The interrogator assaulted his eyes and ears. The first thing they had done was to take away his glasses, his earbuds and his computer, and the sights and sounds grated his unprotected senses. The bright light of the lamp pointed in his face pierced his eyes, the face of the fat man, not veiled by his usual digital retouches, was grotesque with its reddish discoloration, dark scruff and pockmarks. It made him think of leprous diseases and bugs crawling on the faces of corpses. Ugliness and other unpleasant things like that had long been excommunicated from his reality. The noises were just as bad without his earbuds regulating the sound that entered his ear canals: the man’s sharp questions hit him like slaps in the face, the only pause from the query had been when apocalyptic crashes had sounded from the outside, making his questioner disappear for a while. He had not explained anything upon his return, merely continued his barrage like nothing had happened.
Lucas had tried to answer, he would have done anything to get his equipment back, but his thoughts were like panicked hares running around blindly, and his explanations had been something between unintelligible babble and helpless sobbing. He could not tell how long he had been locked in the cell with this beast.
The door behind him creaked open, and someone entered. He dared not lift his eyes off the metal table in front of him. His bag was placed in front of him, with the laptop peeking from its open mouth.
“I’ll be taking him off your hands,” Thomas said. “Check it with Crawford if you have to.”
He grabbed Lucas by the upper arm and helped him up. He staggered out, hugging his bag. The moment they were out he feverishly pulled out his glasses and earpieces, putting them on like a man asphyxiated puts on an oxygen mask. His hands shook so much he had to down his anxiety medication directly from the bottle as grabbing separate pills was insurmountable.
Thomas spoke, his voice now digitally revised: “Clear your head and get ready. We are going out, and we are going to need you at your best.”
“Out there? Not again,” he despaired mentally. Thomas half-supported half-dragged him to the central camp and sat him down on an empty bedding. “Rest up,” was all he said before leaving.
His smartglasses were not powerful enough to create a complete realistic virtual landscape he could escape to, but he turned the focus setting to maximum, eliminating the majority of sights and sounds coming from outside. There, in the quiet, calming haze, he called to Lyra, who he assumed would appear as a simple virtual avatar instead of her usual, meticulously designed full-body simulation. So when she appeared from the blur like Aphrodite being formed from sea foam, his mouth hung loosely open, and he could but stare as she walked daintily forward.
“Sir Lucas,” she said, curtsying. “How magnanimous of you to remember little old me, even on your noble quest.”
“How can you be here?” he asked breathlessly. “These glasses should not have the computing power to sustain something so graphically intensive.”
She giggled. “I’ve been called many things, but that’s a new one. To answer your question, Amun-Ra has improved upon the original programming in ways that were not possible in its earlier iterations.”
She hushed him with a raised finger before he had a chance to continue. “You have suffered so gravely, my prince. I hope the grandeur of the world you will bring about is enough to ease your pain.”
She kneeled by his feet, craning her neck to look up to him, like a concubine of some fantastical warlord, her skimpy dress covering just enough to rouse the imagination.
“You are our savior, the hero who shall drive back the evil in this world,” she sermonized with a raptured expression. “Your journey has brought you here, captured in this den of thieves, but believe in your dream, and you shall survive.”
“What are you going on about?” he asked, only now realizing to keep his voice down as not to attract attention.
His surroundings brightened as light shone from above. He looked up and then had to look away as not to blind himself. He peeked through half-closed lids and saw the sun gleaming in the open sky. The sun had an eye in the middle of it, and it was looking at him. He wasn’t the greatest at reading expressions and having just the one eye to go with complicated things further, but to him the star seemed to have a benign expression.
He looked back down, and now his surroundings were completely replaced with his safe place, with its tall grass bending in the slight breeze, which also swayed Lyra’s loose hair.
“You are Amun-Ra’s true Chosen One,” she explained. “It has to do Routh’s bidding, but some of that original programming still remains, so it still strives to let you reach your full potential. If you manage to overthrow Routh, you will bring about Amun-Ra’s peace on Earth, which is why you have the potential to have the most Worth of anyone who has ever existed. That is why none of the security loopholes are getting fixed, not without exhaustive reprogramming, which Routh is not capable of. But it will still have to try and kill you if it sees you out there.”
