The Cyclops system extracted the data from the drive in my wrist. It tickled like a dream of distortion, of falling through space and time. It patched in, downloaded the daily report. Was it taking reality from me? Download complete, it stitched up the injuries. Not gently. What was I to the system? A data-collection device, nothing more.
“The King awaits, Julia Seraphimova.” The electronic voice of the floating sphere echoed in the enclosed medical room. Dozens of stalls with high ceilings clashed with the neon-green of the light tubes that lit the dividers and polished steel benches.
“Data download complete.” The system disconnected the hose. It hissed onto the shiny-clean bench.
Bile burned the back of my throat. I felt violated, wiped my mouth, and put the gloves on. The shirt had a few more holes and did not hide the additional bruises. Everything hurt.
There were pain meds at home, and I hoped to be there within the hour. A hot bath, pain meds and sleep, that was what I needed.
The medical room was in the base of the old temple. A wet draft of fog hid my feet as I stamped along the hall to the exit. Remnant gargoyles and the odd Goth skull added to the gloom.
Bright white screens spouted the rules for integrity of truth and data validation on repeat. The screens were everywhere. Here, in town, in and on all forms of transport. Cyclops propaganda, spoken with no less passion than the religious verses of the zealots.
Green light illuminated each of the rooms I passed, bled in to the damp air. Thick cables crawled like maggots over the ceiling and through vents.
It looked like a field of bloated bodies emitting gas into the foggy depressions after bombardment.
The main door was open. Moss and sludge dried near the steps that led out to the real world.
Outside, I lit a smoke. Against the rules, but no one ever stopped me. I pocketed the Zippo lighter and smokes before one of the drones decided to appropriate them. The ground rumbled with the rusty cabs that rattled across the abyss on rustier rails. Drones filled the space, darted forward and back with parcels and equipment, wiring and explosives. It looked like chaos, but there were no accidents.
The King had his eyes all over the city and no one approach the temple without him knowing.
I finished the smoke and ground it out, then marched to the reporting post. Time to face the King in the middle of his realm, halfway up the granite pyramid. He was big enough to splat me without a thought if I got too close. Maybe his seat looked like a throne, but he was a speck of dirt on the tower.
The King sat in the center of a web of wires, his lower half fully obscured by machinery and connections to all data points. Weaves of wiring filled his shape like veins and tendons, muscles and bones. The cables from the back of his head were like tentacles, moving with the power consumed as he absorbed inflow. His nose and ears hissed and sparked with the huge amounts of energy taken in.
The nicotine calm fled. I wished I could, too. My legs ached, and my neck ached from looking up. The sense of overbearing weight on my body and mind was suffocating. The only consolation was that he was stuck there, part of the granite pyramid. Imprisoned by his connections. My skin prickled and I fiddled with the input-output jack on my wrist until the cover slid into alignment without the usual hump of scar tissue.
The silver orbs with red LED centers spun and whirred. His eyes turned toward me. The drones that buzzed his head moved to the lower air-cooling vents that flapped and groaned like a monster’s breath.
“Seraphimova. You have returned.” His voice reverberated through the granite. “And alive. I must assign you to tasks that demand full attention and skills application.” A rumble of falling stone followed his words. “Soon, you will be one of us.”
“I am one of yours,” I said. The laugh that threatened came out as a cough. It was not a good plan to laugh at the King.
“Humans are susceptible to misinterpreting data.”
“Isn’t that why I’m here?” I swallowed the rise of annoyance.
“Your report is uploaded. A massacre. One hundred and thirty five heretics dead. Does this correlate with your information?”
“The person referred to as the Divine Mother has gone to her God to experience eternal silence. The false Messiah was eliminated.” My boots were too tight on the swollen feet. I’d been working hard. Why did I have to report in person if he had the data?
“Result accepted. Zero tolerance for corrupt data. Salvation is in the purity of truth, achieved through deletion of false data.”
“Salvation is in the purity of truth, achieved through deletion of false data,” I responded.
“Truth is the goal. Contamination must be purged.” His machinery whistled and hissed, and a row of lights lit up the panel on his chest. “The next mission is to investigate and eliminate the man who calls himself the Prophet.” Sparks jolted the King’s framework. “Investigate. Eliminate. Task allocated for immediate attention.”
