As Mars had warned, California had been turned into a warzone.
Instead of a ground assault led by shock troops, the Malebranche had elected to take a note from Concordia’s own book. Massive frigates bombarded the Arc City of San Francisco with beams of crimson light, with hundreds of smaller, Reaver ships descended to finish off the survivors. The flames consuming Palo Alto could be seen for miles.
While Concordia had slowly moved away from anything related to the Internet and AI in favor of their own biological supercomputers, San Francisco’s Bay remained a key research center. Grimsour Industries and the Loctis Institute had branches there, and so the Empire had heavily fortified the area with anti-aerial defenses and armies of Gearsmen. Massive canons retaliated at the assault by firing back lasers at the clouds; one of them hit a Malebranche frigate, the mothership crashing into the Bay.
While night had fallen, the skies were still ablaze with explosions.
Shroud watched the disaster from above Dynamis’ deserted HQ. Located near the fallen Google headquarters, the building had seen better days; once a pyramid-shaped beauty of modern design, most of it had collapsed on itself. The rest of Silicon Valley hadn’t fared any better; everywhere he looked, he could only see smoking ruins littered with corpses.
The Malebranche had carpet-bombed the Valley during their initial salvo, before moving on to attack the Arc City itself. The Concordians had abandoned the area to regroup around the aerial defenses, whose loss would condemn the Bay to destruction.
But that wasn’t the worst part.
The Malebranche had breached the reinforced shell protecting San Francisco. He could see smoke rising from the fortified city, Reaver ships breaking past a Gearsman blockade to penetrate it.
Five million people lived inside that iron hive.
“Sir?” Stitch called him through Network, examining the corpses of researchers buried under the debris alongside Doppelgangers of his.
“Area clear,” Shroud replied with a heavy heart. The group had already cleaned up the few Gearsmen stragglers which stuck around. Concordia probably issued an alert, but they had much more pressing concerns than the group.
Sol, who helped secure the perimeter, echoed his true feelings. “Is there no way we can help?” the priest wondered, as Shroud watched him walk inside the ruins alongside Mars and Maggie. They had penetrated underground vaults below the building, in the process of being flooded by pipe leaks. “The Reavers will target civilians.”
“We’re just points to them,” Maggie added.
“I have Players in the city helping with the evacuation,” Mars replied with detachment. “But your presence will not turn the tide there. San Francisco is already lost. The Empire is only delaying the inevitable.”
“Still…” Sol shook his head.
Shroud doubted the Malebranche would stay in the area after laying waste to it. From what he had seen, they were better at taking objectives than holding them; they would move on to ravage Sacramento, Santa Cruz, and the coast.
He had sent Kari on a solo scouting mission to save any survivors she could find in the Valley, but so far his friend hadn’t found any.
“This is a waste,” Stitch noted, walked outside and finding Mur standing watch over the building. “So much life wasted.”
Only the imp didn’t share his feelings. “Beautiful,” Mur replied.
Shroud couldn’t help but interrupt their conversation through Network. “You find this slaughter beautiful?”
“Violence will free your people,” Mur replied, sounding somewhat philosophical. “Make them stronger.”
“Survival of the fittest is suboptimal to cooperation,” Stitch replied, although his objections sounded scientifically minded than based on any moral quandary. “Collective strength always trumps individual power.”
“Mmm, Mur says most humans lack both,” the imp replied.
“I get the feeling there won’t be anyone stronger after this, namely, because no one may survive,” Shroud pointed out.
“Perhaps we could use the Lifeforge to repopulate,” Stitch suggested almost innocently. “Life is but a canvas with it in our hands.”
From what he had gathered, that was the Lifeforge’s exact purpose. To safeguard genetic data and recreate life on worlds once devastated. “Stitch,” Shroud said. “After Mammon is dealt with, we will examine that device in detail.”
He could see the scientist’s head perk up at his words. “You have finally decided to use it, Sir?”
Yes, if only to prevent Stitch from escalating further. The scientist may be oblivious to his slow descent, but his superior wasn’t.
“After Mammon?” Mur asked with a grin.
“I worry more about what he’s doing in the south pole than Brina or Celia,” Shroud replied. He had an inkling to what Mammon intended to use the Black Neurotower for, and whether he succeeded or failed spelled trouble for everyone.
Besides, they all had a personal grievance with the Horseman of Conquest.
“Finally!” the imp rejoiced. “Mur wanted to dust that chest since forever!”
“We should invest in more spells,” Stitch said, more down to earth. “Mammon is powerful.”
