One week passed since Staley liberated D’naia and Indigo and the willing others from their cattle car. They traveled about a hundred kilometers in the winter wildlands during that time, which tested the limits of D’naia’s constitution. They set up camps in the remains of ancient buildings and abandoned motorway tunnels. These countless hideouts were well-known oases to the humate nomads.
The fossilized, structural remains of the ancient empire captivated Indigo’s imagination. He wished he could comprehend the ancient signage, tediously spelled out in a long-forgotten, archaic, phonetic writing style. Neo-cuneiform, the writing technique of Gaiastan, was so much more efficient, Indigo thought.
He thought about the taxidermist who was left behind in the cattle car. She must have eventually succumbed to the elements. Neither the wolves nor the Overman would find her worth the trouble. She undoubtedly held on in the shadows of the car as long as she could, clinging tightly to her Gaians Bible with one hand and her immortality locket with the other. The flame of her locket, glowing with each refresh of her consciousness, would be her only evening light. It would die a day or so after her once hypothermia or dehydration finally stopped her heart.
The tribe of nomads, led by Staley, settled in at sundown within the remains of a stone lodge, eternally guarded by a cement statue of some female goddess of antiquity, perched atop the cliffs high above.
“Is that Diana? Did the ancients worship her?” D’naia asked, referring to the towering idol whose eroded face was emblazoned orange with the last rays of the descending sun.
Indigo shrugged his shoulders. Nothing was ever taught of the ancient religions other than that the only thing they got ‘right’ was that each was constructed around the doctrine of human sacrifice.
In the evening, the nomads were joined by others, swelling their numbers to over a hundred. Indigo was curious about the coincidental gathering and it was then that Staley informed him that the lodge was a rendezvous, of sorts. This added to his distress as he feared the arrival of the hovercraft and Motherland Security at any moment. He could barely reconcile betraying Staley, let alone an entire tribe.
“What are they coming for?” Indigo asked.
“They’ve come to see me, I imagine.”
“To see a spaceman?” Indigo asked. “So do they come because you’re a prophet or because you’re an oddity?”
“All prophets are oddities. But I think mainly they come for a big show.”
There were too many of them gathering, Indigo fretted. One or five or even ten humates, coalescing in the wilderness, was of no concern to the unmanned, atmospheric probes that patrolled the skies. But more than fifty humates might be cause for Gaiastan to send in an entire garrison of Motherland Security who could easily penetrate the nomad’s flint-tipped, perimeter defenses, round them all up, and haul them off to some rendering plant in the east. Even worse, perhaps Gaiastan might just dispense with a messy manned operation altogether and launch a rocket down on their little gathering, vaporizing them all in an instant. It made Indigo anxious. He felt his locket, fearing it was being pinged with locator pulses by the overhead probes at that very instant.
“Don’t worry,” Staley advised, as if he could read Indigo’s mind. “They know we come here. They eavesdrop on our little jamborees to find out what we’re up to. This place is of much more use to them intact than obliterated.”
“So why do you come here, then?”
“Because,” Staley whispered, “They think we’re too stupid to know that they’re listening. The gatherings here are a terrific means of infecting them with disinformation.” Staley pressed his finger to his lips and grinned.
Staley reached into his satchel and produced a strip of jerky. He cut off two pieces and handed one to D’naia and the other to Indigo. They chewed away at the leathery protein, warmed by the campfire, the smoke of which vented upwards through a hole in the roof. While they dined, a number of humates approached Staley from out of the shadows to offer him their gratitude and to shake his hand and touch his spacesuit.
“Peace be with you,” they would conclude before slipping away behind the fire and back into the shadows.
“Why do they say that?” D’naia asked.
“It’s their way of wishing me a safe journey,” Staley answered.
“Where are you going?” Indigo asked.
Staley smiled at Indigo. “For them, I’m taking up their cause. But for me, it’s not really where I am going so much as it is where I am returning from.”
“I don’t follow. Where are you returning from?”
“I’m finally returning from Mars.”
