Every muscle in Lucas’ legs cramped fiercely before Jason gave the all-clear for them to take their leave. Apart from that he had found the silent waiting to be quite enjoyable, compared to the rest of the day at least, and had even slept fitfully after the first few vehicles had driven right past them without a second notice. His anxiety, which had been on overdrive for hours, had finally lessened to a degree he was used to.

“So we can just drive out of here?” the young man he had learned was named Jason asked him, glancing at him over his shoulder.

He nodded. “Just stay far enough they don’t recognize that there are people inside and it should be all good.”

Jason kept the lights turned off to not attract attention and slowly, warily started the car ahead. He meandered around the mauled corpses, Lucas adjusting the filters of his glasses until the dead and blood was hidden from his sight.

As they had waited for the right moment to leave, he had finally had the time to think about what he had learned that day. And as he had relived the slaughter and the moments he had thought would be his last, a new feeling had begun to burgeon from under all the horror and anguish: indignation. His dream had been wrenched from his hands and perverted to the point of being unrecognizable. Instead of the perfect world he had envisioned they had gotten one sick man’s twisted delusion of a paradise, a world where those most in need of a Heaven—most deserving of it—were culled. And the way the Intelligence had been corrupted to achieve those aims was the worst of it all! Just thinking about it made him want to scream.

The Ampere cars still lurking around gave them no trouble as he had promised, but they still gave them a wide berth. After a few minutes’ drive through abandoned streets, they pulled over in a run-down area of the town. They made sure there were no sentries around and then bolted out of the car and inside an apartment building. Mailboxes overflowing with aged advertisements lined the wall by the exit which was illuminated by a flashing fluorescent light. Everything was dirty.

Jason whistled. “And I thought our place was bad. You really used to live here?”

“For a short while,” the blond woman called Naomi answered. “At that time, we really didn’t have any options. It was not a time I remember fondly.”

The elevator door wouldn’t close so they made their way up the stairs. The building was silent, possibly abandoned. They arrived at a door with no name on it. She tried the handle and the door opened, so they stepped in.

The air inside smelled rank, like sweat and some kind of hot spice. They turned on the lights and saw a layer of dust covering the shelves. There were clothes in the hanger, like a heavy winter jacket, which he thought odd since it was barely fall.

They stepped further inside, Jason taking the lead. The stench intensified with every step. Peeking around a corner, they saw a fat man sitting in a beanbag chair in what appeared to be the living room. The blinds were drawn, his surroundings littered with trash such as emptied takeaway boxes with scraps and congealed sauce stains. He was wearing a VR helmet as well as haptic feedback gloves.

“He hasn’t even noticed me going about,” said a gruff voice from behind them that made him jump in alarm. Thomas stepped out from a side room they hadn’t checked. Naomi embraced him before stepping back.

“Did it work?” the tall man asked. “They don’t pay attention to the fishbowl?” They nodded in unison.

“That’s it, then,” he said. “We’ll just drive out of town, as far as the gas in the tank will take us.”

“Not today, we won’t,” she said. “We are all pretty beaten up. We need to rest.” She gestured to each of them with her arm, and Lucas felt Thomas’ gaze stop at him for a while. He stared at the floor. The man intimidated him. If he had dared he would have agreed with the woman, figuring that under normal circumstances he would require hospital care but would have to settle for some food and a night’s rest. Now that the adrenaline was no longer saturating his blood, he felt he could just keel over at any moment.

“Fine,” he said after a short consideration. We’ll stay here for the night. Lock the door.”

Jason raised his hand and said: “Should we maybe get this guy on the plan? We can’t just leave him here.” He pointed at the inhabitant of the apartment, who was still oblivious to their presence.

“He won’t fit inside the car with us,” he answered. “If you ask me, we’ll explain if he ever spots us.”

The young man chuckled, but the proposition obviously didn’t sit well with the lady.

The older man continued: “See if there is anything to eat and make yourselves comfortable. And stay quiet.” With that, he stepped back into the bedroom he had come out of and went to oversee the street from between the blinds.

