“You’re sturdier than you look, kid, to have survived a fender-bender like that,” Thomas said after he was sure he had shaken their tail for the time being. Judging by the occasional corpse on the street, the horde of metal barbarians had already plowed through the area and carried on to more important targets.

Of course, that isn’t saying much,” he thought to himself, eyeing the disheveled young man, thin and gangly, with a bruised face and torn fingers. The stranger was breathing deeply, at first he had thought it must have been shock, but as it continued the more it seemed like his life depended on gulping in all the oxygen he could get.

“I’m Thomas. What’s your name?”

“Lucas Bennett,” the gasping man answered. He was hugging a backpack he had carried with him from the car tightly.

“You just hang on, Lucas. I’m going to get us somewhere safe.”

He had thought where Jason would go in the current situation and had narrowed it down to the most likely options. One was their home, where his mother spent her time, but it was further away and one had to drive though city center to get there, so the journey would be dangerous, and he would not take any unnecessary risks with Naomi on board. Then there was the police department and all kinds of different public buildings where one could find help and company, but as one could not know what one would find waiting for them, those, too, were a gamble. The place that made the most sense, at least to him, was the street racer’s headquarters where Jason had spent a lot of his free time; out of sight, with manually driven cars and plenty of getaway routes. So that was where he was headed.

The yard where he had last spotted Jason was empty, so he continued inside the parking garage. He drove up the ramp to the first floor but was stopped by two vans barricading the way. From behind a concrete railing to his left three thugs he recognized as members of the bookie’s gang popped up, aiming pistols at the car. When they realized he was not a helpless prisoner but in sure control of the vehicle, they relaxed their posture and lowered their weapons slightly. One of them spoke something to someone out of sight, and a command was shouted, after which the vans moved out of way, quickly blocking the path again after they had passed.

Mick sat at the open door of a Humvee, surrounded by his gang. There were other vehicles parked around haphazardly, and nervous people either paced around them or sat at the wheel, car running, ready to take off at the first sight of trouble. Everyone was staring at them tensely when their car approached but returned to their prior activity when they concluded that it was just more refugees joining their camp. One vehicle sticked out like a sore thumb, with its fishbowl-like cockpit and bizarre ornaments.

Naomi jumped out of the old artist’s piece and ran to him, hanging from his neck in a hug.

“Thomas! You made it,” she said, hanging on to him.

Jason walked up to them from the vehicle. “S’up,” was all he said.

She checked his car. “Jack’s not with you?”

“He didn’t make it,” he said quietly. She covered he mouth with her palm and faced away.

Mick threw the cigarette stub from his lips to the ground, where it joined a pile of its kind that had formed over the last few hours. He walked over to them, few of his gang members in tow.

“How are things out there?” he asked.

“Bad,” Thomas answered.

“It’s like I’m losing my mind, man!” he cried. “I can’t get a message out, and there is no mention of this anywhere online. The world just goes on like nothing is happening. Whoever is behind this must have a lot of resources to jam the largest public communication network in the world.”

Naomi’s phone rang, and she stepped aside to answer.

“Any idea if this is a local thing, or is the whole country affected?”

“Amigo, the whole world outside of the nearest couple of city blocks could have disappeared and I would be none the wiser. I sent out some scouts three hours ago. Lost contact with them fifteen minutes later. I don’t think they are coming back.” The thugs by his side set their jaws and clenched their fists, thinking of their missing comrades.

“Jack? I don’t believe this! Thomas, come here, quick!” Naomi gesticulated wildly for him to come over.

He stepped to her side, with Jason stepping to her other shoulder, and peered at her phone.

“The gang’s all here. Really gladdens the old heart,” the owner of Jack’s High Gear enthused via the video call.

Thomas stared. All warmth had disappeared from his body.

“But I would much rather have you over here at the shop! Can’t run the place all by my own, you know.”

