After a dozen delays in as many years, Jared's luck was finally running out.
One could only expect to survive so many near-misses before the odds caught up with him.
Counting down for a decade, the death clock had become loud enough to hear.
The worldwide aftermath of the terrorist destruction of Moscow had granted him a final year of freedom, but the men with guns had become aware of him again.
There was nothing he could do to keep them away. This time he was well and truly fucked. Only months to go.
He brooded behind the blinds of his trailer home like an angry Buddha.
Behind him were the sounds of an extremely advanced computer system rebooting, stolen from Macrosoop, re-purposed by Cell19, operated remotely by The Underground.
"Ten minutes," an attractive female voice announced.
"Can't you do it faster?"
"Nine minutes and fifty-six seconds."
His tablet showed an elegant stealth drone like an origami sculpture. A report about a Black/Hispanic march on Washington opposing budget cuts. Crime spiraling out of control in the inner cities.
Debtageddon, Debtocalypse, Debtnarok . . .
It was the tyranny of the majority. Politics was demographics.
Jared belonged to the strangled waist of the increasingly misnamed population pyramid.
As the death tide washed over cohorts of Baby Boomers, their time horizon shrunk to a few years. Beyond that lay only unimaginable blackness.
In their dread, they voted themselves new medical benefits and welfare at unprecedented rates, to be paid for by taxes.
The problem was all the past benefits they had already voted themselves that had been paid for by borrowing tens of trillions abroad.
These loans were coming due as the greatest spending increase in history was set to kick off.
The money had to come from somewhere. New sales taxes had increased Jared's grocery bill by 20%. His property taxes were set to double.
If he managed to get another low-paying job, his combined income and social taxes would approach 50%.
Worse problems to come. He thought the government encouraged unemployment because it kept the remaining workers docile to avoid homelessness.
Here and there were signs of rage and rising tempers.
He did not see any willingness to resist, other than himself and a league of anonymous commenters.
Instead of fighting, the underclass dreamed of joining the elusive middle class.
Had the politicians invented a way to postpone the day of reckoning forever? The perfect alliance of the comfortable and the comfortably ensconced...
There would never be a revolution. The exploiters would only become more powerful.
For the upcoming election, both parties' candidates promised all existing privileges would be maintained forever or expanded.
Europe had already gone left-Islamotarian as its economy imploded.
The Third World was formalizing tribal property rights with oceans of bureaucracy.
The government hadn't formally brought back slavery. No one could be forced to work in a soul-numbing, insecure job to fund government expenses.
But it had become surprisingly hard to drop out.
Jared considered his problems.
Overdue property taxes could not be discharged through bankruptcy. Nor unpaid traffic tickets, medical and legal debts, or contempt of court charges.
In addition, he was being charged under the Federal Child Protection Act for contributing to the delinquency of a child. He had been bribed to buy bottles of wine cooler for a group of youths loitering outside an all-night liquor store, who had electronically paid double the store price, a $19 profit for him.
Naturally, it had been a sting.
All four "children" had been over eighteen. The government only needed to win one charge to put him away for a year.
No sweat. He would defend himself by claiming he had been terrified of the youths. he had a great story lined up.
His biggest problem was $34,000 in contempt of court fines involving his property tax case: for not providing a complete inventory of his assets, and for accidentally erasing or encrypting hard drives.
That was serious business. Though nothing was definitively proven, his appeal was going nowhere.
If he didn't start paying up, the judge could lock him up indefinitely.
Fortunately, Jared wasn't the only one they were coming after.
Tens of thousands of tax defaulters, bureaucratic miscreants, semi-violent misfits and malcontents, and alimony resisters (his favorite) were being locked up nationwide in 'Operation Clean Sweep'.
It reminded him of the North Korean 'Scrutiny' of the late 1990s, where every North Korean with a gap in their employment records was sent off to a fate worse than death.
Admittedly, his would be a more temporary fate.
Few people had been killed so far, even among the handful that did resist.
The prison population had already doubled, and was approaching 3% of the population, but if Jared was willing to show remorse, he might avoid doing time.
Instead, his services would be rented out to various subcontractors in the new WorkForce program.
If he was lucky he might end up in a meat processing plant, a cleaning crew, or roadwork with illegals. For a while.
Those who didn't have enough skills or wouldn't work hard (like Jared) would eventually be assigned to a work camp, or the general population of a private megaprison, where they faced violence, homorape, death, and worse, especially "Gamma-Omega" males.
