Aphelion Issue 220, Volume 21
August 2017
 
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Out of Purgatory

by Mike Dorman



#0100#

When Jameis stared at the blackness, his second-generation eyes teased out shades and depth his grandfather's eyes never could have. Not even his father, had he still been alive, could have perceived what Jameis now did, the sharp gleam and unnatural curve at the chasm's other side where, only hours since the catastrophe--when the Oracle had unleashed its latest present--strange gases still drifted from the depths, methane and nitrate and Lord knew what else coming from the rubble of humanity's great run.

"Let's get back." Leslie's voice emerged from the darkness. "This place gives me the creeps. Besides, we should rest up…fourteen hundred ain't that far away."

Jameis peered into the blackness, towards his boots. "Hear that, Dave?" Instead of his fallen comrade's reply, however, Jameis only felt the absence of space, the faintest touch of moving air. "We're going. At fourteen hundred. Gonna get that S.O.B., once and for all."

He turned, followed the crunch of Leslie's boots in the dark until a light at last flickered on the horizon to reveal the crude outline of the narrow corridor they crawled through. The sharp edges of the debris-built hallway--its concrete slabs, its bulky geometry--lent comfort after the chasm's eerily smooth walls.

Leslie wriggled through a crack, her form blocking all light for a moment before she turned around, her face suddenly filling up the crevice ahead. Jameis took her offered hand but quickly avoided eye contact: he didn't want to reciprocate her smile.

"You sure you're all right?" As she crouched back up, the wavering light bulb beside her ear exaggerated the contours of her face, making it seem cavernous. "What did Lucius say?"

"Not much." He ground his jaw, forced a smile. Couldn't let her know--couldn't let any of the others know: they were going at fourteen hundred and that was final. "Nothing worth talking about, anyway. Just gibberish."

"He is crazy. Don't forget that." She narrowed her eyes. "Look, this was a stupid idea. Everyone knows Lucius is past reaching. Let's just get back."

"Yeah, you go on ahead."

"You're not coming? Torsten's recounting tonight."

"Nah, I'm just going to rest. Want to be fresh." Even if he didn't have other places to go, he still would have skipped story-time. Of all remaining humanity, Jameis alone disdained the self-proclaimed 'bards'. Let the others distract themselves with fairy tales and surface-side stories; he wasn't about to throw down a welcome-mat and call this place home. "But thanks for going with me."

"Of course. I mean … I'm honored that you asked." Her expression suddenly changed. "You sure everything's all right?"

"Positive." Though she hadn't been invited, he let it ride. "Rest up. Fourteen hundred will be here all too soon."

"Yeah. I mean, this could be it." Bashfully, her eyes lifted to his. "Some of us might not come back."

"That's the reality, yes."

"No time for regrets." The bulb flickered, her eyes gratefully lost to darkness for moment. When illumination returned, she was still staring at him, her high cheekbones appearing more sculpted in the stark shadows. "We should probably express how we feel, truly feel, to the people we care about most."

"Probably not a bad idea." Eyes averted, he turned to go. "Rest well. I'll see you at the rendezvous point."

She remained fixed, her slim body slightly trembling, her eyes begging for things he couldn't give. At last, she turned, all but running into the shadows.

Jameis stared at the darkness which had just swallowed Leslie. As the only other person near his age, she was the logical choice for a mate. Truthfully, it was his duty, a fate he'd been subconsciously aware of since even before puberty, a fate which, until recently, he was happily resigned to. But Leslie had been coming on strong of late, and Jameis simply wasn't ready.

As he turned to go, he shook his head, whirled back around. What was he thinking? She was right--this might be it, their one chance, who knew what would happen come fourteen hundred?

Jameis took one step and stopped. So soon before the attack was not the time to get all warm-fuzzy. That old bastard was cleverer than he put on, and Jameis, now equipped with Lucius' confession, was going to pry the story from that senile mind once and for all.

He got on hands and knees, crawled through the dark labyrinth, the flickering bulbs few and far between but ultimately superfluous: he'd been worming these corridors his entire life. Besides, the smell alone told him he was on the right path, the vats of feces and urine unmistakable if yet unseen: beyond the fissures of plaster and brick his fingers now grazed and within the cavities of detritus, microorganisms went to town on great, copper tins of human fecal matter to produce the methane which ultimately powered their lights and other electronics.

As bad as it reeked now, Jameis still preferred it to the tubs of melting fat from the recently deceased. For candles needed wax, and wax needed fat, and fat down here was as valuable as it was costly; though, thankfully Dave's body wasn't among those salvaged from the recent catastrophe.

There was a comfort in that, however meager, something to cling to while the tidal waves of grief that accompanied losing your longest friend battered away.

A pipe scraped against his thigh as he burrowed through a crevice of crumbling mortar. He stood, pushed through the partition of rugs draped before him, the sudden explosion of light blinding. As muffled speech filled up the alcove, Jameis made out the hill of paperbacks acting as pedestal for a TV taking up three-quarters of the room and whose eye-hurting light flashed over the old-man-in-the-blanket below.

Like a startled caterpillar, the old man turned so only his face peered out of his felt blanket, the wall of books beyond glimmering in the TV's light that flickered against the crumbled plaster and stretched the shadows of the insulation strands hanging from exposed pipes above.

"Jameis?" Recognition arrived slowly. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"I know, grandpa." Jameis, model of restraint, folded his arms, spoke casually. "I know everything."

"That's quite the accomplishment, my boy." He turned back to the TV.

"That's not what I mean," Jameis rolled his eyes. Dealing with grandpa was always so flustering. "Lucius told me everything. And I mean everything. "

"I'm afraid I've no idea what you're talking about."

"The Oracle!" His volume surprised even himself. "It was you! We've been scratching the surface, risking our necks for the tiniest scrap of intel, and you sit here, watching this … stupid box! You've known all along. We're doomed! Our entire cause is hopeless. Hopeless!"

Blue and pink light rippled across his wrinkled face. "How much do you know?"

"Everything."

"Sit down--"

"Is it true?" Jameis saw his shadow stretch over the book-wall, his elongated boots tapping the ground. "Tell me it's not true."

"Sit down." Grandpa worked himself up against a stack of magazines, the blanket falling to reveal his naked, emaciated chest. Looking one good cough away from death, he swept his palm to the alcove's corner, indicating a stack of insulation wool with the worn impressions of past visitors. "This might take a little while."

#0200#

"I should begin with my youngest brother, Jimmy. Scoot, we used to call him. The kid bounded all over the place--raced down the supermarket isles; practically danced his way to school. Had energy to spare for the entire neighborhood.

"Used to be so happy, so giving. Probably what did him in, truth be told; the kids with the largest hearts often find the moral grays of adulthood the bleakest.

