The Spark's Story

Blurred visions of a majestic gilded city. Glistering stone columns obscured through a cloud of smoke. Static-laden images of once-mighty airships grounded. More than anything else: a deep sadness and despondency. Where was The Master? He could sense the frustration-the helplessness of slaves, workers, and the mighty Guilds alike at the unrectifiable… what?

What drove the lamentations?

Why did the wealthy merchant rend his beloved coverings of mauve and gold in the street?

Why did the pilots and captains down their billowing charges?

Why did the great Council—of all people!—set fire to their majestic court? The philosophers and the alchemists could do nothing, not even look into the eyes of those who came to the libraries pleading for nothing but hope. The city burned brighter. All of this he could see, but only through flashing disjoint images, too quickly for him to ponder.

And then—blackness.

Overseer Janson sat in his designated place at the massive wooden meeting table, many lengths under the great City. He rolled a pencil back and forth, stewing in his frustration as the bureaucrats droned on about matters of what seemed to him quite limited consequence.

”…and so you see, wise ones, if the City is to survive, the Carpentry Guild must be given relief from its unconscionable tax burden!” A weaselly-looking man opposite the table from Janson stood. “While we sympathize, the Oversight committee must not and cannot grant specific exemptions. It would become an accountability nightmare, and would breed corruption like rodents in the granary.”

Janson rolled his eyes in irritation at the surreal pettiness in the face of much greater problems, but took a deep breath to collect himself. “An Overseer must never show his negative emotion,” his father and predecessor on the committee had told him. “The people demand leadership and strength, not weak-minded anger.”

He stood. “I agree. I have been suggesting for years that we revise our tax code to clean out its dusty corners, and I agree with the representative of the Carpentry Guild that things have inflated quite far enough. I hereby officially propose the formation of a subcommittee to investigate the possibility of giving it a cleaning.”

The weaselly fellow nodded his head in agreement, and the rest of the table slowly did so as well. “That’s settled, then. Overseers, I have another matter to bring to the Council’s attention.” He suddenly remembered the stranger in the room, and snapped back to him. “Representative of the Carpentry Guild, your wishes will be addressed in due time. Dismissed.”

The carpenter bowed in deference, and took his leave from the ornately-decorated wood-paneled council room. Janson continued once the footsteps had receeded. “My people have been bringing disturbing reports to me all morning. You have no doubt been curious about the words whispered in my ears during all today’s proceedings. Well, the time is ripe now to officially announce that a storm has been brewing for days now.”

He unfurled a canvas sheet with a map of the city, red dots of varying sizes labeled with dates. “Four days ago, a child fell ill in the slums. Normally this would be a trifling matter; as I’m sure you’re all aware, the slums frequently have minor disease outbreaks due to the lack of sanitation. By the way, this should be addressed in a future meeting. This alone, indeed, is nothing of consequence. However, within a day, the child’s skin was gone. Disintegrated.” He showed a sketch of the boy, muscles and bones exposed.

“This information was brought to my desk two days ago by a mole I pay to keep tabs on the slums’ latest resistance movement. The damned idiots had been attempting to keep this case quiet for fear of bringing officially attention to the area, for freak that we would be able to finally bring down the hammer on them. Not an entirely unfounded fear, but under the circumstances… well, it gets worse. The child’s family and neighbors also fell ill, and yesterday disintegrated in the same fashion. This growth pattern continued, and this morning upon confirming rapid exponential spread, I sanctioned an official quarantine of the area.”

Rumblings broke out among the members of the council. “You don’t have that power!”, one voice exclaimed—Janson recognized her as Faith, a political opponent of no small influence. Even his allies on the board were aghast and slowly shaking their heads.

Weasel-face across from him stood up. “Janson, we recognize your wisdom, and your power in handling matters of the public health. However, a silent quarantine enforced only by your own men is, as Faith so bluntly said, an overstepping of any one Overseer’s powers. I am impressed that you managed to pull this off without alerting any of us to the situation.”

