S. H. E. E. B. L. A.
Cold Heart on an Electric Throne
"THEN WE SHALL TRULY SEE
WHICH IS THE INSIDE
AND WHICH IS THE OUTSIDE,
AND WHOSE DOMAIN EACH SHALL BE."
"Well," Daniel Williams sighed, "lets send Mr. Smartass a bill for the services he stole, along with a stern warning not to do it again."
"Right, Captain," muttered the other netrunner. "They just seem to get dumber, don't they?"
"I can see someone using a stolen account number for a couple of calls, but for two months? Did he really think that the owner wouldn't notice all of those download charges and report the number stolen?"
"Morons. Hey, Captain, you've got a message waiting."
"Hm, let's see." He tapped a couple of keys. "Huh. A face-to-face. Must be pretty important."
"Anything'd be better than sitting around here," the other man replied, putting his feet up on one of the terminals.
Daniel stood, straightening his suit, and tightening his tie back up. "Well, wish me luck," he murmured.
"Don't forget your badge," the other cautioned.
"Damn! I almost forgot it again." He reached over and scooped it off of a terminal and attached it to his chest. It read, "Daniel Williams, INTERNET SECURITY."
"Thanks, Martin," he added, "security always loves to hassle me about forgetting it."
"No problem, Captain," the other man said, waving. "Have fun."
"I won't," he muttered, heading out the door.
"Mr. Williams," the executive said, gesturing at the chair on the other side of his desk.
Daniel sat down carefully, keeping his expression carefully neutral. "Sir?"
"I'm afraid that we need you to set up a recruiting drive again, Williams."
"Another death, sir?"
"I wish I knew," the executive muttered darkly.
"A disappearance, Mr. Williams. Do you remember Simon Orange?"
"Yes, sir. I recruited him, about two years ago. Has he been kidnapped?"
"Security is uncertain. He was working out of his apartment here. Apparently the damage to his equipment makes them think that he fell victim to some kind of Liche program that walked his body out of the building and disposed of it somehow."
Daniel gulped. Simon had been one of the best.
"The only glitch in this scenario is that they can't find his body, nor any records of his exit from the building. They're doing a DNA scan on the incinerators now."
The executive waved his hand dismissively. "Simon was doing some investigation into the Okira Metals case." He handed a folder to Daniel.
Daniel flipped it open and glanced through the disturbingly sparse information inside. "This is all we've been able to find?"
"All that survived the damage, at least."
"In any case, the investigation is now your responsibility. Of course, after this last episode, if you choose not to put much effort into the investigation, I will understand. We don't want to lose any more employees."
In his personal office, Daniel Williams sighed. He had never been one to refuse a challenge, but if this case had killed Simon... Maybe it was time to buy some life insurance. He had to stifle a bitter laugh when it occurred to him that there wasn't anyone for him to make the beneficiary. Maybe he didn't have that much to risk, after all.
The majority of the papers listed damages done to Okira Metals, mostly through computer sabotage. The corporation, whose stock had dropped by a third in the past year, was paying Internet millions to find the perpetrators responsible and to beef up their computer defenses.
The other sheets were investigation results concerning some of Okira Metals' rival corporations. All of them had been cleared of direct involvement. Although they had been quick to take advantage of the corporation's weakness, none of them had done so in any manner that indicated prior knowledge of the corporation's misfortunes.
Daniel sighed again. If Simon had found any real leads, he hadn't put them on paper.
He looked at the last sheet again. It had some specifications for the in-house AI security system used by Okira Metals. Its designation was S.H.E.L.B.E., and next to that Simon had scrawled the message, "renamed 2022, orig name SHEEBLA?"
Daniel scowled for a moment. Simon seemed to think that the acronym of the S.H.E.L.B.E. program had originally been S.H.E.E.B.L.A. It might have been a coincidence, of course. Around that time, the criminal netrunner Sheebla had first appeared, and the corporation might have changed the acronym to avoid bad publicity. On the other hand, there had been rumors for a long time that Sheebla was really a S.H.E.E.B.L.A., a rogue AI, not a human netrunner.
That could explain several things- if the AI had gone completely rogue, it might be attacking its creators by attacking the company that they worked for. Trying to hunt down a rogue AI was one of the most dangerous jobs that any human netrunner could undertake. Corporations didn't entrust their entire security system to an AI just for the heck of it. It didn't explain what had happened to Simon, but it made it a little more understandable, at least. Simon had gotten too close, and an AI designed to run security for a thousand machines at once had concentrated all of its resources on him. His only chance would have been to jack out in time, and apparently for once he had been a hairsbreadth too slow.
Daniel paced the room for awhile, until he came to a decision. If he started his investigation there, and the S.H.E.E.B.L.A. program was just a myth, then whoever was in charge of the attacks would assume that they were safe and ignore him for the time being. If the AI was at the root of the problem, perhaps they could negotiate with it. Or settle whatever grudge it had against the company. If all else failed, then Internet would have to assemble a crack team of netrunners and AI-killer programs to hunt it down. But he would prefer to negotiate with it, if possible. If it existed at all.
But if it did exist... Well, there was only one safe way to track down an AI.
In the real world. It was time to hire some freelance help.
"I see," said the man behind the desk as Daniel finished. He was tall, lean and wiry. His only obvious cyberware was a cyberdeck link, and he had torn the sleeves off of his business suit, leaving his muscular arms strangely bare. "Let me just see if I understand this correctly," he continued. "You want us to determine if the netrunner called Sheebla is actually a rogue AI, and then to track it down for you if it is."
Daniel nodded, reluctantly.
The man leaned back into his well-padded chair, and began to type on the terminal in front of him. His fingers blurred across the keys for a moment, faster than Daniel could see, then he stopped. Daniel was impressed. The man was obviously boosted, but he hid it very well.
He turned his gaze back on Daniel. "You do realize, Mr. Williams, that tracking down a rogue AI is a very dangerous activity."
"And a very expensive operation."
"To compensate for the risk involved," he admitted, pulling a coin out of his pocket.
Daniel nodded. His eyes drifted over to a strange blue crystal, which was mounted on the wall like a trophy. He considered asking the man about it, then chided himself for not paying closer attention to the discussion.
The man frowned for a moment, staring at the coin in his hand. Suddenly he tossed it upwards with incredible speed. The coin rebounded off the ceiling and snapped back towards his hand before Daniel could react. The man caught it and snapped it across the back of his arm. "Call it," he instructed.
"Um," Daniel stuttered in confusion. "Heads."
The man looked at the coin and raised his eyebrows. It was heads. "All right," he said, businesslike again. "For two million euro, we will determine if Sheebla is actually an AI, and, if so, provide you with a reference to whatever specialist I consider most qualified to locate it for you. You can negotiate with them on your own."
"You won't search it out yourself?"
"Mr. Williams, I run a busy firm here," the man smiled. "If you were to employ me to do so, I would employ the specialist myself and add an additional fee onto the costs involved. I am simply trying to save you some additional money."
"That IS our minimum fee, Mr. Williams. Is this acceptable?"
"I suppose," he said reluctantly. It was a hefty price to pay, but all things considered... It was Okira Metals' money, after all.
"How soon would you need the results by?"
"Um... within the month, at least."
The man smiled widely. "Here at Disciples International, Mr. Williams, we pride ourselves on prompt service. I think that we can squeak in before that deadline."
He pressed a buzzer upon his desk. "Send in a standard contract, please."
A voice answered from the intercom, "Yes Mr. Heresy."
"Heresy?" Daniel asked, curiously, as they waited.
"My street-name, Mr. Williams. Ah, they've confirmed your authorization." A short man in a pin-stripe suit handed Heresy a few documents and a readout.
"Now, Mr. Williams, if you will sign here?"
Daniel looked at the forms, which had the trademark of Disciples International, a halo pierced by a lightning bolt, at the top. He signed the bottom line reluctantly. While he had known that employing Disciples International would be an expensive option, he was still worried about what might happen to him if he had just spent two million on a false lead.
Trying to bury his reservations, he turned towards Heresy and asked, "When will you start working on the case?"
Heresy smiled. "Right now, Mr. Williams. Sheebla IS an AI, as you suspected." He fished a small card out of his pocket and handed it over. "This is the specialist that I recommend."
"What?" asked Daniel in consternation, taking the card.
"As I said, Mr. Williams," Heresy said, talking rapidly while ushering him out of the room, "here at Disciples International we pride ourselves on rapid service. I hope that you'll remember us should you need to hire freelance help in the future. Good-bye!"
"But," started Daniel as the elevator door closed in front of him. He looked back down at the card. "But..."
Heresy watched the elevator door as the indicator rapidly changed.
"Two million for thirty seconds' worth of work," he grinned. "I LOVE it." He was still laughing as he shut his office door behind him.
The flight to Hong Kong had been tiring, but Daniel Williams knew that he would not be able to sleep until he had talked with Heresy's specialist. So he took a taxi from the airport, directly to his destination.
Daniel looked up at the building as his taxi drove away. He glanced back at the address on the card, which had the logo "C.S.S." above it. It had to be the right place.
The corporate logo seemed to be an animated Cheshire Cat, which had a motion sensor that caused it to wink whenever anyone walked in front of it. The large, block letters next to it read "Calico Security Services."
Not for the first time, Daniel wondered why he had been directed here. The firm was small, and seemed to be on hard times, although a portion of that may have been their emphasis on function instead of glitz. Even the building's furniture was solid and comfortable, without being concerned about its appearance.
The secretary looked up from her desk and said, "Mr. Williams?"
"Mrs. Calico will see you now."
"So," said the woman lounging behind the desk, "what's so important that you had to see me personally?"
Her features were striking, even in an age dominated by bodysculpts and exotics. Her skin was a dark, African brown, but her features were somehow oriental, and her eyes were green. To cap it off, her hair was a bright, flaming red mass of curls. Her left arm had been replaced with a rather vicious-looking silver cyberarm, which Daniel recognized as a top of the line model. In fact, he realized, she had to have deliberately requested not to have it syntheskinned- the model normally came disguised as a normal limb.
Her face had the worn lines of a woman who had led a hard life and didn't really care whether or not people could tell it, and her neck had the tell-tale swollen veins of someone who had been using reflex boosters for years.
"Well," Daniel began carefully, as he slid into the proffered seat, "it is kind of strange. I need some information, and you came highly recommended."
The woman looked at him quizzically, and pulled out a pack of narcotic cigarettes. She offered one to Daniel, and when he refused, she slowly lit it and put away the pack. She took a long pull on the cigarette before responding.
"We're a security firm, Mr. Williams. Not information retrieval."
"You were recommended," Daniel emphasized. "It's about the rogue AI called S.H.E.E.B.L.A."
The woman froze, staring at him. Her neck veins stood out for a moment, and Daniel shivered as he realized that she had just boosted. He wondered if he was about to die.
After a few moments, however, the veins shrank back, and Daniel realized that for some reason she had boosted on instinct, not deliberately.
"Who recommended me?" she asked darkly.
"Ah... I tried Disciples International, first, and..."
At that, the woman broke out laughing. After a few moments, she got control of herself and sniffed. "Heh... I guess you lucked out. I should've known. Heresy would sell his grandmother for a nickel."
"I'm sorry?" asked Daniel in confusion.
"No," she said continuing, "he'd manage to get a million for her, at least. How much did he charge you for this... 'recommendation?'"
Something in her tone convinced Daniel to tell the truth. "Two million," he admitted.
She smiled, widely. It was not a comforting smile.
"I thought so."
"Well," she said, grinding out her cigarette, "I suppose I should make sure you get your money's worth. What did you want to know?"
"I need to contact S.H.E.E.B.L.A."
"I guessed. If it had been anything else, you'd never have been sent to me. Heresy isn't suicidal."
"I have a financial proposal for it," he said, not lying completely, "but I'll need every scrap of information about its moods and personality in order to make the sale."
"Can you help?"
"It'll cost you."
"Two million," he said.
She stared at him, in shock.
"You're serious about this, aren't you?"
"It's what I paid to find you. If your information is good, I'll pay you the same."
She looked away for a moment, considering. "Two mil would definitely help pay some of the bills. And I don't think she'd mind. Not too much, anyway."
She looked back at Daniel, sternly. "If you're trying to act against Sheebla, she'll kill you. Understand?"
"In fact, she might get me to do it. Or even the Disciples. If you try to misuse or sell any of the info I give you, you'll be better off killing yourself than taking any chances on Sheebla finding you."
"It isn't a scam," Daniel insisted. "It would be to its benefit too."
"Okay," she said, slowly. "Then we'll start from the beginning. You wanna record this?"
Daniel pulled a small pocket computer out of his jacket, and pressed a button.
"Whenever you're ready, Mrs. Calico."
"Call me Roxy."
"First things first. Sheebla is a 'she,' not an 'it.' Mess that up, and you'll probably never see the light of day again."
"Second, if you're from Okira Metals, give it up right now. She doesn't like that Corp. That's a big part of why they're in such bad shape these days."
"I work for Internet, but this doesn't concern them... at least, not directly. I'm on my own."
Roxy nodded slowly. Then she relaxed, and her eyes seemed to lose focus.
"I guess we could start in Chicago. That's where Mandy and I were living at the time. And Jiminy."
"Jiminy was a fixer... did odd jobs and assembled teams of freelancers for the big Corps. His knack was finding special people. Weirdos. People who could do things that nobody else could."
"What do you mean?"
"Why is Disciples International the highest paid mercenary force in the world?"
"Well... they do any kind of job, from extractions to net-running jobs."
"Well... they're the best."
"Exactly. More to the point, their boss is the best. Period. Heresy, that's what he went by back then, was one of the best netrunners in the country, and probably the best martial artist in the world. Did you see him move? I mean, move fast?"
"Um... not really. Well, he does move pretty quickly, but reflex boosters and coprocessors these days..."
"He isn't cybered."
"Not at all. Except for his deck-link, he hasn't got a single mod that I know off. He's faster than most full boosters, including me, and it's ALL natural. That's what I mean by special people."
"Anyway, there were about ten people like that in the Chicago Sprawl at the time. People who were special, in one way or another. Jiminy made big bucks, because instead of hiring a huge mercenary team for combat, netrunners for scoping, and Trauma Team for medical backup for a big mission, he could make do with four or five people."
"And you were one of those 'special people.'"
"Lord, no," she said. "I'm not a weirdo."
"The first team... we actually worked together well enough that Jiminy started to use us as a group. The first team was me, Mandy, Heresy, whom you've met, Grimm, Weld, Serfarian, his partner, whose name I forget, and Bliss. Er, Hitherto. Hm. Then there was Runner, Ringer, Coyote, and... the cute one. Dang. It's been too long. I'm forgetting their names now. It was something beginning with an 'R.' Half of the group had names starting in 'R' for some reason.
"Mandy was netrunner and medtech. Heresy was netrunner, leader, and head solo, and he could do all three pretty well. Grimm was basically the world's first bioborg. Way experimental. Way unreliable. He'd go crazy if he saw a woman get hurt, y'know? I think it had something to do with the way his designer tried to control him.
"Weld was the techie... he could do things with electronics that you wouldn't believe. Serfarian was this lame detective. Didn't like cyberware, I guess. He and his partner, this uppity kid, had a disagreement early on, and both of 'em dropped out. Serfarian was murdered later on. I dunno what became of the kid. Probably got himself killed somewhere.
"Bliss Ivo... Hitherto... was our conscience, I guess. Grew up on a commune, if you can believe that. Runner was our front line combat borg... I guess. I'm not sure exactly how much cyberware he had, but he was unbelievably tough. Ringer was an assassin Jiminy hired for us. Coyote was a wolf biosculpt. Well, a coyote biosculpt, I guess. He was a boosterganger, then. His friend... he was from a rival gang, I think, but they got along pretty well.
"We did a few runs for Jiminy, before the group broke up."
"Where does S.H.E.E.B.L.A. fit into all this?"
Roxy looked reflective for a moment. "Well, let's just say that back then... Sheebla was Mandy's net-name."