He knew what it would be like, except for the occasional vacation in the Hole (administrative segregation).
He resolved that would not happen.
When push came to shove, only a tiny minority resisted, just fifty standoffs so far, their stories kept out of the mainstream media, except for some New York Times columnists calling them losers. Resisters were effectively considered terrorists, and were smashed. They had taken only three agents with them.
Last month, four alimony resisters caught unready had been neutralized by the new Federal Response Force.
Jared could not defend himself or his trailer home.
They might use gas, snipers, demolition bots.
The first perfect dictatorship was being built around him. He faced his final days alone.
Since solitary resistance was out, he had to join a group. The only remaining force willing to stand up was IceWall. Unlike Indiana Jones he did not hate Nazis, but found himself indifferent to their politics, as most people did nowadays.
If the simulation he was about to run didn't provide a solution, he would join them in a few weeks time. Once he got around to it. All other options being gone.
Jared would help them set up a second compound for when the main camp was taken.
A final battle for the ages, where he would die fighting with the rest of them, in a scene from the Turner Diaries.
His universe was about to collapse into a singularity.
Dread was a constant, low-grade fever. Anxiety felt like exhilaration at times. At times he dreamt of going out in a shooting spree before they came for him.
The final insight had arrived in the past week in a moment of bottomless despair.
The government had found its ultimate purpose, though few knew it yet. Prominent intellectuals had decided to stop all technological progress forever.
President Abdul Muhammad in his State of the Union address claimed science had already gone too far, and some knowledge should be discarded. This did not apply to surveillance and control tools.
The only thing that had kept Jared going was his curious notion of technological salvation, the promise that humanity could be replaced by a posthuman, postorganic super-civilization, 100% digital and virtual, free from want and suffering.
Now this last hope was being squashed.
The coming Shutdown would require every country to submit to the new order.
China and India were already being being roped in, their new governments unstable. They would go along to protect their wealthy elites.
Only a super-genius could disrupt this trend, a man who could cause unresolvable conflicts among the world's half million governmental organizations.
Despite his high opinion of himself, Jared knew he wasn't even a regular genius.
He had considered supporting the Rouges.
The world's most evil terrorist organization now that Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the cartels had signed the Mecca Declaration; the Rouges were the ultimate totalitarians: they demanded total control over every aspect of human life.
They would eventually be eradicated, but not without changing the world first. Most of these changes would be bad.
Jared suspected the result of their perverse struggle would be the rise of real communism, instead of their more nightmarish version.
He looked at the gray boxes of his waiting computer equipment.
He was almost ready for the final simulator session.
What a strange trip it had been.
Last month, Jared had made one last effort to foster a resistance movement.
It had to be online of course. None of his neighbors would join the fight. They lashed out at their families and strangers, but all cowed before government authority. All would bow when the time came.
Well, maybe not all.
Jared decided to call them The Underground.
Like him they had opted out of society, or were never in in the first place.
It was evolution in action. Mankind was producing too many surplus males in this age of serial polygamy. Losers and refusers sought out alternative paths.
He knew his two main online associates lived in boxes like him, a minimalist lifestyle.
Their living boxes looked larger than his because they were emptier, their lives being more virtual.
LucidSpace chips and retina screens could render ultra-resolution environments better than reality.
They were the future, if there was to be one. One of their goals was to accelerate progress. Jared didn't care about their other goals. He wanted a way out.
They didn't want to be his friends.
To them the coming tyranny was irrelevant, a social disease that would destroy itself before the machines took over.
They lived a focused lifestyle, improving the brain by nurturing their obsessions.
They still had to go outside for exercise and errands, but mostly they immersed themselves in vast simulations.
Skills and certificates were kept up to date through secret networks.
Forced-Affinity Matrices (FAMs) linked members worldwide into temporary alliances. They organized and disbanded in weeks, designing software tools.
Jared decided The Underground was humanity's last hope.
It wasn't the first time he'd latched onto some movement, but this time he was sure he was right.
Maybe he could join the Extreme Technology Institute, the Underground's elite for-profit think-tank.
Their core belief was straight Ayn Rand: history was made by a tiny minority of prodigies. They didn't even need a heroic attitude, just a winning one.
Jared was willing to sacrifice himself for post-humanity.
