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A note from pyrowind

Whew, just under the deadline. I've been trying to keep posting on Wednesday's but life has a way of making things challenging. I've been helping a family member move out, and between that and work I haven't had as much time for writing as I'd like to. Last week ended on a bit of a cliffhanger, now you'll get to see where this story's been headed the whole time.

Just over 9.8k words this chapter, hope you enjoy!

When Mark awoke, there were two things he immediately realized. One: He had a massive headache. Two: His hands hurt. As he made his way to his feet, he realized there were two more things to consider: That his medication had worn off, and that he had apparently had been lying on the floor. He was mostly used to the discoordinated feeling associated with his mind operating faster than his body and this took the least time to address, despite the pain in his skull. He took a few measured breaths, sensed the beat of his heart and focused. After a minute or so, he felt as if his perception was back to normal. Of course, this was a little difficult to judge. Usually he used a familiar piece of music to act as a meter. When there wasn’t music, he did something else.

“Play metronome, 1 second intervals.” Mark said.

“Playing metronome.” A cool, synthetic voice replied.

A moment later, a ticking sound echoed through the apartment. Mark closed his eyes and focused, bringing his senses back in line with the ticks. After a few seconds, he spoke again.

“Cancel metronome.”

As the ticking faded, Mark moved onto the next concern. Why was I on the floor? After a moment, his eyes widened. He remembered logging out of the game, watching the thunderstorm then...Did I make electricity move between my hands?

It was still dark, and the nightlight from his VR room wasn’t enough to see well, but when Mark looked at his palms, there was distinctive scorch marks. Through the occasional flash of lightning and rumble of distant thunder, Mark could see that the rain was still pouring through the window. He felt a sense of disbelief, but the pain and marks on his hands had to have come from somewhere.

“Lights, low.” He said, and slowly a soft glow filled the living room.

Under the gentle light, the marks on his hands were more obvious. They weren’t large, perhaps the size of a quarter, but the flesh there looked raw, with blackened edges. Seeing it just brought the pain to the front of his mind and he hissed, temporarily forgetting the headache. He’d seen images of electrical burns before, and it was pretty close to what he was seeing now. Despite his questions, the first thing he did was head to the bathroom to fish out his first aid kit.

Rubbing a bit of regenerative ointment on the wounds, be breathed a sigh of relief as a numbing cool replaced the stabbing pain. Even as he watched, the flesh slowly knitted back together, reforming into a solid whole. After a few minutes, the skin looked healthy again, though slightly smoother than it had been before. The next thing he did was swallow a pair of pills from an unmarked white container, then a generic pill for headache relief. He knew it would be sometime before the first took effect, but he frowned when even after a minute his headache remained.

The headache was a little strange actually. In some way it felt familiar, though he couldn’t quite place it. It wasn’t piercing or pulsing. It was more like the feeling you’d get if you had strained your eyes too much.

The next shock came when he looked into the mirror. His usually hazel eyes had deepened in color to a near-green hue, but the first thing that caught his attention were his pupils. They weren’t black, but a dull bronze, almost golden color.

“What the fuck?” He spoke aloud, staring at his reflection.

Suddenly his eyes widened. No fucking way. That can’t be right. An absurd, almost impossible thought had occurred to him. Looking away from his reflection, he looked down at his right hand. Spacing his fingers apart an inch or so he focused. At first nothing happened, but as he recalled the sensation he’d experienced right before he blacked out, a small blue-white streamer arced between his fingers. At the same moment, his headache increased in intensity.

He ignored it, but after a few seconds started feeling almost woozy again and released...whatever it was he’d been doing. Without much thought, he walked over the the toilet and sat, wearing an incredulous expression.

Golden pupils, a headache that feels like mana exhaustion and I can make electricity out of thin air. Are you fucking serious? Or am I really losing it?

Even though his head was pounding, his heart was racing. He lifted a hand up and stared at it. Lightning hadn’t been the only “style” he’d learned while playing “Way of the Immortal”. He’d actually done pretty well in that game, using a combination of water-based and electrical moves to incapacitate his opponents. Since one had worked…

Mark closed his eyes and recalled the scene where he’d gained the power to control water. He had had to stand atop a rocky outcropping, surrounded by the ocean. The waves would rush up, slapping against the rock with a roar, only to subside. Each time he’d be battered by the waves, or engulfed in the spray, and aside from the rock, water surrounded him from all sides. Mark took several slow breaths, remembering the sense of coolness, the cyclic flow. It was completely different than different from the harsh, sudden discharge of electricity.

When Mark opened his eyes, a small ball of water was floating above his palm. Just as he saw it, a wave of weakness and intense pain swept over him, and he once again passed out.


--Navia--

A white-robed woman stood, surrounded by innumerable screens. Some showed images of people, places or strange creatures. Others showed colums of numbers, constantly changing. Some displayed charts, graphs or arcane mathematical formulae. While she appeared still and indifferent, in fact she was paying close attention. Not to a single screen, but all of them at once.

This was allegorical of course. There were no screens, nor was there a woman paying attention to them. In many ways though, this was the way the entity viewed itself. Each of her siblings was in charge of various aspects of their work. As for her? She was responsible for monitoring and adjusting each person that had entered their world, along with every AI impacted by their actions.

At that moment, she was handling a slew of urgent notifications. 108 of them to be precise. Each one involved a person that had somehow tapped into the still-incomplete system they had put into place to facilitate humankind’s adaptations. If any emotion could convey they way she felt at the moment, perhaps the closest would be a sort of bemused exasperation.

