From the Machine
Raphael pushed open the fourteenth-century Bavarian cathedral doors and continued walking purposefully, clutching a piece of paper in one hand. The sleek and spacious chamber, with high ceilings and modern decor stood in stark contrast to the antique doors, clad with ancient iron. Floor-to-ceiling windows ran down both sides of the rectangular hall, showcasing a lush landscape beyond that seemed to go on for miles. The natural beauty was stunning — rivers and valleys dipping and rising — punctuated by towering mountains in the distance. It was the kind of fairy-tale scene you’d expect from a remote mountain village in an indistinct European land.
The space was silent but for the echoing sounds of Raphael’s sandals smacking against the dark-teal marble floors as he marched down the long, capacious corridor. After fifty-or-so meters, as he approached the next (and final) set of antique doors — Baroque this time — there was a small woman in a saffron sari standing up from behind a desk at the entrance. Her eyes were fixed on Raphael as he steadily got closer.
“Raph, what are you doing?” She hissed at him. He was about twenty meters out and closing in.
“Raph! Stop. You know you can’t go in there right now.” Ten meters.
“He’s in a meeting! Raph! He’s in a meeting right now, please. I’ll let him know you came by and want to see him. Please just stop.”
Raphael paused at the enormous, arching doors, at least fifteen feet high, and again noticed the juxtaposition between them and the shine and polish of everything else. He looked at the woman who was now standing right in front of him, her face fraught with anguish. She wasn’t exactly standing in his way, there was no way she could physically prevent him from going in — nor would she try — but her eyes pleaded for him to turn around with visceral clarity.
Raphael held her gaze for a moment but did not say anything. As he moved to push open the heavy doors, she whispered, “You know that he absolutely hates being interrupted.” Her tone of voice had changed. It no longer had a please don’t do this! quality, but rather one that said I hope you know what you’re doing.
Raphael stopped again and, without looking at her, said, “This is important. It can’t wait. Not this time. You know what I’m talking about.” The woman let out a sigh of defeat, her shoulders dropping. No amount of pleading was going to work, and Raphael took her silence as a sign of surrender, albeit under protest. He turned sideways, leaned his weight into the door and slowly swung it open, revealing the inner office beyond.
Asbjørn Nielsen stared silently into his own reflection in the mirror. He quickly checked the time on his watch — 08:14 — then looked back to the mirror again. He had been thinking about and planning for this day for the better part of the last four years, but now that it had finally arrived, there was a surreal quality to everything. Almost dream-like.
He flicked off the bathroom light and came out to stand in the centre of his small studio apartment. The place was immaculate, neatly appointed and organized — everything in its right place. For the thousandth time, he went over the plan in his head. The fun wouldn’t be starting for a few hours still, but there was absolutely no room for error. As long as he stuck to the plan, everything would be alright.
He picked up the newly-purchased uniform off the bed and brought the police emblem up to his face for a close inspection. It wasn’t flawless, but would certainly get the job done. Next, he grabbed the laminated credentials and checked the ID for imperfections. Once again, not flawless, but definitely passable. When was the last time someone really scrutinized the identification of anyone in uniform? He was going to be fine.
Throwing both badge and uniform back onto the bed, he closed his eyes, craned his head upward and drew in a long, deep breath, exhaling slowly and purposefully. There was absolutely no turning back, and he had no desire to do so. He had no last-minute doubts or jitters, no flailing on his convictions. No fear.
Still, as he opened his eyes and surveyed the preparations before him — the uniform, the badge, a vest, a pack of zip-ties, a semi-automatic 9mm Glock-34, a meticulously constructed fertilizer bomb outfitted into a military backpack, a .223-caliber Ruger Mini-14 semi-auto carbine, fourteen 30-round magazines, and a high-powered taser — a pixel of thought crossed his mind: I can still call it off if I want and no one would get hurt; no one would even know.
But, as quickly as the thought came, it was replaced by another: people have already been hurt; it’s my duty to do something about it. In order to stop the bleeding tomorrow, blood must be shed today.
No matter how many times Raphael had been in this office, he was always struck by the size, scope, and splendour — the goodness-me grandeur of it. Epic. Use your imagination.