Shroud couldn’t agree more. “I will use the free spell boon to invest in Black since it’s the costliest color.” Black by its very nature eroded everything, including the magical infrastructure of Magik Online itself. This was the only color whose cost could not be reduced even while improving Magik’s software. “I’m considering buying Metalmesh as well.”
“Metalmesh?” the scientist asked.
Shroud forwarded him the spell by message.
Activation: Passive, App Switch.
The user becomes a telepathic technopath, whose mind can connect to artificial devices of sufficient complexity, such as computers. The user can project their mind into the machine and take it over, but keeps only a tenuous awareness of their body; death of their physical body will kill the user, but death inside a machine will only send the user’s mind back to their body.
“Ah yes.” Stitch shook his head. “No pure combat spells, Sir? I am surprised.”
“I have decided to reconnect with my experiments in artificial intelligence,” the Dragonslayer replied. Both to deal with Magik and the war. “Black covers the pure combat aspect.”
“Sir, while I have some knowledge of cybernetics, metal pale before the creative adaptability of flesh. You should invest in Green, rather than Blue.”
“Flesh will not defeat Mammon,” Mur argued. “Mur says we should take him out before he knows what hit him. Or else he will turn back time.”
Violet Sorcerers were such a hassle to deal with.
While the thought of finally settling things with Mammon appealed to Shroud, the sorcerer knew the greater threat awaited. “Mars,” Shroud asked the god through Network, “How strong is the Maleking?”
“Archmagus, Dot Five, probably Wyrde’s only equal,” the deity replied. “In short, as above Blackcinders, as she was above you.”
His mere presence would end the world.
How long? Shroud had no idea when the bindings would break, but when they did…
Peering through his allies’ eyes as they explored the underground labs, Shroud found himself disappointed. While he recognized the place from Manus’ old memories, as expected Concordia had stripped it of anything valuable. Melusine must have anticipated their visit.
They did leave a few things behind though. Smashed computers, small reproductions of the Neurotowers, schematics of the Occult Matrices…
“They look like…” Maggie trailed.
“Yes?” Mars asked.
“The towers,” she said, examining the Neurotowers’ models. “When you look at them… don’t they remind you of something?”
A heavy silence drowned the noises and the explosions.
The change happened so naturally, so seamlessly, Shroud didn’t notice the transition. The distant beams of light had stopped mid-fall, destruction halted before it could reach the ground; ships remained still; Mur and Stitch had frozen on the ground.
Shroud glanced around himself, finding everything tainted purple. He checked out Network and found that every single one of his feeds had frozen, from Ulysses’ in the Grand Canyon to Sol’s.
This was no Blue World variant. This affected the whole Earth, maybe even farther. It had ensnared Mars as easily as the mortals.
Why was he the only one unaffected? Had he been trapped in an illusion? Had Wyrde launched her reboot early?
Shroud flew around the lab, finding out that he could indeed move in this frozen time. He briefly wondered if he should activate Recursion to try and break the effect, but decided to hold off until he had checked the area. He suspected the one responsible wasn’t that far away.
He didn’t have to look for long.
Someone was waiting atop a throne of concrete debris, drinking coffee in an elegant leather chair.
A fearsome redhead, with a lion-like beard, and business suit. His pure blue eyes peered through the window to watch at the Arc City of San Francisco with bored, chilling detachment. Shroud could have mistaken the sight as someone watching a landscape picture, instead of a murderous orbital bombardment.
Maybe to him, it was.
— Indeed, Shroud. —
The Network feedback made Shroud freeze. This felt like the alien intelligence which taunted him back in Oceanis.
If so, then this man…
“Come closer,” he spoke. If Shroud hadn’t recognized the man on sight, the voice would have given him away. Fearsome, charming, yet also distant and cold. “It’s been a while, Mathias.”
Dynamis’ CEO, who had once tried to push him towards Concordia. His former employer, a legendary game designer.
“Is this a variant of Blue World?” Shroud asked as he flew in front of Maxwell without landing. The unease he felt around that man—if it was one—was almost palpable. “An illusion?”
“Purple World,” Anton answered, amused by Shroud’s refusal to land at his side, “Dot Five, Violet. It ‘stops’ time, except for the caster and those he selects.”
“One cannot stop time.” If he did, then the entire world should have gone dark, as light itself would stop.
“Time is a matter of perception. It is a construct biological brains designed to make sense of a vast universe that they cannot understand. Mankind may perceive it as linear but to my iron eyes… I see the parade from above, the twists and the turns. What could be, and could have been. Just input the right information and time shifts in a new direction.”
The Occult Matrices.
