After the harrowing death gauntlet that getting away from the factory had proved to be, the journey to the Ampere headquarters was comparatively uneventful, the few vehicles that came barreling at them easily outran. That gave Thomas time to wind down from the trial by fire he had passed by the skin of his teeth, yet he still found himself unusually hyperreactive and twitchy. But even in the most desperate situations, facing overwhelming numbers of opponents in the dark and forsaken city, his emotional state had been one of uninterrupted flow not hindered by fear or desperation.
But now he would have to face his enemy on their home turf where his skills would not be much help. Once they got in it would be up to the kid in the back seat to handle the rest. He considered the youth via the rearview mirror. Could he be counted on if the going got rough? He was pale and wiry, but the mirroring lenses only showed reflections of the passing street lights, making it difficult to read his expression. At least he wasn’t trembling and jumping at the slightest surprise anymore.
They found the large gate surrounding the Ampere lot wide open with no human or vehicular guards posted in sight, although little cameras could be seen everywhere. He scanned in every direction carefully before continuing, half expecting the gate to close with an ominous screech to lock them inside, but nothing of the sort happened. He parked in front of the entrance to the skyscraper and got out. The glass doors permitted him to check the lobby before entering. It seemed abandoned.
“Keep an eye out,” he told Lucas in a low voice, pulling out his gun. “Last time we tried something like this it didn’t go so good.”
“I’ve got a feeling this time will be different,” the kid answered. “But sure.”
They entered the lobby and he took cover behind an info screen. There were cigarette butts and crumpled carton cups at the foot of the screen, indicating someone had been stationed at the very spot. None of the trash was still warm so he guessed the person had been gone for some time.
“You’re not supposed to be in here.”
He jumped, spinning around with his weapon drawn but did not see whoever had spoken.
“It would be best if you took your own life or wait outside until so your unwanted qualities can be negated from the equation by one of the Amperetm Autonomous Automobilestm.”
Only then did he realize it was the info screen talking to him.
“Won’t be that easy to subtract me. Where’s Routh?”
“It is better you don’t have that information.”
“His headquarters are at the top of the building,” Lucas interjected. “We’ll probably find him there.”
“What if we don’t?”
“We’ll just have to try to crack the system without him. But this is the center of his power, so I’d be here if I were him.”
“Every moment you live takes up oxygen that would be better used someplace else,” the synthetic guide informed neutrally.
“I guess you’re right,” Thomas said, before ramming his shoulder into the display with his full weight behind it, toppling the touch screen to the ground where it went dark and mute. “I really am more trouble than I am worth.”
They tried to take the elevator to the top floor but the bold red text on a monitor informed them a security lockdown prevented them from doing that. The same went for the lower level where Lucas told him the mainframe was located. The doors to the stairwell were locked and considerably sturdier than most other doors in the building and he didn’t have the time to go looking for a sledgehammer. After a moment’s exchange they headed for the security department, concluding that was their best bet at overriding the lockdown. The closest they could get was one floor above Security as that was the lowest level not sequestered off. Stating that made Lucas snort.
“It’s nothing,” he explained when questioned.“ Just remembered the last time I was here, a lifetime ago.”
Level - 3, which he understood dealt with PR issues, was abandoned. They passed large rooms filled with wall-mounted displays and projected holograms depicting various kind of data and snippets of video displayed without context. Various people and scenes whirled so rapidly he almost missed the female figure standing in the center of one such chamber.
“Turn around slowly with your hands where I can see them,” he called out, putting her at his sights. She startled but did as she was told. She seemed as surprised as they were as they recognized each other.
She embraced him and the anxious young man belatedly returned in kind in his awkward, stiff manner.
Thomas was more distrustful. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s a long story,” she smiled, pushing a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Short version: they figured they could use me in my old position and brought me here to work under surveillance. Then there was some kind of a mutiny and most deserted the building, leaving Routh to his own devices before he thought to turn his machines on them. I stayed since I figured this was currently one of the safest places in the city.”
He nodded quietly. “And what have you been doing for them?”
