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Flynn breathed in as his vehicle reassembled itself 25 kilometers above the Straits of Gibraltar. He held the breath in as his radar pulsed deep into enemy territory, then exhaled as the vehicle disassembled itself just before a counterattack could blow it out of the sky. Split into a dozen pieces, parts of the Qilin craft spun off in every direction, a controlled explosion to forestall a real one.

The single video feed dominating the main view on Flynn’s HUD gave way to twelve. The upper-right corner of the HUD contained a three-dimensional hologram which amalgamated the data into a simpler view, with objects color-coded according to hostility and distance. Flynn preferred the individual feeds. There he could watch as pieces of his Qilin headed to the upper reaches of the stratosphere. He could watch as another plunged into the dark void below, intersecting with the ocean 100 kilometers west of what used to be Portugal. He could tell that, for now at least, all was well.

But for how long? His radar pulse had shown nothing out of the ordinary. The Qilin could stay its missiles. The sensor arrays on each of its pieces had nothing like the sensitivity of the assembled craft itself, but he could monitor their immediate surroundings until it was time to bring them together again. Flynn eased back in his chair and stole a glance towards the control room’s door, beyond which lay the underground bunker near what was, for now, still Berlin. Piloting from here was safer, saner; none of the old cliché of being in space with no-one to hear you scream. Though of course, thought Flynn bitterly, we now know that was never true anyway.

#

Flynn had been fourteen years old when the spaceships appeared: thick black rectangles with protruding lips hovering insistently in the sky, like books that the human race was afraid to open. Their appearance over geopolitically inconsequential areas -- the Congolese rainforests, the southern tip of the Americas, the deserts of Xinjiang  made the reaction in the metropolises of the North and East a strange mixture of panic and wounded pride.

This was supposed to be a moment of triumph, as Flynn remembered the TV newscasters exclaiming in shock. In the fifteen years since the last war had threatened to put an end to civilization altogether, Earth’s scientists have combined their efforts in pursuit of this day, Tsingtao News reminded its viewers. Both sides only accepted peace on the guarantee that the last war would indeed be the last war, and not just a pause for breath before we moved back up the ladder of escalation towards extinction. But now...

Now, as humanity stood on the brink of perpetual peace, these ships arrived to threaten it. At the very least, they introduced a monstrous new variable into the equation. No-one had predicted their arrival, so how could anyone predict what they were going to do next?

The day the visitors arrived was the day that the World Neural Net was due to go online. Almost every man and woman on the planet would be directly connected to the net via neural dust. After centuries of being lectured by humanists for our deficiencies in human feeling and for designing the weapons that served to rip it apart even further, we are on the brink of a great accomplishment, Flynn remembered one sci-pundit sniffing defiantly on Tsingtao. Humanity will become one vast mind, reflecting the will of the entire species. War on any part of that mind will become unthinkable, perverse. A technological singularity will occur, propelling humankind onwards, upwards, outwards. Perhaps, the sci-pundit paused for dramatic effect...  to the stars.

When the ships came, the presenters wanted to know only one thing: whether the stars had come to us first. But even the most optimistic pundits couldn’t answer. No-one could.

It was an unsettling development for everyone, not least Flynn. It was a year before he was due to be injected with the neural dust which would harden in the capillaries of his brain and strike up communication with the small transceiver behind his ear. He would be able to remove the transceiver whenever he liked, but no-one ever did. They said that to be unplugged would be like if a man in the pre-net era disabled his higher reasoning, leaving only the animal beneath. To be unplugged was to be inhuman.

Gene therapy already having rendered his mental development faster than that of a twentieth century boy, Flynn had been eagerly following the news. The world’s technologists had developed a pilot version of the technology for use among themselves. This enabled a rapidly-increased pace of development both in the net and the scientists’ egos. The problem of developing a dust with high enough resolution to interface with a million neurons without putting subjects at an unacceptable risk of stroke was quickly solved. The captains of industry were then plugged into the net to tackle the problem of manufacturing and distribution at scale. World peace was then placed in the hands of the manufacturers, who were only too happy to fulfil the order after a little sprinkling of fairy dust.

North and East had both agreed that if the net was to be legitimate, it had to link together all humans, not just those living inside their own prosperous alliances. So the final step had been the injection with neural dust of every living human who was both of age and chose not to reject it -- and, it was alleged, plenty who did.

This work had all been accomplished by the time the alien ships arrived. Even for those of a more nervous disposition, transcending human limitations was not something to be given up just for the sake of a few rectangles hovering over the world’s wastelands. Besides, whatever threat or opportunity the visitors represented, it was surely better faced by a united humanity. The near-universal distribution of neural dust would ensure that whatever decisions were taken, they would serve the interests of all: the first species-wide direct democracy in human history arguably couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

After a delay of only a few days, and holding its breath just as Flynn would in his bunker 15 years later, humanity flipped the on switch.

#

Flynn refocused his eyes on the HUD. An enemy electronic warfare missile launched from somewhere in the Western Sahara hit like a thunderclap in the exact spot his Qilin had assembled. The pulse of microwave radiation it created could destroy all electronics within a mile radius, but it was a futile gesture. The nearest piece of the Qilin was 50 miles away.

One radar pulse, one microwave pulse; that was how it always went on routine patrols. But Flynn winced, steeling himself for the possibility that the enemy might realize that this was no routine patrol. This was the problem with fighting someone who always seemed to voluntarily tie one hand behind their own back. What if they decided to untie it?

But the visitors were preserving the old ways, for now at least. No extra missiles zeroed in on the constituent parts of the Qilin, and no enemy sensor array assembled itself to even search for them. Flynn was relieved. A wider confrontation would have delayed his mission while dozens of craft materialized and shot EW missiles at each other. Such skirmishes usually petered out or, very occasionally, escalated to the detonation of a microwave pulse so large that all combatants were fried and the entire affair rendered pointless.