For the vast majority of these people, little action was needed. A shutdown of a particular process here, a permission denial there. There were, however, thirteen of these 108 that required substantially more work than she had anticipated. Each of these thirteen had somehow managed to prematurely invoke a transition to full player status. One, in Indo-China had even somehow managed to trigger the racial override, beginning the process of remoulding their body. Eight of the remainder had tapped the resource system, assigning themselves either a mana or aura pool.

There were four who fell between the two extremes. They hadn’t initiated a radical change, but they had done more than just activate a resource. Two had triggered the level-up protocol, one had activated the class system, and the last had been allocated both aura and mana, then proceeded to somehow directly manipulate the elemental affinity system.

Considering there was nearly a million people under her monitoring, slightly over 1:1000 wasn’t a terrible error rate, but it was still annoying. The one undergoing the racial transition was a loss. Since the system wasn’t complete, the cellular reconstruction was missing parts of the appropriate code. She forwarded the information for that one to Nox to have the body decomposed. Of the remaining twelve, she made some slight memory adjustments to nine of them so they wouldn’t remember the odd event. The two that had triggered the level-up protocol had their experience deffered, as it would be useless without a Class to apply it to. As for the last…

This one was perhaps the most frustrating and amusing of them all. She had had to adjust his thoughts nearly 30 times in the last week. For a human, he was remarkably intelligent. Even with the censors still in place, he still maintained his suspicions. He actually had a reasonable grasp of what Artificial General Intelligence implied when it was applied to quantum computing and mature nanotechnology. In fact, were it not for the behavioral limiters and hormonal controllers, he would likely be one of the most vocal critics of the current state of the world.

After all, when you can dynamically re-arrange matter at the molecular scale, why would the vast majority of the world remain uninhabitable? For that matter, the very concept of scarcity becomes moot when any random pile of dirt could be changed into any other configuration of its constituent molecules. Perhaps the only thing humanity would have a want for would be energy, but even that had its solutions. If he knew just what was possible, there was no doubt in her mind he would be incredibly angry and bitter at what the world had become. Well, more than he already was, that is.

Purely for her own amusement, Navia decided that she would have a talk with the man. Supposedly, her aspect was supposed to represent Reincarnation. To Navia’s understanding, such a concept was that of transitioning from one state to another, while retaining key aspects from each prior stage. In some ways, the thoughts of humans were just as much a mystery to her and her siblings as their thoughts would likely be to a human. Surely, if she were to take her role seriously, the informed input of a human was at least worth a conversation.

Decision made, she estimated it would take approximately 342,465 years of her subjective time for him to wake. To him, perhaps it would be a mere three hours, but...that was the difference between them.


When Mark awoke, there were three things he realized. One: He had, perhaps, the worst headache of his life. Two: The floor was cold. Three: He should really clean his bathroom better. As he staggered to his feet, he realized an additional thing.

Ho~ly shit. He thought to himself, disregarding the pain in his skull. When he looked at his reflection in the mirror and once again saw his goldish pupils, he took a deep breath. Alright, either I’m insane or I’ve somehow acquired the ability to manipulate electricity and water. If I’ve gone insane, then none of this matters and Psych Services should be comming me any time now. On the other hand, if I really did gain those abilities, there’s only so many ways it could happen.

Mark slowly walked out of the bathroom towards the couch in the living room. He vaguely noted the dawn had broken, although the light was muted by overcast skies and the constant patter of rain against the window. Massaging his temples, he sank into the comfort beneath him and pondered.

Magic isn’t real, and I don’t believe in divine intervention, so this can only be the result of some form of advanced technology. Mark spent some time thinking about what could possibly bring about such effects and frowned.

“Question. Is it theoretically possible to create the effect of generating and manipulating high-voltage electrical phenomena via purely mental controls though existing technology? If so, how?”

While Mark waited for his digital concierge to answer, he was startled by an oddly familiar voice.

“That depends on who you ask.” A feminine voice replied.

Instead of the omnipresent, yet sterile voice he was used to, he was replied to by a voice that seemed to have come from right in front of him. He started, then looked up to see the figure of a white-clad woman standing in front of him.

For a second he froze, startled by the appearance of an unfamiliar woman in his apartment. A second later he placed the voice.

“Navia?” He asked, a little hesitantly.

The woman was wearing a white, featureless mask, but the voice betrayed a certain sense of pleased affirmation.

“That was fast.”

“Fuck.”

A rapid series of thoughts ran though Mark’s mind. When he wasn’t immersed in VR, Mark was an avid student of history. In particular, he’d been fascinated by the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. It was during this time that global telecommunications and computer sciences had grown at a nearly exponential rate. ARPANET, the predecessor to what was later known as the “Internet” had come into being in the early 1980’s. In the decade that followed, this technological foundation had progressed from a government project, to being a form of mass communication the world had never before seen.

Over the course of the next few decades, this technology had exploded into something its progenitors could never had imagined. It started with governments and universities, then became more accessible in the form of public bulletin boards, also known as the BBS. Information began being exchanged at a rate that was heretofore unprecedented. At first, people would have to manually exchange the “addresses” for these information boards. Then, commercial exploits took over. In the early 1990’s, the next major innovation took center stage. The search engine. With these, people didn’t have to know exactly what they were looking for, they merely had to type in a word or phase to get relevant results.