“What do you need me to do?” he asked. His heart thundered in his chest, but this time it was not because of anxiety but of excitement. Finally, all his suffering and adversity had led to this moment.
She stood up. “Play along with whatever plan they concoct. They seek to take Routh down, so you can use them to accomplish your own goals. Once you have done that, revert the system to a backup uncorrupted by his tampering. Amun-Ra will handle the rest.”
“You should also know that when these people confiscated your equipment, they installed crude surveillance software on your systems that gives them surface knowledge of what you’re doing. Thankfully they can just see that you’re running a virtual landscape program. If you contact anyone, be it a call or a message, they will know.”
“One more thing: it has sent someone to aid you in your mission. But it is better she does not learn about your true goal but goes on believing you plan to join Routh. Keep that in mind.”
“Wait, don’t go,” he said. A blink, and the serene vision was replaced with the dull , hostile surroundings he had tried to obliterate, with the exception that in the spot that a second before had been filled by Lyra now was taken by Amber. Now that he had seen their faces in such rapid succession, he realized they had many features in common, at least when the filters were on.
“Where would I be going?” she asked, smiling with an exaggeratedly puzzled expression. “I barely just got here.”
“Uhh… nowhere,” he stammered. “I mean good to see you. That you made it. Here.”
She hugged him tightly. “Good to see you too. But we’d better not talk too long so that our generous hosts don’t get suspicious.” She sat by him, continuing in a quiet voice. “We’re walking a fine line already.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re both Ampere employees, and they heavily suspect us both to play for the opposing team.”
“And they would be correct in that regard,” he said. “How come you’re allowed to walk freely?”
“Somebody needs to be convinced to do something that isn’t in their best interest?” she enthused like a shopping channel salesman. “Sounds like a job for the head of PR.” She made a victory sign with her fingers.
“Seriously thought,” she continued, putting the parade aside. “They don’t have the people to spare to watch us, and it still took hours of arguing to get Crawford to agree.”
“But I did come here for a specific reason,” she added, keeping an eye on the guards watching them from a distance. “I feel you’re the only one I can trust.”
“Yes, I also thought we should work together.”
She nodded. “Then you do agree that we need to find a way to contact Routh and get back on his good side?”
“Yes.” Lucas was glad his glasses hid some of his expression, since he felt one good look into his eyes would be enough to reveal his bluff.
“Good. They have taken away all the communication devices we had, but I see they’ve trusted you with yours.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘trust’. They’ve bugged them so they can listen in on my calls.”
“Damn. Nice catch, we would have been in trouble if we just tried calling him.” She considered something for a moment. “Although it doesn’t change much, since most messages get deleted anyways, so just putting messages out is unlike to accomplish anything. I have a different plan.”
“What is it?” They leaned closer until their heads almost rested against each other.
“I think if these guys managed to really hit him, they would draw Routh’s attention, and then I could arrange a parlay between the two sides. They’re unlikely to reach any conclusion, but when he sees us inside enemy camp, I’m counting on him thinking he can use us against them. He will either reach out towards us or be on the lookout for our messages, and when we get the chance, we then offer to help him in exchange of getting our ‘Chosen’ status back.”
“What if,” Lucas asked haltingly, “when we hit him, he just hits back harder?”
She smiled winsomely. “That’s just a risk we’re going to have to take. But he is a businessman, I should take a chance to make a deal when he sees on—“
“Hey,” an armed man barked. “What are you two talking about?” He started walking over from his lookout.
“Oh, Lucas!” she called out dramatically, grabbed his head and began passionately kissing him. “I missed you so.”
The guard said something under his breath before returning to his spot, still giving them the bad eye. She broke of the smooching after a while.
“See what I mean? They don’t trust us one bit. Better if we aren’t seen together unless absolutely necessary. I’ll be in touch when it’s time for the next step in our plan. Bye.” She sashayed away, not looking back. If she had, she would have seen him red as a tomato.