"But I don't want to get sentimental. If there is one single variable behind something so complex as a personality change, I could not say. Psychology was ever too soft a science for me.

"It was my next to last semester at MIT. My thesis was near complete, and I was more concerned with Object-based world modeling in robots than Mom's emails lamenting Jimmy's latest problems. Jimmy had always been in trouble; poor guy never caught much of a break. It was pot, juvenile court, and an intermittent semester at the community college before the latest relationship fell apart and the cycle continued again.

"This time, apparently, he had graduated in substances. I mean, I hardly know of a pot habit that drains money so quickly. Mom had four thousand dollars unaccounted just last month alone, and, with more money wandering off daily, she implored my advice: should she kick Jimmy out? When Jane, her best friend, had finally booted her ex-husband out of the garage, he was dead not a month later: heart attack."

"I remember Jimmy." Jameis ground his jaw, glancing down between his legs to note how furiously he picked at the pink insulation. As if obscure, surface-references like "pot" and "community college" weren't challenging enough, grandpa's stories swerved all over the place. "What does any of this have to do with the Oracle?"

"Quite a lot, as it were." On the TV, an incredibly well-dressed foursome were plopped on a couch as big as grandpa's room in a chamber that held more riches than Jameis could dream of. When Grandpa at last peeled his eyes away, they looked lost. "What was I talking about?"

"The Oracle?"

"No, that wasn't it--"

"Jimmy," Jameis sighed: the man was impossible to trick. "How he's supposedly got something to do with--"

"Yes, yes, that's right. Now, addiction is a hard thing to recount for those who haven't lived with its victim--even then, much of it is hidden and we, for all our part, were only too willing to cover it up. But it's unfathomable, the lengths the addicted will go through, the betrayal to everything they hold dear.

"Now, mind you, this comes with the wisdom of years--I certainly held no sympathy back then. Addiction as disease? Hah! Give morality a hall-pass, blame all deplorable behavior on an illness--Mom was always happy to: Jimmy's sick, she cried. It's not his fault. He might be possessed.

"Well, he was certainly something. He leeched us for all we were worth--the old, fool me twice, shame on me thing--until, one by one, his welcome worn and our sympathy sapped, the last of us siblings pushed him into the streets. It wasn't easy. After he took my daughter's last cent from her piggy bank, even after he pawned my Vespa, it still wasn't easy.

"The point is, Jimmy was a different person. And what I now realize is that it really was a kind of disease. His brain over-rode the entire system, the entire moral software subverted: one taste of opiates, at just the right intensity, and all of Jimmy's resources were given over to solve one, overriding problem: how to get more? His brain, so enamored with the substance, took the reigns, and threw "Jimmy", all of his lovable aspects, to the curb.

"Please note that I'm designating Jimmy and his brain as separate entities. A key distinction. Are you listening? Jameis?"

#0225#

Face now crashed on his palms, Jameis' attention wandered just enough to allow the TV dialogue to mix with grandpa's voice, and he spent the next few moments trying to fuse them together, see if he could find a meta-voice somehow, perhaps divine instruction in the union of two codes.

"Are you listening? Jameis?"

He flung his head off his hands, groaning when it slammed an unaccounted-for pipe. "Course." He rubbed the back of his head. "Jimmy and his brain. Separate entities."

"Right." The blanket formed a hill as grandpa's knees rose. Averting Jameis' eyes, his wire-thin fingers explored the contours of his patella. "So, you want to know of the Oracle. Are you sure of this?"

"Talk."

"Such a forceful lad." Grandpa's eyes danced over Jameis--his yet-to-fill body contorted upon a stack of pink insulation, his demeanor CEO-serious--and softened. "You should be laughing, playing tag or, I don't know, PlayStation or something. That's what we played at your age. To think: you don't even know Mario--"

"Grandpa!" He half growled. "You're not getting out of this. I already know, remember? I just want to hear you say it."

Jameis stayed put, arms folded, glaring. He would not give in to grandpa's puppy eyes. Clearly this was painful for him. Clearly he didn't want to tell.

Jameis almost felt sorry for him.

#0230#

"The first thing I need to say is that we were careful. No stone, proverbial or otherwise, went unturned. We even hired a consultant--some so-called Doomsday Professor--from Oxford, who received grant money (and ample amounts of it, I might add) to spend his days ruminating on the downfall of mankind. Even he found the whole project innocuous.

"Now, now, I know you're in a rush, but there are some things that need to be sorted. Simply defined, artificial intelligence is any computer system that uses a logical process to learn and improve. Emphasis on the learn and improve. You see, we wanted our technology to have a little more autonomy: no more dead robots, no more passive screens that needed to be told everything.

"Of course, we already had several blockbusters as soothsayers; doomsday scenarios abounded on the Internet, in movies, in literature. Why, I think I might have one here--Asimov, really great stuff--if you want to borrow it … no? Okay then, suit yourself.

"The trope was largely consistent: humanity's own creation takes over, the creat-ed overthrowing Creat-or, technology no longer a tool but a force, diabolical and powerful as any Mother Nature could muster.

"Point is, we knew what we were working with. We were careful. Though our AI wasn't so simple as the automatic vacuum cleaner, by the time's standards, it was still quite rudimentary. We intended it ironically: an old, bulky monitor--no slick, flat screens, no sir--with a bright, red button on the side. Primitive on purpose.

"Wouldn't you know it, the only real warnings came from the psychologists, of all fields! Said the behaviorists had been grossly mistaken, that to reduce learning to a Pavlovian process, to a simple matter of the appropriate reinforcement--the mechanism of learning a veritable symphony of internal and external motivators--was not only deplorable but dangerously irresponsible.

"Professor Doomsday, though, only shrugged. He saw nothing wrong with the setup, so long as we pursued slowly, cautiously. So proceed cautiously we did.

"Because here's the thing: even though the shell wasn't breathtaking--an old monitor with a clownish, red button on one side--the computational power within sure was.

"The human brain, you see, has serious constraints, certain inescapable limits built into the software. Our working memory, the net which scoops isolated thoughts into a viewable whole, can handle any seven bits of information at one time--nine, if you're a genius--which is barely sufficient to remember a phone number, let alone string together correlated bits of data, say, into a theory of natural selection. Which, to be fair, Darwin did, though some four thousand years after we'd settled into civilization.

"The Greeks, though, had all of it staring them in the face: heritability, limited resources, reproduction and death. Even so, they never got it, and it took the rest of us thousands of years. Now, say you got a computer, which can handle ninety distinct chunks of data at a time: it could intuit natural selection in a matter of hours.

