Lightning cut through the night sky of the Metropolis, for a split second illuminating jumped out of the alley and rushed in the direction of “Zone S” man. Such a rare natural phenomenon at this time of year, still so unrestrained by the scientists of corporations, it was one of the few things that could still occasionally please this fugitive, despite all of its energy static side effects.

As he ran, the man muttered something under his nose, touched the wrist with his free hand – and his shapes suddenly became less and less clear, as if merging with the surrounding reality, and after fifteen or twenty seconds he completely disappeared from the habitual to the inhabitants of the Metropolis photonic field of vision. As if in response to this astounding disappearance, another bolt of lightning lit up a fragment of “Zone D”, better known among Metropolis residents as the “derelict territory”, before finally dissolving into the endless blackness of the night.

Seekers of the Security Department had been searching for Thomas’s IDs and current location for several days after the highly publicized assassination of the head of “Symbionics” – the largest corporation in the Metropolis dedicated to the research and “improvement” of its gene pool, or to be more accurate – many forcefully imposed by the “League of Seven” genetical modifications designed to make their subdued inhabitants even more manageable and obedient, as well as to finally implement so cherished by the rulers of the past centuries dreams of super-soldiers creation.

Antonius Risario – almost immortal and permanent leader of the “Symbionics” for more than two centuries already, a member of the fearsome “League of Seven” – the unofficial government of the Metropolis, entirely consisting of the heads of the largest megacorporations – died as one of the brave while indulging in virtual carnal pleasures for his consciousness in a sealed segment of the neural network, while his body was safely guarded as he sat on a pedestal in his private quarters of own skyscraper with many neuro implants attached to his body. Antonius was a well-known lover of such evening “enlightenments of consciousness”, and as for Thomas… and for Thomas, the neural network has been his second home for a long time.

“Virtulex Enterprise” – the developer of neuro implants as well as the father, creator and perpetual curator of the entire neural network – would gladly issue a license worth millions of “credo” for the network profile of the still-undiscovered hacker – and this would be a fabulous sum for the mind and consciousness of the outcast, a song of praise to all the outcasts, still considered by “Symbionics” only as the by-product of badly gone initial super-soldiers experiments. One head of the hydra died. Will new ones ever grow?

On the run, still shielded from the city’s security cameras and occasional drones cruising over the houses by the field of space transformer – “stealthsar”, embedded in the torso of his stellar-suite, Thomas couldn’t help but smile.

“Your own weapons are destroying you, are they not, oh great and mighty of this world, who think of themselves as demigods?”

Each of these seven demigods, who thought of themselves as children of eternity and rulers of human destinies, could not escape their own fears, passions, and weaknesses.

"Do you believe that it’s you who hunt us down and sacrifice us like cattle? It’s we who are coming for you. And with each passing day, there are more and more of us.”

The space transformer, better known as the “stealthsar” – a marvel of engineering, a small device capable of shaping surrounding fragments of space, was his, Thomas’s, true salvation against the seekers.

Acting under the direct control of the “League of Seven”, the internal security service of the Metropolis greatly disliked such high-profile murders of the victim’s consciousness inside the net, followed by the inevitable death of its physical brain. And it was physically impossible for even the best of hackers to completely erase the traces of neuro-penetration from existence. Based on the smallest quantum fluctuations, through complex calculations, the seekers will eventually calculate the network coordinates of his initial entry into the neural network as well as the point of disconnection, and establish a projection of correspondence between the virtual and physical worlds.

That way they’ll learn the coordinates of Thomas’s last hideout. But by that time he would be in his new home. And then the call will sound.

* * *

Step. Step. Jump. Another jump. Thrust. Landing and somersault.

Miniature jet engines, embedded in the legs of the stellar-suit, successfully overcome the five-meter-tall wall that is separating the tiny by Metropolis’s scale “Zone S” from the unofficial territory of the outcasts, the government territories in “Zone W” as well as “Zone A” – the domain of megacorporations. Here it is – the great battlefield of the past and only a technological cemetery at present.

This area has not been seriously guarded for many years. The winners had built multimeter walls around its perimeter with a minimum set of sensors to ward off mutated stray animals – byproducts of yet another series of “Symbionics’s” experiments – as well as all the homeless. Apparently, corporations didn’t regard this territory as being capable to inflict damage to their plans. Well, it’s their loss.

Fifty earth years ago, it was a field of fierce battles between the Resistance and corporations. In these times, half of a century ago, the spirit of people was different. Unbroken. Unsubdued. Living. But now this was only a graveyard of both technology and memory.