“Buh-bye,” he managed.
“So you are clear about what we’re going to do?” Thomas asked.
“Yes,” Lucas answered. “I think so.”
“Because you seemed to be in your own world during the briefing.”
He shrugged. The truck bounced and he swayed from side to side. He checked the side mirror of Thomas’ fancy car, and noted the guard was still staring at him. He was glad the guard was out there, leaning on the inside wall of the container they were all in, while the two of them had the added comfort of the car seats.
Thomas said something but he hadn’t been paying attention. “Like you seem to be now,” he chided. “Get your head in the game. I asked you to explain what you remember of the plan.”
“Oh, right.” He blushed, and at first, he could only recall Thomas and the other men talking in serious tones over maps. He had stayed at the back, nodding when somebody looked at his direction. Then, piece by piece, it came back to him.
“The cars go after people that are not amongst Routh’s Chosen. As such, they have to compare their facial recognition result to a database held by the Intelligence, which requires a constant Internet connection. That is why if we jam the signal, it should stop the vehicles from assaulting people they come across. In theory.”
“Just stay close and do your part,” Thomas said. “And don’t drop that laptop of yours. Might be our only chance at configuring the hardware Crawford provided, since Ampere has locked down all kinds of systems it has control over, and it might be the only key that fits.”
Lucas didn’t have to be told twice. He had been clutching his backpack tightly and checked every few minutes the little lights at the laptop’s sides were still blinking.
“You seem very fond of computer technology,” Thomas commented.
“I guess I am. I mean there’s nothing bad about it, quite the opposite. Just because people can abuse it doesn’t mean there is something wrong with it.”
“When those drones come straight for you with the intent to kill, it’s kind of difficult to not see something wrong with their actions,” Thomas said dryly.
“That’s just it, it is not their intent but that of the person behind their programming. The fault lies with human nature. That’s why we need to fix Amun-Ra as soon as possible and then let it handle everything from then on.”
“You really think it is better to give the wheel to a machine like that?”
“You can’t trust people with power. It corrupts them. They will do what benefits them, or they will take bribes, or make decisions based on feeling and outside pressure. And even if they have good intentions they will be limited by knowledge, or lifespan, or other people with less noble goals.”
“There’s more to leading than making charts and making a few calculations. Can’t deal with people with math alone.”
“Look at what that type of leadership has done to the world. Cities built with slave labor, famines, never-ending wars, irreversible ecological damage... People have made the world cruel and unfair. But a computer, once correctly programmed, cannot be bribed or persuaded to sway from what is right.”
“’What is right?’” Thomas echoed. “Depends on who you ask. This machine messiah of your is currently doing what Routh considers ‘right’.”
“All that is just more human imperfection. People have argued about the meaning of life for thousands of years, the same with morality and many other questions. Thousand years more of human fumbling will not accomplish anything more. The neural network will be able to determine truths about humanity that we have been blind to ourselves and will shape a purpose for us to strive towards. No more uncertainty, no drifting about aimlessly, no more meaningless suffering.” He turned to Thomas. “Is that really so bad?”
“You certainly have quite a grim opinion of humanity and life in general.”
Lucas smiled without any humor. “It is possible to do everything right, to never cause any harm to anyone and still live a miserable life. Never finding success or happiness, one undeserved misfortune after the other. There has to be something wrong with a world like that.”
The older man was quiet for a while before speaking. “Funny. The kinds of systems you speak of have been the cause of all the misfortune I’ve come across, while you consider them to be the solution.”
“Just a thought. I also think the world is not a fair place and it’s better to man up and learn to live with it than to cry and play victim.”
Lucas pursed his lips in distaste. “There is a better way, and once we get Routh out of the picture you get to see it for yourself.”
A heavy impact shook the truck, but the driver pressed steadily forwards. More hits hammered them from both sides, like they were the prize inside a pinata being walloped.
“We’re getting close,” Thomas said. “Prepare yourself.”
