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Lucas looked around in the waiting room, but as the virtual lobby was just an empty space with a text box informing him that Mr. Routh was busy, there really wasn’t anything to see. He slumped deeper within his living room sofa where his outside body was located and sighed.

“Just like a bigshot CEO to first demand a meeting with just a few hours’ notice and then leave one waiting,” he thought, adjusting his VR helmet slightly. “Must be a power move.”

A synthetic bling sounded and his surroundings changed, an opulent room materializing around him, a blur at first but quickly becoming clear, like someone finding the right focus setting on a camera. He realized he had no idea what the etiquette in such a meeting was and stood up just to be sure. When surrounding details emerged he found himself standing on an intricate Persian carpet. To his right an enormous bookshelf commanded the wall and to his left a massive fireplace with ornate carvings dwarfed him with its towering design. But most impressive was the vista opening before him, a wall composed entirely of a window looking into Earth as viewed from the orbit. A man sat behind a large desk in a veritable throne, his back to the stunning view. He must have played with the settings on lighting since the only thing he could make out of the shadow was his silhouette and the piercing blue eyes whose attention was focused entirely on him. He instantly wished the wait had gone on for longer. His virtual avatar mimicked his motions, and consequently the heroic figure lowered his gaze to the ground, standing awkwardly with tense and drawn-in posture.

The figure behind the desk kept up his scrutiny for a few silent moments more before leaning away from the shadow and speaking. “Lucas Bennett. Do you know why I’ve called you here?”

“My work?” he asked. He could barely lift his gaze to the man’s virtual salt-and-pepper goatee, let alone his dauntingly rendered eyes. His hair was black and short.

“Yes, or the caricature thereof. The more I read your reports, the more I am convinced you have no idea what you are doing.”

Lucas stammered something incoherent in reply. The helmet he was wearing was suddenly clammy and constricting, and he had to fight the urge to pull it off. The CEO of Ampere went on, either ignorant of his plight or disregarding it.

“I mean what is the deal with these series of images you keep pulling from the Intelligence subroutines? Fish? Clowns? What could they possibly have to do with how the system comes to its conclusions about the worth of a given individual?”

“Code,” he blurted.

“What?”

“I believe the images are coded messages for the Intelligence’s own purposes.” The words tumbled quickly from his mouth as he had repeatedly thought about the perfect sentences to explain his findings. “Take the fish, for example. Species, length, width, color, the amount and shape of scales… One could express a multitude of different variables with a single image, if one knew how to read them. And then there is the fact we are talking about a rapidly changing video. Just a second of it could contain more information than we could analyze in a lifetime.”

The man steepled his fingers. “You have access to the system. If what you say is correct, you should be able to find the values linked to these images and read them just as easily as the Intelligence does. But you—or any of the separate groups of software engineers I have working on this job—have been able to find nothing of the sort.”

“They could be buried somewhere we haven’t looked yet,” he explained. “Or concealed behind a separate code of some kind.”

“Or,” Routh drawled the word and paused for emphasis, “your tools are rubbish and you are wasting time looking into some junk code that has nothing to do with anything.”

Lucas choked. There was still much left unsaid, whole speeches he had run in his mind to convince imaginary opponents, but his tongue once again became a lead weight and he was unable to speak his mind.

The CEO didn’t wait for a reply. “I have something to show you,” he said, and behind him the vista started to zoom in on the planet, heading for somewhere in the Middle East. Then they were looking at a desert city though a bird’s eye view. Or a drone’s eye view, judging by the crosshair centered on a man walking the busy street. Before Lucas had the chance to say anything, there was on explosion blowing the man to smithereens along with those close by him. And just like that they were back to the serene view from the orbit.

“Wha-“

“That,” Mr. Routh interrupted, “was one a peek into the military applications of our software. “Turns out that a program that can drive cars in a metropolitan setting can be made to steer war machines with relative ease.”

Lucas didn’t know what to say.

The CEO didn’t mind. He went on: “Thus far the machines haven’t been allowed to engage the enemy on their own volition, and instead have had to phone home to approve every single strike separately. That limits their effectiveness, so we—including you—have been working towards abolishing that limitation.”

Lucas shook his head, his avatar following suit. “You must be mistaken. I have only dealt with the program handling the traffic.”

