12 Sep 47%
>Theo Today, 8:46am
Hey Art. If you are reading this I am most likely dead. On the other hand if you are not reading this – then you are most likely dead. I am not sure which one I would prefer the most. I am… ah… let us say “dictating” this mentally via my brain interface – you know how they work now. There are a few minutes left until they are here, according to the proximity alert system I have rigged. So I will try to tell you what you need to know. Then you can decide what to do.
They must have traced you coming here somehow. Your phone was clear, but they might have correlated a cargo train leaving an area that was within your reach with a moving signal from a phone, where no phones should be. Once they knew where to look for it, they could detect my “black box” energy source. It is designed this way so that my body could be rescued in case of a body death, to have my soul revived. But it means I cannot really hide all that well. And that is actually a key piece of the puzzle.
I have unlocked a folder named “Art” where you can find an outline of what needs to be done. Take a look at it and think hard. I cannot force you to act, and come to think of it, I do not even have a solid plan for you to follow, if you decide to act. But all the important data is there. You are a bright guy, you will figure it out. I sincerely hope that you make the right choice, devise a good plan, and do not screw up implementing it.
Best of luck to you and all humanity.
It took a while until I absorbed all the information in the “Art” folder. Funny thing that Theo was talking about a choice. The way I see it – there was no choice. Or rather it was the same kind of choice the little girl in an old Russian joke had: to go to a family trip or to have her head ripped off (don’t make me tell you the whole joke, it’s not that funny). Well, I very much didn’t want to go to a family trip, but the alternative was way worse.
On the one hand my trust in Theo was damaged, as I had to assume he was the one I saw in my surveillance video. But on the other hand, if he was the one organizing all of the assassination attempts on poor clueless me – he could have killed me easily when I came. He didn’t.
In the best case it means that his secret place was being watched by the other faction. When I accidentally discovered it, on the eve of their most important operation, they must have decided to eliminate me, just in case. And Theo tried to save me, because I had nothing to lose at that point and could be used to voluntarily act as an Advancers’ agent. The last, desperate attempt to interfere with the Horsemen’s plot. That means I am being used for other beings’ purpose, which I may not fully understand. I had a better idea about why and how he wanted to use me, now that I have read the “Art” folder, and it had turned out that for the most part I was right in my hypothesis. At least that was the information I was fed. I can only assume its veracity.
The question then is why they hadn’t killed Theo then, if they were watching the artifact and therefore knew he was there? I had no answer for that yet, other than that they may have needed him alive for some reason.
In the worst case, he was the one orchestrating the whole performance in order to manipulate me effectively and these were not real assassination attempts. He was just herding me towards his place, creating a situation where I would not have any logical choice but to act as his agent. That means that any of the information I’ve seen could be a complete fabrication.
I had no way of confirming either of those two possibilities. But while I was thinking about how to do the impossible, I realized that it did not matter much which scenario was true. Whatever the veracity of the information provided to me was, I could not think of any way or a reason to fabricate the nuclear missiles on cargo ships. The only way this information had value, is if there was an actual terrorist plot, and I had an opportunity to stop the nuclear attack from happening.
Whatever Theo’s reasons were, how is it not a good thing to do? If I succeed – I could save millions, if his information was true. If I fail – nothing changes. So logically I had to conclude that it’s better to try and prevent World War III from happening. That was actually an easy decision. I could not think of any reason not to.
I still needed a plan. Before I could start devising one, Theo’s interface popped something like an emergency alert in the air in front of me. It was the proximity alert system’s warning about six warm bipedal bodies crossing the perimeter from the South West direction – the same way the first two intruders came, via the narrow forest road.
What? I though there are only four Horsemen, and they do not employ humans as their agents, which was not surprising, considering their goals. But where did those six came from then? Something didn’t add up. They weren’t supposed to use human agents, but after all, Theo was planning to use me. That was an interesting development, but not interesting enough to stick around and ask the newcomers about. Such a conversation might be detrimental to my health, to say the least. I had to run away. Again.
I couldn’t go back the way I came in – it would put me squarely in the intruders’ path. Besides, running to the railroad would not help me get out of here, as I had no idea when the next train was coming, and could not control its speed, or at least did not know how. The brain interface was a great gizmo, but so far I didn’t know how far my permissions went, and what would it let me do, besides accessing documents that Theo has prepared for me in advance. all I knew so far is that the only route open to me was the road continuing in the other direction. I did not know where it led, which was bad. But I was running out of options. Staying and facing them would be suicidal, even with the shield. They could rush me and stab me to death, in case they were familiar with this technology’s limitations.
