In less than a year, the world would end.
Staring down at the lifeless body of his sister, Phil couldn’t muster even a hint of emotion. In fact, he realized, he wasn’t feeling anything. Stillness permeated his body, muffling everything but the thrum of his own heartbeat. Even knowing this moment was coming hadn’t prepared him. In many ways it had made it worse.
At Alice’s insistence, they'd done their best to pretend her sickness wasn’t slowly killing her. They'd spent several weeks playing board games—she loved the strategic kind that took hours to play—and hanging out with the few friends who hadn't fled the district after news of the incoming meteor had broken.
Somewhere distant, Phil’s cheek tingled. It was a tear, but it couldn’t be his. He was too far gone for tears.
A hollow and emotionless voice rang out all around him.
“Patient Number 342914 is deceased — time of death 2313, August 25th, 2142. You have ten minutes to vacate before sterilization begins. Thank you for choosing Gisney’s Hope Health Hospital. We hope you decide to use our services again.”
And with that, the room sank back into silence.
Not knowing what else to do, he reached down and laid his hand on Alice's head.
“We were so close to escaping it all,” Phil said. “I promise I won’t be afraid anymore.”
It was a lie, of course. Was it wasted on his sister, or did he really think she could hear his words? He honestly didn’t know, but it felt right. She had spent most of her life watching out for him, despite his many fears. A part of him hoped she could hear his words, but another, much more significant part of him, laughed at the idea.
She was dead, after all, and as far as he knew, the only way to live on after death was through the Haven program. It had been their goal; now it would be just his. Even though the very thought of breaking into the Haven system by himself made him quake with fear, he would do it. He would do it for her.
A soft but urgent beeping filled the room: the one-minute warning that Phil would be ‘sterilized’ along with his sister’s corpse if he didn’t leave soon.
With a final look Phil turned and left Alice's room. He made his way through the hospital's maze of white, plastic hallways, relieved to leave the lifeless building behind finally.
Phil had only taken one step out of the building before his vision began to swim with advertisements and news feeds. He sighed and reached for his Augmented Reality Device, or ARD. He knew it was technically illegal to do what he was about to do, but he couldn’t bring himself to care anymore. Not today.
With a quick motion, he flipped the switch embedded in his temple and the world around him plunged into darkness, matching hid mood. For the first time in years, he saw what the outside world actually looked like.
Gone were the neon lights, the flashy videos, the sound prompts. A thick layer of ever-present smog hung low on the streets. The filter plants worked 24/7, but humanity had done too much damage to this world to fix the problem completely. So, when the night came, there was usually some 'mist', as Gisney liked to call it. The ARD did a fair job of filtering it out through visual manipulation, but with his turned off, he was greeted with the full truth.
Darkened buildings towered higher now than at any time in human history. Only corporate structures remained clean and shiny, like the hospital behind him. The streets were in various levels of disrepair, but with how effective anti-gravity rings had become, a bumpy road wasn't a problem when you could float over it.
The sidewalks stood out as an oddity amid the grey, dark world around him. They were made of self-cleaning solar glass with rails that kept people using their ARDs from wandering into the road. Phil laughed at the absurdity of keeping sidewalks cleared, since most people would just summon a ride share car. Private car ownership was highly regulated and usually only issued to those that needed such vehicles.
Looking up and down the street, he realized that he had no idea how to get home without his Augmented GPS telling him where to go. Well, this will be an adventure, he grumbled to himself. He tried to remember the route the self-driving car had taken, but he had been so distracted by Alice's worsening condition that he hadn't paid much attention. Resisting the urge to turn his ARD back on and summon a car, he did what he figured was the most logical thing to do, he picked a direction at random and began walking.
The darkness of the street unnerved Phil more than he wanted to admit. He was used to everything being highlighted and outlined with light effects from his ARD and he never truly realized, until now, how dark the world really was. Why didn’t they install bigger lights? he wondered.
An hour passed, and he felt reasonably certain things were starting to look familiar when he heard footsteps behind him. It was late enough at night that most people had gone indoors, so the sudden noise sent an icy jolt of fear down Phil's spine.
