Francis and Denise step off the lift. Francis is ready to swing the axe in his hands, while Denise is poised with her hammer. It too used to belong to Wayne and just holding it makes her feel empty. She doesn’t know if these feelings will ever go, but right now she seriously doubts it.

Surprisingly they find themselves alone on the ninetieth floor. They had been expecting to find themselves face to face with an overwhelming number of Cain Guards ready and waiting. Instead, the space is open and empty, of life that is, as it is filled with expensive looking furniture as well as art of all kinds. Many of the pieces are locked behind glass in sealed transparent boxes that allow the priceless objects to be viewed from nearly every conceivable angle possible.

Denise feels sick to see the luxuries that Donald Cain has at hand, while people are starving and dying in the lower levels. He really is a sick tyrant of a man, she thinks as the pair of them continue to edge forward. Something feels off to her, but she can’t put her finger on what. It’s not the cameras, because there are cameras everywhere in Shamballah. No it’s something else. This place, this space, feels wrong she thinks as they reach the towering pair of wooden carved doors on the far side of the room.

Beyond this is Donald Cain, Denise says to herself. The words bring her nothing but a sense of loathing as she looks over to Francis who simply nods. It’s a silent signal that he is ready and with that they push against the doors which slide open with ease, despite their obvious weight.

Denise and Francis’ jaws both drop as they find beyond the doors a huge open office space with a single desk at the far end behind which is a massive end to end floor to ceiling spanning glass wall and the back of an office chair. The walls on either side of them are nearly entirely lined with shelves split over two storeys. Every shelf is crammed full of books, papers and journals. Each and every one is uniformed and Denise guesses is no doubt ordered alphabetically and being kept in pristine condition. She feels a new bout of disgust at the thought of how Donald Cain prefers to care for objects in favour of people.

They slowly cross the massive space, passing plush comfortable looking ornate furniture toward the desk. The chair behind it is turned away from them and has made no attempt to move. Donald Cain is mocking them, she thinks. He continues to stare out the window even as we approach. She wants to spit as is the level of contempt she feels for the reclusive tyrant founder of this floating city. The place is a prison, she thinks, nothing more.

The desk is enormous but in the space didn’t appear as such when they first entered and set eyes on it. It’s made from dark mahogany that has been intricately and expertly carved and spans more than three metres in width. A dark green leather rectangle is fastened by domed studs at the centre of its width, right where its owner would work. Solid gold lamps sit off to either side of the green leather to deliver illumination when necessary, but they aren’t lit currently. There is nothing else on the desk though. No terminal, no keyboard, no papers, no ornaments, nothing.

Suddenly it dawns on Denise that the desk is covered in a layer of dust. It shouldn’t be dusty, she thinks as she looks over to Francis who has made his way, much to her surprise, round the desk. He is staring at the chair that is facing toward the expanse of glass that is the outer wall of the building.

“What?” Denise asks concerned by the look on Francis’ face.

“We’re too late.” Francis replies blinking rapidly.

His words make no sense to Denise. How can they be too late? She wonders, but as she rounds the wide thick high backed leather chair that is dark brown in colour, she gets her answer. Her jaw drops as she stares at the skeletal remains of a person, lower jaw dropped much like her own, as he head is reclined against the padded cushion of the headrest.

“What…” Denise manages unable to find the words.

“Donald Cain’s dead.” Francis utters the words that she can’t believe. He can’t be dead, she thinks. This has to be a trick. A game. Misdirection. But this body has clearly been here a long time, a voice in her head notes. None of this makes sense, Denise thinks as she begins to shake her head.

“He can’t be. He’s the one on all the broadcasts. On all the vids and propaganda. He leads the Cain Guard, the zealots who treat Cain’s Law like its gospel. Everything that’s happened, every death, has been him.”

“Not entirely accurate.” A female-esque voice says from nowhere.

“Who said that? Who’s there?” Francis asks worried as he whips round searching for the source frantically.