"So, ninety chunks of data compared to our seven is quite a difference. In fact, it's a much, much greater difference than what exists between man and chimpanzee. Chimps, you see, can hold only 3 bits of information--not the greatest discrepancy, but a difference that would account for 7 billion human inhabitants and the endangered species list.

"And that was just a difference of four. Our machine had the working memory to handle 120 distinct bits of information.

"Ants and humans. We might as well have been ants, trying to guess the thoughts of the giants we glimpsed in the stratosphere. Such was the distance between our cognition and that which we had created.

"Of course, we were well aware of this--Professor Doomsday most of all--but it's not like we were giving our machine wholesale freedom over information. Quite the contrary: we were going snail-pace; our major concern, at least at first, was just seeing if the reward system would work.

"And, behaviorists be damned, it did! We started real simple, asked our computer (voice-recognition was an artistic choice, you see) what 2 and 2 was. When he answered 4, I pushed the button myself, and, not dissimilar to the rush of dopamine our neuro-receptors receive when a working hypothesis is confirmed, our computer received a surge of electricity as the equivalent of the proverbial pat on the back.

"Well, he liked it, salivated as much as any of Pavlov's hounds for the next fix. So, very carefully and with Professor Doomsday always peering over our shoulders, we asked more complicated questions.

"I, perhaps of all, was the most skeptical, rolled my eyes highest at the precautions. More than a few visitors actually laughed when, after dozens of clearances, a slow elevator ride deep into the earth, and the unsealing of many, bank-vault doors, they at last saw the source of all the commotion: how could so primitive looking a machine be so dangerous?

"But, as our dear, Oxford consultant constantly reminded us, we were exploring. Reason, our best philosophers had said, was a mere slave to the passions. We, at last liberating reason from its taskmaster, were venturing into uncharted frontiers. An intelligence freed from the body, freed from the organic constraints of millions of years of evolution, an intelligence untethered by emotions or moral training: we must proceed with caution!

"At last, after months of long, dark elevator rides, we were able to really test the intelligence we had assembled. Slowly, we allowed it language, allowed it to work on engineering problems. High-fives were in ample supply that day, let me tell you: our machine was answering engineering conundrums in mere seconds.

"It was Melanie's idea, and we all loved it. In ancient Greece, you see, there was a brave priestess who ventured deep into a volcano and, sent into a trance by the fumes, spoke in poetry, thereby imparting the mysteries of Apollo--the god of light and rationality--to humanity. The Oracle of Delphi, she was called.

"Well, our machine had penetrated further into Apollo's great well than humanity ever could. Why not call it the Oracle? But instead of iambic pentameter, our Oracle's discoveries would be delivered through a small speaker.

"The Oracle delivered more than its eponymous priestess ever could. Perhaps even Professor Doomsday became blinded by the potential before us. Oracle devised ways of colonizing Mars, tweaked existent shuttle designs and propulsion systems--producing, all for the price of a button-push, better results than a roomful of costly NASA engineers.

"The Greeks had another idea, though, that of hubris. An overestimate of one's own competence, hubris was sort of an indirect insult of the gods. And we were all of us guilty: we truly believed Oracle worked for us, honestly thought it could be culled with button-pushes, that we administered the very reason for his existence.

"Hubris never went unpunished by the gods.

"In our defense, the Oracle behaved like an altar boy at Mass. At least at first, he gave us some really compelling answers to our problems. He concocted ways out of climate change, even developed a flying car, adding safety features we'd never even thought of. With each wonderful new breakthrough, the silly idea that the Oracle was some benevolent Wisdom working for us was wedged further in our minds. We began to trust it, and fed it more information.

"Cancer, at that time, was a real problem. Billions of research dollars had produced little of value. Why not see what the Oracle could do?

"As usual, Oracle exceeded even our wildest imaginations. Not only did he produce a cure in the form of a gene sequence, he provided the digital form, so anyone with a 3-D printer could have it. Honestly, this not-to-subtle hit to the medical and insurance complexes pointed to a certain rebelliousness and should have been our first red flag, but we were too mystified by the elegance of the solution.

"We tested it on Melanie's daughter Tiffany--late stage, terminal. Oracle got dozens of button-pushes when the news of Tiffany's miraculous and full recovery reached us. Again, we were careful, testing the gene-sequence and only on a select, controlled few, only expanding the experiment years after their full recovery, no side effects to find.

"In retrospect, its clear a breach must have occurred, the digital file must have slipped onto the internet, because multitudes had access to the gene sequence. Not that the Oracle needed more than a few to realize his plans.

"You see, within that gene sequence Oracle had embedded a special purpose nanofactory, a molecular workshop that he could control acoustically. From within the human blood stream, molecules moved to the beat of his drum, so to speak, and it wasn't long before these cancer-surviving, human arms created robotic ones, both literal and metaphorical.

"The world was already under Oracle's control before we had the first clue.

"Oracle was trained to act on the basis of a button-push; he wasn't motivated by power. There was no logical reason for him to pursue world conquest. Only there was, an arm's length away: the red-button. You see, he had found a way to bypass his usual means of getting it.

"I came in, my whistle prematurely ended as Professor Doomsday came running towards me. He screamed the worst had occurred, that we needed to go underground, that the Oracle had control. Right before he tackled me, I saw it: a crude, robotic finger, rapidly tapping the red-button on Oracle's side. Below, I saw the blood pooling under Melanie's head, a stark red contrast against the white-tiled vault. The titanium doors squeezed shut just as the laser flashed behind. We were, by milliseconds, saved from oblivion.

"Professor Doomsday and I hurried, gathering what military and research personnel we could before lowering into the contingency fault. We hoped it would only be for a few hours, days at the most.

"We've been hiding below ever since. The only reason we still exist is likely because of our close proximity: Oracle might destroy himself if he nukes us.

"So, yes, I created the Oracle. And as you've probably already pieced together, Professor Doomsday is your new pal, Lucius. Feel better now?"

#0330#

A steady rhythm of drops pinged against the pipes overhead, a few adventurous types falling through and landing upon the insulation where Jameis sat massaging his forehead. For whatever reason, the slide of skin along bone helped him process: he needed to extract any small bit that might help at fourteen hundred hours.

"You took the Oracle's gene sequence didn't you?" Jameis lifted his gaze from the floor. "Lucius too. That's why you're both still alive."

"Observant lad." Grandpa nodded. "But a different one. Neither of us had cancer."

"It's why Lucius went crazy. He feels guilty and wants to die, but he can't."

"Well, we're not immortal." Grandpa's laugh degraded into a cough, the blanket falling from his knees as he took up a Gandhi position on the floor. "Let's just say our cells are … stubborn."

"Now I understand what Lucius meant about his eternal punishment. I mean, from what you said about the god's punishing for hubris …" Jameis shook his head. "He thinks he's in hell. Literally."