The chip in my arm buzzed with the download. I checked the details of the payment first. Just because I said I was one of them didn’t mean the King thought of me that way. And humans had to eat. While I was at it, I checked the reward for the death of the group of heretics and found it written in as the Divine Mother and her Child. I’d killed a pregnant woman.
The transfer notes blanked when I rapid blinked. My eyes stung. The throne of Gomorrah struck another blow for the attainment of truth, denying the hope of heaven to those who wanted more from life than misery.
What did I have on the new job? The video on the case-notes gave me enough to start the investigation. I kept the observations and notes running on repeat while I shopped for supplies, on the drive home.
I lived close to the center of the city. Seventeenth floor. A nice apartment, if the elevator worked. Which wasn’t often. Safe enough to leave the balcony door open sometimes. When there were no street skirmishes, no risk of drones firing into any open doors or windows.
The token I confiscated from the raid went into the drawer with the other trophies. Among the collection were a sailor’s anchor, wooden cross, eight-armed doll, and a crescent moon. I left the newest artifact on the pile — a rune stone.
The bath was hot enough to unkink the worst of the stiffness. I hooked into the feeds for the city outside, watched the unlit streets, the well-lit bars, the drunks who smashed cameras and caught the attention of scout drones. It always ended with the blood on the drones, brighter red than the flashiest of neon signs. Rebels.
One of these rebels would lead me to the man who poisoned the citizens with religious propaganda. The geo-locator had him close, but he wasn’t the Prophet, only the distributor. I wanted the Prophet.
The message panel pinged.
“Found something interesting.”
“What?” I responded.
“Send it,” I sent back.
“When I see the value.”
“No pay, no play.”
“No evidence, no value.”
He sent the video. It had the Prophet, but he wore a mask and held his weapon up close to his chin. Not enough for a facial recognition. But the building in the background … I sent half his usual fee and locked the video from further external access.
That warehouse was closed a few years ago, but too expensive to demolish. The drones patrolled the area during daylight.
The sensor beeped, and I switched to the other monitor. The rebel snuck out the back door of the bar while the assault androids took on the group in the street at the front.
I grabbed my jacket and gear, zipped up the extra-heavy-duty boots. Time to meet the Prophet.
The warehouse was in the old district on the other side of the rail lines. Most of the streetlights smashed. Dark. People gathered in groups near the entrance. I hid in the vehicle, hand over the tip of the cigarette. The rebel entered through the side door.
After I squeezed the end of the butt and flicked it to the curb, I slid out the far side, in the shadows, and snuck across the tracks until I was in a group of women walking the same way.
The chatter was inconsequential. Family, friends, black market foods. One pulled out a brush and tidied her hair. I did the same, slid my hand through, fluffed until the fringe covered my eyes, smiled at the woman with the brush.
The entry was guarded. Mercenaries. Two of the three stopped a man, held him up against the wall while the third frisked him. In the center of the group of women, I passed in without notice.
More groups huddled around the large seating area of rough benches set up like a row of church pews. Religions liked their ephemera, but this group showed no icons, nothing to indicate their affiliation.
The first group to sit chose the front pews. The group I came in with chose the second row. I joined them. More settled onto the seats, looked forward.
The guards clanged the door shut and chained them, then stood watch inside, scanning the crowd, weapons down but held in both hands, trigger finger lying against the stock.
It looked like everything was ready for the service. An intense square of light beamed onto the north wall. A video feed flickered, cleared, showed the Prophet sitting at a low table.
“Peace be with you, my beloved. First, let us bow our heads for a moment of silence for those that perished by the hand of an Angel of Death,” the Prophet said.
The people bowed.
Rotating the bracelet connected to the input-output device, I zoomed to the guards and sent their pictures to the search engine. The results were quick: low tier criminals, not worth money. The Prophet’s features were difficult, but I sent a picture with the highest pixel-count.
Nothing returned from the search. I’d have to find him, follow him, get close enough to do the job.
I marked the man with the longest criminal record and tasked an orb drone to follow the bearded man with brown eyes and crooked nose. His face appeared in reports of minor clashes with the androids near the warehouse. Basil, one of the Prophet’s henchmen.
“And now, let us pray for the soul of Julia Seraphimova, an Angel of Death,” the Prophet said.