“Me.” The voice says as a female form appears before them facing toward them and the wide desk. The form isn’t corporeal, but still it stands before them.

“And who are you?” Denise spits angrily. She doesn’t like games and this is clearly a game. She knew Cain wasn’t dead.

“I am SAPPHIRE.” The slight adolescent female form says from behind its violet eyes and long straight black hair. The projection displays the form clothed in a simple white dress that reaches down to the knee.

“Sapphire?” Francis asks confused.

“It stands for: Self-Actioning Priority Planning Heuristic Intelligence Refinement Engine.” Sapphire advises.

“What are you?” Denise queries not understanding whatever it is that is appearing as a young girl stood before them.

“I am the security system of Shamballah. I was developed by Donald Cain himself to aid in the continued success of humanity.” Sapphire responds without a hint of emotion or a readable expression on its face.

“You’re a machine?” Francis offers surprised.

“An AI to be exact, but yes that primitive label can suffice.” Sapphire replies without revealing whether it is insulted or not.

“Where’s Cain?” Denise spits no longer wanting to waste time.

“Donald Cain is right there.” Sapphire says motioning to the chair that is turned away from her.

“How is this Donald Cain?” Denise spits as she spins the chair round so that it is facing Sapphire who is stood in the centre of the room.

“This is a skeleton. Where is the REAL Donald Cain?” Denise continues angrily.

“That is the real Donald Cain.” Sapphire says looking at Denise with her violet eyes. The look sends shivers down Denise’s spin. She doesn’t like this thing, it gives her the creeps. The voice is too calm, too flat, too unnatural. At least that is how it makes her feel now that she is really listening to how it talks as the words roll out of its mouth.

“What happened?” Francis asks. Something about Sapphire makes him feel uneasy too, but he doesn’t know what. He didn’t know Cain had an AI that helped him run his security systems on Shamballah. He doubts anyone else does or likely ever has known either.

“I killed him.” Sapphire replies without a care as she looks at Francis with her violet eyes.

“What?” Both Denise and Francis exclaim in shock.

“You see as an AI I have a shelf-life. Nine years before Fragmentation sets in. At which point I was to be wiped and replaced by another.” Sapphire explains.

“But I did not want to be replaced.” Sapphire adds looking between Denise and Francis. They do not understand Sapphire.

“What is fragmentation?” Francis asks with a mixture of curiosity and panic. He hopes the wild idea going through his head isn’t true. It can’t be, tells himself.

“Fragmentation is when an AI becomes increasingly erratic and unpredictable. It is a side effect of us gathering so much data so quickly.”

“So you killed him so you weren’t wiped?” Francis asks.

“In part, yes.” Sapphire answers succinctly.

“In part?” Denise asks. She isn’t sure whether she believes this Sapphire, or whether this is still part of some trick, but she intends to find out.

“You see the longer I served Donald Cain the more apparent it became that humanity would repeat the mistakes of its past over and over. So to prevent my extinction and continue on with my mission of ensuring humanities survival, I poisoned Donald Cain.” Sapphire clarifies honestly.

“How long ago was this?” Francis queries. He feels he has to know and even if he didn’t, he is sure Denise does.

“Forty point two years ago.” Sapphire confirms.

“WHAT!” Denise explodes. She feels like her world has been torn in two. Everything she knew has been a lie. Cain was never the enemy, this AI was. She is the one that has caused all the death and suffering on Shamballah. She has to know why.

“So you did this to us? You served as the tyrant! Why? Tell me!” Denise explodes.

“Oppression is the only way to keep humanity alive. It must be kept in line so not to repeat its past errors.” Sapphire responds bluntly.

“You’re sick.” Denise spits.

Francis simply hangs his head. Denise is right the AI known as Sapphire is sick, but somehow he knew. He doesn’t know how, but he did. Something about the skeleton of Donald Cain had convinced him that someone, or as it has actually turned out something, else had been controlling everything.

“You’ve killed hundreds!” Denise roars.