Flynn wondered if the visitors found this recurring pattern as frustrating as he did. On the other hand, the pattern had remained unchanged since the war settled down into its current phase five years ago, so maybe they liked it. Or perhaps they had no concept of frustration or liking, of satisfying or hating, and they did things for reasons that even someone who knew what Flynn knew would never be able to divine. Especially someone like you, a voice in his head retorted. He tried to ignore it, but it wasn’t easy. I guess by the end of today we’ll know, he shot back.

#

Shortly after the net came online, the injection of neural dust had been transformed from a private matter between a man and his needle into a public rite. Moving at the speed of thought, the collective human mind standardized social rituals according to what it judged to be in the best interest of the new era. The new codes were not a result of enforced conformity, but of a collective decision reached by ten billion human minds thinking through the problem as one unit. And that unit decided that joining it was something to be celebrated.

Flynn’s mandatory courses in the history and contemporary theory of the net had told him, in theory at least, what to expect. Being plugged in didn’t mean voices in your head, as those hearing about the concept in the pre-net era had tended to imagine, he read in one e-textbook. It means access to a new level of consciousness which feels just as much a part of yourself as your own thoughts! All of the world’s knowledge and understanding will be instantly at your neuron tips, and your subconscious will be busily involved in an ongoing global rumination on the problems and prospects of the species. At night, you will dream humanity’s dreams…

Still, reading about it was one thing, and actually becoming another grey cell in the global consciousness was another. So Flynn was distinctly ambivalent when the needle pierced his flesh, a moody teenager uneasy in a room of earnest adults. Looking back later from his prison cell, he realized that the loss of innocence he experienced that day was also a loss of ambivalence. It was hard to stay ambivalent about the world when it was so fucking single-minded about you.

The first sign that something was wrong came when the technician charged with easing the boy onto a new plane of being announced that a connection could not be made. The audience -- who had come to close their eyes and smile smugly and claim that yes, they could feel their connection to their new brother -- murmured uneasily. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. More murmuring followed as it was established that the transceiver was not at fault. The audience got up and left as protocol dictated, tutting all the way. It was all simply ghastly. The consequences didn’t bear thinking about, even just inside their own heads.

Flynn’s real education began that day in an antechamber to the ceremony hall. “Even though the net has been online for a few years there are still minds it, er, cannot reach,” the technician explained. “I shouldn’t really be telling you th- well, not that it matters now.” The gaze he held Flynn’s eyes in temporarily wavered. Flynn realized with growing anxiety that what no longer mattered was himself.

“There are different currents of thought in the mind as to why,” the technician continued. “The human brain is the most complex object in the known universe, and some say it is simply beyond our understanding. Others say some minds simply do not want to connect.” The gaze wavered again, and his eyes settled in a downwards cast. “Others… that the mind rejects them as unworthy.” His eyes rose again. “Of course, no-one really knows. Now, where did I put my transceiver?”

The technician found it, and for Flynn the rare experience of dealing merely with a fellow human was over once more.

Flynn was plunged into a hidden stratum of society shrouded in secrecy and shame. The mind of humanity wished the unconnected no specific ill. But they were a problem to be solved, a force to be controlled. They went to special schools and graduated into special jobs, where they could be watched. There was no formal segregation in social or romantic contact, but the gaping chasm between the connected and the unconnected imposed it in practice. Good girls might like bad boys, but they hardly deigned to date animals. Soon Flynn’s head was bent over as he walked, carrying the weight of the shame visible on his naked ears.

     #

After the net had come online, the mind of humanity quickly made enormous strides in technology, economics, and the standardization of social practices across the world. The promised singularity did not appear -- the mind still moved at the speed of thought, after all, not the speed of silicon -- but the world became unrecognizable. Poverty was eradicated, disease conquered, and the impetus towards war tamed.

At the same time, the mind directed people the world over to turn their collective attention towards the visitors in the sky. They probed the ships with sensors and constructed vast neutrino receivers deep underground in the search for some intelligible signal. They discovered that no wave could penetrate the exterior of the ships, and all they picked up coming off them was the reflection of their own messages. A rogue fighter pilot who had removed his transceiver unloaded his missiles on the ship over Congo and then slammed his jet into it, leaving no visible trace.

Several years passed like this. Flynn was now 17 years old. One day he was watching television -- a medium solely for children and the unconnected; hence sanitized, censored -- when he saw the news that the visitors had made their move. Missiles apparently launched from the ground under the alien ships had hit twenty targets across Earth. At least one of the names of the targets Flynn already knew, from overheard hushed conversations between parents. It was Salt Lake City, Utah.

Not everyone had wanted to be connected to the net. The rejectionists had gathered in densely-packed settlements where they rejected technology and maximized closeness and communication with physical beings, living lives which they viewed as the opposite of those of the connected. Rejectionists in the prosperous urban centers of the North and East had mostly been allowed to make this choice. But they knew that those of their inclination elsewhere had often been forcibly dusted or killed for refusing. They feared the same thing might one day happen to them. For people already inclined towards a mystical bent, the appearance of the visitors over the marginalized areas of the world had hence seemed like an omen, or a promise -- could they be our saviors?

Their missiles suggested otherwise. Salt Lake, the Falun Gong Autonomous Region, and Fatima, Portugal -- all gone. The strikes were precise but gratuitous by the standards of human technology. They left deep, glowing red craters encrusted with debris, like the visitors had stubbed their cigarettes out on humanity’s skin. Flynn could still remember that the television anchors had no idea what to make of it, simultaneously terrified at the sheer power they had witnessed and humbled that their belief in the perverseness of the rejectionists now had extra-solar blessing. Whatever the visitors came to do, it wasn’t to take us backwards, one anchor crooned. The rejects sure got dusted in the end.