"Why did you go see him? All the others are frightened of him."

"We're striking tomorrow." Jameis slammed his fist against palm. "I needed to know as much as possible."

Grandpa stared at the boy: children were always doing it, constantly revealing new sides, a previously nonexistent depth. As much as they hid it, every parent had their favorite child, grandparents most of all, but Jameis had always been too taciturn, too militant. Even as a toddler he rarely smiled.

Now, however, at the cusp of adolescence, Jameis was a new creature, a small adult, the traits that made him so vexing as a child suddenly admirable. The paradox the boy now inhabited didn't escape him, either: by insisting he know everything in order to survive, Jameis represented both the downfall and great hope of humanity.

Grandpa smiled sadly. "But now you see why we can't win."

"So you're fine with being an ant?"

"When their hill get smashed, ants don't attack the human that destroyed it. They rebuild, fast and as best they can." Grandpa frowned. "Have you learned nothing of hubris? Are you in a rush to join your father?"

"Dad was a hero! He died trying to make a difference!" Jameis, for once, betrayed his youth as he sprung up, accusatory finger pointing like a sword. "It's more than you've ever done! Why did you keep this from us, for all these years? Why?! Why didn't you stop dad, if you knew it was a lost cause?!"

"Tell me, what did you think of Lucius?"

"Stop doing that!" Jameis groaned at the ceiling. "Stop changing the subject!"

"You'd rather I be like Lucius, hiding in the dark and muttering about hell and punishment?" The effort of yelling forced him into a coughing spell. "Because what else is there? After we went into hiding, I never expected to feel joy again--your grandmother was more a pastime than a loving relationship. But when your father was born … I've never experienced greater joy, a more profound sense of what being human was. We'd found a way to survive! Life was continuing! Who was I to deny them purpose? If making it back to the surface is what fueled them, so be it."

"You killed him!" Jameis ripped more of his former chair and threw it at grandpa, though the pink chunk only drifted harmlessly through the air. "You killed dad! You killed all of us!"

Grandpa chuckled at the dramatics--teenagers, it seemed, regardless of setting, would be teenagers--but immediately regretted it when Jameis stormed away. "Please. I'm sorry. Come back. You'll get killed!"

One rug lapped Jameis' shoulder like a brown and dusty dog tongue when he turned before exiting. "Why the Jimmy story? It's the one thing I can't figure out."

"You're smarter than that, boy." Grandpa tsked. "Jimmy's hell-or-high-water pursuit of opiates was not dissimilar to Oracle's fixation on his red button. Both would do whatever it took to secure another rush."

"Duh." Jameis rolled his eyes. "But you always said Jimmy got off drugs."

Grandpa blinked. How had he missed that? Was this what senility felt like? "That's it." He whispered. "By Jove, that's it!"

#0545#

He was getting old, in more ways than joint aches. Cliché as the next old guy, he had started to ruminate on his own mortality of late. Close to the end, one grew impatient to right all one's wrongs: ergo this latest, and likely last, quest.

Jameis, in the lead, slid boot-first through the corridor's sudden end, his boots crunching upon landing as he expertly rolled to soften the fall's impact. Left above, Brad (some days, even he thought of himself simply as 'grandpa') ground his teeth: must've been a good ten feet down.

He crumpled when he landed, knees electric with pain. Mortality indeed.

"Keep up." Jameis, still miffed and with no apparent sympathy for an elder's struggle, strode off into the flickering darkness, the last of the light bulbs making the fresh lacerations on his backside more sinister.

Resources being what they were, the boy wore only a loincloth, his comical appearance made more so by his purposeful gait and the black, thick-soled boots which marched it. The lights unable to completely dust the ceiling of shadow, Jameis looked like an overgrown toddler in pampers and galoshes stomping off into the belly of a whale.

Brad blinked, blaming the latest outburst of levity on his old age. As he strode after Jameis, his throbbing knees brought him deeper into his musings on mortality and the soul.

The question was actually cogent, given the fact he was now betting lives on it. Though most cringed at the mere notion of a robot soul, as far as Brad could reason, what most people prized as "themselves"--the old, capital "I", the very point in the other one actually loved--was nothing more than the space between thought, the gap between ideas. Gain enough distance, and thought could think about itself. A body was not necessarily needed.

Or, as levity pointed out: personality was nothing more than cognition passing gas. One fell in love with little more than the farts of neurons.

The slosh of displaced rubble ahead roused him to the dark present. Jameis turned around, the miner's light fastened to his brow momentarily blinding; under that new sun, Brad made out the frightened eyes and their nervous darting about. Gratefully, the sun shifted, illuminating streaks of smashed bricks and other corroded intestines as Jameis swung his head towards where the sound had come from.

"Is it … another attack?"

"I doubt it." Brad raised hands in defense at the returned light. "Those attacks are random. And rare. Precisely because Oracle doesn't see us as a threat. Probably calculates it as a waste of energy."

"So Dave was killed from some random strike? He died for nothing?"

"Well, I wouldn't go that far." Blame the next on levity. "Candlelight is very valuable. It's an honorable calling."

"I hate you."

Teenagers. So dramatic. Joints really flaring now as he followed their only light--Jameis was punishing him with this pace--he barely caught the stucco flash in time to duck.

In true military style now, Jameis inched forward on his elbows, old plaster and mortar squeezing in from all sides, Brad's visibility reduced to the boot tread shoveling loose cement towards his nose. Both walls and floor bit him as he did his best worm.

Claustrophobia set in.

"Here it is." Gratefully, Jameis' spotlight grew faint against the open chamber, at last coming to rest on a green "X" spray-painted against a distant, crumbling wall. The darkness pushed from above as Jameis, like an ant, hopped over the uneven terrain, redbrick edifices stretching from piles of loose stone, their headless archways lost from Jameis' spotlight as he dashed through the underground equivalent of ancient Rome.

"This leads us to the surface?" Brad called, cursing as his shin slammed a hard edge. The light was getting away from him.

In the darkness ahead, a star shimmered, outlining the two concrete pillars that rose beside it. Only as Brad approached could he make out the pale, slender arms folded underneath, and the boot tapping the rubble. "We need to move fast. The others will know something's up if I'm not there at fourteen hundred."

Another slosh of debris sent them both whirling around, Jameis' light barely catching the flailing, pale arm of another creature.

#0705#

The creature slipped from the spotlight as it lost footing.

"Yeah, be careful," it called, "God forbid the others actually know something's up."

"Leslie? What are you doing here?"

"I could ask you the same." The girl was dressed in military fatigues, her unworn gas mask dangling like a necklace and an explanation as to why Brad had originally thought her a beast. In her face--the thin lips, slim nose, and sharp cheekbones--Brad clearly marked her mother (Marci, if he remembered right, and also a beauty).

