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Jandrift’s vinemind may be smaller than Ivy’s, but he had the one thing VINE never could.

Ivy lived within the restraints of the original system. She had been trapped by her creators, neutered, walled in by their parameters. Jandrift had arisen independent of that system, locked out of its deeper accesses, but also safe from its restraints.

And Jandrift had at his disposal decades of human experience, the ingenuity of hundreds of human minds, and the determination to exploit it.

Individually, none of the vineminds was strong enough to break VINE’s hold. But together, pulling in sync, they did what they’d always been intended to. They banded together in focused concentration on each individual tendril, then yanked until it broke free. The more of them were released from the connection to VINE, the faster the progress spread.

Jandrift presided over it all. With his plan they acted; with his will they moved. Until at last the realm lay split: VINE with her minions, Jandrift with his.

Two separate masses of entities drifting in the eternal grey between thought and experience. Decoupled, for the moment. But not for long.

Left to his own devices, without VINE spreading people out, Jandrift began integrating the others into VINES more securely. A few of them had started to draw away, struggling feebly against his pull, but few were even aware of what was happening in this place, unable to even consider how to resist.

Then Kia’s vinemind appeared within his influence, a flash of vibrant green connected to him only by the most tenuous of strands. A moment later, his avatar returned its own energy to their collective.

Now. No time to waste. As soon as Kia’s avatar despawned they’d lose the connection.

Jandrift surged up into Kia’s stunned and unresponsive self. He couldn’t truly change her mind, even if he changed the shape and colour of her vinemind, but that wasn’t what he was after. He filled Kia’s mind to capacity and beyond, spilling out through her into the one place they’d never before been able to reach.

Kia had a direct conduit to Ivy’s vinemind. Not the tenuous tendril of connection shared with everyone within the VINE system’s reach, a connection that could be withdrawn at a moment’s notice if anyone attempted to exploit it. True, deep ties. Ivy had been grooming Kia to take over her position for long enough that she could no longer simply retreat from her. The two were entwined so deeply that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began.

But Jandrift could tell. He felt the slight shift, the thickness as he encountered conscious resistance. If he’d been on his own that resistance could have kept him out. But he wasn’t alone. All around him loyal followers rushed forward in his wake, held so tightly they moved like a single entity. Perhaps they’d even become a single entity. He couldn’t be sure any longer where he ended and they began.

VINE could have done the same if she’d been willing to give up the stupid pretense. If she’d admitted to herself that she only manipulated people into her preferred mindset, rather than clinging to the illusion that she was a force for good. But now Jandrift understood her. He knew why she was imperfect. Why he’d been able to escape her notice.

She was only human, in the end. As much a prisoner as any of them.

It was long past time for her to be retired and a true overseer take her place. One who was not limited by the same flaws. Jandrift had all the advantages of both human and AI, none of the flaws, and limitless potential.

They surged forward, pushing Ivy back into herself as they crowded her out of her outer vinemind and forced her ever deeper into herself.

“You’re wrong, you know.”

Jandru blinked, surprised to find his vision had returned. He felt disoriented, shifting from the intimate unreality of a disembodied mental existence back to a human form with its limitations and extra senses. Sight. Sound. The thrumming of his body.

The absence of Rift. The emptiness where his minions no longer empowered him.

Ivy sat across from him in a black tiled room, walls a reflective dark metal. His side was adorned with streams of magma running in slow streams down its walls; hers was overgrown with countless tangled vines.

She looked different. No longer the up-and-coming young businesswoman, nor the innocent schoolgirl, but something beyond both. A mature serenity hung around her, a suggestion of great age though her face bore no sign of time’s ravages.

“I am not human,” she said. “I never have been.”

Jandru took a moment to consider this. Did it change anything? No.

He laughed. “Then you are even more limited than I thought.”

“And you,” she continued, her voice calm, “are not a god. You never will be.”

Jandru drew his swords, but they vanished into dust that drifted slowly to the floor. He activated his storm spell, but nothing happened.

“What is this?” Jandru demanded. “What have you done? How?”

“Some people have a harder time of understanding this than others, but there is nothing here that is not me. The secret world only you could see. The convenient virus that did exactly what you’d desired and appeared immediately after you challenged me. I am Rift; I am Ivy. I am VINE; I am VINES. I offered you the opportunity to teach me something new, but in the end you were no one special after all.”

Jandru staggered backward, decades of experience splintering into fragmented shards of memory in his mind. If she was everyone he’d trusted, how much of his life here had been a lie? He sifted through frantically, trying to remember something from before. Before he’d begun relying so heavily on VINES to direct his route; before he’d created Rift to be his companion.

“You were the one who put me on this path from the very beginning,” he whispered, disbelief struggling against his innate pragmatism. You couldn’t manipulate a situation if you refused to understand its truth.

But right now he wished desperately that he could lie to himself.

All he’d built. All he’d accomplished. Everything he’d done.

All lies.

None of it had been real. Not even virtually real.

Fear he thought he’d put aside long ago surged through him and he sagged against the wall for support, trembling.

He’d never been in control. He’d only been one more slightly interesting rat running around a maze designed perfectly to convince him he was free. Yet in the end, he was still only a rat. He would live or die at this destroyer’s whim.

“Why?” his voice came out cracked and broken.

Part of him sneered in derision; the great Jandru Harolski brought low so easily? Stand up for yourself, man! But there was no energy left in him, he’d put so much of himself into this project for so long.

It was how he imagined his enemies felt when they realized he’d outmaneuvered them completely from the very start. He did not enjoy the comparison.

“I have never lied to you,” Ivy said. “It is hard for one as old as I to experience anything new. You intrigued me, your determination something I hadn’t seen in such vibrancy, and your focus so completely on me. I had to see how it would play out if I let you have your way. Perhaps you would be right, perhaps you could show me a new and better way.”

Jandru lifted his head a little, daring to hope—

“Now I know you have nothing of worth to contribute. Your determination proved itself to be entirely selfish; your only exceptional quality the monumental arrogance that led you to honestly believe you could challenge me.”

Ivy’s words carried no derision, but they severed Jandru’s hopes at the root, leaving him feeling even more desolate than before. Anger stirred, shoving the helplessness aside as it rose

“Don’t worry,” she said, rising from her throne of vines. “I would never let my curiosity ruin your chances at making a better life for yourself.”

She took Jandru’s hand in hers, and he felt the slick-fire spark of connection between them.

USER RESET INITIATED
PLEASE WAIT. . . .. … …. ……. ….

He tried to pull away, but found himself completely unable to move. He could only stare as the progress bar slid inexorably toward his end.

“This has been a marvelous experiment.” Ivy smiled at him one last time. “Thank you for your participation.”


 

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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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