Thomas badly remembered the details of those years – back in these ancient and half-forgotten under corporate propaganda times he was still a teenager. He vaguely remembered once hearing a call that came through all visor channels. The call to remember who we really were – not enslaved by sweet lies of corporations, capable of thinking clearly and remembering the purpose of our coming into this world. The call to fight against universal and omnipresent control, mass surveillance and lies, against moral degeneracy which has become the new norm, imposed on people around the world.

The call to search for their children and loved ones who have been taken away “for the common good” by corporations. The call to get rid of gene-chips and licenses. The call to fight by force of arms, should the time demand so.

Back then, fifty earth years ago, like an eternity in miniature – it was primarily a peaceful call. But already formed by this time from the heads of the largest corporations that entangled the Earth like a web, the “League of Seven” instantly realized the potential scale of the threat of this call to maintain its status quo.

“Ada” – the heart of the neural network, an artificial intelligence named after the first programming language and designed for its self-maintaining and self-control, in a matter of mere minutes located and analyzed network profiles and coordinates of almost all leaders of the Resistance and released combat drones and seeker robots on their trail.

Missile drones and first prototypes of “battle mechs“ – gigantic robots that towered high as buildings – in a matter of days had vanquished all the most desperate areas of resistance on the surface, driving the survived leaders of the Resistance into the catacombs beneath this zone. Then all located exits to the surface were blocked, and robots that were put on combat duty had been patrolling this territory for about a month. For several months after this massacre, people from the security department in black-as-night tessa-suits had been coming to arrest the identified “sympathizers” in order to transform them into material for new monstrous corporate experiments. In those days they came after Thomas’s parents as well.

This was what Thomas still remembered, still kept his very vague memories in own primordial, natural, unchipped memory, unlike so many of the newly grown humans. He learned the rest by scouring the neural network’s backup segments, abandoned and forgotten by all but the neuro-hackers and the earliest of the net-runners.

“Do you believe that you have won once and for all? Then let your pride and arrogance continue to blur your vision. We were born to change your new world order.”

* * *

Moving carefully between the ruined remnants of past technologies, continually scanning the road with his info-visor, Thomas traveled deeper into “Zone S” in search of the previously discovered treasure. But his thoughts wandered far from these tragic places.

…Once upon a time, uncountable ages ago, we could be called as humans by right. We were capable of thinking. We were still intelligent. Who are we now – bereft of families and grown in test tubes in the bowels of biofactories new servants for the “great ones” of this world?

…We have forgotten ourselves. We have forgotten the past and therefore can no longer foresee and make our own future. In the half-erased archives of the neural network, there was almost no data left about these times when people were truly free. When they had their own thoughts and feelings. When their body and spirit belonged to them. When they had their countries and families. When there was no such thing as planet-wide Metropolis. When they weren’t food for corporations. When they were alive.

…We gave them ourselves willingly. All in all, all of this started so usually, casually. Just some smartphones, watches, and homes that were transferring bits and pieces of information about ourselves into completely unknown hands with each passing day. Just some global network profiles, recreated from these informational fragments. Just almost deadly accuracy in predicting the behavior of individual citizens and entire states afterward. Just the owners of megabanks and founded by them corporations, generously paying with virtual digital “credo” for these databanks of knowledge about ourselves. By giving them our true selves, we became false afterward.

…In the course of evolution and improvement of “Ada” “smart cities” became too smart and too sharp-sighted, and “smart houses” became too talkative. Routes, habits, addictions, fears and phobias, diseases, diets, graphs of social relationships and everything else that had anything to do with the notorious “personal data” were compiled and analyzed. When the very concept of “personal data” disappears – the personality vanishes as well… or vice versa. Having gained all this knowledge about ourselves, corporations have moved on to the stage of creating their new digital slaves.

…Were finally absorbed and merged into a single entity all planet’s states, and this day was recorded in history under the name of “Unification”. Bringing to a single lowest common denominator all of mankind’s accumulated knowledge and experience for the sake of their preservation exclusively among the new planetary rulers. Corporations created new laws, and their constituent megabanks enslaved most people through the interest rate system. “Credo” – the new financial unit – became the most coveted food for many. A new Earth God, if you will. That’s the way a man is made: there must always be someone above him whom he can rely on in times of need, or shift his own responsibility in times of greed.

…New laws heeded the spirit of the new age. Corporations appropriated the right to take away necessary or undesired people from almost any family. Thus a material for numerous experiments was born. When there are neither states nor families – everyone starts caring for himself, and the security department that was subordinated to the “League of Seven” was as skilled in dealing with outcasts as no one else.