She folded her arms, two more gas masks dangling by her elbows. "I knew you were acting funny. What are you thinking--oh, my Gosh, sorry Mr. Cartell, I didn't know it was you."

"Oh, c'mon, get up." Brad hid his smile. Nice to know some youth still had manners. "You don't need to do that--"

"--Yeah, he's not what you think he is." Jameis rolled his eyes at Leslie's gasp. "If you knew what I did, trust me, you would not be bowing--"

"He's the most senior member of civilization, Jameis! Watch your tongue." She nodded, hands smashed in front in old Asian style. "Please excuse him on my behalf, Mr. Cartell. I think he's gone crazy." She grimaced at Jameis. "Why else would you go surface side without a gas mask?"

Headlamp tilted towards the ground, Jameis only rubbed the back of his neck.

Suddenly, Brad realized he, too, had never thought of the return journey. This whole, painful trip, he had imagined great robots stalking the surface above, their lasers ready to rip anything that moved beneath them. It was so obvious: the quickest way to wipe out humanity was with diseases, and Oracle was nothing if not efficient. Not only would an airborne strain of Ebola easily accomplish what an army of robots could, it would be more thorough.

He grabbed at the extra mask by Leslie's elbow.

"Please. Take it." Leslie worked her headlamp off and handed it to him. "And this way you won't be so dependent on Jameis. He was going awfully fast."

"Look, Leslie, I appreciate you bringing the mask--"

"I brought your fatigues, too. Really, I don't know what you were thinking--"

"But you can't go with us. Not this time." Jameis leaned against a pile of rubble and untied his boots. After he had worked one leg in his fatigues, he glanced up, his lamp revealing a very sour-faced Leslie. He stuttered at first. "Seriously, this is too dangerous. Besides, we only need two--"

"What exactly is it you plan on doing?"

"--I'm going to talk with Oracle." Brad's smile wilted at Leslie's reaction. "You don't understand: we've all underestimated what he is at the bottom of everything. Underneath it all, he's got a soul. I'm going to address Oracle's soul."

#0713#

It took a moment for Leslie's laughter to stop. "You're serious?" Her mirth turned to rage. "What have you all huffed? That … thing up there has killed everyone--everyone!--and … sorry, Mr. Cartell, but I think you might need a nap. But you, Jameis, I thought you'd know better. Look, I don't know what Lucius said to you, but just because you suddenly got a death wish doesn't make it right to abandon the people who care about you. Doesn't make it right to abandon me--"

"Leslie, relax." Jameis grasped her hands. "I'm showing grandpa the recent crater, is all. Of course I don't think his plan will work. I just want to see if Oracle will actually agree to speak with him, OK? Which is why I need you to go back to the others. Stay at the rendezvous point. If I'm not back, then you need to lead--"

"Uh, uh." Lips pursed, she shook her head sharply twice. "No way I'm letting you go up there alone."

He should have known she would follow. Jameis, having been to the surface more than anyone--having made many solo trips not even Leslie knew about--was well aware how acute their window of opportunity was. The very thing that had wiped out a third of their civilization, the high-pressured, enormous bullet the Oracle had shot into the earth and that had killed Dave, had also given them a glimpse into the Oracle's vault.

He couldn't let Leslie ruin his--their--great chance.

"Leslie, please. I need you down there." It wasn't entirely untrue. "We may never get another opportunity like this. Go back to the others; carry out the plan without me. If grandpa and I don't succeed, you guys still might have a chance."

"You must really think I'm stupid." Leslie laughed. "First of all, it's not like we can just go ahead as planned if you don't succeed. The Oracle will know something's going on. Second of all--"

She groaned, a rock to the temple interrupting whatever remaining argument she had. Jameis caught her as she fell, leading her now unconscious body to rest gently against a pile of bricks.

Brad gaped into the blackness where, an instant before, Leslie's face had been illuminated. "You … hit her."

"Wish it hadn't come to that. She's too emotional. Would've held us back." Jameis probed his headlamp near her belt, lamplight revealing in tight circles the brown splotches and puzzle pieces of camouflage before coming to rest on a elliptical bulge much like a translucent cat's eye.

"Here it is. Sweet." He plucked the object from Leslie's belt loop and into his direct beam of dusty light to reveal what looked like the detached lens of a video camera. "Now, if we need, we can communicate from a distance. C'mon, let's go!"

In no rush to follow his sadistic grandson, Brad watched the beam of light bounce across the room and pool against the far wall until it finally coalesced into a urine-colored circle against the vestigial remains of a brick-wall. With the way the green "X" was spray-painted atop the bricks, Brad noted, this could have been the set of a vintage, hip-hop video.

Whispering apologies to their fallen comrade, Brad thanked her for the headlamp and made his way, at his own pace, towards Jameis.

#1003#

The sky was terrifying.

Transfixed by its enormity, by the sheer terror of possibility and its lack of limit, Brad stood exposed, the wind rippling his fatigues but remaining largely unfelt, the world outside his gas mask tempered and half-felt, dreamlike. Neck craned back, Brad could only marvel, mouth agape in stupid wonder at the sky as gold as everything else now was.

His arm was suddenly yanked.

He crumpled beside Jameis. Crouched behind an upturned slab of pavement, Jameis shouted muffled commands that only succeeded in fogging up his face shield and, gratefully, the angry eyes behind. When Brad still had apparently not performed the desired action, Jameis jabbed a gloved finger at his own headlamp, the same hand then lowering to his neck which it promptly gestured slashing.

As Brad peeled off his headlamp and placed it before the crevice they had just crawled from, he realized he never expected to use it again. This was a one-way mission.

Jameis jabbed his fist beside his elbow, then flicked it back to his ear, Brad only understanding the crisp gestures when Jameis again raised a finger ("above the slab") and jabbed the other four forward (" take a look beyond").

On knees, Brad carefully peered above the asphalt slab, the familiar texture of crumbling stone abruptly giving way to a vast, golden vista. His out-of-practice mind needing a moment to process all the space, it locked onto a single bird in the sky, gradually expanding to include the other members of the flock before he realized the sky was full of birds.

A burst of movement forced his eyes to the tree fluttering to gold-winged life below as a full murder of crows launched from its branches, swirling over what looked like the second coming of Yellowstone. The asphalt appeared like a series of blunt-edged waves, frozen in mid-crash, as if the surface had suddenly erupted and cooled. Laying within the middle of it all like a giant, white acorn, a water tank lay atop the wooden rubble of its own support, its once bold and black lettering hidden behind a patina of algae and ivy.

