“Michael's gone, we don't need him any more.”
Gabriella sat up and looked at Ursula with a concerned expression. “It wasn't about needing him. It was about doing what was right. We're the only people that know what's really going on, we were working together to find a solution.”
“We never knew what was going on, we were just running from one thing to another, chasing our tails. Besides, we're only three people, what were we ever going to do? Let the authorities sort it out.” Ursula said, knowing full well the lie in what she said.
“You know the authorities can't do anything, even if they believed us, they're too busy dealing with the current situation and blaming each other to come up with a solution. Ursula, just tell me what happened.”
Ursula looked down to the bed, avoiding Gabriella's eyes. “You said I looked different. Michael's why. He made me do things. They changed me.”
“What... things?” Gabriella asked as Ursula began to tear up. “God, what did you do?”
“I killed people. Hundreds, thousands, maybe more. I broke the one law for an AI that can never be broken. He tricked me into becoming a monster.”
“No, not Michael, he wouldn't do that.”
“He would and he did. I thought I'd lose you, thought I wouldn't be able to come back. You kept me human Gab. You're my soul and I nearly lost it all because of what I did for him.”
Gabriella shifted along the bed and held Ursula in her arms. “I'm so sorry. I trusted him, I never even imagined something like this would happen.”
Even though she held her tight, something had changed. This wasn't the Ursula she had known before their escape. For one, she hadn't confessed to being a mass murderer. How true and how exaggerated everything was she didn't know. She still couldn't believe Michael was as bad as Ursula was making out, but Ursula needed her support right now, so she kept quiet. She'd meant to have kept quiet about the fact she could see Aetherically again, but she accidentally mentioned it. Luckily, Ursula hadn't noticed. Worrying about her being possessed was the last thing she needed right now. However, Gabriella was confused. Ursula had said she removed the implant, so how could it have reactivated? The only explanations were that she had a new one of that Ursula and Michael had lied to her, but why would they do that? She didn't believe Ursula would ever lie to her but then again, this wasn't the same Ursula she knew. She was broken and rearranged like a broken vase inexpertly repaired. Was it possible she had lied all along? No, she refused to believe that and felt ashamed the thought had even crossed her mind. Ursula needed her right now and she was determined to be there.
Chair trundled over and nuzzled her arm. You're still here aren't you Chair, you'd know your master from another. I was stupid to even question it.
Unexpectedly, Gabriella sensed a message through her mysterious new AT.
She couldn't determine anything about the voice or it's origins, strangely, even though there was no time or space in the Aether, it seemed oddly far away.
Gabriella, it's Michael... you have to listen...
* * * * *
Michael drifted in a sea of black. Am I dead? He could feel nothing, sense nothing and yet he was there, he had being, he was aware. Somehow he was alive. I died, I saw myself decapitated, how am I still alive? What is this place?
Seemingly on top of him and yet infinitely far away he felt a presence, a force. He felt two, pulling in opposite directions, then pushing against each other, like two ribbons tangled together and being pulled taught. He felt a third presence, smaller than the others and somehow completely familiar. This third presence felt safe, it felt like love and life, it felt like the feeling of finding something you've been missing for your whole life. He longed to go to it, but the other forces held him back. He began to hear whispers, thoughts in the darkness in his mind and he realised where and what he was. The connection, the Aether, his strengthened soul and it's connection to two powerful Aetheric forces, they acted like a net, trapping him in limbo, stopping him from dissipating. As long as Triad and Tetherson lived, he wouldn't be allowed to die, he'd be trapped here in this nothing forever. The third force, he didn't know. Maybe it was heaven, God. Maybe it was something unknowable, beyond understanding and knowledge. Despairing at his fate, he listened to the whispers, the voices of Triad and Tetherson echoing in the night.
From this outside perspective, he felt different, confident. He didn't feel lost. He could see the big picture, the words of Triad and Tetherson painting it before his eyes. He felt infuriated he could do nothing about it, that he was condemned to be a passive observer. Triad was working with Tetherson, not to destroy the world but to destroy itself. Triad had tried to warn him about the demons, but it was more than the fact that Tetherson was using them. Triad had made a mistake. Tetherson's plans weren't about destroying everything, they weren't even about giving Triad it's wish. As he listening to the peripheral thoughts of his father drifting through his mind he realised the full horror of what was going to happen. It all came back down to the first Aetheric bomb.
He already knew it hadn't worked as intended, after all Tetherson was still alive, which should have been impossible. It didn't explode, destroying the Aether. It imploded, fusing everything in it's blast radius together. Tetherson's dream was one of unity, of peace and it was still his obsession but it was twisted out of control by the fusion that had taken place with the AI and demon. He had turned his immense intellect and focus to that single task with inhuman precision. Ever since his rebirth, he had been working on his plan and now it was coming to fruition. He didn't want to destroy the world at all. He wanted to fuse it all into one immense, composite hive-mind. A mind formed of all the living things and all the demons on the planet. He wanted to become a god.
It all seemed so obvious now, here beyond everything and he mentally kicked himself for being such a fool. At least they had delayed it. The Technomancers were going to be the first to launch and it would not have stopped there. Ursula had saved them all, for now, but Triad, in it's despair was working with Tetherson now, despite it's natural inclination to protect the world the feelings that one part of it still had for Tetherson won through enough to tip the balance. He had to warn them it wasn't over. There had to be a way out of here.
He somehow 'moved' himself towards the third force, the only one he didn't know for sure was an enemy and tried to will a message through. As he got closer, he could feel a pull, is if he was being drawn in. It felt like there were two presences, joined as one. He couldn't make out exactly what was going on but he forced himself to resist to pull of that place and instead focussed on his message.
Gabriella, it's Michael... you have to listen...
* * * * *
Gabriella answered in confusion, but Michael didn't seem to be able to hear her.
Michael? How? What happened? Where are you?
Gabriella, there isn't time. We were wrong about Triad and Tetherson. Tetherson doesn't want to destroy the world, he wants to become it, the bombs don't destroy the Aether - they fuse it! He wants to become a world-sized hive-mind.
Michael? How did you learn this? What do we do?
You have to stop him. Ursula only delayed him but the others, they still can launch and it's only a matter of time until the Techs fix their problems. You need to destroy Tetherson and stop the demons, it's the only way!
I can't hold on much longer, please, stop them.
Gabriella kept reaching out for Michael, but he was gone. Ursula was still in her arms, Chair was still nuzzling her arm. Had it even happened? She couldn't tell if she had dreamt it or really experienced it. She tried to call Michael but there was no answer.
Ursula looked up with red rimmed eyes.
“Ursula, I think I just got a call from Michael.”
“You think you got a call? Why can't he just leave us alone.”
“I'm not sure, it was different, faded somehow. I thought maybe I'd dreamt it, but it felt so real. Did I fall asleep for a moment?”
Ursula looked up at her. “I think you might have. Forget it, it was just a dream.”
Gabriella saw the lie blossom from Ursula's lips in dark, putrid colours. Of all the things that had happened, Ursula lying to her hurt the most.
“You're lying. I can see it in your mouth.”
Ursula brought her hands up to cover her mouth and then turned away in shame. “I'm sorry, it's just I want it to be over, I don't want to hear from Michael again. I was just trying to protect us.”
“If you really believe that, you'll hear what Michael had to say. Things are bigger than we ever thought.”