It turned out that this particular current of triumphalism was not all that was present in the human mind. Commandos were dispatched with technology much improved since the last great war to sweep under the alien ships. At the very least, the question of why the missiles had appeared to originate on the ground had to be answered. There had already been scattered spurts of rejectionist violence in the urban cores of the East in the aftermath of the strikes. What if the whole thing had been a perverse false flag, a signal to rebellion by some insane faction?

But that was not what the commandos found. Sweeping through the Congolese jungle and landing amphibious raids on the shores of Patagonia, they felt themselves to be chasing ghosts. No launchers were found, no aliens sighted, no concealment tunnels unearthed. They settled down for the long haul and deployed sensor arrays, crude early versions of the technology Flynn would later pilot over Gibraltar.

Then, on the twelfth day, a patrol in the jungle walked straight into an ambush. An EMP fried their transceivers and projectiles thudded into the trees around them. A drone disguised as a mosquito in the canopy above caught the slaughter on camera and beamed it back to the command ship offshore. It clearly saw bipeds in body armor and helmets using model tactics, blinding and confusing their enemies with directed-energy weapons before shredding them in interlocking fields of fire. The last time the generals watching the feed had seen it done so well was at the academy. A few of the attackers also fell, victims of the counter-tactics the commandos had spent years drilling.

They fought like us and died like us. The enemy was human!

The pace of operations increased, and soon a small unit of the enemy had been wrung out of the jungle and defeated. The victorious commandos approached the bodies of these traitors to the mind, seeking a clue as to who they were and why they fought. But under the helmets they found no nose or mouth or even eye to give a hint as to how the enemy perceived the battlefield, or what was at stake on it. One commando had gotten close enough to the enemy while he was still alive to wrestle him to the ground and deliver the fatal blow. Close enough to see the features drain from his enemy’s face and be replaced with blankness. Close enough to realize that the features he had been looking at in the creature’s final moments were not alien but were in fact his own.

#

After the missiles had been launched, Flynn felt the distance between himself and the connected widen from a chasm to an infinity. The mind of humanity made its demands, and his parents became exhausted from playing their role in its deliberations, disconnected and withdrawn from their surroundings. Flynn ventured into the communal areas of their building and found it was the same everywhere, as if the battlefield trauma of the last few days had inflicted the thousand-yard-stare on his entire species.

The day after the strikes, Flynn set out to school to find everyone in the street viewing him with a a cold, hard regard. The children who used to taunt him when they saw he was of age and yet unconnected were nowhere to be seen.

Arriving at the fifth floor of the tower block which served as school for the rejects, Flynn found it emptier than usual. The classrooms were closed, and several dozen children sat nervously in the common area. Even with its usual complement of about ninety pupils, Flynn had no idea whether they were all or even the majority of the unconnected children and adolescents in the city. He certainly had never been allowed to meet any others.

A boy who must have been no older than twelve walked up to Flynn and greeted him. Flynn didn’t know the boy’s name, but he tried to be kind to him. They seemed recently to have begun attempting to plug in children at younger and younger ages, and the rejects ended up here.

“What’s going on?” asked the boy, causing Flynn’s heart to swell temporarily at the assumption that he had useful knowledge. It was an assumption no-one in the connected world ever made.

“I don’t know exactly,” Flynn sighed. “Yesterday was the start of a war that could end human history.” He had heard that said on television the night before, though with less of a gee-whiz edge than Flynn allowed to creep into his voice now. “Everyone is acting weird. Maybe the teachers are late.”

The teachers were very late. The clock ticked around to nine, and a few students drifted towards the doorway and tried to open it. The door was locked.

About fifteen minutes after the abortive escape attempt, the door audibly clicked as its security lock was released. Flynn’s young companion ran towards the exit and smacked his head into the door as its heavy bulk swung inwards, apparently under the force of a kick. A man with a gaunt face stepped into the room, his transceiver clearly visible on his shaven head. Two others followed him.

“Hello everyone,” the leader said, pausing only briefly to notice the boy on the floor clutching his forehead from where the door had connected with it. “Ah, Michael, hello. Adam, Clara, Benjamin, Flynn -- hello. You are known to us. You are all known to us”. Flynn stared, pondering who “us” meant -- the three men before him, or the collective behind them. But then what was the difference?

 “After what happened yesterday, school is being relocated for your safety. You should all come with us,” the man continued, still staring down impassively at Michael on the floor. “Come with us now. Remember, you are known to us. You can trust us.”

Something about the scene made Flynn think otherwise. Maybe it was the creepy uniformity of the men; their gauntness, their shaved heads, above all their transceivers, a uniform which marked them out as from another world. Maybe it was the way their leader stared down at Michael before turning and leaving the room, not lending the boy a hand as his cronies rounded up the rest of the children. Above all it was the ambiguity in that “us”, the feeling of being subject to a power whose identity he could not even be sure of, not even when it stood embodied right in front of him.

Flynn decided he was going to run.

 They took the elevator down, each batch of children assigned its own guardian. Flynn noticed the guardians were not armed. He remembered how his father, a beat cop, had stopped taking a gun on patrol shortly after the net came online. In fact, the old man never really talked about regular police work at all any more, but rather about investigations, public hygiene, mind coverage. There didn’t seem to be any need for such mundane things as patrols or guns anymore. Well then, thought Flynn, it should be easy to get away.

The guardians had a shuttle waiting at the bottom of the tower to herd the kids into. Flynn couldn’t tell if they planned to get in themselves or lock it from the outside and let the vehicle drive itself to its destination. When it was his turn to get into the shuttle he sprinted forwards around the corner of the building instead, then weaved through the alleys. Other parts of the city had been razed and redesigned to be more “efficient”. Flynn had seen families walking out of buildings they had lived in for decades so that they could be demolished. Their faces were always blank, only the blinking red light on their transceivers serving as evidence that the moment had any significance. Flynn was glad his alleys were still there.