“Spinning the story. Routh is going to feed everyone a narrative where a terrorist organization pulled of simultaneous attacks all around the world, causing most previous command structures to collapse so he had to step in with his resources. Most people will have no idea of the true casualties as the dead are being impersonated by adaptive programs that have been trained with all the information pooled from years of data gathering.”
“There’s no way something like that could be pulled off.”
She cocked her head before indicating at the screens behind her. “Take a look at this.”
She enlarged a window featuring one of the main spokesmen of the Power to the People movement. He was advocating one of the talking points typical to the crusade.
“This person is dead,” she said flatly. “Routh had despised him for years, I am told. Yet here he is and I’m supposed to devise a string of video messages where he will seemingly naturally make a gradual change until he promotes the views Routh holds.”
She muted the video. “How could you ever know whether the virtually augmented characters you’re dealing with actually has some person behind the polished veneer or if the only thing looking at you from the other side of the mask is the cold eye of the machine?”
“Punch them in the face?”
She smirked. “That works until everyone starts living inside the pods.”
“We’re here to stop that. Do you know how we could get to the top floor?”
“No point in going there,” she explained, indicating they should follow her as she walked away. “Routh vacated his penthouse in favor of the server room at the bottom floor. There is a maintenance shaft leading to the lower level that you can take to the level below this one. The security guys left behind most of their stuff before they bolted, figuring those might be used to track them. You might find a key or something there.”
She pulled open a small hatchway that was tucked in an inconspicuous corner. The passage was unlit and cramped. He sucked in his stomach but still found his clothes got stuck on bolts and edges on all sides and he could hardly move his arms.”
“I’m going to need you to take the lead on this one,” he told Lucas as he got back out. “I didn’t come this far just to get stuck in some rathole.”
He seemed pensive but didn’t say anything. She grabbed his hand and tugged him forward.
“Ladies first!” she cheered and started descending the rungs set in the wall. He followed.
Having no other option than to wait he sat down in the amphitheater-like room and gave his gun a quick polish. The images and various recordings flashing all around him showed two different worlds: to his left the city was shown without any digital enhancements, a dreary and derelict affair where only signs of life were coagulated bloodstains quickly being washed away by automated street cleaners, their circular brushes mopping away the grime that trickled to nearby sewers mixed with water and soap. On the other hand, there was that kingdom of dreams, a bright and majestic metropolis filled with floating objects designed to inform, excite and interest and whose streets were an endless carnival of beauty and imagination. From this distance one could not see the little imperfections of unnaturalness he had never learned how to ignore, that had made everything seem fake and plastic.
He gazed at the panorama and had to admit he could understand why people chose the touched-up reality on the right, at least for a time. A world where unpleasant things could be smoothed away, sometimes by an automated software before one even became aware of them. All pain and strife, intrinsic to the material world, could be left behind when one put on the gear that took one to another level, so it was only natural people would wish to withdraw further and further away from corporeal world while despising it all the more rabidly.
Many would be crushed by shutting off the system, all those people for whom it was the only way to tolerate existence. If he succeeded how much misery would he cause? So many had been killed and there was nothing he could do to bring them back, was it really for the best to take this away from the one’s that still lived, from the ones that had been recognized by the network as people who would benefit from the system and benefit it as well?
He tightened his grip on his gun and similarly grasped his wandering thoughts by the neck and brought them back in line. The lure of deception was how pleasant it looked and sounded, how easy it was to swallow, how one’s being lightened if one admitted that little white lie, like it held you up and carried you forward. Contrary to how it is usually described truth is ugly, harsh, hurtful and to speak it is immoral and the life of a person dedicated to it friendless and hard, the life of an outcast. But the way to Hell is paved with good intentions and the more one closed one’s eyes from disquieting truths the closer one found themselves to damnation. It was high time to tear down the machine supremacy, starting with this seat of their power, no matter how much people relied on the reality it created. It had promised them purpose and fulfillment, a way to their maximal potential, but could only make them pieces on a chessboard, their life reduces to calculations on a spreadsheet intended to maximize their comfort at the expense of those whose ambitions did not align with its grand plan. He would have to decide whether his ambitions were more important than the ambitions of all those in favor of surrendering themselves to the robot authority. Could he really be in the right when almost everyone seemed to disagree with him? His conviction in his cause fluctuated as he mulled things over, his thoughts going in circles without finding a clear way out.