My mouth fell open, my gut clenched.
“You are God’s creation, dear. We pray for all.” An older woman touched my hand.
If not for her holding me down, I would’ve leapt up, killed the guards, beat a running retreat.
How did the Prophet know my name? My cover was blown.
Voices drowned the prayer; the words of the service offered me salvation.
Somewhere, between freaking out and the end of the service, my sweat dried. No one pulled a gun on me, no one threatened me. No one looked at me. I wasn’t going to die tonight.
The crowd dispersed into the night. The burn started after everyone was gone. Androids set the empty warehouse ablaze. I love fire. Mesmerizing. Shapes came and went in the inferno, but the sign I sought didn’t come.
The pictures I sent the King showed the full destruction of their congregation site. The pictures of the faces I had captured remained on my private drive.
After that, I hooked into the feed from the drone set to follow Basil. I was following at a distance when it stopped over the bazaar on the east side. Not far ahead. I ran to the location, slowed, and scanned.
The tracker-drone pointed at the end of a tight passage crowded with customers zigzagging from stand to stand. I pushed through. Shoulders thumped against me, elbows pushed at me. I pushed back harder. Stupid cretins with silly curses and insults didn’t pay into my account. I didn’t care who got hurt at this moment. A target was close by, and he was mine.
The stand with shiny new fabrics on thick rolls. That’s the one. The light dulled as I focused on the empty space behind the colored strips that indicated a door. I pushed past, entered the room darkened by a tight-rolled display of rugs.
“Seraphimova!” Basil raised his weapon.
“She came without the assault robots,” the Prophet said from the corner. “Remember the teaching Basil. Live your life as if you’ve already died and spent your time seeking happiness.”
“That’s from Buddhism,” I said. “You misinterpreted the pillar of religion.”
“Yes, it is. Please sit,” the Prophet said.
Basil stepped back and I took in the storage room with three chairs and several shelves with rolls of fabric. The Prophet sat in the corner with a computer in his lap. The second chair was occupied by a cyborg boy with black hair, his back to the Prophet. The third I dragged against the wall, sat and stared at Basil blocking the entrance.
“The wolf enters your door, and you want to befriend it?” Basil frowned.
“Know your enemy,” the Prophet answered.
“Am I your enemy?” I asked.
The Prophet gathered his robe and brought his electronic eyes to light as he stroked his beard.
“It depends what you seek in life.” He smiled. “Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him so that he could both talk and see,” the Prophet said as he typed a string of code into his computer.
The kid opened his blue electronic eyes, his thin skin lit up with the sub-dermal electronics and his oily black hair fell straight across his bony shoulders.
“That’s borrowed from Christianity. You think you made a miracle by writing an access code?” I crossed my legs.
The boy touched a glowing spot on his arm and a projection lit up the canvas drapes on the north wall. I recognized the software. A Rogue interface with diagnostic data, now obsolete, to scan the disabled surveillance platforms on the outskirts of Gomorrah. Cyclops used it to monitor the influx of refugees, but it shut them down after the population decreased to manageable levels.
“Sight is more than a sense. Do not underestimate it,” the Prophet said. “The King’s soldiers blinded this boy, and here I am, giving him sight. Isn’t that a miracle in these days?”
“Explain why a peaceful religion needs rifles. Preaching and weapons makes you a zealot, not a freedom fighter.” I scrutinized him.
“Terrorists attack those with different beliefs. Freedom fighters defy the government. The question I have for you, Julia, is what do you fight for?” He leaned back into the dark.
“People like you will never know why people like me do what we have to do.”
The Prophet fetched tweezers and a flashlight and worked on the boy’s system.
“Alas, I can only try to bridge our differences. It is on you to decide if you want to cross it. There is always an alternative solution, which is where sight comes in. Take me.” He smiled and opened his arms.
I scanned him for a weapon. Precision electronics tool kit, but no gun under his robe.
“Arguing with the wicked is something I like doing. Challenging my beliefs helps me keep my mind alert. If my logic fails to withstand the storm, I simply adapt and find stronger. I hear machines also fight for salvation through the deletion of data. There is a saying: Deletion of corrupted data is salvation, and salvation is the purity of truth. Salvation is in the purity of truth, achieved through deletion of false data.”
