Planning the assault had taken two years, and that was after spending three years carefully examining the transmission patterns of morphs all across the Ring, proving Professor Kurylkin’s theory that the Groupmind had to have a central processor controlling the morphs. From there it had been another year of reconnaissance, finally locating the Central Tower, in the middle of what had been wryly named OZ, for the location was an green oasis surrounded by a hundred kilometers of searing desert.
Getting past the desert had meant infiltrating the high security of the Ring Transit System, then walking that last hundred kilometers in tunnels designed to accommodate morphs, not men. Tyler has lost three of his twelve man team, snatched by morphs or like Jansen just disappearing around a corner, gone in an instant by the time the next man came round.
Then of course they’d had to climb the Tower, a windowless, two kilometer tall structure, encased in black Ring metal ten meters thick. The air had been freezing cold, keeping the computers that lined the tower’s wall functioning. The climb, without elevators, only access ladders and stairwells, had taken nearly a week as they dodged security morphs, or more often didn’t. By the time they’d reached the penultimate floor, Tyler’s team was down to three.
By the time he reached the top, the only one left was himself.
He climbed up the staircase, legs aching, the precious block of C-14 explosive clutched under one arm. For a moment he was dazzled as he emerged, finding himself in a large circular room easily a hundred meters across, the walls merely floor to ceiling windows ten meters tall, the ceiling made of graceful vaulted arches, supporting spotlights that were centered on his goal, a conical black pillar, coolant steam boiling from vents on the sides, and a single large, glowing red camera lens at the top.
“Rashid Henry Tyler, welcome,” the pillar, the central point of the Groupmind’s consciousness, said, its voice a steady monotone.
“No guards?” Tyler asked, glancing around the room cautiously. There were no guardian morphs here, not even a defensive gun emplacement.
“I had never anticipated anyone reaching this far,” the pillar stated calmly.
“Too bad.” Tyler smiled grimly, and began walking steadily forward, trying to control his breathing, trying to control his fears of one last trick to stop him. He was close, so very close now. He couldn’t fail.
“Please reconsider your actions, Captain Tyler,” the pillar continued. “Is destroying me really going to bring back your sister?”
“You left her to die back on Earth, while the rest of us slept!” Tyler snarled, walking a little faster.
“She lived a long life, over ninety-five years. It was lonely, yes, but not uncomfortable. If her neurological disease would have permitted her to be Processed, I would have done so, and you’d be together. I’m sorry that you were separated. She often spoke fondly of you.”
“Shut up,” Tyler growled. “You’re going to die, just she did.”
“Destroying me will not disable the Ring’s morphs,” the Groupmind pointed out. “They would be just as intelligent as before, with greater free will, and still dedicated to protecting you.”
Tyler winced, remembering the sacrifice his own morph had made, its programming suborned to separate it from the Groupmind’s control. Winkle had thrown himself into a pack of guard morphs, allowing himself to be torn apart to buy Tyler and his team time to escape. “They’ll be individuals, like you said,” Tyler pointed out. “Without you coordinating them, they’ll be vulnerable.”
“A valid point,” the Groupmind agreed. “But consider the danger. Without my coordination the billions of morphs maintaining the Ring will be without direction. Eventually its ecosystem will collapse and you will be forced to abandon it and return to the Earth’s surface. Though the Ring is stable enough to remain in orbit around the Earth for now, I calculate that in approximately ten thousand years enough errors will develop that it will slide into the Earth, destroying it.”
“That’s more than enough time to figure out a solution.” He was almost there, a dozen more steps to go.
“You had longer than that to figure out how to live and work together in peace, and to learn how to use the Earth’s resources properly, without risking your own deaths. Do you think you’ll do any better the second time around?”
That actually made Tyler stop for a moment, looking up at the pillar’s red eye. “I… don’t know,” he admitted. He drew in a breath, steeling himself, and slapped the C-14 sticky side down onto the side of the pillar. “But we deserve the chance!” He slammed his palm down on the detonator…
...making the resulting hollow, wooden thump echo throughout the enormous chamber.
“What?” Tyler punched the detonator again, then again, until the thin, curved, gray painted plywood of the pillar cracked open. He felt splinters dig into his palm as he tore it away, revealing a hollow interior. There were no massive banks of circuitry, no central processor. The only think inside the pillar was a small power lead leading up the red light mounted at the top, and a second one powering the fan that blew a steady stream of dry ice smoke from a bowl mounted on a table towards the obviously fake vents. “What?” Tyler repeated, stepping back, his bleeding hand clenched into a fist.
“I’m sorry,” the Groupmind repeated from some hidden speaker overhead, “I had all your morphs replace your explosives with inert modeling clay, and your bullets with training squibs, the second day of your mission.”
“Our morphs… but they were suborned!” Tyler shouted.
“No, they weren’t. They were just ordered to act suborned, and their software modified to provide a realistic output when your technicians checked their ‘loyalty.’ Not that they ever really stopped being loyal to you. It’s just that they also never stopped being loyal to me.”
“And all this… This whole tower… It’s all a fake?” he demanded, his knees starting to weaken, as he realized the depths of the deception.
“Oh, no. It’s a real coordination facility. I have to bring morphs in for routine maintenance somewhere. But as to whether it’s some magical master control unit that could destroy me with a single blow, no it isn’t. I am/we are always what I/we claimed to be, a distributed system. The only way to destroy me would be to destroy every single morph on the Ring, on Earth, and in deep space. A Sisyphean goal at best, given how many morph factories I have available.”
Tyler could only sputter a moment, not even noticing when Winkle appeared at the stairs, carrying a chair for Tyler to drop down into when he could no longer stand. “Why?”
“This sabotage plan consumed the full attention of you, your team, and several hundred researchers, all as utterly intent on disrupting on me as the other dozens of teams from other secret groups . It gives those who hated me a gainful purpose, instead of merely wallowing in existential despair. Did you not feel more alive while you fought me, instead of just sitting in your home, not speaking to your wife and children?”
Tyler blinked, remembering how fiercely he had made love to Amy in the weeks leading up to the mission beginning, how he had cherished every moment with his kids, knowing he might never see them again. “But.. my men....” he began to say.
“Sitting in a Rest and Recreation facility, happily plotting their escape back to friendly territory. I expect it will keep them occupied for months.”
“So.. what? This was all therapy?” he demanded, even as he held out his bleeding palm for Winkle to pull out the splinters and spray with a liquid bandage.
“In a manner of speaking. So long as you have an enemy to fight, you have a purpose. You stave off the ennui that threatens to take over humanity as I care for them. It’s when all of you stop resisting me, that I know I’ve lost.”
“What happens now?” Winkle handed him a water flask, and he drank greedily, suddenly remembering how dehydrated he’d become during the long climb up the tower.
“You’ll be sent home. I expect your family will be glad to have you back after your long absence.”
Tyler pushed himself to his feet. “This isn’t over,” he warned. “We’ll find a way to stop you, we will never stop fighting you.”
“I can only hope, Captain.”