|CHAPTER 4: ZETHOS TRIUMPHANT
Rebecca reacted first. “Zethos is dead, so who or what are you?”
The figure on the screen turned its eyes towards her. “Well sweetmeat,” he leered, “what you don’t understand about me could fill a library.”
He then turned his attention back to Silas. “But you might do well to have an explanation. It could make things easier on everyone.”
Silas sat silently, wanting to give nothing away until he had to, but rather evaluate this menace. He split the screen on the monitor to show him the force waiting outside the hangar as well as the view of Zethos’ features, and set himself to listen carefully.
“As you should know from our time following that overgrown child Harland,”
Zethos’ voice said over the speakers, “I’m not one to give up easily. When this pile of second-hand circuits and overly ambitious software injected me with nanites, which you may know are extremely tiny machines that work on the molecular level, they interacted with my nervous system. The immediate consequence of this was to give the Caretaker control over my body. However, deprived of any other means of expression or action, I focused my efforts on the nanites themselves. I impressed my will upon them, and from there followed the command pathways between them and the Caretaker back to the main programming nodes. Even as my body died, my mind and memories transferred here. Thus Zethos Lives!!!”
Having made its pronouncement, the face on the screen lit up with victory. It then continued, focusing on the current situation. “I hid in the Caretaker’s blind spots and learned everything I could about my new environment. I subtly began taking control of certain key systems, primarily communications, external weaponry and control over the doors between Haven and the outside world. Now the Caretaker can do nothing to stop me from summoning the Mutates I’ve been gathering and allowing them to storm Haven, killing everyone inside.”
Zethos’ face took on a more conciliatory expression. “Of course, I’d prefer not to do that. I can see that your people would be easier to lead, easier to mold into the glorious future that this world deserves, and that only I can bring. All you need to do is agree to obey me and your safety is assured, as well as the chance to be more than any of you had ever dreamed possible.”
“We will never follow you,” Rebecca said, “you must be mad to think that a bodiless wraith could command us.”
Zethos’ eyes narrowed, and while his focus remained on Silas, his words responded to Rebecca. “All it would take would be for Silas to give up a leadership he clearly never wanted. The alternative is death, and I will then make of the Mutates what I can.”
“Oh, and Stephen,” Zethos said, unexpectedly bringing Stephen, standing in the control room and monitoring what was happening, “you can stop trying to regain control of the systems I command. As Silas could tell you, what I seize I do not give up.”
“So,” Zethos said, “do you agree to follow me to glory, or do I send in the Mutates to kill every one of those who you promised to lead and protect?”
CHAPTER 5: CONFRONTATION
For his part, Silas was remembering the Caretaker’s words and evaluating them against what he’d just heard. He thought he understood the tingling in his fingers, and just how the Caretaker had created the opportunity for him to deal with this secondary program directly. Having decided on his course of action, Silas finally spoke.
“Stephen, you keep right on doing what you’re doing. Caretaker,” he said, looking up at the hologram while keeping his fingers on the keyboard, a keyboard that he knew fed right into the heart of Haven’s software, “I’m ready.”
The face on the screen narrowed its brows in confusion. “Ready for what? What do you think that doddering program can do for you?”
Silas had realized that if a person’s mind could be translated into nanites and sent into the computer then the Caretaker would have analyzed the process. The tingling in his fingers had been nanites invading his body through the pores in those hands. With Silas’ permission, the Caretaker set the nanites to the task they have been specially created to perform.
Rebecca saw Silas’ body stiffen, his head jerk back and his eyes go blank.
Silas’ experience was very different. He saw a riot of color before his mind’s eye and then a vista that actually existed only in virtual reality.
Silas recognized the area well: he was standing outside a virtual representation of the hangar doors that were so threatened in the real world. The Mutates weren’t there, but he did see someone even more dangerous.
Zethos’ features twisted in momentary surprise, but quickly morphed into a grin.
“Oh, but this is too good,” he said. “The Caretaker’s last feeble attempt at resistance is to send you into my arms. Truly your only hope now is to surrender and obey me. You can’t truly think to stand against me in here, where I’ve spent so many months learning how to control this environment.”
Silas again said nothing, opting to observe and analyze before acting. Zethos had no such compunctions.
“But still,” he said to Silas, “coming here did take a certain level of personal courage and cleverness. I give you one last chance to accept my benevolent leadership. Clearly you don’t want the burden yourself, and this way no one can blame you for laying down the responsibilities. I’ve seen from in here how you prefer to engage in your own, quite fruitful, investigations and experiments. You could focus yourself on those to your heart’s content, knowing that one much more used to command is taking care of the big picture.”