Indigo didn’t know exactly what Staley meant but sensed something bold was in the works.
“Do you know who Joe Hannan really was?” Staley asked, changing the subject.
“He said he was a Gaian… that they revealed too much too soon… and that he left the Paradigm.”
“That’s correct.” Staley’s voice fell back into a low whisper. “He knew too much. He knew everything. He knew how virtual immortality works. He knew how to enter it… how to control and manipulate it. He taught me a great deal in the short time I knew him, a lifetime of knowledge downloaded right into here.” Staley pointed to his temple. “Do you know that there are locket interfaces— kiosks— everywhere… old ones, forgotten access points.”
“One was our undoing.”
“I heard. I’m sorry for that.”
“Is Joe Hannan alive, then? Does he live on in Virtuality?”
“I don’t know. Part of him resides in my mind but I don’t know where else he might have gone. I don’t think he wanted any part of Virtuality. He came to a belief and faith in God. He was prepared for the spirit world and the afterlife.”
“He seemed convinced of it.”
“He showed me many of those kiosks and how to use them. Almost anyone here can take you to one. All they need is power and you can upload any locket there.”
“So we can upload ourselves?”
“Yes. If that’s what you want. But I have another request to make of you.”
“What is it?”
Staley handed Indigo his wineskin and motioned him to drink. Then Staley drank.
“Indigo, you are my only true friend alive in this world. You are my brother, not by gene but by our shared experience. I need you to do something for me. I need you to do this favor for me at any cost although I do not expect it to be terribly difficult. It is a task that will help me to complete my mission. And it will enable me to repay my debt… my debt to you, my debt to my people, and my debt to her.”
“Athena?” D’naia asked.
“Yes. Athena.” Staley drifted back momentarily to the Astarte. It took all of his power of free won’t to shut down his nightmare and return to reality. “It will save my people… these people that you see here. What you do for me is going to help change everything.”
“I’ll do anything for you, Staley,” Indigo declared. “What is it?”
“Here, take my locket.” Staley removed it from his chest and handed it to Indigo. Its glow faded as it was withdrawn from Staley’s brain and source of kinetic energy. “Take this. It is my mind. I trust only you with it. Have one of my people lead you to a kiosk so you can upload my consciousness there. This task, which I entrust to you, will enable me to fulfill my mission. Will you do this for me, my brother?”
“Yes, I will. But why me? Why don’t you do it?”
“Because the Sunstein Agent is coming for me. He comes for me this evening.”
“Then why are we waiting around here? We should go, now. We can slip out into the wilderness. We can live to fight them.”
“I have a deal for him. Besides, you can’t beat them that way, Indigo. Not now, anyway. Bows and slings are no match for hovercraft and energy pulse weapons. They’d annihilate us. No, we have to beat them another way. We have to infiltrate their thoughts, their minds… bit by bit… person by person. We have to slowly, methodically, persistently, relentlessly undermine the Paradigm. This is how they did it, Indigo. This is how they took over. It took them thousands of years but it’s how they did it. They corralled humanity into a single religion, a single science, a single philosophy, a single politic, a single hierarchy of power. They manifested their vision— the human hive mind— over the 3000 generations.
“And now, we will do the same to them, only in reverse, and much faster because our way is the way of nature. Remember, men are not bees, Indigo. The hive is an unnatural order for men. We will undue the hive mind… word by word, thought by thought, deed by deed, man by man. We’ll undue them from the inside like an infestation. At first tiny and undetectable, a single mite, then several dozen, then metastasizing until the infestation scatters all the worker bees and obliterates the hive. This transformation, my transformation will be one of the first steps.”
“So why let the Sunstein Agent take you? They’ll just reformat your brain and use you as a weapon against your cause.”
“My body is of no use in any battle against them. And my body will be of no use to them without my mind. They’ll try to reprogram my brain so that my body will serve their ends but the undermen are smart enough to tell a zombie when they see one.”
“But you’ll be dead.”
