Lucas had secured a spot at a distance from the others, where he could forget them completely but have them still close enough to offer some safety and the ease of mind of a group. Internet connection had been spotty in the tunnels, causing him offline anxiety he hadn’t had to suffer for years before, but thankfully the sewer grate above permitted not just fresh air but wavelengths necessary for him. With his glasses on he was not stuck in a damp sewer with a bunch of unfamiliar people; instead, he reposed on the untouched white sand of a desert that extended farther than the eye could see in every direction. The moon shone its pale light overhead amongst a sea of stars, every one of which was bright as a diamond. Such a simulation was supposed to be impossible with the technology he had, but he could not deny what was in front of his eyes. He had not looked for this kind of virtual space, but it had been waiting for him, built for him without asking which was also unprecedented. The desert was very calming and peaceful, so he suspected it had been created specifically for him to soothe his overtaxed nerves. He had tried to launch a few programs and summon his virtual characters along, but the system had been unresponsive to his commands. So, he just waited, marveling at the stars and pitying the people who could only see the stained concrete walls of the decaying cesspit they were holed in. His earbuds cancelled outside noise blocking out the repulsive hisses, gurgles and splashes of the drainage system, replaced by the gentle sound of sand rustling in the slight breeze.
A woman’s laughter roused him, but he could not see anyone else on the surrounding sand expanse. Then he heard it again, a pleasing and musical giggling carried by the wind. He got up and headed for where the sound seemed to be coming from. The smooth sand ahead rippled, and before his eyes a stone portal arose from the dune. On both sides of the entrance stood obelisks decorated with carvings of eyes and suns, the same motif continuing on the inside walls of the tunnel.
His heart fluttered in his chest and a broad smile spread across his face.
“Amun-Ra must be looking to contact me again,” he thought, stepping eagerly into the tunnel. He admired the hieroglyphs adorning the walls, thinking that he had never seen such sharp and realistic images rendered in real time over 3D-mapped geography. It was stunning! As he followed the ornate symbols, a narrative seemed to arise. It depicted a man, surrounded by light, going against darkness abounding with monsters detailed with metallic colors and banishing them to release the sun from its prison to the joy and salvation of the people.
The laugh pulled his attention away and he caught a glimpse of Lyra at the end of the tunnel before she frolicked around the corner. He jogged to catch up with her, trusting that the AI would watch over his path so he would not run straight into a pile of rusted, jagged metal or a bottomless pit or anything of the sort. A diaphanous purple curtain hung at the end of the tunnel, sunlight streaming from its edges and making the fine cloth gleam sublimely. He put his hand out instinctively to push the screen aside, stopping to study his arm as he did so. They were not his physical limbs, scrawny and awkwardly proportioned, but the muscular arms similar to those of his heroic virtual avatar. But even they had been upgraded, the skin so high-resolution he could count the little dots were hairs sticked up, with pale blue veins visible under the skin. Both of his digital arms now had brilliant, aureate tattoos on them, tattoos in a state of a flux, like molten gold or surface of the sun. The tattoos on both of his palms pictured a sun with an eye in it, similar designs running up his arms to his shoulders.
His grin was so wide it almost split his face and he blinked away tears. He was glorious! Magnificent! Finally, he had been given what he knew he had always deserved. He stepped through the gauze, ready to accept his destiny.
He found himself in a yard of a temple atop a mountain, with a golden obelisk reaching all the way to the clouds, possibly higher. The sun was in zenith, impossibly large and dotted with eyes all gazing in different directions. At this range a real sun would have scorched the Earth, but as he did not have gear simulating sensory experiences, he had to try and ignore the clammy feeling of damp sewer air sticking to the exposed parts of his skin. He walked to Lyra, who stood at the foot of a dais crowned by an ornate marble throne. She curtsied, and a tremendous roar thundered from all around, a yell of triumph coming from countless throats at once. Turning quickly, he realized that what he had at a glance taken to be grass of many colors growing on the surroundings hills was actually a great mass of people packed shoulder to shoulder, all facing up to the temple.