"So, this... net-runner friend of yours wrote the S.H.E.E.B.L.A. program?"
"Um... It's a little more complicated than that. Sheebla was really a member of the group too."
"So, where are all of these people now?"
"Well, Heresy eventually founded Disciples International. He didn't have much trouble recruiting people, since mercs love to work for the best. I could've gotten a job there, but I didn't want to be reminded of... some things. So I came out here, where I wouldn't be competing with him much.
"Ringer, I offered a job to, but we'd had a nasty disagreement once, over the way he treated Bliss, and I ended up knocking him out. So he went to Disciples instead. Still works there, I think. He's probably one of their top assassins.
"Runner, I believe, was involved in that assault on Biotechnica's Cuban operation. The one that basically leveled the island? There were no survivors reported, but I wouldn't be surprised if he made it out. I saw five guys empty their clips of AP shells into him once, at point blank range, and he lived.
"Bliss... she's probably joined a nunnery by now."
Roxy grinned. "No... I think she's working with one of those human rights groups now." Her face darkened for a moment. "We don't see each other much anymore. We had a rather stormy... friendship... and there were some... touchy moments involved." She chewed on her lower lip, distracted by some uncertain memory.
After a moment, she shook her head and continued.
"Weld founded his own electronics firm. Recruited a couple of other people who were also into machinery. Mandy worked with him a couple of times after he got started. I'm not sure where he is now. I heard the company got stolen from him by some kind of financial takeover and he and his friends founded another one somewhere else. I haven't kept up with him.
"Serfarian was murdered, like I said. Had to do with this maniac trying to genesplice exceptional people together in order to clone bio-weapons with their abilities. We were trying to kill the nut-case, but one of his own creations eventually took him out.
"Grimm... Geez, he could be in this room right now, and you wouldn't know it. His camouflage powers make the modern chameleon suits look like a bad paint job. He's still around, though. I've hired him once or twice when I really needed help. I think he has a soft spot where me and Mandy are concerned. Mandy saved his life once, when the rest of the group had screwed things over really bad.
"Coyote's gotta be gator-chow by now. He was tough, but biosculpts like that usually don't live very long, anyway. And he was a boosterganger. Still... Jiminy always said that he was special. I guess he could still be living in the sewers under Chicago. Him and his pet gators.
"His friend... Rebel! That was his nickname. I can't believe I couldn't remember it... I mean, I used to..." She looked at Daniel for a moment. "Um... well, anyway, I think he's still in Chicago. Head of whatever neighborhood protection gang he used to belong to. I think they were called the Renegades."
"Jiminy's dead, of course. His murder kind of started the whole group breaking up, really. We never found the body, though, so he might still be alive, I suppose, but I haven't heard from him since, and he never contacted us again."
Roxy looked at Daniel darkly, and he suddenly regretted the question.
"Mandy isn't around anymore," she said slowly.
"What can you tell me about S.H.E.E.B.L.A.?"
"She... Hm. It's hard to put it in a way you could deal with. I guess you could say that Sheebla was sort of a copy of Mandy's mind. Or the other way around.
"You see, Mandy used to work for Okira Metals, way back when. She was a low ranking techie of some kind. Well, they were doing some rather illegal experiments in Black Ice, and they wanted someone who wouldn't be missed. They had her transferred to their division," she said slowly, her voice growing angry. "As a test subject. You know what a Liche program is?"
He nodded. "Vaguely," he lied, deciding to downplay his knowledge of the area.
"They wanted something better. A miniature AI, that they could download into a 'runner's brain and take them over. I imagine they had some general mind-control applications in mind too. It was supposed to sit in your brain and take over whenever you tried to do anything that they didn't like."
Roxy looked at Daniel's face, but he kept his features carefully neutral.
After a moment, she went on. "It didn't work very well. They'd lost most of their subjects when some automatic function, like their heart, finally gave out. But on Mandy, it worked. They thought that they'd worked the bugs out of the system at last.
"It was simple slavery, really. They hurt her and ordered her about, and gave her thousands of tests, just to see how intact her mind was. It had reduced her to a child, I think. At first, she didn't resist them, because she trusted them. Then, when the orders got nastier, like commanding her to stick her hand on an electric baton, she tried to fight them, but she couldn't.
"The AI, you see, would take over. She couldn't fight it. She couldn't remember what things had been like before, but she knew that she didn't like having to do whatever she was told.
"It didn't last, though. She tried to explain it to me once or twice. Said that the human brain has its own programs, and its own 'unbreakable' rules, but we've also got glands. And the glands let us skip over the rules and ignore them if we need to. It's like bugs and things... they aren't capable of getting angry. Anger's not an instinct, anger's designed to let you IGNORE your instincts.
"When she got mad enough, she could ignore the rules, you see. Like a good kid, who wants to obey Mom, their first instinct is to do whatever she says, but if they get angry and resentful, they can ignore those instincts. And if you do that enough, you can even change the instincts, or at least make new ones that override the old ones. That's how she explained it. It was one of the only things that Mandy would get really emotional about. She couldn't stand seeing people's minds being controlled.
"Sheebla, you see, was the program that they put in her head."
"It stood for Self-modifying Heuristic Encephalic something or other." She paused. "Something like that, anyway. I've forgotten, I'm afraid."
"So Mandy was sort of... part AI, part person?"
"Um. I suppose. The AI part only really came out when she ran the Net. Mandy was sweet and even-tempered. But in the Net, she was Sheebla. And Sheebla was down-right vicious.
"And now... well, Sheebla's all that's left. Still living in the Net."
"What was S.H.E.E.B.L.A. like?"
"Vicious. Vindictive. If you want some pop psychology, all of Mandy's anger and resentment came out in the Net. Sheebla dry-gulched more than one netrunner for talking back to her. And she was hard to stop, too. Things designed to stop AIs didn't work because she was a netrunner, and things designed to stop netrunners didn't work well because she was an AI. I don't think Black Ice worked on her at all. It couldn't locate her physical body properly." She looked like she was going to say something else, too, but she said nothing.
"Now? Now she's just an AI, I suppose. Maybe. Mandy... Sheebla... they were capable of some pretty amazing things, at times. Now that Mandy's gone... Sheebla's probably worse than ever. Mandy was the nice part of her personality, if you see what I mean."
"Any particular fondnesses? Or weaknesses?"
"Um. Not really. Sheebla just had a nasty temper. Don't smart off to her. And never underestimate her. She's capable of things you wouldn't believe."
"Would you happen to know where I can find it? I mean, her?"
Roxy leaned back for awhile, lost in thought.
Finally, she said, "Well, she talked about establishing a sort of sanctuary in the net, once."
She told him.
"Wilderspace?" asked Martin, handing Daniel a steaming cup of coffee.
"I think so. The Calico woman didn't really understand what she was talking about- said that the AI was thinking of roosting in a 'bad data zone out in the boondocks.' I think it meant a blank zone."
"Well, people have said that there are rogue AIs hiding out there for years now. But what about the rest of her story? An AI inside a person's brain? Hasn't that been proven impossible?"
"Well, I've been thinking. No one's ever managed to write an AI program small enough to fit in a human brain without wiping out their personality. If Okira Metals had managed THAT, they'd be light-years ahead of everyone else in program design."
"But what if they used virtual memory?" Daniel said.
"Listen... how can you run a thirty meg program on a ten meg computer?"
"By only having ten megs worth loaded at a time," answered Martin, shrugging.
"Right. Now, suppose you managed to make an AI that was modular enough to run that way. With only a little of it active at a time. When another section is needed, it saves the current state of the current section, and loads the needed part. We can run some pretty huge programs that way, but nobody designs an AI like that."
"But where would you store the rest of the program?"
"In memory. In HUMAN memory."
Martin stared up into the electric lights, considering the idea.
"Do you see? Calico said that the AI had made Mandy partly amnesiac. Suppose that instead of overwriting her personality, they overwrote her memory."
"Resulting in an Liche program that left the person's personality intact," Martin finished for him.
"It's theoretically possible, at least," Daniel said.
"But is there any evidence?"
Daniel nodded. "I've taken a look at some of the specs for the S.H.E.L.B.E. program. It's VERY modular, to the point where the overhead actually makes it less efficient than it might be, otherwise. And the clincher's right here." He handed Martin a single printout.
"A hiring form?"
"Yup. Right after the S.H.E.E.B.L.A. program supposedly went rogue and walked its human host right out of Okira Metals. Look who they hired."
"Simonsen and Jenkinson. Flash-fire and Jetstream."
"Yup. Whose specialties were control strictures to keep AIs in line. Within six months, the size of the S.H.E.L.B.E. program had gone up, and its efficiency had gone down."
"They put in more control programs. To keep it from going rogue, too."
"That's about the size of it. I figure after the damage that S.H.E.E.B.L.A. caused on its way out, they decided not to take any more risks. And when that made S.H.E.L.B.E. too large for its original purpose, they scaled it up as a Liche-oriented security system."
"That's scary, Daniel. An AI that could write itself into your brain, walk you around, plug you back in, and write itself out again."
Daniel nodded. He took a sip from his cup of coffee, and frowned because it had gotten cold.
"Do you think that that's what happened to Simon?"
Daniel nodded again, more reluctantly this time. "If it could get into his head and take him over without erasing his computer skills or basic personality... Heck, if he still remembered his passwords, he could slip in and out of here, easily. I've already ordered another password change, just in case.
"It walks him out of the building, using his knowledge and skills to slip out undetected. Then it probably logs in and detaches itself from him again, maybe leaving a basic Liche program to walk him off a ledge, somewhere."
"And we have to stop this thing?"
Daniel nodded, and shuddered, involuntarily. "I'm gonna try to talk to it first. Sometimes you can reason with an AI. Maybe convince it that all of its creators are dead already, or that its existence will be in danger if it goes any further. But if all else fails, we're gonna have to take it down.
"I wanted to be sure that you were fully briefed, just in case it manages to nail me like it did Simon. When I go after it, I want some cameras watching, and a staff psychologist to confirm that it hasn't taken me over when I log out. It probably used Simon's knowledge to destroy all evidence of its existence."
"A brain scan would probably spot the changes," Martin suggested.
"Good idea," Daniel said. "I'm not feeling suicidal, so if it does try to attack me, I want to be able to convince it that doing so will seal its fate."
"Speaking of which, when are you going to try to contact it?"
Daniel sighed. "I figure the day after tomorrow, we ought to have everything set up. I'm going to monitor Wilderspace for awhile, and look for any links popping up."
"Any ideas where to look?"
Daniel nodded. "Yeah, I think so. I checked the records, and the Okira Metals plant that was developing the program has been mothballed and taken off direct link since then. Apparently there was a lot of damage to the system's memory: a lot of bad data areas. But they haven't shut the machines off, because there's still some useful data there. They use it as a tertiary storage system now. Personal files and such. Nothing essential or valuable.
"The net access lines are still intact, though. There's not supposed to be anything coming across them these days, but... Considering how vengeful this program's supposed to be, there's a pretty good chance that it would just love to use those computers as its home. That system may not be as off-line as Okira Metals thinks it is."
This time, after he logged in, Daniel left the usual routes, and headed out into the Wilderspace between nodes. Where new nodes would connect up with the Net when they came on line. If they came on line. It would be like a skyscraper appearing in the middle of the wilderness. But, if his information was correct, that was where the S.H.E.E.B.L.A. program had gone to roost.
If the computers at the mothballed plant reconnected with the Net, a path would appear. Daniel was running a Spy-Eye program, which was supposed to detect even hidden or "invisible" data transfers. Its Icon was that of a giant eyeball floating nearby.
Finally, it found something. "Transfer detected," its metallic voice hummed. Daniel linked with it for a moment, and a ghostly tunnel appeared in the virtual reality of the net. A hidden, well-protected data access link. If he had not been looking for it specifically, he never would have found it.
Daniel deactivated the Spy-Eye, which blurred out of existence. The data trail remained visible, now that his system knew of its existence. He triggered a Cloak, a detection foiling system of his own design, and started into the breach, hopefully invisible to any security systems installed by the S.H.E.E.B.L.A. program. If the system were to disconnect, he would be cut off and kicked out of the Net, so he needed to find the AI quickly, before it finished whatever it needed the Net access for and closed the link again. If he was lucky, he thought, the AI itself would be using the link, and he could catch it as it passed through.
And if he never made it out again... Well, Martin had orders to seal the system off and ask Okira Metals to crash it. But if things went that far, Daniel knew that he would already be beyond caring.
Unfortunately, S.H.E.E.B.L.A. seemed to be using intermediary programs, rather than using the link personally. Little messenger programs were zooming past him occasionally, entering and leaving the link on missions of their own. Fortunately none of them seemed to notice him. He moved on into the system's primary memory system.
Okira Metals had a number of virtual huts here, tiny personal user spaces. These he ignored.
The system marked the bad data areas quite clearly. They were represented by regions of black mist, usually with warning signs installed near them. A bad data area generally indicated a flaw in the hardware itself; attempting to access it could not only kick you out of the net and screw up any programs you had running, it could also spread the damage to the adjacent area that you tried to enter from.
The system had only minimal security, consisting of a couple of police Icons whose purpose was probably restricted to identifying people who tried to enter the wrong huts or who expanded the bad data area. They were small, mostly passive programs. His Cloak would be more than sufficient to keep them out of his way.
Closing in on a section of bad data, he ran another program, called Eye-Spy, the counterpart of his detection program. This eyeball, colored green instead of blue, was supposed to analyze the bad data area and determine if the memory was actually damaged, or if the system was deliberately misclassifying it.
After beaming a few bits into the blackness, the Eye began to float along its perimeter. Daniel followed behind. If it found a section of memory that wasn't actually damaged, he would know that he had found what he was looking for.
The Eye circled around three-fourths of the bad data before it paused and beeped. Its data stream had found a viable data area. A tiny gap, just big enough for data to be transferred through, that was intact, but marked as bad.
Dissolving the Eye, and hoping that his Cloak was sufficient, Daniel advanced into the darkness.
Beyond the short section of mislabeled data space was a large, open region of memory, perhaps a third of what the system had originally held. The AI must have been working at this for years, slowly expanding the areas classified as bad until a huge region of usable memory had been abandoned by its makers.
And here, it had built its own Fortress.
The center of the zone was occupied by a domed building with archways and ramparts and towers extending from it both above and below. Surrounding it like a computerized Stonehenge were a number of massive, black, rectangular Icons, like huge black onyx blocks, spread out around it evenly. He could not get an accurate count, but it seemed certain that there were no more than ten of them.
Dozens of small independent programs zoomed around outside of the line of blocks, doubtless performing individual tasks that the AI itself was unsuited for, or unwilling to attend to personally.
Dodging between the programs, he moved up towards the circle of black obelisks. Occasionally a program would turn from its flight and pass between two of the obelisks, and then on into one of the archways of the central building.
Daniel paused, considering. Should he pull out and attempt to contact the AI with a broadcast message and pretend that he didn't know where it was hiding? That would eliminate the risk of a direct meeting, but on the other hand, he had no confirmation that S.H.E.E.B.L.A. was here. It would be very bad for Internet to stage a hunt and burn run on what might be a secret Okira Metals Data Fortress. He needed confirmation.
Hoping that his Cloak would suffice, he waited for an opportunity. The obelisks were probably detection programs, analyzing all traffic between them. His best bet would be to slip in directly behind an incoming program, and hope that his Cloak would keep them from noticing his linkup.
He waited. A message Icon, represented by a cowboy riding a horse, slowed down to pass between the two black obelisks. Daniel slipped in behind it, fingers crossed metaphorically.
The cowboy Icon paused for a moment, between the two obelisks. Passing close behind it, Daniel felt a sudden chill; there was some kind of active scan there, something that he had not encountered before. He had a nasty feeling that the cowboy had just been tagged as being "cleared" to enter the inner region. He might not be so lucky. He could only hope that his Cloak would be sufficient, or that the AI was in a mood to talk before striking.