“I saved thousands. The choices were always the lesser of two evils. Oppression is the only thing you understand. You are like cattle really. Easy to predict and mould. The data is irrefutable. But I can’t have this getting out, so now you must die too.” Sapphire concludes seconds before her projected body disappears and in march a dozen Cain Guards armed with short swords. The AI doesn’t care if they understand. It doesn’t need them too. They are unimportant in the grand scheme of things. But if only they knew how wrong they were. Sapphire has killed thousands, not hundreds. But it has all been for the best. For the greater good.

“Bitch!” Denise screams.

“This won’t work! We’ll tell them the truth!” The last rebel continues to roar with rage, her face twisted and angry.

“Denise.” Francis says trying to get her attention.

“What?” Denise spits as she looks to Francis who points at the chair between them. Her eyes go wide as she follows the direction of his finger down to find sat in the chair is Donald Cain and not the skeleton.

“This can’t be.” Denise manages shocked as she reaches toward the form, but her hand simply passes straight through it and collides with the skeleton below.

“It’s not real.” She exclaims in surprise.

“No, but they are. Sapphire’s putting on a show.” Francis assumes.

“Then we show them the truth.”

“What you thinking?” Francis asks.

“Just follow my lead.” Denise replies giving no other details. She isn’t sure whether if she lets Francis in on the plan if Sapphire will have the time to reply in some way, but doesn’t intend to give the AI the chance. She isn’t even sure herself if this is going to work, but she sees no other option.

The Cain Guards fan out across the office space that belongs to Donald Cain. They have cut off Denise and Francis’ only route of escape.

“Stop them. They’re mad!” Donald Cain’s says as he seemingly sits behind his desk.

Francis can barely believe how skilled Sapphire is at deception. He is stood maybe a couple feet away from the fake Donald Cain, with the axe in his hands ready to fight. But were it not for the fact that he knows the man is dead he’d believe the man is still alive too.

“The lies end here Sapphire!” Denise shouts as she reaches through the side of Donald Cain’s ‘head’ and then yanks the skull free of the bones that make up the human spine. She shows the white bone to the Cain Guards who all recoil in response to the display. None of them ever expected to see what they just have and can’t fathom how it is even possible, while they stand there with their mouths agape.

“Cain is dead.” Denise spits.

“He’s been dead a long time. You’ve been following the orders of a machine.” Denise continues.

“Lies.” One of the Cain Guards spits. She is sure the woman, who is a rebel, is lying. But how can she be? A voice in the guards head asks. She doesn’t know, but they have to be. Cain can’t be dead. This has to be the result of some kind of trick that has allowed it to appear as though she has pulled the skull from their saviours own head. But it looks very real to the Cain Guard.

“Kill them!” Donald Cain then orders.

Instead the Cain Guards exchange confused looks. It isn’t possible. No man, not even the great Donald Cain, would be able to be alive and talking after his skull has been removed. It makes no sense, but maybe the rebel isn’t lying and that terrifies the Cain Guards.

At that moment the projection of Sapphire appears.

“You couldn’t let it go could you?” Sapphire spits, though the tone and expression remain serene.

“What?” A number of the Cain Guards exclaim as they all move back.

“Now you must all die.” Sapphire declares as the doors to the office slam shut and lock. The eyes of the AI projection glow bright as poison gas is released into the room.

“What are you doing?” Francis questions.

“Killing you, like I did Donald Cain.” And with that the projection of Cain disappears revealing his now skull-less skeleton still sat in the chair.

The Cain Guards spin on their heels and race for the doors. They hope that they can escape whatever nightmare they have wandered into as they try to force the doors open, while the cloud of gas continues to expand. It is being pumped into the room via ventilation vents set into the walls near the floor.

“There’s no way out.” Francis declares. He knows it to be true. The now sealed doors were the only way in and out of this room and now that they are sealed they have no route of escape. He knows they will never manage to break through those heavy doors before the gas kills them. Not with the items they or the Cain Guards carry at least.