The adrenaline was still pounding in his ears when he reached the entrance to his building, but none of the guardians seemed to be following him. He stole one last glance behind him to be sure, then entered and went up the stairs to his own front door. It opened automatically and he stepped inside.

The scene inside stuck with Flynn for a long time. His mother was slouched in a chair facing the door, and his father stood in the corner, taut and poised, his face red and angry. His mother’s face was a contrast, that distant look in her eyes which he had grown to hate crowning a face that was streaked with tears. She had one hand on her transceiver, and that hand shook. She gradually lowered the hand to her side, leaving the transceiver in place. Looking back on the scene later, Flynn always imagined that she had taken her transceiver off, that she had struggled not to put it back in, that she fought as best she could, but that there was ultimately no fighting and winning against the net now, however much you loved your son and however hard you tried.

“We have reestablished mind coverage of Flynn,” she said quietly. Her eyes were focused on some point above Flynn’s head but her words were apparently addressed to his father. “See that he is relocated”.

Flynn looked over at his father again and realized that in his hand was a gun.

#

Under the Atlantic, a segment of Flynn’s Qilin craft spun around nervously. He enlarged its video feed so it temporarily filled his HUD. A shoal of cod was passing nearby and he had to make sure it didn’t encircle his Qilin-piece.

It was likely that there were more cod-drones in the shoal than there were actual fish. If they could cut off the escape routes of an enemy craft, they would suddenly rush it and detonate. Fishing had been ended -- not banned, because that would imply the possibility of transgression, and who transgressed against the mind? -- the year before. A boat had pulled some cod-drones out of the water and they had lunged at its sensor array, blowing it clean off the ship. That tiny gap in mind coverage had allowed the visitors to swarm in and disable defenses across the entire sector. In the end, they fell back just as it looked like they might make it all the way to Berlin, raising for the tenth time the question of why they never pressed their advantage to its conclusion. The mind didn’t know the answer, but nowadays the people of the North stuck to farmed fish all the same.

Flynn continued staring. Usually the only sign a cod-drone would give of its presence was if it sensed a rival drone trying to infiltrate its group. Entire shoals had been decimated in the bloodletting that ensued, teeth cutting through titanium and projectiles flying until only a few bewildered natural cod remained.

Flynn would usually have found the prospect amusing, but not today. He scanned the shoal carefully. The Cod War had become a textbook example of how the arms race between the mind and the visitors operated. Humans had quickly deployed their own fish drones -- it had been more the idea than the technology which they were lacking, after all. But then the aliens improved their own tech one step further, pushing the mind to respond and starting an endless cycle. If human tech stayed static, visitor tech would too; if the former advanced, the latter always advanced just one step ahead. It was the same in every field of warfare. The result was a constant gnawing anxiety tempered only by the knowledge that the visitors always seemed to hold back from achieving victory.

Flynn continued to stare. The shoal drifted away, and he prepared to reassemble his Qilin for the next stage of the mission.

#

After Flynn was captured, he realized how starved for human dialogue he had become in the years since the net went online. The voices he had been hearing since then had all been one-way -- commanding, educating, civilizing. Their manner always suggested that there could be no dialogue with lesser beings, only edicts for their own good. But now, gathered together day and night with other rejects, he felt himself recovering his humanity.

Through the dialogue, stories emerged. Stories like that told by Linda, whose brother had died fighting the East in the last human war. Her parents never got over it, not letting her eat Chinese food and voting for the most anti-immigrant party in the North. “But then they got d-dusted,” she stammered to Flynn from the next bunk, late at night. “Everything changed. They didn’t hate anyone anymore. I didn’t have to hide my friends. It was wonderful. Then it was time for my ceremony, and the dust r-rejected me.” She let out a sob. “They blamed me. They tried to dust me t-ten times, and it never worked. They wouldn’t talk to me at home. They just sat there and communicated with each other over the net. The day we got brought here they just locked the door and let the guardians take me.”

“Did they say goodbye?” asked Adam, a twenty-something whose bunk was above Flynn’s.

“No! They wouldn’t open the door, they wouldn’t talk to me, they wouldn’t do shit. When the guardians were coming they locked themselves upstairs. The guardians let themselves in and took me.”

Adam voiced a long, drawn-out expletive from the gloom. “What about you Flynn? You never said how they got you here.”

“They took me from home too. I busted out of school and ran home. I thought I’d be safe there.” Two months of confinement and nursing of the betrayal had passed now. Flynn felt foolish for ever having thought home was safe, and he thought the elder man might judge him for it. “Huh, I don’t know how I was so stupid now. Ain’t nowhere safe from them.”

“How about here?”

There was silence as they all considered the question.

They lived under severe restrictions which the guardians enforced dispassionately. The site they lived on was spacious, with a small forest and a river, but was bounded by a high wall. They could get whatever media they wanted -- books, music, movies -- on the local net, but information on current affairs was restricted to the TV, which no-one trusted. Sex was not allowed. A couple who had tried it in the forest got caught on drone footage, which was then played in the bunk rooms. The nihilism to do it anyway hadn’t yet set in. No physical harm had come to anyone they knew of in captivity, but Flynn couldn’t stop thinking about the way the guardian had stared at the injured Michael on the floor.

“We are safe here so long as the mind wants us to be, child,” said another voice from the gloom. It belonged to a woman who Flynn had seen in the bunk room before, although he had never heard her speak. She was always in the distance, talking to a group of younger detainees as they lay sprawled on their beds, as she was doing to Flynn’s group now. Flynn reckoned she was older than his mom, but it was hard to tell.

“How do you know?” asked Linda. “What could they need from us?” There seemed to be a hint of hope in Linda’s voice at the idea of being needed.