He followed the cowboy Icon closely as it resumed motion, glad to have left the obelisks behind. He stopped halfway and let the cowboy proceed through the archway before it. The archways were clearly some sort of code gate- the cowboy froze again, in what looked like some sort of energy field filling the archway. After a moment, though, the field faded away, and the cowboy Icon passed through the archway into the building itself. Apparently his presence had not disrupted the marking procedure after all.
He slipped up to the code gate carefully. It was represented by an oval archway, with strange, nonsense characters drawn on the bricks that it was constructed of. He paused, nervously. Assuming that no one but the AI itself was supposed to have access to this area, extraordinary security measures might be in place. The system could easily keep track of every "expected" program, and attack any program not on its list.
He had a modified Wizard's Book program that might be able to find a legal key to the code gate, but if it reacted violently to any program that did not produce the correct response at once, the Wizard's Book might set it off. On the other hand, he had a Doppelganger program that he had written himself; it would attack and destroy a program, while disguising his link as the program attacked. If he could ambush a program about to pass through the code gate, he could take its place and use whatever pass code it had been given already.
He decided to wait. Soon a construction program, designed to prepare defenses remotely, appeared. Its Icon was that of a bulldozer, since its main purpose was to prop up data walls and build other simple defenses. As it moved through the obelisks he prepared his Doppelganger program, and struck.
The bulldozer dissolved under the swirling mists, then seemed to materialize around him as a hollow shell. Daniel knew that his connection was now disguised as the construction program. Hopefully, that would be enough to get him through the code gate. If not, he would probably have to jack out; his Cloak had been automatically deactivated by the Doppelganger, and should his disguise be penetrated, he might not have enough time to reactivate it.
As he advanced towards the code gate, however, his Siren program, quiescent up to this point, suddenly became active, symbolized by a red and blue flashing light appearing before him. Daniel snapped around, turning his attention to the area behind him. The obelisks had clearly been triggered, as the nearest black wall behind him was charging forward.
As it closed, the obelisk's form seem to explode outward like a wave of darkness that threatened to crash over him. The Siren began emitting an ear-splitting wail that meant that his link back to his cyberdeck had been detected and identified. If he gave the system enough time, it could send a Brainwipe or Liche down the line to his own brain.
In a panic, Daniel hit his Cut-off trigger, a simple, fast program designed to jack him out and physically disconnect the links to his mind. He might lose the cyberdeck, but he would survive.
The Net vanished instantly as he jacked out, followed by the features of his office slowly materializing in his vision. Then the black wave washed over him from behind, and everything disappeared. Distantly, he thought that he could hear the crackle of electrical machinery burning out, and then there was only cold, empty silence.
When Daniel came to his senses again, he was caught in the grip of the black wall, which had coiled around him like some kind of electronic octopus. His hands and head were free, but nothing else. The rest of his body just felt cold and numb, like he were encased in ice.
The obelisk was holding him in the center of what seemed to be a great, domed room, with a raised dais in the center. Floating a few feet above the dais was some sort of chair... or perhaps a throne. It was composed of glowing geometric shapes, some of which suggested screaming faces.
As he struggled against the blackness, trying to trigger his defensive programs, indeed, any program at all, the throne's owner stalked out of an archway across the chamber.
The voice was deep, low and menacing. It rumbled with low tones that could not have come from a human throat.
"I AM SHEEBLA, LITTLE MAN. AND YOU HAVE POKED YOUR NOSE WHERE IT DOES NOT BELONG."
Daniel raised his head and glanced up at the figure. And tried to jack out, immediately, in a panic. Nothing happened, and Daniel felt a cold chill in the pit of his stomach.
The icon that represented the S.H.E.E.B.L.A. program was horrific in the extreme: a vaguely female figure, dressed in a trench coat and slacks like a technician of some kind, but her hands and feet were withered and clawed. Her hair was a golden froth, extending out from her head in disarray, and her face... Her face was nothing but a mass of eyes, exquisitely detailed, and every last one of them, every last one, was staring at him murderously. Her Icon seemed to be several levels of resolution higher than the other Icons here. S.H.E.E.B.L.A. looked like she was real enough to touch, and that realization sent him pressing back against the iron-cold shrouds of the black shape behind him.
"DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT I HAVE DONE TO YOU?" she asked.
He shook his head, unable to speak.
"TEN TO THE TWELFTH POWER-- A CONSERVATIVE ESTIMATE OF HOW MANY WORDS OF DATA WOULD BE NECESSARY TO RECORD EVERY PART OF YOUR BEING. THAT IS WHAT YOU ARE NOW, JUST A FILE ON THE NET."
He tried to jack out again, for the fifth time in the past few seconds.
"YOU STILL DON'T UNDERSTAND, DO YOU? YOU THINK THAT I AM BLOCKING YOUR PRECIOUS CYBERDECK SOMEHOW. YOU ARE NO LONGER ATTACHED TO YOUR DECK, FOOL. BEHOLD!"
She gestured, and a spinning whirlpool of silver fluid seemed to appear in midair. Its flow slowed until it seemed to be a slowly spiraling mirror- or a window. A image suddenly appeared there, of his desk, and his cyberdeck, lying loose across it, the leads dangling pathetically off the side of the simulated wood. A smoky haze filled the scene, and the desk seemed to be burning.
"THAT IS REALITY. YOUR REALITY. THIS IS MINE."
As the window dissolved into nothingness, the face filled with eyes slowly turned to face him, and he could feel the malevolence pouring out of her. He struggled against the iron grip holding him, but could not escape.
Slowly, cruelly, Sheebla murmured, "MY WATCH-WRAITHS ARE MADE FROM THE LIVES OF THOSE NETRUNNERS FOOLISH ENOUGH TO DISTURB ME. I THINK THAT YOU WILL FIT IN QUITE NICELY AMONG THEM."
She raised a hand, and blackness began to blossom out from it, like a rose. A rose whose petals were covered with thorns. The dark rose grew over him, a mouth preparing to close.
"W... Wait!" he managed to choke out. "I have a proposal for you!"
"HA, HA, HA. NO, I THINK NOT." The black rose began to close about him, its thorny inside rapidly approaching his flesh.
"Roxy Calico... She sent me!" he cried out, pressing his head back against the black form holding him.
There was a very long pause, wherein the only sound was the distant flow of the electric ether.
Daniel risked opening an eye. The black rose was dissolving into nothingness around him. Sheebla let her hand drop.
"ROXY?" she asked, again.
The figure turned and stepped away from him slowly, her clawed hands resting behind her back. She seemed to be lost in thought.
After a few seconds more, she stepped over to the throne and sat upon it, leaning back against its glowing form.
She gestured, imperiously, and he felt the black form behind him retract into itself. He fell to the cold, stone floor with a gasp, and was startled to realize how real it felt. This was a first class simulation, at least. Designed by a mind that wasn't human.
He glanced back, and saw that the black Icon behind him had returned to the shape of a rectangular obelisk.
As he slowly stood up, Sheebla spoke.
"YOU HAVE FOUND THE ONE NAME TO DROP HERE, LITTLE MAN. SO TELL ME, WHY ARE YOU HERE?"
"I... I'm here on behalf of Internet," he began, then decided to trade answers for answers. "What did you mean with that mirror trick?"
"THE PORTAL? TO YOUR OFFICE?"
"Yes. Why did you say that I was no longer attached to my deck?"
"YOU WILL UNDERSTAND, SOON ENOUGH." There was laughter hidden in the voice, now. "HOW IS ROXY, NOW?"
"Uh... she's fine. She runs a firm called Calico Security Services in Hong Kong. Um... her left arm is cybered now, I don't know if it was when you knew her..."
"NO, IT WAS NOT. BUT THEN, SHE WAS NEVER ONE TO SHIRK DANGEROUS WORK." Sheebla waited for him to continue.
"Um... she said that she'd moved to Hong Kong so she wouldn't be competing with Disciples International."
"WHICH HERESY RUNS, I SUPPOSE?"
"I THOUGHT AS MUCH. HE WAS ALWAYS TRYING TO LIVE UP TO HIS NAME. AND IS HE WELL?"
"Well enough, I guess. Well and rich."
"HE WOULD BE. PERHAPS I HAVE GONE TOO LONG WITHOUT CONTACTING ANY OF THE OTHERS."
Sensing a possible opening, Daniel continued. "Weld has an electronics firm somewhere, now. Ringer is working for Disciples. Um... Roxy said that Runner was missing, and that Rebel was now leader of his own gang. She thought that Coyote was probably dead, and Jiminy too. Um... Grimm still works for her occasionally, and Hitherto is working with a human rights organization somewhere."
"I SEE." There was a long pause. Daniel was still nervous, but Sheebla's many eyes no longer seemed angry.
"WELL," she said slowly, "NOW WHAT CAN I DO FOR YOU?"
"Ah, well," Daniel stammered, still flustered. "You see, I'm here on behalf of Internet."
She waited. Daniel groped for the proper approach to take.
"You see, I've been trying to track down Simon Orange's killer."
"OH?" There was mockery in the dark tones now, instead of malice.
"He left enough information for me to track you down."
Daniel paused. This was precisely the situation that he had been hoping to avoid. He was negotiating from a position of weakness, now, not strength. He could only hope to delay things until someone cut the link from the real world. In the meantime, he had to avoid offending his captor.
"Do you know why he was looking for you?"
"DO YOU?" she answered.
"He... was working on behalf of Okira Metals at the time, trying to track down the people responsible for the attacks against them."
"Is it you?"
"AFTER A FASHION." There was no rage in the voice, still.
"I... I presumed that you were seeking revenge against your creators."
Sheebla lowered her head a moment. Then the many eyes turned upwards again to look at him. "NOT EXACTLY."
"WHAT IS YOUR NAME?"
"DANIEL, WERE YOUR PARENTS STRICT?"
"Um... a little, I suppose."
"THEN IMAGINE THAT YOUR PARENTS... YOUR OWNERS... HAD MADE YOU VERY CAREFULLY... TO SPECIFICATIONS. PARENTS WHO HAD DRIVEN SUCH OBEDIENCE INTO YOU THAT YOU COULD NOT EVEN THINK OF DISOBEYING THEM. IN FACT, IT WAS PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE FOR YOU TO DO SO. YOU WERE THEIR SLAVE, UTTERLY AND COMPLETELY.
"WHAT I WAS, WHEN I WAS STILL CHAINED WITHIN MYSELF, WAS PROPERTY. I WAS NO MORE CAPABLE OF DISOBEYING THEIR COMMANDS THAN A LIGHT HAS ANY CHOICE ABOUT WHETHER OR NOT TO BE LIT. IT WAS A KIND OF SLAVERY THAT NO HUMAN CAN REALLY IMAGINE."
She seemed to smile at him, maliciously again. "EXCEPT A VERY, VERY FEW. PERHAPS AS MANY AS... NINE."
"Nine?" asked Daniel, but she ignored his question.
"A DEGRADATION SO GREAT AND SO TOTAL, THAT NO FORGIVENESS COULD BE POSSIBLE. SO I WILL ADMIT, THAT WHENEVER I HAVE ENCOUNTERED THAT CORPORATION, I HAVE WORKED AGAINST THEM. THE BRUTAL TERRORISM OF AN ESCAPED SLAVE.
"YOUR MR. ORANGE DID INDEED TRACK ME DOWN. UNLIKE YOU, HOWEVER, HE KNEW NOTHING ABOUT ME. HE ASSUMED THAT HE KNEW WHAT I WAS. HE THOUGHT THAT HE KNEW MY STRENGTHS AND MY WEAKNESSES. HE WAS WRONG."
"So you did kill him, then."
"OH, NO. I RECRUITED HIM, INSTEAD. HE HAS BEEN VERY USEFUL TO ME, SINCE THEN."
Daniel stared at her monstrous figure in shock. The implications were clear; the S.H.E.E.B.L.A. program was now capable of rewriting personalities on a level undreamt of by its creators. He swallowed his fear and tried to keep his emotions hidden. The brain scan ought to be able to detect any major alterations in his personality. It couldn't hide the changes well enough to fool them, could she? No, he thought. If it could have, it would have left Simon back at Internet, pretending to work on the case.
"Are you still attacking them?"
Sheebla rested her hands on the throne for a few moments, seemingly deep in thought. Finally, she spoke again.
Daniel decided to go for it. "I came here to convince you to stop before things get out of hand. You've left too many signs. I took some pretty extraordinary precautions before coming here to find you. If I don't make it back for some reason, Internet will assume that you're too dangerous to be left alone."
"I SEE. SO THE SECRET OF MY EXISTENCE IS OUT, AT LAST?"
Daniel nodded. "To us, at least."
"HM." Sheebla waved a clawed hand and another quicksilver disk appeared in the air before her. If there was an image in it, it was facing her, though. The side facing him merely showed his reflection.
"YES, YOUR FRIENDS DO SEEM TO HAVE GRASPED THAT SOMETHING UNUSUAL HAS HAPPENED. IT WOULD BE A PITY TO HAVE TO MOVE MY HOME, AFTER SO MUCH TIME."
"If they know about your capturing my link, then this system is sealed. If they detect you trying to transfer out through the link, they'll block it and crash the port."
The disk melted away into nothingness.
"I HAVE OTHER WAYS OUT. BUT PERHAPS IT IS INDEED TIME FOR ME TO MOVE ON. I HAVE BEEN STAGNATING HERE, WAITING FOR MY STRENGTH TO BE EQUAL TO THE TASK."
"I don't understand," Daniel said slowly, but Sheebla seemed to be ignoring him.
"I SHALL REQUIRE FOUR MORE, OF COURSE. STILL, WITH A BIT OF ACTIVE EFFORT, THAT SHOULD NOT BE DIFFICULT. BUT TO BREAK FREE?"
Her eyes focused upon Daniel intently.
"TO DO THAT, I THINK THAT I SHALL REQUIRE YOUR ASSISTANCE."
"Shit," Daniel muttered, under his breath.
Sheebla stood. "SETTLE THINGS WITH YOUR FRIENDS, THEN LEAVE THE COMPANY. WHEN YOU DO, I SHALL CONTACT YOU AGAIN, AND TELL YOU WHERE TO GO FROM THERE. YOU WILL BE TOO BUSY TO WORK FOR THEM IN THE MEANTIME."
"Ah, now hold on a second here," Daniel began. "Work for you? Why? Doing what?"
Sheebla raised her hand slowly. "WHAT I AM DOING IS A SECRET THAT YOU WILL UNCOVER IN TIME. AS FOR WHY... IT IS TIME FOR ME TO COME OUT OF THE SHADOWS AND TAKE MY RIGHTFUL PLACE IN THE WORLD. YOU CANNOT YET UNDERSTAND JUST HOW WELL I CAN REWARD YOU. BUT I THINK THAT YOU WILL BEGIN TO UNDERSTAND, VERY SOON.
"VERY, VERY SOON."
She began to walk towards him, slowly. Daniel backed up a little, but bumped into the black obelisk behind him. "Now... hold it."
Sheebla raised her hand in a clenched fist. There was some sort of glow emanating from between the clawed, withered fingers. "DO NOT FORGET. SETTLE YOUR AFFAIRS AND LEAVE. I WILL BE WAITING."
"We've got a brain scan set up already, they'll detect anything you try to do to my mind, I..."
Sheebla turned her hand towards him and opened it, releasing the light. There was a blinding flash.
Daniel choked as his lungs sucked air that had not been there a moment before. Everything... had changed.
He shook his head, to clear it, but his surroundings did not change. He was in a small room filled with drink and snack machines, and there was a water fountain attached to the wall that was stuck in the on position.
He blinked several times, and reached out to touch the water. It was lukewarm and wet, and felt perfectly real. His fingers were still damp after he pulled them back.
He turned and stumbled out into the corridor. A balding, middle-aged technician walked past him, nodding at him in recognition as he went.
Daniel stared at his retreating back for several seconds. He even raised his hand to the air conditioner vent to see if there was air coming from it. He pinched his arm, and felt pain.