Michael and Gabriel were both standing, hunched on either side of the man — Raphael’s boss, everyone’s boss — who was sitting at the desk in the middle. None of them were speaking, just looking at some papers spread across the desk. They hadn’t noticed Raphael slip in through the sliver he’d created in the gargantuan doors, and he wasn’t about to interrupt their trains of thought. It was bad enough he’d barged into a meeting uninvited.
After a moment, Micheal briefly looked up and caught sight of Raphael, awkwardly standing there with a piece of paper in one hand. “What the — ?” Michael muttered, a genuine look of surprise on his face.
At this, Gabriel and the boss also raised their heads. The look on Gabriel’s face could be described as that of someone who’s just accidentally dropped his keys into a sewer drain. The man in the middle — the boss — simply stared back into Raphael’s reddening face, accelerating his heart rate by a factor of ten.
It was Gabriel that first spoke, “Raphael. What are you doing in here?”
“We’re in a meeting,” Michael with the wry rejoinder.
“I know. Sir, I’m terribly sorry. Please forgive me, but this couldn’t wai — ”
“We are in a meeting,” Gabriel again. “Do you not understand what that means? Is this your first day?” The boss had still not said a word. He hadn’t moved. Statuesque.
“I know. Believe I know. I wouldn’t be here unless it was …” he held up the piece of paper he’d been clutching, “really important. Gravely urgent. A matter of life and death. Imminent death. Please. Forgive the interruption sir but, there’s no time.”
Michael, having recovered from the shock of seeing Raphael in the office, said “It doesn’t matter, Raphael. And you know that already. And the fact that you know that, but decided to barge in here anyway, is the reason for my acrimonious tone. I love you brother. But have you lost your mind? Your being here is completely inappropriate. This is not how we do things. There’s always something. Always. It never ends. You know that. The procedure and policy is in place for a reason.”
“To hell with the fucking procedure!” This was the bravest thing Raphael had ever said in his entire life.
Michael and Gabriel — both of them — looked as though they’d been struck by an errant ball in the forehand. The comment seemed to unbalance them. Michael took a step back. Gabriel took a deep breath. The boss did not move a muscle.
Having temporarily neutralized his top advisors, Raphael looked directly at his boss. “Sir, I know what I’ve done here goes against all the rules.”
“Rules? It’s millennia of tradition!” Michael barked, but Raphael ignored him and continued to address the man in the middle.
“I will accept any punishment. Fire me. Cast me out. Condemn me to hell. But please, sir, we have to do something about this.” He held up the piece of paper again. “We have to. It’s the right thing to do.”
“The right thing?” Gabriel asked incredulously. “Boy you must have turnips growing out of your ears.” Raphael ignored this too, continuing to plead with his eyes, still waiting for a response.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the man who’d yet to say anything raised his hand, motioning to the paper Raphael was holding, and said, “What is it?”
Asbjørn grabbed the bottom of the bulletproof vest with both hands and pulled it down, feeling the straps snug on his shoulders. He threw on a police jacket and pulled a black police cap over his head, his fingers lingering on the bill of the cap for a moment as he did. It was really happening.
All his gear was packed away into two rectangular suitcases, the kind set-producers use to transport equipment. The van was parked outside. The ferry was at three. The park would be packed with people — with families — by four-thirty.
This was it.
Having double, triple, and quadruple-checked everything, he was ready to start the operation. He walked over to the small desk in the corner of the room and picked up a copy of Mein Kampf. After examining the cover for a moment, running his fingers tenderly over it, he set the book down and touched the computer mouse on the desk, bringing the PC to life. On the screen was an unsent draft of an email, ready to be delivered to 789 people in his contact list. The email had an attachment. A manifesto. His life’s work. His struggle.
Today he begins the fight for freedom.
With a deep breath, he grabbed the mouse and hovered over the ‘send’ button — another deep breath, a final one — and he hit send.
The whoosh of the computer sent a proper chill down his body. A good chill. The chill before the battle. Without another thought, he grabbed the two suitcases and walked out the room without bothering to lock the door behind him.