Janson nodded. “Indeed, Overseer Rayth. I only wished to keep the sickness from spreading beyond our control while I had time to get a sample to my best physicians. My quarantine, however, failed. An hour after it was enacted, a worker in the north district also fell ill. The connection to the victims in the slums is currently unknown, and I have my best men looking for one.”

The burble of chatter around the table broke into an uproar. Janson noticed in disgust that Faith seemed to be inciting much of the chaos around her. Rayth broke in. “Janson! Is this the work of the resistance? I can have the slums destroyed under the Simms protocol in less than an hour.”

“Unlikely. We know of no agent, biological or chemical, that has this power. The resistance has been taken off guard just as much as us, and the guards holding the quarantine report that they have declared ad-hoc martial law inside the barrier.” He cocked his head in curiosity. “Would you really engage the Simms protocol, knowing as little as we do?” “In a heartbeat. The lives of the slum scum are not worth the entire City.”

The entire committee muted instantly upon hearing this exchange.

“The council is well aware of your dislike of the protocol, Janson. Believe me, none of us like it. But believe me also on this: I will not hesitate to initiate the vote if you fail to control this problem.” Janson ground his teeth. “Controlling this outbreak is the duty of the entire committee. I will not take sole responsibility if it fails in that task.”

Rayth gave a toothy smile. “Then we’d best get started, shouldn’t we.”

Janson rested heavily on the brass guard rail edging the top of the Oversight tower. The sun burned bright orange, casting a warm incandescence over his beloved cityscape. Small personal airships cluttered the airspace, while the mighty Fighting Fox soared overhead. The monstrous dirigible was the military marvel of the city; Janson had personally oversight over its construction, back when his body was still that of a youthful man. He still remembered the day when he had received the memo. Short and sweet, it had said merely “It’s ready”. The feeling of elation he had experienced… he smiled and shook his head. That was neither here nor there.

He pressed a call button on a nearby panel. “Hi, this is Janson. Could you call Barnaby and tell him to pick me up from dock 3, please?”

“Of course, sir,” the sharp female voice on the other end of the line replied. “Would you like to be patched through?”

“Nah, no need.”

“Very good sir.”

The line disconnected, and he resumed his vigil over his beloved, but now threatened, city. Within a few minutes, a bright blue blimp soared overhead and maneuvered into a docking position. A loudspeaker on the side chirped “Please hold on, sir. Winds are a little bit nasty today.” “The woes of the upper class,” Janson muttered with a smile to himself. Most of the populace relied on trains, bicycles, or just their boring old feet to get around. An anchor flew by him and wrapped around a docking bar. “Sorry, sir!”

“Oy, watch where you’re throwing those!”

“I said sorry! Lowering the docking ramp in a few seconds… clamps locked… OK, docking ramp should be coming down now!”

True to the pilot’s word, a gilded ramp slowly descended from the side of the blimp’s canopy and landed with a clatter on the traction-patterned metal floor. A helmet-clad head poked around the corner, only the chin visible: “Welcome aboard, sir! I think you will be very pleased with the meal I cooked up for you!”

“You are so very thoughtful, Barnaby. Oh, did you remember to cook it?” “Did I remember to what?”

Janson glared.

“Oh, lighten up sir! Of course it’s cooked. I forgot, what, once?” “Once is quite enough, thank you so very much.” Janson fell into the comfortable red leather couch in the back of the blimp’s suspended pilot house. “Ahh, that was quite a day.”

“Did you want to talk about it, sir?”

“I… do, actually, very much. But it’s… classified. I know my reports to you are the high point of your day, and I am sorry.”

Barnaby hid his disappointment with the grace of an experienced servant. “I ask you to help you alone, sir.”

“Come off of it, Barnaby. I’ve seen your eyes light up. You like hearing my stories as much as I enjoy telling them to you. But this is too big, I’m afraid. I even kept it from the Council as long as I could.”