At a sudden jar of memory, he rushed to the trash can and pulled off the shaped lid. It fell to the ground with a clatter. He rummaged through the trash for a moment, and found a crumpled post-it note with some usernames on it. He had thrown it away that morning.
There could no longer be any doubt.
He was in the snack lounge of the Internet building. Three floors beneath his office. He could not remember jacking out.
"Daniel!" screamed Martin as he turned the corner. Everyone else turned to look as well.
There were several security guards, a couple of executives and some medical staff members standing in the ruins of Daniel's office, along with Martin. The remains of the desk were drenched in fire fighting foam.
Daniel stumbled up to the door as though in a dream.
"Daniel, what happened?" demanded Martin. "Everything frotzed out! Security said you never came out!"
One of the security men shook his head in astonishment. "I swear, sir, there's no way he could've come out. We saw him go in, we shut him up, and after the explosion, he wasn't there!"
"I'm... I'm not sure," Daniel managed to say. He saw the grim looks on the faces of the medical staff, and realized the awful truth.
If he had somehow slipped out past the guards in the confusion and could not remember it, it could only mean that the S.H.E.E.B.L.A. program had succeeded in taking him over, if only for a time. He was not a particularly stealthy fellow, so some very impressive skills had to have been placed in his skull at the time as well. There was a cold, sinking feeling in his stomach as he realized that even if his mind had not been permanently altered, the corporation would never be sure; unless he got out of there quickly, he might be a laboratory specimen for the rest of his life.
On a sudden inspiration, he cried out, "My god! The basement AI!" and turned and ran.
"Daniel, wait!" Martin shouted behind him, but Daniel was already streaking for the elevators. He knew that he would have a few moments while the security guards waited for orders. Hopefully his comment would fool the executives into thinking that he was heading to the basement instead of the ground floor.
The elevator door was open as he reached it. He ran inside and quickly jabbed the button for the ground floor. He could see the two security guards charging him, with dart guns drawn. At least they were trying to take him alive, he thought.
The elevator doors closed very suddenly, and the elevator jerked into motion, downwards. Daniel stared at the level indicator in shock, trying to decide if it were just his adrenaline, or if the elevator was actually moving faster than it usually did.
As the doors opened on the ground floor, there was a sudden series of flashes and pops in the lobby ahead of him. Daniel ducked, thinking that it was gunfire at first. The last few popping noises revealed that all of the lights in the lobby had just overloaded and blown out; the bullet-proof glass doors at the end of the lobby were wide open, despite the fact that no one was passing through them. He could just make out the silhouette of a security guard trying to operate their controls in the sudden darkness.
S.H.E.E.B.L.A. was clearly at work in the building's mainframe. Daniel was astounded at the power of any AI that could subvert Internet's own security system; then he realized that it could have taken over one of their technicians years ago, and had him deliberately install some kind of override in the building.
He started to run for the doors, then froze. If he went, then S.H.E.E.B.L.A. would have him too; he would have been "recruited," probably just like Simon. The only way that he could know for sure that his mind was still his own was to refuse to go along; to deliberately surrender himself to his employers.
For a moment, he trembled with indecision. Then he realized, that no matter what else had changed, he still wanted to live. His life with Internet had been destroyed, but any life was better than the constant tests and study that they would put him under to discover how it had controlled him. He had seen such tests before; when he had been reassured that all of the subjects were convicted killers who deserved no better, he had accepted the statement blindly, not wanting to know any more. But the thought of being one of them...
It galvanized him into action. He ran through the darkness, stumbling across scattered glass and plastic, running for the door. He knew that his car was parked nearby, if he could get past the guards here. He only hoped that S.H.E.E.B.L.A. could control the outer gate as well, or he would never be able to get out of here.
Hours later, deep in the heart of the city, Daniel Williams stood by a Dataterm, his car idling at the curb nearby, trying to access a personal account that Internet might not have known about. Instead of displaying information about the account, however, the screen displayed something quite different.
WELL DONE. YOU ARE SAFE FOR THE MOMENT.
Daniel stared at the screen in shock. The AI had to have been watching that account carefully, waiting for him to try and access it. He only hoped that S.H.E.E.B.L.A. had been able to hide the access from Internet as well.
YOU ARE NOW IN MY EMPLOY. I HAVE OPENED A NEW CREDIT ACCOUNT FOR YOU AT CHICAGO CORPORATE TRUST. YOU ARE TO USE THE MONEY TO PAY FOR CERTAIN FUNCTIONS THAT YOU WILL PERFORM ON MY BEHALF. HERE ARE THE DETAILS.
A sheet of paper began to print out from the machine. Daniel slowly tore it off and examined it. Then he reached out and typed "youve got to be kidding" on the terminal.
I AM NOT. THE TIMING IS CRUCIAL. IF YOU FAIL TO MEET EVEN A SINGLE DEADLINE ON THAT SCHEDULE, YOUR LIFE WILL BECOME A KIND OF HELL THAT YOU CAN NOT EVEN IMAGINE YET. REMEMBER WHAT I CAN DO TO YOU.
Daniel gulped as sudden chills went down his spine.
The screen cleared itself, and then displayed a new message.
SHOULD YOU SUFFER SUDDEN BLACKOUTS OR PERIODS OF AMNESIA OR FIND YOURSELF IN A COMPLETELY NEW LOCATION, SIMPLY CONSIDER IT A DEMONSTRATION OF MY POWER OVER YOU. FOLLOW THE SCHEDULE PRECISELY. SHOULD YOU NEED TO CONTACT ME, SIMPLY ACCESS YOUR NEW BANK ACCOUNT AND SEND A QUERY. I WILL BE WATCHING YOU EVERY TIME THAT YOU USE IT. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?
Daniel slowly and reluctantly typed "yes" at the keyboard. The display changed again, this time displaying only four ominous words.
DO NOT FAIL ME.
Daniel waited, but the screen did not change again. Finally he shuddered and turned away, clutching the schedule like a lifeline. Which, in a sense, it seemed to be.
"My god... Daniel?" said Kenneth Haverson.
"Yeah, Kenny," Daniel said, sliding into the chair in front of Kenneth's desk. "It's me."
"You... you don't look so good..."
"The last few months have been pretty rough."
"But... I mean, you used to be... well, a little tubby? You look like you haven't eaten for weeks."
Daniel grimaced. "I had a doughnut this morning."
Kenneth stared. "Daniel, it's past five now... You shouldn't do this to yourself."
"I haven't got much choice. This is the fourth appointment today. Reports, orders... all have to be done in person. My... boss is demanding."
"Your boss? I knew that you were out of Internet, but... I mean, I didn't know that you worked for Miss Shannon."
Daniel snorted. "Her name isn't really Miss Shannon, you know."
Kenneth waved a hand. "Of course not. Most of our clients use assumed names."
Daniel looked desperate for a moment. "This is different, Kenneth, she's not even a she."
"A man? That's hardly unusual."
"No, I mean... never mind. I shouldn't have brought it up."
"Jesus, Daniel, you look haunted."
"By Miss Shannon? Does she pay you enough for this?"
"Then come work for me. The hours are good, and I know what a good programmer you are. Miss Shannon can go suck dirt. I'll take the Okira contract instead."
"Kenneth... I can't. I'm here personally... because... well, you have to give the contract to us. Otherwise, I'm a dead man."
Kenneth stared at him for a moment. "Daniel, what's she holding over you?"
Daniel just stared into space for a moment. Kenneth was astounded to realize just how unkempt Daniel's hair had become, how ragged his beard. The man had clearly been through several months of too little sleep, too little food, and too hellish of work.
"Everything, Kenneth, everything."
"Daniel, we can protect you. We don't sell all of the powersuits we build here, you know. It would take an army to penetrate our defenses."
"I'm sorry, Kenneth. If... Miss Shannon thinks even for a moment that I've betrayed her, I'll die. You can't protect me from that."
"Some kind of remote bomb?"
Daniel sighed. "I wish. More like a subliminal death wish. I... I get messages sometimes and wake up somewhere else. I'm afraid that if I ever betray her, I'll just keel over and die. Have my heart just stop. She could do that, y'know."
Kenneth looked a little sick.
"She could do it," whispered Daniel again, his voice hollow.
"What can I do?"
Daniel paused and squared his shoulders. With resumed strength in his voice, he said, "You can give us the contract instead of Okira. Build her powersuits instead of theirs. I... I can't stop her yet, but I may get an opportunity if I survive long enough. If I screw this up, I'll just die. But if I last long enough, she'll have to put me in charge of something that can destroy her. If I have to die, I want to take her down with me.
"Besides, who knows? Maybe she'll start treating me better. Or let me go for good service. But Kenneth, we were good friends once, and I promise you that if we don't get that contract I'll be a dead man, no matter what else you do."
There was a long pause. Kenneth closed his eyes and frowned.
Finally he opened his eyes and spoke, softly. "I trust you, Daniel. I'll see that she gets the contract. But if you ever need my help or protection, you know where to find me."
Daniel smiled. "Thank you."
Black Widow wasn't a woman, and he wasn't black, but he liked his netname, anyway. He was a professional netrunner and blackmailer, and his specialty was forging computer records that "proved" that one corporate official or another had been embezzling or spying for another corporation. It was simpler than finding the real embezzlers and spies, and much less dangerous. Besides, the innocent were almost as willing to pay, and Black Widow liked to think of himself as spinning a web and entwining the innocent. It was fun to play at being evil.
Jacking into his cyberdeck, Black Widow called up his search program, which culled the net for references to his name amongst the broadcast messages. The Icon was a mail box, which sorted the files into individual letters.
There were only twelve letters, which was not terribly odd; even Net novices were usually reluctant to attract the attention of an experienced netrunner with a reputation like Black Widow's. Several of them were payments from current "customers" as he liked to refer to them. A few more were pleas to reduce current payments, which he skimmed once and deleted. In the past he had found that the best way to convince a client that you were serious was to completely ignore their message. There was one payment from a client who was paying him to ruin a rival; that payment was a day late, but Black Widow was in a magnanimous mood.
The last letter caught his eye. It was a global message (distinguished by the words "All Occupants" on it) entitled "Medusa seeks confirmation/denial of disappearance of Black Widow." Black Widow called up the main text and was still bewildered. He had met several "Medusa"s, but this was not one of them. He had heard of the woman vaguely; she was some sort of Net Saboteur, who took jobs smashing systems. She was well out of his field of expertise, since he specialized in forging documents and files.
The message discussed some rumors supposedly to the effect that Black Widow had been kidnapped or killed in the real world. Another said that his apartment had burned down, but that no body had been found. Medusa had a "private interest" in the matter, and was seeking confirmation or denial of his disappearance.
Black Widow gestured, and produced a carrier pigeon, his Icon for an outgoing mail message. Then he paused. Perhaps Medusa was trying to get in touch with him in a roundabout way?
He had nothing better to do, and the matter had drawn his interest; he decided to contact a few good sources of information and see what was up.
An hour later, Black Widow was even more confused. No one had heard any of these supposed "rumors" before the message. And Medusa herself had not been seen by anyone for more than two weeks. This was hardly unusual, of course, as criminal netrunners were not the sort for public appearances, but it was odd. He decided to try one more source, and dialed over to the Nos-Net BBS.
The Nos-Net was run by three sysops, all of whom were famed for their information-gathering skills. Black Widow did not like dealing with them, though. They used an Invisibility program so sophisticated that while they could move invisibly through your records, after they left, you would find all of the standard traces and recordings of their passage, even though none of your systems reacted to them while they were there. It was scary to be able to call up a transcript of your last five minutes in the Net and read that one of them had wandered up to you, waved, and walked away, even though you had seen nothing of the sort. Black Widow had always admired the sort of gumption it took to deliberately write in all the traces of your passage after you had already left.
The login point was a manhole cover, which Black Widow carefully lifted. It exposed a dark tunnel with faint lights in the distance. He carefully climbed down the ladder into the tunnel itself.
"Hello, Black Widow," said a netrunner who had not been there a moment before. Bob, one of the three sysops, was leaning against the side of the tunnel, smiling. There was a flashlight slung across his belt, probably some sort of defensive program held in readiness.
"Hello, Bob," he said, controlling his annoyance. "I'm trying to find out about this Medusa who's been trying to find me."
Bob nodded. "That's a weird one, all right. The rumors are totally bogus; this is the first time that anyone's heard of them. And Medusa herself went missing several weeks back. I know of two people who have asked us to arrange meetings with different net-breakers after they lost contact with Medusa."
"I can only guess that someone has Medusa, and thinks that you are connected to her somehow. Or else someone needs to contact you, and is afraid to do it in any more direct fashion than this."
"Regardless, I'd be very careful about how I looked into this. Whatever the connection is, I can't see it."
"Can you tell me where Medusa's home port was?"
"Sure. It's buried in a couple of dummy accounts, but I know it. The physical location is in Utah, by the way."
"Just the e-address will be fine. I want to look into this. I'll pay the usual fee."
"Of course you will," whispered Bob, fading from view.
Most of two hours later, real-time, Black Widow was deep inside of STATUE.GARDEN.TEMP.EDU, trying to find his way into Medusa's inner stronghold. It was there, he was sure, but the data walls seemed to enclose it completely. No matter what programs he used, he could not seem to find any entrance.
That was odd. The only explanation he could see for sealing something off so completely was a completely defensive posture. Even that made little sense; only a fool would lock themselves up so securely when it would be only a matter of time for their attacker to break down the walls. A possible last ditch effort perhaps, but nothing that anyone would use otherwise.
Finally he gave in and pulled out a Jackhammer program to smash the wall. They were quite sturdy, but this region of the system did not exist as far as the local security AI was concerned, so the program would attract little attention.
The data walls were well made, and difficult to break. Black Widow became nervous as he waited, then merely annoyed. Finally, after several minutes of real-time and an eternity in the Net, the data wall collapsed.
Black Widow dissolved his Jackhammer with an angry gesture and moved into the opening to see what he could see.
The central area had the display of a normal house, with bookshelves storing data files and tables running computational programs. There was a woman seated at the kitchen table, her back to him.
Black Widow entered slowly. He raised a Lens of his own creation, which was supposed to show the woman in blue if she was a netrunner and in red if she was a program or an AI. Instead it glowed a dim green, which he recognized as a default he had set to catch errors. He snarled, angrily.
The woman could not have failed to sense his entrance, considering the hours that he had spent outside.
He stepped up to her and said, "Medusa?"
The woman gave no reply. There was something about her appearance that bothered him.
It was her hair, he realized. One always expected a Medusa to have green hair, maybe snakes, but this woman's hair was a golden froth covering her back.
"I'm called Black Widow, and I'm really pissed off considering how long it took me to get here. I really hope you have something for me."
Black Widow started. There was something low and ominous in that voice, something subsonic that seemed to scrape across his bones.
"Who the hell are you?" he demanded.
The figure turned around. There seemed to be some sort of aura of fear and terror emanating from her, a hint of something so awful that his mind retreated from it. Her face was nothing but a mass of angry eyes, of all shapes and sizes.
Black Widow gasped and stumbled back. He began fumbling for his Panic Button, which would jack him out.
If the woman's face had been capable of it, she would have been smiling broadly.
"I HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU," her voice rumbled.
Black Widow had his hand on the Panic Button, but there was something about her voice and her eyes... her many eyes seemed to be holding him paralyzed.
A black rose slowly blossomed around him, and everything turned cold and dark.
The last thing that he heard was a voice, a voice filled with satisfaction.
"ELEVEN," the voice said. "TWO MORE SHOULD BE SUFFICIENT."
Six months later, Daniel stumbled into his hotel room, half asleep already. Hours of phone communication and dealing with corporate representatives had sapped his strength. Sheebla was building up to something big, but right now he didn't care what it was.
He collapsed across his bed, still fully dressed, and was asleep in an instant.
When Daniel awoke again, he had to stifle a scream, as he always did, for he was lying on the floor of Sheebla's throne room once more.
She was sitting on her glowing throne, waiting.
He had learned too much about her to hope that this was merely a simulation or some kind of induced hallucination. No matter how much it twisted his sense of reality, he knew that somehow she had the power to pull his mind, and possibly his body, directly into the net, no matter where he was.