Lucas made for the living room sofa, his legs wobbly. The couch was stained and smelled stuffy, but he was about three life-or-death-situations past caring. His head hit the cushions and sleep came like someone had slipped a switch.


When he woke, he was alone apart from the man still engaged by the virtual helmet. He got up and downed one of his pills. He went out to look for the others, who turned out to be snacking in the dark kitchen where they had turned off the lights and drawn blinds in front of the windows. Their low conversation stopped when he stepped in, making him fret that they were talking about him. He paused awkwardly at the door, feeling that he should leave but thinking they would consider him weird if he just stepped out and was paralyzed by indecision. Naomi pulled a chair for him, so he walked stiffly over and sat down. They had raided the inhabitant’s closets, assembling an assortment of chips, cookies, precooked meals and leftovers of delivered food.

“Our generous host really isn’t one for vegetables, is he?” Jason quipped to a quiet audience. Lucas went for a bag of chips but, seeing his torn fingertips, stayed away from the salt and started spooling noodles around his fork.

“So, you used to work for them,” Thomas said, more of a statement than a question.

“Yes,” he answered. He noticed his voice was getting back to normal.

“Any idea where we should head? A place where Ampere doesn’t have a foothold yet?”

He shook his head. “There’s no such place, not after it was decreed that the people had the right for safe transportation and virtual reality technology.”

Thomas snorted. “Those are rights we could have gone without.” Lucas disagreed but didn’t speak up.

“No matter,” Thomas continued. “Our best bet is still getting out of town and finding an island somewhere. I’m thinking Florida.”

“But where will we get food? Or other supplies?” asked Naomi. “Or a boat?”

“We’re going to have to risk it and get them along the way.”

“I don’t know. Can’t we just stay here? It seems safe enough.”

“But for how long? If what this kid says is correct, the best we can expect is some kind of forced labor for a tyrant. No, we need to leave.”

“What do you think?” said Naomi, turning to face him. “Do you think you could undo the changes that this CEO made and return things back to normal?”

“Back to normal?” Thomas grunted before he had a chance to answer. “That’s just choosing a slow, stifling death over a fast, violent one. Anything is better than what we had before this.”

“You can’t be serious!” she protested.

“Have you looked around? Everything is falling apart, rotting and crumbling, while people who can’t stand the real world and escape to some video game make everyone else suffer like they do.”

“At least you didn’t have to fear for your life.”

“A little adrenaline makes you feel alive.”

“You sound just like him,” Lucas spoke, surprising even himself. “Routh also went on about how he thought society had gone wrong and it was his job to make it better. Typical privileged drivel from people who have had it all.”

The look in the large man’s eye made him freeze and the rest of his proclamation die in his throat. It was a stare filled with hatred, of barely contained violence. When he got up, Lucas stumbled back from his chair, thinking his time was up but the man turned and walked out.

“Don’t take it personally,” she reassured after he had slammed the door behind him. “This place is bringing up a lot of bad memories.”

“I just don’t get how he could hate modern technology like that when it has made life so much better. Does he also hate antibiotics? Refrigeration?”

“One would think a smart guy such as you would know to keep his mouth shut about things he knows nothing about,” Jason said impassively, not making eye contact.

“He has his reasons,” she hastened to add. “But I don’t think we should talk about them behind his back.”

They were interrupted by a knocking sound coming from the living room. For a few seconds they just sat, looking at each other and waiting for someone else to take the lead. Then Jason got up and peeked from the door, with Lucas just behind. On the other side of the hall, Thomas was already appraising the situation, peeping around a corner towards the sound. He indicated with his hand for them to stay back and then lifted one finger in front of his pursed lips, signaling they should stay quiet. From his second-rate vantage point, Lucas could barely catch a glimpse of the flying delivery drone which the tenant had let in. It had brought a package of food. It flew out and the man sat back down, opening the packaging.

