Someone Had To Choose

Deep within the bowels of an unassuming government office building, Doctor Susan Fielding rummaged through a small bar fridge in the employee break room. The office all around her was dark, lit only by the soft blue standby lighting running along the skirting boards and up over the doorways. For a moment she pondered why it was that this emergency lighting was always on, but the thought soon left her head as she reapplied herself to the task.

The small fridge was like any other office repository; crammed full of half eaten meals, empty containers and the remnants of this week’s milk ration. Susan was looking for something to help her celebrate. To help her celebrate the culmination of over a year’s worth of hard work; work that she considered to be both a part of her finest hour, and also one of her most sombre of tasks. She generally wasn’t one to celebrate in this manner, but considering the uniqueness of her current situation, she was willing to make an exception.

Susan was a small, serious looking woman. Her diminutive stature and slender frame belied the fierce mind contained within. This was noticeable in her gaze however. Susan’s face was attractive in a purely aesthetical look; appealing like a stern roman statue hewn from marble. Her features were curt, like her manner, but it was her two grey eyes caught your attention first. They were slightly larger than average, giving a brilliance to their near granite colouring. However Susan had a habit of narrowing them when she talked to someone, as if she were always sizing up a potential enemy, or perhaps staring as a raptor stares at its prey. And sometimes this was the case.

Susan had worked hard during her days at university, earning a PhD in her mid-twenties and rising through the ranks to become an associate professor a decade later. But these things didn’t come easy. Susan Fielding had to work against the odds to build her career; fighting against the parts of her character not suited to career building by leaning heavily on her brilliant mind.

Her rise to prominence was a credit to this fierce intellect. At the behest of a mentor she moved to the government sector. There, though she rubbed people the wrong way, her arguments were generally so forceful that those higher up in the chain of command couldn’t afford to be offended by her manner. Her conclusions were simply beyond contestation. So it was that Susan had drawn herself up the various ladders, the through the various hoops required to attain her position. Then in the past two years Susan had all but created the precious position she now found herself in.

Now in her mid-fifties, Susan had made enemies, but she had also earned respect. She was like a force of nature; like the anvil striking against the hard facts of nature, forcing those caught in between to be moulded and shaped to match the truth as Susan presented it.

It was this no nonsense manner that was now so highly contrasted with her sortie upon another Government Departments alcohol supply. Never before would she have taken part in such a transgression of character.

To hell with it all anyway, she had thought, as she set about her goal of raiding the upstairs fridge; the world was coming to an end! It was a sentiment that had come over her a few times this past year. That strange coupling of abandon and excitement, the thought that now that everything was doomed, anything was possible.

Finally she had the sense to open the small icebox at the top of the fridge, and was pleased to find two sparkling white wines contained within. Grabbing them both she stood up, exited the small kitchenette, and briskly made her way through the silent offices.

This particular floor of the nondescript office block was still inhabited by its usual branch of the Australian Government; hence the alcohol in the fridge. The three floors below however had been evicted the previous month, causing much consternation from various self-important division heads.

That had been Susan’s fault, and she had copped a lot of flak because of it. She didn’t mind though, she saw this as a bit of a test; a preparation of things to come. Why wait for a trial by fire when you can get a bit singed early on; just to see how it felt?

Reaching the end of the rows of desks Susan sped past the silently waiting elevators, and flung open one of the stairwell doors. The loud slam as it hit the concrete wall shook her for a moment. She hadn’t realised it, but she had been clenching her teeth the whole walk back from the fridge, and breathing in short determined breaths.

She descended the two floors quickly, her bare feet padding softly on the concrete surface. When she reached the first of what she had started referring to as her floors, there was a marked change in security. Gone were the free swinging doors of the previous floor, replaced instead with a military grade steel door; complete with legal warnings, and an adjacent security camera. With a swift swipe of her security card the door opened of its own accord, swinging in a wide robotic arc and revealing the open space beyond. Passing her eyes once again over the little headquarters she had created for herself she felt a sense of pride at finally completing the herculean task that had been assigned her, and which had necessitated such a space.