Barnaby nodded (to no effect; his head was hidden from Janson’s eyes by the large pilot’s chair) in response as he finished the liftoff procedure and radioed Tower Airspace Command to inform them of their departure. Janson began to reflectively chew his steak, beautifully prepared and garnished. Barnaby must have spent the better part of the afternoon slow-cooking it and preparing the marinade. Maybe he should give the lad a bonus. His career as a chef had started out on quite the wrong foot, when he served Janson raw Pouchrat by mistake. But it was clear he had been practicing, and the lessons had paid off.

He stared out the window as they glided over the merchant district, Faith’s charge. He wasn’t too worried about her. It was Rayth that had him worried. He wasn’t the bad sort insofar as he would help his fellow Overseers out in a pinch quite freely, but he had a ruthless side that Janson found to be an unknown and potentially dangerous factor. Rayth would initiate the Simms protocol if he felt he had to, without a moment’s hesitation, and to Gofath with the consequences!

Janson shuddered. He would not allow the council to enact the Simms protocol. Not on his watch. He wouldn’t go down in history as part of the first Council to take that step. He sighed. If he didn’t find a way to stop this thing, he might not have the power to stop it.

Janson had a lump in his throat as he stood up in front of the committee. “Gentlemen. Yesterday evening I enacted an aggressive martial quarantine of any and all infected city blocks. This…” he paused and looked down. “Yes?” Faith impatiently urged.

“Containment was breached, or… the containment is airborne. This morning, a case hit my desk from the merchants’ district. I’ve got a team searching for signs of break-in, and the labs say that they have a rough idea now of what it is, but are not ready to share these findings. I do not find that promising. As of…” he looked at the clock, “1318 hours, I recommend to the council that we enact martial law. The ‘quarantined’ areas are now completely infected and close to eradication, and there are several dozen new recognized cases outside, probably a lot more unreported. Our only saving grace is that the spread seems to be slowed by standard biological precautions, and I’ve already issued an official recommendation that citizens stay inside secure buildings with filtered air.”

A usually quiet member of the council-the youngest, Janson recognized-slowly stood up. “Do we know yet if it is biological or chemical?” “…neither. It’s a complex and dynamic inorganic structure, but the lab rats have yet to give a formal report. Frankly, gentlemen, they’re nearly as baffled as we are.”

Rayth stood. “I believe that I can answer some of the questions regarding the infection’s origin.”

Janson raised an eyebrow as murmurs grew around the table. “And I believe that we would all be very interested in what you have to say, Overseer Rayth.”

Rayth passed a sheet of paper around. “For two years now, I’ve had my best men keeping close tabs on an… interesting… project run by one of our military contractors. ‘Project Sandstorm,’ it was called. The exact nature of it I never ascertained, but its appetite for skin was ravenous, and it was 100% artificial. After finding out its true nature, I had no choice but to have the project dismantled.”

“This council was never informed,” Faith yelled.

“This is true,” Rayth gave one of his infamous toothy smiles, “you were never informed, because if it got out, we would have had a scandal of the highest degree on our hands. And I think we all know that this council is not as private as we would like to think.”

“What are you talking about,” Faith sputtered.

Rayth gave an exaggerated sigh, and pulled another paper out of his briefcase. “After the purification project leak, I had some of my people—”

Janson dryly interjected, “You have a lot of people, Rayth.”

“—my people look into the previous leaks. They reckon there’s a 92% chance that there is a mole. Either that or a wiretap. I already checked that out, though. I was hoping to keep this under wraps until I had formal proof as to who it is, but I’m afraid that luxury is gone now. We cannot safely assume that anything that goes on in this room will stay in this room. Keep your backs guarded, gentlemen.”

Janson knew this already, in fact. He had run a similar analysis the previous year, but had, like Rayth, not found any hints as to who was compromised. He waved his hand to the side. “We all would do good to keep this in mind. Thank you very much, Rayth. That said, this does not currently have bearing on how to deal with…” he pulled up his reading glasses to his eyes, “Project Sandstorm.”

The youngest stood up again. “I officially wish to initiate a vote on Overseer Janson’s proposal for martial law under protocol 97-A. I stand in support of this measure, seeing as that in only two or three days the infection has spread exponentially with 100% lethally. We do not have extensive experience in dealing with pandemics due to vita tablets, and an overreaction would be better than an under-reaction. Thank… you?” he trailed off slowly, and after a moment of confused hesitation sat back down.