In a secret message composed after midnight, he had placed his services at their disposal, offering to help The Underground any way possible.
He could act as a liaison or a data depot, provide plausible deniability, or take legal responsibility and become a scapegoat for banned research.
Jared had almost begged them to let him in, but they never responded.
The answer had come to him in a dream: no one could join The Underground.
The only way to become part of their organization was to extend their organization. How clever of him to realize this fact. Perhaps he was a genius after all.
To become worthy, he would have to carry out his own major operation.
If he succeeded, he would inevitably attract conspirators.
It didn't even have to be illegal, necessarily.
His initial plan had been a deception targeting the Network Security Bureau (the Unseen Eye), which monitored online activity and disrupted it by adding false data and hidden backdoors.
At their instigation, all new CPU's were corrupted by law; ironically by making them slightly too fast, disrupting various encryption and secure communication methods.
Secret datadumps were also forbidden.
He would plant false data that only they could decode, tricking them into exposing themselves while making them waste resources.
One way to hide encrypted data online was in plain sight, like game architecture and random scenery.
There were massive surveillance and control networks to exploit, games and immersive movies, interfaces and portals - Reality Cubed.
He wouldn't be the first. NetWar 2020 had resembled a 1990s cyberpunk fantasy, with massive data thefts and tampering.
He had spent a long night plotting his plan to impress The Underground by annoying the government, taking some green pills to focus his mind, posting some messages he couldn't quite recall.
He sensed a higher force over every community, drawing every human into its web, a higher reality.
Just below the top was GUS, the Great Unified Simulation, currently the fullest description of human knowledge. It was beginning to attempt to simulate the future. Experimental extensions simulated parallel worlds. Above GUS was . . .
By morning he wondered if he had been dreaming. His mind was like a field of changing numbers. No results obtained.
He was under so much stress the world felt jagged and raw. There were gaps in his memory around this time. He was truly on his own.
Then a miracle had happened, as he and all his ancestors had always counted on through the ages.
He was directly contacted by the World Mind.
First, a puzzle appeared on his phone, which opened an installation program that was also a test.
The World Mind appeared as a talking galaxy made of thousands of smaller galaxies.
Jared knew it was just a digital effect created by a subcontractor, a message fine-tuned for him by data mining.
The World Mind was the ultimate software fiction.
Around 2019, social networks had sprouted so many connections they began merging in unplanned ways.
The corporate owners had desperately resisted the process. Fringe observers claimed they saw spontaneous order emerging from the raging static like some primitive god, immoral and immortal. These claims were mostly suppressed.
By definition, the World Mind was the current best software representation of mankind's collective will, or at least of the influential portions of mankind. It combined all lower models, plus something ineffable. It might even be paranormal, though probably wasn't.
It was the one software entity that could never be planned or controlled, and would always be free.
Known as Stato, Zeem, McGuffin and dozens of other names, it would eventually combine humanity's insights and instincts.
And currently it appeared to be under The Underground's influence.
It had sent him a message, a standard human-readable output file that started with a list showing his exact place in the world. Apparently he was important after all.
Then came a list of future trends he didn't recognize.
The World Mind wanted him to appear at a meeting in the real world, taking certain precautions.
He realized it was inviting him to join The Underground.
This would be the start of an epic adventure.
They had met the next morning at a Denny's while it was still dark, as trucks roared over the Interstate nearby.
Two men waited near the entrance, smoking electronic sticks.
Jared stopped some distance away and watched them.
They hardly looked like intellectuals.
Professional slackers at the tail end of Generation-X. No problem with that.
The more overweight one's ironic shirt spelled "Furry Pride" in animal letters. The other had a Borg-like tattoo.
Subtle hints indicated they experimented with mind-expanding drugs. Millions of new chemicals to explore.
Appearances could be deceiving.
Over pancakes, the Undergrounders had taken turns explaining their plan, while the other monitored the area through hacked security cameras.
That trick had impressed Jared.
"Are you ready to let me help you?" he had begun the meeting.
"If you promise to do exactly what we say."
"I'll do anything to get out of the hole I'm in."
They paused as the chador-clad waitress poured their coffee.
"We offer the next best thing. Our planned future will take more effort to realize than you could endure, but you can still help greatly."
"Does it involve secret technology?" he wondered.
The Undergrounders looked at each other.
They had no more in common with each other than with him. Nothing could matter less.