“My name is Gloria,” said the older woman. “I was plugged into the mind once, and I’ve seen how it works.”

Linda, Adam and Flynn all sat upright sharply. Before they could interrupt to point out the absurdity of her claim, Gloria went on: “I got dusted at the same time as all the other adults, and for years I was part of the net. But th-“

“But what was it like being in the net?” asked Adam.

Gloria kept her patience at the younger man’s interruption. “They’re right when they say you cannot imagine it. I find it hard to imagine even now. You aren’t the person you’ve always been. The net doesn’t destroy that person, it just changes it. You probably imagine voices in your head, right?”

They all nodded. They had been told so many times that this cliché wasn’t true, but nevertheless their imaginations failed them when they tried to picture it any other way. “It isn’t like that,” Gloria continued, predictably. “The mind of humanity thinks with you and through you, so everything feels like your own thoughts, your own decisions, and you’re just one neuron firing in the process.”

“So it does destroy you!” said Linda angrily. “It definitely destroyed my parents.”

“It is what it is, child. But you need to understand this because it’s why you’re here. The mind is scared of you. You’re a rogue neuron and it doesn’t know how or when you might fire. When a normal person takes their transceiver off, they’re independent for a few minutes, but they always put it back on. You’ve seen the pressure. But you -- the mind can’t build walls in your head. That’s why it put you here.” She tapped the walls of the room sharply. “And it’s why in the future, it might need you”.

#

Gloria quickly became a major fixture of Flynn’s life in confinement. At first, he thought she was mad. She exuded such confidence in the face of a world which had collapsed so completely that there was no other possible way to view her. All of her lectures had the same theme -- how everything was going to be okay because the mind needed them -- and the same content -- vague and opaque. But most of the other rejects in the center were younger than Flynn and looked to him for comfort, and he in turn had to look for it somewhere. She might be nuts, but at least Gloria was always there.

One thing Gloria would not do was talk to Flynn about how or why she had ultimately been disconnected from the net. She always claimed knowledge based on having been connected but wouldn’t back it up. Flynn had never heard of anyone becoming a reject after being connected and abandoning the net -- the very mark of humanness -- seemed unthinkable. Captivity was mostly a blur, but Flynn’s memory of it was punctuated by particular moments when Gloria let the air of mystery around her dissipate a little and spoke concretely about the topics she was always eluding to.

One such time was when they were watching television one year into captivity. The guerrilla war had failed, and for the first time the television anchors seemed unsure, dejected, even withdrawn -- serotonin-starved neurons crushed by a despair greater than any one human being was ever meant to withstand.

Gloria’s own brain chemistry lit up, and her eyes twinkled. “Know thy enemy, Flynn. That’s what they learn in the military academies. But how can they know the visitors? The avatars trick us into thinking they’re like us -- they even copy our faces -- but they aren’t. In human wars, we have goals and we know what the other side is capable of. You know the history of the last great war, right, Flynn? What did the Tianxia alliance want?”

Flynn had no difficulty answering. He had unlimited access to e-books on what the mind’s histories now called the dark ages. “To be ceded Siberia, and the methane valves, because they didn’t trust the North not to release them to fuck over the entire planet if they couldn’t get Tianxia to back off geo-engineering rainfall patterns for their own benefit.”

“Fuck over, eh? Is that what it says in your books? But close enough. So, what did the North do?”

“Military annihilation of the East,” Flynn said, with a hint of pride. He was a Northerner, after all. “And they blew up the Chinese geo-engineering arrays. But the faction that wanted to play around with the methane got purged. They drained the methane out and shot it into space. That way, Tianxia was confident enough to accept peace.”

“Exactly! They knew what the enemy wanted, what they were capable of, and they made their strategy. But how do you fight something whose goals you don’t understand and who invents whatever capabilities he wants out of thin air? Someone you can’t even talk to, who isn’t even human. They haven’t got a clue.”

“But how does it help us? You never say, you just tell us to hope.”

“Just watch, Flynn. Sooner or later they’re going to realize what they’re doing wrong.”

Another memory. Later. Humanity has spent two years building a massive invasion force. It rolls towards the ground under the ships. Huge armies of tanks and helicopters and jets crewed by avatars materialize and defeat it. Portugal, the staging area for reinforcements in Europe, is incinerated by missiles.

The anchor is explaining how the enemy forces vanished as quickly as they appeared, leaving no trace of the battle but the human and material wreckage strewn on the field. “Our sensors didn’t pick up any battlefield communications during the campaign, and enemy dead blanked out as they have in the past, leaving the mind with no new information about enemy capabilities or intentions as a result of this operation... in another development, authorities are struggling to re-establish mind control over dissidents in the wake of defeat. They have issued a final warning before deadly force is used.”

Gloria is watching. Flynn is older now, though she seems hardly to have aged. “Mind control hasn’t done them much good so far,” Flynn mutters to her. “Maybe they should try something else.” Gloria smiles and winks at him. Her smile says: finally, you get it.

She doesn’t say it, because they’re listening to the television too intently. In Tokyo, hundreds of thousands of people are gathering to burn their transceivers on giant pyres. The television never mentions Tokyo again.

A final memory. One day Flynn wakes up and Gloria is gone. She has spent days barely sleeping, unable to take her eyes off the television, so at first he assumes she has just finally passed out. He searches everywhere, but he can’t find her. Panic is gripping him. He knows now that she isn’t crazy, that she’s the only one who can bring understanding and purpose after ten years inside these infernal walls; fuck -- he feels the hope tumbling down and the walls going back up in his mind already. Then a guardian appears and speaks to him like he’s civilizing -- no, taming -- the animal that Flynn feels he is back on the way to becoming. And the guardian stares impassively down as he sits hugging his knees on the ground and says “Flynn, you come with me.”