The vote was carried out efficiently by ballet, and after only a few minutes an aide stood by the table and announced that martial law had passed nearly unanimously, 24-1, only the oldest of the council opposed.

Janson stood. “Overseer Rayth, I would like a copy of any and all documents you have on Sandstorm sent by courier as soon as possible, both to me and to the lab rats.”

The weasel-faced man nodded. “If there is no more business at hand, I suggest we adjourn this meeting to reconvene tomorrow at noon.”

Janson strode quickly through the brightly-lit smartly-painted hallways of the government laboratories. Identical metal door after identical metal door he quickly passed, until he finally came to room 283. A torn paper page was taped on the door, on which “Project Traveler” was roughly scrawled in pencil. He unlocked the door with his key and stepped inside. He took an air filter off of a hook immediately next to the door inside and donned it. It wouldn’t be necessary here, but regulations were regulations. “Dr. Hyperia, we need to push up the schedule.”

“Impossible. We’re still getting projected instability in the personality unit.”

Janson frowned. “Is that bad?”

“Long-term? Yes. Imagine a god with the temperament of a 4-year old, and you’re on the right track.”

“We may not have a choice.”

“There’s always a choice, Overseer. If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, the answer is ‘no’”.

“I’m going to present our work to the council.”

“Fine by me. Just keep the children out of my lab.”

“This isn’t public-access; only the council would come to see it.”

“Who did you think I was talking about?”

“Oh yeah, they’ll love you.”

She snorted in disdain. “Can I test it out?”

“Sure, if you want to murder yourself. This isn’t a toy. There are philosophical ramifications.”

“I need something to tell the council.”

“Well, it worked fine for Jones.”

“Jones? I don’t… when did you hire a Jones?”

She reached into an aquarium on a desk and pulled out a black rat. “Meet Jones.”

Janson wiggled the little creature’s paw as it curiously tried to climb onto him. “Hi Jones.” He looked back up. “No obvious psychological scarring, then?”

“None that Jones has deigned to tell me about. And I had the rat therapist all ready to go, too.”

“Excellent.” He paused as he looked up at the gargantuan assemblage of intricate gears and steam-bearing glass tubing that was Project Traveler. “It really works?”

Dr. Hyperia grinned. “It really works. I watched Jones scrambled around in there for a couple hours before powering it down.”

“Need any more strings pulled from the steam room?”

“Nah, we’ve got enough pressure for now.”

Janson gave a small bow and turned to leave. “Janson, hold on a second.” He paused and turned back.

“The sickness. Is that why you wanted an inspection?”

He turned back towards the door and, after another moment of silent hesitation, proceeded to walk out. Hyperia sighed, stroked Jones as she put him back in his cage, and turned back to her desk. She had work to do.

“Please stay back, sir. We understand your frustration, but movement out of this block is not permitted for the time being.”

A tall and well-muscled man just stared down at the security officer in response. Officer #c12-1, recognized by his friends as Rick Sachet, estimated the offender at a good 300 pounds. The corner of his mouth curled up just barely perceptibly. He could take the thug.

Finally the quiet imposer spoke again. “So we have a problem here?”

“Please stay back, sir. As I said, you cannot leave. Neither of us can do anything about it, so why don’t you just step away from the door and cool off a bit, eh?”

The muscle man frowned, and Rick rubbed his eyes. All day he had been dealing with people like this. Some were friendly enough under the circumstances; Rick definitely appreciated the absurdity of the situation, and understood that a lot of the people trapped behind the cordon just wanted to head home.

But by golly, he had his orders. He sighed. “I’m going to tell you one more tim—” he brought up his brass-plated arm as the man took a swing at him. Pound for pound, Rick had the raw deal. But he also had a force-multiplier: training and armor. The blow bounced harmlessly off the arm guard, and Rick feinted left as he swung up a right hook. Dazed, the man stepped back and clumsily kicked out. This was a mistake. The guard easily grabbed the offending foot and simultaneously twisted and shoved it. With a yell, the man fell backwards onto the hard cobblestone as the guards nearby intervened and trussed him up. Rick scrunched his eyes shut and pointed to the steam-powered paddy wagon sitting some yards away.