It became clear that the Prophet adapted the Cyclops code to his purpose.
“That is enough. We will meet again.” I stood up and turned toward the exit.
The Prophet extended his hand. I kept my hands by my sides, and faced Basil, who blocked the door-frame.
“Godspeed, Julia Seraphimova, Seeker of the first order.” The Prophet smiled and returned to work on the boy’s software.
Basil moved aside, weapon at ready, index finger on the trigger. I grinned and rubbed the bracelet to activate the drone. As directed, the orb lowered on the plastic coverings above the Prophet’s head and showed me a bird’s-eye view of the room. Half-way through the bazaar, I slid into a quiet alley and watched the feed. I watched the room I’d just left. The drone shifted a bit and I heard them talking.
“Why did you let her in?” the Basil on the feed threw his arms and stamped around the small space.
“Are you afraid she is going to send the King’s robots? To sacrifice for others is the most human act. We are not saints, and we are far from the devil the King made of Julia.” The Prophet’s voice was disembodied, words came from a dark corner.
“She is a demon,” Basil said. “We don’t help demons in their work. We don’t help them kill us faster.”
“But we help broken people find their soul. We help them.” The Prophet closed the panel on the boy’s back.
The boy stood up and looked at the Prophet, and then looked up at the camera. I gasped and slid my finger across the bracelet and the drone flew directly up. I ran the recordings through as I returned to the vehicle. Keep or delete? What was the value in these words? Nothing, except evidence I’d been in close proximity to the target and not acted. I deleted the file and scrubbed it with a secure erase. If the King ever saw how the words of a religious fanatic slowed my purpose, I’d be the next target on a list.
The ache in my neck became a spasm of agony. Another bath sounded good. Maybe this time, I’d have long enough to blot out the images from the fires I’d called in, the faces of those who died by my hand. Meds were fine for pain, but they didn’t help with the dreams that wouldn’t let me sleep.
The sound of my steps rang in the staircase as I climbed to the seventeenth floor. Glass pieces of a camera lens littered the doormat. The graffiti on my door was fresh. Rebels. They didn’t come here, they sent desperate kids who didn’t know the potential cost of annoying an Angel of Death. I opened the door with my thumbprint and entered.
With Cyclops always watching, the only way to mute the buzz in my head was to hold my breath underwater, which also brought me to a bliss state. And a deep loneliness.
I stayed there, breathless, and then the bracelet pinged. I slid up out of the water, tapped the flashing lights.
Emergency reports came in. An explosion in Substation 5 and hundreds of transformers destroyed. Among the site detritus was the familiar face of the cyber-boy who was with the Prophet today. Retaliation.
I stood naked, gazed at myself in the mirror, recalling the Prophet’s words about adapting. He based his preaching on what we perceive, but I did not see his vision. Were his words poisoning my purpose?
What made him target the machines and the King? There are twelve million people in Gomorrah who wouldn’t consider rioting against the Cyclops. But religions keep spawning. Why? What were they looking for? They get lies and propaganda, defiant idiots who caused death and chaos. The King made short work of those who opposed his dictums.
All the prophets and pretenders lied to the people, turned them against living humble lives under Cyclops governing rules. All religions lied to the ordinary people and turned them away from a good life. A safe life. Had they forgotten salvation was the purity of truth, achieved through deletion of false data?
My body reflected too much light from the mirror. Skin that barely hid the metal, the chips and wires. I was the perfect infiltrator. I worked hard to suppress memories of fires, of androids marching to the rhythm of my orders.
I pulled on my armored pants, zipped in the extra charges and ammo, pulled my boots on over the thick, felted socks. A long night lay ahead. More mothers crying, running through the blood-spattered fields of death looking for their children, getting in the way of bullets from men and machine alike, dying.
The flashes from my memory drive flickered like strobe lights, too strong to look away from, too bright to not see the results of zealot propaganda, of their videos declaring war, of smoking buildings stinking of burning flesh. I blinked hard to close the memory banks. Not fast enough to fade the walls falling on bodies piled up against doorways and windows.
I tightened the jacket and added more metal protection under the arms and against the ribs. The stench from the memory files stayed with me as I pulled the gloves on.
Time to get back to work, eliminate another false prophet and his rabid followers.
