Prologue

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The evening that changed the fate of billions turned out to be surprisingly quiet and calm.

"One, in position. Target acquired. Ready."

It was getting dark but the Plaza of Five Corners in the center of the Europe Megacity was brightly lit by panels of holographic ads, aggressively moving above the human masses. Five gravitational escalators, leading up to the surface from the magrail station, gently expelled an endless human stream into the Plaza.

"Two, in position. Target acquired. He's got the instrument."

The violinist played with feverish abandon.

The poignant melody drifted over the crowd, erasing the indistinct hubbub and echoing off the world-famous skyscrapers. The sounds of the violin surged upwards and then suddenly dissolved among the cacophony of the intrusive advertising slogans.

Art was dead. The violin solo no longer tugged on anyone's heart strings, drawing people's attention for only a moment. The citizens of the megasuburb hurried about their business, passing by the overweight and poorly dressed musician, afraid to pause and listen, to slow their steps, to slip out of the universal rhythm of movement, as if there were no more individuals left on Earth but instead a massive social organism, consisting of billions of tightly bound together parts.

The sniper's finger touched a sensor and the violinist's face was magnified. It was difficult to believe that this scruffy individual was capable of starting a new world war.

"The tech team is in place. Ready to block the network."

A droplet of sweat dripped from the musician's forehead. He kept playing despite the crowd's indifference, in the desperate hope for a response, a lonely search for a kindred spirit.

The instrument in his hands was not an antique but a unique high-tech gadget. Despite the large number of cybernetic components, the violin cried out as if it was alive. Yet the crowd flowed past without pausing to listen, only startling at times at the dramatic melody, so different from this subculture.

Night fell and stars appeared high above the city. One melody followed another, while the human tide began to gradually thin out. The violinist's soul cried and raged but nobody stopped to listen. Only the occasional passerby, without slowing down, would run an online query to find out how to behave in this unusual situation, and then the cyberstack on the violinist's wrist would suddenly glow for a second as a few credits were transferred to the musician's account.

A tear rolled down the violinist's unshaven cheek. The flabby wrinkles on his neck trembled and his eyes looked bereft while the bow danced over the strings, creating the melody. Art was dead.

A huge sign glowed behind the violinist, inviting people into an expensive restaurant, but the crowd did not pay it any attention. Places like this, offering dishes made from natural products, were rapidly becoming a thing of the past and were no longer popular since synthetic food tasted the same but was hundreds of times cheaper.

The violinist was a fragment of the old world that had sunk into oblivion. He refused to merge with the human anthill and was cursed to remain alone and misunderstood, and perhaps even experience contempt or flashes of unexplained fury, for the crowd instinctively hates everything that is not part of it, and is capable of killing those that irritate it too much.

The last trembling note faded.

His arms dropped. Glancing around him and sighing heavily, he shifted from foot to foot, catching people's hard stares, which made him feel foreign, misunderstood and unwelcome. He wanted to run and hide, with no strength left for another melody, another challenge. He needed to leave, to accept defeat and become a functional part of the huge social mechanism that would eventually crush him – simply because he was different, this sweaty, disheveled, yearning man, who had kept himself apart from the masses of this age.

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