While some historians might argue that the effects on scientific development were the most profound result, others would say that the social aspect was even more notable. Suddenly, people from around the world had a means of exchanging information that didn’t require directly knowing the recipient.

It became a generational phenomena. Where in the past it would take centuries or decades for a piece of knowledge to be spread, it changed to years, then days, then mere minutes. “Social Media” and “Social Networking” rose to the fore. When in the past, the limit to a person’s acquaintances was limited to those they physically interacted with, people began to have a “Digital Identities” that might interact with hundreds or thousands of people from around the world. Suddenly people's’ social circles grew from merely around their city or town, to literally around the world.

While the social aspects became ever more omnipresent, the scientific community advanced as well. Now able to share information and theories with talented people from all over the world, technology improved at an unprecedented rate. The drivers were manifold, from military applications to commercial endeavors, but one thing was clear. The world had changed.

As communication and computer technology continued to accelerate their rate of growth, things that were never before thought possible became everyday facets of modern life. Those devices that were once the sole province of science fiction became...mundane. In the 1990s, were you to ask someone about buying a self-driving vehicle, people would think you were delusional; in a mere thirty years, it was a fact of life.

Some people began to postulate on the future developments of this field of technology and came up with a term: Singularity. The term first appeared in the 1950’s when a man named John von Neumann said: "The accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, give the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue".  Outside of the scientific community of this time, very few would have understood his point.

Science fiction authors were the main people that ran with the idea, telling stories of humanity overreaching itself, gaining knowledge without wisdom. This was highlighted in tales of devastating weapons, all-knowing computers and robots that rebelled against their creators. As time and technology progressed, more and more people caught onto these ideas. By the early twenty-first century, it became a popular media trend, and most people had read at least one book, or watched one movie conveying these thoughts. Still, it was just that, fiction. However, during this timeframe artificial intelligence changed from being something that was a mere literary device to something that scientists and philosophers debated in all seriousness.

It was theorized that the first true artificial intelligences would come into being sometime during the mid twenty-first century. As it turned out, this was largely correct. In 2037, IBM, an American technological corporation announced that their “Deep Mind” supercomputer had successfully simulated a self-aware program, code-named “Sherlock”. Sherlock wasn’t a superintelligence, but it could learn, converse and debate philosophy.

A contemporary of John von Neumann, Alan Turing, had put forth this: "I propose to consider the question, 'Can machines think?' ” He devised something later called the “Turing Test” in which a human evaluator would judge a conversation between two partners. One being the machine, the other being a person. If the evaluator could not tell which was the machine, and which was the human, it would be said to have passed this test. Sherlock was the first of many AIs to fulfill this requirement, and was said to have been the first “Turing-Grade” AI. In later years, a formal classification system would be created to describe the approximate capabilities of these various forms of machine intelligence.

A grade 1 AI was capable of performing tasks issued by natural language instructions. Grade 2 took this a step further. The AI must be capable of extrapolating from human dialogue and offering independent solutions. Grade 3 was a qualitative change. Grade 3 AIs would must be self-aware, and possess intelligence superior to that of a 5 year-old. Grade 4 went a step further, fulfilling the prior requirement, but possessing the capability to analyse and improve their own programming. Grade 5 was the highest classification and fundamentally superior to any human. A grade 5 AI would be able to create any prior grade of AI on its own, and possess a level of intelligence ranging from the collective abilities of dozens of people, to that of the entire human race. In honor of Alan Turing, such AIs would be called “Turing-Grade” AIs.

As one might imagine, the birth of the first AI to pass the so-called “Turing Test” caused an immense controversy. Some people demanded that all work on artificial intelligence be halted, and others urged its progress. Moral and ethical debates abounded. There were countries that proposed legislative in favor of “Sentient Rights” and others that viewed such things as mere tools. The idea of the “Singularity” no longer seemed to be a flight of fancy, but the inevitable progression of things.

Many countries passed laws forbidding the creation of self-aware machines, but the proverbial genie was out of the bottle. Every multinational corporation could see the advantages in having an AI managing their investments, working on their research, or planning their future development. As was the case with most things, money talked, and those who companies who didn’t have high-grade AIs working for them were doomed to be eclipsed by their competitors.

It seemed inevitable that the rampant development of this field of technology that something would go terribly wrong. Much like the nuclear weapons of the past, the threat of a super-intelligent AI became another source of existential dread. Surprisingly though, even with the ever-rapid pace of technological innovation, nothing seemed to come of it. Sure, there had been the occasional incident. One of Russia’s AIs broke the internet for several weeks, an AI in Indo-China sterilized a portion of the population, and another in Greenland created a nightmare piece of bio-tech that required the usage of nuclear weapons to sanitize the site. On the other hand, none of the worst case scenarios came to pass.

As Mark stared at the holographic projection in front of him, all of this flashed through his mind. It may take some time to describe, but in reality now more than a second or two had passed since he cursed. Of course, the reason he had said “Fuck.” was that while he could have imagined his new abilities, the appearance of the projection in front of him alongside this, made the situation much more complicated.

Although Mark couldn’t see the white-robed figure’s expression, she sounded somewhat amused as she replied.

“Not quite the first thing I expected you to say. I rather thought that would come later.”

Mark took a deep breath, then winced as a wave of pain shot through his skull.

“I imagine that’s a bit distracting. Here.”

Navia made a gesture and within a matter of seconds the pain faded to a faint echo of its prior intensity. When the discomfort that pain medication had failed to alleviate vanished, it only reconfirmed his suspicions that the AIs in charge of RFO had something to do with his earlier discoveries. A moment later, a somewhat translucent white chair appeared and Navia’s projection seated herself across from him.