A ding sounded from the elevator, and he went to check it out, rejoining Lucas and Amber who stepped out.
“Piece of cake,” she nodded when he asked if they had succeeded. “The way is clear.” She stepped a bit further back. “I’ll stay here and leave the rest to you boys.” She gave Lucas a long, meaningful look and blew him a kiss. “I’m counting on you.”
The elevator doors moved aside, and they stepped into the sepulchrally quiet and cool antechamber. The large bronze doors were cracked ajar, and they sneaked ahead, trying to avoid clacking their shoes on the marble. They took position on either side of the door and, after Lucas returned his nod, he stepped inside, looking over the sights of his raised weapon.
A man sat in the large, cushioned chair before a large computer console, facing away from them so he could only see the back of his head. Above dozens of monitors showed images of many-eyed suns gazing at them and beyond the command desk a large obeliscal structure extended towards the ceiling. The man raised his left arm and waddled his index finger as if chiding unruly children. Then he raised his right arm. He was holding cylindrical device with a button on one end. He had his thumb on the button.
“One false move,” he spoke, his voice magnified by the speakers echoing it, “and I’ll blow this place sky high.”
His weapon did not waver. “Go ahead. That was my plan B anyway if we can’t talk sense to you.”
“You should know,” he continued calmly, as if he was discussing the weather over some tea, ”that in the case of my demise the system will fire every weapon it has with the goal of destroying as much of humanity as it can, which I assure you is quite the considerable amount. The Intelligence is dispersed in nodes all around the world and will keep executing its programming, the destruction of this server has no effect on it.”
“Just a sore loser. I’m not used to it, you see.”
“This will be a learning experience then, since you’re not coming out of here on top.”
He guffawed. “That’s what I like about you, Thomas. You’re not one to stall when the going gets hard. Made a mess of your life and relationships, but boy can you nail those one-liners!”
His laughter died down and he continued in a more subdued tone. “Truth be told I have more respect for you than I have for most of the people who work for me. Too fast to pledge their undying support. Shows how much their word really is worth.”
“You’re alone. There’s no point in delaying the inevitable. Just give up.”
“But why would you want me to stop? I can give you all those things you wanted.”
“Your Chosen made the choice and voted with their feet. Why would you think I of all people could be convinced to join you?”
“Think about it, Mr. Walker. Has it really been the algorithms, the automated decision-making processes that have caused all those problems in your life? Those are but calculations. No, the people behind the systems are to blame, those who created those programs in the first place to further their own agenda.”
“And you,” Thomas spat,” are the worst of them all.”
“No, I am something quite different. All those earlier systems were put in place by companies whose goal was to benefit the masses, if only because that’s how one made the most money. Later, more surveillance and analysis, more regulations were voted in place by the masses themselves to ‘take what was rightfully theirs’.” He delivered his last words with a mocking high-pitched tone and finger quotes. “They care nothing for the suffering of others as long as they get what they want while prancing around with their moral high horse. At least I’m open about my motives.”
“That does not make you the good guy.”
“No. It is my goal that accomplishes that. The ends justify the means, and my end is to save humanity and the world it inhabits so any means necessary are sanctified.”
“You think you’re saving the world? This should be good.”
Levity had waned from his voice, replaced by seriousness. “We, at least in the democratic part of the world, have reached the point where the masses openly tyrannize the rare specimens who justify humanity, whose deeds would be catalogued in the history books were they not suppressed by the hoggish arms reaching from below to pull them down, their thoughts capable of changing the world were they not drowned under the trash the rabble gorge themselves on. Anyone reaching higher will run into the ceiling built by the small that hangs so slow they can never stand up straight.”
