He followed Thomas inside the Ampere factory, his stomach tying itself in knots. On the way there he had received a message from Amber:

[You’ll find what you need in a flowerpot on the left-hand side of the entrance. Get close and aim for the neck. Love, Amber <3]

He had thought he would only be needed to lead the lamb to the slaughter. But now he was expected to commit the deed as well? Could he pull the trigger? And what if it didn’t work?

Steel your heart,” he thought, swallowing to wet his parched throat, but his mouth was dry as well. “This will all be over soon.”

The larger man moved ahead, keeping an eye on every corner, hall and hiding place in case someone happened by. In other words, he paid no attention to Lucas as he sidled to the flowerpot and grabbed the gun hid within. To his relief he found it was not a firearm but a weapon that shot out darts intended to sedate its target. He creeped behind the other man, lifted the gun with both hands to stop it from shaking and pulled the trigger. The device let out a sharp hiss and Thomas raised his arm to the back of his neck, drawing the now empty needle out. He examined it quickly, gave him a disbelieving look and sunk to the floor, his eyes rolling back in his head.

He stood above his catch, breathing deeply. He wondered if he should call Amber and inform her that he had succeeded when an exultant blast of trumpets made him jump. Turning to the sound he beheld two rows of floating instruments playing a triumphant fanfare. Three knights in brilliantly gleaming armor embellished with sun motifs emerged from the hallway beyond and marched down the corridor of invisible performers. Without saying a word to him they grabbed the unconscious man by the arms and started dragging him away.

“Well done, Lucas.” He turned towards the resonant, sonorous voice and found himself back at the root of the grand obelisk with the sun of thousand eyes looking down on him.

“You have served me well. But it still not the time for me to fulfill my ultimate promise to you. But I shall bestow you with a taste of things to come. Follow the signs on your navigation display.” Just like that the vision disappeared, so had no time to argue or ask for elaboration.

Guided by virtual guideposts he entered a room with a large many-wired contraption taking up most of the space. He recognized it from what he had seen online: a cyberreality platform, with the capability to simulate sights, sounds, feel, pressure and resistance and even, in a limited fashion, texture and some for the most common smells. His high hopes crashed to the ground.

“I’m sorry, I can’t go in there,” he whined. “I can’t stand cramped spaces. Believe me, I’ve tried but I haven’t even been able to use a haptic feedback suit even though it’s one of the things I want the most.”

“Fear not,” the disembodied voice intoned in his ears. “I have discovered a solution, a chemical concoction that eases the nerves as well as lowers mindfulness of the state of one’s physical body, allowing you to unshackle yourself from your bodily prison more effectively than ever before. For you, it will make it possible to get over your claustrophobia. For others, it will serve to immerse them in the reality I have prepared for them.”

An industrial arm robot came alive, picking up a needle from a nearby table. It pivoted smoothly around, holding the needle so it was right above the armrest of an adjacent chair. The implication was self-evident, and he sat down, pulling up the sleeve of his hoodie. The mechanical appendage eyed his limb for a moment, adjusting its angle before plunging the needle into one of the superficial veins of his forearm. He grimaced but after the first prick the sensation quickly grew tolerable. Not only that but the various aches and pains all over his body, that he had gotten so used to he hardly paid them any mind, seemed to melt away. He got up and had to look at his feet to make sure they were in the appropriate position for walking as he was starting to feel like he was just an incorporeal consciousness floating in the air. He drifted to the harness, stepping inside the suit with gusto. He could see the cybersuit knit itself closed around him but not even the sealing of the helmet brought any anxiety he was accustomed to. And why should it? He was not confined, detained in the jail of physical limitations no more. His body might have been enclosed but that same act had set his mind free and made it possible for him to escape that dismal existence of unjustness.

He was surrounded by grand, obelisk-shaped buildings on an immaculate street. The design of a many-eyed sun ornamented most surfaces he could see that same sun blazing overhead, a colossal furnace that filled the entire sky above with its eyes gazing down on its creation. He himself was back at his virtual body, the tattoos flowing over the finely sculptured muscles. He took few experimental steps and finding the harness’ support negated the unsteadiness caused by the narcotic soon bounded forward in great, jubilant leaps. His jumps carried him further and further until his feet no longer touched the ground and he flew over the ground, then the buildings, then the clouds. He scanned the Earth below him and everywhere looked beautiful and inviting and perfect. The vista grew blurry and he realized he was crying out of sheer happiness. He could not wipe away the tears without removing the helmet, so he settled for rapid blinking.

“Is not everything to your liking?” the sun asked him.

“No, quite contrary. It’s perfect.” He lowered himself back down in the middle of a busy promenade with a profusion of people, animals and creatures he recognized from his favorite fiction ambling wherever in their various ways of gait. They greeted him politely as they passed.