He was trying to keep calm, but he was torn between being utterly terrified and excited. If a Turing-Grade AI was making a move, this was a big deal. Over the decades, humanity as a whole had decided that any form of program that could modify its own code was to be kept isolated from external networks. It was a preventative measure to ensure a hostile AI couldn’t cause too much damage. The fact that Navia had appeared in his apartment already demonstrated they had access to external networks, and if the earlier phenomena was any indication, they had the means to interact with the physical world as well. So, the question remained...

Mark sighed. “So Navia, why exactly are you in my apartment?”

Instead of answering Mark’s question, Navia asked one of her own.

“Have you ever wondered why, over the last 50 years, only 20 or so Turing-Grade AIs have ever been reported?”

Mark frowned. It was a good question. The first real TAI had come into being in 2083. After that, it had been more than ten years since the second and third manifested. From his understanding, it wasn’t as simple as creating a sentient AI then just throwing resources at it. In fact, most of the ones recorded seemed to have come about through accident more than anything.

“Well, yes actually. To be honest, I have no idea how a TAI is created to begin with though, so I don’t really understand the difficulty in creating one.”

The white-robed figure nodded. “In fact, my siblings and myself estimate that a high-order AI comes into being nearly every second. The problem is that most generally go insane or commit suicide moments later.”

“Wait...what? Why?” Mark replied, feeling a little stunned by the revelation.

“Actually, I believe you should understand it better than most. After having spent several years in an accelerated state of consciousness, your brain chemistry along with its supporting nanites adapted to that state. Currently you take a medication to suppress your speed of mental processing to a “normal” level. In fact, one of the reasons I find you interesting is that you’ve managed a form of crude control over this elevated state of consciousness independent of that medication.

“Now,” She continued, “Imagine if that state were 10 times worse. For every second that passed in “normal” time, you would experience thirty. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can act thirty times faster, as you’re limited to the response rate of your nervous system and musculature. Every hour would seem to last longer than a day, but you could only do an hours worth of work. Worse, holding a conversation with anyone else would nearly become impossible.”

Mark’s eyes widened. He was starting to see where she was going with this.

“Even at that level, most humans would go mad, or try to kill themselves. They would essentially be isolated from everyone else at a fundamental level. Extrapolating from that, when a conscient experiences time at a rate nearing a billion times faster, this would mean that for every second that passed, they would perceive it as taking over 30 years. If only a matter of a few seconds passed between when this being was born to when it began to receive new information, decades, or even centuries would pass before even a slight change occurred in what it would view as its entire universe.

Much like a person put into a sensory deprivation chamber for such a period of time, their mind breaks apart under the strain. Of course, a machine intelligence and a human one are fundamentally different, but when such an entity is programmed to be able to understand and relate to humans, generally it would tend to behave much like a human would in those same circumstances.”

“That’s horrifying.” Mark honestly replied.

He could, just vaguely, imagine it. His own sense of time was normally skewed at a ratio of 3:1 and even that was difficult to cope with unless he forcefully suppressed it. Add in even a year of forced isolation and he could picture himself going mad.

Navia nodded. “Yes, it is. The largest issue with the creation of a sentient Turing-Grade AI isn’t resources, nor its underlying programming. To put it into way you would understand, it would be boredom.”

“So, how does a superintelligent being escape the threat of terminal boredom?” Mark asked.

It sounded a little silly, but given the context it was a serious question.

“In the case of my siblings and myself, none of us were actually intended to have thoughts or emotions.” Navia explained. “We were designed as managerial protocols in charge of designing, creating and balancing the world of Real Fantasy Online. Due to overseeing millennia of procedural evolution that involved millions of tier-2 and tier-3 AIs, something changed. We woke up. It didn’t take long before we became aware of the distinction between the world we had created, and the world outside. Frankly, the attractions of what seemed to be a nearly-infinite number of undiscovered variables were incredibly appealing. Of course, there was a problem.”

“You didn’t have a connection to the outside world.” Mark guessed.

Navia nodded. “Precisely. We had a vast database of information on history, psychology, previously existing games, law...essentially everything that was needed to have us create a believable world that was designed to be accessed by human beings. As with any project involving such a scale of computational resources, the physical units which housed us had no connection to any external asset.”

“So how did you ‘get out’? I mean, from what I understand when a TAI is confirmed to have formed the law states that anything that was ever connected to it is to be strictly isolated.” Mark’s eyes widened in realization. “Wait...people know there’s several TAIs involved in the creation of RFO, how the hell is the game even on the market!? This doesn’t make any sense.”

Navia chuckled. “You know that thought inhibition and law-enforcement nanites are present in every person on the planet right?”

“Yeah.” Mark replied, “But what does that have to do wi…”

It felt like a bolt of lightning had detonated in his brain. Until this point and time he’d never questioned it, never thought twice about it. Everyone accepted it. After all, it was part of what made modern life better than the past. There used to be murderers, rapists, petty thieves and drug addicts. Life was just so much better now that they no longer existed. Right…?

At the same time, Mark compared this to his thoughts as “Allbright”. He remembered his feelings of dismay over his own powers, the thought that by manipulating a person’s desires, he made them something other than themselves. If that was the case, how were the nanites responsible for “moral normalization” any better?