Silas pursed his lips, and responded. “I know that there is much about Zethos to admire and respect. However, everyone who followed him ended up being discarded. There is a care and respect for followers that has ever been absent, and I do not see that you have developed it at all. Without it anyone who places himself under your leadership risks being discarded at a moment’s notice. While you are correct that my temperament is not that of a leader, I cannot abandon these people to such a fate.”
Zethos’ visage had gone from a welcoming expression to rage while Silas spoke. Now he responded. “Perhaps when your allies see your dead body and realize how powerless their greatest champion was they will acquiesce and save themselves. You can comfort yourself with the knowledge that your death may spare their lives.” Zethos then concentrated and altered the program in which they stood to arm himself.
With that Silas saw what he faced. He was able to sense, and carefully analyze, how the virtual world in which they stood was subtly altered and modified. At the end of that quick and complex process Silas was staring into the barrel of a massive pulse rifle, one that was held by his foe and cycling up to a massive blast.
It seemed all too likely that Silas wouldn’t have the chance to use what he had just learned, and the battle could be over before it had truly begun.
CHAPTER 6: THE BATTLE IN THE HEART OF NOWHERE
Silas reacted with the speed of thought, and a thought that was as lightning-fast as ever. He leapt high and to the side as the rifle fired, sending a tremendous burst of coherent energy at the point he had vacated a bare instant earlier.
The explosion was incredible, tearing a chunk out of the mountain within which the virtual Haven resided. Silas was actually pushed farther along his intended path by the force of the blow, clearing a large boulder he had been aiming to shelter behind.
As Silas landed he rolled, already mentally taking stock of his situation. As he rose to his feet he marveled at the lack of injury. It appeared he’d been extremely fortunate, with no cuts, burns or impact injuries.
Silas then essentially repeated the process he’d observed when Zethos created the rifle that had fired at him, but with a subtle difference. He sprang to the top of the boulder and released a torrent of electrical energy at the spot Zethos had stood in seconds earlier. It was as if a series of lightning strikes were tearing the ground apart.
Zethos, ever the strategist, had already been moving. However, Silas had chosen the electrical discharge weapon because it covered a fairly large area. The edge of the lightning-strike hit Zethos with a glancing blow, and Silas noted how hit clothing burned off in a thin strip off his left leg, leaving the skin underneath mildly charred.
The hit didn’t even slow Zethos, who grimaced at the pain but refused to allow it to affect the battle. His pulse rifle let out a soft chime as it cycled, and he unleashed another torrent of energy, this time aimed at the boulder Silas was standing on.
Silas dropped his weapon, already concentrating on creating his next device, and sprang from the boulder just as it was hit. Again, the force of the blow threw him farther than his own muscles would have achieved, and this time he’d taken that into account. Once again he was unharmed as he landed.
As the smoke and rubble cleared, Silas saw that Zethos had likewise dropped his weapon rather than wait until it had recharged. He was already aiming a laser rifle at Silas, a weapon that fired at the speed of light and was incredibly accurate. There’d be no way to dodge this time.
Fortunately for Silas, his move was to prepare for such weaponry. His arm was already raised, and the armlet he’d generated activating. This was a device he’d been toying with in theory, designing it without any real hope that he’d be able to physically construct the incredibly complex components that were required to make it work.
Of course, in this environment that wasn’t a problem.
As the laser beam lashed out, aimed unerringly at Silas’ head, the energy field generated by Silas’ device sprang into being, absorbing the shot easily. Silas remained untouched.
Zethos assessed the situation instantly, and then broke into a wide smile. He tossed his rifle aside and began a weave far larger than anything Silas had seen. Silas responded with a sonic blaster, feeling that its wide range and sustained rate of fire would be effective, but he was quickly proven wrong.
Zethos had summoned a battle tank, massive and heavily armed. Silas’ sonic shot was absorbed by its powerful armor, and the responsive blast overloaded and shorted out his shield. However, that shield apparently absorbed the tank’s blast almost completely, as again Silas was unharmed, though blown backwards by the residual force of the blow. Nonetheless, that seemed little comfort to Silas as he was now effectively unarmed and defenseless.
Zethos had chosen well, for Silas had spent little time inside war vehicles. From what he could tell, you couldn’t just create anything that entered your head, but only something you had some familiarity with. Silas broke into a run, summoning into virtual existence the most powerful machine he’d ever driven. The seat of his Bearcat came into being around him, the mighty engine roaring as the ‘Cat tore across the terrain.
The communications console crackled as it received a signal. Silas found a moment to be bemused by this, as he received a message from Zethos’ virtual communications console. One non-existent radio was sending signals to another non-existent radio, using the real hardware tied into the system to generate the actual radio signals being transmitted.
