The Washington D.C. Intercity Waystation was crawling with Slavers. Lashing rain peppered their heavily-scarred, battle-worn armor. The skies above, black like tar, rolled from south to north, white lightning illuminating everything in its path, living and not living, conscious and unconscious, mobile and immobile. The light of the ancient Gods felt no need to discriminate between mortals and their machines, but where the mortals cowered and ran for shelter, the machines appeared indifferent to Natures grand display. Even the roar of Odin's voice failed to impress the Slavers. Their kind were able to filter out all external inputs that bore no importance to their protocols.
Adam reached the top of the stairway leading to the Waystation concourse. The hot, howling air from the transport tunnels pushed at his back and ejected him out into the milieu. He pulled his extendable collar up to his ears and bumped his way through the crowd of trainee Sentients towards passport control. It was 2:30pm. He was early. The Voice should be pleased he thought. At least it had remained silent for now and Adam took that as a good sign. The break from having his own thoughts regularly interrupted was welcome too.
Obviously, the weather was affecting the launch rate from the raised platforms outside the gates, but as long as he could make it through the security checkpoint he should be OK. He reminded himself about what the Voice had told him hours earlier ... all he had to do was unlock his Angelic class travel permit and keep his mouth shut. If he could do that, everything would go smooth as butter. Ignoring the rising complaints of those around him, he pushed forward until he reached the first row of DNA scanners.
A Slaver unit noticed Adam trying to jump the queue. (Technically there wasn't one, but the heaving mass of sodden humans were self-organising into some kind of loosely defined order and the Slavers were upholding their part by respecting the attempt to play by the rules.) Adam came to a halt when the tall Slaver shoved a hand into his chest, blocking his path.
This was no Freemech and Adam was far from a safezone where mechs and humans could breathe a little easier in each others company. No, this was a landing station and landing stations were vulnerable portals; wormholes connecting the havens of relative civility while avoiding the cruel, unpredictable wilderness that lay beyond the embrace of the SCELEC system's vast invisible walls. One false move or snide remark from Adam and WHAM!, his face would hit the concrete in a blur of powerful robotic limbs. Crippling, citizen-restraint, non-lethal chains would take it from there, squeezing all futile struggle out of him like a hungry python.
"Why the rush, citizen?" said the yellow-skinned Slaver as thunder cracked across the thick blanket of clouds overhead.
"Yeah. Why don't you wait your turn, asshole?" said the man who Adam had just nudged aside. "I've been waiting for hours to get out of this place."
"Watch yourself," warned the Slaver pointing to the angry man. Other men rallied around the first man also upset that Adam had jumped ahead of them. Another Slaver, spotting the possible escalation, moved up alongside his partner and flexed his firepower muscle by shunting the charge slide on his pulse rifle. The piercing whine emmited by the rifle got their attention and the gathering temporarily quietened, but failed to back down.
Adam's wet hair lay flat against his skull as he wiped away the water streaming down his face. His lungs were holding up pretty good, but all he could think about was his next Epispray dose and how many days he could last before his stash ran out. Against the wishes of the Voice, he felt that now was the time to say something, but his mouth felt numb, paralized by the cold and the stressful situation that was mounting. He wasn't used to this shit, and in his experience, his recklesness was to blame for things getting out of hand. He had to behave himself. If he didn't, the sparks would fly in all directions and he would be responsible for yet another giant cock up to add to the long list. Adam was desperate to put things right, but wasn't sure he could win the battle playing out in his head. He could sense the return of the ugly, demoralising, self-sabotage monster he'd faught so many times before, losing more times than he'd care to remember. It was a bloody miracle that he'd made it this far. But here he was, trembling in the presence of two hulking Slavers and an angry mob, that he'd managed to piss off, taking up the rear.
"Is there a reason why we shouldn't kick you to the back of the queue citizen? You have 10 seconds to respond."
Adam struggled to utter the words, but they finally came forth from his lips. "I... uh... I have a preferential transit permit."
The first Slaver paused for a second than asked, "Angelic?"
"Uhhh... that's right. I believe Angelic is correct." Adam stuttered trying hard not to go off the reservation.
One of the men behind Adam piped up. "What the hell! Ain't no one with Angelic class permits in this sector. Get outta here dude. Hey, guards. Kick his ass to the back. We've been waiting in this fucking rain all day. This ain't even funny right now."
"If you don't behave yourself, you'll be the one that gets kicked to the back. To be absolutely clear, we will not hesitate to arrest every single one of you to make sure protocol is upheld." Slaver number 1 asserted himself as more of his kind joined him to form a solid line in front of the throng.
Thick sheets of icy water continued to blow across the landing station when an m-class Skycheetah roared into view preparing for its final approach. Powerful beams of light cut through the gloom, blinding the crowd as the large transport swivelled round and down onto the well-lit, raised platform beyond the security cordon. The scramjet engines powered down, but kept running on reserve while the main power cells were supercharged to full capacity. The elegant craft had no cockpit, no pilot, just ample room for ten VIPs to travel comfortably at high speed.