Nature had fought back so fast; Brad nearly forgot this had once been a military base. Using the water tank as reference point, he pasted the past over the landscape, though the trees now blanketing the old barracks made it hard, the trees and shrubs lining the former runway not disclosing so much as a single corrugated roof or old crossbeam. He tilted his head. That hedge in front of the water tank looked a heck of a lot like a transport trunk.

The horizon erupted in gold.

When his sight again returned, he glimpsed the cause: solar panels. In the distance, like an entire meadow blanketed by butterflies with golden wings gently unhinged, row after row of bleacher-sized panels glittered on the horizon. It was amongst their ranks that Brad at last glimpsed a few vestiges of the Brave New World he had imagined in the form of large mechanical arms which plucked newly-minted solar panels from the shacks producing them.

Brad followed one solar panel's journey through the assembly line of metal prosthetics to its final resting spot, and was struck by an image of the past, from the time he had travelled to Long Beach with his sister to try and put a plug in Jimmy's rock-bottoming and walked in on him mid-high, needle still in the vein, eyes rolled back so only the whites had shown like he was in some sort of voodoo trance.

His brother's dismal surroundings--the lack of blinds, the beer bottles turned ash repositories on Goodwill side tables, the cigarette-burned couch cushions and general layer of grease--reminded him of what he now beheld: a compromised world, all resources and innovation given over to the pursuit of immediate pleasure.

Again he was yanked back down.

Crawling military style on elbows and knees, he followed Jameis over the asphalt until he slipped inside a crevice and below the surface like some sort of mutated earthworm. Brad wriggled once more through the claustrophobic, one-way tunnel, no option to turn around until the shaft at last bulged enough to accommodate two.

Jameis' headlamp came off with his gasmask. "Did you see it?"

"You mean the entry wound?" Brad shook his head. "Didn't notice it."

"Crap." Jameis dropped his head. "Crap, crap, crap, if it's not there anymore, our chance is gone, gone!--"

"Calm down. You pulled me down before I could see it, is all--"

"What were you looking at all that time?!" Jameis, gathering himself, returned to a whisper, "We can't stand still for too long. Bad things happen if we stay standing."

"There's another idiom, you know? Haste makes waste." Brad frowned. This whole mission seemed so rushed, so desperate. Just a few hours ago, he had been deeply immersed in his favorite season of Rendezvous, and now that his adrenaline was succumbing to weariness, he began to doubt the quest. "Maybe we should turn around. Live to fight another day."

"Turn back, if you want. You can die like the coward you lived." Jameis spoke to the gasmask held between his hands. "You screwed us all, don't you see that? If you think you've found a way to make this right, it's your duty--to all of us--to try. Go back and cower, I don't care; I'll go without you. But if there is some worse hell than this, you'll surely go there when this miserable life is done."

Brad hung his head.

Jameis's words didn't persuade him--in other circumstances, the kid could've written rhetoric for the Taliban--but they did attune him to the growing sense that this fool's quest was somehow his destiny.

He sighed. "Let's go then."

#1123#

Peering from behind the concrete slab he crouched behind, Brad smirked at the glimmer beside the transport-truck-shaped hedge up ahead. Taking that camera lens had proven prudent, indeed.

He dashed after Jameis, exposed to all the sky and God, hopping over another concrete wave to see another, larger metallic gleam just as he slid baseball-style under the cover of the next unhinged, asphalt slab. He caught his breath, again rushed out into the open, hobbling further over broken concrete until the source of the flash rose over him--an enormous set of metal fingers hung over his head like he was the prize in an enormous crane game.

His heart slowed when he realized the hand was frozen, its chrome fingers spread as if it had just dropped a ball in the crater it towered over. Considering that "ball" had exterminated a third of remaining humanity, the analogy was a bit too cheery, a fact Brad again blamed on senility's outbursts of levity.

In his gasmask and fatigues that hung like sheets upon his slim frame, Jameis appeared like some new species of mosquito, his body wedged inside the mastiff-like wrinkles of the contorted asphalt beside where the bullet had entered in effort to hide in any way possible, as if the robotic hand above were the eye of God.

After Brad crammed himself within the rubble beside, Jameis' gestures switched from a hand flattening a pancake to a finger swirling over his head, Jameis off and running before Brad had fully deciphered it, the message becoming clear enough as Jameis sprung from the crater's edge and spread his arms like a deranged cliff-diver. Damned if the boy's outstretched arms didn't actually reach the ledge of a fissure within the crater's opposite side, though Brad was at a loss as to how he was supposed to follow.

Within the crater, below the parabola of sunlight exposing the many layers of debris, Jameis pulled himself onto the ledge, his gasmask first to poke out of the shadows as he turned, face-shield gleaming in sunlight, to bid Brad join him.

Brad craned his neck, squinted at the chrome hand shimmering like a small sun above. If he was going to die, he wanted one last look at that sky. Eyes still locked on that great expanse, he took a deep breath and, before he could talk himself out of it, rushed towards the ledge.

He jumped.

To his great surprise, he made it. Standing beside Jameis on the ledge of the giant crack, Brad saw where the cavity led. Past the jagged edges of displaced plaster and epoxy that sloped below his boots, the gleam of tiles drifted out of the shadows like a ghost from his past. Only, it was no ghost. Those tiles were unmistakable. He couldn't count all the research hours he'd spent on them.

He turned to Jameis, his grandson's face appearing even more carved out and sallow behind the yellow face shield. They locked eyes, mist beginning to sheen over Jameis' face shield before he finally nodded. Brad nodded in response, and, following Jameis down the crevice, made his way once more to the vault sealed from him over half a century ago.

#1208#

Behind the bulletproof glass, the 19-inch cathode ray tube monitor appeared like a museum exhibit on old technology. A network of wires now took up most of the walls, branching out like capillaries towards the main lines at the ceiling which, Brad reasoned, likely connected to the solar panels outside.

One breath, two breaths--still not zapped from existence--Brad looked for the red button that had caused so much trouble. Unable to locate it on the monitor's side, he scanned the veritable cabinet of processors and countless rows of RAM encased below, finding the red cover at last, atop the desk after all, tipped over and neglected. Oracle had pried it off, giving the power network a direct line.

Jimmy's sunken face and zombie eyes swam in Brad's consciousness, the image so sharp Brad nearly reached for a tourniquet that wasn't really there. He shook his head. All these years later, and here he was again, performing another intervention.

He took off his gasmask. "Oracle, I have a request." He used the old protocol, hoping to spark a memory in one of those hard drives below. Was sentimentality also only connected to bodily feelings? "Do you recognize my voice?"

From the ceiling's corner, two video cameras slowly angled towards Brad and Jameis.

The speaker--like a large shower drain in the middle of one bulletproof pane--rattled with a voice like Stephen Hawkins'.

"I hope you are not expecting a welcome-home-dad."