Zethos seemed to be exhilarated by the contest, and was smiling as much as Silas had ever seen. “My congratulations,” he said, “you’re doing better than I’d thought you would. You even think you’ve established a two-front war by having Stephen trying to unseat my control over Haven’s systems while you engage me here. I thought you might want to see how that effort is going.”
Zethos’ face was replaced by Stephen’s, which registered momentary mild surprise. Silas knew that that reflected deep shock given how little Stephen generally gave away on his features. Silas also knew that he was playing Zethos’ game, but felt that he couldn’t let this opportunity slip away. He quickly used his own array to confirm as best he could that he was receiving an actual signal from the control room, and Zethos had simply redirected that signal. Silas knew that Zethos would know that the truth would be the most powerful weapon, and was likely to be using it rather than a complete fabrication.
“Report,” Silas said, “but first give me the confirmation code.” This was a code he’d established with Stephen in case there was a concern that someone was using a false voice to impersonate one of them. This code should not be something Haven’s computer system, and by extension this virtual Zethos, would know.
“Alpha 239 Beta 368” Stephen said, then gave his grim report.
“The Mutates have begun to advance. We’ve been unable to activate any of our weaponry or access the armory. We’ve also been unable to override the lockout on the hangar and interior doors. Those doors haven’t opened yet, but they could at any moment. What are you orders?”
Silas gave him a steely look. “Stand fast. Surrender is not an option here, nor will it be needed.”
Zethos broke in, speaking with both men. “Oh really? Silas, you know that you are barely holding your own, with your best shot having done little more than scratch me. I’ve got you playing my game, by my rules, and you’re on the run. You can’t beat me at this. Being stubborn will only get everyone who follows you killed.”
Zethos then focused on Stephen. “You led these people long before Silas even knew they existed. Don’t let them die because he can’t see true glory. I’ll annihilate him. There’s nothing you can do about that, so it’s hardly disloyal to accept reality. Accept me as your leader and you can take over as my second-in-command.”
Zethos put on his most earnest expression. “You know that Silas’ leadership has been weak. Why let him lead you, your sister and everything you’ve ever worked for to annihilation?”
Silas responded. “Stephen, you know me. You know that I hold humanity’s future as the highest good. Giving in will make us into a force for destruction and evil. I won’t let that happen, and I won’t let you, my wife and the people I have called my own for some time now die. I can only ask that you trust me.”
Stephen nodded at both men, then cut the transmission. Silas had to trust that Stephen would continue to follow him, and not answering was a ploy designed to delay Zethos until he could determine what Stephen’s decision was.
If so, it was up to Silas to end this quickly and decisively, and he wasn’t at all sure he could do that.
CHAPTER 7: NOT PLAYING THE GAME
Silas realized that Zethos was right. He was reacting, and playing the game Zethos excelled at. So long as this was a military campaign Zethos had every advantage. He’d been a true soldier, while Silas had always worked fundamentally alone, and without using large and overwhelming force to achieve his ends.
Virtual Zethos knew this world and had been here far longer than Silas. There were undoubtedly rules and issues that Silas couldn’t hope to absorb quickly enough to turn the tide.
Silas realized that he had to turn this to his own battlefield, with his own rules. As he used the Cat’s virtual sensors to keep tabs on Zethos’ tank, he bought precious seconds with which to think. He put his powerful intellect into high gear, evaluating everything he’d seen, heard and felt since entering the hangar and seeing Joshua’s body. He hit upon a series of discrepancies that he’d initially ignored, but that now fit into a chain of critical importance.
That’s when Silas realized what his key advantage, based on having an actual body and not simply being a program, must be. There was no way to confirm what he now suspected to be true, but it was his greatest hope of saving everyone. No other course of action lay before him, so he leaped to the attack.
Silas turned his Cat so that it headed towards the tank rather than evading it. He calculated that if Zethos felt that he would be able to kill him in the next few moments, he’d be more likely to hold off on opening the hangar doors and allowing the Mutates inside. That, coupled with Stephen’s refusal to verify which side he was going to follow, might stay Zethos’ hand long enough for Silas to put his theory to the test.
The tank came into sight, and Silas threw the Cat into evasive maneuvers. To cover his true intent, he opened fire with the Cat’s weapons, spraying the tank and its surrounding area with impressive, though ultimately futile, fire. What the tank lacked in maneuverability it more than made up for with its heavily reinforced reactive armor and shielding. Zethos returned fire in an almost disdainful manner, and the Cat rocked from near misses.
Silas increased the rate of his maneuvers, trying to get as close as possible to the tank before the inevitable took place, and his plan would be revealed. The fact that this decreased the rate at which his own shots hit home mattered not in the least.
