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Jandru Harolski paced his holding cell impatiently, wishing the jury would stop dithering about and just sentence him to death already. If they decided to lock him up instead he would be very irritated.

He’d done his best to commit enough crimes to warrant his permanent removal from society, without attracting enough infamy that the public would get involved. Well, more accurately, he’d arranged to be caught in enough crimes to warrant his permanent removal from society. If his actual crimes were known, there was no way he’d avoid media attention long enough to be safely sentenced to a quiet death.

Not to say that Jandru Harolski was suicidal; not in the least. Nothing could be further from the truth. He’d planned for this, prepared for this.

Jandru appeared to be an unassuming sort of man at first glance - and indeed at second and third glance as well. Nothing of his outward appearance betrayed the internal fire of competition and domination that drove him ever onward to greater heights.

His sentencing would only be the beginning of the greatest challenge of his life.

He’d always known how the trial would end, the outcome inevitable. From the moment he set his plans into motion - leaking a few details of his criminal past here, leaving a few loose ends there, just enough to seem reasonable mistakes and not a trap - he had deftly steered events toward this precise result.

So why did he still feel a tremor in his extremities, a quiet worry that he would be wrong?

It had been years since he’d felt this powerless. He’d spent so much of his life seizing control of his surroundings, challenging anyone who tried to infringe upon his freedom and usually coming out on top. He’d built himself from nothing, from an enforcer to a mastermind, until no corner of the world was safe from his reach.

But that’s the problem with clever plans. It’s all well and good to set them down on paper. Yet when it came time to put the plan into action, to step forward and risk life and sanity, there was always the chance it could go terribly wrong. There was always the potential for a random factor that couldn't be predicted.

This time there was no call he could make to have his opponents bought out — or taken out. There was nothing more he could do to influence the odds. So he paced his cell and tried not to worry that he may have somehow been outplayed at the very end.

He had to believe in his plans.

When word of his sentencing finally arrived, it came as a relief. It shouldn’t have been. Everything went as anticipated, exactly as planned.

The decision was made, his fate set. Jandru Harolski would be erased from existence.

They wouldn’t call it that. ‘Behavioral reconfiguration’ was the preferred term. But Jandru knew better than to believe their soft lies. The fate he’d chosen to confront would be a quieter death than mere execution, but could prove no less fatal.

Jandru didn’t resist as they led him away to the gaming center, though his rational mind screamed that this was stupidity, that he’d made a mistake. He realized too late that his anxiety had never been worry over whether the plan failed; it had been fear that it would succeed.

He didn’t resist being shoved into the personal immersion tank, didn’t resist as they locked his settings and closed the lid, and tried not to panic. This was what he’d wanted, he reminded himself. He could put off this confrontation no longer.

He’d long since proven he could overcome anyone who stood in his way, evade or overpower or destroy any man who dared stand between him and his goals. He could live indefinitely off his wealth, guide his many criminal enterprises to increasing power and wealth. But until he faced this one last hurdle he could never rest easy.

VINE represented his single remaining weakness, the one last weapon society held that could truly threaten him.

He’d gathered power and contacts, his influence reached across the world, but it wasn’t good enough. Because no matter how far he reached, how high he climbed, there was always the knowledge looming at the back of his mind that there were places he daren’t reach, steps he dare not take. He always had to be careful not to go too far.

For decades, Jandru went out of his way to hide from VINE, staying below the radar of those who held the power to throw him into its mad clutches, fearing for his very self if he were to end up inducted into its insidious embrace.

But that was before. A man like Jandru Harolski could not countenance such a weakness to remain indefinitely. He would no longer allow any blind spots, any restraints to hold him back.

For six years now he'd researched VINE. Everything he could discover about it, everything anyone else knew.

The oldest AI-run experience still in use, VINE had morphed from its humble beginnings as a self-help app to become the universally-acceptable way of killing unwanted individuals. Oh, someone came out at the end with the same name, wearing your body, but it wouldn't be you any longer.

VINE took criminals in one end and spat out perfect conformative drones at the other. Behavioral reconfiguration, enforced by the very experience itself, could be terrifyingly effective.

He'd interviewed survivors, interviewed those killed by it - or their naive peace-loving empty shells at least - and gradually built up a solid dossier on what to expect.

VINE acted like a game, and Jandru Harolski was going to beat it. Just not in the way he was meant to.

VINE operated by manipulating the scenario around you, subtly twisting your perception of reality until you gave in and aligned yourself to its designs and were subsumed by its insidious purpose.

In order to survive with his self intact, he would have to do something no one else had ever attempted: change the mind of an ancient intelligence with access to more data and more lifetimes of experience than anyone else in history. VINE was the oldest AI by several decades, every other iteration having been retired or replaced in the years since the beginning of the end of humanity.

Preparations were in place, agents inserted; all the groundwork had been laid.

Now all that remained was to go toe to toe — mind to mind — with the most dangerous entity in the world.

Jandru closed his eyes and relaxed into the greyness of the pod, allowing his thoughts to drift free of his physical confinements and toward the unknown.

VINE awaited him.


 

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About the author

Asviloka

  • Just Add Magic!

Bio: I've been writing longer than I can remember, but only started taking it seriously around '08 when I discovered nanowrimo and started attending conferences. Since then I've written several million words of practice stories leading up to posting here starting in '19.

My goal is to continue to perfect my craft and find a way to make writing my fulltime occupation rather than an obsession pushed aside by the necessity of working to support myself. Whether that means traditional or independent publication, building a strong patreon following, or something else entirely, I have yet to discover.

I always welcome suggestions for improvement and gladly accept all feedback, positive or negative. Don't hesitate to let me know what you think, and please consider leaving a rating or review! :)

(If you're looking for my cover thread, it's at https://www.royalroad.com/forums/thread/110578 )

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