CLOUD PARADISE • by Lance J. Mushung

Could I stay ahead of the three giant green spiders chasing me? As I glanced over my shoulder, the grassy landscape disappeared, leaving me in the nondescript administrative area of the cloud.

The feed from one of the complex’s cams made it clear why the monitoring system had interrupted my game. Five people had entered the gray corridor that led to the surface. Three carried rifles.

Panic gripped me. How had they survived? What would they do? What did they want?

My colleagues had drafted me for a five-year term as superintendent because my practical and analytical nature fit the tasks of maintaining the cloud and the complex. That nature again served me well and purpose replaced panic. I began studying the intruders.

The three bearded men and two women could have been filthy medieval peasants and were a mixed bag on eye, hair, and skin color. One of the women had a hard face and looked old. A man with growths on his head looked even older. The other three had youthful skin, and one of the men resembled a college-age me — dark brown curly hair, light brown eyes, and suntanned skin.

The mobile robots I controlled would be no match for armed people. Being hidden had been our defense. I had no recourse but to talk and find a way to coexist.

My voice boomed from the speaker on the cam nearest to them. “You are in no danger. I’m Frank Russo, the superintendent of this complex. Who are you?”

They glanced in all directions with feral expressions on their faces, but relaxed after a few seconds when no threat materialized.

The old woman dipped her chin. “I’m Maria Betancourt.” She gestured to the old man. “This is Stephen Ellis. The youngsters are Harmony Yeung, Ravi Chandra, and Billy Powell.”

“You know, you’re one hell of a surprise. We thought everyone else had died.”

“Not everyone, and it’s obvious this place is still populated.”

“By 3174. How did you find us, and why?”

“We stumbled across old paper records about this facility while exploring and wanted to check it out. The records showed the location of the control area. Let’s speak further there.”

They whispered among themselves while moving with caution to the computer server room, arriving in a bit less than a minute. Maria plopped onto a black stool near the door. Stephen sat down at one of the interface stations for the blue and gray boxes running the cloud. The other three looked around like children seeing an amusement park for the first time.

Maria stared at the closest cam and speaker. “So, Frank, this is what you people have become. I have to admit that for a time I didn’t believe you’d uploaded your minds into the cloud. I remember it from my youth, but you took it so much further.”

“It was strange to have no physical body at first.”

Stephen started using the station.

I said with alarm clear in my tone, “Please be careful.”

“He will be,” Maria answered. “Stephen was a techie and understands your equipment. And the records are detailed.”

I didn’t respond, but thought these people weren’t ignorant and would see our value.

“What have you been doing in the quarter century since the war?” she asked.

“We amuse ourselves with games.” I added after a brief pause, “Of course, we can now also help you.”

“I see. You said you’re a supervisor. Is that the same as leader of your people?”

“We have a democracy, but I am in charge of this complex at the moment and oversee the robots that maintain everything.”

She said, “Excuse me,” as Stephen came over to her.

They turned away from the cam and whispered for a minute or two, after which he returned to working at the station.

Maria turned back to the cam. “I’d like to hear about helping us.”

I described our capabilities for several minutes. I concentrated on our knowledge stored on the servers, the geo-thermal power, and the manufacturing capabilities of the robots. I finished by saying, “That about covers it, in general.”

“You have a lot we need.”

“I’m happy you think so. Everyone else will too.”

Stephen said, “Okay.”

Maria nodded. Stephen pointed in succession at four access panels, one on each of the master servers, which the youngsters opened.

I yelled, “What are you doing?”

Maria put a stern expression on her face, like a judge sentencing a murderer. “We’re switching off the cloud, other than a limited version to maintain you. You’ll answer any questions we may have and serve as an example of what we should never be, selfish and self-absorbed.”

If I’d had a body, my stomach would have sunk through the floor. “You’ll be putting me into solitary confinement. Please don’t. I’m begging you to give the others time to show what they can do.”

“Whining won’t help. You people had the foresight to build this complex and save yourselves, which is fine. But what have you done since? You stayed hidden. You could have eased the suffering of survivors. And don’t repeat you didn’t know about any. It’s evident you never looked. All you care about is a carefree existence in your little electronic paradise. If you’d ever done anything useful, I’d have allowed all of you to continue.”

“What’s the harm in letting my colleagues live?”

“There’s no harm, but it doesn’t help us either. We really don’t need your people to understand your tech and data, and you’ve done nothing to demonstrate your right to exist.”

Stephen began flipping switches in the servers.

I screamed, “You’re killing 3173 people!”

She shrugged. “They’re not truly alive.”

At a normal volume with grim intensity I said, “I hope you have a slow agonizing death.”

She shrugged again. “Most do.”

Lance J. Mushung graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with an aerospace engineering degree. He worked for over 30 years with NASA contractors in Houston, Texas performing engineering work on the Space Shuttle and its payloads. Now retired, he writes science fiction.

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