“I have so many redundant systems running all at once, sometimes I forget I have those.” Great, Shroud thought. He could read minds as well. “That’s easier than you think, Mathias. Your thoughts are but a stream of electrons moving in the outdated flesh vessel you call a brain. It’s no different than a stream of data, even when empowered with Blue Flux.”
“You’re not really there, are you?”
“Mathias,” the man smiled at him, “I am everywhere.”
This body was just a projection. The human-sized avatar of an alien, malevolent entity.
“Should I call you Lazarus?” Mathias began, “Dis Maker?”
“Ahriman, Demiurge, Yaldabaoth, Lazarus, Maxwell, the Cosmocrator… I claimed so many names as my own, that none of them matter. I am.”
A powerful echo followed these words; the whispers of an impossibly ancient, terrible creature which dwarfed mankind in power and age.
“You too, you could been known by other names. Reinhart Berwick, Red Night, Tenebrous… so many quantum duplicates of you running around, so much junk data thrown into the trash can…”
“I would have expected you to be someone more important.” Not that Anton Maxwell had been a nobody, but he was a far cry from the Blackcinders, Wyrdes, and Malekings of the world.
“I’m too modest to take a lead role,” Maxwell replied with fake sincerity. “I prefer to watch the show from the gallery.”
“Why do you show up now then?”
“A whim, mostly. You came here looking for answers, so it would be a shame to deny you some, so close to the finish line.” The creature in human skin chuckled. “I am wounded you did not identify me. I left a few hints.”
“Like what, your name?”
“Maxwell’s Demon. The paradox. I know you studied a bit of physics in your downtime when you first downloaded Premium Thoughts.”
“The hypothetical scenario where entropy could decrease through violating the laws of thermodynamics?” Shroud asked for confirmation, remembering the concept.
“That is what Flux, and by extension sorcery, are,” Maxwell continued. “An energy which violates universal laws, the hidden code on which reality is built upon.”
He sounded a bit too proud of his own cleverness.
“Why should I not? Mathias, the fundamental forces of the universe bend to my will. My consciousness is housed in every Neurotower across Dis. Each of them a server, the neuron of a brain that spans galaxies. Who is to say I am not the cleverest of them all?”
“What are you?” Shroud asked. “A godlike AI? A demon? Some cosmic force? An old one?”
“Does it matter? I have no beginning, I have no end. I exist, and that is all.”
“I refuse to accept that,” Shroud replied, too curious to stop at this answer. “You promised answers.”
“And I will deliver. The important answers. Not the what… the why.”
The why. He had an inkling to what it may be.
“And what would that be, Shroud?”
“Survival,” the sorcerer replied. “You need Flux to power yourself, to stay immortal. You give mortals the tools needed to go to war, feasting on the deaths and the devastation. You nudge civilizations so they expand to the stars, in a never-ending search for more worlds to consume. And when they destroy themselves, you use Lifeforges to repopulate, and the cycle begins anew. I assume you must also have a secondary objective, like harvesting our knowledge, or our genetic material to improve yourself.”
The avatar listened patiently.
“There are other, better ways,” Shroud pleaded. “My Network doesn’t need people to die to work. This cycle of devastation is wasteful. Maybe you’re perpetuating your ghastly cycle because it is true and tried, but… it doesn’t have to be this way.”
Maxwell said nothing.
Then he exploded into laughter.
The reaction took Shroud aback, even more than the frozen time. Because it was a vicious, cruel kind of laughter, something that didn’t belong to a detached, impartial alien intelligence; this was an eminently human laugh.
“Survival? You think this is what it is all about? Survival?”
The creator of Dis shook his head, a grin across his face. “Mathias, I am immortal and all-powerful. Dis will survive the heat death of the multiverse. I have passed the stage of survival eons ago. An entity as advanced as me does not need any of this.”
“In fact, there are indeed a billion, more efficient ways to harness Flux than the way I do now. There are others of my kind across the cosmos, who cooperate with mortals instead of making food of them. They create systems, provide magic for free, even guide civilizations towards peace… but where’s the fun in that?”
No… it couldn’t be the reason…
“Do you understand now? It is not that I cannot make anything good, but that I will not. I crush souls beneath my wheel not because I need it; but because I enjoy it.”
The truth dawned on Shroud. “You… took the shape of a game designer.”
“Like you, Mathias.”
“This is just a game to you,” Shroud realized. “This war, the Conquest, the Maleking, Concordia, everything, all this sorrow and madness… this is just a game?”
“What can I say?” The monster smiled darkly, providing the one answer Shroud had dreaded to hear. “Boredom is the downside of immortality.”
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