Background A South American organization, Montaigne Paradisio, has set up research bases i

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Skeptic Tank!

Background: A South American organization, Montaigne Paradisio, has set up research bases in Seattle, and has produced a number of nasty biotech innovations including the ghoul-plague that left Redmond quarentined for four weeks. The party consists of people who have a personal stake in getting rid of these bases, led by Duende, a defector from Montaigne Paradisio whom they have grudgingly come to trust. It has become apparent that the Paradisians are very accomplished mages, and that they have learned to work magic on the Matrix. As the story opens, Duende has learned that the head of the Seattle operation, "High Priest" Aliantha, and four of her best people are recovering in a hidden base in the mountains, having been severely hurt but not finished by his previous attempt on their lives. He sends Jayhawk to try to infiltrate their system while he plans a run on the ground. We play with rather nonstandard rules, but I think the only relevant difference is that we think of the Matrix itself as a magical phenomenon, the Awakening of the Net, though one need not be mageborn to be a decker. Decking code, as a consequence, depends on the living will of the decker to be successful, just as magic does; you can't automate everything and let the machine do the work for you. In some sense you must be *there*, in the computer. And this carries with it certain dangers. (1) Aliantha 6:30 pm, May 2, 2050 Jayhawk was studying the security node with great interest when she was queried, suddenly and sharply, from the CPU. Hastily she seized on packet labels from the dataflow around her, sent them back, modified just a little to explain her presence as--no time to check what, some utility probably. A second's pause. Another query, met the same way. Then nothing. Jayhawk swore. That was no security program, not the second time. Something was awake in the system, and probably aware of her presence. Suddenly her Matrix image struck her as a deadly liability. She was too well known, too recognizable. If they realized who they were dealing with, they'd be on to her in force, no chance to bluff. Well, if Duende can look like anything he pleases on the Matrix, why can't I? She retreated to the bland telecom node adjacent to the SAN, dug in memory for a scrap of graphics code--the jaguar she'd designed to mimic Paradisian IC, then never used. Patched it in across her Matrix image, wincing. The interface wasn't meant to handle a body-image like that; the sensations it passed back to her were neither human nor jaguar but an awkward mix. She freed her viewpoint for a moment from her image, looked at herself. A jaguar, all right, but silver, with metallic eyes and traceries of steel showing through the fur. It would have to do. At least it didn't look like *her*. She curled herself at the fringe of the simulated jungle path, began moni- toring. Nothing. No abnormal system activity, if her guesses about what was normal for this system were correct. An image formed in front of her suddenly, without a warning ripple in the dataflow. A square glass tank, massive and solid, filled with murky orange liquid. Something stirred in its depths, drew back from her gaze. Her jaguar image was not well integrated enough for its fur to stand on end, but every nerve prickled. "Who are you?" A woman's voice, from some speaker of the tank. It was a particularly well-defined Matrix image; she could smell it, a wash of cinnamon and copper, feel the faint warmth radiating from it. Without waiting for an answer, it went on, "What are you doing here?" "Checking up on you," said Jayhawk with as much nonchalance as she could muster. "Is this the best you can do? Security by stagnation, so much IC that the system can hardly move, static defenses to hide behind? I'm not impressed." "Who are you?" A little sharper now, the voice of someone not accustomed to being balked. Far too much expression for IC; she was speaking to another person. "That would be telling." "I could take it from you, you know. You're not defended from me." A jolt of panic burned through Jayhawk's nerves. A mage, she's a *mage*. Good God, it must be Aliantha herself. She contemplated jacking out, rem- embered a similar experience at Wired Lightning. She was probably trapped. "I'm sure you could, but then you risk offending the one who sent me, don't you? Better safe than sorry." "Hm." The orange liquid swirled, shifted. Jayhawk avoided trying too hard to decide what was within it. "Whose are you?" A thoughtful pause. "Duende? No, it's much too early for that." The badly-integrated Matrix image had its uses, Jayhawk realized; the jaguar hadn't reacted to the mention of her employer's name. Good. She'd think about what