“No. I’ll be alive and alive inside of the hive mind.”
“It won’t be you. It will only be a copy.”
“It will be me. A perfect, virtual copy starting from this moment. We are all copies of ourselves, Indigo, copies reproduced every instant, each new version slightly different. Each moment something new is added. You are never who you were the instant before. Who you are at this moment is merely someone who remembers being you the moment before. We are constantly being reborn. Constantly presented and re-presented with the choice of many paths but always with the opportunity to change the path we’re on. My next version, if you can complete the upload, may not be organic but it will indeed be me. And I’ll be resurrected a million times more powerful, free of all the constraints of the physical body.”
Staley stood up and dusted himself off. He reached down and pulled Indigo up onto his feet. “It’s time to complete the mission.” He embraced Indigo and kissed him on the cheek.
At that moment, thunder roared from the heavens above. It was the terrible rumble of a Gaian hovercraft lowering itself down upon the lodge by its retro jets. Staley spoke directly into Indigo’s ear so no one else could hear.
“I know they tracked you here by your locket. I know you agreed to do this. But you are my brother, Indigo, and I forgive you. I forgive you for bringing the Sunstein Agents to me. I know you had no choice. And I need you to believe that I wanted you to bring them. I’m just sorry that it had to be you. It is just how it had to be. Please forgive me for doing this to you… for putting this burden on you. You are my brother and I love you. Now go. Take D’naia and escape into the wilderness. Stay with my people. Complete the upload. I will bargain with Mr. Lever for your souls. You are free.”
Staley turned Indigo around and shoved him towards the door. D’naia followed closely behind and they disappeared into the night. Staley grabbed his space helmet and latched it onto his head. He pulled down the flash shield and switched on the augmented reality.
The hovercraft fired its energy weapons at the roof of the lodge blasting a larger hole into it sending beams and concrete and dust down onto the floor below. The turbulence extinguished the campfire and Staley used the cover to slip out of the lodge and into the woods, navigating by his helmet’s display. He knew where everyone was at every instant.
He climbed a steep path that lead up the cliff, upwards to the base of the giant statue. He was spotted by other fleeing humates who then took up the path behind him, following Staley up, scrambling over boulders and fallen trees and roots, barely able to see in the darkness.
Motherland Security jumped down from the hovercraft, their thirty foot fall slowed by their pulse wave generator packs. Humates who resisted were pulverized, exploded into a mist of blood and bone chips and jellied flesh by the agent’s energy weapons affixed to their helmets at the temples. Motherland Security gave no chase to anyone else fleeing the scene. They were only in pursuit of Staley. They wanted him alive.
Up, up they climbed, Staley’s space suit covered in soot and dirt, his path mapped out before him in his visor. His followers struggled behind with their flint weapons and animal hides. Behind them gained Motherland Security, their agents cloaked in their light-bending, invisible suits, energy weapons armed, leaping along gracefully in five foot strides, aided by waves of inaudible sound. Motherland Security caught the lagging nomads from behind and shoved them to the ground as they passed them by, shocking them into paralysis with capacitors wired into their palms. But those pilgrims dusted themselves off and carried on, undaunted and un-fearing.
A whistling noise pierced the cold dark air as another nomad was atomized. Staley took to the rock face. He jammed his gloved fingers into the cracks and pulled himself up onto it. Hand over hand, foot over foot he climbed up the sheer wall, aided by the bulletproof, exo-musculature embedded in the fibers of his suit. Down below him it was dark. The dark hovercraft was outlined in glowing liquid crystal in Staley’s visor. He scaled upwards. A slip and a fall down into the darkness would be certainly fatal. He heard the screeching of the energy weapons again not far behind and below. He knew that people were dying. He had warned his followers not to resist but he knew they wouldn’t heed his warnings. They were ready to lose their life for him.
Another handhold. Another pull up. His lungs burned. His heart pounded. A shove up with his legs and he was finally at the top. He grabbed hold of a root and pulled himself over the ledge. He caught his breath at the base of the ancient idol. It grew quiet.