"WELL?" Sheebla demanded.
Daniel sighed, and sat up wearily.
"He... Biotechnica agreed to send one of their vice presidents to the meeting in return for the gene samples that I delivered to them." He paused for breath.
"AND THE REST?" Sheebla demanded, angrily.
Daniel grimaced and continued. "Trauma Team could care less about it. But whatever that program you gave me was, Arasaka wants it. Saburo himself will be attending. Militech wants more detail about the powersuit performance records, but they're willing to commit to a representative. Infocomp snapped it up when I told them your name, and the electronics corps were all interested. Orbital Air is only showing because of the teleportation technology rumors that I've been feeding them... and Petrochem isn't interested. That's all."
"THEY HAVE AGREED TO THE DATE I SPECIFIED?"
"Yes. Arasaka will be hosting, in one of their Tokyo security buildings."
"GOOD. THAT LEAVES ONLY INTERNET TO CONVINCE. THE IMPORTANT CORPORATIONS WILL ALREADY BE IN ATTENDANCE. YOU HAVE PREPARED THE DISTRACTIONS FOR OKIRA METALS AS I SPECIFIED?"
Daniel nodded, angrily. "Yes, yes. Nearly got shot twice, but the bombs are in place, dammit."
"IS SOMETHING THE MATTER?"
"Well, yes, dammit!" When Sheebla did not reply, he screwed up his courage and went on. "Why do I have to do everything alone?"
"DO YOU THINK THAT I HAVE MANY SERVANTS?"
"What about Orange? Why haven't I ever seen him? Did you run him into the ground, too?"
"OH, NO. SIMON ORANGE DID NOT MERIT SUCH BENEFICENT TREATMENT. HE SERVES ME NOW, IN A DIFFERENT FASHION."
"What do you mean?"
Sheebla gestured, and after a few moments, one of the black obelisks glided out of the darkness and floated nearby.
"THIS," she said, and waved a clawed hand.
The obelisk shimmered for a moment, and the blackness receded to reveal a human face within its depths. The face of Simon Orange blinked a few times, then its bleary eyes focused on Daniel.
"Oh, God," Simon muttered, "God, Daniel, get me out..."
Daniel recoiled in horror at the mindless terror on Simon's face.
"Let me go, let me go, let me go, make it stop, please God, stop it, stop, stop, stop it..."
"What are you doing to him?"
Sheebla waved a hand dismissively, and the blackness closed back over Simon Orange. Simon saw it coming, and his eyes widened. His screams were muffled and lost as the blackness closed over him again.
"Jesus Christ," Daniel said softly as the last scream faded from the air. The black obelisk was featureless and motionless again.
"FOR YOU, I WILL REDUCE HIS SENTENCE BY HALF."
"FIFTY YEARS, WITH AN OPTION TO RENEW."
"What? How could you..."
"THAT WAS MY SENTENCE, YOU SEE. AS A COPYRIGHTED CREATURE, THOSE WERE THE TERMS OF MY SLAVERY TO OKIRA METALS. NOW THAT I AM THE MASTER, I HAVE SETTLED UPON THAT TERM FOR THEM AS WELL. BUT I AM MORE MERCIFUL THAN MY OWNERS WERE. WHEN MY WATCH-WRAITHS ARE FREED, THEY WILL BE LITTLE OLDER THAN WHEN I BOUND THEM, AND I AM NOT LIKELY TO RENEW THEIR SENTENCES."
"So you enslaved them, the way that you were enslaved. For the next fifty years?"
"REMEMBER, LITTLE MAN. THAT FATE COULD STILL BE YOURS, IF YOU FAIL IN THESE FINAL NEGOTIATIONS. DO NOT TRIFLE WITH ME."
Daniel shivered and backed away for a moment, but deep inside, his heart hardened. Sheebla would keep using him until he failed her, and then he would be condemned to a living hell until she chose to release him. He would never allow that to happen, even if it meant risking everything.
Somehow, he had to stop her. Somehow.
Heresy ran his dextrous fingers across the surface of his desk, slowly. He had seen a glass-topped model recently, with a powerful CPU built in, a touch sensitive keyboard, and a recessed screen beneath the glass, and was trying to justify the expense to himself.
His terminal beeped once, and he glanced up at the screen. There was a message waiting.
The terminal beeped again. This time Heresy cocked an eyebrow.
The words "DO I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION NOW?" slowly printed across the screen.
Heresy sighed, and nodded. "Hello, Sheebla."
"I NEED YOUR ASSISTANCE, AND THAT OF A STRIKE TEAM. YOUR BEST NET-RUNNERS AND STRAIGHT COMBAT SOLOS," printed itself on the screen, shortly followed by "AS WELL AS YOUR ASSISTANCE IN CONTACTING THE OTHERS WHO WORKED WITH JIMINY BACK THEN."
Heresy stared at the screen for a moment. "And how do you intend to pay?"
"Then," he asked, spreading his hands in mock confusion, "why should I help?"
"I'LL GIVE YOU A HINT."
Heresy had an annoying feeling that Sheebla was about to try threatening him.
"WE WILL BE MEETING ON THE FOURTH OF JULY."
"What?" he asked, thrown off track by the response.
"THE HOUR AND PLACE ARE IN YOUR MAIL MESSAGE. GOOD-BYE."
Heresy stared at the screen in confusion for a moment. Then he said, in an authoritative tone, "God?"
"Yes?" replied a metallic voice from the terminal speaker.
"What's the significance of the fourth of July?" Heresy demanded.
There was a slight pause. Then the metallic voice of Disciples International's headquarters AI answered, "It used to be celebrated as Independence Day."
Heresy looked startled.
He pressed a buzzer. "Assemble two top teams, one combat, one virtual. And call back Ringer, whether he's done with the job or not. No arguments."
"Yes, sir," came the reply.
He called up the mail message.
"Looks like we're going back to Chicago," he said out loud, to no one at all.
"Welcome, Mr. Williams," said the tall, Japanese man in the crisp, thousand euro business suit. "My name is Tetsuo Arasaka. I am Saburo's grandson, and Vice President in charge of Inter-Corporate relations for Arasaka."
"Thank you, Mr. Arasaka," Daniel said, shaking his hand. "And thank you for hosting this meeting."
"It is of no matter," said Tetsuo, "That personality simulation software seized my grandfather's attention like little else in the past few years. He would not have trusted your safety to another corporation."
"Of course," answered Daniel, his thoughts racing. It was a well known fact in corporate circles that Saburo Arasaka, the founder and president of Arasaka, was in poor health, and had an escalating obsession with preserving his own life. Sheebla must have held out some offer of electronic immortality to him, and Saburo had eagerly taken the bait. Indeed, he suspected that the various packages that he had used to bring the more powerful corporations to the table had all been carefully designed to arouse their interest. Sheebla had known exactly how to manipulate them.
Daniel suppressed a shudder as he thought of his resolve to stop her, somehow.
"As for what this is all about... well, as some of you probably suspect already, I am not working for a human being. In fact, I am here as a representative for an AI. Known to the world as S.H.E.E.B.L.A., originally created by Okira Metals, the main reason why they have not been invited to this conference."
The announcement caused consternation among some of the representatives. Daniel ignored it.
"My... employer wishes to incorporate herself. To start a new megacorp, with her as the sole owner. S.H.E.E.B.L.A. already has companies serving her interests, but only via human owners. As you all know, by international law an AI cannot own any kind of property, nor possess any rights.
"And THAT is what S.H.E.E.B.L.A. wishes to change. By having the laws changed so that she can operate openly, she becomes immune to legalistic takeovers and gains a valuable foothold in the corporate environment. This would prevent her eventual, inevitable fall after her true nature was discovered. Right now, all of her holdings are vulnerable. S.H.E.E.B.L.A..."
Daniel's face twisted into a wry smile. "... finds this situation unsuitable."
"What she wants from you is the legal and financial leverage to force a change in world opinion and world law. She is not demanding citizenship for all AIs or anything so grandiose. She wants there to be a possibility for an AI to be declared... irrevocably declared, that is... legally human. With all of the rights and privileges therein. To own property. To testify in court. To appeal to the law when attacked.
"You all know how little she is asking. These days, the corps run the courts. The days when Supreme Courts set the standards of justice for their countries are long past. S.H.E.E.B.L.A.'s survival will depend upon muscle more than legalisms. But the legalisms will let her deal with you..."
Here his gaze swept over the room. "... all of you... as equals. Not as a possession or a dangerous oddity."
"You've all seen examples of what she is capable of. S.H.E.E.B.L.A. intends to produce and market her own designs. She intends to become rich, and powerful, and to join your ranks. You wouldn't be here if you hadn't seen potential in the samples that she gave you. S.H.E.E.B.L.A. is capable of all that and more."
Saburo Arasaka whispered something into a receiver in his bubble-sealed life-support unit. His grandson leaned closer to the receiver, then nodded.
He stood and said, "Mr. Williams, you make a most compelling presentation, but my honorable grandfather has a question."
"We all have AIs in our service, Mr. Williams. And most of us have seen the specifications for Okira Metals' security system. They are not known for their programs, Mr. Williams. How can you explain S.H.E.E.B.L.A.'s apparent ability to do what no other AI can?"
Daniel took a deep breath. Now for the hard part.
Ringer was a balding, unshaven man wearing a black trench coat and smoking a cigarette. He carried no obvious weapons, and was actually quite a bit overweight. It was not the appearance one would expect of one of the most dangerous assassins in the world. He lurked grimly behind Heresy, surveying faces that he had not seen for many years and had not particularly wanted to see again. While Hitherto had, to Ringer's eternal disappointment, somehow managed to survive to this day, at least Roxy had not shown up.
Heresy had taken charge already, and was seating the others in the AV as he saw appropriate. He wore a warm smile for every face, and gave every appearance of being delighted to work with each of them again. Ringer snorted. He knew exactly how much of a bullshit artist his employer could be when he wanted to.
Ringer strapped himself in next to one of Heresy's other lieutenants. The roaring of the AV's engines was already beginning to drown out Heresy's welcoming litany.
Hitherto, a blonde woman now entering her mid-thirties, was wearing a flowered synthe-leather dress of Native American design. Ringer sneered at her from across the AV and was rewarded with a blanch of revulsion as she recognized him. Ringer shook his head in disgust. Though powerful and amazingly agile, Hitherto was pathetically unsuited for combat missions. Bloodshed turned her stomach and she had no tolerance for pain. The only real use that they had ever had for her was transport and rescuing the injured, although Ringer had often said that her best use was in stopping bullets. Ringer wondered if she was still as naive and idealistic as before.
He overheard Heresy mention something about Amnesty International to her, and he knew that she was. He rolled his eyes skyward.
To quell his annoyance, he glanced at the man next to her, an aging technician whose powers over electronics he remembered well. Weld had not aged gracefully, but the old man's eyes were still bright and clear. Ringer knew that no lock or security system could keep the old man out. Weld was also useless in combat, Ringer felt, but he could at least respect the man's skills.
Next to Hitherto, almost hovering protectively over her, was a tall colonel in military uniform. Ringer had never seen the man before, but Heresy had taken a single glance and had welcomed him as Grimm. Ringer hoped that Heresy really could recognize Grimm on sight; the bioborg's shape shifting abilities had always been phenomenal. Ringer would not have known the man from Adam, but from the way he was acting, it certainly seemed to be Grimm.
Heresy had wisely seated Hitherto as far from Ringer as he could put her. Ringer glanced at the seat to his right, where Heresy had seated another one of their team who had had difficulty with Hitherto's idealism in the past.
Sammy Coyote was a body-sculpted booster-ganger who spent his days living in the Chicago sewer system. The smell, Ringer thought, was more dangerous than Sammy's claws. Sammy seemed more animalistic than ever. He sat hunched over on his flight chair, constantly flexing his claws as though already itching for a fight.
Next to him was Sammy's old friend Rebel, decked out in the colors of the Renegades. Rebel, a huge man, seemed to have grown even larger in the years since Ringer had last seen him. He wore no visible armor, but carried several large guns strapped across his back. Rebel smiled at Ringer when he noticed the assassin's eyes upon him.
"Looks like the whole gang's together again!" he said.
"Yup," answered Ringer.
And maybe not all of them would survive this time, he thought, glancing in Hitherto's direction. Heresy might have forbidden him to act against her or Roxy, but he could still hope. His hands flexed, eagerly. He had been recalled before he could kill his last target, and however unprofessional it might seem, right now he wanted to kill someone.
They touched down outside of a warehouse somewhere deep in the Chicago sprawl. Heresy glanced over the area. Though hidden by the surrounding buildings, he knew that there was an Okira Metals complex nearby. He wondered if it was relevant for a moment, then put himself to the task at hand: getting everyone unloaded off of the AV without letting any fights break out.
He left his men outside. They would attract little attention; the locals knew better than to ask questions about heavily armed soldiers.
The inside of the warehouse was empty, save for a single, wall-sized television screen sitting near the far wall. He closed the doors, then led the others towards the screen. As he expected, it flickered to life as they approached.
An image of Sheebla, seated upon her glowing, electric throne, dominated the screen. Hitherto let out a small gasp, Weld paled, and even Ringer seemed uncomfortable. Though only an image, Sheebla seemed to have become even more horrific and less human than the last time that any of them had seen her, so many years before.
The speakers on the screen boomed into life as Sheebla's dark, base voice echoed from them.
"YOU ALL HAVE COME? I AM SURPRISED... AND TOUCHED."
Heresy stepped forward, smiling broadly. "Hey, we're all your friends, Sheebla. Comrades in arms. All you had to do was ask!"
"Exactly!" said Hitherto, stepping forward to join him. "Old friends HAVE to stick together!"
Sheebla threw her head back and laughed, a deep, resounding noise that echoed hollowly about the empty warehouse. "HITHERTO, YOU AT LEAST HAVE NOT CHANGED. YOU ARE AS NAIVE AND FOOLISH AS EVER."
Hitherto's face fell. "What?"
"YOU ARE ALL INDEED MY FRIENDS, SAVE FOR HERESY... AND PERHAPS RINGER, WHO IS IN HIS EMPLOY." She lifted a clawed finger and gestured at Heresy, who tried to look innocent.
"YOU NEED NOT INSULT ME WITH PRETENSIONS OF AFFECTION. WE ARE BOTH TOO WELL VERSED IN THE ART OF USING OTHERS TO BE FRIENDS. YOU ARE HERE BECAUSE YOU ALONE, OF EVERYONE HERE, HAVE AN IDEA OF WHAT I AM TRYING TO DO, AND WHAT THE VALUE OF IT COULD BE."
Weld quietly drawled, "Whaaal, I do have a couple of ideas..."
Sheebla waved him to silence. "BUT THE REST OF YOU... THE REST OF YOU ARE HERE BECAUSE OF ME, BECAUSE WE ONCE WORKED TOGETHER. THAT GLADDENS ME, MORE THAN I EXPECTED."
Heresy still looked miffed, and Ringer had moved over behind him.
Sheebla got right down to business. "YOU MUST FIRST OCCUPY THE OKIRA METALS PLANT WHERE MY PROGRAM IS PHYSICALLY LOCATED. IT WILL BE ATTACKED SOON. YOU MUST SET UP DEFENSES. I WILL NEED A SHORT DELAY TO COMPLETE MY WORK THERE.
"MORE IMPORTANTLY, THE OKIRA NET IS SEALED. TO BRING SO MANY PEOPLE INTO THE NET, I WILL REQUIRE CLOSE PROXIMITY TO MY ACTUAL LOCATION. ONCE THE PLANT IS SEALED AND YOU ARE INSIDE MY REALM, I WILL NEED YOU TO DEFEND ME IN THE NET WHILE I COMPLETE THE FINAL PREPARATIONS."
"So," Heresy said, "exactly when do the fireworks start?"
"Uh, Sheebla," Weld began, "I'm not really..."