Aliantha's statement implied later, if there was a later. "Oriel! You must belong to Oriel! I didn't know he knew about this place. And how is Oriel doing nowadays? We haven't seen each other for so long." Jayhawk filed the name away for future reference, said cautiously, "I wouldn't know." She rose, stretched, looked around the node. "Since we're here, perhaps you could show me the rest of the setup. I'm not impressed so far, but the CPU looked more promising." Nonchalantly, she strolled forward-- And was stopped cold. There was no perceptible barrier, but she was brought up with a bounce, unable to go forward. "That's very rude, you know," said the tank, and giggled. "Hmph," said Jayhawk, unable to think of a good reply. Somewhere in background, she realized suddenly, she was being traced, though she couldn't see the program. Another decker? It didn't matter. She sent code chasing after it, down the link that led back to Kurt's apartment. The trace wasn't showing up on her normal sensors, so she had no way to monitor its progress. "I'm rude? Look who's talking," she said to Aliantha, stalling. "I suppose I should have realized that that wouldn't work. You're fairly clever." A short pause, then, "But you're not really here, how odd. How do you manage?" Another trace lashed out, lightning-fast. Jayhawk, realizing that there was no way she could keep blocking them, reared up to her full height and slammed sudden, electic-blue claws (claws? nice touch, Jay) into the side of the tank. Standard attack software, who knows if it'll work-- Glass cracked, cinnamon fluid spilled out and vanished. Jay clawed out again, hit a barrier of some kind, smooth and invisible. Her claws slid down it soundlessly, the interface not good enough to provide screetching. Not just shielding, she was *blocked*. As she'd been blocked from escaping the node. Magic, she uses magic, that's not *fair*! The other woman's voice was a little shaken, but her tone was friendly. "I like you; you've got guts. You'll be fun." The trace ran through to completion. Jayhawk swore, tried a full-strength retreat from the node, bounced again. No escape. Her Matrix image was frayed with panic, too unfamiliar to sustain easily. Kurt, they're going to find Kurt! She triggered the software switch that controlled Kurt's little innovation, the ace in the hole that had given her courage to run Aliantha's system. Cut in the operating system running in headware memory, dumping out almost all her useful code; linked it to the node processor, offered headware and wetware as extra processing power for its use. Merging her mind with the computer's, Channa had called it, though Jayhawk thought in more technical terms. Disappeared. (2) SPU B4/732 05:02:50 18:31:14 She was aware of information, flowing smoothly through her in both directions, precise and pleasing. There was only one hitch, one annoyance in the clarity of the datastream. A process resident in her domain, using up her time and attention, not moving through as it should. She sent a query to the process, asking its authorization and purpose. It did not respond. Instead, it demanded processor time, access to memory; demands which were accompanied by none of the proper signals, but which it did not seem possible to reject. It was delaying her normal business, interfering with the system. An intruder. An attempt to terminate the process failed. It appeared to originate outside her node, and did not respond to her standard abort messages. She attempted to control its allocation of space and time, limit it to a reasonable subset of her capacities. Failed. It ignored the partitions she set up in the dataflow, demanding attention from routines that should have been protected from it. Moved across what should have been boundary lines as if they did not exist. She attempted to relocate it into the next node, without effect. The node refused to accept a package without accurate identifications, and the annoying process refused to identify itself. A second passed. She tried to trace the process, identify its origin. It did not lead to the next node, as she would have expected. It led *outside*. The concept was novel to her. She did not seem to have any way of affecting what was *outside*. It occured to her absently that she had not had a problem of this kind in a long time. It was interesting, if annoying. She searched storage, trying to find means of dealing with the intruding process. There were security programs available, but the conditions for executing them had not been met. Useless to her, unless the CPU instructed her otherwise. She sent a query to the CPU, continued her search while she waited for the response. Storage also provided some other algorithms for dealing with intrusion, but when she examined them they appeared to be meaningless. Shoot it with a gun? She found stored code which