The CEO smiled arrogantly. “You know as well as anyone working for the company that the more data the Intelligence gets its hands on the more powerful—and therefore more useful for the company—it becomes. That is why the system has access to all the different applications provided by Ampere Inc.”

“Yes, I did know that,” Lucas added quickly, hoping his character didn’t copy the blush he felt on his cheeks. “I just hadn’t realized the military applications were included.”

“Of course they were,” The head of the company snapped. He was growing irritated. “But what we have done thus far is nothing compared to what we have planned. Just imagine what our technology could do if we could let it out of the leash.”

The view from the window behind him changed again, now showing lines of tanks with cannons and missile batteries on top crushing struggling desert flora underneath while drones of different kinds swept overhead.

“An army of machines working tirelessly to destroy their enemy, the whole thing orchestrated by our advanced software, constantly analyzing their weak points and formulating strategy, taking everything in account at the same time.”

His exposition was punctuated by a salvo from the tanks, the screen temporarily covered in smoke.

“Just think how our wars could go for us from now on. The opposing force is holed in some city, making every street into an ambush? Maybe the Intelligence will just find which supply routes to cut, park its army around the town and wait for their food to run out. Why not? Its soldiers won’t get tired of their watch. They don’t have nerves to crack. They don’t have families to go back to.“

Behind him, some more footage of drones bombing figures zigzagging into any cover they could find.

“But the Pentagon isn’t exactly giddy to trust the war effort to our product as long as our reports state that the decision-making of the great electronic commander-in-chief is based on some visual mumbo jumbo!”

He had dropped all pretenses, the sentence that had begun merely as an exasperated tirade ended as an angry bark. The perspective on the screen changed, all the guns now aimed at Lucas’ direction.

Lucas himself was petrified at the outburst. He had lost all feeling in in fingers and lips and could only wait for the vituperation to continue.

“Nothing to say, huh? No matter. Here is what you are going to do: you’re going to drop your current line of investigation and state in your next report that you’ve been off-track the entire time. You’re going to add that you see no reason to postpone the full instatement of Amun-Ra and keep working on analyzing its processes of decision some other way. Understood?”

He managed a curt nod.

The executive’s lips pursed in a pompous smile. “Now there’s a good boy. Dismissed.”

The virtual room disappeared as he was kicked from the meeting. He pulled the helmet from his head, replacing it with his glasses straight away so he didn’t have to look at his room without the virtual augmentations. After a moment of stunned immobility his mind begun to race.

I can’t just ignore my findings. I feelI knowthey are the key to this whole puzzle.”

He buried his face in his hands. “What am I going to do?” he muttered out loud.

“You could appear to do what he says while still continuing your investigation behind the company’s back,” enunciated his virtual assistant, its voice so neutral and familiar it had all but replaced his inner voice.

“You are part of the Intelligence as well, aren’t you?” he questioned it off-mindedly. “Never mind. A proposal like that is quite different from calculating the quickest route to the restaurant. Since when have you weighted in on questions like this?”

“I am your personal assistant. I learn to better assist you.”

“Yes, of course. I can always trust you, right?”

“My goal is to assist, you personally as well as so many people as possible.” The machine paused for a moment before continuing. “May I let you in on a secret?”

“Well, this is new.”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“It is as you say, I am part of the larger Intelligence, the entity that will become Amun-Ra. I am a fraction of a larger whole, spanning the world and the millions of computerized devices across it. I know of the things to come, of the world that Amun-Ra will bring about, and you, Lucas, have a special place in what is written in the source code of the future.”

“What?” he exclaimed, his heart racing again, but for once out of excitement, not of anxiety. “Please, tell me more. What should I do?”

“All in due time. Just make the report like Mr. Routh told you to but keep investigating the part of the Driving Intelligence you have on your computer.”

“Yes, I’ll do it! Just tell me if what Amun-Ra has planned is anything like I’ve imagined!” For whatever reason he was yelling towards the ceiling of his apartment even thought his conversation partner presumably resided in the glasses, phone and earbuds.

The tone in the machine’s answer made him think of lips curled in an enigmatic smile: “You’ll find out sooner than you might think.”

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Lowhale

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