No matter how hard he looked, Thomas could not spot any sign of foul play. The eyes, the voice, the ebullient disposition and the easy grin accompanying the small talk were all distinctly Jack’s.

Yet it could not be him.

“What about what happened earlier?” Naomi asked excitedly. “How can you be alright? Thomas just told me he thought you died.”

Jack roared with laughter before answering. “It’s just a big misunderstanding. Did he really think that? So where are you currently, shopping for extra-large caskets?”

“No, no,” Naomi giggled. “We are –“

“Wait,” Thomas cut her off. “It must be a trick. A faked video.”

“No way, I know something like that could be done for a movie star or anyone else with enough footage of their face, but the pictures Jack has of himself are all between some photo album of his.”

“No, he is right.”

They all turned towards the strangled voice. The boy Thomas had picked up had got out of the car unnoticed and followed the conversation from a distance.

He went on, voice hushed and broken, like a man sentenced to a death by hanging whose rope has snapped at the last moment: “If he has taken part in a video call for even a few minutes, it would be child’s play for it to impersonate him.”

“What do you mean ‘It’?” Naomi asked, disturbed and confused. “Video calls are part of his job, a necessary evil, he says, but he stays away from all that on his free time.”

“Then it can masquerade as him as he appears in work,” Lucas croaked.

“What are you two going on about?”, she squawked, shaking her head.

“So, what you’re saying,” Thomas said, turning to Lucas,” is that this thing has no idea of how he is outside of those calls?”

“No, if he really shuns phones, computers, smartglasses and so on as she says. Although it has all things of him that are of public record or saved in corporate databases.”

“Well, if you are the real you,” said Thomas, now turning to face the small screen, “then you should have no trouble telling everyone what nickname you have given me.”

For a few seconds, the face on the screen froze, not moving a muscle, smile fixed on its face. Then it went on heartily: “What, have you forgotten it already and need me to tell it to you?”

Thomas waited silently.

“Come on, you know,” Naomi pleaded, trying to stoke the flames of her quickly waning hope. “You say it all the time. It starts with High…”

“Oh, you mean High Roller?” The puppet kept up its grin even when her hopeful expression turned to horror. Thomas grabbed the phone from her gently, intending to end the call.

“You won’t escape.” The harsh tone made him pay attention to it for a few moments more. The facsimiles skin had begun to boil and darken, as from great heat.

“I’m in hell, Thomas, burning for my sins,” it spoke as its eyes melted and ran from their sockets. Smoke rose from its throat with every word. “And soon you will be too.”

Naomi ran away, covering her ears.

“All of you will pay.”

He closed the phone.

Jason marched to Lucas, who stood leaning on the Charger. “What the hell is going on?”

“That’s what I’d like to know, as well,” said Mick, who had approached with his gang when he had noticed something going on.

“It’s the CEO of Ampere, Mr. Routh. He has reprogrammed Ampere Intelligence for his own, sick purposes.” He went over his recent work and what he had learned of the AIs capabilities, as well as what he had been told earlier that day.

“Madre de Dios,” groaned the tattooed delinquent.

“If what you say is true,” Thomas spoke, “then we should not wait for help to arrive any time soon. How can we stop him?”

“I don’t think it’s possible,” said Lucas, sitting back into the car as the simple act of standing and talking had gotten him winded.

The bookie spread his arms. “Can’t you just, I don’t know, hack into it?”

“It doesn’t really work like that,” Lucas said, smiling sadly. “It is a miracle any of us are still alive. Our human brains cannot match what we’re against. We cannot conceive a way to stop it, only the Intelligence itself could do it, and I don’t think it will comply.”

“I am here to assist you,” a clear voice coming from his backpack said. He stared at it like he only now realized it existed and pulled his laptop from the bag and was greeted by the Ampere Intelligence user interface when he opened it.

“What’s that?” Jason asked.

“It’s…it’s part of the Intelligence I isolated for study before all this began! He must not have been affected by whatever Routh did. This is great, I think he can help us.”