The large office space within had been roughly cleared months ago. Rows and rows of desks, which had once lined the twenty by thirty meter rectangular room, were now stacked up along the two far walls. Now in their stead sat row upon row of humming servers. Small metallic black boxes stacked in piles ranging from two high, so that they only approached Susan’s waist, to some stretching up until they dwarfed her and threatened to poke up into the suspended ceiling. This Manhattan of computers were connected by a mess of wires, cables and fibres, emanating from the rear of the servers, linking up with their neighbours and slowly making their way toward the centre of the room, connecting with each other as they went until the final result was a bundle of cords that would rival an anaconda in girth.

Walking with a distinct purpose, she weaved in and out of this technological wilderness, stepping over the cords with the deft footing that only came from months of practise, and made her way to the nerve centre at its nucleus. Here all the nodes converged to one solemn looking work station; a single desk, with a bulky looking laptop resting on its wooden surface. There was no chair however, so when Susan’s journey across the office reached its destination, stepped up onto the desk, and in one fluid motion slid gracefully across the table top, twisting slightly as she lowered herself onto the surface, and sat cross-legged in front of the small glowing screen. With precision she placed a bottle of sparkling wine on either side of the computer, and focused her attention toward the computers display.

There was a single prompt awaiting her attention; a solitary green box presented against the black background.

Are you ready to proceed? it asked her.

She had written the code for this herself, after not trusting anyone else to be brought on board, but something in the formality of the question stuck out. Looking at it now, after waiting so long to see the words displayed, it seemed odd to her. It had taken on a new meaning. A new significance that she hadn’t planned on when she had wrote the words.

Was she ready to proceed?

In a preparatory sense she was. She had all her data ready, had the routines all written out, and reports ready to outline everything for her superiors. But in a more personal sense she wasn’t so certain.

Was she really ready? Ready for everything that this projects culmination would represent

For a split second she was ready to question her resolve, but with a shake of her head she shook any doubt from her mind.

“You are ready to proceed” she said aloud with a curt nod.

Susan tentatively moved her hand forward, stopping just above the enter key. Just as she was about to click on the ‘Yes’ option, Susan realised she wasn’t quite prepared for this moment. There was still one thing left to do.

Susan grabbed the bottle to the right of her computer, and fumbled with the foil wrapping covering its end, becoming acutely aware that she had never actually performed this action in her entire life. The wire cage holding the cork in place again offered her a new and frustrating hindrance to adapt to in this night of firsts. Once she was ready, she turned back to the screen. To the green glow that had been burning in her peripheral vision.

Are you ready to proceed Susan? She thought to herself one last time.

Do you really have a choice?

With a swift flick she hit the enter key. Instantly the screen in front of her changed. Where there had once been a single prompt there now flowed a steady stream of information. The lines of text and symbols moved too fast for the human eye to make any meaningful impression. Occasionally numbers could be seen followed by a few letters which seemed to stand out from the cacophony. Sizes, measurements, each accompanied by their appropriate units. It was a dizzying site to behold, but Susan wasn’t looking anymore. She knew what was happening, knew what the lines of code whizzing past represented, and for some reason it made her feel sick. She grabbed hold of the cork, twisted sharply, and wrenched it off the end of the bottle. A small eruption of the sparkling wine burst free, and splashed over the surface of the laptop. Susan wasn’t worried about this though, as she had long ago been lectured about the battle hardened hardware she was being provided with, as was everyone else sufficiently in the know. Given the fact that her laptop could handle the electromagnetic effects of a nuclear device within a few kilometres, she was certain it would handle a few drops of generic Champagne rip-off.

“Here’s to playing God” she called out to the silent room around her before adding in a lower and slightly sombre tone “let’s hope I do a better job”.

Raising the bottle to her lips, she drank heavily from its contents, not quite caring that she never had developed a taste for the drink over all these years. She swallowed mouthful after mouthful of the bubbly, sour drink before she began to lose her breath and pulled the bottle back, resting it back on the desk with a thump.

In the abandoned office space around her the sound of her breathing overwhelmed the hum of the servers. Again she noted how it was coming in small rapid gasps, much like when she had startled herself in the stairwell, and it took a moment of realisation before she accepted the fact that she was crying. Sobbing like a little girl between swigs of alcohol; this was not the person she had wanted to be. But then again, this wasn’t the way she had wanted to make an impact on the world. Toiling away in the dark of night; her actions controlling the fates of countless others blissfully unaware of what was coming.

Perhaps all this was just her cross to bear in the new world that she was helping to create. This though came to Susan, and for a moment she was calm. She was accepting.

After all; someone had to choose.

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