“I’ve heard that Waffle House stays open even during hurricanes, but this is just ridiculous,” Jason whispered, making him realize he had been holding his breath.

The obese man gulfing down his fast food turned his head in their direction, played around with the helmet’s settings, took another look and recoiled backwards.

“Who the hell are you?” he yelled in alarm.

“Take it easy,” Thomas said, stepping forward. “We mean you no harm. We’re just hiding out. This used to be our apartment.”

“I’ve called the cops. They tell me they’re on their way. I would not move if I were you.”

“Nobody is coming,” Thomas said.

“Don’t you know what’s going on?” Naomi interjected from behind them. “We are under attack. People are being killed in the streets by their own cars.”

“No way, somebody would have told me. It would be on the news.” He shook his head wildly when he spoke. “What kind of game are you playing?”

He didn’t wait for an answer: “Just take what you need, but I don’t have much. I’m even out of my sleeping pills, see?” He hastily grabbed a small bottle and showed them its empty insides.

“We didn’t come here to steal anything,” Thomas said. “But we did help ourselves to your food. Just go take a walk around the block and you’ll see what we’re talking about.”

“But I was just outside. I mean virtually. There was nothing out of the ordinary, people hanging around as usual.” He kept looking at them through his visor, which he apparently had no intention of removing.

“I meant go out in the real world.”

“I haven’t done that in years. The last time I did it was so cold I could not feel my fingers.” He tapped his headgear. “If you ask me, the world I have in here is the real thing. At least, it’s what I deserve.”

Thomas stayed silent for a while. Then he stated: “We’ll stay here for the night. Then we’ll be out of your hair. Just act like we aren’t even here. It has worked great thus far.” Then he left for his usual lookout by the window.

“Wait, how long have you been here?”

They gave him a summary of what had been going on. At first, he just shook his head in disbelief, but towards the end he was openly scoffing at them.

“If that was true I would have already heard about it.”
“Don’t you get it?” Jason objected. “Nothing you see online can be trusted. It is even running food deliveries to make everything seem to be in order.”

The man seemed unfazed. “Well, shit happens in meatspace all the time. Doesn’t really affect me.”

Jason seemed dumbfounded by what he had heard. “It doesn’t matter that a bunch of people have died and we might be next?”

“People die all the time, often without any fault of their own. Life is inherently unfair and cruel. Just take me, for example. I’ve never harmed anybody, yet I have chronic pain, need heparin and insulin daily and have never had a girlfriend. Now I have crazy people breaking into my apartment.”

“The door was unlocked.”

He went on: “The world just keeps screwing me over, same as everybody else. You keep telling me I shouldn’t trust what happens in the virtual world. Well, I don’t trust you, or any of this!”

He gestured towards himself. “This isn’t who I really am, the real me is out there, in bitspace, going on adventures with his friends.” He raised his chin, or chins.

“This world is the fake one, and nothing that happens in it matters.”

They gave up trying to convince him. “I take it you wouldn’t be interested in leaving with us?”

He shook his head.

“Then I guess we’re done here. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the police. And please don’t call them again, no need to attract attention.”

The man was no longer as startled as he had been, but they still kept an uneasy distance from one another and retreated to different parts of the apartment.

Lucas didn’t really know where to go so he stayed in the hall. After a while of figuring out where he could expect the least social interaction, he grabbed his laptop and entered the bedroom where Thomas stood guard. He dabbled with the isolated part of the Intelligence for a good while before closing the laptop.

“Can’t it track you down or something if you keep using that thing?” Thomas said, breaking the long silence. He kept his eyes on the road outside.

“No, I have just confirmed that I’ve kept some of the privileges I was granted when I was tasked with studying the system. It cannot ‘see’ what I am doing on my computer, and the same goes for these glasses. A programmed blind spot.”

“Doesn’t really seem smart for some hyper-intelligent machine brain if you ask me. Should it not be aware of something like that?”