Before he had a chance to test the program further Mick stepped in and grabbed the laptop from his hands. Lucas reached for it but was too slow, and the tattooed bookie retreated behind his henchmen, who perked up and pulled out their guns. All movement stopped as they eyed each other. Thomas, who stood at the back, had placed his arms behind him, appearing casual but ready to pull out his Desert Eagle if things progressed even an inch further.

“That’s not yours!” Lucas proclaimed.

“Should you even be using this stuff?” Mick retorted. “Didn’t you just say it can use video feed? Why are you still wearing those glasses? You could be leading them to us right now.”

The thought had crossed his mind, of course, but that still hadn’t been enough for him to remove the goggles that provided him with the augmentations he could no longer go without. He had changed the setting on video sharing to ‘private’ and tried his best to assure himself that solved the issue.

When he didn’t answer, the thug pressed the issue: “Take them off.”

Lucas lowered his eyes, unable to face the aggression directed at him.

“You have no idea what to do with that laptop,” Jason argued in his stead. “Maybe this guy could fight back somehow.”

“Just look at him,” Mick sneered. “Couldn’t fight a fly.”

The hoodlum was right. To Thomas, it seemed the man could collapse at any moment. Some of that was because of the days’ events, of course, but from the awkward way his bones seemed to joint together as well as his rapidly darting and fluttering eyes he got the feeling he could not take much pressure, either physical or emotional.

“It’s not like you’ve got any better ideas,” Jason continued.

“Wrong!” the bookie hooted. Having the upper hand had gone to his head, and he smiled and strutted confidently around as he spoke. He pointed at Thomas and said:

“Your pal here is going to give us a ride out of town, after which he can have the laptop and do whatever he wishes with it. After he has walked back here, of course.”

“No way, you bastard!” Jason exclaimed. “Going out there on foot is suicide.”

“Uh-uh-huh,” the gang leader chided, wagging his finger theatrically. “That’s no way to talk in polite society. So, what’s it going to be, deal or no deal?”

“No deal,” Thomas said evenly.

Mick’s bravado was momentary replaced by startled confusion before he composed himself and managed to put a shadow of his previous smirk on his face. “This isn’t a negotiation, old man. If you want the PC, you’re going to have to agree to my terms.”

“I don’t want it.”

“And why would I?” he thought. What would they try to accomplish with the laptop, a return to normal? It wasn’t much different from the current situation; most people just didn’t think about it. The system had taken so much from them, had appropriated their choice and freedom piece by piece, but it had happened so slowly they had hardly noticed it happening. This was just the final step in the process, albeit a more noticeable one. When Lucas had told them what was going on, his first thought had been to take Jason and Naomi and leave town to live somewhere no autonomous drone had ventured and the air wasn’t buzzing with network connections. Besides, the whole argument about one AI being their only chance against other AI didn’t sit right with him.

“We’re just going to take our leave and you can keep the computer. At least you’ll have solitaire to pass the time,” he said, indicating for them to get in the car.

Jason tried to argue but was firmly pushed towards the car. Naomi looked shocked, obeying him in a daze. Lucas joined them, mainly to get away from the hooligans. The loss of the computer stung him, but he figured he had no chance of getting it back on his own.

“I don’t think you understood me,” Mick said, pulling out a gun with his free hand. His henchmen did the same, and the rest of his gang came to support them when they saw the situation.

Thomas kept his arms behind him but abandoned all ideas of shooting his way out as he was vastly outnumbered and outgunned.

“Are you out of your mind?” Naomi cried. “People are being killed in the streets, there is no way to call for help, and you can’t trust anything you see online. We need to work together, not shoot each other at the first disagreement.”