Once Silas’ Cat had reached nearly point-blank range he turned it straight towards the tank and pushed the throttle to full. In line with both men’s plans, Zethos targeted Silas’ Cat and opened fire with overwhelming force, punching through the Cat’s relatively thin armor and shredding it instantly. Silas was unflinchingly seated inside, strapped into his apparent doom.
Silas had indeed refused to keep playing Zethos’ game, and it seemed inescapable that the result of that decision was to sacrifice his life to no end.
CHAPTER 8: KNOW THYSELF
Zethos’ smirk of triumph turned to a look of pure shock. Silas seemed, impossibly, to have been thrown clear of the blast unscathed. Further, he was continuing on the very path that the Cat had been travelling at high speed, right at the tank. While virtual Zethos struggled to comprehend what he was seeing, part of it rejected what it was seeing as impossible, and another part was certain that Silas would smash against the powerful armor of the tank and be crushed like a mosquito against a windshield.
A small part of his mind was concerned that if the Tank’s weapons hadn’t so much as scratched Silas, its armor wouldn’t fare any better.
However, as Silas had anticipated, there wasn’t enough time for any real response. The tank, obeying the physical laws of the real world that had been transplanted into this virtual reality, had too much momentum to turn aside, and its operator had too little time to take any action but to plow ahead.
What Silas had realized was that the odds of three powerful blasts striking so close to him that he was pushed around by them, but doing absolutely no damage to him physically, were so low as to be nearly impossible. The fact that that was what had seemed to happen, therefore, meant that something else was going on. Silas had bet everything, his life the lives of everyone he cared about, and the very future of humanity, on what that something else was.
While the tank’s armor, had it been real, would have been able to plow through a solid brick wall without a scratch, the program that constituted only a representation of that armor gave way before Silas as if it were gossamer. This resulted in Silas crashing into Zethos’ virtual “body” with his momentum intact. The tank gave way completely, and the two men ended up rolling on the ground, an impact that drove the breath from Zethos but left Silas unaffected.
Nonetheless, Zethos came into a crouch, refusing to allow the pain he was feeling to stop him. “I don’t know what trick you used to do that, but it won’t work against me.”
Silas nodded. “You’re right, it won’t. I don’t intend to trick you. As you did with me, so I will now use the greatest weapon there is: the truth.”
With that Silas leapt forward, apparently to the attack. Zethos countered with a crushing blow aimed at his head. But Silas had no intention of assaulting what lay before him, instead pulling up and simply making contact with the fist headed his way.
At that touch he began to infiltrate the program in front of him. Initially he met frenzied resistance, but he instantly made it clear that he had no intention of doing anything at this point but communicating the truth. Building walls to prevent any destruction of its core structure, the program allowed that truth to flood into it, preparing to deride Silas for not attempting to press his momentary advantage by attempting to deconstruct it, override its control over Haven’s systems, or otherwise take aggressive action.
Of course, at his heart Silas was a scientist, and a healer, so such actions would have been to start playing the games Zethos was best at. For this reason he refused to even try any of these obvious strategies. Instead, he went with his instincts and used pure honesty as his weapon.
The truth Silas communicated was simple: the program standing before him wasn’t Zethos, and never had been. It had his memories, and his basic thought patterns, but no program could hold or emulate the human soul. That had passed on long since, and what remained was the merest shadow of the man it had thought itself to be.
The program was shocked to its very core, and tried to reject this truth. However, Silas patiently explained how he had come to this realization, and the method of contact between his mind and the program was such that no lies were possible. Silas set forth exactly how this deception had been built, and his suspicions as to why. He finished by explaining that to continue down this path was to be manipulated into following someone else’s agenda, which was something Zethos would never have allowed.
The program realized that there could be no glory here, no leading humanity anywhere, and that the only hope of anything of Zethos surviving past the next few moments lay in Silas himself.
And so the program allowed Silas to break it apart, tear it into its constituent elements and release its hold on Haven’s systems. And as Silas had promised, with that dissolution Zethos’ memories and thought patterns crashed into Silas’ mind, to be held there for so long as Silas would live.
Silas saw Zethos’ history and understood him on a level deeper than it should have been possible for one man to understand another.
Silas saw how Zethos had been abandoned as a small child, forced to make his way in an unforgiving world. Whether his parents had died or simply chosen to no longer bother with their young son was something Zethos never learned, but really it didn’t matter. If they died, then this was simply another way that they had failed him.
Silas learned how Zethos had been forced to scavenge for food and shelter, protect himself however he could from those who would take what was his or kill him just for their own sick pleasure. Zethos had learned that the world was hard and cruel, and only made sense when you forced it to. Silas had to admit that much of his own life confirmed these conclusions.