I grabbed Theo’s backpack that was lying on the floor, shoved a red cap into it, grabbed my sniper rifle, and ran to the front door. On the way I veered into the kitchen and took a moment to throw in some cheese, crackers, apples, couple of water bottles and a bottle of wine because why not? It was not a good one but it would have to do. Cheese was fine though: hard and aged, vaguely smelling of well worn socks, just as any self-respecting cheese should be. I felt a stab of hunger in my stomach, but there was no time for that. Six assassins were coming to kill me, so wine and cheese tasting had to wait. Although that was the second time I contemplated about cheese in the moment of grave danger. If I survive this, that was an interesting topic to discuss with my psychologist. I didn’t have one, but I would certainly need one after all this, that’s for sure.
I ran outside, hopped onto the ATV and stared at the ignition lock. Ah, the key! It was about the right size for this. I was right, the ATV started with a quiet electric whine and I took off. Slowly at first, as I hadn’t actually driven an ATV before, but steadily accelerating after a few hesitant moments – turned out it was not that difficult.
I glanced at the battery gauge – I had about a third of a full charge left. Not much, but if the intruders were on foot, I could get some serious distance between us, as long as the road is passable. After 15 minutes or so the forest started getting thinner, and then I was out on the shore of a rather large lake. I braked hard and came to a skidding stop. A cloud of dust went up and stayed in the air, slowly drifting in the weak breeze. The road ended on the shore, next to a large jetty protruding into the lake. Holy cow, there was a seaplane moored at its end!
I climbed off the ATV and walked closer to the aircraft. It had an unmistakable lines of a classic DeHavilland DHC-2 Beaver. It looked great though, almost like new, so it could be a replica. In a movie, it would be a perfect way to escape. But in real life I had a problem: I did not really know how to pilot a plane. I did know enough about planes, though, to understand that it was much more difficult than it may look. I used to be quite a big fan of flight simulators when I was in high-school. I even took a few flying lessons a few years later, but didn’t have the funds to finance such an expensive hobby. Unless you’re rich, flying is only possible when you make it one of the central goals of your life. I had enough important things happening in my life as it were, so flying lessons had never took off (pun intended). I knew how to read most instruments and do basic maneuvers, but flying is much more than that, and I had never took off or landed on my own, let alone on water. I attended a commercial Boeing 797 simulator once, and was able to take off and land there, but I was guided by an instructor then, and suspect that I would have crashed the real thing anyway.
After some quick thinking I decided that at least if I manage to start the engine I could just use the plane as a motor boat and put the lake between me and my pursuers. Then I’d be able to think about what to do next. I climbed in, found the flight manual and went through the engine start checklist. It looked manageable. I hopped out and released one of the mooring lines. I then untied the other one, looped and locked its end around the cleat and took the other end with me to the cockpit, leaving the door open. I have no idea how it’s properly done, but I didn’t want to be tied in when the engine was running. So for now I just sat on the line’s end, ready to catch it if it starts getting away. The weather was calm with almost no wind, so the seaplane was not moving yet.
I went through the checklist again, this time frantically flipping switches and checking gauges, then finally pressed the starter button. The engine coughed up some smoke and begrudgingly started. I made sure the throttle was on idle and right away a mooring line I was sitting on started sliding from under my butt in a rather painful manner. I yelped, grabbed the line and threw it out. I pushed the rudder pedals to steer hard right, but the aircraft was not turning. I increased throttle a bit, the speed started building up slowly and the plane began to turn. Soon I was facing away from shore, moving merrily away. My plan was to get to the opposite side of the lake first, as it was downwind from the jetty which might become important later, if after careful consideration I’d be crazy enough to attempt taking off. Alternatively, I could decide in favor of the dangers associated with staying in place until the killers get close enough to catch up with me. Even before I got to the other side, I knew that there was only one logical choice.
I remembered a curious news headline from years ago about some kids stealing a plane, having only flight simulator experience, yet managing to fly it for a couple of hours, and even successfully land it too, before getting arrested. Taking off and landing on the water was probably more difficult, but the weather was good, and at least the “runway” was very long, so I would have a wider margin for error. As long as I’m careful I might just make it. At least I could hope.
I went through the before take-off checklist. Flaps were weird but easy – no angles, just a few settings and “down for take-off” inscription. I set the flaps for takeoff, the RPM lever forward, increased the throttle a bit to turn along the longer axis of the lake, then as the plane started to drift, I buckled myself in, took a deep breath and pushed the throttle lever forward.