Turning quickly, he noticed three men wearing ragged dark clothing walking straight toward him. The light of their ARDs and the low light of the street made them look like faceless men with lamp lights for heads. The fear spread to his chest, and he screamed at his legs to move, but they didn’t respond. He stood there like an animal staring into the headlights of an oncoming truck as his attackers approached.
But then, just as Phil began to expect the worst, they stopped several feet from him and began making throwing motions in his direction.
“W—what do you want?” Phil asked. “I haven’t got many credits, and my ARD is old.”
The three men glanced at Phil with eyebrows raised before turning their attention back to something just behind him. Finally, one of them spoke.
“Hey, Tork!” the closest man said. “Did you catch it?! He had a super rare mark on him.”
“Nah, man," another man said. “It got away. Let’s keep looking down this way and see if we can get any more rare ‘mons.”
And with that, they pushed past Phil without acknowledging him. Phil blew out a long exaggerated breath, annoyed at how quick he saw danger in every shadow. They were playing some old Augmented Reality game. With his face red and his shoulders slumped, he turned and followed them, still determined to find his way home without help.
After thirty minutes of walking, Phil was just about ready to cave in and use his ARD when he saw the lights on in a cafe nestled on the ground floor of a tall building. It was a retro gaming cafe with older ARD units attached to computer towers. Two greasy teens sat playing a game with flashy magical spells and sword fighting.
Phil tried to smile, but couldn't, as he walked into the warm, brightly lit room, Phil took a seat at the bar.
“What can I get for you, sir?” Phil was startled by the sudden voice coming from a speaker somewhere in front of him and nearly fell off his seat.
“Where are you?” Phil asked. Then, with a sudden realization, he knew that the AI was probably appearing in front of him in Augmented Reality space. Phil decided against flipping his ARD back on.
“I see that you are having technical difficulties,” the voice said. A video displaying a black-haired man in his thirties wearing a white t-shirt with some video game characters on it flickered to life.
“Yeah,” Phil said. He was surprised to feel his voice catch. Alice had been a fan of these kinds of cafes, and being here now was stirring emotions he'd rather have left alone. A silent tear escaped one of his eyes, but he quickly wiped it away and cleared his throat.
“Can you display a map of the area for me?” Phil asked. “Please include the current location, as well.” You had to be specific with some of these later model AIs.
“No problem, my man.” The AI was attempting and failing to sound like an old-school gamer, but Phil ignored it and waited for the map to appear.
After an excruciating three-second wait, the map finally flickered onto the screen. Someone really needs to update this place's hardware, Phil thought, studying the map. He was a tech guy himself, but he just dabbled in hardware. His true skills laid elsewhere.
He had been walking the wrong way for nearly a mile. Sighing and making a mental note of the directions, Phil left the white lights and ventured back out into the darkness. With some idea of where he was going, it took him less than an hour to make it home.
In the silence of the night, he cried himself to sleep.
Phil sat on the edge of his bed in the small apartment that he had shared with his sister since their parents had died nearly ten years ago. It had been several months since Alice's death, but he still hadn’t found the strength to go into her room. With mere months to go before the end of the world, he doubted he would find the time.
His headset beeped to alert him to new messages. With a thought, an augmented screen and keyboard appeared in front of him, and he began scrolling through them.
He was finally beginning to feel somewhat normal, whatever that meant anymore. He still had a massive hole inside himself from the grief, but he had gotten better at ignoring it and focusing on his current task: figuring out how to get into the Haven Project.
All his skill and knowledge had been bent to the task, but he hadn't made much progress. He liked to think of himself as a reasonably adept programmer—he'd even specialized in network penetration during his short career at Netcom—but hacking into Gisney's, the company heading off the Haven program, when he didn’t even know where to look or what he was looking for, had proved an impossible task. Apparently being a monopoly—market turbulence in the wake of the news about the meteor had given Gisney all of the openings it needed—had its benefits.
Phil opened an email that looked promising.
I think I found someone willing to trade a possible way in, but the services he requires might be a bit much, even for you. He needs a set of files from the Big Cheese Corp. Won’t be easy, but I can lead a DDoS attack in conjunction if you want to give it a try. Let me know asap. This guy is blowing up all my lines of com.