#

A flashing alarm jerked Flynn out of his reminiscences. His Qilin had reassembled, and its powerful radar array instantly picked up three enemy vessels. Their formation suggested they were scanning his sector.

He only had a split second to react. There are situations in which the pilot of the Qilin takes a back seat to its computer, and sudden entry into combat is one of them. Unless his vehicle alerted the defense net, pulsed three EMPs laterally at the targets, and then disassembled in under half a second, it would be forced to stay disassembled for the duration of the fight which was about to follow.

Hammering a button with a practiced strike of his first, Flynn stopped the process just in time.

A few tense seconds followed, but to Flynn they felt like an age. The enemy vessels spun around, but they didn’t strike. He inhaled sharply. The old woman had been righ-

Suddenly a missile launched from somewhere in southern France ripped into an enemy vessel. A kinetic strike. An EMP would have been too risky with Flynn’s Qilin nearby. He must have not reacted quickly enough to avoid alerting the defense net. His radar lit up as dozens of ships assembled all across the sector and began firing at one another. A small feed in his HUD which was focused on the ocean saw a cod lurch unnaturally into the air, mouth open and eyes dead, then detonate to take out a pursuing halibut.

Flynn rolled his eyes. This was going to be more complicated than he had thought.

#

After Gloria had vanished, Flynn was brought into a small, windowless room in a part of the camp which was normally off-limits. Even after all these years they had still not witnessed physical violence being used against an inmate, but the few people who had either snuck or being taken into this building had never returned.

Flynn was seated at a small table in the middle of the room, under a single fluorescent lightbulb. On the other side of the table were two chairs, both unoccupied.

A guardian entered the room and walked purposefully to one of the chairs on the other side of the table. Flynn barely bothered to examine him -- they all looked the same.

The guardian sat down in the chair, and then did something completely unexpected: he took off his transceiver and placed it in a small metal dish on the table. Shock at the act made Flynn’s stomach turn cartwheels. But what he felt most of all was anger and defiance against a type of man he no longer viewed as human, transceiver or not.

“Hello, Flynn,” said the guardian.

“Hello. What should I call you?”

“Not just what you should call me, but what my name is, is Nguyen,” he replied. Flynn blinked and realized the guardian had Eastern features. He had ceased even to notice such details.

“I thought names were no longer used among the connected. You identify each other through the mind. Is this just when your transceiver is off?”

“There are changes happening, Flynn. That’s what we need to talk about today.” The man’s manner of speaking was awkwardly clipped and obtuse, as if he was used neither to this manner of communication or to a conversation partner who didn’t already know everything he did.

“What changes?”

“It’s best that we don’t discuss it alone.” The man sat still and quiet for a few seconds, as if he was trying to will something to happen out of habit. Then he frowned and signaled towards the door.

Gloria entered the room with the same sense of purpose as Nguyen had, and sat down in the chair next to him. She stared at Flynn.

Flynn shifted uneasily in his chair. “Are you... are you working with them?”

“Not like you think, Flynn. The guar- Nguyen brought me here yesterday to talk about some things. We talked most of the night. With his transceiver off you can talk to him just like he’s a normal man, Flynn.” Nguyen visibly grimaced and unconsciously batted at his ear, clearly uncomfortable at having his current unconnected state described as normal. “You should listen to what he has to say.”

“You have seen on television the latest news about the war, yes?” asked Nguyen.

“We see it’s not going well. Every strategy you-“. Nguyen grimaced again; the guardians detested it when the disconnected seemed to not share a sense of ownership of the war against the visitors, and Flynn knew it. “Every strategy you have tried,” he continued, “has failed. But the visitors never make it to Berlin, or Beijing, or New York City -- or even past the outer defensive rings. Nothing has changed since you kidnapped me as a boy.”

“Do you trust the television?”

Flynn thought for a second. “Yes. I think so. Gloria said what we see on the television is like a reflection of the mind thinking, that what each person on it says reflects at least one current of thought in the mind. She said it might sometimes be censored but it doesn’t lie.” He turned to Gloria and narrowed his eyes. He still couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that came from her being on the other side of the table, seated next to the guardian. “Is that true?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Gloria, “at least if Nguyen is telling me the truth, and I think he is. The war is stalemated just like we see. The mind can’t win but it also can’t lose. That’s where we come in.”

“Yes,” said Nguyen, “this is where there is a role for the disconnected.”

“You see Flynn,” Gloria went on excitedly, “the mind has been doing research on us for years. They think we have capabilities that normal people don’t.” Gloria elongated the word “normal” sarcastically. “They think we can break the stalemate.

“But how could we break the stalemate? The visitors can spirit into existence any tech they need to match us. They even copy our soldiers to make their avatars.”

“We have several hypotheses,” said Nguyen. “One is that the visitors draw their ability to predict us and mimic us from tapping into the mind. They arrived when it went online, after all. Hence, they may be unable to deal with the unconnected. The second hypothesis...” he continued, before faltering. Flynn had never seen a guardian falter before. “The second hypothesis, as Gloria said, is that you have capabilities that normal people do not. It is possible the mind has reached a kind of local maximum. We can’t lose, but we also can’t win. A current in the mind thinks that outsiders could find a solution where it could not.”

“A local maximum?”

“What he basically means is that they’re stuck,” said Gloria. “They haven’t got a damn clue. And they need our help.”

Nguyen grimaced. “The mind is unusually conflicted on this topic. This is why it has been kept away from the television.”

“Is that why you have your transceiver off?” This time it was Gloria asking the pointed question. Flynn relaxed a little.

“What I am doing was authorized by the mind. Keeping my transceiver off just means it stays authorized until our business is concluded.”

Flynn was getting impatient. “What is our business? What real reason do you have for thinking the unconnected can help? Just after the visitors arrived, there were plenty of cases of people taking their transceivers out and attacking the ships. That pilot, Chilemba, took his transceiver out and slammed his jet right into one.”