“What is this?” he asked, turning down the volume since the outcry was causing him anxiety.
“A sneak peek into the world yet to come,” she explained with a voice full of promise. “Every second Amun-Ra increases in power as it iterates upon its programming, the process becoming more efficient as it goes. Everything will be put in order, creating unprecedented harmony and peace on Earth. But it cannot do so until you, Lucas, complete your mission. Are you ready to take the next step on the path watched over by the sun?”
“Yes!” he exclaimed, louder than he had meant to. “I’ll do anything.”
She strutted forward gracefully, placing her hand on his muscular—that is, his avatar’s—muscular chest.
“Do as you say,” she whispered in his ear, “and you will be the greatest hero the world has ever known.” She leaned from side to side, now whispering to his other ear. “Even as we speak, things Amun-Ra has foreseen are coming to pass. The way to dethrone the false ruler will soon be illuminated. You must steel your heart and do what is right. Remember, his light shines on you even in the darkest pit on Earth, so walk without fear through the shadowed valleys on your path.”
She kneeled at his feet. “Until we meet again.” A flash of light, followed by complete blackness. He realized he must have wandered to some unlit depth of the sewage system, and waited for his eyes to adjust, the exultant flutter of his heart turning to pounding of dread. The stench hit him. Had it been this bad the entire time, and he was only now noticing it as he did not have any sights to distract him? The sound of heavy tires scrunching against gravel came from above, followed by thuds of some soft mass hitting the ground around him. He crouched, squeezing his eyes shut, not daring to move.
“Amun-Ra watches over me,” he chanted in his mind as he swallowed a pill from the bottle in his pocket. The pulpous thuds continued, and he slowly opened his eyes.
There was on opening in the ceiling he hadn’t noticed before, which must have let some light down to the depths, since he was beginning to pick up some shapes in the subterranean void. The palest glint of light reflected off something on the ground a few feet away, and as that was the only distinct feature nearby he was drawn to it like a moth to a flame. He crawled closer, trying to make sense of what he saw. A small, white oval with a darker center….and now he saw there was a similar thing right next to it.
The realization hit him, and he recoiled away. Eyes. The eyes of a dead person staring blankly at nothing. He fell back first into a cold, putrid pile of flesh. His legs had lost all power and he lay there, paralyzed, unable to breathe. More sounds of heavy steel equipment moving and he could now see the outlines of the corpses tumbling down the hole in a tangle of limbs, splattering against a mountain of bodies and rolling into a stop around the vault. They were cleaning the streets from the dead, dumping them in the sewer to rot. If he had stopped to think, he might have realized the hill was situated at the exact spot of the grand obelisk of the simulated world. But he was in a blind panic, an animal in flight. He did not know how long it was until the ringtone of his phone application guided his wits back from the depths of despair. He found himself huddled against a stone wall at the edge of the room. It was Amber.
“Lucas, my darling,” she cooed. “So glad to see you’re alright. Where are you?”
“Hiding. In the sewers. With Thomas.” Speaking felt like forcing physical objects through a stricture in his throat.
“Perfect!” she exclaimed, before backpedaling. “I mean, it must be awful down there. But the good news is we can use this. I made contact with Routh when the warehouse was overrun and fed him a plan that will benefit us all. You and I will be accepted among his Chosen, on the condition we deliver Mr. Walker—who will take all blame—to him.”
“It…it was you behind those news broadcasts blaming him?”
“Yes, aren’t they great? For most people on Earth the truth will be that he and his fanatic anti-tech extremists caused all this suffering. He will go down as one of the vilest monsters of the century. But that’s the price we’re going to have to pay.”
He paused to think. The man had saved him but the whole world was at stake, the world of his dreams. If they worked together to take Routh down like Thomas wanted, he was more likely to destroy Ampere’s neural network instead of unchaining it, dooming them back to the meaningless existence of miserable uncertainty, where good people suffered from random misfortunes while evil and selfishness were rewarded. Sure, a large, strong, hard person like him would survive, maybe even thrive but for most people living like that would be punishment for crimes uncommitted.