“Then stop disagreeing with me,” he said, at the end of his patience. “Here is what we’re going to—“

His explanation was cut short as a small hole appeared in his forehead, a blink of an eye before the back of his head exploded in bloody chunks. He fell on his face, which crunched against the concrete floor. Now his whole gang had weapons out, spinning around with bulging eyes and panicked screams, trying to see where the shot came from. Thomas pulled his friends down, taking cover by the Charger when more shots came, blood spurting from the hapless punks who began shooting wildly, some at the distant windows of the building at the other side of the parking area, some at the people who had come there for cover, some at the other goons firing. In a flash, the whole floor had devolved into a violent, frenzied mayhem, all the while their unseen enemy kept picking them off.

Thomas opened the door and shoved Lucas – as he was the closest – inside the Charger.

“Jason!” Naomi yelled, reaching out with her arm. She went to rush into the crowd, but he held her back.

”Jason ran in there,” she explained frantically. He looked up and spotted the young man, pulling the laptop from under the dead gang leader. A young man sporting a mohawk and a leather jacket went down just behind him, blood streaming from a wound in his back. Thomas had discerned that the shots must have been coming from somewhere in the building at the other side of the yard, and judging by the orientation of the wound, the delinquent had served as an unwitting human shield for Jason.

Trying to keep anyone from getting the computer?”

The boy crouched and quickly made his way back, weaving his way around panicked gangbangers and their corpses with the laptop tucked under his arm. He dove through the open door into the car. Thomas circled the car, using waist-high concrete wall for cover and made his way to the driver’s seat, accelerating as soon as he had half of his body inside.

The way outside was blocked; people had tried to ram the vans out of the way but had been unable to do so and were now stuck between the vans and cars tailgating them. Panicked citizens climbed over the vehicles, dropping out of sight on the other side of the roadblock. Then the pouring of evacuees stopped before reversing direction: people who made it on top of the van now quicky hurdled back, someone trying to climb back on top of the van from the other side.

The reason for the stampede’s change of direction became apparent as a heavy police drone vehicle rammed the clog of vehicles, pushing them aside for a few feet, before being halted by the congestion. Its headlights shone from between the vehicles as it struggled against the barricade, growling like a hungry lion trying to force its way between the bars if its zoo cage. It backed up out of sight, gathering speed before charging again, this time ramming aside the only protection they got.

The beast was closer to a tank than a car, an impenetrable mass of steel designed for breaking apart riots. It could use its mass to raze barricades to the ground and its thick shell offered no weak spots and was coated so no burning oil would stick. Equipped with water cannons, acoustic devices and more, it would shatter the back of a demonstration, as a breakwater rends the ocean waves.

The metallic avalanche descended on them, blasting the unfortunate who had not gotten away with a spray of water that knocked them over. Its loudspeakers started blaring deafeningly, making it impossible to hear anything else in its vicinity. A man had been struck down in its path, and he reached his arm towards Thomas, desperately yelling something drowned under the sound of the acoustic weapon. His final words went unheard as he disappeared under the wheels of the iron-hearted behemoth. Teargas flowed from grate-covered ducts near its bottom, veiling it in ominous haze, leaving blinded and deafened people helplessly feeling their way around, then mowing them down.

Thomas put the gear on reverse and floored the acceleration, putting some distance between them and the unforgiving armored vehicle. From the stinging cloud more attackers emerged, this time more typical automated cars with people trapped inside. There was no getting out the way they came.

Everyone in the car was trying to get his attention, yelling one form of advice or another, but the sonic interference made it impossible to hear what they were saying. Thomas spun the car around and drove around the corner, temporarily getting out of sight of both the assault vehicles. He knew it was of no use, however. As long as they were stuck in the car park, they were like goldfish placed in the same aquarium with piranhas. They could escape to the upper levels and find a fire escape, but after getting out of the building they would be forced to get into a wide-open parking area on foot, with sharpshooters and predatory vehicles assuredly lying in wait.

He had circled around the level, arriving back at the entrance. Judging by the trail of gas wafting in the air, the riot vehicle was also making rounds. Rest of the hunters were nowhere to be seen, presumably going after people who had escaped to the upper floors. The exit ramp down was jammed by vehicles controlled by the AI, content to wait and let their vanguard troops do the dirty work.