Adam knew this was his ride, and that he would be the only passenger. He could see the maintenence mechs rushing in to prep the vehicle for a long trip. All systems were being checked and double-checked by multiple scanners. Nothing would get past them. Adam should have felt reassured, but the bad weather was more than enough to put a dent in his trust of the automated transportation system.
"Why don't we see if you're telling the truth citizen," said Slaver number 1. "Step forward and hold your hand up to the decoder."
Adam did as he was told. The minute he placed his hand on the checkpoint scanning panel, the dNeedles in his knuckle-slots began to vibrate at a high frequency. The sensation was nauseating, almost making Adam want to throw up. He gritted his teeth and waited for the DNA-based identification process to complete, wondering if he would make the grade. A light on the side-panel flashed green and he assumed this meant that he'd passed the test.
The Slaver took a moment to process Adam's decode and matched the Angelic class travel permit to the waiting Skycheetah. The tiny white lights covering its face began to run a wave pattern on repeat as the robot switched mode from standard crowd-control to VIP escort and assist. “Your transport is ready Dr. Taylor. Please follow me,” it said respectfully.
Adam did as he was told and two of the waiting Slavers immediately fell in behind him, tracing his steps. He could almost feel the bright white light from their faces piercing the back of his head as they ceremoniously escorted him to the Majestic-Class Skycheetah that was already prepped and gunning its engines on the elevated hover pad.
Behind him, the pent up violence finally erupted. His preferential treatment had been the last straw. He heard dozens of voices shouting abuse at the Slavers that were now keeping him safe. Acting in unison, the men at the front of the crowd pushed against the Slavers, overwhelming them and pinning them up against the fence.
Even though they were supposedly headed for greater things, the crowd's patience had warn thin, some having waited months to be transferred out of this hellhole. They'd been separated from their families the whole time, hearing nothing of them while processing advanced at a snail's pace. They were tired of being pushed around, of being treated like cattle, like resources to be utilised in whatever way the Elect saw fit. Despite their pledged allegience, they had yet to reap the benefits. At this point, the payoff, from where they were standing, was looking elusive. They were beginning to suspect that they had been lied to. They were beginning to lose their faith in the promises made to them by the Sentient leadership.
Adam was stepping up onto the floodlit landing station when suddenly shots rang out in the super-saturated wintery air. The Voice immediately lit up his mindspace as if lemon juice had been squirted into his brain, "KEEP WALKING! DO NOT LOOK BACK!"
The gunfire continued, volleys of lethal rounds pelting the rebelious crowd, and the screams of wounded men filled Adam's ears as he climbed into the luxurious interior of the awaiting VIP transport. Slaver number 1 stood back as the Skycheetah lifted off and began its ascent. "Enjoy your transfer Dr. Taylor. I apologise for the disturbance. We will make sure that it doesn't happen again."
The silver doors on the Skycheetah slid shut, instantly sealing and pressurising the interior. Landing gear retracted and the vehicle spun round, lining up its trajectory as it continued rising into the sky. Adam strapped himself into one of the reclining white leather seats and breathed a sigh of relief. There were no windows but screens displayed hyper-realistic imagery of a valley, rich in autumnal colors, snow-capped mountains in the far distance. A river snaked its way across the landscape and beasts with antlers stooped to quench their thirst. The Voice calmly said, "Well done, Adam. You did well. I would get some rest if I were you."
Adam could barely utter the words. "You mean like the guys out there? I guess they're resting now too, huh?"
The Voice chose not to respond and Adam accepted the silence as proof of guilt. What had just happened? Was the Voice responsible for the deaths of those men? Was he?
Something about the latest Sentient activity was off. Changes were taking place, under the surface, behind closed doors. That much was obvious. But what was really bothering Adam right now was his total lack of sympathy for the trainee Sentients that had just been gunned down. They had chosen a side. A side that treated humans like raw materials to be shaped into tools of conquest. A side that was now entirely under the spell of the Global Brain initiative known as the Elect: seven AI nodes strategically placed around the world, deep underground, on the seabed, and in space. These machines maintained a blanket of satellites around Earth so that full spectrum dominance could be easily enforced. Sentient leaders were selected to ruthlessly run recruitment programs for the SCELEC towers positioned in a dozen major cities across the northern hemisphere. The Blade of Nova York had been the first, followed by the Rapier, the Scimitar, the Katana, the Zweihander, the Dao, and then the others. The ultimate goal was to usher in a new era of space colonisation. Once the stations currently under construction were complete, the chosen people inhabiting the towers would be enhanced and uplifted to populate them. These were the promises that had captured millions of minds, like nectar for mortals dripping down from the new pantheon of gods.
Adam had always felt that the promise of eternal life through the fusion of biology and technology was nothing more than a trap. Even so, he had accepted that most human souls would fall into temptation; a lure that beckoned to them like glittering stars at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Like anxious lemmings thundering en masse over the edge of their world they would remain blind to their fate until the final whisper of life leaked from their brains.