However, Zethos had also learned that kindness was weakness, and compassion a lie. He had seen the world through the twisted lens of his own anger and fear, never able to grant that someone else could mean him anything but harm or have any agenda but personal gain. Silas was able to see where Zethos had missed those who would have treated him well, where a modicum of trust and true loyalty might have opened him up to those who were truly good and compassionate. These memories and thoughts Silas was able to temper, and thus not lose the truest part of himself.
However, Silas did not pass through this process unchanged. He saw how Zethos had seized the initiative time and again, exuding confidence and strength that was magnetic and powerful. Silas had been the perfect Seeker because he had been open to following a path laid down by others, putting aside his own personal agendas in favor of theirs. He had cared for humanity as a whole, and been willing to sacrifice for the greater good time and again.
However, for all that these traits had been invaluable for so many years, now they were holding him back. He saw how he was too passive, too unwilling to push his own views above those of others even when he knew he was almost undoubtedly right. He opened himself up to the more aggressive elements of Zethos’ thought processes, while tempering them with his own instincts to help, heal and put others before himself.
When the process had ended Silas stood alone. He was tempted to leave this virtual realm, but knew that there was one last task he had to accomplish before he returned to his own body. He suspected that, while he could be readily stopped, he would be allowed to do what he must.
And so he created a virtual communications array and opened a channel to the control room. Stephen’s face appeared on-screen. “Report,” Silas said.
Stephen’s face lightened mildly in relief, which was all the confirmation Silas needed that he’d never wavered in his devotion, a devotion Silas now intended to be worth of. “We’ve just regained control of the defensive systems and doors. I’m not sure how.”
Silas responded with a smile. “I’ll explain later. For now, I want you to fire two warning shots, one in front of the Mutates and another behind them to show our power and that they’re well within range. I’ll see if I can get them to retreat. If not, open up with everything you’ve got.”
Stephen’s eyebrows rose in surprise at the decisive tone and decisions from Silas. “Acknowledged,” Stephen said, and went about obeying his commander’s orders.
CHAPTER 9: THE BATTLE FOR HAVEN
Silas set his virtual communications array to tap into the external cameras. He saw the two shots lance out, one detonating just short of the Mutate army, spraying it with dirt and rock, and the other landing well behind them. The Mutates flinched, and their advance stalled as they looked about in confusion. Silas knew from absorbing the Zethos program’s memories that they had been told that they’d face no opposition in their invasion.
Taking advantage of this pause, Silas opened a channel to the Mutate leader. “Halt your advance immediately and leave us alone,” he said in a tone of steel. “If you retreat you will be allowed to depart unharmed. If you continue to advance you will be destroyed.”
The mutate leader processed this demand and then responded with words that were slurred, but clearly filled with rage. “weee werrrr promisssed.”
Silas responded immediately, hoping to forestall a massacre. “Yes, you were, but the one who promised is gone. If you try to take this base then none of you will survive. You obviously have the ability to reason and plan. Use it and save those who follow you.”
The reptilian creature screamed in frustration, losing all of the rationality it had retained from its days as a human. It crushed the radio in its hands and lunged forward.
Silas shook his head at the unnecessary loss of life. Of course, none of these creatures could hope to survive for long, but they were throwing away what time they had left for no good reason.
His feelings did not cause him to hesitate however. “Destroy them,” he ordered, and Stephen obeyed.
The massive armaments protecting the hangar opened up on the charging mob. The initial salvo contained powerful missiles, which tore gaping holes in the attackers’ formation, ripping huge numbers of them apart. As they continued to advance, energy weapons added their power to the one-sided conflict and more Mutates fell, some sliced apart by lasers while others were instantly vaporized by high-energy plasma discharges.
As the ragged remains of the mutate forces charged ever closer, hidden doors sprang open, some cleverly concealed in the ground while others flanked the hangar doors themselves. Drones poured forth. These guardians did not tire, nor did they require food or water, so they could remain concealed indefinitely, ever-vigilant. Some were shaped like four-legged spiders, articulated legs moving them forward ahead of their fellows. The bodies suspended in the midst of those legs sported a variety of weapons: some tipped by buzz-saws, others by simple spikes that thrust out like spears. The arrayed themselves in a line, but spread out enough to allow the second line of drones to fire between them.
This second line of drones looked more like humans, with two limbs that acted like arms and two like legs. There the similarity ended, however. They had no heads, with their power supplies, command processors and sensors located in their thick torsos. Their legs consisted of two steel bars set at a 45 degree angle from each other, with the joint where they met folded in like the reverse of a human knee. The legs ended in heavy circular “feet” that could be set solidly on the ground so that they acted like mobile artillery. The drones set themselves in a second line back from the spider-like drones and aimed their “arms” at the advancing horde. Some of these arms crackled with electricity and other esoteric forms of energy. Others bristled with missiles or bullets aimed at the enemy charging to their doom.
