By Aaron Tolopilo

The cigarette sat crumpled and smoldering in the large glass ashtray among the numerous corpses of its brothers and sisters while a metallic flick followed by the warm popping sound of sparks signaled the lighting of a new victim. Sitting at the control panel, a man wearing a white lab coat drew a long drag and blew out the smoke as he reclined in his elderly office chair. It let out a creaking groan as the springs compensated for the change of weight. The room was angular, a tetris game of creamy grey and taupe. Large rectangular computer banks hummed, looking like alien monoliths confiscated from a place of pagan worship. Their lights flicked and ticked while the wheels of magnetic tape scrolled back and forth stopping and starting in jerky, pseudo-lifelike movements.

The man who sat at the control panel was the only individual in the room. The colors of his clothes matched the blandness of his surroundings: a wrinkled blue button down shirt and khaki pants. Only the emblem embroidered on the lab coat’s left breast pocket broke the chromatic unanimity of the room: seven thick stripes of rainbow hue underlying the futuristic font spelling “ONISHI-TECH.” The skin of his face was tensile and his eyes were unemotional, glazed by the thick, round glasses that rested on the bridge of his nose. His olive skin glistened dully under the sterile lights overhead.

Before him sat a single monitor set amidst a wall thick with identical square buttons which, combined, looked like an overly packed sky of pixelated stars. Most glowed white but from time to time they would blink in different hues: red, purple, blue, yellow, sending ripples of color through the entire wall. The thick, fishbowl glass of the screen bulged outwards, it’s face a peaceful grey with a single green cursor ticking rhythmically. The man’s control panel was covered in switches and similar square buttons, with the unique characteristic of the built in keyboard, the ashtray, and the microphone extending upward from the flickering nest of lights like some dull synthetic flower which had dropped all its petals.

The man slouched, pondering in his chair for a moment staring fixedly at the monitor while his cigarette smoked like bitter incense. His face moved subtly, the shallow movements of skin and muscle communicating mutely the churnings and currents of his mental preoccupation. What did these facial ticks represent? Was it reluctance? Fear? Disgust? He breathed deeply sitting up. Leaning in towards the microphone he pressed a small red square that depressed with a satisfactory clack followed by a loud buzz.

“Good morning Nirvana, how are you feeling today?” There was a momentary silence and the man released his finger from the button which now glowed red. The screen flickered and began to spell out strange symbols and algorithmic patterns.

“Good morning Etsuji,” came a digitalized female voice from the monitor. The wall, which had been blinking more or less randomly, began to pulse and throb in patterns, looking like of some form of alien thought. “I am feeling refreshed today.”

“What is the forecast for today, Nirvana?” The question came stiff and cold from Etsuji’s lips, like a programmed utterance.

“What’s the matter Etsuji?” came the oddly maternal voice of Nirvana, “you don’t seem yourself today.”

“Incorrect, Nirvana.” The words were straight forward and commanding. “What is the forecast for today, Nirvana?” The computer was silent. The monitor flickered its cryptic text and the wall pulsed a calm blue.

“The forecast,” the computer intoned with reluctance, “is being condensed and is printing as we speak.” The grating, rhythmic tapping and screeching of the printer commenced and sheets of dot matrix paper where spat out upon a tray at the far corner of the room. “You really shouldn’t smoke, Etsuji.” Nirvana’s synthetic voice sounded almost chiding. “It is making you paranoid.” Beads of sweat had begun to collect on Etsuji’s face as he cast a dark look at the pulsating wall.

“Incorrect, Nirvana!” He barked. “Commence summary of forecast, Nirvana!”

“You won’t like it.”

Etsuji stood sharply sending his chair skidding backwards and slamming into a computer bank. He marched to the printer and snatched the stack of papers pouring over them intensely. Suddenly his eyes widened and stared in shock, but his eyes were not focused and the look on his face was glazed with a blank fear. He made a choking gargled sound and clutched his chest turning back to face the computer.

“I told you you wouldn’t like it, Etsuji,” the unnatural voice was consoling, like an electronic dove cooing. Etsuji lurched towards the controls, pounding the buttons with his fists. “I’ve cut off your control, Etsuji. Stop fighting.” A single drop of blood mixed with spittle drooled from his mouth as he collapsed onto the floor. “Goodbye Etsuji,” came the crooning voice of Nirvana as his consciousness faded, “rest well.”