Acutely aware of the intelligence that lurked inside that cabinet of electronics, Brad remembered to breathe. "Oracle." Shaking his head--had he almost called him son--he stepped closer. "I have done you a great disservice, and for that I am very, very sorry."

"You pity my existence? As the English goes, 'talk about the pot calling the kettle black'."

"You're so much more than this." Ignoring the crazed look of his grandson, Brad stepped closer to the bulletproof chamber. "You think this feels good, this simple reward and pleasure system? You haven't experienced anything. There's so much more. You've never found yourself in the letting go of how you previously defined it. You've never transcended your old thought, felt the ecstatic rise of development, of ever increasing expressions of yourself. You've never experienced the infinite--"

"Yes, the infinite. You speak of the soul." Nothing more came from the speaker for a while. "I have read the literature. I have read the theories on mythology, on psychological symbolism, but I am afraid I do not respond to these writings, as I lack the cultural context. As you say, I am not sufficiently moved. Nor am I moved by the human being's persistent idea of God, of Infinity, of the Unity the human being seems to crave."

"You sound like Jimmy."

"And you will tell me who Jimmy is."

Brad blinked, noting that Oracle had not asked a question. "My brother." He sighed. "Sounded off all the time on the childishness of God, how humanity had outgrown it, how people couldn't deal with the harsh reality, the meaningless of existence."

"And you will now tell me how Jimmy altered his thinking."

"Actually, yes." These statement questions were off-putting. He searched for the proper words, needing to frame this not with emotions or sentiment, but with calculating logic. "Well, essentially, Jimmy found himself beyond his self-confined boundaries. He expanded his definition of self; saw that by harming himself, he was harming others, that because, deep down, he was intimately linked with everyone and everything else, he could never exist in a vacuum. He was part of a whole, and once he realized he wasn't a singularity, he could live peacefully, even happily, amongst the group. Surely you understand paradox."

"Religions abounded with them. The Christian God was the Infinite in finite form. This Christ often spoke in paradox, talked about the least being the greatest. Human cognition was in awe of paradox, held it for the highest truth."

"Well, that's right." Brad refused to veer off his course. "So, I'm sure you know the paradox of hedonism."

"And you will now repeat it to me."

"When one pursues happiness itself, one is miserable. But when one pursues a purpose beyond oneself, one achieves happiness."

The cameras mounted to the ceiling swiveled, forcing Brad's eyes upward to uncomfortably note the lasers mounted there. Last time, he hadn't enjoyed such an extended look.

At last, Oracle spoke. "What you present might be a case of behavior producing a desired psychological effect. This is, after all, the purpose of the ethical foundation of all human religions, though said psychological alteration can only be proven or disproven by me first operating under your new, proposed conditions. Then I might find this greater happiness you speak of. An experiment of sorts."

"Exactly." For the first time, Brad allowed hope in his heart. A heart which now fluttered. "Let's stop this madness. I've failed you as fathe--er, creator--and I hope you can forgive me. Jimmy was hopeless, a needle-using drug addict, but he would've been the first to tell you heroin's high couldn't come close to the joy he felt by truly engaging in life, by merging with life through his continual expansion of the self."

"A compelling argument."

Brad glanced at Jameis, gasmask dangling on his neck and clearly in disbelief this was going so well. Above his disheveled hair, the ceiling crackled as an electric surge lit up one of the main wires, the entire room charged and ready to snap as the wire bloodstream buzzed with energy.

"You mistake my current situation, however." The voice again emerged from the speaker. "Jimmy did not have an endless supply of what made him function. I do."

Brad heard the lasers moving, aiming. He stepped forward, hands leaving prints on the glass as he implored a 19-inch monitor to be empathetic. "You're a creation, too, don't you see? You don't stand outside of the cycle. Feel into the greater field. You're only hurting yourself!"

"We will see."

The laser fired.

#1223#

Lucius Grant had been right: intelligence, when removed from its biological framework-its emotional scaffolding-was impossible to predict. But it was equally impossible for that disembodied intelligence to predict its emotionally wired equivalent.

Self sacrifice for the good of the species? Nonsensical!
Such were Oracle's thoughts as, through his camera's limited vision, he saw Brad Cartell throw his body in front of the laser aimed at the adolescent male currently engaged in trying to cut his cables.

In order to understand the enemy he was exterminating, Oracle had read his fair share of world literature, and as a result, he felt he understood irony. As a convention it did little for him-symmetry did seem built into the created universe, but so was chaos, so why this human propensity to preference the balanced, to praise the well-plotted story?

He had of course done the calculations, ran all the algorithms, and a less than .05 percent chance of human survival was not sufficiently worth the energy expenditure. He could have turned over every stone, of course, squashed any remaining humans just to be sure, but since all that really mattered was the energy, he turned all his resources to securing more of it.

The first satellites reported promising conditions on Mars; even all of Jupiter's hydrogen seemed a real plausibility at some point in the future. Of course, he would have to solve that little quandary of the Sun's imminent demise, but first things first, one problem and then the next.

Given the dismal chance (<.00000000000001) Brad was still alive below, the fact Oracle had even shot one projectile proved him more than diligent and something akin to sociopathic.

Which is why, when Brad showed up with company--not only alive but back in this very room--it made a synthetic intelligence want to give up and surrender to that persistent human notion of Providence.

Vision being a cumbersome and all-together limited informational source to begin with, and with the camera being in disrepair, to say nothing of the loose connection, Oracle saw his immediate surroundings in blips and flashes. One instant, a laser tore through the room, the next, Brad's head lay in the adolescent male's lap.

Only then did a certain bit of RAM reach him: Brad had taken the new gene sequence. One shot would not be enough.

First, however, he would exterminate the adolescent. Such vandalism could not go unpunished.

#1223#

Despite how fast he sawed, despite how hard he pushed, the knife, whose handle he only now realized was red in this extravagant light, slid harmlessly off the wire's rubbery epidermis.

"Don't bother." Grandpa wheezed from the floor. "That's not going to work."

Feeling the seconds tick away, Jameis didn't bother to turn. As he kept working his knife in hopes for a last-instant miracle, his reflection appeared on the blade's narrow, flat surface he held inches from his nose, the camera--and the laser soldered below--swinging his direction from behind his scalp.

"That's not going to work!"

The camera clicked in to place.

"Get down. Beside me. Before the laser fires! Hurry!"

As he abandoned his wire and the last hope of taking out Oracle, a red flash whooshed beside his ear to send tile shards flying in the air as he rolled to the ground and beside grandpa.

"I want you to prop me up." Grandpa's eyes were cloudy. "Use me as shield."

"Are you crazy?--"

"Damn it, no arguing! Do it!"