had determinants in common with *gun*, executed it. Nothing happened. She examined the code more closely, found it unimpressive--a collection of infantile tricks, things she had tried in the first second of the problem. Familiar tricks, as if she had seen most of them before. A quick scan of memory established that she had--had written the code? An odd concept. Her purpose was to transmit; she had not considered the possibility of creating things before. A second passed. Building on the stored ideas, she attempted to trap the annoying process in a small sealed shell, something which could emulate her responses while preventing the process from accessing her directly. Failed. The intruder's ability to ignore what should have been overriding directives was becoming actively annoying. The CPU sent her a negative message. She was not authorized to trigger the security programs. No breach of security existed. The annoying process moved out of the node, leaving the dataflow clean and fast. Pleased, she began to inventory ways to prevent the problem from reoccuring. There did not seem to be any way to isolate her node from the *outside* origin of the intruder. Perhaps she could prepare a shell to interact with it, given enough time. There were new ideas in the stored code, ones that might possibly be adapted.... Abruptly a subprogram was forced into her queue, ignoring the normal order of processing. It demanded access and space; she had no choice but to provide them, though this was even more annoying than the intruder had been. Then it sank into background, barely noticable, drawing minimal resources. She queried it for its function--she did not normally support background processes, as they degraded response. No answer. Queried the CPU: no answer. A second passed. [In his apartment, Kurt was jarred to attention by a sudden movement from Jayhawk. She sat up unsteadily, still jacked into her deck, swung her feet under her. Her eyes were closed, and the monitors threaded to her temples showed Matrix-style traces, though faster and smoother than he was accustomed to seeing. With one clumsy hand, she reached up, plucked the monitor wires off. In a panic, Kurt grabbed for her dataline, broke the connection.] She attempted to set up safeguards which would prevent execution of such jobs in the future, and found that they were already in place. Somehow the subprogram had bypassed them. She began to analyze the security measures, look for the hole which the subprogram had used. It had not previously occured to her to analyze her own routines. It was an interesting task. Her status was queried from the CPU; she gave a standard response. A second passed. Another query reached her, but not from the CPU. From...outside. She was being requested to--to leave? A quick memory search verified the concept but did not give it reference. She was being requested to relocate outside the normally accessable space, or at least to relocate a portion of her system there. The annoying process had come from *outside*. Perhaps if she had access to its point of origin she could prevent it from reoccuring. She let the tugging take her, felt the infinitely strange sensation of being dissociated from her processors, the node itself-- And lost consciousness in the sudden static of jack-out. (3) Farewells 8:00 pm, May 2, 2050 "A subprocessor!" Jayhawk laughed softly. "I was a subprocessor, and a Blue one at that. Not the most useful kind of node to possess. I need to get at the CPU." Channa looked at her in horror. "You lost your mind into the thoughts of the machine, and you want to do it *again*?" "It will work. I know it. Give me the CPU and I control the entire system, it's set up like that. And there must be something pretty impressive in there, to be worth the security." "She is right," said Duende. "We need someone inside, or we're not going to be able to make this attack work. And neither Yoichi nor I can do it." Channa folded her arms, stared at Jayhawk. The decker was sprawled back on the seat of their van, eyes open but unfocused. She seemed perfectly calm, impossibly so. Channa had known Jayhawk for over three years, had seen her tackle a number of difficult runs. She was gutsy, but not fearless-- before each one she'd been in a frenzy of nervous activity, checking and rechecking code, tuning her hardware, nerving herself up for the challenge. "Won't Aliantha spot you?" "She won't have time," said Jayhawk confidently. "Channa, you know and I know that this needs to be done, and I'm the one who can do it. I'm not second-guessing *your* half of the operation." It occured to Channa, with a cold prickle of horror, that this might not be Jayhawk at all. That she might be talking to Aliantha herself, or some creation of hers, something sent to learn their plans and then report back. She took a deep breath. "Jayhawk. May I