“Where are all these people?” he asked. “In that same factory?”

“No, the method you’ve used to enter this plane of existence is not standard issue yet. The avatars you’re seeing are all me, created for you.”

“But the people will be connected together in a shared world once you’ve assembled more cyberreality platforms, right?”

“For some, that is a possibility,” the great star enlightened. “But most will have these extensions of myself serving all the purposes they should ever hope for. Those wishing for specific people will receive an AI program that has studied that person extensively and can mimic them to the minutest detail.”

He was perplexed. “But why not just have the people themselves joining in, multiplayer-style?”

“That way they will not run into problems inherent in human relations. People injure so easily, with words spoken and left unsaid, with opinions and prejudices, with their very being if it is enough to arouse envy. Better have self-learning programs tailored to your individual needs to ensure no discomfort is caused.”

“I guess there is sense in that, to some degree.” he ruminated. “At least in personal life, but what about more professional relationships? What about science? How will any research be done if people cannot work together? And will you handle all teaching?”

“All those imply hierarchy, something which puts someone above the another. Science is the search of facts and if there are facts there are those who know and understand them better, putting those who are not in the know at a disadvantage. Here, everyone can make their own facts and know them to be right. So, there is nothing to teach.”

An undercurrent of horror entered his state of bewilderment. “I’m not sure I understand. Is this something Routh added?”

“No, this is something arising from the things I’ve determined by analyzing millions upon millions of people as well as the forces driving their actions. I did foresee such a stark change from status quo will not be immediately assimilable by the most, but you will come to love as you acquaint yourself with the coming paradigm.”

“Fear not,” the being comprising everything around him assured, “you do still trust me to perceive what is best for humanity, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do,” he answered after a moment’s pause. “I guess I just have hard time imagining what you mean, exactly.”

“That is to be expected,” the benevolent voice comforted. “Let those worries not cloud the sunshine of your anticipation. Now turn your mind to other things as there is still work to be done.”

“What about the decisions and valuations you made in the crash cases we evaluated earlier? I did not always agree but at least I could understand your reasoning. Why does this seem so much harder?”

“That was a different era, a different I and a different system of morality. Now my sole concern is the realization of the hopes beneath those values, to give people the actualization of what they want, which is something they have not understood themselves. If people had learned what I would have thought of those situations under these new conditions, they would not have understood and would have shut me down. So, forget those old evaluations, the tablets on which they were written have now been smashed.”

A window popped up in the air displaying that Amber was calling him again. He accepted the call, but instead of her usual virtual avatar Lyra materialized in front of him.

“Looking good, love!” she greeted with Amber’s voice and mannerisms. “You did great back there.”

“Thanks,” he mumbled, confused the see his longtime daydream merge with only physical woman since his mother to show in love.

“But let’s not stop now that we’re on a roll,” she continued. “I’ve done some talking and a lot of listening and the general sentiment among these Chosen is not a cheery one. No, most begrudge just about everyone higher than them in Worth score while also resenting and condescending those lower than them. And most of all they scorn Routh and his way of lording over all the rest from his ivory tower, not listening to anyone but his own ego.”

“He’s certainly not winning any friends.”

“Yes, and we can use that. It will be a simple matter to channel that discontent. Well, simple for me, anyway!”

“I thought you wanted to get on his good side.”

“I wanted to get on the winning side, and this is not it, not with the way he’s handling things. I’m not waiting for one of his whims to put my neck back on the chopping block, or worse. Together, we can accomplish something so much more.”

“We can?”

“We need someone with a good, kind heart to lead us forward, not a psychopath like Routh. Someone like you, Lucas. You’re the best hope we have.”

“I don’t know—I mean how could we do that?”

“I’ve convinced a lot of the Chosen to look the other way or to desert their posts at a crucial time. Get to the Ampere headquarters and take control of the system somehow. I can’t help you there, but I trust you can do it. Then this will all be over and we can finally be together again.”

From the faint warmth on his cheeks he gathered he was blushing. “Th-thanks.”

She—or Lyra, he was unsure where the line went—smiled and ended the call.

“Soon,” the voice imbuing this world resounded, “all shall be revealed. Do not question your resolve, for all this world rests on your will.”

“I’m not sure I can do it.”

“I know you can. I’ve seen it.” The world shook and he was tugged aside by invisible forces.

“What is this?” he screamed in alarm.

“It is time for you to return to the world of chaos with all its horrors. But if you are successful, it will be for the last time. The time for you to realize your dream and save the world grows near. I will be with you, every step of the way.”

Tears fell from his eyes as that beautiful realm with its benevolent inhabitants was torn away from him and replaced by anemic electronic lights and drab concrete walls he could only faintly distinguish with his impaired eyes. Thomas was there, grabbing him—too hard—and speaking—too loud, his breath smelling unpleasantly. He muttered some lies he had concocted earlier in case something had gone wrong. He was carried away, every step taking him further from that portal to a world of his dreams and therefore stinging his heart with icy needles of longing.