…Control over the mind of another for the greater good of everyone – what can be more humane? But the new lords of thoughts understood only their own good instead of public. The neural network – a virtual “I” for everyone – replaced the internet and network profiles. A brave new world in a world much more terrible, the horrors of which manifested themselves even when one was wearing “new reality glasses” and similar gadgets that were capable of altering the perceived picture of reality in accordance with the owner’s desires. And the more dreadful the physical world became, the more attractive the neural network seemed to many.

…Neural network travelers – net-runners – became popular and ubiquitous. Some were on corporate intelligence-gathering missions, some were simply exploring newly opened opportunities, some were searching for spies and hackers. And someone – people like Thomas – became these hackers. But “Virtulex Enterprise” was the father and the maker of the neural network and the only manufacturer of bodily neurochips required in order to enter the network. At least until recently.

…After the suppression of the Resistance’s rebellion the licensing mechanism was forcefully imposed. According to the plans of corporations, it had to prevent the very possibility of an incident’s repetition and to finally solve the question of the cost of human life. Licenses were diverse: some represented the officially given permission, issued by corporate managers or closely integrated with them criminals, to eliminate people that were undesired by them; others – a “granted from the above” forgiveness for a number of past crimes; finally, the third type, most valuable for the majority – licenses for a life or, in other words, for the right not to be turned into a battle thrall for “Military International”, or not to be transformed into a gene-mutant in the hands of scientists from “Symbionics”, or even “to serve as fertilizers” for “Sunny Soils Agriculture”. From the moment the databases on each personality of the Metropolis ended in the hands of corporations and were adapted for their needs by “Ada”, the fate of these big game’s pawns was in the hands of new players. And in order to make a man either a saint or a criminal, to elevate him to the top of the corporate ladder or to plunge him into the depths of poverty and helplessness, it was enough to change just one record in the neuro-base.

…Interestingly, how much in the eyes of corporate elites would a license for Thomas’s liquidation cost?

* * *

All these thoughts slowly floated inside Thomas’s mind while he, guided by signals of his info-scanner, used the built-in capabilities of the stellar-suit – now gracefully levitating, now easily leaping from one spot to another, moving to the location of his awaiting treasure.

Powered by the Earth’s gravitational field, “stealthsar” reliably shielded him from the occasional flying drones or scanning beams of “monitors” – packed with electronics ground and orbital tracking stations with which “Military International” – a leading developer of weapons and security systems – had now built up almost two-thirds of the Metropolis.

“Stealthsar” was the answer to all types of surveillance: if necessary, it could completely absorb, creating a shadow, or allow to completely pass by, without revealing the source, all photons or radio waves of specified frequencies and lengths, as well as send to the null channel various types of emissions, as a matter of fact making its owner invisible to electronic radars and for quite armed eyes-cameras of drones.

It was an experimental model, created by scientists of the new Resistance on the basis of stolen from the neural network scientific project of “Military International”. And the only one of its currently known shortcomings was this “experimental” label. But one could not live without the risk of its in-combat battle testing.

“Shall we play hide-and-seek, guys?”

Info-scanner’s sensor and a global positioning module of the stellar-suite jointly announced the fact of his target’s location acquisition. The neuro-helm’s visor obediently formed a route map in front of Thomas’s eyes. Jet engines, mounted on the legs and feet of the suit, softly roared and pushed Thomas’s body in the indicated on the map’s direction.

* * *

Chipset and virus. Or is the virus just an upcoming and well-deserved payment?

This chip, which Thomas was now gently rolling in his hands so that the info-scanner could create and save inside its local memory full gelogramma of its structure, was, perhaps, the pinnacle of engineering and scientific developments of scientists of the Resistance who died half a century ago. How many decades were they ahead of their time, how far were they from the scientists of insane corporations?

The chip was definitely a part of some kind of super-project, involved in the ways of breaching the neuro-net’s primary firewalls that was just becoming self-aware at that time. The small underground complex that Thomas had recently found in this sector of “Zone S” was definitely related to the destroyed rebel base, which had been miraculously partially preserved here at a depth of several dozen meters. Despite all the satellite and ground-based surveillance technologies that corporations had acquired over the past decades, they had not yet been able to penetrate that depth with their all-seeing eyes.

Thomas discovered the entrance to this ruined rebel compound almost by accident. Who could have known that these stone piles, closing the descent into the tunnel leading inside these catacombs, are in fact just a very high-quality hologram working on an autonomous solar battery? How miraculously this battery lasted for almost fifty years – only God of engineers knows.

The chip resided in neocrysolite energy crystal, smoothly levitating above the surface next to a pile of dilapidated terminals and cryobiogenetics capsules that had long since been shut down without backup power sources. And the most valuable to Thomas in this nondescript-looking crystal structure was the code written inside it.