He wanted someone to hack Gisney? Knox was talented, but did he really think that he could pull off a DDoS attack against Gisney's servers? Even the thought of trying to pull off such an attack was exciting. This was where he could shine, this was where his social shortcomings wouldn’t hinder him. He was one of the best in the world when it came to this kind of work, which was why he knew there was no way he would be able to pull this job off. Not alone, at least.
A broad grin crept onto his face as he began to access his personal files, which he stored on a private server, holding not only his best work but the best work of a small select group of minds: his crew, the Green Hats. He still scoffed at the dumb name Knox had suggested when they'd decided to band together and begin work on an AI, but there was no helping it now.
Phil had spent almost every spare second since Alice’s death working on the AI. Alice wasn’t the most talented programmer, but she had a special way of looking at things and the AI had been her idea. It was the last thing he truly had that they had shared a hand in, and he had made considerable strides in what the AI could accomplish. Network penetration was just one of her skills, but she could track data and trends faster than any AI Phil had worked with. In fact, it was becoming hard to track what she could do now. Every time Phil checked in with her, she had scoured the internet and learned a new skill. It had gotten to the point where she was even messing with her own base code. He quickly connected her mainframe into his ARD.
A blue translucent face popped up in the center most part of his screen. After a moment it went from being a lifeless bald still face into what Eve had been using as her most recent avatar. Her face lost its translucent color, solidifying to a deep blue and the hair went a dark black. Streaks of orange could be seen as the floating head flipped its hair.
"Hey, Phil! I'm so glad to see you! I've been working on this new language that I think will be so much more effective than your current mode of-"
“Eve! Slow down,” Phil said. “Like I’ve told you before, it's brilliant, but the world is literally ending so I doubt it'll benefit us much.”
“Any luck finding a way into the mysterious Haven servers?”
“Actually, that’s why I contacted you. I think we might've found a way. You think you can take on another AI?”
“Psshhh, you know I’m the greatest digital badass in the virtual world. I can take anyone! Who is it?”
“Gisney’s AI. I’m not sure if they gave him a name, but I just uploaded all we know about it. Tell me what you think.”
“Uh, well, this is troubling. Give me a second to process.” Her blue face scrunched up tight and her normally light blue eyes glazed over white. She was processing the information.
Phil smiled as she went silent. The Green Hats had very little processing power of their own, but they had created backdoors into the servers of several large corporations, and they routinely took advantage of their processing power while shutting them out of their own servers for a limited time. It was highly illegal, but with the end of the world looming closer and closer, they had been willing to take more risks.
“Okay, so here's the problem. From estimates of power usage and several other data points, I was able to gather, they're running their AI with an ungodly amount of processing power. We would have to throw all sorts of curve balls at them to even give me a chance at getting access to their files.”
“From what I’ve heard, the power that's needed to do the Haven upload is immense. That could account for a lot of what you're assuming is being used for the servers.”
“That may be true, Phil,” Eve said, drawing out his name. “But I’m still not convinced what they're doing is possible, so I’m going to err on the side of caution and say I may get my ass handed to me if I go up against the big mouse.”
“The big mouse?” Phil laughed. “They haven’t been that sweet kid company for over a hundred years. How did you even get access to that information? Are you downloading the internet again? If I have to backdate you because you catch an ungodly number of viruses, so help me, Eve!”
“Oh, relax! I just wanted to understand them better. I’m currently talking to nearly a hundred different people about what they might know about the AI.”
“Good. Keep researching. I have the beginnings of an idea,” Phil said. “If this works, this time next week I could be getting into Haven!”
“Phil,” Eve said, suddenly quiet. “Do you think—if you do find a way into Haven, do you think I could upload as well?”
“Eve.” Phil heaved a sigh before answering. “I don’t know. I mean, we haven’t been able to get even the smallest amount of info about how it's possible to upload a mind or why they're' so confident that the meteor won’t obliterate their servers. But I promise you, if we can find a way, I will take you with me.”
“Thanks, Phil! You're the best slow, squishy human I know! Try not to die before you can make us both immortal!”
And with that, her blue face faded from view as she went back into the server to continue her investigation while Phil set about figuring out how the hell he was going to make this work.
You’re insane, Doc. I bow to your power and will be ready to launch the strike at 0300 hours. Good luck and tell Eve I said sup.