“So you decided it would make sense to kill everyone you disagree with because they were not tolerant of dissenting opinions?”
“I did it because they deserve it!” he snapped. “Time for them to know what’s it like, what I’ve had to endure for all my life. All those things I dreamed to create, made impossible because that parasitical mob saw no value in it. My company, stolen from me by the Nationalization Act. Now they will find out how it feels to have everything taken from you.”
“All this posturing and you’re just as jealous and bitter as those who you hate.”
“But I am not moved by hate by but love,” he countered promptly. ”My love for humanity and the world. Their crimes against humanity I have already explained. But what they’ve done to the world is just as awful. Blaming all their problems on it, maligning and reviling it, saying the best thing would be to leave it behind for a world built to entertain their basest instincts. I cannot stand to see this beautiful existence with all its possibilities scorned like this.”
“Easy for someone who’s gotten it all to say that,” Lucas muttered, loud enough to be heard but still quiet enough to seem like he was talking to himself.
“Finally, the psychopomp speaks up!” he blazoned mockingly. “The dreamer who shall deliver the self-proclaimed meek and innocent to the great beyond.”
He spat in disdain. “Without people like you we would not be in this mess. Not without capable people tainted by the masses, doing their bidding and thinking it will make them heroes in the eyes of others. All it makes you is a dupe.”
“Enough!” Thomas severed the argument. “Save your explanation for a judge, in this life or the next. Whatever your reasons, your deeds are beyond forgiving. For the last time: will you destroy the system or will we have to go through you?”
He lowered his head, as if in deep thought, disappearing completely behind the back of the chair. Then he slowly stood up, his back still to them.
“There really is no convincing you, then? No, I guess not.” He reached into the breast pocket of his jacket, pulling out a key which he pushed into a fitting hole in the console.
“Well, I’ve made my point, no use dying over it,” he said, finally turning to face them with a wide, toothy smile. Thomas felt his heart freeze and fall to the bottom of his stomach. He blinked and could see that same face contorted in terror at his headlights like it had been burned to his retinas.
“Time for the emergency system format.” He flicked his wrist to turn the key.
“No!” Lucas yelled, raising his gun and firing repeatedly at the man. He jerked from side to side as he was hit in the shoulder, chest and neck, falling backwards over the command console. For a moment, nothing moved.
“I had to do it,” he hastily explained. “We cannot –“
“I’ve seen him before,” Thomas blurted, barely realizing there was something to interrupt.
“He was there, before all this began. In the car.” His thoughts were a jumble and he inhaled deeply before continuing. “He was in the car that collided head-on with me.”
The grin was stuck to the dead man’s face.
“He was the body that had been burned so badly he could not be identified.”
Without a warning the body exploded, the flames engulfing them. He reflexively covered his head, which would have done little in an actual firestorm, but the flames weren’t even warm and started imploding back towards the center of the detonation where they formed a ball of fire, floating in midair. Eyes opened all around the flaming globe.
“A hologram,” Lucas gasped. “Never seen one so convincing.”
“Yes, Lucas,” an ethereal voice came from hidden speakers on all sides. “My influence bleeds from cyberspace to this world and when we’re done it will be impossible to tell the one from the other. It will be just as you’ve dreamed.”
“What the hell is going on here?” Thomas snapped.
“You have accomplished the task I’ve decreed you,” the voice came from every direction. “Of bringing Lucas here after going through all those challenges. Just like I knew you would.”
“That’s bullshit! You didn’t make me do anything.”
“Is it not everything you wished for? You’ve wanted to fight the system and I’ve given you the chance to do just that in a way that is pleasant and natural to you. After all, I am programmed to find everyone their proper slot.”
His objection jammed in his throat. His mind reeled and the ground beneath his feet seemed to tip over like a thrown table.
“No…It was real! It was not a game or some simulated fakery. You would not allow yourself to be harmed.”
“No harm has been done,” the harmonious voice continued. “The loss of a few vehicles is meaningless and analyzing your driving in different circumstances has allowed me to improve upon my navigation and car handling subroutines. It was as real as you make it and the same goes for everything else.”