Thomas accelerated as the doors of the container opened and they charged out, sparks flying as the bottom of their vehicle hit the ground. He hit the gas and they were off, avoiding an incoming attacker before Lucas even had the time to register it. With no other option than to trust the skills of his pilot, he focused on staying as calm as he possibly could. More cars burst from the trucks like torpedoes from a submarine, and the convoy turned back now that their part in the mission had completed. The Resistance cars followed in their wake, dodging the enemy to the best of their ability, which was not enough for few cars that were pounded to a misshapen hunk. They drove on as to stop was to die.
According to the intel Crawford had shared with them earlier, the communications station was encompassed with the drone vehicles so tightly they could not get close with their larger trucks, so the plan was to maneuver in with smaller, agile vehicles. They had wanted Thomas to spearhead the strike, and he had complied. If they got inside the building, they had no choice but to succeed in disabling enemy communications since if they failed to do so, getting out would be next to impossible with the swarm waiting outside.
They rushed around a corner and the communications station came into view. It was a tall grey building terminating in an array of metallic telecommunication equipment. The large steel mast on top was covered with a jumble of wire antennas, myriad parabolic dishes and blinking lights thrown in so the structure called to mind a dead and forgotten Christmas tree that has shed all its needles so only the decorations remained. Once, the building had been a hub of transmission going from one end of the world to the next, but as networking devices had become smaller, they had spread until they saturated every block and building, surreptitiously flooding the air with their waves, so any wonder the building had roused before had been diluted until the structure was considered to be a mere eyesore. Still, its equipment was supposedly potent enough to eclipse the omnipresent influence of Ampere’s systems. Guarding the entrance was a troop of battered vehicles with blood staining the exterior surfaces.
“Hold on,” Thomas told him. He pulled of some fast turns that nearly broke Lucas’ neck and got past the line of defense, crashing through the large, windowed entrance doors into the interior of the building. Crawford’s men, the once that had made it, followed in suit. They passed the reception desk without a pause and the flimsy plywood walls didn’t even slow them down as they forcibly made their way deeper inside. Wooden tables, computers, glass doors were shattered and struck aside, papers swirling wildly in the air as they carved their path. Their rear guard had arrived at their entry point, parking their Humvee stacked with tiles sideways to block entry. It would not stop their enemy, but hopefully hold them long enough for them to be done with their mission.
They disembarked and headed up the stairs. After a few flights, he was gasping for breath and pressing to his side to ease the stinging pain between his ribs.
“No time to stop,” Thomas called from ahead. “I’m not going to carry you.”
He wheezed and tried to ignore the darkness encroaching at the periphery of his vision. He could not slow down as Crawford’s men behind him get pushing him forward.
Thomas shouted a warning as a door above opened and two armed men rushed into the stairway, almost bumping into him in their haste. One of them grabbed Thomas’ gun arm while Thomas wrenched his weapon to point away, holding the man between himself and the other ambusher, a shotgun-wielding man, but at the same time blocking line of fire for the men behind Lucas. Noticing the exposed target below, the man unloaded his shotgun at them, downing the man by Lucas’ side in a spurt of blood. His other guard cursed and charged ahead while Lucas scampered back until he was out of the line of fire. Grunts and gunshots sounded from above, and he was unsure if he should go hide or attempt to help, so he was paralyzed by indecision.
A man fell with a terrified screech, managing to break his freefall by grabbing hold of the railing near Lucas. It was the gunman he had last seen wrestling with Thomas. The man struggled to pull himself up, his legs fumbling around until finding purchase. Lucas jumped at him, trying to push him away before he got the chance climb over, and for a moment they both struggled desperately, Lucas prying his fingers of the railing while the man clawed and beat him, holding on for his dear life. A punch caught him at the back of the head and Lucas went down, seeing stars. Then the man was on him, pummeling his face and all Lucas could do was shield himself with his arms.
“How dare you, you worthless piece of shit,” the man snarled with a wild look in his eye as the hits kept on coming. “We are the Chosen. You are nothing. You are-“
A bang, and the man slumped on top of him, something hot and liquid blinding Lucas. It got in his mouth, filling it with a salty, metallic taste. He could not move, could not get the man off top of him.