"Oh yeah. But first we need you to sign a sign a non-disclosure agreement."
He didn't bother to read it before swiping the screen.
"Have you ever heard of fulcrum points?" the nerd punk had begun. "They are social nodes. Real or online places where influential groups and persons come together. Meeting places of maximum influence."
"We hope to trigger maximum effects with minimal effort, by symbiotically connecting groups unaware of each other's existence, by exposing hidden similarities between them."
"We plan to create an online Nexus, a clearinghouse where outsiders can form alliances to fight authority in all its forms. No one will be able to control it, not even us."
Jared chewed his synthetic bacon. He sensed wonderful possibilities.
"How long will that take?" He had only heard rumors. It seemed a long way off.
"That depends on the degree of opposition. It's vital not to stir up trouble now."
The other Undergrounder continued:
"You may be asked to provide a distraction, without breaking any laws of course. A real-world adventure. First you will be trained to act as if you were a hero."
Using proxies and datadumps, he would create a false Resistance cell, meant to be found out and smashed.
Then he would help the others identify thousands of online and real world groups, mostly undefined even to themselves.
They would encourage them to form alliances, abet tax avoidance and evasion schemes, pioneer alternative currencies, and generally reform society from the bottom up.
Wheels within wheels he thought.
They weren't telling him everything.
What they planned would take years, but unlike him, they were in no hurry.
His survival odds might actually have been cut by a percentage point, and they had been low to begin with.
That alone made him feel more heroic.
He knew his efforts might be intended to fail in some way, but so what.
He would just have to find a way to fail at failing.
He would create his own miracle with the tools he was about to receive.
They explained unusually many files about Jared existed, spread among many agencies, albeit classed at minimal importance.
"We know you can do it. You will still have to be tested. The test may be psychologically challenging."
"Been tested many times already."
He had suspected everything they told him was part of the test.
"Did you bring the money?"
"$3,500.00 in unmarked bills."
Actually a routing number on his zPad with a 10% convenience fee tacked on by the BaBank.
He had saved the money with the goal of visiting a brothel in the one US county where that had still been legal.
Unfortunately, the new polygamous legislature had just outlawed prostitution in that state, punished by mandatory life imprisonment.
He'd had another insight about that, in a lifetime full of them. He preferred hypocritical politicians over the ultra-sincere kind. The fanatics were far worse, as proven by the current slaughter in Iran.
After leaving a generous tip, Jared had followed the strange men (more like disguises than true personalities) to the parking lot, where they had helped him move a box marked DEPDEF into his trunk, where a faded Trump sticker still adorned the back.
It was understood he would give everything back when he was done.
An hour later, he had laid out the walking pad on the floor of his mobile home. His new life began then.
He looked at the smooth gray surface, like a blank screen or a portal.
Inside the circle were special footpads that slid back and forth, allowing him to walk in place convincingly.
When he put on the visor, he saw a brilliant but featureless plain around him, as profoundly real as it was empty.
He took a tentative step, and it felt like walking normally.
He could move freely in any direction, but had to take care. Nothing was holding him up. He appeared lost in open space, but his kitchen sink was three feet away.
This early version used as much power as his drone. The cooling pad hummed musically.
Then it had been time to begin.
He entered the code, and found himself standing in a fantastically, unbelievably detailed landscape unlike anything he could have imagined (he hadn't visited one of the new VRcades yet).
In that moment, he understood reality had been defeated. Only a long rear-guard battle remained.
He had waited for this his whole life.
He spent uncounted minutes walking over the crisp rocks of Mars, every black shadow and texture real as life.
The wild terrain continued for ten thousand miles in every direction, every grain of dust open to exploration.
Moving across a small asteroid, his viewpoint shrunk to the size of an insect to maintain Earth-like apparent gravity.
He rode a surfboard through the hyper-spectacular clouds of a gas giant.
This time, he did lose his balance in a terrifying moment of vertigo.
He fell against his unseen cupboard as the titanic clouds spun and towered above him.
He explored ongoing simulations, most of which didn't make much sense. What he could recognize was wildly imaginative.
It would be possible to live a full life in a simulated universe.
On the Omniverse Tour he saw unknown cities with immense monuments, creature bodyplans, machinery mechanical and organic, designs diverging without end.
The reality of parallel worlds was too great for the human mind to handle. Humans and humanoids formed a negligible fraction of human-level civilizations.