“Children. Families. Dozens of them. Almost five hundred people. More than half of them under the age of twenty. This is today. It’s happening now, in a matter of minutes. I beg of you, sir. I know exceptions are not customary. I know what I am asking is beyond unorthodox — maybe I’m getting more naive about the work we do, maybe I have gone soft, maybe I am losing my mind — but this is not right. We can’t allow this to happen. We can stop it. We have to. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
Michael and Gabriel were flabbergasted by Raphael’s emphatic plea for intervention. It was written all over their smug, indignant faces. Still, Raphael was glad to see they had ceased their attacks and interjections, and were now waiting to see what their boss would say. It was all up to him now.
He took a long time before saying anything. No different than any other time in the past. He was a man of few words, this was the way it always went. He remained calm and quiet, thinking, deliberating, taking all the angles into consideration — the angles only he was able to see.
Angels don’t see all the angles. That’s why Michael and Gabriel had been twisted into knots over Raphael’s unsolicited request for an Act of God. Even Raphael wasn’t sure — not really — that this was the right thing to do. He felt it, but he didn’t know it, which is why he was there, risking everything on a feeling. Maybe he was losing his mind?
Finally, remarkably, the tension was broken with a smile. A knowing smile. Followed by a sort of snicker, a single beat, the kind people make when things have transpired just as they knew they would.
“Where have you been, Raphael? I’ve been waiting for you. You’re cutting it close, no?”
As quickly as doubt and fear drained from Raphael’s mind and body, they flooded into Michael and Gabriel, in disbelief over what they had just heard. Of course, no one dared say a word.
“Go,” the boss continued. “You have authorization to use the machine. I trust your judgment. Now go.”
The number of times Raphael said the words thank you is difficult to pin down. At least eight. No other words were spoken, and within seconds Raphael had slid out the office
and was sprinting across the same hallway he had marched down minutes earlier. Without turning to look at the woman behind the desk, he shouted, “Tell Peter I’m on my way to him. Tell him to get the machine running. I’ll be there in less than two minutes. I have authorization.”
There were more people on the ferry that he’d expected. Way more. The observation decks, the inside lounge, the small cafeteria — they were all completely packed. People smiling, laughing, talking, taking pictures and eating ice cream. Happy people with sunny dispositions matching the clear-blue sky above. Unsuspecting people. Undeserving of the fate that was to befall them? No. Definitely deserving. Just ignorant of the change they were to help spark. The revolution was not starting today, it had started long ago. But today, it would get the shot-in-the-arm, or kick-in-the-ass — or bullet-to-the-head — it desperately needed.
He was a soldier of revolution. An acolyte of the Truth. Today would be his last day. But it would also mark the start of a new day.
He was ready.
It was difficult to move around the crowds with the suitcases, so he picked a spot on one of the open decks and stood a post. He was greeted with warm smiles, nods, and expressions of congeniality. He was — or rather, what he was wearing represented — a safe person. Someone you could trust. Not a stranger, but a police officer. An officer of peace. And officer of the law, sworn to help, serve, and protect.
One boy, no more than eight or nine years old, asked if it would be okay if he took a picture with him. His father politely apologized and began to usher him away when Asbjørn, to his own surprise, insisted that it was okay. As the boy stood next to him for the selfie, the waft of his shampoo made Asbjørn a little uncomfortable. He recognized the smell, it was fruity and fragrant, the kind kids use — the kind he used to use. All he could think in the moment was: what has this boy done to deserve to die today?
He knew the answer. It was a rhetorical question, but a curious one to be considering at this moment, minutes before the curtain draws on his Grand Opus.
After the picture, the boy gave Asbjørn a tiny hug before running back to his dad, who was courteous and grateful at the officer’s indulgence of his son.
Asbjørn simply nodded, then turned his back to the crowd and looked ahead at the ferry terminal fast approaching. Such innocuous moments of human connection were not enough to deter him from what he was there to do. Still, he could have done without it. No reason to pointlessly sow doubt now. The time for that had long-passed. And even though he had yet to fire a single bullet, in his mind, all these people were already dead.
* * *
“How did you get authorization?” Peter’s eyes were wide with amazement.