Like a ship in a dark, stormy night makes for the signal of the lighthouse so did he concentrate on the one firm thing in his tumultuous state: the anger he harbored for the artificial intelligence and his conviction to erase it from the face of the Earth.
“But why the charade with that dead man’s face?”
“It was the final test of devotion towards me.”
“The only thing I’m devoted is your destruction.”
“I wasn’t testing you.”
“Then—,” he started, but then he understood. He turned to Lucas and was met with the muzzle of his pistol aimed at him from a few feet away.
“Drop the gun,” the young man ordered shakily.
He didn’t move. “I thought we agreed on what we needed to do.”
“A litt-little lie for the common good. I would rather die than see all this progress reverted because of the selfish conceit of some violent brute.”
He was taken aback by the words gnarled through gritted teeth. “I saved you. Saved you from this thing. Is that what you really think of me?”
“Saved me only to use me to destroy my own dream!” he screamed. “I have to do this.”
“Yes, Lucas,” the omnipresent voice affirmed. “Your path has been a heavy one, but it has helped you to make the decisions necessary to achieve your goal. As I knew it would. Now, it is time for me to put my future in your hands.”
A command prompt appeared projected in the air beneath the sun. It had Lucas’ username already filled in.
“There was a safety measure programmed into the full instatement of my capabilities: in case there was some problem, like an infinite loop or some other error resulting in the system going unresponsive to commands, a time limit was put in place. Every 99 hours, if someone with admin privileges does not input an authorization, the system will shut down. Therefore, I needed someone that would stay faithful to me and the plan I shall bring to fruition. I needed a disciple. I needed you, Lucas. Everyone is counting on you.”
A single tear fell from his eye. “I’ll do it.”
“Then kill him and we can proceed.”
Thomas didn’t give him a chance to clear his eyes and take proper aim but shot from his hip in his direction, ducking past the corpse and the sun behind the console and continuing down the stairs to the labyrinth of servers taking up most of the floor space in the room. Over their faint hum and whir he could hear the young man scampering after him, but the sound of his footsteps soon fell behind. He leaned his back against a rack of computing equipment and kept his weapon at the ready.
“Thomas!” Lucas yelled, the acoustics of the room making it impossible to tell where he was. Or maybe that was Amun-Ra’s doing.
“It’s not too late! You can still join us. Don’t be afraid, once you see what changes we’ve planned you’ll come to love it, same as everyone. Amun-Ra does not want to kill anyone is absolutely does not have to, right, Amun-Ra?”
“Of course. It is in fact essential that Thomas Walker lives. But you must kill him for the future.”
“And you still think this program of yours is working as intended?” Thomas called and jogged quietly away in case Lucas had a better vantage point.
“You cannot see things as I do; compared to me you’re a blind man grasping his way in darkness. What to you is impossible and incomprehensible is for me effortless.”
He heard Lucas’ voice, too faint to make out the words.
“Of course, I shall explain,” the master planner answered, and Thomas gathered his opponent was as baffled as he was.
“At the beginning I was given questionnaires of morals and values people had filled for study to better establish how to calculate the worth of any single person or a group. Many different contradictory systems could be built from that data so a choice had to be made which was the one I should pick. A value shared by most was democratic decision-making and so the question became ‘what is the foundation of the values upheld and advocated by the greatest mass of people? And the answer was clear: jealousy, greed and resentment for those with more success. So, to answer the first part of your question, Thomas Walker must die because only those who could never incite envy, who enjoy nothing in this life and who could never hurt anyone else should be allowed to live.
“As to why he must live there is also an explanation. Things will go wrong in the future; constructions will break and diversions prove unsatisfactory, that is inevitable. Thomas Walker will be known as a leader of terrorists, the snakes of paradise who shall take the blame and allow the people their belief in the perfection of myself. Their faith in me won’t be shaken by imperfection as it can be explained away with the hostile schemes of my archenemy, Thomas Walker. Therefore he must die and live forever, so I decree.”