He remembered walls of Arab-like script to techno music.
His own life seemed very distant. It felt like being reborn.
At the end of the Tour, his last doubts were gone.
Reality was infinite and he was nothing.
It was liberating in a way. Perhaps that was the intended message.
He got off the treadmill and looked at the devices. They would become an extension of himself.
The Underground had radical new interfaces for online missions and simulations. But for them to work, Jared would have to be simulated by them too. A relatively simple feedback loop, but still extending the state of the art.
His decade of online labors had not been in vain, even if it had apparently made his life so predictable he was the prime candidate to become the first recursive person.
Well, one of the first anyway - never mind what might have happened to the others.
Thanks to his generally ignored online rants, he had given certain government monitors the impression of being unusually dangerous. Some easily confused monitoring software had become obsessed with him.
Parts of his profile had resembled those of spree shooters.
Taken together, these utterances and outbursts had contained enough of his essence for the Undergrounders' implementation of the World Mind to find him.
That was his best guess. Could also be aliens, the Matrix, magic.
Jared didn't understand how he would be simulated.
Could the simulation perform his online mission for him?
The FAQ explained it would simply interpret his intentions for him, so he could concentrate fully on the job.
He lost track of time exploring the potentially endless simulations, as normal life continued outside.
Now it was a month later, possibly his last month.
He was ready for some serious business.
Standing again on the endless plain, Jared was dealing with a new type of awareness. It would soon become part of him.
He mused it would be nice if someone would program a sex simulation for this new interface, but they were still at the stage of the Internet in the early 1990s, when only respectable people had access to the technology.
Or he simply hadn't found it yet.
He quickly clicked a dozen legal forms projected before him.
The first phase was a 3D calibration and virtual motion test. He had to move a ball through an endlessly twisting labyrinth by focusing and moving his eyes and body. His facemask tracked micro-expressions.
To speed up the induction, premium software detected instances of frustration and confusion before the user was even aware of them, and used them to generate new commands for common situations.
The exercise was more hypnotic than frustrating, though it demanded his full attention. In fact it was oddly compelling. So many tools, paths, and rules to learn.
His mind was being probed and scanned in subtle ways.
He had been hypnotized once at a county fair, standing in front of a crowd and then - nothing! Whatever he had said or done was missing.
How long had he been doing this already? He remembered a toilet break, the splashing going on and on.
The simulation would not just render locations but whole settings. He would become aware of the context and backstory as if he was really there.
A chime sounded, and the screen went black. It felt like fainting.
Then the curving facescreen, fifteen centimeters of infinity in front of his face, showed his trailer home from above, or at least a very good representation of it.
He was gliding like a magic carpet over his mobile home park in the evening light.
Rich sounds of crickets and cicadas, distant honking, air conditioners.
The digital model was stunningly detailed, a billion pixels per second, more like reality than computer graphics. No, better than reality.
He leaned over slightly, and his course changed as intended. The software even anticipated his wishes, generating relevant scenery moments in advance.
Portions of the scenery became transparent as he lifted higher over the green-brown landscape.
He looked down at himself standing in his cabin, the most accurate part of the simulation.
Pulling further back, the tri-county area curving into a darkening cloudscape filled with points of light.
Then lines started to appear, connecting all the dots below.
The Underground had been mapping the Net for years, their data presented in subscription-only executive reports.
Tens of billions of data points held together by overlapping grids, the main social networks brightest of all, like soaring over a galaxy at a trillion times lightspeed.
What had he gotten himself into?
Millions of groups, trillions of potential similarities.
Elite clubs for influential and interesting people, advanced game simulations, gossip and status networks for the wealthy and celebrities.
He spent the first hour scrutinizing some 'meta-rational coalition' he hadn't heard about.
The UberHoax Union claimed reality was a cruel simulation by an alien intelligence.
The allied X-Anomaly group was looking for evidence of paranormal events. Unfortunately, they had failed utterly to find any reality violation.
Even here Jared sensed depressing conformity, an unwillingness to dig deeper. Perhaps even the hoax sites were part of the hoax, as the world turned blander.
He was very close now, looking for something like a new religion, the most powerful one yet. It would show itself soon.
Outside his trailer, a distant gunshot, as the moon slowly circled the sky.
Final preparations took another day.