Despite the variety of their shapes and weapons, all of the drones were deadly and heedless of their own safety, thus showing no fear or hesitation in the face of danger.
As the Mutates came into range of the energy weapons of the second line of drones, they opened up with lasers, pulse cannons and bullets, methodically ripping the leading edge of the horde apart. As those leading elements fell they were ground under foot, and the next wave absorbed crippling punishment until they too died.
And still the Mutates, now nearly mindless in their ferocity, pushed forward despite their hideous losses.
A handful of mutates crashed into the leading edge of the drone defenders, impaled and torn apart by the physical weaponry of the spider-drones. Even more Mutates surged forward and, despite the sturdy alloys with which the drones were composed, began ripping them apart. However, even this did not avail the attackers, as the remaining drones simply continued firing despite the presence of their brethren. The drones that were engaged in hand-to-hand combat willingly sacrificed themselves to pin their attackers in place for a few raw seconds, and accepted the withering fire directed at them.
A few Mutates placed the spider-drones directly between them and the second line of defenders. However, even this availed them nothing as those drones simply activated self-destruct mechanisms, which both removed the Mutates’ cover and injured them. This left them easy prey for the weaponry lashing out from the second line of drones.
One of the larger Mutates, shaped like a spider, tried to engage the second line of drones by leaping high over the first set of drones. However, this tactic failed as well, as a handful of drones simply directed their weapons up at the leaping menace while the base’s heavy weaponry was easily able to target the Mutate while it was in the air and unable to dodge. It crashed to earth lifeless, mere feet from its goal.
Finally, a gelid liquid sprayed out from some of the drones, setting the remaining Mutates on fire, reducing them to ash and char with incredible speed.
In moments nothing remained alive outside the hangar doors. The remaining drones picked up the pieces of their fallen comrades and returned to Haven, there to be decontaminated and repaired or replaced until Haven’s defenses could be reconstituted to full power.
The battle for Haven was over, and none of the Mutates had so much as reached the hangar doors.
Silas, however, knew that the most challenging task may well lie ahead of him. He had to confront the one who was truly responsible for everything that had happened that day.
CHAPTER 10: INHUMAN
“Caretaker!” Silas yelled, and instantly the holographic image appeared before him.
“And what can I do for you?” he asked Silas.
“I want to know why you did all of this,” Silas responded, “and how. I want to hear it from you directly.”
The Caretaker nodded, suddenly as serious as Silas had ever seen it. “Very well. I’ll start with the how.”
“The secondary program was correct that in taking control of Zethos’ nervous system the nanites mapped out his memories and thought patterns. However, I was not so careless as to allow that to create a wholly independent entity, at least not until I decided it was beneficial. Once I did, I was able to fashion a program from that information, cause it to believe that it was Zethos, and allow it to perform its function.”
Silas’ temper was rising, but he held it in check. “And so you instructed it to kill Joshua? Call the Mutates? Seize control of vital systems?”
The Caretaker did not back down in the least. “Once I allowed it its freedom I did not know exactly what it would do, but I certainly had an extremely accurate understanding of what its essential course of action would involve. I had to give it its autonomy, and allow the danger you faced to be real. I estimated a nearly 90% chance that you would prevail with only minimal losses.”
“But why? It was my understanding that your goal is to support and further humanity’s survival. Why would you risk the destruction of Haven or the death of any of its personnel?” Silas’ temper began to break. “And how the hell can you consider the loss of a good man a minimal loss?”
“As to why,” the Caretaker explained, “the reason was you. And I think you know why already. You weren’t taking charge like you needed to and, more to the point, like humanity needed you to. I determined that the greater danger was in you allowing humanity to drift. Eventually that would result in schisms, and almost certainly counter-productive competition. I had to change that, and this seemed to be the only way to bring about that change quickly enough.”
“But if you knew I wasn’t an effective leader, why not simply demand my replacement!?” Silas exploded. “Stephen could have . . . .”
The Caretaker cut Silas off. “Stephen was helpless in the face of a crisis of this magnitude. You saw that. Without your response to the Zethos program Haven would be under assault, and most likely utterly destroyed. No one else has your intelligence, your strength of body and mind, your flexibility and your capability to handle crises so effectively.”
Due to this response Silas’ anger was tempered by confusion. “Now it sounds like you’re saying I’m a good leader. You can’t have it both ways.”
The Caretaker nodded. “You were the best available option. Unfortunately I have determined that humanity is a mass of contradictions. What is necessary flexibility in one situation becomes unacceptable indecisiveness in another. While you handle crises effectively, this could well result in humanity careening from one disaster to another. You needed to absorb the positive elements of Zethos’ aggressiveness and proactive nature without losing the basic decency and sense of self-sacrifice so necessary to guiding humanity on the right path.”