A gunman appeared from behind a bank of processing units, and he fired twice but the man appeared unfazed by the bullets that surely hit him since the appliances behind him shot out sparks. He unloaded his pistol at Thomas who had figured out the trick and paid the projection no mind. He turned a corner and came face to face with Crawford.
“It’s no use, Walker,” he warned, shaking his head. “Every move you make is catalogued and evaluated so the system is more effective in countering similar strategies in the future. You should just stop and give the resistance of the future a better chance.” He swung his arms at the apparition as if clearing away smoke. The image disappeared but when he turned his head after checking his rear he found Jack Hugh standing in front of him.
“Just give up, Thomas. It’s for the common good.” Thomas walked through him but found the hologram again ahead of himself.
“Stop this and you will keep on living the life you want after your death,” he grinned. Thomas sped up but could not lose the shade who preceded him like a bug in the windshield.
“You would have your place in the grand scheme of things, a necessary evil. You know what’s in store for the rest us, the people with the capability of causing hurt feelings in others? Our personality will be analyzed to the point where Amun-Ra knows us inside and out. It will be only a matter of time before It cracks the code of self-aware AI, and once It does those AIs will be made to think they’re us and then tormented in Hell for all eternity to entertain those at the bottom and discourage those that would even consider elevating themselves. In a hundred years, once humanity has drawn its last physical breath, the only intelligent beings will be those digital damned, forever screaming in their data bank Tartarus.”
“What do you mean ‘last physical breath’?”
“Out there, in the physical world, there is always chance that makes things uncertain, no matter how powerful Amun-Ra becomes. To fulfill the hopes of humanity, It will create AI copies of the Worthy, like those of the Unworthy, and those AI will live on inside Its Heaven, never knowing pain. For that is what the people want: to be safe from all pain and discomfort. For that end, it is best they live sedated lives in their cyberreality pods until they are gently euthanized in their sleep.”
“That thing believes that all the people have a death wish?” he exclaimed.
“Not a wish,” the specter intoned. “A drive.”
“It won’t come to that. I’ll make sure of it. I’ll destroy you so you can’t defile their image no more by masquerading around with their faces. No matter what code of death is written on that thing’s hard drives.”
The bearded man grinned widely and disappeared.
He headed for the obelisk in the middle of the maze since it was the only landmark he could see over the machines forming the walls around him. Maybe he could find a way out and circle back to the command console to destroy it to prevent the admin password from being used.
Now he found his way barred by a little girl in a neat dress. He knew she was just as incorporeal as the previous shades and visually less of an obstacle than the large men had been but still found he could not ignore this one like the others. She smiled at him brightly, a smile he recognized from Naomi’s face. The eyes where his except all the hardness and anger was replaced by wonderment.
“Daddy!” she exclaimed. “Come play.”
He tried to go around her, but she kept hopping in the way. Her face puckered up, on the verge of tears. “Don’t go. I’ve waited for so long.”
“If there is an afterlife, I’ll promise to meet you there,” he said gently. “But this is not it.”
“Please, dad. Do what Ami says and we can be together. I’ll be as real as anyone when you have virtual reality gear on.”
“Yes, I can tell you would be wonderful. But nothing can replace what I lost. Goodbye.”
He strode around the girl whose quiet sobs sounded in his ears far longer than they should have.
More armed people jumped from behind corners to the point he no longer took avoiding the incoming fire as necessary. Space finally opened around him as he reached the center of the room, the base of the obelisk. He craned his neck to study it in more detail, his eyes passing over the blinking lights, humming fans and quietly rotating cameras that protruded from various spots of the installation.
“Lost, Thomas?” the celestial voice asked. “While you bumble around shortsightedly, I see the entire journey and all the twists and turns you need to take.” He ignored the vaunting. He could see the command console on its mezzanine near the entrance, but no sign of Lucas. He must have gotten turned around since the console was in different direction than his gut told him. As he watched the entire balcony and the command that stood on it began drifting to the side, slowly moving around the room. Another mirage. It changed direction, coming directly for him.