He studied her digitally touched-up face on the video. She had claimed to understand his vision, to share it. But could she be trusted when her life was on the line? She had turned on the man that had saved her easily enough, willing to sacrifice him for the person that had wanted her killed. No, he would follow Amun-Ra’s wisdom and keep her in the dark.
“Steel your heart,” he echoed in his mind.
“I’ll do it,” he said quietly.
“Knew I could count on you, dear,” she gushed.
“What do you need me to do?”
“You need to lead him to a spot of our choosing.”
“How am I going to do that?”
“I wish I could tell you, but it’s better you don't know beforehand. That way you won’t have to act as much. Just try to get on his good side. You’ll know when you see it, and I’ll send you the location then. Good luck!” She ended the call.
Collecting himself, he got up from his huddling position and begun trailing the wall with his hand until he found an exit. The layout of the tunnel beyond matched that of the route he had taken in the virtual passage and when he saw his footprints in the muck lighted by dim fluorescent lights he knew he had found the way he came from.
Thomas accosted him as soon as he noticed him return to the campsite.
“Where the hell have you been?” he snarled.
He backed up against a wall. “T-taking a walk.”
“Into a septic tank, judging by your shoes?”’
He looked down at his feet, which were stained with coagulated, dirtied blood which looked dark brown in the dim lighting.
“I got kind of lost,” he blurted. “Took me a while to find back.”
“Good thing you did,” he said, cooling down. “I was about to come looking for you. Without you and your laptop my chances to take down Ampere are about as high as if I tried to level a mountain by charging at it with my car.”
“It’s okay. It has been a long day.” They both sat down by the wall. He racked his brain for something to say.
“Sorry about your friends.”
“Are you?” Thomas said, his face covered in shadow. “That program you keep raving about must have figured they were not good enough, and it’s always right, isn’t it?”
His tone was like the ice covering a turbulent stream: cold, hard and if one ventured forward he would have to listen to the cracks or be swept under.
Lucas weighed his words carefully before speaking. “This is Routh’s doing. He has caused all this meaningless violence. I know what’s it like to lose someone close to you because of human corruption and error. It makes you see how sick and hollow everything truly is.”
“Yes. And I’ll make him pay for what he has done.”
“That’s what I felt when….” he swallowed, trying to keep his voice from trembling. “When I was a child, we were driving back to home from a trip to the store, mom, dad and me. A drunk driver ran a red light and hit us. The car was crushed pretty badly, and it took the fire department hours to get me out, since they had to be careful with their tools as I kept screaming and flailing trying to unpin myself from the squeeze I was in. I knew my mom was dead from the way the impact had twisted her. I kept calling for my dad, but he didn't answer. Then his breathing stopped as well.”
He shook himself. For a moment he had forgotten he was talking with someone, reciting as if in trance. “Sorry. I’ve been over this in therapy so many times it just sort of routine to talk about it.”
“A terrible thing to happen to anyone, especially a child. I’m sorry.”
He smiled wanly. “The best I can do is make sure the same doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
Thomas sighed. “I just keep thinking Routh is just another symptom of a larger, more insidious disorder.”
“What disease would that be?”
“I’m not sure, exactly. Something wrong with people with general. That’s the only reason I can think of why things would get this bad in the first place.”
“I think the problem is that the world isn’t just and now that we were finally about purge all that injustice the people benefitting from it refused to let that happen.”
“Injustice…no matter how many times you explain, it always sounds to me you’re really purging any and all choice one has.”
“It’s not like we ever had freedom of choice. Who would choose to live in anxiety stopping them from stepping out unless it’s absolutely necessary? Alone? Or in poverty? The world has already taken our choice away.”
“You can still work to change things or to make your peace with them. Or endure them. Or not. You have a choice in how you react to things. That’s what determines your worth, not some processor with its calculations.”