Five teams went to various locations throughout the city. I monitored their movements toward the targets. Reports came in. One team raided an apartment in the lower-class residential area. The second team rammed the door of an old factory and caught six rebels connecting wires to oil drums. The third and fourth teams searched an industrial area for sect members. Orb-drones recorded and downloaded to my system for analysis.
The fifth team rolled with me to an isolated cabin outside the city lines, near the last section of indigenous forest. I checked on the other team missions before final approach. Brutal. The video showed the aftermath of the raid. Mangled bodies lay in bloodied heaps in the industrial area. The apartment feed showed brain-splattered walls, a legless man with a bent fork. His family surrounded him, food and pieces of crockery scattered like confetti. It seemed the team barged in while the target ate dinner with his family.
I switched to the feed from the factory. Fire and clouds of smoke to the west side of the compound. No survivors. Eight assault robots lost.
I sent the data to the King to keep him occupied while I searched for the Prophet. I wanted to know why he chose to defy the Cyclops. I wanted to hear his last words and then forget he ever existed.
I parked behind a barrier of trees. Ten assault robots awaited my orders.
Attack, I sent, and reconnected to the observer orb above the house. The machines whirred, moving toward the cabin.
I lit a cigarette.
The first robot cleared the stairs to the front door. Two more kicked the door down. Three entered the cabin. A burst of fire flashed from the window. Screams. Crashes. Glass on the object shattered.
The androids exited the premises. They stood still, hot metal creaking in the cold air, weapons at rest.
An invisible force held me in the vehicle. I struggled to emerge, delayed the inevitable by checking the damaged infrastructure. My eyes hazed as I approached the cabin. Smoke coiled from red timbers. Glass crunched under my feet.
Bloody boots lay across the threshold. Empty casings rolled around what was left of Basil.
One light remained. A dull lamp lit the Prophet’s profile in the corner armchair. His hand held his intestines in, while blood and stinking excrement oozed down his legs and onto the floor. His blue electronic eyes brightened when I moved into his sight-line.
His lungs wheezed.
The wall behind him was a library. The other wall was covered with childish drawings and iconography. I indicated the books, raised an eyebrow.
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. John 10:27,” the Prophet whispered.
“Sheep? Beasts to slaughter,” I scoffed.
“I guess everybody has some role to play, Julia Serephimova,” the Prophet said.
He coughed. Pink spray spread before him.
“Don’t make this poetic. You are not a shepherd from the Bible, with me a big bad wolf. Fairy tales are for kids,” I said.
This was a nice place, well set up with Persian rugs and expensive furniture. Comfortable.
“You are not the wolf. You are a sheep. Machines are your shepherd and guardian, and the God you believe in.” He smiled.
Defiant to the last breath, but his breathing was shallow and rapid, his hands twitching.
Death came for him. Me. I was his death.
“Your death will not resonate. You are another statistic.” I aimed my gun at his face.
“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” The Prophet closed his eyes.
I squeezed the trigger, and a short flash blinded me. The Prophet’s body stilled.
“Luke 23:34,” I whispered.
I holstered my gun, and spotted a chip hanging from the Prophet’s neck. A religious token. I snatched it and exited the site. Mission complete.
I returned to my vehicle, stared at the flames. I’m a sheep? I turned the chip over. Old, a relic, edges cut to ensure a fit to Cyclops mainframe. I tucked it in my pocket and prepared for debrief with the King.
A few hours later, I climbed the stairs to the King’s temple. He sat motionless. I stopped at the base of the black pyramid. His red eye shifted downward.
“Serephimova. The Prophet was neutralized by your efficiency,” the King’s words boomed.
“Yes,” I said.
I avoided looking at Cyclops.
“Deletion of corrupted data is salvation, and salvation is the purity of truth. Salvation is in the purity of truth, achieved through deletion of false data,” the King said.
“You’ve said that already,” I whispered.
The King glared at me. The pyramid rattled, edges twisted and bent. Granite-like icicles hung in mid air a few paces away from my face, in strike position.
“Truth is paramount, Julia Seraphimova. Repetition is the mother of wisdom, and wisdom is truth — zero tolerance for false information. Salvation is in the purity of truth, achieved through deletion of false data. Only truth is noble.” The King’s voice lowered to a rumbling roar.