The guards efficiently dragged the still dazed and incapacitated man away, behind the line of biohazard-suit-clad security personal. The irony of this was not lost on Rick, and despite his wearily irritation he gave a weak chuckle. The man had gotten through after all.

He felt a tap on his shoulder through the white-and-blue rubber of his hazard suit. “c12-1, you’re relieved. The line can do without you for a couple minutes; there’s an Overseer here to see you, and it’s not going to be my head at the next banquet if you’re tardy.”

The officer next to Rick chuckled with mock-schadenfreude. “Hey, Rick, do I get your bike when you’re gone?”

Rick gave a thin smile, and broke line to follow his commanding officer to the waiting Council car. He was quite impressed despite himself. The Council got some sweet toys, of course, but this was ornate even for the standards of the typical Overseer. Exquisitely tasteful use of brass edging, control gears visible through a layer of glass, steam compressor carved with-he looked closer-yes, an original Van, Devarant brass etching! His eyes bugged. “What’s this about?”

His CO shrugged. “You know the brass. All this secretive rot. Won’t let us grunts on the field hear a bloomin’ thing. He didn’t seem mad or nothing like that, so I’d quit’cher worrying, you wuss.”

Rick let his shoulders relax slightly upon hearing this, but tensed up quickly upon seeing the Overseer, sitting in the open car with the door open. “Overseer Faith!”, he gasped. Belatedly he regained his composure and fell back into full attention. “What can I do for you, ma’am?” Faith froze him with an icy glare. Rick glanced sidelong at his CO, who simply gave an apologetic shrug, mouthing some excuse. Faith spoke. “Let’s get to business, yes? Are you familiar with Overseer Janson?” He gave an eager nod. “Yes, ma’am. Spoke to me himself not a day ago, after this nasty business first broke to us.”

She nodded. “What exactly did he say?”

“Disease outbreak in this district, keep it enclosed, let nobody out. Not much beyond that.”

“Let’s take a walk.”

He nervously nodded, and the two began to walk in lockstep away from the car. With a wave from the Overseer, the security personal broke away giving the two reasonable privacy.

“The council has recently become aware of the origins of this disease.” Rick tried with mixed success to keep the nerves out of his voice. “Yes ma’am.”

“Your file tells me that you worked security at the labs some years back.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Naturally your exact assignment is redacted after a period for privacy concerns. I’m sure you understand-some powerful people do not… appreciate, some powerful projects. It’s all very typical cloak-and-dagger council dealings.” She sighed. “Very tiresome.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She stopped short. “Did you work on Sandstorm.”

Rick’s eyes popped again. “…ma’am?”

“It’s a simple question. Do you need me to use smaller words?”

He gaped his mouth before finally catching his wits at the abrupt redirection of the conversation. “…no, ma’am.”

She frowned in irritation. “Are you sure?”

“Quite sure, ma’am. If you must know, I was on Waterwheel. Didn’t see anything that was going on inside, I’m afraid.”

With a sniff, she spun on her foot and power walked back to her waiting car. Rick shrugged. He wasn’t paid nearly enough for this. Noticing a nearby street vendor selling sweets, he decided to take a quick detour on his way back. That would be fair compensation, he rationalized.

“He’s going to engage the Simms protocol. And there’s not a blasted thing we can do to stop it.”

Barnaby cocked his head as Janson crossed his arms and looked over the apartment balcony at the city he loved so much.

“Sir, if I may ask…?”

“Always, Barnaby.”

“What… what is the Simms protocol?”

Janson stayed quiet for several minutes, until Barnaby began to wonder if Janson had heard him at all. But no, finally, Janson sighed. “Tell nobody. This is one of the darkest secrets of this city. You must swear to me to tell nobody.”

His loyal aide nodded. “Nobody.”