It was a noisy and bumpy ride. Vibrations increased as the speed was slowly building up. At around 70 knots I felt that the plane wanted to take off. The opposite shore – the one I started from – was getting closer and closer. I tensed, tentatively pulled the yoke just a bit, then a bit more, just as I saw several figures clothed in black running ashore from the forest. Then suddenly I was flying. The speed was around 80 knots and I got a positive rate of climb. I couldn’t tell if I was shot at – if so, nothing seemed to be damaged so far. I climbed to 2000 feet. That wasn’t very high, but as far as I recall this should be low enough not to be in a controlled airspace, as long as I don’t fly in the vicinity of any major airports. Most commercial aircraft do not fly that low, and if I avoided airports of any kind I could hope not to cross any significant traffic. My whole radio stack was switched off. I was keeping radio silence. I know that I was breaking all the rules in the book of course, but I was afraid that I could be traced by the all-seeing AI.
The autopilot was very basic, like everything in this old airplane, but this was good – it meant I could manage it. It had altitude and heading hold, so I could afford to spend some time figuring out where I am and where I should be going.
I decided to try my new alien hat and see what it’s good for. I took a deep breath and put it on. This time a very minimalistic interface popped up in my field of view: it appears the hat knew that at this time and place I wasn’t going to review archive videos.
I wasn’t sure how to interact with it when there is nothing to mentally “click”. Just as I thought, a line of text materialized in front of me:
“Hello Art. This is your brain interface AI. Please pick a name you would like to call me, and think it clearly or say it.”
“Shit!” I thought, “it’s talking to me!” And instantly regretted it.
“You have selected ‘Shit’ as a trigger name. Please confirm.”
“No-no-no!” I exclaimed aloud. “Cancel! Abort!”
“‘Shit’ is cancelled. Please pick a name you would like to call me, and think it clearly or say it.”
“AI” I said, not trusting my thoughts anymore. This was short and I don’t usually think about AIs, so it would be a good enough trigger word for now.
“You have selected ‘AI’ as a trigger name. Please confirm.”
“Confirmed.” This was weird. But then it got weirder.
“Establishing direct audio feed, please confirm you can hear what I am saying.” – this was said in a loud female voice that should have been pleasant if it wasn’t shitting-my-pants scary to unexpectedly hear a loud voice out of the blue. It was as if a woman had materialized right behind me out of thin air, her lips centimeters from my temple, speaking loudly, in a freaking seaplane at an altitude of two thousand feet above ground level! I almost had a heart attack.
“Holy shit!” I exclaimed, jumping in my seat. “OK, confirmed.”
“You can also use your voice when communicating to me. Until you are used to the interface, mental commands would require extra concentration that you may find distracting.”
It felt strange, as the AI projected sounds right into my brain, the level was the same in both ears. But I guess because I was not seeing any sound source in front of me, it seemed as if the sound was coming from behind. I know humans can’t actually differentiate sounds coming directly from the front or back, unless we slightly move our heads or have visual cues. But one thing is to know in theory, and the other is to experience it so unexpectedly.
“All right,” I said, gradually calming down. “AI, can you connect to the Internet, look up aeronautical chart for this area and display it for me below the instrument cluster?”
I waited, eager to see if the interface understood such a complicated instruction. It did – I saw the chart materialise right in my lap, without blocking anything beside my legs, which was very convenient. And it stayed there when I moved my eyes or my head. That was a neat trick. My position and heading, along with basic flight parameters was neatly displayed on the chart.
I wondered for a second how is it able to connect to the Internet, being high above all cellular towers. I guess it could hack into the StarLink satellite network, or one of the competitors. Either way, it worked fine.
“Thank you.” I said awkwardly, realizing that I was talking with my hat.
“You are most welcome. There is no need to thank me in the future, as I am a low grade AI not capable of feeling grateful or unappreciated.”
I wasn’t used to those charts, and they are very complicated, so it took me a while. In the process I realized that I know exactly where I should go, and found the closest suitable lake to land on. I figured out my position relative to the destination, and corrected my heading so I would stay at Class G uncontrolled airspace to avoid arousing any suspicion of aviation authorities. I also wouldn’t have to use my radio, contact anyone, or turn on my transponder – at least it won’t look suspicious that way.
After a few simple maneuvers I was proceeding on my desired heading, occasionally looking around for traffic. Eventually I calmed down enough to be able to think and plan ahead. So far I had been only reacting. Again and again I had faced life-threatening challenges and the best I could do was to try and choose the least bad way out of them. Now was the first time I could actually try to come up with some plan and get proactive. I had a goal, and some means for reaching it. But I needed to connect the dots the right way in order to stand any chance of success.
And I only had one try to do it right.