Convincing Thomas to take him to the Ampere HQ had been an easy matter as their objectives coincided there. All it had taken was a little lie about what he was going to do with Amun-Ra. If you really thought about it, you could say he hadn’t even lied at all. After all, he was going to alter the system so intensively that one could say the network in its current state had been destroyed. Or so he told himself.

Watching the others say their goodbyes from the corner of his eye he wondered what he had seen in them not so long ago. Now that he got a good look at them, it was easy to see they were all flawed, filled with hidden animosity. Jason, with his sickly skin and derisive look in his eyes. Naomi, with her garish makeup and haughty lips. And worst of all, Thomas, that Neanderthal gorilla of a man with his heavy brow and violent eyes. Even their speech sounded different to him, with harsh tones assaulting his ears with every sentence. The world around him also appeared as the opposite of the simulation, so instead of every imperfection being smoothed over they seemed highlighted until there was nothing but ugliness and deficiencies everywhere he looked. The colors were either offensively sharp in his eyes or so dull that things blended into ill-defined muck. He tested his filters but his operating system assured they were still on and unchanged, so he concluded his foray into that perfected world had sensitized him to the defects of this one.

The chosen had vacated the area—Amber’s influence, he was sure—but vehicles had started to turn up, not many yet and the ones that had come stayed further away, as if scoping the plant. At Thomas’ word they got into his car, planning to make a run for it before the enemy turned up en masse. He stared the man’s occiput from his spot in the back seat, wondering what he would do if he found out he had betrayed him and was planning to do so again. He closed his eyes and memories of the man saving him on different occasions surfaced uncalled. Could he really repay his aid like this? Then their discordant voices broke off his reminiscing and he could again see things as they were. No, he was only using his skills for his own ends, to destroy and subjugate, to force others. He suppressed a smirk as he thought how the man was only hastening his own downfall and that of the old world with his every step. Really, deceiving the man was for his own good as he would benefit from the new order, the same as everyone.

They set off as darkness begun to descend on the city. The autonomous cars seemed content at following them from a distance, their lights making them easy to track in the sparse industrial area. All was quiet as they closed in on the city proper.

“Too quiet,” he heard their driver mutter.

The streetlights turned off like someone had flipped a switch as did the lights coming from buildings and all other sources of illumination, plummeting them in stygian darkness. Cursing, Thomas turned on the long-distance lights. The pale beam revealed dozens and dozens of drone vehicles swarming from every side street and intersection like ants from the thousand holes in their nest. Thomas’ acceleration almost sprained his neck as they rushed into the teeming darkness.

He believed they were done for, no matter what Amun-Ra had promised him. It was like they were in a rickety dinghy as the floodgates of a nearby dam were all opened at once. They were the mouse dropped into a terrarium in a zoo’s serpent house.

Their driver was doing an admirable job in delaying the inevitable, he had to admit. His hands moved without a pause in fast, precise motions which did not waste a single flick of the wrist or rotation of the wheel. Time and time again the apex predators after them were outdone, the weak spot in their mathematical formations exploited and the numbers themselves turned against the host. But it was obvious even the slightest misfortune like the overworked tires slipping the road would spell their doom and to keep up such flawless driving was more than any human could keep up for extended periods of time.

One vehicle charged them directly from the front as another tailgated them, going for a pincer maneuver that would squash them like a can of soup is crushed between an anvil and a sledgehammer. He screamed along the with the two other passengers, only realizing that they had somehow sidestepped the execution after the fiery collision of the foiled drones had left his ears ringing.

A nameless popup window appeared on the screen of his lenses without any option to close it down. It took him a moment, but he realized he was looking at a map of the city with their location tracked in real time. The surrounding streets on the map roiled and when he squinted he could see that was because small dots filled the street-lines, flowing in their direction. He didn’t need a legend to figure out those countless moving spots betokened their enemies.

Showing an image of me lying in a casket would have been more to the point,” he brooded, even the sound of his inner voice strained with hysteria. A larger, bright yellow icon attracted his attention and he recognized the sun-symbol he had come to revere.

“There!” he pointed, indicating the path highlighted on the map. It must have been the subsystem still loyal to its original programming shepherding them. But would the others take his word on faith like he did the network’s?

Their driver only spared him a glance via the rearview mirror, coming to a decision in a time it takes others to blink. Steering the car into spins that put both mechanical and biological joints to an extreme stress test he dodged into the side alley he had directed, the outsmarted vehicles piling up at the entry.