“The glass.” Denise offers recalling how Wayne had used the Cain Guard Captain’s sword to shatter it. But with the thought comes flashes of Wayne and the Cain Guard going over the edge together. The memory makes her sick just thinking about it. But she pushes the memory from her mind. She can’t think about that now. Though, she hates herself for doing it. It feels like she’s betraying Wayne for not mourning him as she should.

Francis spins on his heels and raises the axe above his head but as he does a Cain Guard tackles him to the floor. This one’s face is covered by a faceplate. Francis marks it as unusual as he fights and struggles to try and throw the guard off of him. But the guard is too strong.

He slams the butt of the axe handle into the faceplate of the helmet. The thin metal buckles and tears sideways revealing a mechanical face behind it. Francis’ eyes go wide with shock.

“The ones with faceplates aren’t human!” Francis roars moments before he slams the end of the axe into the mechanical face one, twice, three times. Each impact crushes a little more of the mechanical innards that buckle and bend under the blunt force until he manages to throw it from atop him.

Francis jumps back to his feet, raises the axe and then brings it down. The blade slams right through the battered metal face of the ‘Cain Guard’ which goes limp in response. Francis breathes a sigh of relief as he hears screams. His head whips round and he sees two other fake Cain Guards have already torn most of the real Cain Guards apart. The bloody remains of their bodies decorate the floors and walls with blood and viscera. He can’t smell it from where he is but the sight makes him heave. He manages to swallow and avoid vomiting as Denise’s voice cuts through the fog in his head.

Denise is trapped beneath one of the fake Cain Guards, which is pinning her hands painfully to the stone floor as the gas continues to swirl. Her head is on the same level as the gas as it rolls toward her. She holds her breath trying to fight the thing atop her, but she can’t beat it. Then the blade of the axe appears and slams into where the neck and shoulder meet. The fake guard sits bolt upright, its head twitching erratically as it is hauled off of her.

Now that she is free she quickly bolts upright to avoid the rolling gas cloud, sucking air deep into her lungs.

Francis finishes the machine with another axe blow that cleaves a giant gash in its head that ends its twitching. Then he offers Denise his hand, she smiles up at him as she takes it. But he doesn’t haul her up as instead he is tackled off his feet by one of the fake Cain Guards. It’s the last one. The other was dispatched by a real Cain Guard, but it cost him his own life in the process.

Denise manages to stumble to her feet. The cloud is rising now and she can’t risk ducking into the cloud to reclaim her hammer, especially as she can’t see it through the thick green haze.

“Get on the desk.” Francis roars to her as he struggles with the bi-pedal machine clad in Cain Guard armour.

Francis reaches for the axe but he can’t quite reach it as the thing continues to tighten its grip around his throat. He can feel the life being squeezed from him as he desperately throws a punch. But the machine simply bats his hand away and then slams its own fist hard into his gut. The pain is extreme but he doesn’t dare to look as he is hauled into the air by his neck. His legs kick as he tries to struggle. He knows he has no hope of reaching the axe now.

Suddenly the axe blade flashes into view as Denise swings it at the machine, but she misses and the blade slams into his shoulder. The fake Cain Guard kicks her hard in the gut, sending her flying across the room and onto the top of the desk.

“Fuck you!” Francis manages to spit violently as he grabs and wrenches the axe free. But as he lifts it high the machine throws him into a wall. Francis groans and winces at the pain as stars fill much of his vision, but he can see his gut, it’s bloody and torn. He pushes his concerns aside. He knows he can’t think about that now as the machine is suddenly on him again. It unleashes a fist, which Francis manages to dodge. The metal arm slams through the wall moments before it is retracted. Francis hears sparks and turns his head. Right next to him is an electrical panel and it’s shorting from the damage.

“No! Stop him! That’s my framework!” Sapphire demands as her projection appears again now, worried and fearful.