“We don’t really know how aware it is, that’s part of the problem,” he explained. “It keeps passing all the tests we throw at it, Turing for example, but maybe it has just learned to copy intelligent behavior really well. It has analyzed millions of communications and knows more about human behavior than the foremost professional on the subject.”

Thomas turned to face him. “Really? I’ve heard it called a real artificial intelligence plenty of times.”

“That is just part of Ampere’s marketing: over time ‘Ampere Intelligence’ was abbreviated as ‘AI’, which then inevitably became confused with ‘artificial intelligence’. And we can’t prove it isn’t thinking, so it can’t be too far from the truth.”

“So you people don’t know what it is or how it functions, but you thought it would be a good idea to let it handle everything, including a person’s fate from the moment they were born?”

He bristled at the comment. “It has always got the job done. Compared to what we have, it would still have been a massive improvement. You must agree it’s better to have one’s life guided by data and an overarching plan rather than pure coincidence. That would mitigate a lot of misery from the world.”

“One’s life should be guided by one’s own will. I think the world you describe is the one with misery, having everything fed to you, never taking a step on your own. Doing things because someone else wills so is the way of slaves and automatons, not men.”

“You won’t be forced to do anything,” he reassured.

Thomas was silent for a while before he continued. “As you might have heard, Naomi and I used to live here. That was back when we were married. Never meant to bring her to a place like this. We got married after I had won that year’s championship, so we were quite well off.” There was a distant look in his eyes as he reminisced.

“We had a nice house in a better part of town. Different teams were fighting to have me join them, sponsorships kept pouring in and even her pregnancy was going smoothly. We thought nothing could go wrong.”

His longing air was changing to bitterness as he continued. “One thing we could not get, no matter how we tried, was a health insurance for our baby. I just could not understand it, they would even insure me and my car during the races, but when we tried to get one for the child, the companies would not return our calls. When we emailed them enough, they answered that they were doing the paperwork, but we never saw any proposition completed.”

The bitterness was now joined by sorrow. “Then she was born. It soon became clear to the doctors that something was wrong, and she was rushed to the ICU. They ran some tests and diagnosed a rare genetic defect, one for which there only existed experimental treatments with astronomical prices. We entered one such treatment trial, paying for it out of our own pockets. Sold the house and most of our stuff and moved here. At the same time, we sued the insurance company that had at least contacted us, since the rest claimed they had never even gotten our messages.”

The same anger he had seen many times already flared up in his eyes. “At court, they were forced to reveal they had gotten hold of our genetic test—they didn’t have to explain how­—and had found out there was a miniscule chance she would inherit just the combination of genes that would lead to the disease. They calculated they had more to lose than to gain and refused to insure her for that reason.”

“The therapies bankrupted us, and in the end they just bought her a few more weeks. So it is not like the insurance would have saved her.” He clenched his fists.

“But that was when I realized what we were headed into: a world where our fate and worth is decided by some calculator instead of what we can accomplish with our own two hands. Everywhere I looked I could see people with these devices, sharing information that could be easily used against themselves just so they could make their lives a bit easier with some application. Portraying people as the source of all problems and pining for some piece of technology to just fall from the heavens to save us from ourselves.”

“That is when I decided I wanted nothing to do with it. If they want my data, they are going to have to beat it out of me.”

He turned to face Lucas, who listened speechlessly. “And your grand plan is to have everything based on these programs and them spying and cataloguing every single aspect of us.”

“Wait, you have misunderstood,” Lucas said hastily. “The system—Amun-Ra—would have known that the chance for your daughter’s illness existed and could have prevented you from ever even meeting Naomi so all that tragedy could have been completely avoided.”

The older man stared at him, shock and disbelief momentarily flashing on his face. “No matter how shittily it all ended, I would not trade that year for anything. If you really think something like that is not worth the risk, we will never understand each other.”

“But it ruined your life.”

“At least I knew triumph and happiness for a while. I would choose a chance at a happy life over a promise of a painless one any day of the week. Just look at the guy in the living room. He doesn’t have to work for food or shelter and can just pull the virtual wool over his eyes, forgetting the dull, hard reality.”