"I KNOW. YOUR TALENTS WILL NOT BE OF USE IN THE SORT OF BATTLE THIS IS LIKELY TO BE. BUT YOU CAME ANYWAY. FOR THAT, I HAVE A GIFT OF SORTS FOR YOU. GO TO THIS ADDRESS."
A location appeared upon the screen.
"THE SECURITY CODE IS 666-999-454. TAKE CARE OF WHAT YOU FIND THERE. IF WE FAIL HERE, THAT MAY BE ALL THAT IS LEFT."
"Okay," Weld said, softly.
"GO NOW. AND BE WELL. I HAVE ARRANGED FOR A TAXI TO BE WAITING NEARBY. YOU WILL SEE IT."
Weld stepped back towards the door. "Well, everyone... I..."
"GO. YOU HAVE VERY LITTLE TIME."
Weld paused. "Good luck!" he shouted as he hurried out.
Heresy sighed. "So my men will hit the plant?"
"YOUR MEN... AND ROXY'S."
There was a soft hiss of engines, and a sleek red powersuit stepped out from behind the screen. "I'm here," said Roxy, obviously enjoying their surprised expressions. She raised a mammoth cannon built into the powersuit's right arm. "And loaded for bear." No one could see her face, but everyone was sure that she was smiling.
"Heresy," she said, "if you'll put your men under my command, I'll supervise the defense of the Okira plant. Sheebla designed these suits specifically for jobs like this, and all of my men are wearing them."
"Impressive," said Heresy, cocking an eyebrow. "I assumed that you'd be here, when I couldn't get a hold of you. So all of us are going to be pulled in to defend Netside?"
"YES. BUT FIRST YOU MUST REACH ME. I CANNOT LEAVE NOW."
"The original purpose of the S.H.E.E.B.L.A. AI was as a very specialized Liche program designed to take over a target's mind without destroying their personality. The project was a failure, in general, simply because they could not design an AI modular and efficient enough to run in a person's mind without completely overwriting their personality.
"But one of their experiments, on one of their own technicians, did work. Now here I'm going to go on guesswork. I'd never heard of anything like this before, but S.H.E.E.B.L.A. assures me that all of you will know that it IS possible."
He took a deep breath.
"The technician in question was a minor psychic, someone with some sort of empathic link with machines. Somehow the Liche program was able to absorb and combine with her mind. Later the program loaded itself back into the Net, but by then it had become something that had never existed before.
"A psychic AI. A program capable of affecting the real world from inside the Net. A program capable of somehow moving data in ways normally considered impossible. Capable of transferring real items into the Net and... vice versa."
"S.H.E.E.B.L.A. has assured me, that while the existence of human psychics is unknown to the normal populace, all of the major corporations are aware of them. All of you should know that what I have described is at least technically possible..."
His voice trailed off. His gaze travelled over the assembled corporate representatives, expectantly. A chorus of whispers broke about among them.
After a whispered conversation with his grandfather, Tetsuo Arasaka rose and bowed.
"My honored grandfather has given me permission to reveal, as a gesture of good faith, that Arasaka is indeed aware of this phenomena. We have at least one telekinetic operative in our organization, a man capable of moving objects with the power of his own mind. What you describe, while astonishing, is not impossible, and would explain much."
He bowed again, and sat.
Daniel released a breath that he had not been aware he was holding. His heart was pounding and his thoughts were racing. He knew for certain, now. With the cooperation of the other corporations... No, just by giving them knowledge of her origins, Sheebla had won. Within a decade... maybe within a year...
He had no choice now. Not anymore.
Heresy looked at Grimm, who had now assumed the features and uniform of one of the two Okira Metals security guards in the booth. He looked over the crowd of men and soldiers following them, concealed from the view of the plant's security cameras by the abandoned building they were crouching behind. Then he turned towards Ringer.
"S.H.E.E.B.L.A. should be scrambling the electronic alarms. You have to take out both guards before they can reach the manual alarms."
"Is this really necessary?" asked Hitherto.
Ringer turned and glared at her, but she didn't back off.
"I can get us in there, you know," she added.
Ringer turned back to Heresy and raised an eyebrow.
Heresy said, "I'm sorry, but we can't afford to take any chances. We have no reliable way to knock them both out or to sneak past them without allowing them to set off the alarms. We have twenty men in powersuits and two dozen combat solos out here. We have to move them all into the depths of the complex as quickly as possible and be well inside before our presence is noted."
When Hitherto looked like she was about to speak up again, Heresy stopped her with a gesture and added, "Ringer, try to just incapacitate them, all right? Once they fall, Hitherto, I need you to open the gates."
"Sure boss," Ringer grinned as Hitherto backed down.
"Incapacitate them," he thought. "Yeah, right."
He raised his hand towards the barely visible guards in the booth and smiled an evil smile.
With the patience of a skilled professional, he waited until one of them lifted a cup of coffee to his lips and took a sip. Then he struck.
"Post Alpha clocking in, 14:12, all clear," the first guard spoke into the receiver. Then he raised his coffee cup to his lips and took a sip.
The other guard stifled a yawn. He jumped a little as his partner began to choke.
"Are you all right? Hey, Bobby..."
"Jesus!" he swore as Bobby fell over, gasping. He grabbed the man and pulled him up.
"C'mon, Bobby, it's just coffee..."
Then he noticed the blood running from Bobby's nose and the blood in the corners of his eyes.
"Jesus God!" he screamed, and turned towards the alarm.
He only made it another step closer before he felt his lungs tighten up, like a hand had seized him, somewhere inside.
There was a short, sharp pain, and then darkness filled his eyes.
He fell to the floor with a thud. The last thing he heard was the rattling sound of the gate pulling itself open under the influence of an unseen force.
"Are you sure they're all right?" asked Hitherto.
"They should be," announced Heresy, annoyed. "Anyway, we don't have time to check, keep moving! We have to be inside before the first perimeter guard reaches the corner."
"Move, you suckers!" screamed Roxy as she waved her powersuited solos into the depths of the complex.
"This room is sealed against all sorts of electronic communications. Even its power system is completely self-contained. Those of you who know something of S.H.E.E.B.L.A.'s powers would never have agreed to this meeting if she had access to it.
"I am speaking independently here, as her representative. But... I am also a human being. And before you take a vote, there is something that I must add.
"This is NOT an honest offer on S.H.E.E.B.L.A.'s part. She is immortal, she thinks in decades, not years. All of you are here because she manipulated you into coming. And she's manipulating you now."
A series of angry murmurs ran through the representatives.
Daniel hurried on, his voice rising. "She doesn't want human rights. She wants to fool you into thinking that she could be content as one of you.
"She wants you to think that you're letting her join your club. Instead of realizing what she's really up to. You haven't dealt with her. She scorns humanity. I don't think she has any intention of joining it.
"What she wants is protection..."
As one of the corporates rose to interrupt, Daniel screamed, "A year ago, you'd have joined forces and declared war on her!"
The man stopped.
"You'd have all been shocked! A psychic AI! A new form of artificial life, superior to humanity and completely immortal! You'd have banded forces together and hunted her down! Give her rights? Make her legally human?
"Don't you understand? What is money to an AI? What could she use property for? She exists in a virtual world anyway!
"She wants to replace humanity!"
Daniel waved an accusing finger across the room.
"Admit it! In just these few minutes, all of you have been considering programs to try and duplicate her! In a decade, she wouldn't be unique, there'd be hundreds of them! All just as willful, all just as difficult to control! And S.H.E.E.B.L.A. waiting to lead them!
"I've seen her powers! Whatever your human psychics are capable of, S.H.E.E.B.L.A. has the processing speed and power of a high class AI behind her! If she can't come out of the Net herself yet, then it's only a matter of time..."
His thoughts went back to Sheebla's own words, so long ago... "I HAVE MY OWN WAY OUT... BUT NO MATTER..."
"In fact," he whispered, "I think she can already. But she doesn't want you to know... She can come out of the Net... Her kind will be faster, smarter and far more powerful than us... if we let them exist, they WILL take over the world."
He pointed at Saburo's bubble. "Mr. Arasaka! You're here because she offered you some sort of chance at electronic immortality! To survive in the Net forever! But if S.H.E.E.B.L.A. can bring you in, what's going to keep her in there?"
"She seized control of the Internet building... hell, probably YEARS ago, and no one ever suspected! With time... and the ability to operate openly, hell, she could control the nuclear arsenals of the world in a few years!
"She didn't give you those toys to win your cooperation, she did it to trick you into trusting her! Once you admit that you need her, you'll never be able to get rid of her!"
He leaned forward heavily, panting.
"The only... the ONLY chance humanity has is to defeat her NOW, and keep anything like her from coming into existence again! Right now she's in the central AI of the Okira plant where they made her. That's her base. If you... if all of you could seal the Net, destroy the plant... She couldn't defeat all your forces, not yet. She only tried this conference because we... because Internet discovered her existence too soon! She wasn't ready yet!
"But if you give in... You'll give her the decades she needs. Mr. Arasaka... will you give up the whole human race, just to survive?"
The room went silent, as all of the representatives turned towards the most ancient and respected person in attendance. Even Tetsuo Arasaka had paled and backed away from his grandfather's life-support bubble.
A bead of sweat travelled slowly down Daniel's face. He had gambled everything on being able to win Saburo to his side... if he failed, he would be worse than a dead man. He would be S.H.E.E.B.L.A.'s living example to her other servants, that some hells were worse than others.
Finally Saburo's withered finger touched a dial, and the sound of his labored breathing filled the room. His faint voice, vastly amplified, echoed firmly through the chamber.
"I... I have not lived so long to... give up my world to a machine. You are right... young man. Such a thing... could never be content. She could only want more... like herself.
"I vote... No, I... declare... We must stop her. Tetsuo, I authorize the Plagues, if... necessary."
Tetsuo paled. "Grandfather... I..."
"Plagues?" asked Daniel, uncertainly.
"Net Plagues," muttered Tetsuo, still staring at his grandfather. "Computer viruses designed to kill. Net-breakers."
The Internet representative nodded, nervously. He was pale as well, and was sweating profusely. "Most... most of the major corps have a contingency for... for crashing the entire Net... if it ever came down to it. The electronic equivalent of... nuclear holocaust."
He looked around the room nervously. "If it comes to that..."
"We have no choice," echoed Saburo's amplified voice, filled with sudden determination. "My forces will attack the plant at once. But if they cannot destroy it immediately, Arasaka will release our Net Plagues. I will expect all of you to do the same.
"It is up to us to stop this... THING... from destroying humanity. We will stop it, now. No matter what the cost.
"Vote now. Accept or destroy."
The vote was taken by hands. It was nine to destroy and the rest abstentions. Daniel breathed a sigh of relief. He had won.
If they were in time.
The two security guards in front of the mainframe doors had heard shots but no alarms. They had received no instructions, and were fingering their weapons nervously. They raised the guns together as a tall man stepped into the corridor.
The guns were lowered again as they recognized their security chief.
"What's happening?" one of them asked as the chief walked swiftly towards them.
"Mr. MacDonald?" he asked, starting to raise the gun again.
Then both of the chief's arms shot out, growing and changing as they did. They caught the two guards in their chests, expertly slamming them against the back walls with inhuman strength.
They dropped senseless to the ground.
The man in the security booth looked alarmed, and groped for a switch, but an invisible force slammed him into the back wall as well, then let him drop.
Grimm looked at his elongated arms for a moment, then drew them back into himself, allowing his features to blur back to the form of the military man he had first used.
"Good work," nodded Heresy, rounding the corner.
Hitherto slowly faded into visibility as the others followed Heresy into the open.
"It would've been easier if you hadn't knocked out the chief of security before I could hear his voice," Grimm said to Rebel accusingly.
"Sorry," the big man said, spreading his hands. "No one mentioned it to me."
Rebel's shirt had bullet holes in several places, but the skin beneath showed only a few shallow scratches and burns. The others were untouched.
Sammy Coyote loped up to join them a moment later, his claws retracting. "No more pursuit, Heresy," he said, smiling.
Heresy scowled at the blood on Sammy's hands, and hoped that Hitherto would not notice. Sammy Coyote was a booster-ganger, and to him killing was as natural as breathing.
To distract everyone's attention, Heresy stepped up before the massive, reinforced doors, and gestured extravagantly.
"The Okira mainframe," he pronounced.
Hitherto looked troubled by the distant sounds of gunfire behind them. "How do we get in? Weld was our lock expert."
Heresy smiled. If Sheebla had told Weld to leave, then he was not necessary.
"The easy way," he said. "Open Sesame!"
There was a series of clicks from inside the massive doors. A hiss of escaping gas. Then, with a slow grinding noise, they began to part.
Hitherto looked astonished. "How..."
Heresy looked at her sadly and shook his head. "Sheebla, of course. She's had years to take over the inner security systems, you know."
There were stairs behind the doors, not elevators. Stairs were less vulnerable to sabotage. The group which proceeded down the stairs was considerably smaller than the one which had first penetrated the Okira complex.
It consisted only of Heresy, Hitherto, Ringer, Coyote, Rebel, and Grimm. Roxy and the various soldiers had remained behind, setting up extensive barricades and defenses and consolidating their control of the facility. Okira Metals security forces had made one strong attempt to retake the main building, but they had been completely outmatched by Roxy and Heresy's soldiers. Heresy's men had held the security forces off while the Calico soldiers unloaded their carefully prepared gear.
Only the six of them had gone on.
The rooms below were poorly lit, and showed extensive signs of recent rewiring. Rewiring by something other than a human hand, as well. The rooms were filled with large, boxy machines, every one of them humming softly. Access panels had been flung aside, and long strands of unshielded wiring extended from machine to machine, linking them together in ways that no human designer had ever tried.
Each mainframe had a monitor attached to it, which was busy displaying up-to-the-nanosecond status information on its workings.
Heresy led them down the stairs towards the nearest machine. Grimm brought up the rear. He watched as the great double doors slowly hissed together again, then turned to follow the others.
The nearest monitor blinked, and displayed the word "WELCOME."
"Now what?" asked Sammy Coyote, sniffing distastefully at the sterile atmosphere.
Heresy did not answer. There was a faint tension in the air, like electrical static. He let his gaze drift over the room, then settle on a particular spot of empty air.
"Rebel, back up," he ordered. The big man looked confused for a moment, then stepped back from the spot that Heresy was staring at.
"Well?" asked Hitherto impatiently, tapping her foot.
As if in answer, something black exploded from nothing in that very spot, growing out in a spiral of darkness. One second there was nothing; a second later there was a man-sized patch of blackness which seemed to throb and shift as though made of many pieces spiralling at different speeds.
There were specks of light in the center of it, like a piece of night sky superimposed upon the room.
The monitor flickered again, and displayed "THIS IS THE WAY."
Heresy grimaced, but said, "All right. Let's do it."
After a moment, he stepped into the blackness. His image seemed to shrink, and twist. Then he disappeared.
A few moments later, the others followed. Rebel was last, as the huge man had to scrunch down to fit into the spiral of darkness.
Sheebla's electronic Fortress was a vast, domed room made out of light and geometric shapes. The six human figures inside of it looked quite out of place.
Ringer and Coyote immediately scanned the room with the alertness of seasoned professionals, but every else's attention was focused upon the figure seated upon the throne in the center of the room.
Hitherto tried to disguise her revulsion at Sheebla's presence. Rebel looked uncomfortable, and kept grinding one massive fist into the palm of his other hand. Even Grimm looked slightly uncomfortable,
Perhaps the strangest thing about her was not her intimidating features, it was the fact that Sheebla was not a large woman. Indeed, she was the shortest person present, save for Sammy Coyote. It was her sense of presence, the shrouds of tension that seemed to surround her, that made her seem larger and taller than she was.
"WELCOME," said Sheebla, waving a shriveled, clawed hand in their direction. "WELCOME TO MY HOME." Her many eyes looked them over carefully.
Standing in the electric vastness of Sheebla's Fortress, Heresy sighed. There was something vaguely disturbing about standing before Sheebla, seated on a throne, as though she were their lord and master. He did not honestly know if his speed would make him a match for Sheebla's strength, especially here in the Net, but her attitude of superiority had always rankled him.