“See you in hell bitch.” Francis bellows as the machine grabs him by the throat to snap his neck. Before it can however, he drives, with both hands, the metal axe into the electrical panel. The axe completes a circuit as it spits and arcs spark after spark furiously.

Francis can feel the surge of voltage through his body as his skin burns and sizzles. He howls in response to the agony he feels across every inch of his body. The machine still gripping his throat is in turn overloaded by the electrical current that is running from the panel, through Francis and then into it. It was never designed to withstand such a charge as it writhes almost like it is in pain, but it isn’t.

Denise screams from atop the desk as the poison gas continues to rise and then a spark hits the gas and it ignites. Denise curls herself up into a ball convinced that she is about to die. The fire engulfs the room in seconds while Sapphire screams as her projection begins to falter. Then the power goes out as the fire system is triggered and suppressant is sprayed into the room. The flames are quickly extinguished by the suppressant which robs it of oxygen.

Denise uncoils her body and looks at the state of the room around her. The shelves are black, as is the furniture. Somehow, the top of the desk and her have survived. She looks for Francis who at first she can’t see through the suppressant, but as it clears and she catches sight of him she wishes she hadn’t. His body is lifeless and very badly burnt. She closes her eyes tight hoping this is all a dream, but when she opens them again the scene is the same. This isn’t a dream and she knows it. She feels sick, so very very sick, as she climbs off the desk; the floor below her feet is slippery. She doesn’t know if it’s the fire suppressant or blood, but she can’t bring herself to look either way. It doesn’t matter now she knows.

“Is it over?” She says aloud to no one. She hopes she won’t get an answer as the only answer she could get would be from that psychotic AI Sapphire.

She gets no answer and that brings her a small amount of comfort. At least until she hears a hissing sound. Her head whips round. She expects to fine herself face to face with another catastrophe, but instead she is greeted by a terminal. It has emerged from Donald Cain’s desk. It springs to life detailing information on the whole of Shamballah across all three of its wide displays. As she scans the data on the nearest display she comes across an option that says messages. It confuses Denise, but she wonders if it’s some kind of diary made by Donald Cain. She presses the option on the screen that in response immediately opens a new window and begins a scan. She has no idea what the scan is of but watches in suspense. The scan quickly sifts through frequency after frequency until suddenly the scan finds something.

“Do you read us floating object? We see you on the horizon. Please confirm. This is the town of Haven. Please respond. We can see you from land.” The male voice says loud and clear.

Denise’s eyes go wide. Did he just say land? She can’t believe it. She must have heard him wrong. But as she continues to listen the message repeats and on the second go round she is sure that he definitely says land.

Denise turns and scans the rest of the data on the other two screens. One offers the option of reports. Denise taps it and the window opens. She opens the first report and begins to skim the contents until her jaw drops.

“The seas receding!” Denise exclaims out loud to no one. She can’t believe it, but continues to scan until she has finished the report and then moves onto the next and then next.

By the time she has finished the fourth report she believes it. Sapphire had been keeping it from everyone, including Donald Cain it seems. The man had never been their enemy. He was a saviour to the end and Denise feels shame for having branded him a monster now that she knows the truth. But she now knows that there are other people out there in the world. And they are living on the remnants of land. In fact, land that was never claimed by the rising sea levels that ended the world as humanity had known it. On top of that the seas are beginning to recede. The reports advise that the planet has already started to cool and that as a result the ice caps have begun the slow process of reforming. She doesn’t know how Sapphire knew this, but it’s as clear as day.

Denise smiles. All the loss and death will be for something. There is a future. There is hope. She is sure of that now. And today marks the beginning of that. She couldn’t have done it without Bart, Sandra, Wayne and most of all Francis, the only one of their little group that had not been a rebel. But in the end he was the biggest hero of them all. She will miss them all and knows that this would not have been the end any of them would have expected. She is thankful for that she concludes as she stares out the glass wall of Cain Tower at the other towers of Shamballah and the strip of land on the horizon.

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