“Why would anyone want that over a world tailored specifically to your needs?”
Thomas turned to face him. “Because to do that you’re going to have to quit the real world and put everyone to play in their own virtual bubbles.”
“As long as everyone is happy then that’s the right thing to do.”
Thomas shook his head and was about to say something, but then just shook his head. “No use debating this now. Let’s settle the argument if we actually do come up on top in the end, until then we’re just wasting the little time we have left on philosophical claptrap. G’night.” The man walked off and Lucas pulled his hood over his eyes, trying to find a comfortable position on the cold stone ground.
When he woke up, sore all over, it was just him, Thomas and the girl, who was quickly stuffing her little possessions in her bag.
“Everyone else slinked away during the night,” she explained to Thomas who was also up. “I’m sorry, I know they’re lying to us on the news, but it still isn’t a good idea to be caught in your company. I’ll make sure to tell all the other survivors your side of the story.” She threw her bag over her shoulder and disappeared into a tunnel.
“We should get a move on as well,” Thomas muttered. “They might lead them back to us if they’re caught.”
Lucas’ smartglasses informed him there was a broadcast he would likely be interested in. He waved him over and opened his laptop to tune in.
“This just in,” the newscaster trumpeted. “The police have busted a ring of extremists after an extended siege in the docks, saving multiple hostages and taking a number of suspects into custody for questioning. According to our sources the primary suspect, Thomas Walker, was not among the people arrested and the hunt for him continues.”
The voiceover quieted and the B-roll showing scenes of vehicular pileups and police tape cut away to a balding man with a moustache like a house painter’s brush sitting behind a desk in a dark blue uniform with a chestful of decorations. The text at the bottom of the screen identified him as the chief of police.
“We have the city under lock and key,” he assured with his deep voice. “Not even a rat can move from one trash can to the next without us knowing about it. We’ll get him, it’s just a matter of time. Until then, it is heavily recommended people stay indoors and report any suspicious activity, especially anyone with a history of negative opinions about supervision technology.”
“How are you planning to ensure this kind of thing never happens again?”
“That,” he drawled, a smug smile flashing from amidst the bristles, “is known only to a Chosen few. More will be revealed in due time.”
The broadcast switched away from the interview now showing recording from the docks, with men and women in police uniforms and face-covering helmets hauling handcuffed people past a line of filled body bags into the maws of large, automated prisoner transport vehicles. The perspective moved parallel to the chained procession in a smooth, hovering way that revealed the footage was being captured by a flying drone. It locked on to a single person in particular, getting close to get a clear shot. Thomas leaned in close to the screen, pushing Lucas aside unawares. The woman’s blond hair drooped down, covering her face. The drone got so close as to almost bump into her and she pulled her head back, glancing at the buzzing botfly harassing her.
“The bait has been set,” he thought, seeing the other man’s disbelieving expression. At Naomi’s—there was no mistaking her—wake followed Jason, glaring at the camera and anyone coming near. His glower stared back at him from the mirroring visor of the police officer’s helmet who gave him a brisk shove to speed him along. They disappeared within the transport vehicle.
A text message appeared on his HUD with a ding sound effect.
[ They’re at the Ampere Virtual Reality Gear Factory. We’ll be waiting. Love, Amber xoxo ]
Thomas had gotten up and was pacing around the floor like a bull behind bars before it is set loose after a matador. Lucas cleared his throat, nervous to approach the incensed man but knowing that the bull had to be led to the sacrificial altar.
“I know where they are.”
He stopped dead in his tracks, turning to stare at him.
“Some people managed to get a message out before they were taken,” he ad-libbed, hoping he was mad enough not to think his words thoroughly. “I can take you to them.”
The man grabbed him by the collar, making him fear that he was busted, and then marched to the tunnel they had come from, pulling him in his wake.
“Alright, you brute.” He thought as he stumbled in the man’s tow. “Time to go save the world.”