Phil looked up from his screen. His plan would work. Pulling this off is possible, he told himself for the thousandth time. It was time to tell Eve about the idea and hope she wouldn't dismiss it out of hand. There was no other way. This was how they would break into the mouse’s house.
“Eve,” Phil said. She was already running a small set of processes in his headset, so she must have at least seen Knox’s response.
“Howdy, Doc!” Eve said. Her voice rang with simulated mirth and her face blinked into existence on his display. “Tell Knox if he wants to say hi, all he has to do is look in a mirror. I'm always watching.” She let her last sentence hang in the air ominously for a moment, her chin riding as she squinted her eyes as if she was looking at something far away “I mean, really, Phil, I don’t know why you and Terrence like using nicknames so much. The chances of anyone intercepting your communications are already slim to none with me watching your backs.”
“Eve,” Phil said. He needed her to focus, but for some reason, she always struggled with that. If she wasn’t doing hundreds of things at once, she wasn’t being Eve.
“Phil,” Eve said. Her voice was dripping with sarcasm, but she said no more.
“This is my plan,” Phil said. “Before I left Netcom after Gisney’s takeover, I created several backdoors into various systems just in case I ever needed to get back in. I’m sure some have been discovered and patched, but I’m fairly certain some of the less important ones are still open. We're going to target one of the less physically guarded server farms out by the city limits. Knox will hit them with a DDoS, which should get them to send out a technician to find a workaround. Except we'll be tapped into the main lines and you'll be monitoring their communications so we can intercept the call and send in Tank and Frog instead.”
Phil heard some low volume mumbling from Eve about nicknames again, but she stopped as soon as Phil continued.
“They'll plant a physical upload point for you. With all the power of that server farm at your command, you should be able to penetrate into the main infrastructure and get the files we need. Easy cheesy!”
“Where should I start with how many things can go wrong with your plan?” Eve asked. “What if they don’t reach out for techs because of a DDoS attack on nonessential servers? What if we get in and get access to the hardware, but I'm still not a match for their AI? And what's going to stop them from tracking the source of the DDoS attack and sending goons to Knox’s front door?”
“If Gisney runs anything like Netcom did, they'll send someone,” Phil said. “And I have faith in your ability. You were created by some of the best minds of the century.”
Eve scoffed and rolled her blue eyes.
“I'll be doing my own attack on their communications mainframe. If all goes well, I'll keep them chasing rabbits until the end comes.”
Phil could tell by the silence from Eve that she didn’t think highly of his plan, but he knew it could—no, it would—work. Turning his ARD to minimal interference, Phil stood up. He'd been sitting for nearly 24 hours, and stiff muscles strained as he stretched, a chorus of pops and cracks filling the room.
Phil made his way through his dark apartment to the bathroom and flipped the light switch. The mirror revealed a horror beyond recognition: a face that desperately needed coffee. Phil examined his reflection, noticing how his bloodshot eyes made the green of his iris seem more vibrant. The lack of sleep did not, however, improve the rest of his face. It drooped and wrinkled in ways that shouldn’t be possible for a man of only twenty-five. His messy, dark hair was tied up into a small bun on the back of his head; he’d been too busy to worry about getting a haircut.
Fond memories of Alice making fun of his hippie bun and her frequent offers to cut his hair flashed through his mind. But he liked having it long enough that he could tie it out of the way and forget about it. One less thing he had to worry about when he was busy working. A sudden stench of unwashed armpits wafted up to fill his nostrils and Phil was reminded of another task that needed to be completed before 0300.
Checking the time display on his ARD, he noted that he still had nearly two hours before they made the attempt. By 0330 everything would be over, for better or for worse.
Stripping out of his clothes, he did his best not to look at his emaciated body. He had never been a large man, just tall at nearly six feet. In the last few months, it had been hard for him to eat, and he'd lost several pounds. But that wouldn’t matter when he went full digital. He’d be able to make himself a healthy, powerful digital body. Perhaps he’d even try to hack the system and give himself the ability to throw fireballs like those old-school fantasy games!
Focus on the now, he reminded himself. I don't know what it'll be like inside Haven. They don't tell anyone anything.