“Judging from the way he talks he is happy this way.”

“I doubt he knows what happiness is. He just doesn’t strive for anything better so he feels he has everything, as long he can medicate and live his make-believe fantasies.”

“Isn’t that what everybody is trying to get? A feeling that one has everything they want?”

“And you really think that a person half-fused to his seat in a trash-filled, rancid living room in a decrepit part of town represents a goal people should be going for?”

He could not think of an answer, but he knew the man must have been wrong somehow. He felt it in his gut, with every fiber of his being.

“Let’s call it a night,” Thomas said. “Those naps of yours are not enough; get some sleep. We’ll leave at dawn.” He leaned back in his easy chair by the window and closed his eyes, marking the end of the conversation.


Lucas was awakened by a palm pressing firmly around his mouth. He flailed feebly with his arms, trying to pry it off without success. Then he saw the hand belonged to Thomas, who was crouched beside him, a single finger raised to his pursed lips. He nodded towards the exit and removed his grip. Lucas was about to ask what was going on when he heard footsteps coming from the hallway outside, multiple boots striking the carpeted floor audible in the otherwise quiet building. Naomi and Jason were already up.

The doorhandle turned slowly, but as they had locked the door the intruders were denied entry. It was like an icy fist clutched his stomach as the fear set in.

“Out of the window and down the fire escape,” Thomas whispered. When she opened the windows, moonlight glinted off the gun in his hand.

Something heavy struck the door suddenly, splintering the lock but the security chain held.

“Go! Don’t wait for me, leave town without me if you have to!” he yelled and shot at the door, the gunshot booming in the small apartment. Someone screamed in pain at the hallway and people yelled over each other in confusion.

Then they returned fire; the door and walls bursting at the wild salvo. Thomas took cover near the floor and the rest of them had gotten out and were protected by the brick walls of the building.

The inhabitant of the flat flailed his arms and yelled hysterically: “Don’t shoot, officer! I’m in here!”

Someone bellowed commands with all their might in the hallway and the shooting slowly died down. Thomas aimed at the direction of the sound filtering through the perforated paneling, shot twice and was rewarded by a heavy thud as someone struck the floor, hard. The shouts were again replaced by gunshots, and he dared not move from his position.

Outside, Lucas and the rest made their way down the fire escape. The streetlights were off, and as they descended even moonlight was obstructed from lighting their path by the surrounding buildings. Then they were blinded by a sudden flare of light, illuminating them from below, like a stream of light had flooded the street. When his eyes adjusted, he could make out the source: the street was packed with cars, standing side to side in silent vigil and surrounding the block in an unbroken chain. They had turned their long-distance lights in unison.

“Here!” Jason yelled and threw a flowerpot standing on a railing through a window.

“What about Thomas?” Naomi shouted, pointing back where they came.

“He told us to go.” He pulled his aunt through the broken window into an empty apartment. Lucas followed, clutching the laptop against his chest.

“What do we do now?” she asked, desperation clear in her voice. “We’ll be mauled the moment we step a foot out of this building and we have no way of fighting those gunmen.”

“We’ll just hide. It will be ok.”

The staccato of a platoon of heavy boots descending stairs came from the hallway, and all they could do was take cover behind some flimsy plaster walls. Lucas squeezed his eyes shut, knowing that hearing the door open would be one of the last things he would ever experience. The sound of his heart beating, of his own swallowing thundered in his ears. Then he realized the footsteps were getting fainter, growing more distant. Only when they were completely out of his hearing range did he remember to breathe.

“Oh no,” he heard Naomi say. She was looking out of the window. He crept by her side and saw a group of armed men carrying a limp figure between them into an Ampere van waiting outside. When they stowed him into the vehicle he could identify him as Thomas but could not tell whether he was alive or dead.

