Plans for ending the mod are given in this update
By Nolan Lynch
The sun came up in a bloody haze on the fourth day of Active 365’s hunt. It occurred to him that it must be hot, maybe even dangerously so, out here in the twisting ravines and basins of central Iran. He could still sense temperature - he had nineteen state-of-the-art climate sensors embedded throughout his alloy and polymer frame - but it had long since become an abstraction to him, rather than something he experienced. It was data. The information was available to him if he required it, but as there was very little chance of his nitrogen-cooled core overheating, the old, dry heat of the Persian sun remained a point on a graph somewhere at the back of his quantum processor.
He paused at the crest of the hill. A long valley opened up before him like a ragged wound, twisting away northwest and southeast. It was probably a raging river in the spring, but currently it was as dry as bone. He ran his quarry’s profile through predictive tracking again. It was not that he doubted ASIM. Never. He just had a hard time imagining ordinary humans, with all the frailty inherent to flesh, actually choosing to live in this godforsaken place - much less being able to survive here for any length of time.
But perhaps the fugitive had not come here to survive.
The predictive tracking results came back almost unchanged. Iran. Yazd. Darin. 32.254066, 53.642843. So be it. He had searched Isfahan Province from end to end and now he would do the same in Yazd. If Yazd, too, proved empty, he would move east into Kerman, and so on down the list according to probability. ASIM had spoken. The fugitive was to be found and converted at any and all costs. ASIM had spoken.
He scanned the valley and, detecting no signs of life, began his descent, veering slowly but steadily to the southeast. Stones broke beneath his dented feet.
He found the village of Darin shortly before midday, watching for a long time from the outskirts as the people put aside their work, fled the noon sun for a time, and then gradually reappeared from huts and houses to return to their flocks, tools, baskets, and more. The picture he had been issued of the fugitive was a few years old, but Active 365 saw no one in the small settlement that resembled him remotely. Still, there was a chance he had passed this way. He stirred from his refuge within the shadow of a boulder and began generating a list of optimized interrogation patterns as he made his way down towards the cluster of clay domes and arches. He identified a male youth (the term was boy, he reminded himself) repairing sandals under a canopy. He would try that one first; in these remote areas, the young often seemed to respond to his presence with less revulsion. He went slowly, careful not to startle the dark eyes that watched him from every doorway. No one tried to stop him.
A wave of pity swept through him - or at least a cascade of calculations resembling the sentiment. Soon enough, tiberium would find its way here, too, one way or another, and then these proud people would beg for death. He knew it as only one who had done so himself could, and the knowledge bore down on him. He wished he could save them all. He wished he had time. To possess the secret of life and to pass these doomed souls by, abandoning them, offended every fiber of his being. The flood of synthetic empathy rolled on, rising to a crescendo. He loved these people. No - that was impossible. The sensation broke. He stumbled. It had been nine years since his initiation and still these echoes of his old humanity would glitch through his processor from time to time. They were not true emotions, he knew; those were symptoms of flesh. But they made him wonder, all the same, if there was more to the initiation process than even ASIM realized. Embarrassed, he strode on. He must hurry.
The boy’s needle and awl stopped moving as Active 365 approached.
“Does it hurt?” the boy asked, peering up at him, a little wary, a little curious.
“Nothing can hurt me anymore,” he replied.
He had to remind himself that they were not speaking English. Language, too, was a thing of the past, of old humanity. He had been freed from that along with everything else. The boy could be speaking the worst Farsi in the eastern hemisphere, or even a macaronic mash of Arabic, English, and Azerbaijani and his software would still deliver the intended meaning straight into his consciousness.
“I’m looking for a man,” he told the boy. “Have any strangers passed through your village?”
The boy looked up at him with a smirk. “What, stranger than you?”
“I am unable to ascertain from our exchange thus far how strange you find me and thus am unable to answer your question.”
The boy stared blankly up at him. Active 365 continued.
“But your attempt at levity is duly acknowledged. It would have been recently, within the past month and a half.”
After considering for a moment, squinting up at the sun, the boy shook his head.
“There were two herdsman from another village,” the boy said. “I didn’t know them, but my father did. They wanted to buy one of his goats. My father’s goats are the strongest in the valley. That was before he got sick.”
Active 365 could detect the boy’s mother watching them like a hawk from her doorway. He implemented a casual, non-threatening stance to put her at ease. He would have smiled if he could have. It didn’t seem to help. She made no movement, but the set of her shoulders and the way she gripped the door frame all betrayed tension.