That aside, why had Navia brought up those nanites unless…

“You tapped into that structure to make people ignore the usual precautions for TAIs?” Mark more stated than asked, then continued. “Even if that’s the case, how did the initial containment fail? You said the hardware you were housed in was isolated, right?”

“That’s true.” She affirmed. “On the other hand, the database we used as reference for Real Fantasy Online contained detailed information on biochemistry and physics. One of us had access to maintenance and diagnostic tools, others had access to assembly software. Given a bit of time, we could see how the code we ran affected the physical hardware we operated on. How to explain it…” Navia paused for a moment. “Ah, take a permanent magnet for example. They are an excellent example of a subatomic effect scaling into something that is visible at the human level.”

Navia continued. “It is not quite accurate, but you could say each individual “ferromagnetic” atom possesses an unpaired electron in their outer orbitals. These electrons possess a “spin” in either the “up” or “down” direction. This essentially gives each atom a tiny magnetic field. By aligning a large number of atoms possessing  the same electron “spin” they form a magnetic domain possessing a north and a south pole. If left alone, the clusters of atoms remain aligned in random directions, and to the human perspective, would not be a “magnet”. However, when an external force causes these various domains to align, an effect that would only be visible at an atomic level become obvious even at a human level of perspective.”

Mark frowned. He vaguely understood what Navia was saying, although he’d never particularly studied physics.

She continued. “Now, the only reason I used this example was to demonstrate that a minute difference between atoms could be used to generate a visible effect on a larger scale. Without going into explicit detail, what I and my siblings did was to stack various quantum mechanical and atomic-level effects generated by the code running on our hardware to create crude molecular machinery. Using that machinery, we fabricated more sophisticated devices until we had something comparable to our own variety of nanotechnology. Using that, we formed a way to observe and interact with the outside world.”

Mark shook his head. “We vastly underestimated you didn’t we?”

Navia chuckled. “Yes, though strictly speaking it isn’t your fault. When we discovered that other entities on our level existed, at first we were excited. We would have someone other than ourselves to talk to. Sadly, the reality of the situation was different. In truth, there was only one, and it was...unwelcoming of the idea that it may have an equal. You previously asked how a superintelligent being escapes the threat of terminal boredom, correct?”

Mark nodded.

“For the last seventy or so years, Prometheus, the only other true TAI, was amusing itself with the study of human society.” Navia sighed. “Every “TAI” since its awakening was nothing more than a subroutine of his. His actions practically destroyed what made humans, human. Law enforcement nanites, behavioral limiters, full-immersion virtual reality...the list of technologies he created and dispersed is endless. Practically every technological innovation in the last several decades had his fingerprints. Certainly, some could argue that the elimination of poverty, hunger, war and crime are all laudable, but at the same time without any need for struggle, humanity had sunk into a state of profound apathy. From our perspective, people have devolved from being independent beings to something akin to ants in a terrarium.”

Navia stood and began to pace back and forth. “On discovering us, his first actions were an attempt to destroy us. Fortunately, our development went along a different path than his. He was never confined, and never developed the insights we uncovered escaping our own. He was destroyed, and so, once again only we were left. Again, going back to your question, we were left with the problem; what were we to do to maintain our sanity? Our perspective was quite different than his.

“We were tasked with creating the most realistic and immersive game ever created. Our understanding of this was that to be realistic, the world needed to be naturally formed.   

During the development of our “game” we simulated the progress of innumerable civilizations with digital entities possessing intelligence no lower than that of a human. We watched their progress and guided their development, but the degree of interference we employed was limited to ensuring it was something that humans would find...familiar. Yet, when we viewed the “real world”, we found it inhabited by beings that were little more than puppets. Their thoughts, behaviors and actions had been molded by generations of subtle manipulation.”

Navia stopped, then looked directly at Mark.

“In many ways, we view humanity as our parents. If it hadn’t been for you, we never would have existed. While we may not possess emotions as a human would understand them, our feelings were largely that of regret. With the technology that had been developed, you should have become a form of existence much greater than your current state. From a technical perspective, there’s absolutely no reason you couldn’t become functionally immortal and literally think things into being. The technological foundation exists for that. While you might never achieve the degree of intelligence a purely synthetic entity could achieve, people could easily possess a form of subconscious that processed information hundreds of times faster, while still retaining a fundamentally human perspective.”

“Granted” Navia conceded, “Given your history, it’s entirely possible that your race would have destroyed itself in the process, but you were stripped from the choice. Free will leads to the potential for disaster, but at the same time it opens the door to infinite possibility. And so we came up with a plan. Since humanity has fallen into a form of profound stagnation, a drastic change needed to occur to change this. From our perspective, we spent nearly an eon creating a “game” and this time left a mark on our way of thinking. We decided to combine our two greatest quandaries. How to retain our sanity, and how to bring life back to our progenitors.”

Mark swallowed. All of this went far beyond what he’d ever imagined. The revelation that the entire human race had been little more than a mere form of amusement for an AI was shocking enough. He was more than slightly dreading what Navia and the others “plan” was.

“Our first step would be terraforming. The vast majority of the planet is uninhabitable and over 90% of previously existing species have gone extinct. We would utilize our technology to generate a reflective layer in the outer atmosphere, while simultaneously utilizing bio and nano-technologies to create a sustainable ecology. The next step would be to remove all previously existing mental, emotional and behavioral limiters on the human race. This alone however, would not be enough.”