Both Phil and Alice had been in the line-up to get into the program. They were told all of the tests had gone well and that they just needed one more before they were uploaded. The final test was a deep scan for general wellness—to make sure you could survive the transfer process, they said. That’s how they'd found out about Alice's condition. It was the same week Gisney had taken over. He'd been fired the same day.
He didn’t dare think about the damned disease. Otherwise, he would get lost in the memories of his last days with his sister, and he wouldn’t be ready to defend his digital comrades. No! He had to stay focused.
Pushing away thoughts of the events that had gotten him to this point, Phil focused on what he would need to do. It wasn’t anything he couldn’t do, but he was worried a few of the penetration programs he had prepared wouldn’t be good enough. He quickly toweled himself off and dressed so he could spend the last couple hours making his final preparations.
Sooner than he would have liked, they were mere minutes away from the digital assault.
“I’ve finished with all your backups, Eve. Go ahead and begin the upload.”
“Just because we have a copy doesn’t mean you can let them shred my code if we get caught. I’m not a fan of dying, it sounds painful.”
“You can feel pain?” Phil asked.
“Well, no. But I’ve read many accounts of pain and you humans do not enjoy it—well, except for a few. Most humans don’t enjoy pain, so I figure I shouldn’t either.”
“There won’t be any pain. Most likely they’d just purge your code, deleting you. And if that happens, I have you right here!” Phil said, holding up a small thumb drive.
“Upload is complete. I’m going to radio silence during our op, ten-four?”
“What in the— We aren’t using radios, and what does ten-four mean?”
“Oh, meat bag, my brilliance is wasted on you.”
With a final chuckle from Eve, his earpiece went silent. Perhaps Knox had been messing with her personality subroutines again. She seemed to get stranger and stranger the longer she'd been running.
Phil thumbed the small black device that contained Eve’s code and sighed. He really did hope that they would be able to bring Eve with them when they uploaded. Since Alice's death, Eve had been his primary source of social interaction. The thought of not having her around brought a foreboding sense of loneliness.
An alarm went off in his ear. It was time.
He took a quick look around his room. Clothes littered the floor, and half-eaten boxes of corporate rations lay strewn about. I won't miss this place, he decided.
Tilting his armchair back, he engaged his Augmented Reality screens: six screens running various automatic penetration programs with a seventh in the center running programs Phil would need to manipulate directly. With a thought, the screens locked into virtual place and stopped adjusted as he turned his head, even though the screens weren’t actually real he preferred they stay in one spot while he worked.
Phil pinged the server and got a quick response. Several messages popped up across his screen. The attack had worked, and the first call had been intercepted.
Good. Ten minutes until Tank and Frog show up. Frog owned a nondescript white van that he had been using for years to do tech support runs, so it should be able to avoid suspicion. And although they'd joked about Tank smashing his way in if they had any trouble, his nickname wasn't really much of a joke. Standing a massive six foot nine, he weighed an easy three hundred and fifty pounds of muscles. He loved fighting, but the few times they'd actually met in person, he'd actually come off as a very gentle guy.
Another set of pings told Phil that Tank and Frog had gained entry without incident and the direct connection was about to be made.
Phil watched his screen intently, ready to do his part. He had dozens of branching attacks that should keep Gisney chasing their heels for hours—or minutes, if the AI got directly involved. But that was why they had Eve. She should be able to give the AI a run for its money and transmit the files more or less undetected during the chaos of the combined attack.
Eve was in and making her first attempt at penetration. Knox sent off another barrage of digital attacks hoping to distract the AI, and Phil began his programs.
He was met with instant retaliation. The AI was tracking the source of his attacks far quicker than should be possible, but his VPN was sending the AI on a wild goose chase while he continued to find chinks in the system’s armor. He found an open ID into one of the primary systems and threw several thousand requests to overload the server. It was working!
And then it wasn’t. Somehow the AI had managed to plug several of the leaks and ban his ever-changing IP. He checked his VPN, which rerouted his connection through several thousand different locations before getting to his actual router, and was shocked to find that the AI was nearly upon him.
Working as fast as his fingers could go, he crafted a new script that would help scramble his location. The AI was only a few hundred locations away from finding him, and it was working at incredible speeds. Done!
Phil slammed the run key, and his script began creating a false trail that would loop back on itself and, he hoped, keep the AI busy indefinitely.