Janson turned away. “When the City was built by the founding council, it was designed… the engineers built the underbelly to be… selectively collapsible. This was considered a prudent decision at the time, what with the raiders and the calamity and… well, you know your history. It just was not a good time for subtlety in defenses. So a rule was established early on: with a 23 majority, the Council has the power to collapse entire segments of the City in cases of invasion or severe social instability. It… has never been tested. Until now, nothing has ever been bad enough to warrant what amounts to mass murder, or perhaps in this case, class-based genocide.” He shook his head and punched the wall, wincing as the shock reverberated in his bones. “I wanted the controls disabled! I told them that they’re meant for a different time! At least require a unanimous vote!”

Barnaby waited as Janson paced with rage.

“But I don’t blame them. Nor do I blame him. Rayth. Maybe it’ll work. Maybe it’ll save the city. Maybe they’d die either way.” He looked at his wide-eyed aide. “But I just feel in my gut that it will save nothing. This is far bigger than the slums now.”

“Is pandemic control going poorly?”

“Poorly?” Janson scoffed. “It’s a non-starter. We’ve never seen anything like it, and due to project roster redaction, we don’t have any idea where any of the people who worked on this disaster are. Or if they’re even still alive.” He stopped pacing. “Their being dead would be the only excuse in my mind for why they haven’t come forward.”

Barnaby put a hand on his friend and master’s shoulder. “Surely something can be done?”

“There’s something. It’s… only helpful on the macroscopic scale. Preservation of a civilization.”

“I don’t understand.”

Janson paced over to a chair and plopped down. “Lab boys say that symptoms don’t even show up for a week. Barnaby, loyal old Barnaby… this is it.” Barnaby had seen Janson in a great variety of moods, but despair was new. “I still don’t…”

“We’re infected. Every last one of us. The whole city and anybody we had trade relations with.” He jumped to his feet and swept the rippling mauve curtain all the way open. “All this! My city! Every single last man and woman and child is dead! Dead, Barnaby!” He began to gesture wildly, and Barnaby stepped backwards in fear at this decidedly unpleasant turn of mood. “What does it matter. Tell me that! Simms protocol, all that! Who cares! We’re dead! I have to go out and tell the people something tomorrow, Barnaby! The rest of the council is dodging the matter, but oh I can’t. If I tell them the truth, all law will be gone. My city will burn, and our legacy will be utter chaos and despair. But can I lie? They’ll all know it within a couple days. No! I can’t save the people, but I can save our legacy. Call a council meeting!”

Barnaby stepped to the side in befuddlement as Janson dashed by him, down the stairs, and out the apartment door.

The highest-ranking council members stood gaping in front of the subterranean glass viewing window. Through it was a cavern of impressive proportions, large enough to give most a cause for wonder. But it was what the cave contained that currently interested the bureaucrats: a vast network of clockwork machines, all beginning to spin up with an ear-shattering clanging. Faith spoke first. “This wasn’t in the budget for Traveler.”

Janson smoothly replied, “There were private donations.”

Several more minutes passed as they watched steam vents jet, pistons slide, and valve monitors dial up. Faith spoke again. “It’s time for us to be told what Traveler is.”

Janson gestured to a nearby seething Hyperia, who glared back, but obediently began explaining. “Ten years ago, I was approached by an independent investor with an idea. I still remember what he asked me: ‘What if a clockwork could contain a consciousness.’ I thought he was right off his rocker at the time, and I told him as much.”

Janson cheekily interjected “Hyperia has a way with words.”

The sharp-eyed woman gave another courtesy glare, but continued without a dignifying response. “But the idea stuck with me. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Finally one day, I told Van,Devarant about it at a clockworks convention. Yeah, I thought that name would get your attention. He confessed to me that… he had been thinking about the same thing. For several years we worked on several theories for how a human consciousness could be stored and allowed to live free of a body. The day before he…” She broke off and looked away, biting her lip. Janson gently continued for her. “The day before Van,Devarant was killed in his sleep, he told Hyperia something. He told her that he had come to realize that they were going about the process completely wrong. They didn’t need to simulate a mind; they needed to simulate a world!”