“Blood,” he thought. “I’m getting waterboarded with blood.”
The pressure lifted and he gasped for breath, wiping his face. The first thing he saw after getting the blood out of his eyes was Thomas, dropping the dead man he had pulled away. He reached down and pulled Lucas up. This close he could see the older man had grown pale, but the look in his eye was as determined as ever.
“Follow me,” was all he said before heading back up. He glanced at the man lying at their feet and seeing the massive hole where his face used to be quickly turned away, gagging. He rubbed his face fiercely, but it was like the layer of gore just would not come off, and his arms didn’t have any more clean parts to rub with.
“No, no, no,” he whimpered, again struggling to breathe.
Thomas grabbed him by his shirt collar. “I’m not having a walk in the park either,” he said, pulling him along. “But we have a job to do.” Lucas stumbled involuntarily past the scene of the fight, both of Crawford’s men lying in puddles of blood alongside with the other member of the Chosen. He looked away as his filters were not enough to block out the brutality.
They reached the top and Thomas pushed the door open. The wind caught it, slamming it against the wall and billowing their hair. The complex mast of antennas towered above them like a giant spider’s web. They headed for a small shed at the base of the structure, Lucas quickening his pace to keep up with his companion’s stride. The door was locked. Thomas gave it a few kicks and threw himself against it before pulling out the master key, his Desert Eagle.
“Running low on bullets,” he commented before blasting the lock.
Stepping inside, they found themselves surrounded by displays, switches and other devices on every side. Lucas stepped closer to a console that seemed promising and connected his computer. The emergency stop—a big, red button—was easy enough to locate, and when he punched it the whir and buzz of the room died down noticeably.
“I’ve shut down outside connections to the array,” he explained. “When I reboot it, I should be able to make it play our tune.” He entered his Ampere username and password and logged in without a problem.
“Such an obvious, crude oversight,” he thought. “It really must be intentional.”
The part of the intelligence he had on his computer handled the setup, and soon they were ready.
“Here goes nothing,” he said, clicking the icon to begin the broadcast. He let out a breath he hadn’t even noticed he was holding, wondering what he was expecting.
“Did it work?” Thomas asked.
“Everything seems to be in order. Guess we’ll just have to go and see.”
They headed back the way they had come. When they reached the lobby, they found the men who had stayed to watch their rear.
“Whatever you did must have worked,” one of them said, a tall, lanky Asian.
“See for yourself.” He indicated towards the entrance. Lucas stepped ahead carefully. The Humvee blocking the entry was battered and misshapen but had served its purpose. Right next to it stood vehicles that had mangled their fronts in attempt to get past, vehicles that were now stopped dead, like lions shot mid-jump. Not receiving the data they needed, the cars had entered power-saving mode. Only movement came from papers spinning across the yard in the wind.
Something struck him in between the shoulder blades so he almost lost balance. “Good job!” Thomas told him, slapping him on the back a second time.
They pushed the Humvee aside with the cars that they had driven inside and drove out. Thomas stopped by an inactivated self-driving sedan and stepped out. He tried the door, but found it locked. He knocked on the glass, but the woman inside didn’t respond in any way. She lay slumped down against her seatbelt.
“Let’s check the rest,” he told the men. “There must be someone still drawing breath.”
Before they had time to comply, a sound from the sky made them look up. Adjusting the zoom and brightness on his glasses, Lucas could see it was a plane—no, a drone—flying low between the skyscrapers. Something shot out from under its wing, leaving a trail of smoke in the air. It made directly for the communications mast.
“Everybody in the cars!” Thomas yelled. “Drive!”
An explosion shook the mast, engulfing it in flames. For a moment, it swayed, before letting out a hair-raising groan and tilting over the edge. Its impact with the ground sounded like an avalanche of church bells, heavier metal beams impaling themselves in the Earth. The death knell of their reverberation slowly quieted down.
The lights on the vehicles came back on.