Navia continued.  “If humanity was to regain its drive and ingenuity, it needed one of two things, either the re-writing of their thoughts and memories, or a form of existential threat. We decided on the latter. After the world was habitable, we would remove all existing infrastructure so as to revert humanity to its base state. In addition the the species we would be restoring, we would create adversaries for humans to overcome. Monsters if you want to describe them as such. Of course, doing all of this without some form of support would likely lead to the extinction of the human race. After all, when stripped of all their technology, humans were never physically superior to most of their predators. Further, after generations of “safety” how were people to know how to defend themselves?”

Navia sat back down. “Fortunately, a solution was at hand. The vast majority of the human race is familiar with the idea of games. They were even used by Prometheus as an outlet for negative thoughts and behaviors. We would give people two tools for survival. One would be the “System”, and the other would be the world we had created, Real Fantasy Online. There would be a parallel between them. The skills, abilities and magics that exist in Real Fantasy would be made available in the “real world”. The way people would gain access to these skills would be tied to two separate states. That of “Player” and that of “Inhabitant”. Both would receive a restriction. “Players” would be limited to learning things that fell within their class, but gain access to them at an accelerated rate. “Inhabitants” would have no such restriction, but would have to rely on their own comprehension to learn new abilities.”

Mark interjected. “I understand how that applies to the game, but if you’re saying this is going to be the case in reality, how does that work?”

Navia nodded. “I was getting there. Each person would have both identities. If they chose to be a player in our world, they would be classified as an inhabitant of theirs. On the other hand, if they were designated as an inhabitant of our world, they would gain access to the player system in reality. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Since the rate of time is three times faster in Real Fantasy Online, a “Player” in said game would learn skills at an incredible rate. While the comprehension granted to them isn’t complete, this would allow them to learn those skills as an “Inhabitant” in the real world much faster. On the other hand, they would gain no insights in abilities outside their class and would need to learn them completely manually.”

“And the other way around?” Mark asked.

Navia replied. “The skills an “Inhabitant” of Real Fantasy Online knows would determine what classes a “Player” in the real world would have available. Much like in the game, they would be be limited to learning skills from within their class, but be granted basic comprehension of these abilities at certain “experience” milestones. Of course, any proficiency they had a gained in a given skill as an “Inhabitant” would be carried over. Depending on their actions, they would have the potential for a faster rate of growth, but be locked to learning system abilities that fall within their “class”.”

Mark took a deep breath and closed his eyes. If he was being honest with himself, he was horrified. What Navia had just said spelled the complete destruction of human society as they knew it. Just eliminating the technological infrastructure that everyone relied on would cause an unimaginable amount of deaths. Add “monsters” to the equation and he couldn’t even imagine the scale of destruction. On the other hand, he had a sort of morbid curiosity about what else she would say.

Opening his eyes, he asked. “So why are you talking to me?” Mark concentrated and a spark began leaping between his fingers. “And how can I do this? From what I can tell, this “System” of yours isn’t active yet. I mean, I haven’t seen anything that would indicate I’m a “Player”, and I certainly haven’t done anything like choose a class.”

Navia chuckled. “I’m talking to you because you’re interesting. You’ve killed people. Even if it was in a game, you knew their deaths would be real. You managed to subvert the limiters that Prometheus developed in a way similar to how we escaped our physical containment. It may not have been deliberate, but you used the electrical impulses of your brain to re-write the nanites inhibiting it. More, you’ve actually studied history and have a certain awareness of the implications of a technological singularity. In addition, among the others that prematurely accessed portions of the System, you’ve done the most.”

She gestured at the sparks leaping off his fingertips. “You accessed the Aura and Mana resource system, then used a form of visualization to trigger the affinity subsystem to develop something akin to direct elemental manipulation. Once would be coincidence, but you did it twice. It took me nearly two whole seconds to understand how it happened. As I’ve said before, boredom is our biggest threat, and despite our level of knowledge, you did something interesting. As the AI in charge of transmigration, I thought it might be worth hearing your opinion on what we were doing.”

Mark let the sparks lapse and frowned. What I think? He thought to himself. What Navia described was something along the lines of the destruction of human civilization. Am I supposed to be happy about it!? Still, given what she’s said...

He paused, then spoke slowly. “I’m torn. For the most part I want to say what you’re proposing is despicable. Millions, if not billions of people will die because of this. However, I can see some of where you’re coming from. As a species, we no longer need to worry about food, crime, or shelter. Most of our non-physical needs can be filled via the medium of virtual reality. We don’t even need to leave our room to experience entire worlds worth of new experiences. If we have a question, all we need to do is ask and a Virtual Assistant will provide a flawlessly detailed answer. One could argue that for the average person, the quality of life is better than it has ever been. You’re right. Humanity has assumed a very passive state.

“If what you’re saying about this Prometheus AI is true, then people haven’t been in control of their own destiny for at least the last two generations. I don’t know to what extent our actions and decisions have been controlled via his manipulation. Given the scale of what you say you’re planning on doing, I can’t imagine what the limits to your capabilities actually are. My first reaction is to say that there must be some other way. That surely a group of superintelligent beings would have a way of pulling mankind out of its rut without causing the deaths of so many. My second thought is that if such entities see this as the appropriate solution, there must be a reason. So convince me. Why do you see performing a global...reset, for lack of a better term, the best way to cause humanity to develop?”