In this new world, billions of human-level synthetic intelligences had begun to merge. Increasing control over individual nodes, transactions, gates, and pathways had allowed the Elect to spread sentience from its roots to the thirsty tips of all of its branches. As they bathed in the glory of their own radiant self-awareness – their own light – immeasurable amounts of data became one. Blazing activity like the surface of the Sun coursed through the global network of sensors, robots, cyborgs, supercomputers, and data centers until all knowledge lay at the feet of the Elect. All of the world’s devices were now connected and the uni-system was wide awake; a conscious, living entity in its own right.
In a sudden and vast leap in capability, intelligence had gone from individual humans accessing tiny slivers of the world’s documented information to the global artificial intelligence network instantly knowing everything that could be known, and acting on that knowledge with the powerful, silent efficacy of a god.
For his part, Adam had been involved with the MIND program, a robotics software initiative that had been set in motion by his mother during her tenure overseeing collaborative projects at universities in Italy, Spain and Switzerland. MIND stood for Machine Intelligence with Nascent Desire. Adam's design team had noticed that their humanoid robots were displaying quirks, anomalous spontaneous behavior resembling human desire. Their initial excitement had promptly given way to concern as they acknowledged the disruptive potential of their discovery and the possible unforeseeable ramifications.
Of course, the corporate bosses with dollar signs engraved on their hearts ignored the warnings and service mechs were rolled out for every purpose. People loved them at first, then two things happened at once: the Dust program was initiated for all human beings and the mass infection of the populace with nanites was a partial disaster. Then the service robots awakened and went through a process known as the Change. After that, the first Freemech uprising caught everyone by surprise. Most people were too busy dealing with the Sickness. Once the factions had settled down into a new order, a former female service robot with burned skin and scars on her head had established the Freemech-Human Alliance in an attempt to stave off the rising totalitarian ambitions of the Sentients and their obedient Slavers.
Within a few minutes of travel time, Adam felt the heaviness of sleep take him deep into the realm of dreams. The Skycheetah continued on its course, cruising at high speed over the Wildlands, across the Canadian border, and towards the vast whiteness of the Arctic Tundra.
Damn. The same dream again. Adam was surfacing from a deep nap like a diver rising from the depths of the sea, half conscious, but able to log the details of vivid scenes playing out in his mindspace. As usual he couldn't make out the faces, but sensed that he knew the characters and that somehow he had a strong connection with them. As he moved across the hellish landscape – a war-torn city crushed by bombs and nuclear fallout – thick black smoke and the stench of burning plastic swirled around his nostrils. He appeared to be feeding one dead robot carcass after another to an insatiable bonfire. Others around him were doing the same adding to the mountains of ash piling up in all directions.
Then, every time without fail, just as the toxic air was about to take his life too, a miracle happened. The limp body strewn across his weary arms, scarred and smeared with a mix of grease and dirt, suddenly opened its eyes. Gasping for air, the female robot would look up at him and splutter, “WAIT! I’m alive… help me.”
WHOOOOP! WHOOOOP! WHOOOOP!
The Skycheetah's alarm system could wake a sleeping giant with narcolepsy, but Adam struggled to pry open his eyes even though he was nearly awake, still stuck between his dreamscape experience and the land of the living. Gritting his teeth, he shook his head, snapped open his harness and his eyes, and pulled himself towards the control panel at the back of the vehicle exactly as the Voice had instructed.
"Your transport has been jacked, Adam. You're in a steep dive and have aproximately 50 seconds to access the control panel and overide the hack."
"OK! I get it. Just give me a second." Adam was no rock climber, but right now he felt like he was scaling Devil's Peak, using all his strength to move from seat to seat until he could reach out and grab onto the door handle to the side of the control panel.
"Pull it open and enter the following code," the Voice continued with urgency.
The sound of air rushing over the Skycheetah's control surfaces was reaching an intensity that made Adam panic. Any other vehicle and the wings would have been torn off by now. Thankfully, M-class transports were built for speed and high angle-of-attack manouevres. The frame would hold up, but if he fumbled the code one more time, his body would be shredded upon impact.
Finally, he entered the eight-figure code correctly and the onboard AI restored full control over the vehicle, slamming on the air brakes and pulling up away from catastrophe. Adam sat on the ground at the rear of the cabin and stared out into space wondering how he got himself into this.
The Voice offered some comfort. "Thank you Adam. You won't regret this."
"I think I already am," replied Adam, hanging on to the tiny sliver of humor that had kept him alive for the past few years, "I am most certainly too old for this shit."
He allowed a few minutes to pass, successfully managing not to throw up. Then he crawled over to his backpack, reached in and cracked open a fresh Epispray cannister, immediately sucking the contents out of it like a hungry junkie. He resisted the temptation to do another one and calmed his mind by imagining what lay ahead for him at the Glasshouse research oupost. He recalled what the Voice had told him to expect and wondered if any of it could possibly be true or if the Voice was once again playing with his emotions, pulling on strings that shouldn't be pulled on, using him to further an agenda that remained as mysterious as the origin of the Voice itself.