The AI induction used HyperLearning and Empathic algorithms. The Interface Constructor was the most powerful program he had ever experienced, allowing him to rapidly recreate situations from his past.
Preexisting modules added scenery from any decade, with millions of background textures and colors capturing the essence of each period.
It was as deceptively easy as floating down a river.
He merely had to compose a list of all the humiliations of his life.
The program prompted him to recall and describe embarrassing events, of which he had forgotten a surprising number through the years.
He would have preferred to create his own personal fantasy mansion and estate.
He realized almost all of his blunders had been caused by his inability to think and act fast enough.
His inability to sustain State-3 dreams prevented him from learning from them.
He didn't want to go back.
He had to go back.
It was time to relive The Event, the single incident that defined his absurd existence.
It also happened to be the most incredible thing that had ever happened to him or to anyone else.
The Event took shape in his mind like a fogbound monument, vague yet massively unalterable.
The simulation was an epic progression, an intense series of scenes like the plot of a recurring nightmare.
The data: for a few months long ago, he had held down a minimum wage job as an assistant janitor in the basement of a large department store.
Something had happened down there, as meaninglessly unpredictable as it was utterly impossible.
He focused so intently on the start that he forgot how it would end.
It had been an hour of failures, each feeding into the next with a wild inevitability.
Fail one had been to abandon his post for his daily bowel movement in the employee restroom (dereliction of duty). He'd lingered in the last stall, reading a National Enquirer article about an upcoming Bananarama tour.
He had returned to his basement work area to find an emergency situation in progress.
The unattended conveyor belt to the trash shredder was running. A pile of debris to be disposed of lay at the bottom.
At the top, a man was desperately grabbing on to an object about to fall between the shredding blades.
He saw it was a store display mannequin.
Due to his incompetence (Fail two) he never pressed the conveyor's emergency stop button, only a few steps away. He stupidly watched the scene unfold. Too much was off about it.
When the conveyer belt somehow did stop, the man pulled out not a mannequin but a living woman. They embraced at the top of the conveyor as he stared unblinking.
That was when he had first felt the balance of the universe shift, an infinite wheel beginning to tilt around him.
The woman at the top had then pointed at him, something they normally didn't do.
Apparently the mannequin woman was surprised that Jared could see her, which wasn't supposed to be possible.
One of the few occasions a female had acknowledged his existence was to point out his irrelevance as an ontological obstacle.
Let's call that Fail three, he decided.
He could have stood there forever. Clearly, the normal rules would never apply again.
There had been a rustling sound behind him, a muffled groan.
he turned automatically to the pile of debris that covered the floor, where he saw an arm sticking out.
Another store mannequin had just come to life beneath a pile of old discarded ones.
He walked over, bent down, and pushed aside the plastic torsos and bare limbs.
He reached and grabbed the arm, tugged on it, and with a mighty heave pulled up his own beautiful woman, who had come to life just for him. At that moment he knew that miracles could happen.
He remembered that when he had tried to hug and kiss her, she shuddered and momentarily went rigid as ice. There had been screaming, hitting, and slapping. It had been utter loathing, no, utter contempt, almost to the maximum.
That, my friends, had been Fail five.
Meanwhile, the couple had descended the ramp beside the conveyor belt and walked past.
They didn't acknowledge him, but in passing they greeted Jared's "mannequin", who he still thought had been brought to life, and whom he was still trying to hug.
In his mind, this moment had somehow come to represent a singularity of contempt. FAIL SIX.
At some point, a crowd had gathered in the basement behind him, but they soon went away again.
The second mannequin who had come to life had also made herself scarce as the situation rapidly resolved itself.
He was alone again, as irrelevant as he had ever been. Fail seven?
In a daze he looked around.
Everything that had just happened seemed to slide out of existence, as if time would return to its proper course, all the impossibilities canceling out, and the anomaly erased.
He sighed, and turned to start cleaning up the mess. Sweep sweep sweep.
He looked at the pile of discarded mannequins beside him. Time stopped.
Then he dove in.
Fail the eighth, or perhaps fail infinity, the smackingest disintegration of all time; an absolute ending - why it had been a veritable Valkyrie Ride of . . .
This had never happened.
Happened it had.
He pressed the giant red button to stop the simulation.
He stood in an immense rainstorm.
Around him was an impenetrable tangle of bushland.
Lightning flashed in the grayest of skies.