“You know history well, Flynn. But you only know the history the mind lets you know. Chilemba made a sacrifice under orders. His transceiver was in. Besides, he was using primitive technology. From your vantage point inside this camp, you cannot imagine the transformation in technology which the mind has accomplished.”

Flynn shouted and pounded his fist on the table, close to the metal box with the transceiver in it. “So you offer me the chance to work for liars and murderers! Why should I?”

Nguyen stared impassively at him, as if he was trying to figure out how to reason with an idiot. Gloria broke the silence. “Let me speak to him alone, Nguyen.”

Nguyen got up and left. “Okay,” said Gloria, “listen to me, Flynn. First, you need to understand that things have changed. There is, as they say, a current in the mind now which is arguing for the value of being unplugged. Of having a personal identity back again. That’s why Nguyen has a name and doesn’t have a transceiver.” Flynn noticed the guardian had left the instrument in the metal dish when he left the room. “They think claiming our individuality back might be how we can beat the visitors. They think it might be why they hit Fatima and all those other places after they arrived.”

“Secondly -- well, you do some of the work here, Flynn. What is the one thing that confuses us the most about the visitors?”

“They don’t destroy us. But they also don’t let us beat them.”

“Right. So, the mind has come up with an idea. They think maybe the visitors want us to try something different. Why else do they keep this up, if they’re not trying to teach us something? You’ve seen their technology: they could end us whenever they wanted. So they want something from us, and maybe this is it. I think the mind might be right for once.“

Flynn stared over the table. He was beginning to question Gloria’s sanity again. He had heard dozens of theories about the paradox of the visitors’ restrained aggression. Some said that they were a warlike tribe who tested their new leaders in carefully-controlled battle; another that they filmed the war on Earth to provide shipboard entertainment while stationed here on some other, hidden mission. But the fact was that no-one knew the real reason for it.

“Even without a transceiver, I can tell what you’re thinking,” Gloria said. “Nguyen says the mind is divided like never before about what to do. Its calculations of the risk are so finely balanced that they keep spitting out different answers about whether it’s a good idea or not. He’s finally got the go-ahead.”

Flynn’s anger was returning. “What the hell has this got to do with us? And even if we believe them, how do we know we won’t be risking the human race? The visitors keep within parameters and we’re changing the parameters. We don’t know how they might react.”

“What goddamn human race, Flynn?” Gloria was angry now too, taking the transceiver into her hands and squeezing it savagely, then wincing and banging it on the table. “I know what these things have done to the human race. You were never connected, but I was, Flynn. The human race wasn’t supposed to live like this, not knowing where one person ends and another begins, with no mysteries or creativity or individuality to call their own. We’re the last real humans, Flynn, and if we have to put the grotesque monster which has assimilated the rest of them out of their misery, then so be it.”

Flynn continued staring across the table at Gloria, weighing her up. He had never heard her talk so pessimistically about the future before. It didn’t sound like Gloria. Perhaps the whole thing was a trick played on him by the mind for some unfathomable purpose. He was as cut off from his own kind as anyone in the history of humanity, and here was the one person he thought he could trust, suddenly appearing in doubt.

He blinked. It did look like her. And what she was saying had a logic to it. He had been dreaming of deliverance, but it hadn’t arrived. Dreams could be denied. But facts -- facts like the transceiver on the table, a gun in his father’s hand, the pathetic state of the human race -- facts couldn’t. He reached out over the table and grasped Gloria’s hand, the one which had been hammering the transceiver on the table. He squeezed it, drawing strength from its sheer corporeal existence. He withdrew his hand and nodded slightly.

“Tell me what to do,” he told her.

#

Back in the present, all hell broke loose. The protocols of humanity’s defense system unfolded in a pageant of exploding skies, churning oceans, and irradiated landscapes. The response of the visitors unfolded in turn, incomprehensible in aim but always just predictable enough in practice to maintain the balance. The intensity and complexity was greater than it had been in Flynn’s training, but after the initial shock, he wasn’t worried. He knew what he had to do.

His craft, like those of the other unconnecteds who had been persuaded to join them, was cut off from the mind’s strategic control. Supposedly there was no way for it to be reasserted, but Flynn didn’t believe it. That made what he was about to do all the riskier.

The enemy attack gave him a pretext. EMPs exploded all around him, driving him back from his current position and leaving him only a narrow funnel of safety to retreat through. His Qilin’s tactical computer automatically set him off on the journey to preserve itself from the electromagnetic blasts. By the time Flynn took manual control and accelerated, the craft was already halfway to Berlin.

He kept an eye on the blue dots denoting the vehicles of the other unconnecteds on his HUD. The dots were surging north, like little pieces of flotsam on the cascading waves of the EMP blasts. The waves rolled ever-higher, pushing their cargo further than the enemy had ever penetrated before: over Milan and Zurich and Paris and Brussels and Budapest and Prague, converging with stunning rapidity on the underground bunker from which Flynn piloted his Qilin. The yellow dots denoting the mind’s vessels were brutally submerged by the tide.

All over the world, human beings stopped dead in their tracks and slumped down where they stood as the mind suddenly called on each and every neuron at its disposal to parse what was happening. Only in the ruins of Tokyo, where survivors without transceivers had been left to hunt like dogs through the trash and rubble for nourishment, was everyone unaware of the momentous event that was unfolding.

For all of the brain power that the mind marshaled to deal with the problem, the course of action it had to take was simple. By mobilizing the unconnecteds, the mind had changed the parameters of the conflict. The visitors had responded by abandoning the restraint they had observed in the war so far. The solution was simple: change the parameters back. The mind screamed the order with the combined intensity of twelve billion human beings suddenly facing the prospect of extinction.