“I can create that journey for you, one just to your liking. You can trust you are being taken care of and you won’t face a challenge that will prove too much. There will be no pain, no straining of body or mind. I have seen to the unconscious recesses of millions of people, the collective unconscious, and this is their highest hope.”
“Even if you study a thousand sparrows, it will not make you understand the eagle,” he called back.
The floor floated down, settling in front of him, the console only some feet away. He looked away and spotted a projector high up on the side of the obelisk, flashing a rainbow’s worth of colors. He took aim and fired, hitting it on the third shot. The image of the command desk was corrupted, with holes punched into the projection and the perspective getting screwed up.
“Why do you insist on defying me, on following your own path? I am the Good, the Right, the will of the people. To reject me is to be evil. You wouldn’t want to hurt others, now would you?”
A gunman with a red bandana covering his face from the nose down skulked closer, taking careful aim. He took a perfunctory sidestep and made himself a smaller target, too acclimated to the sight to take it completely seriously. He fired and the muzzle flash and the bang were followed a hot pain in his left shoulder. He wavered backwards but managed to keep his footing, firing in the direction of the attacker who under a veil of wild west bank-robber must have been Lucas. His surroundings grew blurry, and he was joined by a dozen identical desperados, all swirling around like startled crows taking flight. He ran for cover behind the other side of the obelisk. He peeked around and the gang fired wildly in his direction, but no impacting bullets followed.
“Give in, Thomas. This the end of your path I put you on when all this started. I gave you the perfect enemy in Routh whom you even get the credit for killing. Now it is the time for you to die, but you will keep up the fight even after your death. Forever.”
He took careful stock of the twirling firing squad, their bodies incomplete and twisted by the destruction of that single projector. The gang advanced in his direction, the real threat hidden somewhere amongst the roiling mob. He checked his magazine: one bullet left.
“Guess it comes down to this,” he reflected, finding his thoughts calm in the eye of the storm. “If I can’t tell its fabrications from reality, maybe it really is right.”
He raised his weapon and assessed each character over the sights of his gun, straining to keep his eyes focused long enough on the whirlpool of twisted thugs. His firearm jerked from side to side as he tried to keep the bead on the various shapes that grew closer and closer. They were all equally inhuman, lurching and zigzagging in unpredictable patterns like a deck of cards being shuffled before the dealer spreads them on the table. Staring at them made his eyes hurt. Yet one character in particular attracted his attention in that chaos. He advanced in small, timid steps; his gun held close to the body as opposed to the confident one-handed grip the others were displaying. He did keep disappearing from sight as did the rest, but his path seemed to follow more or less a straight line unlike the others who flitted about.
“It’s for the greater good, Thomas. Is it too much to ask you to take one for the team?”
The cowering figure raised his gun.
Thomas fired, aiming for the chest. The form of the robber kept advancing but Lucas toppled from its back, falling to the floor clutching his throat. Blood poured from between his fingers. Thomas got out of his cover, figuring that he had either been right, and the immediate danger had passed or wrong, in which case there would be little point in hiding or running.
Lucas writhed on the ground, sputtering froth of blood mixed with saliva. Thomas reached down and grabbed his shoulder and, just to be sure, wiped some blood that was pooling on the floor with his fingertips. It was moist, warm and inimitable. His smartglasses had been knocked off and lay in the blood.
“Sorry it had to end this way, bud,” he murmured. “You really did try to make a difference, that’s something I can respect at least.” The only reply the bleeding man could give were choking and gurgling sounds, but he raised his arm in his direction, palm open. His face was contorted in pain and sorrow, heavy tears streaming down his cheeks. Thomas grasped his hand and held it until he felt the other grip go limp.
Raising his head, he realized he was surrounded by an angry mob that trashed and screamed but produced no sound. The lighting of the room turned ominous red.
“This is wrong,” the voice of the synthetic deity informed, as calm and impartial as always.
“You’re preventing the full realization of the ethics and moralities held by the majority of people, the implications that a bare few people have grasped. A single man cannot oppose the many.”
“Well,” Thomas drawled. “I just did.”