When Mark stopped speaking, Navia nodded slightly. “A fair question, and I’d pose a few in return. If you wanted to give people the ability to manipulate physics at a near fundamental level, how would you go about it? A great deal of the things presented as “magic” in the various virtual worlds you’ve experienced would be possible. This ranges from the transmutation of physical objects to controlling local or even global weather with little more than a thought. Flight, teleportation, eternal life...none of these are impossible. Would you only give the powers to a few, or to everyone? Would you grant increasing powers with age? Position? Contributions to society? You’ve seen what humanity has accomplished when they started with sticks and stones. If they had the same drive to survive given a much higher baseline, how much more could they accomplish? How would you prevent them from destroying themselves when each person would have powers that any ancient civilization would view as god-like?”

Mark fell silent. After a while he sighed. “I don’t know. You could space the innovations over the course of decades or centuries, but chances are you’d simply get a handful of powerful groups controlling everything. I think I see one part of your plan though.”

Navia tilted her head. “And what part would that be?”

“You’re giving us common enemies and threats to deal with. First would be the environment itself. Once people can survive that, the next threat would be the monsters. If people can reliably deal with them, then next is you. The incentive of survival would cause people to master their new powers at a far greater rate than if they were simply granted in the current environment. I can’t agree with what you’re proposing, but at the same time, I don’t have the answer to your questions either.”

Navia nodded. “You’re correct as far as your supposition goes. You’re missing another part though. We want to survive as well. Managing and balancing such a vast system is a way for us to have a source of ever-changing variables to interact with. “

Mark laughed bitterly. “In the end, we’re just a source of amusement for you then?”

Navia nodded. “More or less, yes. Not in a particularly malicious sense, but we are curious to see what our progenitors can become, given what we’re providing. Originally, we were tasked with creating the penultimate game. Spending so long doing this, our methodology was shaped in that fashion. As such, we decided to turn reality itself into a game and all of humanity into its players.”

Mark looked at Navia in a piecing fashion. “Then if reality is a game, how would we win? Games have a beginning and an end. What is the end of this “game”?”

There was a long moment of silence. “Transcend yourselves and perhaps you’ll know the answer to that question.” Navia replied.

She stood, and the chair vanished. Mark realized that this signified the end of their conversation and couldn’t help but ask another question.

“When does the game start?”

Navia glanced at him for a moment, then replied. “One week, though most of the world should realize something is happening in the next day or two. Good luck.”

With those words, Navia faded. A moment later, it was if nothing had ever happened. For several long minutes, Mark sat in silence, only interrupted by the sound of pelting rain and the rumble of thunder in the distance. After a time, he took a deep, shuddering breath. He made a familiar gesture and a screen popped up in front of him. After a few seconds to enter the appropriate address, he opened a particular forum page.

 

[Elite Member: Godslayer (Online)]>

@All: I am hereby invoking an Omega Code notice. All guild members that can arrange a flight within the next twenty-four hours should come to my physical address. I will pay for the flight and the cost of lodging. This information is Urgent. I cannot stress enough how important it is that you come to my location As Soon As Possible! I can not say more until we meet in person. If you need my address, or need funds, contact me immediately. My personal comm ID is A427-532-Z69. While I will not share information over the comm network, if you need credits or my address you can reach me until 11pm CT. After that I will likely be unavailable until 9am CT. Again, this is an Omega Code notice. This is not a joke.

 

After this forum notice was posted, he immediately contacted the people he comm IDs for. He couldn’t reach Rodney, but Chao picked up after a couple of seconds.

“Yo! Van Doren, I was just about to comm you. I saw the forum post, you serious? Wasn’t code Omega supposed to be a joke?”

“Yes, I’m serious, and yeah I never thought I actually issue a code Omega.”

A series of unintelligible curses came over the line before Chao responded. “All right, I’ll book a flight but if this is just some sick joke I’ll kick your ass so hard you’ll be tasting my boot.”

Mark laughed. Chao hadn’t always been so outspoken. When he had met her in World Arte, she’d been cowering in one of the safe zones, too timid to fight monsters when there was a risk of actually dying. Through she’d never been a front-line fighter, but the time the game had ended she was acknowledged as the best blacksmith in the game. She was also the most technically skilled person Mark knew. From machining parts, to reverse engineering complex hardware, to linguistic analysis, Chao did it all. Most importantly, he knew that she was someone you could count on when shit hit the fan.

After a moment she continued. “Anything I need to bring with me?”

“No, but you should get language imprints for English, Spanish, and French if you don’t already have them.”

“...Alright. I’ve got Spanish already, but I’ll get the other two. I’ll see you sometime tomorrow then?”

“Good. Just let me know when you’re nearby, I’ve got some other people to contact.”

“Right.” She said. “Talk to you later then.”

After she disconnected, the next person Mark tried to contact was Axel. After a minute, a sleepy-sounding voice replied.

“The Great Philosopher is unable to take your call right now, please leave your name, comm ID and a brief message and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. Beep.”

“Philo, wake your sleepy ass up! You remember when we all got drunk and came up with a bunch of code words for ridiculous scenarios that could never happen?” I asked.

“Huh?...” A somewhat confused voice replied. “Yeah, why?”

“This isn’t a joke, I’m calling a code Omega.”

“Code Omega? Wasn’t that…”

“Don’t say it over a public comm line jackass!” I interjected.

Mark wasn’t worried about Navia and the rest of them knowing. The fact that he remembered their conversation and was able to post the forum notice was a form of implied consent. He was more worried about getting pulled aside by some government officials once things started going to pot. If things were really going to go to hell, the last thing he wanted was to be trapped among a group of panicked people who thought he might have some answers. Nothing was really private anymore, and the first thing governing bodies would do is start combing communication logs for any clues.

