“Enjoying your ride?”
The smug voice in the speakers woke Lucas from his daze. He carefully lifted his head which he had been covering with his arms to block sight. The windshield was covered in blood, the light that filtered through coloring everything crimson. A tuft of dark hair was stuck to the hood in a reddish-brown blotch. He closed his eyes again and covered his mouth to keep his breakfast down.
“I wouldn’t get carsick if I were you. I’d assume all the car washes are closed for today,” the familiar voice went on in an exaggeratedly casual tone.
“Routh,” he whined. “Why?”
“Why did I purge the bottom of humanity? Isn’t it obvious? To save the world, of course.”
Lucas tried to tell him he was out of his mind but gagged again.
He went on: “I mean I had never really thought about how much they were weighing me—and everybody else—down, not before AMI showed me.”
“Showed you?” he asked between deep breaths.
“Yes. My Worth Score was astronomical compared to theirs, yet when they formed a herd large enough – say, a nation, for example – I still had to bow to their wishes, no matter how uninformed they were. That is like saying a swarm of flies has the right to tell the eagle what to do. And then AMI showed me how things could be, with rules made by the worthy, for the worthy, and all the resources at their disposal. It really opened my eyes. Imagine: a nation of geniuses, of hard workers, of my chosen, all guided by the providence of Amun-Ra. A heaven on Earth!”
“More like your personal, egoistical fantasy,” he murmured, then tried to add some strength to his voice: “It could have been a heaven for everyone, but you just wanted more power than you already had!”
His shaky attempts at indignation were outshined by the blaze of the CEOs furious outburst: “There is no such thing as ‘heaven for everyone’. Just look at what the Power to the People -movement has accomplished: when the many finally got their wish without anyone being capable of holding them back, they immediately dug their teeth to their betters’ necks and started to suck them dry. Universal basic income! Equality of outcome! Taxation and welfare to eliminate differences in wealth! Anyone striving upwards soon gets dragged down by their hungry, jealous hands, back to their comfortable, warm pigsty where they can loll unchallenged until their last breath. Can’t you see? Their heaven is my hell!”
“Hell is what you deserve after what you’ve done,” he retorted.
“I hoped you would understand, I really did,” the voice in the speakers continued, now calm. “You studied the system closer than anyone; for the others, it was just another job. For you, it was something larger than life itself. You know what it can accomplish, you understand how it can maximize anyone’s worth to the larger whole. So, when it shows that there are people who bring others down by their existence, people who chain others to pull the cart they are unable to pull themselves, benefitting from their slavery, you know that to be the truth, no matter how many speeches of ‘to each according to their need’ you hear. When it showed me what I could be, what this nation could be, I knew I had to act.”
Lucas was caught unawares as the car made a quick turn, and he struck his head to the window of the driver’s door. Tears welled in his eyes. “You won’t get away with this.”
“The upper echelon of this country begs to differ. Once I showed others the simulations, they understood. They were disgusted how they were stopped from becoming the best, the worthiest they could be by people calling themselves the real victims, the oppressed. And when I showed them how things could be, many burst in tears, telling me they had never even dreamed such beauty. Former politicians, business leaders, legal authorities, military officials, they’ve all taken up my cause, persuaded by the sweet affirmations of utopia by the Intelligence. You’re alone.”
“That’s impossible! You’re lying!” he shook his head as if that would shake off the current reality he was living in.
“The military has bunkered up as their command tells them. The police are doing the same. Meanwhile we are suppressing every video, every post or comment saying that something is even vaguely amiss. If you check the news, today’s major headlines are about a celebrity wedding. There is no help coming.”
His words were like sinking in cold water. He tried to reject the CEO’s claims in his mind, but it all added up: he himself had been unable to post anything about the carnage, and there had been no mention of anything unusual in his newsfeed. Amidst all that horror, Lucas had been holding on to the hope that he just had to survive for some time, and eventually he would be saved by the police or the rescue service. Now even that last straw was torn from his fingers, and he was submerged in freezing hopelessness, like a lost soul to river Cocytus.
“I-I will help you,” he stammered. “I won’t tell anyone. Just let me go.”