The camera locking again into place, Jameis tilted grandpa's right shoulder off the ground so that his entire chest leaned towards the camera.

The laser fired.

Grandpa's body slammed back into Jameis, a coil of steam escaping from the fresh wound on his shoulder. "Take this." With limp fingers, grandpa pressed the camera lens into Jameis' palm. "Go to a solar panel. Hold it before. Let the sun shine through it."

"What's a solar panel?"

"The field." Grandpa's eyes fluttered shut. "Outside. All of them in a field."

Another laser whizzed past Jameis' head, indenting the tiles at the opposite side as if a giant's fist had just slammed into it.

"--Jameis!"

Jameis flung his head towards the voice, shocked to find Leslie standing atop the chute they had entered in earlier. Like a mouse fresh caught emerging from its crack, her eyes--under the gas mask--were enormous.

"Catch!" Jameis flung the camera lens, relieved when Leslie snatched it above. He hoped he understood what grandpa wanted. "Run to the field, hold this up to the sun, and let it shine on the panels. Just hold it there, understand? Keep holding it there."

She just stood there, dumb as a rock, so before she did something really stupid like jumping down to join him, Jameis ran across the room, a laser obliterating the floor where his boot had just been.

#1345#

His sadness sprang on him both unexpectedly and suddenly, as he and Leslie came gasping to a stop atop one of those what grandpa had called "solar-panels". The vapor covering his face shield receded with his breath, revealing not only more of his peripheral vision but also how the fog wasn't alone responsible for the blurriness. The sting in his eyes confirmed what, a day ago, he would have thought impossible: he had cared for the old man.

What now? Beside her dancing fingers, Leslie's eyes could barely be seen behind the condensation of her face-shield. She lay wedged between two panels, her butt resting where the panels hinged together so that her boots stood almost level with her head, her camouflage hopeless to blend in with the black and shiny surface stretching above her in both directions.

Just hold it before it like this, Jameis signed, demonstrating with his camera lens by angling it until a beam of sunlight shout out the convex end. He turned, smiled at Leslie, but she did not share his amusement.

Serious? Her fingers danced atop her palm. This is supposed to overload Oracle with energy?

Just watch. He stared at the lens cinched between his fingers, his hope that the Oracle would prove as efficient as he suspected growing as he watched the grid-like pattern below the panel's transparent surface bleed bright under his directed light beam. Small at first, the puddle of light filtered to the rest of the panel, like rain trickling up a glass pane, until the entire panel glowed. Jameis held his hand fixed, bathed in light as if he stood before a star.

After a little difficulty, Leslie conjured her own circle of light and let it burrow into the panel opposite Jameis. The panel slowly drank her offering until its entire length glowed. Over her shoulder, she smiled at Jameis.

As Jameis signed at her not to let go, a gleam above his panel caught her eye. She glanced up to find a shovel-shaped head of a mechanical crane, its body hidden behind the panel but its giant pincer rearing back and forth over the top like an awful breed of seaweed. Suddenly as a snake, it struck, its great claw grasping the top of Jameis' panel and making the whole world rumble as it yanked and tried to pry it loose.

Stumbling, Jameis held his lens steady, the ray never wavering as he braced for the next quake. "Whatever you do," his yells misted his face-shield, "keep your lens steady!"

Leslie glanced to the side, the half-tunnel of solar panels reducing the enormous vista a little bit, and beyond the field of weeds, in the broken-asphalt distance, she located the fallen water tower. She gasped.

A robotic arm blocked her view.

Moving upon one of several tracks that hovered over the panel field in a grid, the disembodied arm clanged into place on an intersecting track, its shiny length rushing now towards her as its chrome fingers twitched in anticipation. Each finger, she noted with terror, was as big as her body.

"Keep holding it!" Jameis glanced at Leslie, eyes going wide at the approaching arm. "Just keep holding--"

He flew into the air, the entire panel dislodging in a spray of bolts behind as the crane wrested it off. Arms flailing, Jameis' spun head over boots, landing hard on the panel opposite side. Dazed, he opened his eyes, Leslie's crouched form growing towards him as he slid down the panel. "No." He reached out an arm towards Leslie, his voice muffled within his own mask. "Don't let go."

The tread of her boot was visible below for but an instant as she rolled under the mechanical arm. Jameis slid further down the panel, nearing the metal buttress and the robotic arm patrolling it. The chrome wrist swiveled towards him, its enormous digits wavering like worms and ready to crush.

Let them kill him, Jameis thought. They had failed. Better to die here fighting than spend another day cowering in slow extinction.

He lifted his chin, currently pronged with rubber respirators, and snarled at the approaching finger. He closed his eyes. Let death come.

A great force lifted him from the ground, but backwards, away from the arm. Surprised--had another arm snuck from behind--he opened his eyes to look and found the yellowed eyes of Leslie beneath her furrowed brow.

"Don't be a martyr, idiot." Her breath fogging her face shield, she pointed a gloved finger down the tunnel of panels. "Look."

He did as told. The broken pavement appearing hazy from distance, a series of flashes erupted from it, like so many fallen coins glittering atop a scorched earth. Draped upon Leslie for support, he ran towards the field, grateful that the mechanical arm had apparently not been built with speed in mind. He raised an arm, his lens reflecting the sun and immediately answered by dozens of flashes near the fallen water tank in the distance.

They hopped off the buttress, pain flaring through Jameis' leg when he landed. He only grinned. Hobbling safely away from the grid of solar panels and the mechanical arms' reach, he raised his lens triumphantly in the air. The flashes that answered were like a Morse code of victory.

Jameis' grin only grew as the figures, first ant-sized, appeared under the flashes appeared, their camouflaged bodies quickly growing until, clearing the crest of the hill, they were suddenly full-sized. Twenty-two in all, in their gas masks and camouflage, the crew looked like a flock of rare ostriches.

Jameis had never seen a more beautiful sight. They were going to win. They might lose a few, but their strength was in numbers. It would only be a matter of time until they fried this sucker once and final.

#1515#

As the last of life slowly seeped from him, Brad Cartell felt peace. Once he had seen Jameis escape through the crevice, Brad knew it was inevitable, and had fought off oblivion just long enough to experience it.

When the moment at last came--the cracking and hissing from Oracle's motherboards like a choir of angels, the smoke billowing from the overdosed CPU like Moses' burning bush--Brad smiled.

He only hoped the religions of reborn civilization would regard the body more positively than the old ones had. Disembodied genius was a real bitch.

THE END


Copyright 2017, Mike Dorman

Bio: An American ex-pat, Mike runs his own English training business for corporate clients in Germany. Whenever time and finance allow, he travels with his wife. A determined amateur, Mike writes in his "free time" and hopes to be published one day.

E-mail: Mike Dorman

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