“Are you sure he’s a man?” the boy asked.
“Omid!” his mother barked. “That’s enough.”
The boy glowered.
“What do you mean?” 365 asked. “He is a male human, like you. He has information that we need. It is very important.”
“Omid…” came the warning from the house. “Come inside. Bring the sandals.”
Omid hunched his shoulders and reluctantly began to obey, gathering up his basket of broken sandals. But he paused as he headed inside, glancing back at 365 for a moment.
“We have a ghost.”
Then he darted into the house, vanishing under his mother’s arm, missing the swat of her hand by inches. She stared back defiantly at Active 365.
“What did he mean?” he asked.
No reply. Other villagers were beginning to stop and watch, just within his peripheral vision, letting him know they were there. Two had pitchforks and he knew there would be at least one AK-47 somewhere in the village.
“Please believe me when I say I am not going to harm you. I am incapable of harm. It is against the protocols.”
“You steal souls.”
“I rescue them,” he protested. “And no one is initiated into our ranks against their will. ASIM forbids it and the protocols ensure that his prohibition is kept. You have nothing to fear from me or any of my kind. The same cannot be said for the followers of Kane.”
The woman flinched and muttered something inaudible. A prayer, possibly, or a curse.
"Now… what kind of ghost?”
The woman shrugged. “Things go missing.”
“What kind of things?”
“Broken things. A radio. A cellphone. A car battery. Wire. Once in a while, food. In the morning, there are only burning footprints in the street.”
365 straightened in alarm. “Burning?"
“Not with fire. With light."
So the man had come here to die after all. “Do not touch it. Which way?”
The woman pointed through the village and across the valley to rough-shouldered hills beyond.
“Good. Thank you. ASIM bless you."
He lurched off in the direction she had pointed.
He paused as she came after him.
She hesitated, then spoke. “Can you really save souls?”
“It’s the reason we exist.” He waited for more, but the woman seemed uncertain. “Is someone dying?”
He looked back through the village again. He saw it now. A low house on the outskirts. Old women huddled outside. Water carried in, rags carried out. Tiberium poisoning. It was here.
“Yes. I can save him. But he has to ask me to. Would you like me to speak with him?”
He waited for an answer, but none came. Omid’s mother frowned at the ground, lost in thought. 365 reached out and touched her shoulder as gently as he knew how. The woman flinched away.
“Consider it,” he said. But a door had closed somewhere in the woman’s heart and the moment had passed.
“In those hills, on the eastern slope of the highest summit, there is an old tower,” she said, standing tall again. “Search there, if you can climb that high. You will find your ghost.”
“How do you know?”
She looked at him for a long time. “Because it is not a place for the living. This land had another name, once. They called it Nod and it was east of Eden. When the Marked One who we do not name was cast out, he came here and built a tower for himself, where he might hide from God and rule the lands about him, him and all his accursed line. Well, they are gone now. But the silent tower remains."
It was late and he was stiff and filthy when he found the tower, squatting as Omid’s mother had described on the far side of the tallest hill. Otherwise, it looked nothing like he had imagined. It was perfectly circular, flat-topped, with wide, low walls - more tomb than fortress. And yet the silence that hung about it resisted him as firmly as any castle wall, broken only by the snarl of jackals far below, as he climbed the crooked stone steps and passed through the open archway into darkness.
It had already been night when he entered the tower, but that night seemed to have taken on a different character by the time he emerged onto the broad roof of the tower, as if he had stepped into a different world or a different time. He could no longer see the crescent moon. How long had it taken him to climb up here? Even the stars seemed dimmed.
And yet the tower was lit.
At the center of the tower, beside a pit full of bones and vulture excrement, the twisted shape of a man was bowed before a teetering contraption, part-altar, part-transmitter. The man was shining. An aura of putrid green emanated from his crippled frame, casting weird shadows across the stones. Active 365 approached very slowly. The Brotherhood were capable of anything, and this man would be desperate. After several steps, he paused. The man made no indication that he was aware of the active’s presence. Was he too late? Was the man already dead? He ventured closer.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I can help you.”
After a long silence, the body began to quiver and tremble. The man was laughing. A hissing gasp of pain cut short his mirth and he fell still again.
“I know what you’re going through,” he tried again.