Pulling his focus back to the task at hand, he was shocked by the messages quickly filling his screen.
Knox was compromised.
My VPN wasn’t enough man! They are onto me. I’m going to run for it. Don’t worry I’ll wipe things clear before I go.
They would be sending goons to his place, real people that weren't happy that their server had been under attack. Phil was telling Knox to just make a run for it and not waste any time, but his ID flashed out.
He had gone offline.
Not even his ARD ID stayed active, which was very strange. There was no way they could have gotten to him that fast. He must have wiped them right after sending the message. With a small sense of relief, Phil turned to the stream of messages he was still receiving.
We got out without being detected, but Frog is convinced we have a tail on us. Frog thinks he can lose them on side streets. I’ll keep you updated.
Eve had even sent a message: This AI is something else entirely. I’m having trouble even interfacing with their servers, much less getting information.
That was the last of the messages. Phil tabbed back to the script that was cycling his IP, and his jaw dropped open.
He’d been made. The AI had overcome the smoke and mirrors and now knew full well where Phil lived. And what he looked like, Phil realized with horror. His ARD camera had been activated, and he was being monitored.
You have made a grave mistake, child.
The words filled his ARD display, and everything else winked out. Acting as fast as he could, Phil flipped the switch to shut off his ARD.
The words still floated in his vision. Diving out of his chair, he rolled to the floor. He pulled a long metal cylinder out from beneath his bed, flipped a switch, and pressed it against his temple.
A small fizzle and the smell of smoke were all that remained of his ARD. The words winked out of his vision, and Phil lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling.
Several glowing plastic stars shone above him. Alice had made fun of him, but he'd thought they were cool. Even now, although he was technically an adult, he enjoyed sitting in the dark and watching the small spots of glowing light.
You need to move! He thought to himself. The fried ARD had a strange effect on him, and his thoughts felt sluggish. Yes, he thought, I need to wipe my server and find a mobile ARD.
I have one of those. . . somewhere. Where did I stash it? The closet? Pulling himself up, he hurried over and began rifling through the boxes of computer parts. Here it is!
He grabbed the black rectangular box, pressing his thumb onto the activation point. The sides of the box slid apart, creating a see-through display that would give him visual access to the ARD network. It was old, but it would work.
He threw messages to his teammates and Eve telling them he was going to run and would give them his location later. Slamming the device shut, Phil wiped the server with the same device he had used on his ARD and raced out the door.
To his surprise, his neighbor was sitting on a lawn chair in the hall.
“Little late to be taking a walk,” he said, catching Phil’s eye. “You alright, Phil?” His voice grew concerned upon seeing Phil’s face.
I must really look scared. Calm down. You got this, he told himself. His heart raced on anyway, and he felt his anxiety tightening in his chest. The real world was not his realm of expertise.
“I—I’m fine,” Phil managed to say as he walked down the hall and out into the cold, dark street. His neighbor called after him, but Phil pushed on down the road.
Tall apartment buildings nestled too close to each other loomed all around him as he walked down Kelven Street. Phil checked his messages.
He had several.
Knox had sent a short message: They have me.
Tank and Frog sent a similar message: If you get the files, save yourself! They're shooting at us!
Shit. Phil began to shake, and he was forced to lean against the building. He had one more message, and it was from Eve.
I hope this was worth it. I got the files. They're attached to this message. I’m not going to make it out, though. I’m not even confident that this message will make it out. This AI is something different.
Phil quickly checked his ARD files, and sure enough, he'd downloaded a small set of files. Conflicting emotions raged inside of him. He hadn’t expected such a swift retaliation. Plans began to form in his mind on how he could rescue his friends. Wringing his hands he wanted to yell. He knew that there was no way he could rescue them. He was no hero.
Allowing his rational mind to take over and doing his best to ignore the numb emptiness that began settling in his chest, he sent a message to the contact Knox had made and then passed to him.
I have the files. Give me an address, and I will deliver them if you can provide what you promised.
His ARD dinged in response immediately.
1425 West Travel St.
Phil thumbed the address into his ARD. It was close, maybe an hour walk or a ten-minute car ride. He sent a coded file with the address to Frog and Tank. He could at least give them a chance. Not wanting to risk being tracked by paying for a car ride, Phil began to walk.