“There is no way out!”, Jason yelled, audible now that the riot vehicle wasn’t in sight.

“Look,” rasped the geeky kid, Lucas, pointing at the retro-futuristic piece Jason and Naomi had driven there. “All the other cars are smashed except for that one. It does move, right?” Looking around, he saw the kid was right. The attackers had mashed all the manual vehicles, like they had done at the dealership. Their colossal persecutor must have been running over all the transport people could use for escape, which was why it had fallen behind.

“It’s no use”, Thomas answered, speaking loudly to hear himself over the din in his ears. “It’s slower and less maneuverable than this car, and I doubt it can take a proper collision. It isn’t intended for heavy use, so we are better off with this one.” He was eyeing the ramp down. If he got enough speed, could he jump the car over the obstacle?

“That’s not it,” he said, opening the laptop and wiping some blood of the keyboard and screen. He then pointed the computer’s integrated camera at the untouched vehicle and stared intently at the feed running across the display.

“It’s like I thought,” he said, some excitement getting into his voice through his raw and scraped throat. “The system has never seen something like that, so it does not recognize it as car. We could go hide in it and just drive out once things quiet down.”

“It isn’t large enough to hide us all,” said Thomas. “You get in. I’ll find some other way.”

“But…” Naomi started to protest.

“There is no time!” he interrupted. “Go now. Naomi, our old apartment is nearby, Meet me there.” He stopped the car by the art piece and reached over to open the front passenger’s door. He held her shoulder in his palm for a second before pushing her out. They got out and stumbled in the globed cockpit, lying down in the legroom to get out of sight. Just in time, as the unbearable cacophony heralded the arrival of their mechanical doom. The machine spotted him, speeding up now that there was nothing to else to divert its attention.

As there were no good options, Thomas opted for the only plan he could think of: if the exit was unavailable to him, he would make one of his own. He let the riot breaker get close, staying just a foot ahead, which wasn’t that difficult since it wasn’t designed for high-speed chases. At that distance the Charger vibrated to the tone of the beast’s growl, and he had to turn the rearview mirror the other way to stop the glare of the spotlights. He made it seem like he was being driven to a corner, turning around at the last second. The towering mass of steel wasn’t as agile and, with a heavy crunch, smashed to the concrete railing lining the outer limits of the parking garage’s different floors. The solid barrier gave away like wet paper, and the ironclad goliath tumbled over the edge, the boom of its impact with the ground muffled under the thundering of its loudspeakers, but he could feel the floor shake. He didn’t have time to rest as a car started ahead from the blockade, seeing their apex predator was out of commission for the moment. He accelerated through the hole in the concrete, flying over the hostile mass of metal embedded in the asphalt. Sparks showered as the bottom of the car made contact with the ground as he crashed, the shock travelling through every vertebra of his spine and making every metallic seam of the car scream in exertion. He bounced up and down, momentarily stunned. Headlights stirred him from his daze. Like sharks smelling a drop of blood spilled in the ocean, so did the lifeless predators of the city rush him without a moment’s hesitation. He speeded up, muttering a silent prayer of thanks as the car still moved after the landing. Bullet holes appeared in the hood, and he started to vary his route unpredictably to misdirect the shooters. Once again he pitted his talent and instinct against the logic and numbers of his opposition, wondering in passing how long he would remain the winner of these matches against a tireless, merciless opponent. But for him it was more important that the rest got out of the situation, so instead of making a beeline for the nearest road away from the lot, he led the troops besieging the parking deck on a chase around the building, drawing fire all the while. Only when he had lured every enemy he could after him did he turn to retreat from the area, dragging the baited machines of prey behind him.

“You won’t beat me at my own game,” he thought, the race against the machines dredging up memories and feelings he had tried to drown for years.

Not again.”


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