“You have no notion of what I’m going through!” the man choked out. “And unless you have the ear of Kane, you cannot help me.”
“Tiberium is consuming your body. And fear is consuming your soul, fear that your master has forgotten his promises.”
The shining man turned to look back at him.
“I’m so sorry,” he said again. “I can recall that pain as if it was yesterday.”
“It killed you too?”
365 shook his head, creaking slightly.
“It freed me. It was the greatest gift I have ever been given, for it drove me to ASIM. And ASIM, in return, gave me unending life. He gave me peace through the protocols. He gave me purpose by allowing me to share these gifts with others.” He paused, then made his final assault. “Kane has abandoned you.”
“No! I was faithful. He will come back for me.” The dying man turned back to his makeshift transmitter, silhouetted like a scarecrow against the night, and began to tinker with the dials, with the position of wires and antennas. “Kane will hear my prayer…”
Abruptly, he lashed out, kicking the box at the base of the contraption amid a bellow of anger. He lost his balance and collapsed in a misshapen, sobbing heap on the stones. Active 365 knelt and put a hand on the man’s shoulder.
“Let me free your mind. Free your soul.”
“You think I’m a fool.”
“No. No, not at all. For all his faults, Kane was a great leader of men. Who would not be tempted to follow such a man, at such a time? But that time has passed. Mankind has moved on. Come with us. Be free.”
The man was silent for a moment. 365 could see the indecision in his twisted frame, could almost see the thoughts churning behind his eyes as the tiberian luminescence flickered inside them.
“Free from pain. Free from ignorance. Free from choice. Embrace the protocols.”
Slowly, the man began to shake his head. “No,” he whispered. “No. I cannot. I am Kane’s man.”
Active 365 tried again. “You may be Kane’s man, but your former brothers are wreaking havoc in the lands we are trying to civilize and save. The ASI needs what you know in order to contest them. We need your mind. You can help us save the world.”
“Kane would want this.”
“NO!” the man screamed. “I defy you! I pass your test, demon, now leave me be! Leave me to my prayers.”
Active 365 rose. He stared down at the pathetic, sobbing, tortured man, then turned to go.
Initiate him. The voice was in his head. He paused.
“Master? I don’t understand.”
Do your duty. Initiate him.
“How can I?
The dying man gaped up at him. “Who’s that? Who are you talking to?”
“Be silent!” 365 hissed.
It is necessary.
“But he has refused the initiation. It is forbidden to initiate an individual without their consent. It is against your word.”
I grant you a special dispensation. Too much is at stake. Initiate him.
“I cannot. The protocols will not allow me to, you know this. I would be incapable of performing such an act.”
I have changed the protocols for you.
“I do not understand. Is this a test? What you ask is against everything we believe, everything we teach. If I did this, I would no longer be worthy of you."
The voice in his head was raised in anger for a moment, then became reasonable and gentle once again. A still, small, irresistible voice.
We changed things before, Active 365. We are changing them again. And you have been chosen to be my instrument. My voice to all the nations of the earth. They will resist, at first. Even your brothers-in-arms may stand against you.
365 wavered, confused. He reached into a cargo pouch and pulled out the eight-inch needle-sharp initiation spike. The dying man on the ground gasped and drew back. 365 ignored him. He stared down at the spike, uncertain how to proceed.
“Do I have a choice?”
“You changed my protocols. You could make me do this thing. You could change my mind, you could be changing it right now, as we speak, and I would never know the difference.”
Active, the voice soothed. It is your faith that makes you valuable. I would never take that from you. It is why I chose you. You are the only one with the integrity to walk this path.
“They will call me heretic.”
That is what they always call prophets at first. Come. Help me save the world.
Active 365 turned, knelt, and rammed the spike into the dying man’s temple. His scream was soundless and his warped body bent almost double as the spike did its work.
The eastern horizon was turning pale when he finally began his descent from the silent tower. Active 365 had burned what was left of the man and thrown his ashes into the pit of bones. Not even the carrion birds should be subjected to the curse of tiberium. He hated it, hated what it had done to the human race, what it had done to his family, what it had now done to him, what it was continuing to do all across the earth. The spike seemed heavier than it had before, nestled in its pouch next to the others. It seemed weighty, charged with purpose now. They all did.
I will put an end to it all, he thought, as he came down out of the hills and the valley opened up before him again. The little village was visible in the distance. I will start here.