Suddenly the sky ahead of Flynn’s Qilin bristled with missiles, but he barely had time to register their existence before they were gone. Projectiles faster than the speed of light shot past his vessel, obliterating them before continuing onto the launchers. Although he didn’t hear it, a team of guardians slumped down dead in the hallway outside his room in the bunker, felled by a projectile which had travelled from Congo to Berlin in less time than it took them to receive the message to enter the room to kill him. The communications array which could be used to override his control of his Qilin vanished, a deep, red crater left in its wake.

By now Flynn’s Qilin was over Berlin, along with fifty others piloted by rejects who sat in the rooms around him. He assumed they all knew what to do, because he only knew what Gloria had told him to do: to crash his Qilin into the heart of the mind and destroy it.

#

“It’s time I told you the truth about me and the mind, Flynn,” said Gloria.

Flynn stared at her, speechless. Not for the first time since walking into the interrogation room, everything he thought he knew about Gloria was up for question. All he could do was wait to either be betrayed or redeemed.

“Do you know why we call them ‘the visitors’, Flynn? Why not ‘the aliens’ or ‘the invaders’?”

The question annoyed Flynn. This was stuff a schoolchild knew. “Because their ships look like the ships from the twentieth century novel by Simak. The Visitors. And they don’t talk to us, just like his visitors didn’t. What’s your point?”

“No, Flynn. That isn’t right. That’s more history you think that you know but you don’t. We call them visitors because I gave them that name when they first came to me. Th-“

Flynn interrupted. “They did what?”

“Let me finish. Simak’s visitors couldn’t communicate meaningfully with humans. But our visitors can. I know because they talked to me. They told me what was going to happen and how I was going to make it happen. This was before the global launch of the net. I was one of the early architects, if you can say ‘I’, because by the time we made real progress the mind had already subsumed our identities. Every night I took my transceiver out was like waking up and reclaiming myself after a fever dream. Being plugged in didn’t seem right. But this was so soon after the war, and giving up didn’t seem right either.”

“One night I had taken out my transceiver and my cat was on my lap -- you notice how these drones don’t even have cats anymore, Flynn? In the mirror I saw an avatar appear on the bed. She looked just like me, the cat even went over to her while we were talking -- I think she even smelled like me. An exact copy. She told me that soon we were going to have visitors, and that with their help I was going to save the human race from what I already suspected was going to happen. She said her race went through the same thing, but they were saved by people from the sky. She said the net could get us to a certain point but would end up destroying our individuality, and without individuality you cannot get to the stars.”

Gloria paused, but Flynn was just staring, open-mouthed. She continued. “My visitor didn’t stay long. When she left I panicked. I thought I’d hallucinated the whole thing, that maybe this was some side-effect of the technology. Remember, Flynn, this was before the ships--the only rectangles I was thinking about were the graves from the war. So I plugged my transceiver back in and let the mind see what I saw. It only took micro-seconds for it to reject me, to kick me off the network.”

Flynn was ready to speak again. “What happened next?”

 “That was two months before the global launch. We were due to plug in the industrialists the next day. They went ahead, and they ignored me. I thought I was crazy, that I was letting down humanity. But then the visitors came, and that’s what they called them -- visitors. Just like I had when I’d interacted with the mind. You can’t imagine what a mindfuck that was, Flynn. They put me in this prison before anyone else, just to stop me telling my story.”

Flynn had more questions than he could get out at once. He tried just one. “If that’s all true, why would the mind trust you now?”

“Look, Flynn, the mind knows a lot more than you or I, but it works in a certain way. I’ve seen it from the inside. I’ve seen how its narrow logic cuts off certain paths. That’s why the mind can never take us to the stars but it’s also why I’m still alive. The mind doesn’t believe I ever had that conversation with the visitor. It thinks I just went crazy. The mind says that the visitors have much, much greater power than we’ve seen yet -- how else do they effortlessly match any step we take? So if the visitors wanted the mind gone, they could just do it. But they don’t. They want something else. And the mind thinks changing the parameters is the only way to find out what.”

Flynn snorted. “The mind thinks you’re crazy and I think you’re crazy too. How do you know you’re not?”

You don’t. Now listen to what I want you to do.”

#

Five years to the day after the Battle of Berlin, the historic anniversary of mankind’s victory over the invaders.  Flynn is sat on his porch, gazing up at the stars. The television is on inside his house, and he can hear the pol-pundit talking excitedly, even as she recites a history every human being on the planet knows -- even in Tokyo. A heroic band of true individuals made their last stand in Berlin, she gee-whizzes, and the invaders were defeated. Where did they go after their humiliating loss? No-one knows. But that wasn’t the only momentous thing to happen to humanity that day: before the unconnected could smash them, the aliens managed to destroy the mind. Now we’re all individuals again, and the new world government plans to keep it that way...

Flynn smiles, even though no-one is watching. He pictures Gloria holding court in the presidential palace. No-one around her has a transceiver. With the mind gone and the unconnected the apparent saviors of mankind, there is a new order. Individuals are back, even though humanity benefits from the technological fruits of the mind’s brief reign: scarcity vanquished, war extinguished. Humanity has escaped its local maximum, and the stars beckon. Still, Gloria is no fool. She knows each new order needs a founding myth.

Flynn doesn’t mind the little lies. He doesn’t mind that the pol-pundit is describing how the heroic Pilot Flynn smashed his Qilin into the enemy mothership as it closed in on Berlin, using the creativity of the unconnected to find its weak spot. He doesn’t mind that they’ll never know what the visitors did for them, and that they’ll keep calling them invaders and aliens and the greatest threat to humanity. He doesn’t mind that twelve billion humans will never know that it was he who freed them from the mind’s grip, he who plunged his ship into its dark heart after the visitors exploded its defenses.

He dozes off and thinks of the sound those blessings made as they rained down in rhythmic cadences, just before he struck the final blow. Their missiles, their missiles; our saviors.

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