Hyperia finally looked back, eyes slightly red. “I told him too he was off his rocker. But the court granted me his lab, and I finally got to see his magnum opus. I had been pestering him for months to let me see the work that he spoke so often so highly of, but… bless the overly secretive sap, he didn’t let me. But when I finally worked myself up to go, I found that he left me a note… he knew he was going to die that night, so he left me a note. He told me that he had a child unlike any other. A child-non-biological, mind you-that was going to change the world. And it’s taken me up until now to unlock it. His child-his spark, as he so fondly referred to it-was a mechanical personality. Unstable, childish, prone to fits of anger, but a real living personality nonetheless. I spent years giving it a world to inhabit, to learn from, to rule over, and slowly I drew it out of its shell. And its world is the City’s last hope.”

“But you didn’t know about Sandstorm,” Rayth objected.

Janson fielded this. “No, until recently it was a pure research project.”

“This won’t save us,” Rayth continued.

“No,” Janson shook his head, “it will only save our memory. We can copy ourselves into the world, but we ourselves-the bodies we are bound to-will not cross over.”

“Is the spark stable?”


The council voices droned on below the air vent as Rick listened. He was growing weary of listening. He had lied to Faith about not being on Sandstorm, although technically he was not supposed to know anything about what it actually was. But he had snuck in; he knew exactly what was coming, and that everybody was going to die. But he had a few connections, and he was a skilled wiretapper. Rick was indeed loyal to the City’s ultimate good and its command structures, but he was not going to die like the test subjects he had seen. He curled up in the air vent and let his thoughts fall back to that dark place. He had wanted to blow the whistle when the lab rats first began to use live human samples. But he was just a guard, and the people behind Sandstorm had connections he couldn’t even dream of, trumping even his. So he stayed quiet, knowing that he couldn’t make any difference either way.

He sat stock upright. A sentient clockwork? Did he hear that right? He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. An entire world, free of his now-infected body? This was too much to hope for. He began to pay closer attention.

“So how does it work,” growled Faith. For once, Hyperia remembered her place and managed to just barely bite back a sarcastic retort after a meaningful look from Janson. “There’s a scanning room over there, in the control council. But I gave the spark connections all over the city, and his Gatekeeper fragment could admit the entire city within a day if it had to. Right now, the spark has decided that the philosophically ethical thing to do is only admit people just prior to death.”

“So we just go into the pod? It’s that easy?”

“No, I told you. The spark doesn’t like to copy people outright. It inherited some weird ideas about morality from its fathe-Van,Devarant. That’s why we built the pod, but only rats have been admitted from it.”

“So you’re saying this has never been tested?”

“Not on humans as such, no. There’s no way to know if it will work until somebody in the scanning radius dies.”

“This is lunacy!” Faith screeched in frustration.

“But the city will live.”

So somebody had to die, eh? Rick was feeling quite a bit of Faith’s irritation at this turn of events. He checked his pocket watch. He was taking too long-risking discovery. He began to turn around in the air duct, when abruptly he noticed something. A patch of the skin on his hand was disintigrating, rapidly. “No,” he muttered. Not now. Not yet. I was wearing full protective gear… how?!

“Who cares about the city?!” Faith was now hysterical.

“I assumed you,” Janson responded as Rayth gave a non-committal grunt. “She has a point, Janson. This is too much. I’m going to initiate a vote for the Simms protocol as soon as the council reconvenes. This can be our fallback plan, but you think this place won’t get torn to shreds if the public hears about this? They’ll scream ‘class elitism’, claim that we won’t let them in, and then we have riots. That’s not too much better.”

A scream rung out from the air vents.

The man felt every atom of his body being teared apart. Was he here? Or was he there? The sudden duplicity of his being filled him with existential terror.

But—no, no, he knew where he was, where he always had been. He remembered everything from the City now. The once majestic City was burning. That was no longer his concern. He looked at the fog-the spark, he intuitively understood-surrounding him, dropping him down to a grassy knoll.

He would be the first of an empire.