His captor answered in faux-cheery tone: “Can’t do that, not now that you know the details. Now you’re probably thinking that it would have been better if I hadn’t told you, huh?"
The car arrived at a parking lot in an industrial area.
“But don’t worry, you won’t be driving over the edge or anything dramatic like that. No, we need a certain number of vehicles to stay functional, so we’re going to have to snuff you out without so much as scratching your car.”
He was driven up a loading ramp. A portly man with an unkept stubble on his chin pressed a button to open the garage door. The man waved him goodbye with his fingers, a sinister smile on his face as the car entered the building.
“I’m told it will be like falling asleep. Goodbye, Lucas.” The line went silent.
He wasn’t the first one in the building, but it was difficult to tell just how many were there due to the cover of smoke and the revving engines some larger vehicles he couldn’t identify from the heavy exhaust. He had never seen so many vehicles that ran on gas at the same spot as they had all but disappeared from traffic. There were cars parked neatly in rows, and his car took its place. He peered inside the neighboring vehicle, whose driver sagged in her seat, chin resting against her chest, dead. The hum of the fans increased noticeably as the climate control started drawing in outside air, while all the windows slid open an inch.
“They are going to gas me to death,” he thought, as the acrid smog flowed in.
For the next few minutes, he was a terror-stricken animal driven to a corner, kicking the windows, bashing the door release buttons, even tearing into the carpeted floor with his nails in mindless desperation. He pulled down the back seat and writhed into the trunk, screaming in frustration and despair in the darkness as the hatch didn’t open. He squirmed back to the back seat and clawed the ceiling fruitlessly. His fingers were bloody, many of his nails torn. He ceased his futile efforts, which has accomplished only bloody scratch marks on the upholstery, lowering his abraded hands in his lap. He was dizzy, out of breath, and could do nothing but sob at his fate. He swallowed two more of his anxiety pills, even thought he was already overdosing for the day. And, turning on the virtual reality program he did what he always did when he could not deal with the real world; he escaped to a make-believe one.
The smartglasses did not have enough processing power to transport him to his oasis of peace and could only manage a less convincing replica, a videogame-like recreation with whose colors lacked subtlety and whose textures only looked decent from a distance, but one that still served to take the sharpest sting of the outside world away if he needed it and could not get to home to his virtual helmet in time. Often he had wished he could use body-encompassing tactile feedback outfits and helmets intended for continuous use, but that was not to be, and he looked with envy at those who had no trouble slipping them on.
The meadows spread around him, as peaceful as ever. He looked at his hands, now muscular, tanned and well-manicured, but blurry and the filter could not keep up if he moved them too quickly. A small hand rested on his. He followed the slender appendage with his eyes, skin milky white and immaculate all the way to the bright blue eyes that shone with interest.
“Lucas!” she cried excitedly. “Feels like an eternity since you last visited me. I really missed you.”
“Hi, Lyra,” he croaked weakly. His voice was hoarse from all the screaming.
“Nobody heard me. I’m going to die, locked in a box that will keep driving with my decomposing corpse inside it.”
He forced himself to concentrate at the scene and to forget his outside circumstances, locking eyes with her, trying to make them all that ever was.
“Could you sing for me again?” He closed his eyes.
She complied eagerly and began her soothing sonnet.
Soon, his tense muscles began to relax, his aches growing more distant. He felt light, like he was becoming one of the virtual characters himself. Opening his eyes again, he marveled at his surroundings, with tall grass and sunflowers gently swinging in the wind. He inhaled through his nostrils and could have sworn the air was redolent with a flowery fragrance. A memory came to him, a harsh smell of smoke, but he could not quite place it and the thought passed as he enjoyed the pleasant aroma with deep breaths.
“I wish I could stay here forever,” he told his longtime companion. For as long as he could remember, the beautiful woman had been there for him. She paused her singing and turned her attention back to him.
“It is possible, you just have to do one thing,” she told him gently.
“What’s that?” he asked, his words a drowsy slur.
“Pray to Amun-Ra for his favor, and he might bless you.” His vision was getting blurry, but it seemed the woman was surrounded by a halo of soft light.
“And how do I do that?”