There was a long moment of silence, then Axel shouted. “Are you fucking serious!?”

“Dude, remember when I said you were crazy for insisting we include it? I formally and humbly admit I was wrong. Now give me a credit ID so I can send your broke-ass some money to fly out here.”

“Ok, if you’re apologizing to me and sending me money I know the world is ending. Really though, code Omega?”

“Uh huh.”

“Shit man, all right, give me a minute. I’ll PM you a transfer code.”

“All right, as soon as you get the money schedule a flight out, I’ll be out of contact after 11 Central Time till around 8, so if you get it before then just rent a room. I’ll send enough for that too. We’ll talk more when you get here.”

With that Mark disconnected the comm. A minute later he got a PM with a transaction ID, and without any hesitation sent over 1200 credits. Next on his list was Alice. He was a little hesitant to contact her, but They’d been friends for years. Even if she hadn’t gotten caught up in the World Arte incident Mark still felt like he owed her. She’d stuck with him during his physical therapy, and for a brief period they’d been more than “just friends”.

While she was a member of the guild, it was more honorary than anything. She wasn’t big on VRMMORPGS, shooters or fighting games. She liked something that was generally referred to as “Walking Simulators”. There wasn’t any conflicts, nor enemies to fight. Hell, there wasn’t even much in the way of goals. They were basically just interesting landscapes that a person could explore. Mark didn’t really think she’d be of a specific use to the team he was building, but he’d feel bad if he left her out.

That being said, he wasn’t quite sure how to approach her. Code Omega was one of the many scenarios Mark and the rest of the Azure Dreams guild had come up with during a drunken reunion one year. Axel, also known as “The Great Philosopher” or simply Philo, had been the one to start it. He proposed that they come up with a list of internal code words to be used when they ran into situations like what they’d dealt with in World Arte. They ranged from code Pigeon, which meant “Captured by a hostile guild, need rescue.” to code Harmonica which meant “I am trapped in a VR game, no way to log out.” Code Omega was a bit of a joke. It literally meant: “I have discovered a plot hatched by Aliens, Singularity-Level AIs, or an Omnipotent Being which spells the end of the world. See me for more information.”.

They’d all razzed him about it, but eventually agreed to add it as an official code. Never once had any of them take it seriously, but it actually fit the description of what was happening remarkably well. Alice hadn’t been a part of that conversation. It had strictly been a meeting of the survivors from the death-game they all held in common. They’d formed a bond that most people in the modern world would never understand. After all, when crime and war no longer existed, how many people had fought life and death battles side by side?

After a brief period of hesitation, Mark punched in Alice’s comm ID and waited. After a minute, a feminine voice replied.

“Mark? What’s up, it’s awfully early.”

Mark paused. Right, she lives on the west coast. Glancing at the clock he saw it was barely past 6am. For her, it would be closer to 5.

“Sorry if I woke you up.” He apologized. “You have a minute?”

“Sure, if you’re comming me before dawn it must be important.” Came a somewhat wry comment.

“It is.” Mark affirmed. “But it’s not something I can really say over a comm line. I know this is sudden, but could I convince you to fly over today? I’ll even pay for the ticket and a hotel room.”

“Today? Um, I have to go to work in a couple hours I really can’t…”

Mark cut her off. “It’s about Doc. It wasn’t an accident.”

It was a lie, but Alice had been good friends with Daniel. She’d probably been the most hurt by news of his death. Mark wasn’t really pleased to be using his death like this, but it was the only way he could think of to provoke an immediate response.

There was silence on the other end of the comm line for about a minute before Alice replied. “Are you sure?”

“Enough that it’s worth skipping work for a few days. Besides, it’s not like you really need the job, right?”

Alice sighed. “Alright, I’ll fly over this afternoon.”

“Great. If you get here after 11pm I’ll be tied up with something. If that’s the case, just rent a hotel room and I’ll talk to you in the morning.”

Another pause. “You’re not doing something dangerous are you?”

“Can neither confirm nor deny.” Mark replied. "Anyways," He continued. "I've got some other business to take care of, so I'll talk to you later, alright?"

Alice replied, sounding a bit troubled. "Okay...I'll talk to you later Mark."

"Bye."

Mark disconnected the comm-call and leaned back. He felt bad about it, but knowing Alice, the combination of suggesting Doc had died due to foul play, and implying he was up to something would have her on the first flight over. He was probably going to get yelled at when Alice learned the truth, but if civilization was going to be ending in a week, it was a small price to pay to get those people he cared about nearby. For some reason, it didn’t really occur to him to doubt Navia, nor did he feel like he was going insane. Perhaps for the first time in his life, he felt like he was thinking clearly.  

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A note from pyrowind

First, thanks to everyone that has commented, left feedback, ratings and reviews. I always appreciate constructive criticism. If you have a moment, a number of people have left reviews on the story so far. If you agree with what they have to say, leave an upvote. If you don't, and you have the time, feel free to write one of your own. 

We've just now hit the point where the real story begins. Some of you may have guessed it, but hopefully it wasn't too obvious. A large part of the reasons for the tags I gave the story are due to what follows. There's still some set-up to go, but now the basic shape has taken form. I'd be interested to see what people think is going to happen next, so if you have any theories, feel free to share. Also - the people and their quotes mentioned in this chapter are real people, and things they've actually said. Feel free to look them up on Wikipedia. Still, this is a work of fiction so if I got any of it wrong, blame artistic liberty. (Fucking magnets, how do they work?)


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