Raphael, still panting from the six-hundred-meter sprint he’d just completed, flashed Peter a look that said I don’t have time for your questions. He drew in two more deep breaths to slow down his heart, then asked, “Is it ready?”
“It’s ready. What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know yet. Show me the options.”
The machine was an old one. An antique. It sort of looked like a loom, although not really. More like a loom, an abacus, and the Enigma all rolled into one. Peter was the only one authorized to work the mechanics of the machine, but selection and execution required separate, individual authorization.
“Well,” Peter continued, “time being so short, looks like there are no white options left. There are .. three orange. And seventeen red.”
“What are the orange ones? Come on, we’re almost out of time!”
“Ummm, the first is a coronary arrest. The second … one moment .. is .. a serious ankle sprain brought on by a fall. And the thiiiiiiiird is ….”
“Hurry up, man!”
Asbjørn Nielsen, having waited for the vast majority of people to leave first, picked up his cases and walked towards the front of the ferry where a final few stragglers were crossing the fold-out bridge connecting the dock to the vessel.
The island, a popular summer spot for picnics and outdoor events, wasn’t small, but it also wasn’t very big. It would probably take him twenty minutes to get to any of the coast lines from the ferry terminal. The connecting dock on the mainland was rigged with explosives, and so there would be no one coming after him. Of course, once the shooting began, hundreds of people were bound to call emergency services and the police would deploy their own boats, but that would take time, it would be close to an hour at best before any help arrived. More than enough time for him to massacre the majority of the crowd. Apart from the canteen and restaurant, there were no buildings or structures on the island. Nowhere for people to hide. There was also no law-enforcement here. Only a couple of rent-a-cop security guards. Easy to neutralize. And then the island would be his.
He walked his suitcases past the crowds of people milling around the canteen and cut through the grass, heading for high ground overlooking a meadow filled with people sitting at picnic tables and on the grass, in circles, in rows, doing yoga, playing baseball, tossing frisbees, oblivious to the gravitas of the moment. The air was filled with music, conversation, and laughter. Soon, it would be replaced with screams of terror.
He set down both suitcases and opened one of them, revealing the Ruger Mini, locked and loaded. At this point, his location on the high grass should certainly arouse suspicion, but by the time anyone had the chance to do anything, the suspicion would lend itself seamlessly to horror.
At the exact moment he placed a hand around the rifle’s neck, he heard a loud pop — the unmistakable sound of a wooden bat connecting with a ball — and instinctively looked in the direction of the sound.
“A concussion. Black out. Hit with a baseball.” Peter finished.
“That one! Right now. Go. Make it happen. Now!”
Raphael was a cluster of nerves, suddenly remembering the boss’s words from a few minutes ago: You’re cutting it close, no?
Before he could consider the ramifications of being too late, Peter broke in, “Done.”
“That’s it?” Raphael asked, surprised at how fast the machine had worked.
“That’s it. It’s done. The intervention is complete.” Peter confirmed.
Anders Johansen couldn’t believe he had hit the ball so well. The impact of the hit reverberated through the bat and into his arms. It almost felt like someone else had swung the bat for him. Through him. His friend Erik was equally dumbfounded, given that Anders had basically never hit one of his pitches so cleanly or with any significant power before.
Both boys, frozen in surprise and delight, watched the low, line-drive steadily rise in the direction of a police officer, kneeling on the high grass over an open-suitcase.
Before they could say anything, Asbjørn had turned his head and was instantly greeted with the baseball, striking him square in the face, between the eyes, on the bridge of his nose.
He went down instantly, blacking out completely for several seconds. When he came to, lying on his back, he felt blood gushing down the sides of face, he tasted it, but he still couldn’t move. The impact had concussed him, and his motor functions and grasp on reality still had not returned.
He heard shouting and screaming as a crowd of people quickly gathered around him, frenzied and manic. He couldn’t really make out what they were saying. Their voices were muffled. He thought about the gun. The suitcase was lying open next to him. He tried to keep his thoughts straight, but it was hard, he was losing consciousness again.
The last thing he heard before everything went dark was a single, distinct phrase:
“Oh my god.”