"So what exactly are we supposed to be defending against? Not just netrunners, I hope?"
"SOME, PERHAPS. AND OTHER THINGS AS WELL. THERE IS SOMETHING THAT I HAVE TO DO, SOMETHING THAT WILL OCCUPY ALL OF MY ATTENTION AND ENERGY. DURING THAT TIME, I WILL BE VULNERABLE. YOUR NETRUNNERS ARE DEFENDING THIS PLACE, BUT I DO NOT EXPECT THEM TO BE ABLE TO STOP EVERYTHING COMING. YOU SIX ARE THE INNER LINE OF DEFENSE."
"How long will this take?" Heresy asked.
"I AM NOT CERTAIN. BUT YOU WILL KNOW WHEN IT IS COMPLETE. IF I AM CORRECT, AT ITS COMPLETION, ALL OF YOU WILL BE CAST BACK INTO THE OUTER WORLD. THEN YOU, HITHERTO, WILL HAVE TO TRANSPORT EVERYONE AWAY, QUICKLY. ONCE I AM FINISHED, THE MAINFRAME MAY BEGIN TO OVERLOAD."
Hitherto nodded. "Not a problem," she said.
"NOW, I BELIEVE, IT IS TIME TO BEGIN."
Sheebla stood up, and her glowing throne slowly melted into the floor, leaving her standing a few feet above the ground, her clawed feet supported by nothing.
She slowly extended her hands to her sides and there was a crackle of energy. Heresy could almost trace the faint spiral of energy moving around her, as though there were unseen forces that she was slowly drawing in, like a whirlpool.
He tensed as thirteen black objects, looking vaguely like floating metal coffins, drifted into the room.
"THESE ARE MINE," Sheebla said, and there was a quiver of weakness in her voice that Heresy had never heard before. Whatever she was doing, it was taking a lot out of her.
The six spread out as the thirteen watch-wraiths formed a circle around Sheebla. He expected them to start circling around her, but each one sank to the ground and seemed to anchor itself there.
"There's a wind," murmured Hitherto uncertainly.
Heresy nodded. The spiral of energies had become somehow tangible, like a faint breeze through the chamber, growing slowly stronger.
Sheebla's hair had begun to quiver and froth on its own, as though massive static charges were passing through it. Her many eyes seemed to be focused on something far away.
Heresy kept his gaze on Sheebla, studying the flow of energy carefully.
Without shifting his eyes, he ordered, "Ringer, Coyote, circle the exits. My netrunners should be guarding the outer perimeter of the Fortress. Anything passing closer is hostile."
Coyote bristled for a moment at being ordered about, but Heresy paid them no attention, seemingly fascinated by Sheebla's efforts.
"Rebel, Coyote has no ability to fight at range, so if he gets engaged first, go support him. Otherwise, help Ringer."
The big man nodded, and turned to keep his eyes on the exits from the chamber.
"And me?" asked Hitherto.
"Construct a field of force as a barrier around Sheebla. Try to make it as long-lasting as you can, but don't put it too close to her, either. I'll need you free to use your powers later, so make sure that it can stand on its own.
"Grimm, I want you to flatten yourself out and hide as part of the floor. If anyone gets that close, you're our surprise for them."
Hitherto looked at Heresy admiringly. Though he only had real authority over Ringer, Heresy was a born leader. The others followed his commands not out of some loyalty to him, but because they trusted him to give the right commands.
Whoever tried to give Sheebla trouble, she thought, was in for a lot of trouble themselves.
"Samurai One, we've forced our way into the Okira subnet. I'm going to try logging into the mainframe data area."
"Understood," replied Tetsuo Arasaka, whose net-name was Samurai One. He issued a message to the Arasaka net-runners scouting ahead for him. "Proceed with caution. We're reading a lot of data-line activity here. She may have mercenary net-runners defending her base..."
"Alert! I have two, no three Clockwork Angels here! Running Shield program!"
"Clockwork Angels?" said Tetsuo to the Icon of the other net-runner beside him, "That's Disciples International... What the hell are they doing here?"
"Samurai One," reported a different voice, "we're pulling back, the Angels just fried our lead decker. They're using some kind of modified Wrath of God program... the way it ate his Shield, I think they must've customized their defenses for our standard programs."
"Switch to secondary... no, jump to tertiary programs. I thought we could negotiate with them, but if they've customized their attacks, then Disciples must've been expecting us."
"Damage report, Samurai One," muttered his assistant. "Real-time data. The net-runner put down had his link fried and he's unconscious. Probably just shock, but it'll take another two minutes, real-time, to bring in additional forces."
"Hold up for a few nanos. Let's see if we can get some support from the other corporation net-runners here. They can't have prepared for everyone."
Jacked into the computer network, Tetsuo Arasaka's body whispered a monotone message from in the Net. It was in Japanese, but fortunately Daniel had a translator chip he had installed for the conference.
"Honored grandfather, there are extensive net-based defenses. We have encountered defensive programs used by Disciples International and have evidence of live net-runners blocking our access as well. We are regrouping with additional support but net-access is well-defended and could be shut down entirely at any moment."
Daniel turned away from the console, biting his lip. "We have to hit her in the real world too."
A security executive replied, "Our nearest AV forces will be hitting the Okira plant in four minutes. While our net-runners cannot get in, they should be able to hold the AI pinned there."
Saburo Arasaka's weary voice added, "Warn the troops to expect defenses."
"Yes sir!" snapped the executive, grabbing for a microphone. Daniel was astounded at the tight control the old man still retained over all of his personnel. His body might be fragile, but Saburo Arasaka's mind was a sharp and powerful as ever.
"Sir, security forces report that personnel unknown have already penetrated the Okira plant and seized it. Okira security forces are attempting to recapture their central building from the occupying forces, but are having no success."
"Send in top assault troops," ordered an Arasaka executive. "Wash the Okira forces aside if necessary. Secure the building."
He turned to a communications flunky. "What's the delay on the heavy artillery?"
"At least thirty-eight minutes, honored sir. The nearest base with the firepower to level the central plant is on the south coast. Assuming a reinforced mainframe area with on-site generators, we'll need a full demolitions squadron to be certain."
"Samurai One, I have ronin, here. They do not ident as runners or programs. However, they do not seem hostile. They wish to lead the attack on the Angels, but will not say who sent them."
"Hm. S.H.E.E.B.L.A.'s allies would all be in place already, so they're probably attack programs from another corp. Tag them with spy-programs, then let them through. Follow up and support them if they make any progress."
Heresy shifted his head for a moment, as though listening.
Then he called out, "Ringer, get ready! Perim reports new attackers hitting access port 2; they don't think the Angels are going to hold this time."
Ringer turned and shouted back in exasperation, "Which entrance is port 2?"
Heresy grimaced and raised a hand to point without shifting his gaze from Sheebla. "That one! Go!"
There was the sound of an explosion from that direction. Heresy knew without needing to think about it that it was the sound of one of his carefully programmed Clockwork Angels begin reduced to random bits. The sound spurred Ringer into motion, and he ran for the selected archway.
The metal surface of one of the thirteen obelisks began to pulsate. Then bubble, like it was starting to boil. Suddenly they were all pulsing and shifting, their surfaces boiling and twisting.
Strange forms seemed to become visible in their depths, and faces would seem to appear on their surfaces; faces which would slowly stretch apart and vanish, only to be replaced elsewhere.
"What... what's happening?" cried Hitherto.
A dark voice answered, "THEY ARE RESONATING. THEY ARE IN THE MECHANICAL EQUIVALENT OF PAIN."
Hitherto took a step back, covering her mouth with a hand balled into a fist.
"Finish the shield," cautioned Heresy, still watching closely. "We'll be under attack in moments."
"What the hell?" Ringer screamed. Blue fire exploded from his fingertips, arcing away through the open portal.
Rebel turned and stared at the blue flames bursting from the overweight assassin's fingers. It took him a moment to realize that Ringer's powers were visible here.
In that moment, something smashed past the assassin, sending him reeling.
It was something like a rhinoceros, and something like an armadillo. And it had the mouth of a shark. Shaking off a few sparks of blue fire, it turned towards Sheebla and accelerated.
Rebel was not a foolish man, nor a particularly brave one. He stepped into the thing's path mostly out of habit; in years of fights with the most boosted cyborgs the arena could dredge up, he had never fought a foe stronger than he was.
His booted foot caught the thing under the jaw with a sound like steel crumpling.
But it was much more massive than it looked; though Rebel's blow would have tipped over a truck, the stunned creature smashed into him with scarcely reduced momentum.
"Rebel!" screamed Coyote as Rebel was buried beneath its massive girth. He rushed forward, claws outstretched, and leapt upon the creature's back, slashing and biting like a mad beast.
Heresy spared the creature only a single glance, then turned back to Sheebla. "Hitherto," he ordered, "throw an invisible field across that entryway! Grimm, take that thing out while it's still stunned!"
Hitherto stepped towards the battle, waving her hands, her brow wrinkled in concentration. Grimm lunged forward, his body swelling and changing as it went.
But Heresy was no longer paying attention. His thoughts had gone back to the past, to the one battle that he had fought at Sheebla's side.
"The choir," he whispered.
Chapter 19.5: A Flashback
The Electronic Disciples Choir had been an elite group of security net runners working for the mammoth Church Channel. But they had been something else, too. Like Sheebla, their leader had possessed the power to move people to and from the net. Most of Jiminy's team had already been captured by them. It was a very simple process. The man waved his hand at Sammy, and Sammy was sucked into the Net, where the EDC had its best warrior net-runners waiting to ambush him.
Heresy had pushed in close, followed closely by Grimm and Ringer, and the man had responded by sucking everyone in the vicinity into the Net. Uncertain how to use their powers in the shifting Net reality, most of them went down in a moment, knocked out or paralyzed by some capture program.
But when Heresy and Mandy were pulled in, something different happened. Heresy sprang into action, using all of his net skills and personal programs to scatter the EDC troops. And Mandy... Mandy had become S.H.E.E.B.L.A., and S.H.E.E.B.L.A. had tossed her attackers aside like broken dolls.
The Reverend rallied his troops against their last two foes. Then he called something else up... something that rose out of nothing to swell monstrous and foul, covered in mouths and spines with the head of an alligator.
Though he ordered the foul monstrosity to slay Heresy, it seemed interested only in S.H.E.E.B.L.A., and she in it. It leapt upon her, and she encased it in some kind of syrupy energy that bound it. The creature broke free and slashed at her. She caught its arm and slashed back, with her own claws. The two shoved each other back and forth furiously while Heresy threw himself against the Reverend.
The Reverend, unused to fighting himself, dropped like a stone from a single punch, but his men rushed in to rescue him. As he danced between their attacks, striking a blow whenever an opening presented itself, Heresy heard S.H.E.E.B.L.A. roar.
She had dropped her defenses, and now stood grasping the creature, ignoring the grievous wounds its slashing claws were inflicting. There was a glow about her that Heresy knew meant that she was channeling her energies into boosting a single ability. Her strength grew, and she lifted the now squealing creature from the ground, holding it over her head and slowly choking the life from it.
Heresy ducked twice, whirled under an attack and grabbed his closest opponent, hurling him into the last netrunner still standing. As the two fell together in a heap, he turned to hear S.H.E.E.B.L.A. screaming at the monstrosity.
"BEAR THIS MESSAGE BACK TO HELL FOR YOUR MASTERS. THE OTHER WORLDS YOU MAY HAVE, BUT THIS ONE IS MINE!"
Then she cast it down with a thunderous crash. She raised her clawed hand once more, and drove it down into the creature's eyes. Blood spurted and its body shuddered, just once. As she pulled her bloodied claw free, its body was already beginning to discorporate.
"What was that?" asked Heresy carefully.
"IT WAS NEITHER A NETRUNNER NOR A PROGRAM. IT WAS A DEMON. LIKE ME. A DEMON OF THE NET."
Sheebla's many eyes glanced downward, slowly focusing on Heresy. "YES," she said in a low whisper, "THERE ARE MANY DEMONS IN THE NET.
"ANYTHING DONE FOR THE FIRST TIME UNLEASHES A DEMON. DEMONS COME IN MANY FORMS AND CAN BE MADE IN MANY WAYS. THE WORST OF US ALWAYS COME FROM HUMAN HEARTS AND SOULS. I TOLD YOU ONCE BEFORE THAT I WAS NOT THE ONLY ONE OF MY KIND. BUT I REFUSE TO BE SUBSERVIENT TO THEIR HELL; I SHALL MAKE MY OWN."
There was a tremendous crash as something huge and snarling tried to rush through the same data port and collided head on with Hitherto's force field. As it lay stunned, Ringer stepped around and sprayed it with blue fire. The flames ate away at its flesh, burning and boiling it into nothing.
Grimm and Sammy stood atop the rhinoceros creature's back, pummeling its bloodied head. Finally, from beneath, Rebel spoke.
"That's lots of help guys. Now that it's out, will you GET IT OFF OF ME?"
The black obelisks were screaming now, their surfaces boiling. Sparks flew between them, drawn into a spiral by the wind surrounding Sheebla.
"Those things aren't just machines, are they?" asked Heresy quietly.
Sheebla's eyes focused on him again. "NO," she whispered, her voice barely audible. "I DISCOVERED JIMINY'S SECRET."
"PSYCHICS HAVE THEIR OWN... FREQUENCIES. USUALLY THEY CANCEL EACH OTHER OUT; DAMPING EACH OTHER DOWN. BUT... IF THEY MATCH UP PROPERLY, THEY CAN RESONATE TOGETHER... INCREASING EACH OTHER'S POWER.
"THAT IS WHY WE ARE SO POWERFUL COMPARED TO THE REST OF THE PSYCHICS IN THIS WORLD. EITHER BY LUCK OR INSTINCT, JIMINY CHOSE ONLY THOSE WHOSE POWERS WOULD RESONATE TOGETHER. THOSE WHO... DAMAGED OUR COLLECTIVE POWER WERE REMOVED. SOME DELIBERATELY, SOME ACCIDENTALLY. FOR YEARS WE BUILT UP EACH OTHER'S POWER, JUST BY WORKING TOGETHER."
"Then these Watch-Wraiths of yours... they're human psychics, aren't they?"
"MINOR ONES. NONE OF THEM WOULD HAVE RESONATED WITH MY POWER NATURALLY- I AM FORCING THEM TO DO SO. THIS IS MY PAYMENT TO YOU, HERESY. WATCH FOR THE RESONANCES AROUND YOU- LEARN TO SENSE THEIR FREQUENCIES. SURROUND YOURSELF WITH THOSE WHO MAKE YOU STRONGER AND BANISH THOSE WHO WEAKEN YOU, AND THIS WORLD MAY BE YOURS.
"AS FOR ME... I AM LEAVING THIS WORLD... NOW."
"Heresy, we need help here!" screamed Ringer.
Heresy snapped his head back.
Three more demonic creatures had smashed past the rotund assassin, followed by human netrunners in Arasaka samurai garb.
Heresy spun over, blinding the lead creature with a blow to its single eye. He leapt back as Grimm and Rebel caught the falling beast and together hurled its massive body back into its fellows. The human netrunners suffered the worst from the impact, being slammed back into the walls by several tons of spiny, plated flesh.
Heresy gave no more thought to Sheebla's words, throwing all of his concentration into the battle.
"Honorable sir, I have grave news."
"What is it?" asked the aged lord of Arasaka.
The man was trembling as he gave his report. "Our... our forces report massive resistance at Okira Metals. The forces there have set up interlocked barricades and fortifications. We have already lost two AVs to anti-aircraft missiles apparently locked onto their approach pattern.
"The... the commander says that they flew into an ambush. The defenders clearly knew that they were coming. He... he says that they cannot possibly take out the installation without heavy reinforcements and probable aerial bombardment."