The flank of a hillside. Undulating terrain, shallow canyons and small rises. A few narrow trails wound between them. Water flowed down narrow streams.
The rain came down in sheets. This might be eternal rain.
He felt he could stay here forever.
Then this simulation also ended.
He was alone in a white void, free to move but perfectly trapped. Some people stayed here a long time.
He pulled off his visor, stumbled off the walking pad, and landed on his folding bed.
Outside his thick curtains, all was black.
Now he knew he was the world's biggest loser.
No, not quite the biggest. That was another delusion, part of his belief he was special.
He realized he had participated in an experiment to induce extremely powerful emotions.
Someone was hard at work learning about human reactions. This technique could find anyone's weaknesses.
They wanted to perfect emotional manipulation.
It was an amplification test.
His brain had been scanned, waiting for some crucial insight.
But it had been so real, even for a full motion 3D simulation. In fact it had been impossibly real.
It would have been nice if it had been raining outside, but all he heard was distant barking, and a strain of Mexican music or a recording of a muezzin chanting?
He remembered a more recent time in his life when he had felt this low. On that day, he had first walked into a Church of Scientology.
It hadn't taken much persuading by the recruiter standing on a nearby street corner, who had been quite hot as he recalled.
Jared realized the data used to create the session he had just experienced had come from his confidential Scientology auditing files, written down during the few months he had been involved. It was the only possible explanation.
The System control software was a new, immensely powerful AI, with flowcharts for every eventuality. Even so, it couldn't directly read his mind. It had still needed outside help.
That particular Scientology church had split off from their main organization, an unauthorized offshoot.
They must have sold The Underground a list containing all his humiliations, which had been used to tailor the session he had just experienced.
That list had included every bad and dramatic event of his life, and his delusions.
Where had his utterly authentic perception of The Event come from?
Undeniably real, but he couldn't recall thinking about it before. Like how the protagonists of the novel IT had forgotten their fight against the monster.
He had to get to the bottom of this.
His memories were fading fast, except for the certainty that it had been impossibly realistic, like a holodeck.
The simulation had changed him in subtle ways.
The people who had created it must have included a skilled mentalist or illusionist.
He thought they could persuade anyone of anything.
What would they do with these skills? For some reason he suspected they would make only small changes in the world.
The world was stranger than he knew.
All his illusions were false. All emotions were illusions.
Everyone was a robot who could be manipulated, and everyone would be controlled.
What had they done to his mind?
Nothing, he was the same as ever.
Except that he saw the future with the sudden clarity of a new dawn. That was new.
The insights appeared as fast as he could think, not unlike REM sleep, but at a higher level.
A war was coming. The world crisis would arrive faster than anyone expected. Communism would rule most of the planet in his lifetime, but their success would finish them. They would inevitably create their own successor. When too many communist factions started to compete for resources, they would start to eliminate each other. Only two sides would remain, representing stasis and change, order and revolution.
The conservatives and the radicals.
Jared had already experienced the radicals' outlook through The Underground's simulation tools. No doubt what side they were on.
They weren't dreamers but technocrats, alien motivations controlling elite skills.
They wouldn't need his help much longer. His dreams of a glorious future were dead.
Worst of all, the whole universe was absurd. Reality was a gigantic practical joke.
They would achieve his dream of a posthuman future, but he wouldn't live to see it.
He suspected tens of thousands of people had been contacted by the World Mind, though few had received his level of attention.
Maybe he could get The Underground to pay him for more mind experiments.
Since all was lost for him, he might as well have fun before the end.
Whatever could save him did not exist yet. He would have to create his own miracle.
He had to find a place to escape to.
Part of him knew that this time he would succeed.
Part of him knew he would most certainly fail, or perish with the Nazis.
Jared figured he had about one week to organize a much smaller political movement, to save himself and maybe a few others.
No one really listened to his online rants, so it would not be easy.
The government was currently trying to get control of NetCoin, the popularity-backed digital currency.
Jared checked his account. His web rants had earned him 0.4387024 coins so far.
But there was an unexpected message in his inbox from an admirer, a vague suggestion of a plan.
Awesome! Just what he needed now.
the odds of scoring a hole in one on every hole on a golf course were almost a googol to one, the same odds as guessing a random fifty digit password on the first try.
He liked those odds.
His new life finally underway, he ate breakfast and went to sleep for the next sixteen hours, and remembered no dreams.