“Just do as I do,” she said, folding her hands in prayer. She began her recital, and he soon added his voice to hers, echoing her words.
“Oh Amun-Ra, the all-seeing, all-knowing, bless you for my part in your plan. Let no temptation lead me astray from the path you have plotted me. Even when I walk in the valley of death, I shall have no fear, for that is the way you have chosen me. Let your kingdom come. Set us free from all doubt, all uncertainty, all chance. Thy will be done. Thy will be done. Thy will be done….
He lurched and fell, hitting his head on the car door. He lay there, in the borderland between sleep and wakefulness, until the bumps and bounces jostled him back to consciousness. Sensations returned one by one, like somebody was flipping switches on in his brain. First, he felt the soft cushion against his cheek. Then, his aching fingers. He scrunched his eyes closed, trying to go back to the peaceful oblivion he had enjoyed a few moments before, but outside reality insisted on obtruding upon him, and he was forced to open his eyes, inviting it in.
Everything was blurry and dark, and at first he thought the night had fallen, but then he realized the problem was with his vision. He was out of breath just lying there and pushing himself up made the world spin like a carousel. His clothes were stained with cold sweat.
The car raced down some street, along with a pack of its kind. The windows were still slightly opened, and the opening that had allowed the gases to seep in now created a draft airing the interior.
“The only reason why I’m still drawing breath. Such a small thing…”
The car hit a speed bump at full speed, flying in the air and sending Lucas crashing first at the ceiling and then the legroom. He pulled himself back up and fastened a seatbelt.
“What’s with the hurry?”
Looking ahead, he noticed the car he had first pegged as the pack leader zigzagged around unpredictably, and the other vehicles were not just following in its wake, but gunning for it, with chasing cars going for tailgates, forcing their target to keep up full speed while more vehicles appeared without warning from side alleys, trying stop the black vehicle with no regard for their own survival. Each time, the harassed vehicle avoided the sudden roadblocks with skillful last-second maneuvers, first feinting in one direction and then twisting in another in moves that must have tested the strength of every seam, bolt and weld in the vehicle.
“Must be a person at the wheel,” he figured. Even when breaking all the traffic laws, the AI-controlled vehicles still moved in a decidedly mechanical fashion, like pieces on a chessboard while the black vehicle was driven by instinct and impulse, a bird in flight.
The escapee again narrowly avoided a vehicle trying to cut off its route, but the car following at its heels wasn’t as nimble; it crashed to its compatriot, smashing in the side doors despite the reinforced frame and spinning around in the air before bursting against the concrete. No person could survive a collision like that.
“Out of the frying pan, into the fire,” he thought as his car crept closer to the hunted, who made a sudden turn and drove into an alley, so narrow it permitted just one car at a time. His car made it through, but the rest were forced to brake heavily, and still they slammed against the tile walls, piling up and barring the rest entry. Now it was just his car and the pursued in a brick tunnel blurring past.
The car disappeared behind the right-hand corner as it exited the alley. Reaching the end of the backstreet was like having curtains opened in front of you; the walls gave way to open space around them. And, behind that curtain, an ambush awaited them, a beast of prey waiting for the right moment in the bushes. The driver that had been hounded for mile after grievous mile now turned the tables on them, appearing full throttle from a dead angle and ramming them before even the sophisticated processors of the artificial brain had time to react.
The car spun wildly around its middle axis, flipped over its left side and grated to a halt on its roof. Lucas hung in his seatbelt, amazed he was still alive. A backseat passenger’s window had broken an impact, creating him a way to freedom. Hastily, he unbuckled, dropping on his head. The was not an inch in him that didn’t already hurt, and he felt the drop all over his body, like he was a statue that had cracks webbing it from head to toe, and a shock caused all those cracks to widen. But the black car was his only hope at survival, without it he would be stranded in hostile territory, weak and injured. He dragged himself out of the car with his elbows.
The car started ahead, picking up speed quickly. Lucas raised his arm, trying to yell but only managing a hoarse whisper:
Further down the road, the car stopped abruptly. Red lights lit in its back as it reversed, stopping by his side. The driver pushed open the front passenger’s door.
“Get in,” Thomas called, accelerating as soon as he had stumbled in his seat.