrypt faster than machines. I am sure that a decryption team will be in good hands one day. Hopefully, the disappearances will cease—”
Before Marcus can finish his thought, their car stops abruptly, launching a configuration menu. Lines of encrypted code run across their dashboard screen.
“Alright ‘Mr.-Machines-make-our-jobs-easier,’ what the fuck is happening?” Constantin scowls.
“Ha-ha, very funny... but I actually don’t know what’s happening,” Marcus confesses, his thoughts racing. “This has never happened before, but I may have to decrypt all this code myself to identify the problem.”
Marcus was previously a software engineer at the Central Patrol and Intelligence Agency but had transferred to the DSMA due to his technological skills, which are proving to be a valuable asset for the new direction the DSMA is taking. At only 20 years of age, his intelligence, composure, and commitment had made him the youngest Senior Investigator in the CPIA, and they were now the reason for his upcoming promotion to the Head of a Data Decryption Department within the DSMA.
“It seems that someone’s trying to hack into the Data Center,” Marcus mutters, mostly to himself as he begins decrypting the strange code.
“Data Center?” Constantin asks, “What’s that?”
“All electronic devices, from our patrol cars to computers to radios, are interconnected in a network to ensure that all collected data is exchanged between the agents,” Marcus explains, focusing on the code. ‘That way we are promptly notified of everything that happens, even miles away from us. Each piece of data is encrypted so that no hacker can access sensitive information. Once received, each car’s system decrypts the code using special keys, or hashes, and stores the transmitted data in its own Data Center, or Server. For accuracy and consistency, each piece of recorded data is approved by other agents. We call this system blockchain.”
“Well, your blockchain is crap!” Constantin remarks. “Who could have possibly accessed the data center without the special keys or authorization if it were effective?”
“The system is too sophisticated for ordinary hackers. It must have been someone really truly skilled and with tons of resources—”
Suddenly, the entire system shuts down. The lights inside the patrol car go off, leaving the two agents in haunting oblivion.
“That’s exactly what I mean!” Constantin yells as he climbs out of the vehicle. “Machines’ unreliability makes us more vulnerable to dangerous attacks!”
“Don’t worry, I know how to force patrol cars out of the emergency state,” Marcus says, as he pulls out his control pad and connects it manually to the system.
“Marcus!” Constantin calls sharply.
Marcus pokes his head out of the iNmobile, “What is it?”
“Another patrol vehicle just stopped, but it doesn’t look like any agent is even in it.”
Finally managing to reboot the system and get the car running again, Marcus gets out to see why the other car stands still and unattended. But as he and Constantin move in to investigate, its engine revs, and the vehicle takes off.
“No one’s currently logged in under that patrol car,” Marcus says, after using his control pad to quickly scan the mysterious vehicle. “I’ve never seen any vehicle operate without a login, especially a CPIA one.”
“Where’s it headed?” Constantin asks.
“I can’t tell!” Marcus exclaims, jumping back in the patrol car, “but we need to follow it. If we can get close enough, I can remotely force-stop it!”
Constantin climbs back into the patrol car and they race after the rogue vehicle. The highway is suspiciously empty, and the air is still. They follow the car farther and farther out of the area, until the trees begin to appear in the distance. But just as Marcus attempts to initiate the force-stop on their arrival, a loud crack of thunder cuts through the silence, and seconds later a bolt of lightning lights up the sky. Hard rain begins to fall. A moment later, another bolt of lightning flashes and strikes the ground, close to the rogue vehicle, which swerves and stops at the edge of a forest. Their patrol car squeals to a stop a few meters away from the target.
The forest stands like a wall, the highway ending abruptly at its border. Gnarled and twisted branches are intertwined throughout the forest, and where the highway reaches its limits, a small footpath leads into the suffocating darkness of the unknown. The trees stand over one hundred meters tall, some of them acting as natural landmarks. A dark fog swirls and creeps among the trees, even during the day, and an unexplainable silence consumes the entire area. No birds chirp, no crickets sing, there isn’t even the rustle of the leaves from the wind. Just dead silence, filling every dark nook and cranny that exists within the forest. The officials have tried sending teams to excavate and explore the woods, but every time they returned with horror stories of ghosts, monsters, and men with no faces. Eventually, the state gave up and named it a landmark, preventing any further disruption.
“Keep trying to break their system,” Constantin orders as he draws his gun and gets out of the patrol car. “It may have stopped, but we don’t want it running off again. I’m going to go check it out. CPIA agents might be in short supply, but four DSMA fellows assigned to a CPIA patrol route? That’s quite a coincidence.”
As Constantin disappears into the darkness, Marcus continues to hack into the rogue vehicle. When he finally breaks its firewall and accesses its system, he finds nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, the vehicle’s logs report no activity. He looks out the front window, brow furrowed and apprehension settling within his mind. Shit, where’s the old man?
When Constantin doesn’t show after a few minutes, he decides to investigate. Drawing his own gun, he pulls himself out of the car and slowly heads towards the target, taking one step at a time. When he gets close enough, he finds no signs of life. “Did he just disappear?” He whispers under his breath, wrapping behind the car. As soon as the driver’s side appears in his sight, he freezes dead in his tracks, almost dropping his gun in shock.
Two bodies with blank faces are lying on the ground by the driver’s door. It’s hard to comprehend. There is strange nothingness in the space where their facial features should be. He rubs his eyes in disbelief, hoping to shake off the apparition, but when he opens them again, the empty spaces are still there. He backs away slowly, finally noticing Constantin’s unconscious body lying on the side slope of the highway, his face covered with a saliva-like substance.
“What the fu—”
But Marcus never completes the sentence. A strange voice pierces the roar of the storm, and as he turns to identify the speaker, he receives an electrical shock that shoots down his spine and explodes in his brain. He collapses, but in his twilight state of consciousness, he overhears a conversation between two dark silhouettes that almost seemed to blend with the dark night sky.
“I always imagine it’s rough to experience that shock,” the first man states.
“Tsk, I am sure it is,” the second man laughs darkly. “Which is why I have so much fun doing it.”
“It is quite surprising that it hasn’t caused damage to their learning processes,” the first man replies dryly, “especially with the frequency some of them experience it. Take this one for example: I believe that’s his fifth stop-shock.”
“You care too much about them, Hostis,” the second man criticizes. “Now void the bodies.”
“Yes, sir...” the man named Hostis answers.
“And while you are at it, void the old man and relocate the kid.”
Squinting into the darkness, Marcus sees the second man kick Constantin’s body, before promptly vanishing with another bolt of lightning.
The man named Hostis shuffles over to the rogue vehicle and pulls the two bodies to the back. Placing them side by side, he waves a strange object over them. The object exudes a bright violet light and appears to be changing shapes from an orb, to a pyramid, to a sphere. The bodies begin to fade. But then something strange happens. The moment that they disappear, Marcus forgets all about them and can no longer recall their presence. Hostis walks past Constantin’s body and pulls out a stylus. When he reaches Marcus, he gently places the stylus on the young man’s forehead and holds it for a second. Marcus’ eyes exude bright blue colors when the stylus emits a short beep, and then Hostis picks up his body off the ground. Another flash of lightning rents the air, and Hostis and Marcus disappear, leaving Constantin lying off the road beside the patrol car, the forest’s dense foliage looming above him.