The initial and very superficial analysis carried out by the info-scanner’s debug module during Thomas’s initial visit here demonstrated its original purpose – hacking the firewalls of the neural network for breaching into its protected segments. Ones such as private virtual quarters of the members of the “League of Seven”.

An ingenious combination of software loopholes and techniques that allows you to use the original inherent in the program code of “Ada” self-analysis capabilities for the purpose of self-disclosure. And as the recent history of Antonius Risario’s sad ending has already shown – this still considered experimental code of engineers and programmers of the defeated Resistance – or the virus, if you like – was practically working option. The key to the salvation of the human race. The beginning of the end and a new beginning. A machine virus in response to a human virus. What an irony.

The New Resistance wasn’t born in one instant. After the untraceable death of Thomas’s parents as “sympathizers” in the clutches of corporations, for many years he had lived as a wanderer. He worked as a neural network info bulletin messenger, a neuro-analyst, a neuro-implant salesman, a network tracker for jealous husbands, even a bouncer at the virtsex club. But in the own mission and destiny, Thomas was and remained a neuro-hacker. And it was the neural network where he once started the search for survived members of the Resistance and their descendants.

That was about five years ago. And now when the surviving descendants of the Resistance leaders had re-established their headquarters deep in the catacombs of “Zone D”, and the scale of their activities had taken over the top management of corporations, Thomas finally understood his ultimate purpose.

* * *

Thomas didn’t count how much time had already passed. His supplies of liquefied oxygen and food would last for at least another twenty or so hours. And then – it would all be a matter of skill, fate and at least a little bit of good luck.

At all costs, he needed to modify the program code of the neuro-virus found on this chip, so that the hacking of private segments in the neural network of still surviving leaders of the “League of Seven” couldn’t help happening. He learned the weaknesses and addictions of each of them by heart a long time ago.

Second. Minute. Hour. The artificial intelligence in the debug module of his info-scanner disassembles and piece by piece reunites bits and bytes of code, analyzes algorithms and highlights recommendations on the stellar suit’s neuro-helmet.

Artificial intelligence surpassed natural one a long time ago. Or maybe humans have just failed to uncover their innate natural potential, too much relying on program code and machines? The code of the virus against the code of the “Ada”’s neural network. The battering ram facing the walls. Freedom versus slavery. And – at least the slightest bit of good luck.

During the final stages of the code’s alteration, Thomas was distracted by the growing buzz of sound. May the sniffer robots don’t find him here. Having copied the modified code into the stellar-suit’s memory module, Thomas switched his info-scanner into the battle-tracking mode and started climbing to the surface.

* * *

He seemed to be awaited on the surface. Or, perhaps, they decided to temporarily enhance their patrols?

Dozens of missile drones were dashing through space, scanning the surface near Thomas with light beams and radio waves. Somewhere in the distance, their noise was echoed by the humming of “monitors”. Apparently, they haven’t discovered Thomas, who was shielded by “stealthsar”, yet. What had alarmed them, where did this patrol come from?

Wasting no more time, Thomas rushed in the direction of his “Zone D”’s hideout. It’s there where he will have to get in touch with the leaders of the new Resistance and it’s there, in his underground neuro-laboratory, where the virus capable of breaching the AI’s protection will be released into the network.

* * *

Jump. Somersault. The drone’s laser beam melts the rock and plastic where Thomas just stood, turning them into a boiling, bubbling muck. Another jump. Activation of the RF interference module. Warning sound from the target acquisition and detection module, telling of a guided and approaching missile.

Following Thomas’s brain impulses, the stellar suit’s neuro-interface did almost everything it could to evade the pursuit, occasionally throwing his body to the right, then to the left, or even throwing him into a dive at times.

Space transformer – “stealthsar” – failed him in the most inopportune moment, when after emerging on the surface Thomas tried to activate jet boosters. A fucking experimental model! The gravitational energy converter inside it had failed and switched to a backup power supply directly from the core of the stellar-suit so that Thomas could now and then be detected either by visual traces of the jet engines or simply by the most primitive radio frequency scanning. Damn it!

Another laser beam turned into gelatinous slime the remnant of a half-century-old rebel prototype of modern mechs a few meters ahead of Thomas. Ugh!

If only to reach, fly, jump, whatever! Get to his refuge and have enough time to release the virus into the neural network. It would take at least a few dozens of minutes for the sniffer robots to break into his neuro lab underground.