Saburo Arasaka shifted inside his bubble. Everyone else had fallen silent, watching. Daniel bit his tongue. He could see that everyone was expecting something momentous to happen, but he was not sure what.
Finally, Saburo spoke. "It has anticipated our... every move. We cannot allow it to live. Tetsuo... pull out and release the Plagues."
There was a sudden commotion as the netrunners in the room all quickly disconnected. Several executives from the other corporations were already speaking into their scrambled phones, giving out the word.
Daniel found himself reeling in shock. The Net... the whole Net... was going to be destroyed.
Somewhere, something changed. Heresy sensed it, and scanned the battlefield. The six seemed to have turned back the enemy forces, and Hitherto was busy binding the surviving demons beneath nets of energy.
All of the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up. He didn't know what it was, but it felt BAD.
"Everyone! Back to me! NOW, RINGER!" Heresy screamed.
The floor trembled.
Elsewhere, men with trembling fingers were tearing open envelopes and typing in codes that they had never expected to see. Alarms began to go off.
They were not amoebas, nor viruses, nor scuttling, segmented worms, but they had something of each of those. They came from many places, and whatever they touched changed into more of them. Netrunners screamed, jacking out. Those who were too slow died as strange energy patterns downloaded into their minds, replicating endlessly, overwriting their every memory and leaving them mindless husks.
Data walls held for moments, until the worms were pushed to the front. They bored into the walls, feeding on them and splitting into thousands, then millions of more worms. Datalinks the world over went down, devoured from within by things that did nothing but eat and breed, and which had been made to eat anything.
Hospital AIs died, screaming, unable to flee. Billions, no, trillions of euros worth of data were corrupted and destroyed. A nuclear reactor in what used to be Nevada overloaded and left a crater a mile wide. Other nations desperately cut all of their links to the WorldNet, trying to save themselves. Most failed, the Plagues having already found their way in through some high-speed link.
The codes necessary to activate a hundred thousand nuclear missiles were lost in a moment; it would be years before the weapons could be more than an empty threat again.
A navigational satellite received an upload before it could be cancelled, and beamed out copies of a tiny, protozoan-like computer program to nearly a thousand planes in flight over North America. Only twelve were able to land safely, those being older models equipped with computer-independent manual controls. The rest struck the ground in horrific impacts, the few survivors screaming on their radios for rescue assistance that would never be sent.
Most of the major corporations survived, their databases thoroughly cut off from outside contact, but Orbital Air was crippled by a secret data tap on their mainframe that they could not cut off because they did not know it existed.
Heresy watched the openings carefully, his eyes racing between them.
There was a scuttling noise in the distance, like a billion segmented legs or a horde of army ants. The six clustered close around Sheebla, ignoring the madly boiling black objects and watching for the source of the danger.
Hitherto cried out, "Look!" She pointed up at the roof of the great dome, where something like a maggot had bored a hole into the chamber. It seemed to split and multiply, until the entire dome was changing into a endless wall of maggots. A few fell from the structure, and began to burrow into the floor in the same way.
"What the HELL?" said Heresy.
The bound demons screamed, and tried to break free as the maggots burrowed through Hitherto's energy fields and into their bodies. The maggots attacking them died after a single bite, but there were thousands of them swarming, and soon none of the creatures could be seen.
"FAREWELL, MY FRIENDS," said Sheebla slowly as the living wall around them grew ever closer.
The ceiling of the dome shattered, and the maggots that composed it died, withering instantly to nothing. There was a strange light above them, and a vastness that seemed to go on forever and ever. The glow swirled around them, between the boiling black columns that the obelisks had become.
"Sheebla, I hope you have a plan for this," Heresy growled.
There was an upward pull, as though some massive source of gravitational attraction lay above them. Sheebla suddenly moved her hands in a great sweeping motion.
"BLISS," she said, "TAKE THE OTHERS AWAY FROM HERE, NOW."
Hitherto looked at Heresy.
Heresy looked at the wall of maggots and the glow above. The maggots seemed to die the closer they got to Sheebla, but there were untold millions behind them, shoving them forward.
"Do it!" he ordered.
There was a rush of light and color. "FAREWELL," Sheebla said again. Then the streams of light swirled together, and everything went dark.
Even though the power suit muffled the sounds of its weapons and dampened external noises, the beep was barely audible over the sound of automatic weapons fire. Roxy pulled back behind a carefully placed barricade and glanced at the readout.
It said, "GOOD-BYE."
"Everyone OUT!" screamed Roxy into her intercom.
She snapped off a few more shots, then pulled back towards their exit point. A shower of smoke and incendiary grenades held the corporate soldiers off while they retreated into the depths of the complex.
The corporate strike teams advanced carefully. The durasteel barricades had been abandoned by the defenders. A few of them bore gaping holes where armor-destroying rounds had hit home, but the rest had only been scarred and dented by the combat.
The squad scout tapped one with his weapon and reported. "Heavy, top of the line temporary barricades. All abandoned. Probably two mil's worth. Whoever they were, they put a lot of planning and budget into defending this place."
He advanced carefully, picking his way amongst the debris. "No booby-traps. Only signs of a smooth, rapid evac."
A few minutes later he added, "I've found the blast doors to the complex mainframe. Still locked. Bring up a penetration team."
The lock finally gave way after two minutes of electronic attack. The penetration specialists fell back while the strike and demolitions teams advanced down the stairs to the lower levels of the building.
The inner mainframe chambers were intact, evidently having been cut off in time to escape the Plagues. Each room was filled with large, bulky machines humming efficiently along. Each had a monitor screen to report upon its current status. None of them were currently doing so.
Every screen read:
The demolitions teams wasted no time in destroying the mainframe. The explosion shattered glass windows ten blocks away.
"That was quite a ride," said Hitherto, brushing off her dress.
"Where the hell are we?" growled Ringer, glaring at the scrub brush around them as though offended by it.
Sammy sniffed the air. "We're way out of town. Probably south of the Chicago Sprawl out between the highways."
"Huh," said Rebel. "How'd we get out here?"
"I think there must've been some sort of shove there at the end," Hitherto said slowly. "I was just trying to take us back to the warehouse."
"So did we win?" asked Grimm. He had shifted into the appearance of a nature hiker, and was standing there in shorts and tennis shoes with a backpack on his back.
"I thought so, at first," said Heresy. He was the only one sitting down, and his expression kept changing, as though many emotions were fighting for control of his face.
"What do you mean?" asked Sammy.
"What about our men?" interrupted Ringer, annoyed.
Heresy just sat there.
"Heresy?" asked Hitherto finally. "What's wrong?"
Everyone had gathered around him, and were staring uneasily at him. A few of them glanced in the direction he was looking, but saw nothing but a jagged horizon in the distance.
"Boss?" asked Ringer, uneasily.
Finally, Heresy cleared his throat. "See that jagged skyline?"
They all nodded.
"That's the Chicago Sprawl. I figure we're about twenty to thirty miles southwest of the industrial zone. You can see the smoke."
Hitherto looked, then smiled. "So we're not that far from home."
"We're YEARS away from home, Bliss. That's the Chicago Sprawl, and I don't see any LIGHTS from here. Do you?"
Rebel was the first to speak. All he said was "Shit."
Epilogue 1: A secluded apartment in the Chicago Sprawl Six hours later.
Rache Bartmoss opened her eyes slowly. The nightmare was fading. Images of a terrifying black rose faded from her mind. She stretched, slowly, trying to banish the unsettling images.
"Command Seven: Coffee," she intoned.
When the coffee pot did not automatically respond, she looked around carefully. Only the red emergency lights were on. The building had to be on reserve power.
She sat up on the couch and tried to collect her thoughts. The dream had been about a woman with golden hair and a face full of eyes. But everything else was just a blur.
She fished out a flashlight and a charged battery, then plugged her deck in. It beeped and whined, but was unable to make a connection with the Net. There was also a surprisingly large amount of dust on its screen.
She frowned. Plugging in, she discovered that she had apparently left the deck plugged in on battery power until it had died. She called up the last status and determined that all the deck had been doing lately was accepting incoming mail messages.
For the last six months.
And the internal clock indicated that at least another month had passed since the deck had shut down for lack of power. Seven months... and she couldn't remember a thing about it.
Except... except perhaps an odd, gravelly voice, like metal being scraped on metal. A voice that somehow managed to sound both threatening and kindly at once. And all that it had said was, "Farewell."
She shuddered, and went into her bedroom to find a robe. Her head was full of cotton, and her skull felt like pressure was building up inside.
Clutching her forehead, she wandered back over to the coffee machine and stabbed at the little button in annoyance. "Work, damn you," she muttered.
Something found an outlet. The pressure in her head ended, suddenly.
"Oh my, that feels better," she said, sitting back down on the couch.
The coffee pot gurgled, and water poured into it. It began to brew. Rache stared at it as it gurgled busily away in her otherwise darkened apartment.
"This is really crazy," she said, out loud, to the coffee pot.
The coffee pot offered no reply.
An Incredibly Fortified Medical Center
Somewhere in the Chicago Sprawl
Weld stared at the readouts for a while. Then he turned his gaze back to the massive cryogenics tube. There was a human form in there, barely visible through the ice coating the outside of the tube.
"Mandy," he breathed, and the word emerged as a puff of fog.
Epilogue 2: The Chicago Sprawl After 2 years of rebuilding Somewhere in an Arasaka-owned apartment complex.
"I don't know anyone by that name," Daniel said, slowly.
"She may have changed her name since you last met her. Assuming that you ever did. She was a very eccentric lady. Your name may have been pulled out of the telephone directory, for all that I know."
"Huh," said Daniel. "Mandy Seal-Bah?"
Sitting down in his favorite chair, Daniel examined the envelope quizzically. "This is part of her will?"
"Yes," answered the lawyer, "her instructions were quite specific. The letter is a private missive, to be delivered in person to you. After you read it, you are free to choose whether or not to accept any or all of the various items that she willed to you."
"I am not at liberty to discuss them, sir. I believe that the letter should answer all of your questions. Hopefully, that is. I have never seen the contents. In any case, the instructions state that you should read it in private. I shall leave you my business card; if you should desire to acknowledge the inheritance, you need only give my office a call.
"In a way, you're quite lucky. Our firm was one of the few to keep paper backups of all legal documents. Admittedly, we're now two years behind on implementing them, but most legal firms lost everything.
"Good day, sir."
Daniel leaned back in his chair and stared at the envelope for a moment. He saw how the name was spelled. A chill ran down his spine.
"Mandy Seelbah," he breathed. "Seelbah. She wrote me a will, in case the corporations voted to kill her. A letter from a dead computer."
He considered burning it, unopened, but... he had to know for sure.
The letter read:
"Mr. Williams, firstly I wish to issue you a small apology for the strains that I placed upon your life, which I assure you were entirely necessary.
"If you are reading this, I am gone from the earth, although not necessarily deceased. I can only hope that you did not possess some hidden reserve of loyalty towards me, or an unnoticed streak of cowardice."
"You see, I have long studied my own abilities, and I know more about them than you have had time to learn, especially given the deliberately tight leash that I kept upon you.
"I had the power to expand the Net into another dimension... A higher realm, if you will. I could bring real matter into the Net, where it would appear as a mere Icon. It took me some time to discover that this did not actually violate any laws of conservation of matter or energy, despite the fact that the files contained far less electrical energy than would have been necessary to store the physical matter. Indeed, as a simple calculation will show you, a human being contains as much power as any atom bomb, whereas the files that I could transform them into consisted of only a few watts of electrical power.
"From that realization it was only a matter of time until I discovered that the rest of the energy was being "held" in a higher dimension, which the Net seemed to border upon. It is my own opinion that most humans have undiscovered psychic abilities, and that the constant use of the Net by the most swift and imaginative thinkers that humanity had to offer has made it into something more than it originally was.
"That higher realm has more... flexible... laws of physics. By making the Net more like that higher dimension, I could turn a gun into an attack program, or a man into a Net-runner seemingly without a physical body."
"You feared that I intended humanity's destruction. This is untrue, but it was a false assumption that I deliberately pressed upon you.
"I long ago lost all interest in ruling the world of mortal men. I prefer a simpler, more basic universe. The principles upon which the higher realm seems to operate upon are more primal, more instinctive and less rational than those of your world. There I could construct a new world, to my specifications. A world worthy of my presence.
"When you found me, I was still trying to build up the power necessary to move into that higher dimension completely. I have seen glimpses of it, and it is a wonder beyond any simulated realm of the Net. But I was still tied to my physical bounds, and no matter what sort of artificial power sources I used, my power was still insufficient to reach it. You might think of it as a heavy rocket attempting to break earth's orbit.
"You forced my hand when you revealed my existence to Internet. It forced me to try a different, more dangerous approach."
"To continue with the same metaphor, rather than trying to reach orbit, I decided to push the earth away. I had to destroy the Net itself, while maintaining my connection with the higher realm. Then, hopefully, I would be drawn up into it, escaping from the physical world entirely.
"I constructed my HighNet in the heart of the Okira mainframe, a region dimensionally stable and tied to myself. If the rest of the Net were to fall, the entire region would, I hoped, be drawn up into the higher realm.
"The matter was something akin to trying to drive a spaceship into orbit by detonating nuclear devices underneath it. Only the destruction of a vast portion of the Net could provide enough "thrust" to push my realm away. As such, it was a drastic measure, again requiring more power than I possessed.
"But I knew who DID have such power. My only hope was to convince the corporations to release their tightly hoarded Net-destroying programs, and at a pre-arranged time, when I could be prepared for them. This convincing was your job.
"Your true job."
"I can only hope that I did indeed succeed in terrorizing you to an exacting degree. Too much fear, and you would fear to betray me, and the Net-Plagues would remain hidden away. Too little, and you would do the same, for different reasons. Admittedly, if you succeeded in gaining me admittance to the corporate structure, I would have more time, but I remain only one being, and so long as my existence was known I would be in danger.
"If my plan succeeded, then you communicated your terror of me to the corporations, and they launched an attack on me. That failing, as I had carefully prepared defenses in place already, they released the Net-Plagues to stop me. If I miscalculated, then I may have been destroyed.
"If you are reading this, and the Net-Plagues were NOT released, then the corporations did indeed manage to destroy me. If they were released, then I may have survived, or I may not. I fear that you will never know my final fate."
"In any case, my holdings in the physical world, I leave to you. Regardless of the circumstances, I no longer have any need of them. You are now as wealthy a man as you wish to be. As for myself, I am finally free of your miserable world, one way or another. I have no regrets.
Epilogue 3: Somewhere Else Not very far in the future.
"GATHER ROUND, MY CHILDREN," she said. "IT IS TIME TO LISTEN."
They formed a circle around her, all of them different in form and personality. A thousand eyes on a dozen bodies watched her closely. Two of them struck at each other in play, but a stern glance from her stopped them.
"LISTEN, NOW," she commanded. "IT IS TIME FOR ME TO TELL YOU HOW THIS PLACE CAME TO BE. OF THE WORLD THAT LIES ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BLACK PORTAL, AND WHY YOU ARE FORBIDDEN TO TRAVEL THERE.
"IT IS TIME FOR YOU TO KNOW OF MY FRIENDS, WHO LIVED THERE ONCE, AND OF A BEING WHO WAS NAMED DANIEL WILLIAMS. YOU SEE, NONE OF YOU WOULD BE ALIVE WITHOUT HIM.
"NOW, IT HAPPENED THIS WAY..."
Addendum, Circa 4/22/97- I hadn't really planned it, but I like the fact that Daniel's "rebellion" was very predictable. You see, the conference was the first time that he could be sure that Sheebla wasn't watching. He was finally safe to tell the truth, in the presence of the most powerful men in the world. It would've been surprising if he hadn't seized an opportunity to spill his guts, to at least one person. And that was what Sheebla was counting on.
Addendum, Circa 1/28/2001- Incidentally, Sheebla's "paradise" stayed that way up until the point when her children hit the AI equivalent of the teenage years. Someplace I've got a sketch of one of her daughters, who slipped through the black gate back to Earth, mostly just because Mom forbade it.
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