Chapter 1:

Living Firestorm

Cybernetic Dreaming or The Allure of Overcoming Humanity

Flames were everywhere.

Heavy breathing echoed in his ears like hammer blows. His breathing. Jonathan raised a hand, wiping the sweat from his forehead so it wouldn't blur his vision.

He had to be vigilant and keep his eyes wide open, if he was going to have any chance of defeating.... That thing.

Yes, thing.

He may have been born human, but he wasn't human anymore.

Not just in body, in which they couldn't be any more different either. He was also saying this because it was clear that he had abandoned his human heart a long time ago. That was the reason they were here in the first place. Why they had come so far, risked their lives time and time again. Not the only reason. He was no hero. But a reason.

So yes, it was a thing.

Jonathan prepared to face the creature.

This one was surrounded by the fire, like everyone else in the room, sitting on a throne of metal, wires and tubes running through its skin. A gigantic monstrosity, just like the enemy they had to defeat.

But his heavy breathing wasn't due to that. It wasn't from fear, but from exhaustion. And, above all, that the flames were devouring the oxygen in the throne room slowly and surely.

Under normal circumstances, that would be a danger to the enemy as much as to them.

But the enemy was so far from humans that it didn't need to breathe oxygen to live. Many times he had wondered, could he really do this? Could they do this? Win against a demon like that?

Now it was clear to him.

He trusted himself and, more importantly, his friends. They would find a way.

They always did.

Jonathan crawled forward, almost running, along with his precious companions to the left and right of him. Its power was such that the ground was full of bubbling red cracks, as if a volcano slept beneath their feet.

The enemy launched another attack.

Flames flowed toward him with the force of a stormy sea. Jonathan saw it coming and tried to dodge, futilely. He was run over. Jonathan fell to the ground, writhing, engulfed in flames. Despite that, his throat made not even a small sound of pain. It hurt too much to scream.

On his journey, he had learned many things. One of them was that real pain didn't even let you scream.

One of his friends fell on top of him.

Roxy's hands ran over his body, dousing the fire. Soon even the smoke billowing from his suit died down. It had been close. Close again.

Too close, the enemy possessed overwhelming power.

"Hold on, man. We can take him."

Hold on.

Yes, he could hold on. Life was a war and... and you had to hang in there. Or else you were lost.

Jonathan stood with great effort, looking around the throne room, completely unrecognizable behind the veil of raging flames. Thinking about what to do.

Or rather trying to think. Because he was the leader. He was supposed to think about it, they were counting on him for that.

They were counting on him to get them out of this, as he had done so many times in the past.

He spotted another one of his teammates in that hellhole. Jamie called out to him.

"Quick, another attack is coming!"

She was right. First things first. Jonathan crawled forward, his body too heavy. Used to being light and hard to catch, he felt like a bird whose wings had been clipped. Another of his teammates came up behind him and pushed him so hard that he ended up on the ground.

What are you doing, he thought. But then he understood.

Where he had been just a moment ago lay one of the pillars of the room in pieces. That thing would have crushed him, had it not been for Mary's intervention at the last moment. He owed her his life. Well, that was nothing new. The four of them had saved each other more times than he could count. Jonathan, despite the situation, caught himself smiling at the thought.

He took it as a lesson.

He thought he had been paying attention, but he had been wrong, clearly. His attention had been focused on putting one foot in front of the other, and so on.

On that, going on when he could barely move.

Part of his attention had also been, of course, on the enemy. Watchful for any movement or attack. A sign that it was going to launch another volley of fire, trying to engulf them in that storm.

But, in return, he had neglected an equal danger.

The environment.

It wasn't the first thing about the environment that had gone down. Case in point: the four of them hid behind a good pile of debris, anticipating the next burst of fire. The three gathered around him, hugging him and pushing him down, as if his life was worth more than theirs.

Jonathan wanted to protest, but he wasn't just short of breath. He knew he was the one who was worse off, and any one of them would have done the same for someone else, in the same situation. Him included, of course. He had no right to protest that they were willing to do the same thing he would do.

There was no rank of any kind. None.

The 'fight' so far had consisted of mere survival. That's how overwhelming that bastard was, but it was still a living thing. It couldn't be invincible, it was no god. There had to be something. Something that would allow them to turn the tables, there always was.

They had come prepared, or so he had thought. The plans had turned out to be useless. Now they had to improvise. And he couldn't think of anything! Not a damn thing!

There it was. The explosion.

His head exploded, as did his ears. Jonathan gritted his teeth, enduring the heat wave. The explosion had not reached them, but had been split in two by the pile of debris. But even the pressure of the heat wave, seeping between the stones, was pulling them down.

Jonathan coughed several times, loudly. Spitting up blood. It had really fucked him up. He'd been the one who'd risked the most, the center of the plan they'd had at the beginning. And he'd paid for it. Dearly.

He swiped his hand over his mouth, wiping the blood away.

As he stood up, Jamie held his hand, helping him in more ways than one. Jonathan's pain and fatigue disappeared. He knew it wasn't a real thing, just the nanomachines (and the substances they contained, mostly drugs) allowing him to ignore his body's needs and injuries for a limited time.

But it helped. Even if only a little, he needed all the help he could get.

Even if he could not move freely, there was no way he could win this battle. If he did serious damage to himself in the process, well, he could think about that when the battle was over.

Jonathan stood up again, sword in hand.

"Let's... go... finish that bastard off!"

They had survived... Jonathan had lost count, he had to admit, between the tension and the din of battle, but he thought around three barrages.

And it's not as if it was magic, though to some gullible people it might seem otherwise.

It was all technology.

In other words, there had to be a 'fuel' that was surely running out by leaps and bounds. If they survived until it ran out, then they could get close to the enemy.

And even then the fight wouldn't be easy, of course. But it was a chance.

The thing turned its head in their direction. Its skin was red and full of bulging spores. Its skin seemed to smoke. Its eyes were golden, and they floated in a sea not white, but black. In short, a demon, not a human being. It looked like he had come out of hell... and carried it with him wherever he stepped.

"Jonathan Townshend. Leave this place, run with your tail between your legs, and I'll spare your life. Not your friends, however. They have to die. To set an example. And so that you will never forget the price of your life, the price of defying me."

Jonathan raised his sword, pointing the blade at the monster.

"I have a counteroffer."

His group prepared the next attack and charged the inhuman beast, the last obstacle in their path.

"Let's go!"

They could not lose. There was too much at stake to afford to lose.

Not just their lives or the lives of thousands of others. If not stopped here, this demon could well spell the end of the human race.