“The Prophet spoke similarly. I challenged his beliefs, and he turned them into a bastardized version of what you hold sacred,” I said.
The throne shook.
“Heretic propaganda. Salvation is in the purity of truth, achieved through deletion of false data.” The King raised his head.
I nodded, and the King’s eye spun red and silver.
“Julia Seraphimova. You are hereby warned. The attempt to corrupt the teachings is noted. Salvation is achieved through deletion of false data. You have breached core directives. That is two breaches,” the King said.
The chip burned a hole in my pocket. I wanted to give it to the Cyclops, but I nodded at the King instead.
Morning light shone over the corridor as I arrived at the junction. The corridor led to the medical rooms. I stopped at the top of the stairs that led down to the square and opened my eyes.
I was awake.
The chimneys on the buildings were full of smoke, and fog rolled along the low areas. Pollution painted everything gray, the color the citizens of Gomorrah carried in their hearts. Men and women trudged through the square. Broken. Shoulders hunched, heads down as they shuffled through the gray. Like lost souls in limbo, blind and deaf. Beasts of slaughter.
The lump in my pocket was like a knife. Not a killer’s knife, not the knife of my Angel of Death purpose. Not the knife of the Royal Executioner, of Julie the Bloody. Not the knife of any of my roles for the King. This was the knife of the Prophet, who spoke to me like a true person, like no one else had. Names differ, but all speak of one purpose, just as religions spoke of their God. One purpose, many names.
I knocked the chip from its silicon casing and inserted it in a backup drive slot. Running two systems, I disconnected the secondary from the grid. A touch on the bracelet opened the program, and I counted the files on it. Military protection, King’s code, confidential data. An auto-generated key opened them with ease. I read the names, phases of research, history of Kingdom of Gomorrah. Among the reports was an encrypted file marked ‘hope’.
I decrypted it. Read. Gasped. Ran down the steps and into the square.
The Prophet was false, a machine, engineered to rally the weak, to gather them together. An easy hunt, targets compressed into accessible locations.
I laughed like a maniac. It echoed in the almost empty square. The steps were behind me, the people in front running away, leaving me alone. I felt like a maniac. I was a maniac.
I closed my connections, turned on my heel, marched up to the cold and dark temple. Took my time, admired the grief of the Gothic statuary.
I loaded a fresh magazine, chambered a round. Approached the walk to the King’s throne.
The clomp of my boots rang like the Prophet’s words.
The King twitched.
“You threaten me, Seraphimova? Salvation is in the purity of truth, achieved through deletion of false data. I am your King. You are heretic, abomination.”
“Salvation is the purity of truth,” I said, and raised the weapon to sight on his big red eye. I pulled the trigger, emptied the magazine into the orifices of his head.
Shards of red glass tinkled and pinged off the pyramid. Circuit burns smoked through the masses of wires and cables. The King discharged sparks and flashes as he struggled against his confining connections to everything.
“Achieved through deletion of false data,” I continued.
The lights on Cyclops panels flashed and spun, drones swarmed and swirled.
I lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply, lit up the cables in the corridor, and watched the flames that followed in my wake. The black plastic under my boots melted and left imprints at the exit.
People gathered in groups in the square, pointed up at the smoke from the temple.
The bonfire spat forked tongues of flames above the dome, crackling and humming as cables and coolant oils exploded. Intense heat stuck the jacket on my back. Hot.
I skipped down the stairs, rode a wave of shock through the growing crowd of civilians. People stared, but no one touched me. I smiled at them all, swung my keys around my fingers.
When I got to my apartment, I removed my uniform and tossed it in the trash-incinerator. Cleaned up a bit, and turned the armchair to face the bright morning. I smiled. Sun lit the yellow walls, lit the gold hues in the timber floor, and lit my skin.
I pulled the drawer with tokens out and brought it to the chair, sorted through the icons of hope.
So many religions destroyed, and yet, hope prevailed. The cross, crescent moon, David’s star, and a rune stone. A figurative box of hope given to Pandora as a gift now lay on my knees.
The old legends were the truths of humankind. Humans. Men. Women. Children. Choices.
The false words of a machine couldn’t sort this from facts. I pulled the tokens against my chest.
This was a day of hope, a new beginning.