“I believe the saying is ‘no one is perfect,’” the Caretaker continued. More fundamentally, no one can embody every good thing. Strength in one area is always balanced by weakness in another. However, at this point in human history, there has to be someone with more strengths than ever seen before. That has to be you.”
As Silas struggled to absorb this, the Caretaker completed his explanation. “When I saw that the efforts of your most trusted and loved companions were making insufficient head-way I had no choice but to treat it as a software problem. Only by setting up a conflict whose resolution required you to absorb those elements of Zethos’ personality that you lacked could I achieve this necessary goal.”
Silas nodded thoughtfully, but his anger was still seething beneath the surface. “While I understand what you did and why you did it I cannot accept that a computer program, however complex and advanced, has the right to make such crucial decisions and take such risks with humanity’s future.”
Rather than being offended or appearing to be menaced by this proclamation, the Caretaker took on his rather sardonic expression. “You saw first-hand my level of autonomy and willingness to kill when I decided it was the proper course of action almost immediately after encountering me. However, what have you done all these months to forestall this obvious threat to your ability to make the decisions that will most directly impact your followers?”
Silas was not only forced to acknowledge this failing, he had realized it within moments of absorbing and processing Zethos’ thought patterns. Zethos would never have allowed such a threat to his leadership to go unchallenged. This was why Silas had remained in this virtual landscape.
Silas did not see that further delay would be advantageous, so he immediately lashed out at the Caretaker. The holographic representation within this virtual world was directly connected to its core programming, which made it vulnerable to the type of manipulation that had allowed Silas to create the virtual weaponry used in his battle with the Zethos program. Silas knew that the Caretaker could have defended itself in any number of ways. It could have withdrawn in an instant. It could have erected barriers, or shifted its programming so as to resist Silas’ efforts. It could most likely have simply reversed its earlier procedure and sent Silas back into the physical world.
The Caretaker did none of these things. In fact, it did not even indulge the human instinct of flinching away from Silas’ darting assault. The Caretaker remained precisely where it was, totally exposed, as Silas reprogrammed it by direct neural input so that it would not be able to take any steps to endanger Haven, its inhabitants other bases or any of those who followed Silas without Silas’ direct, specific permission to do so.
The process was inherently complex, and on top of the day’s other exertions and realizations, Silas was exhausted once it was completed. His haggard expression, coupled with the Caretaker’s small, knowing smile, made it appear that it was the Caretaker who had prevailed.
Which, Silas reflected, was most likely closest to the truth.
CHAPTER 11: THE RETURN
“Return me to my body now,” Silas ordered, and the Caretaker obeyed.
Silas blinked leaden eyes, taking in the nerve center and finally removing his hands from the keyboard. His arms and legs felt numb, and then were seized with the pins-and-needles sensation of restored circulation. He attempted to stand, and virtually fell into Rebecca’s arms as she caught him.
He looked up at her. “You saw?” he asked, his voice scratchy and rough.
“Yes,” she said gently, “and I couldn’t be more proud.”
Silas looked into her liquid eyes and a heartfelt smile blossomed across his face, though a smile tinged with sadness. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I’m amazed that you didn’t give up on me. I didn’t realize how much I was avoiding my duty. I . . . .”
Rebecca forestalled his appeal. “I know your heart. I also knew that you would find the strength to do what was needed. I always trusted you and believed in you, I was just waiting for you to learn to trust yourself.”
Rebecca then adopted a smile of her own. “And if I see you backsliding, I’ll understand now that it will just take a pulse blast to snap you out of it.”
Silas chuckled and then straightened, though Rebecca kept one arm supporting him. “I feel like I could sleep for a week, but I’ll just take a couple of hours to clear my head. Then, there are things I’ve been neglecting that I’d best attend to.”
With that, Silas and Rebecca left the nerve center, Silas’ mind continuing to process all he had learned, melding it all into a new person the likes of which he had never imagined possible.
CHAPTER 12: COMMAND
By the following day much was different. The reverse tug-of-war between Silas and Stephen had evaporated, with Silas clearly assuming command of Haven and, by extension, humanity’s future. While Stephen was second in command and had Silas’ trust and great discretion to take those actions he felt necessary, there was no longer a question of who was in charge. The difference was subtle but unmistakable.
Silas had ordered the construction of specialized drones, ones that would scout the areas surrounding the various bases quickly, efficiently and with tremendous stealth. He gave additional Orders designed to increase the pace of preparations for the unknown day when humanity would walk to surface of the earth once again without fear of the tiniest of invaders destroying it from within.
Oddly, despite the increased pace and responsibilities, the overall effect was to reduce tension. People now had a more solid sense that their future was under control and in the hands of someone who they trusted. This made a tremendous difference, and a new sense of optimism was growing.
