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The Calculator

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I was returning to my computer with a third cup of coffee when the heavily armed cosplayer walked past me, flipped a desk, and started strangling my boss.

This was one of those moments that defines a person. How you think you’d react is just a lie you tell yourself, no matter how much of an Internet tough guy you are. Read the studies.

For example, all that introspective garbage was going through my head when any sort of pre-planning for office violence scenarios would have had me running ten seconds ago.

“Where is he?” the cosplayer yelled a second time. I’d missed the first shouted words in my panicking.

“I d-don’t know! I don’t know what you’re t-talking about!” My boss struggled, held several inches off the floor by his collar.

The trendy open-office layout allowed the entire company to look on with growing horror. Back of the napkin calculations suggested three seconds until someone screamed.

I hit the floor and crawled past my overturned chair, under the desk behind me, then sprinted through the tech startup’s trendy kitchenette and out the back door as the screams started. Made it all the way to the parking lot at a full sprint and into the driver’s seat of my car before I stopped and took a mental breath.

Then I did the logical thing. The phone seemed to ring forever.

“Nine-one-one operator. What’s your emergency?”

“Ah. Uh. I work at Clover Business Park, downtown.” I rattled off the office’s name and address. “There’s someone attacking...uh, there’s a man inside with a weird costume and a sword?” That wasn’t a question. What was wrong with me? Oh. Panic and shock. Right.

“Sir, where are you now?”

“Uh. My car. The parking lot.”

“What’s your name, sir?”

I give her my full name, like I was filling it out on my taxes—middle name and everything—all in a panicked rush.

“Sir, I need you to stay on the line. Help is on the way. Where exactly are you now?”

“In the parking lot. Uh, I said that already. Outside the office.”

“Are you away from the attacker?”

My fingers tightened on the steering wheel. “Yes? He was inside and I’m in my car, almost a block away.”

“Are you safe there, sir?”

“Yes? And he was- he wasn’t shooting but he was attacking someone. Choking them.”

“Okay sir, I understand. He wasn’t shooting but he had a gun?”

“Yes.”

“Sir, I need you to not attempt to reenter the building. Do not enter the building again. Please stay where you are and stay on the line.”

There was a short pause. The call was muted on her end, with no open line sounds. The woman came back with a weird tone in her voice. “Sir, from the information provided I have to ask this question based on Federal law. Sir, do you believe this is a supervillain attack?”

“I...what?”

“Did you recognize the costumed man? Can you give me a description of his costume and any powers he might have used?”

I blinked, trying to remember every detail. “He was dressed as...Deathstroke, I think? Two-tone red and black mask, shoulder-slung sword, black combat suit with armored plates. Had a large pistol…but, I didn’t see what type...or any, uh, powers? What is this about?”

“Sir, this information is required for first response reasons.” Another silent pause. “I have noted your description. It is consistent with a known supervillain. He is not listed as a potential disaster-area event, but you still need to stay away from the location of the attack. Again sir, please remain on the phone and stay where you are. Help is on the way.”

The phone made an alarm noise and vibrated like crazy. I jerked it away from my ear and looked down, hand shaking. The call window had a mute symbol over it and was minimizing down to a corner of the screen. A strange new app came up—really shiny user interface, several spinning icons, and high contrast black text on a bright white background, all moving as smooth as silk.

The alarm ended and big, blocky text appeared centered on the screen. “Your position has been compromised with threat assessment certainty of 90%. Evade and hide protocols engaged.”

A map popped up, driving instructions underneath. I stared at the screen. Nothing like that was installed on my phone. The program was unfamiliar and the instructions-

A digital clock was counting down from thirty-five seconds. At thirty-one, there was an explosion down the block from the direction of the offices I’d just fled. A tiny video window in a corner opened—what was the resolution on this thing anyway?—to show the costumed man stepping out of a hole in a wall. Looked like my company’s building. The server room back wall, maybe? He stepped out of the rubble and onto the sidewalk.

The image was clearly from a security camera and…my phone had just hacked it automatically? Somehow? The costumed man glanced up at the camera, paused, and just like in a movie a pistol appeared in his hand, drawn lightning fast from a holster on his leg. A casual gesture to one side, like swatting a fly, and he shot out the camera without looking. The app window went black, then closed.

The costumed man was heading straight for the parking lot. My phone was warning me there were less than twenty-six seconds before he got here.

My key fumbled against the ignition. The hybrid started almost silently. I pealed out and roared down the street, phone stuffed haphazardly in the center console. A block later, I slowed down and started making random turns. Sirens in the distance faded as I got lost in downtown traffic.

Ten minutes later outside a Starbucks my phone directed me to, I did the worst parallel parking job of my life. My shaking hands held up the phone again and I saw what I should have checked before. The 911 call had apparently ended. The video window was still gone, but the “threat assessment” was down to 23%. Whatever that meant.

There was also some symbol that looked like a compass with a line through it on the status bar. I clicked it and the words “Mode: Tracking Disabled,” appeared, along with a list of what looked like GPS locations with cell tower icons next to them.

I stared at the phone. It wasn’t the phone I remembered putting in my pocket that morning. It was the same size and basic appearance. But it wasn’t...right. It- no, this was all too much. The phone wasn’t the most important part.

Right now I had to start thinking about how to deal with having been in a workplace active shooter situation. But also how it had apparently been perpetrated by someone dressed as a comicbook villain.

And how the 9-1-1 operator had acted like that sort of thing was real and expected. Her questions had turned really odd.

This...this wasn’t reality. Something was catastrophically wrong.

I’d decided long ago what to do in this sort of...situation, but that had been idle speculation. The sort of discussion common to nerd bullshit sessions. The same sort of thing as zombie apocalypse planning. But it included that scenario as well.

It went like this. If you found yourself suddenly pulled into a fantasy world, developing amazing superpowers all of a sudden after a trauma, or were tracked down by a wounded knight with a sword claiming you’re the long-lost prince of a magical kingdom, the correct response is to check your mental health. Immediately.

What’s more likely? That everything you’ve ever known was wrong and this new situation was the real truth of the world; or that you’re being tricked, gas-lighted, and slash or are just mentally unstable and having a schizophrenic break.

The relative likelihood was...this was a perception failure. In the real world, judging super-powers versus psychotic breaks, from a statistical point of view, always, one hundred percent of the time, fell on the side of psychotic breaks.

If I started thinking I had been attacked by a real supervillain, or that I could fly and shoot lasers out of my eyes—well, I would have to assume I was crazy instead. But the emergency operator, the costumed man, the weird not-my-phone thing, it all had some rational explanation. I could work through this.

Time to prepare for Google information overload. Coffee required. Maybe Starbucks sold straitjackets now.