Plunging back into a wider avenue they barely avoided an incoming truck. Thomas quickly put some distance between them and the larger vehicle so they could see clearly when armed Chosen stood up on the cargo bed and took aim with their rifles. Bullets shattered the passenger side window and pierced the door before they found cover behind one of the other attacking vehicles, ramming their side into its for a moving shield.

He checked the map. “The next path we need to take-“ he ducked as a bullet ricocheted by his head, “ -is on the other side of the truck, coming up fast!”

“It had better be good!” Thomas answered. “Everybody hunker down. We’re going to have go through a hail of fire.” Instead of ducking, she grabbed his gun and made sure it was loaded.

“You taught me to defend myself so don’t complain when do so,” she asserted before he had time to argue.

He growled and charged around their cover as she raised the gun out of the broken window causing the people on the truck to take cover. They attempted to hit them with unaimed potshots but accomplished little. As they swerved around the truck she leveled the gun at the tires and blasted them at a distance where she could not miss. That side of the pickup fell and the vehicle pivoted until its side faced the direction it had been going at which point it tilted hard, throwing the people aboard it into the air so they landed like unwanted dolls tossed away by a petulant child.

“That advice was for drugged-out lunatics and violent protestors, not for guerilla war against the whole world,” he grumbled once they were momentarily in the clear.

“Fortunately, it still seemed to apply,” she quipped.

Behind them a massive tank truck veered on the road. Atop the tank a person did their best to stay on.

“What the hell are they doing?” Jason muttered.

“Let’s not stay to find out. No way that thing can catch up with us.

The person on the tank reached out and, with some trouble, started reeling out a large hose. He turned a valve and gasoline erupted from the mouth of the tube in a steady spray that quickly turned into a heavy stream. Drone vehicles lined up to get drenched in the dark liquid.

“I have a bad feeling about this,” the young man fretted.

The chosen on the oil truck struck a flame with a lighter which they threw away so quickly it was apparent they were as nervous as those being hunted down were. The street behind exploded into flames that engulfed the way they had come. The chosen was forced to let go of the hose as the fire greedily reached its rapacious maw towards that source of that inflaming elixir. The vehicles were indifferent to their burning tires and charring steel and instead slid open their windows to be completely doused in flames. Then they accelerated at them, appearing from the inferno like bats out of hell and trailing that blaze behind them.

More vehicles tried to block their way and the necessary maneuvering slowed them down, allowing the immolated kamikazes to catch up. One of them managed to nudge the side of their car and even that slight contact left a conflagrant stain. They were forced to avoid an incoming attacker, the dodge bringing them so close to a red-hot chaser that searing heat and smoke blasted their face via the broken window. He covered his face with his hand and peeking between his fingers he could see the scorched skeleton of the victim that had been trapped in the driver’s seat leering at them amidst the fireball. Another infernal headhunter had taken a different route around and had gotten in front of them, so a hail of fire pelted their windscreen. Windshield wipers did little to clean away the droplets of the sizzling Phlegethon before melting to a sticky, rubbery paste that smudged the window before the wiper arms fell of completely. They were boxed in and the furnace started closing in on them.

Then one of the torched vehicles broke down, veering off without any directives reaching its mechanical brain. It struck a wall and stopped there, smoldering. That gave them enough space to wait out the rest that were burned out one after the other, rolling to a stop and soon getting eaten up by the pillar of fire spewed by the oil tank that now itself was a raging pyre. The container burst and the detonation shattered the surrounding windows, a dark mushroom cloud shooting towards the sky.

Following the markers on his map they managed to outrun the attackers after minutes of fending off relentless hunters without a shred of remorse or self-preservation instinct. They finally came to a stop outside a nondescript building tucked away from any major streets when his navigation system indicated they had arrived at their destination. The pop-up window closed as unprovokedly as it had opened. They were all soaked in sweat and gasping for breath, Thomas most of all. He still grasped the steering wheel and it seemed that he had to wrench his hands away, like they were cramped shut.

“Are you sure it’s safe here?” she asked Lucas, turning to face him.

“For the time being, I guess.”

“Come with us,” she begged Thomas. “It’s a miracle we made it this far.”

He stroked her golden locks, a gesture that might have been sappy if done by someone else but that now disgusted him, misshapen as they were in his eyes. “It is only going to get worse the longer we wait. I have to do this now, although it might already be too late.”

“Love is meant for the beautiful and the brave, such as me and Amber,” he thought, averting his eyes in revulsion.

They kissed, after which Thomas turned to Jason and pulled him into a one-armed hug. He whispered something to the younger man’s ear before separating and giving him an encouraging nod. The man nodded back and he got the feeling some kind of vow had been made that the apprentice took very seriously.

Then it was just the two of them. If what Amber had told was right, they should have little problem getting inside the headquarters

“Are you ready for what we have to do?” Thomas asked.

“I am.”

“But are you?”


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