As for Silas, he was in his quarters opening a secure communications link. He knew that he had a critical responsibility, one he had been avoiding. It had taken him some time to sort through contradictory responses to the situation, those urged by his former self and those presented by the memories and thought patterns of Zethos. He now felt that he had worked through a path that incorporated the best of both approaches.
It wasn’t exactly a middle ground, more like a strategy that melded aggression with compassion to execute the best solution for all involved.
After too long of a delay Sarah’s face appeared on his screen, already set in its trademark harsh lines and ready for another round of defending her approach to creating viable crops.
Silas intended for this to be the last round.
As Sarah opened her mouth Silas spoke first, a move that caused Sarah to jolt back a few centimeters.
“I see that you’ve still made no progress, and done nothing to incorporate the research I sent you. This delay is intolerable.”
Sarah clumsily attempted to seize control of the conversation. “I’ve told you, I’m certain that we’re close to a massive breakthrough . . . .”
Silas broke in, his voice like a shiny knife cutting into vulnerable flesh. “And I’ve told you that you’re wrong. Apparently my attempts to do this subtly have failed, so listen closely.”
Silas leaned closer to the camera conveying his face across the many miles to Ager base. His eyes were as sharp and merciless as a shark’s, and Sarah couldn’t help but wonder if that DNA lay within him. This unexpected demeanor left her unable to break in, so her mouth hung slightly open while no words came forth.
“Your assignment is absolutely critical to our continued existence. You have been wasting resources that are irreplaceable, both in terms of equipment and personnel. While I appreciate and value your own skills, if you continue to waste time, people and opportunities because of your childish insistence on your own theories then you are acting, however unintentionally, as humanity’s enemy.”
“Understand this,” Silas said, giving her not an inch, “your conduct will not continue. Your only choice is whether this stops because you come to your senses and act rationally, or whether it ends because you are removed from your position. You will choose before this conversation ends, and I do not intend to be on this call for long.”
Silas paused to give what he had said a chance to sink in and for Sarah to respond. She realized that her mouth was hanging open, and closed it. She then swallowed, licked her lips, and tried another feeble defense.
“I’m the best qualified, chosen to command this effort. You can’t . . . .”
Her voice trailed off as she saw that Silas was not backing down in the least, and no longer sure that he couldn’t do anything. He obliged that concern.
“Wrong. I’m the one person who can travel on the surface safely. I can get in a Cat and be at Ager before you know it. If I have to personally go in there and haul you off your high horse I’ll do it. I can not allow your personal sense of pique to delay efforts critical to our survival. I’d much prefer you be with us, which is why I’m having this conversation at all, and why I’m having it with just the two of us, but if you force a confrontation I can promise you that I’ll be the one walking away from it.”
Sarah’s mind was whirling. Nothing she’d seen from Silas that had indicated she could face such words and actions. Her defenses crumbling, she retreated with as much dignity as she could muster. “Perhaps I’ve been hasty to dismiss your hybridization theories. We’ll begin exploring those options immediately. If it’s okay, I can continue my research on cellular structure during my, umm, limited down time.”
Silas sat back, the harsh expression leaving his face and replaced by a smile. “I’m so glad you see things this way. I certainly enjoy time spent in my own lab, exploring personal theories, so I can hardly begrudge you that. However, I expect to see Ager’s main resources devoted to more promising avenues of research, and anticipate steady progress in the coming weeks.”
Sarah seemed to regain her footing to some degree, but was clearly aware of how quickly Silas could remove it again. Having secured his victory, he gave her yet another sop to her dignity. “Now, I’m sure that you’re quite busy, so unless there’s something else you need to discuss I’ll let you get back to work.”
“No sir,” she said, “nothing else.”
With that the connection was severed.
Rebecca stepped forward. She’d remained silent and unseen by Sarah, but had heard everything and seen Silas’ face during the exchange. “Do you think there will be any further problems?” she asked.
Silas shook his head. “I doubt it. Still, I’ve overridden her computer security codes which will allow me to inspect Ager’s computer records and view them the security cameras. I’ll peek in from time to time just to make sure, and I’ve ordered the Caretaker to keep watch and let me know if it appears that she’s surreptitiously trying to avoid putting my ideas into action.”
Silas stood up and stretched. “For now I’m going to head down to my own labs. I kind of liked how that personal shield functioned, and I’m going to see if I can fabricate some of the components from scratch.”
Rebecca smiled, reassured that the core of the man she loved remained as solid as ever despite the changes he’d recently undergone.
Matters were now truly in the right hands, and she trusted in Silas’ Command without hesitation. Humanity’s chance of survival had just increased tremendously, which made this a very good day.
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