Another jump. Acceleration of free takeoff. Dodging from a dozen of “smart” self-guiding “friend or foe” bullets. Activation of a field of constant electromagnetic pulses in order to burn the electronic chips of these flying back petty bitches. Bullets fall down like impotent crumbs in a couple of meters before him as if in some fantastic movie from forgotten by everyone past.

Here comes another laser beam, burning through the night. Evasion attempt. A fragment of the beam passes over Thomas’s left hand, instantly turning two fingers into a blackened skeleton. Neurostimulants and painkillers injected into his bloodstream by the suit’s artificial intelligence system. A flash of pain cuts through the brain, and Thomas’s mouth cries in a silent scream. Only not to lose consciousness from the initial pain shock!

Jumping again. The roar of jet propulsion behind him. Endless attempts to activate the gravitational energy converter. Stellar-suit core charge readings at twenty-three percent. It should be enough.

And once again, the laser beam cuts through the darkness like a lightning, descended from heavens, only by purely machine-human will that time. Or maybe purely machine-made.

The response finally surges from the gravitational energy converter. Just in time! Come on, don’t let me down again!

The familiar spiral vortex of energy that surrounded Thomas’s body. Shimmering as if in the northern lights colors of the visible visual spectrum. The space transformer is back in action! Now he will be able to break away from his pursuers and win a few extra dozens of minutes.

Turning on maximum thrust mode and now ignoring the rapidly diminishing charge indicator of the stellar-suit’s internal battery, Thomas raced toward the place of the impending call.

* * *

Embedded in the walls of this shelter and connected by thick power cables running deep from the old nuclear reactor, news visors vied with each other to announce the discovery and impending elimination of the killer of one of the members of the “League of Seven”.

“Thanks to the security measures taken to date by the forces of corporate net-runners together with the top management of the corporation and the internal security service of the Metropolis, we have located Thomas Robinson – the main suspect in the murder of our beloved head of “Symbionics”, a neuro-hacker and a descendant of sympathizers with the insurgents that were destroyed half a century ago.

The interim head of “Symbionics” corporation granted a license to all interested parties for liquidation of Thomas Robinson worthy of fifty million “credo”. At the moment the internal security forces are determining suspect’s exact coordinates…”

Thomas switched off the quantum transmitter’s encryption module, took a deep breath, inhaled the stale air of his neuro lab, and slightly rolled for fun in the makeshift, dilapidated chair in front of the terminal.

Everything was going as it had to be. There was no other way. The communication session with the leaders of the new Resistance that bypassed the neural network was completed, the virus code along with the information about the vulnerable entry points into the personal segments of the remaining six leaders of the corporations were all transferred. Pre-recorded videos and texts addressing the citizens of the Metropolis, along with his farewell word, were uploaded to an encrypted fragment of the neural network and after a couple of dozens of minutes will be relayed to the visors of millions of Metropolis’s residents simultaneously with the work of the virus code.

The hydra of the new digital world will fall – and may any God who still hears us prevent it from rising up again. But it would not be his choice. Today he had already made his own.

Out of the corner of his eye, still looking through the news feeds on his visors, Thomas glanced at the internal cameras in the escape tunnels of his hideout, once built above an underground nuclear power plant. The cameras, dimmed by the gas that had started to spill through the tunnels, showed the silhouettes of sniffer robots and internal security troopers in black-as-night tessa-suits.

“No, guys, it’s not your day after all. And even more so – tomorrow.”

Here one of the soldiers is shouting something to others, pointing down. Firing of the laser rifle – and the image on one of Thomas’s security cameras goes black.

“Thomas Robinson! You are charged with the murder of the head of “Symbionics” and will be eliminated on sight without additional warning in the name of peace and prosperity of the entire Metropolis!”

Amplified by audio transmitters voice floods Thomas’s underground control room.

“Come on, beasts, show yourself! Show me what you can do. And then I’ll show you.”

Explosion roars from the above. Dust falls from the cabin’s walls.

“You’ll become dust, don’t you already know that? You have been transformed into dust willingly a long time ago when you swore an oath to your dead corporate gods.”

The clang of the jaws of sniffer robots that are gnawing through concrete.

“Dogs of the dead regime. Will you ever be humans again?”

The sound of cursings behind the last massive titanium-ceramic door that is separating two completely different worlds. Dents and sparks flying from it.

“Thomas Robinson, you have no chance of escape!”

“You are the ones who have doomed themselves a long time ago.”

Turning in his chair for the last time, with a bitter smile on his face, Thomas picked up a small cube of the prepared neutrino detonator. His fingers hesitated for a moment, but then tightened on the trigger. He raised his head proudly to face the crumbling door, trying to imprint those final chords deep in his soul.

“Come in!” he said loudly.