He stood up in the stillness. High in the western sky hung Orion, the hunter, his right shoulder Betelgeuse a dying ember. He removed his helmet and breathed deeply. The air was bitingly cold. He felt its chill deep down into his lungs as he drew breaths of it in.
Another nomad made it up over the ledge. Then another and another. They gathered in around Staley as if to defend him from Motherland Security which was closing in.
“We won’t let them take you,” one declared.
“Do not resist them. Resistance is futile. This is my destiny. Do not interfere,” Staley commanded.
“Your destiny is with us!” called another voice from behind them.
They turned their heads towards the voice but it was too dark to see who it was. The humates began to murmur. Staley sensed their fear of the invisible agents of Motherland Security. The humates were quite willing to die for Staley on that rock but not willing to be wasted pointlessly as if they were cattle in a slaughterhouse.
“Show yourselves!” Staley commanded.
The hovercraft lights illuminated the mountain top. The colossal statue, weathered by the centuries, stood silently gazing south with the crowd assembled at her feet. Motherland Security, bouncing on waves of sound, switched off their cloaking devices. A hundred of them appeared, encircling the tiny band of nomads.
From behind the base of the idol stepped forward the one whom Staley had most expected to see. It was Mr. Lever, bundled up in his oxblood overcoat and derby with ear muffs. Lever so disliked the alpine climate. His pistol was drawn but his hand trembled in the cold air.
“I said your destiny is with us, Mr. Staley,” Lever announced, just before bursting into a coughing fit.
The humates drew in even closer around Staley, brandishing their flint-tipped spears. Staley put his hands on their shoulders and gently pushed them away from him.
“I will go with you, Mr. Lever,” Staley responded, “but only under three conditions.”
“You are in no position to make conditions,” Mr. Lever responded, wiping the bloody mucous from his mouth.
“You will agree to my conditions or I will throw myself over that ledge. You can’t reformat a dead man.” Staley then pressed down the pointed spears of his followers. “Don’t be afraid,” he told them. “They won’t harm you if they want me alive. Lower your spears. Don’t you know that he who lives by the spear shall die by the energy blaster?”
His followers reluctantly lowered their Stone Age weapons.
“What are your conditions, then, Mr. Staley? Please hurry, it’s dreadful up here.”
“My conditions are this: First, you will let my people go, unharmed. Tell your Motherland Security to kill not a single one of them from this moment on. You have nothing to fear by them. They’ll scatter and hide as soon as you take me.”
“I suppose we can abide by that. Send out the order! What else?”
“You will let Indigo and D’naia go free. You will not track them down, ever.”
Lever laughed. “Terrific! That’s already been arranged. What else?”
“You will let them keep their lockets.”
Lever sighed. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he answered, nodding his head. “I’m afraid they’ve forfeited their immortality. I just can’t accept that condition. How about I…”
Staley wasted not one more moment. He pushed his way through the ring of humates and started to coil for a giant leap into the void. Lever immediately sensed Staley wasn’t bluffing.
Staley stopped just centimeters from the ledge, with his feet sliding towards the abyss and knocking a handful of gravel over the edge.
“Okay. Okay,” Lever pleaded. “That’s not a major issue for us. I suppose we can accept that as well. Just come back. Come back to us.”
“How do you know he’ll keep his word?” questioned a nomad.
“Because he’s a Sunstein Agent,” Staley answered. “They do not break their deals. It’s against their religion.”
 The concept of human ‘Free Will’ did not exist in the Gaian era. It was scientistically shown and accepted, without debate, that humans possess only the ability to suppress reflexive action (aka ‘Free Won’t’) and no capability to initiate non-reflexive action (aka ‘Free Will’)
 Betelgeuse went supernova in the year 5 BGE (Before the Gaian Era) For a year, the nights of the northern hemisphere were illuminated by what was the equivalent of a full moon. This event was widely thought to portend the changing of the Age and the fledgling Gaian movement capitalized on the superstition.
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