The men raised their weapons, and he barely had the time to hit the floor before the shots came. Sounds of windows breaking came from all around, but they weren’t aiming for them. The gunfire ceased, and some orders were barked. A moment later the sound of glass shattering started coming from different directions. They peeked out again.

“Shit,” Jason cursed under his breath. The men were lighting Molotov cocktails and throwing them into the building via the smashed windows. An unkempt woman stumbled from the building and was immediately gunned down. Then the men sat on the hoods of the vehicles and simply waited, watching the building. The van they had loaded Thomas into started away, the sea of cars parting before it.

“Who the hell are these guys?” Jason said, whispering so loudly as to defeat its purpose. “What do they want with us?”

“They must be with Routh since they aren’t being attacked,” Lucas said. “The people worthy enough.”

He pulled out his computer and gave AMI the task of finding them a way out. It came up with nothing.

“There is no sewer access or any other way out of the building,” he informed the others.

“Maybe we should surrender,” she suggested.

“If we didn’t make Routh’s list, then they are not looking to take us alive,” Lucas said quietly. They heard someone shouting in alarm from a window, the tirade coming to a sudden stop after a gunshot.

“What about the car? They wouldn’t pay attention to it, right?”

“Even if we could get to it, we could not get past that host of vehicles. And it won’t work on the people outside.”

“There must be something you can do with that computer.”

The isolated part of the Intelligence answered with its perfectly enunciating synthetic voice: “I could use the direct backup channels they have built-in to send the vehicles commands as if they were coming from the version at Ampere headquarters, but that Intelligence is sure to find out about it soon and shut off my access permanently.”

“How long would we have?”

“It will have run a complete diagnostic and forced a firmware update on every vehicle present in less than three minutes,” the machine informed them flatly.

“We’ll have to make that head start count,” Jason said. “Get ready to tell them to take out the shooters outside. Let’s get ready.”

They headed downstairs. It had already gotten noticeably hot in the building and smoke spilled through the gaps of some doors on their way. They got as close to the back door as they dared, readying themselves for the run to the car.

They nodded to Lucas, indicating for him to give the command.

“Do it,” he instructed the program.

“Sending the package,” the machine answered.

Almost immediately there was shouting outside. They sneaked to the exit and appraised the situation one last time to make sure they could head out. The mass of vehicles was roiling like a hive of massive bees, overrunning the small detachment of human troops, the rapid fire not even slowing them down. The death squad of gunmen was swallowed in seconds.

They made it to the vehicle whose goofy dome was beginning to symbolize safety for them. The storm of vehicles came to a dead stop. Darkness descended on the street as the lights were turned off.

AMI spoke up: “The update is installing. They will soon reboot, and I will no longer be able to direct them.”

Jason didn’t wait for them to settle but floored the gas and headed into the labyrinth of dormant killing machines that lay between them and survival. The vehicles had stopped haphazardly, forming convoluted paths that they were now forced to take their chances with, hoping their way would not end at a spot where they could not turn the unwieldy vehicle around. The clock ticked down as they tried to extricate themselves from the maze. They had no hope to give to the people still imprisoned within their cars, some of whom beat the windows with their bruised fists while others just stared in resignation. Some lay limply inside, either asleep, unconscious or dead.

As suddenly as they had stopped the cars came alive again, illuminating the block with their stinging light and making his heart skip a few beats. Unable to course across the surging mass, Jason was forced to brake. Sitting there, too afraid to breathe or even blink, they felt like spelunkers who find themselves between angry bears just waking from their hibernation, irritable and ravenously hungry.

The vehicles went around them, however.

“It’s the dome,” Naomi whispered hoarsely, barely audible. “They can’t see inside since its dark here and light out.”

That hardly made their situation more tolerable. When finally an opening presented itself in the hive, Jason could hardly make his tensed muscles obey to guide them out. The spectacle unfolding behind them was straight out of some medieval depiction of Hell, with inhuman creatures massing around a building engulfed in flames and tormented people despairingly praying for help. They drove on, their only plan to get as far away as they could.


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