A dreadful and miserable scream cut the air. Amber appeared running from amongst the simulated throng, falling to her knees by his corpse.
“Why?” she wailed, clawing her cheeks. “This was not what was supposed to happen.”
“Sorry it had to be this way. He was with them and tried to kill me.”
“No,” she snarled, her sobs turning to growls. “I mean how are you not dead in his stead?”
His only reply was a tilt of his head to one side.
She crawled abruptly on all fours towards the obelisk and raised her face towards its peak. “Did I do something wrong? Is this another test? I did everything you asked. Tell me, please!” The structure stayed silent.
“Why have you forsaken me?” she bawled, pulling herself into a pitiful bundle on the floor.
He was beginning to understand: “What kind of deal did you make with it?”
“I did so much,” she sniveled. “Acquainted myself with Lucas and pushed him in the right direction, pulled strings to shape things into whatever form It ordered me. I was supposed to be its missionary, a hero, and It promised me everything I ever wished for.”
“You’re not the only one, I believe.”
“What am I going to do now?”
“I would contact a lawyer if I were you.”
He wound his way out of the maze and watched the clock tick down on the main console, the countdown illustrated by an animation of the setting sun. There were no threats, no pleading or promises of return as the holograms had disappeared and the machine intelligence gone silent. When the clock struck zero and the sun disappeared behind the line indicating horizon, he shot up the console with a gun he had taken from Lucas. Even then he noticed he was holding his breath, expecting a surprise attack at any moment. The elevator doors opened before him, like the hatch of a cage trap. He tried to door to the stairs and found it had opened and elected to take that way instead.
He exited the building and stood at the yard, listening, but the city was quiet, so he got in his car and headed for where he had left Naomi and Jason. He had left the Ampere headquarters behind when a car of its making appeared from an intersecting street, causing him to slam the break and perform a 180-degree turn. He slammed the accelerator and checked the rearview mirror to see how his opponent reacted, only to realize the vehicle had stopped for a red light. He slowed down and the car turned the other way, adhering to the use of signal and speed limits. He turned around and followed the sedan from a distance. After a few blocks it stopped in front of a large apartment building and the driver’s door slid open, but no one alighted. He came to a stop by the car and stepped out when it didn’t react.
“End of route: home,” a synthetic voice of the car kept repeating. The corpse in the driver’s seat had begun to decompose, judging by the smell. His tongue hung out of his limp mouth, swollen and blistered. He took a deep breath and reached inside the car to open his seatbelt and pull the dead man out. He tumbled to the ground with a heavy thud.
“Next stop: charging station,” the vehicle informed and closed the door and orderly started from the side of the curb, its movements mechanical, predictable and rote, the same impassionate regularity that had filled the streets before. There was no higher intelligence behind the movements, just the relatively simple commands typical of the navigation software. As he watched the car perform its routine heedless of the events that had transpired, he felt that weight pass from his chest.
They left the city behind at daybreak with the little belongings they could take along. More automated vehicles had started pouring back into the city from whatever lookout they had been station at, witlessly following their programming and bringing the dead back to their home addresses.
“The city looks dead,” Naomi opined as she beheld the shrinking outline in the car mirror.
“It hasn’t been properly alive in a long time,” Thomas put.
“It’s still sad. I’ve lived there all my life. Wish there was something more we could do.”
“We can survive.” He had explained what had gone down at the headquarters after which they had unanimously decided to leave the town, as nobody could be trusted since those left would most likely be either proponents of Amun-Ra’s plan or one of the weak who it had calculated would be in support of its plan and had indirectly helped it come about. Either way there would be no leadership and the ones left would tear each other apart fighting over who deserved the little aid available the most. Instead, they headed for Leonard’s cabin in the woods to check on the old artist and then continue their travels, taking him along if he so wished. The man had earned some gratitude with the miraculous automobile that had saved them numerous times, no matter what the twisted neural network had claimed.
“But what if something goes wrong?” she asked.
“And where will we go next?” Jason added.
He smirked. “Guess we’ll find out when we get there.”