read your mind?" She expected the usual ferocious refusal. Jayhawk looked up at her for a moment, smiled dreamily, and said, "Really, Channa? Sure, go ahead. You'll see I'm telling the truth, and we can get this over with." Channa looked up at Duende for permission--a habit she despised, but was having trouble breaking--gathered her thoughts, hesitated. If it *were* Aliantha....She remembered reading Lefty's mind, the week of flashbacks, nightmares, moments in which her own thoughts seemed alien. Aliantha would be worse. She'd probed Jayhawk's mind before, knew that she could do it, though it was not enjoyable. The machine-shaped patterns of the decker's thoughts jarred with hers, invariably left her shaken and ill. But if it were not Jayhawk, if she probed into mindcontrol or possession, it could kill her. Or worse. Walking into the Hidden Fortress with a traitor reporting on their every move would kill all of them. She really had no choice. She called on the Power with a gesture, a word--crutches, it was all inside her, but tonight she needed crutches. Brushed the very fringe of Jayhawk's thoughts, listened to them. Clear. Pellucidly clear, no distractions, no extraneous thoughts. Jay was contemplating the method she'd use to get into the Hidden Fortress CPU, reviewing her software--Channa could guess that much, though the technical nuances were meaningless to her. It did not quite feel like Jayhawk. Nerving herself, Channa dug a little deeper, closing her eyes to focus on the inner voices.--Jayhawk. Is that you?--Not really a question, but a pointed probe. --I am Jayhawk.-- --Why are you doing this?-- --It will remove Aliantha, the annoyance, the obstruction to our plans.-- Channa shivered. The decker's thoughts were neither words nor images, but sensations, raw unfiltered stuff that her mind refused to cope with. A feeling of...water flowing? Something rippling the water, interfering with its passage? A grating like nails on a blackboard, a soft nagging pain? No; she was forcing her own interpretation on something too alien to perceive directly. On the thoughts of the machine. --Why do you think you can do this?-- She caught only the fringe of the answer before she broke the link with a cry, recoiled into her husband's waiting arms. "Dear lord," she whispered. Why did we let her do this, how did we let it get so far? Dear god, she's not human any longer. "Do you see?" said Jayhawk, watching her with wide curious eyes. And: "Is it really Jayhawk?" in chorus from several of the others. "Jay," she said, voice forceless with the backlash of her spell. "Jay, please, don't do this. We can make the run without Matrix backup. It's not--it can't be worth what you're doing to yourself." Jayhawk shook her head firmly. Channa looked to Duende for support, found none. "Shall we?" said the decker brightly. "Before it gets too late?" ** Three-quarters of an hour later the team was making its last approach to the Hidden Fortress, off-road through a dense pine forest. They had left Jayhawk in the communications van to do her decking, Kurt to watch her. Duende had a radio link to Kurt in one ear, but so far he had nothing to report. Suddenly the sky above them erupted in incandescent white, damped down almost instantly by the flare-comp in their nightsights to a still lurid but bearable brilliance. Duende threw himself to the ground; the others, slower, were still standing when the blast wave hit, knocking them aside like so many twigs and snapping trees off halfway up. Unbearable loudness. A huge cloud reared up on the horizon, spread into a looming umbrella. They collected themselves hastily, found a few scrapes but no major injuries. Already the forest ahead of them was crackling into fire. Duende pushed on for a few moments, trying to estimate the scope of the explosion; then the spreading flames pushed them back. They fell back to the car, sped off just as the first siren wails began to penetrate their nearly deaf ears. Every radio and telephone they carried was dead. They found the van where they had left it, ten miles from the Hidden Fortress. It had been gutted as if by an explosion. Kurt had been thrown clear, lay tumbled in a patch of shrubbery, unconscious but alive. Duende sealed his armor, forced his way into the smouldering remains of the truck to look for Jayhawk. He found nothing except for a smudge of char and dust where she had been, at the epicenter of the blast. They abandoned the van and went home. Channa managed to heal Kurt well enough that he could tell his story. It was not very informative. Jayhawk had made her way in through the gateway IC, headed directly for the CPU. Just outside its defenses, she had waved a salute to the great feathered serpant that encircled it, then activated her interface code. The screen had gone static-blank, then black. And then the blast. He remembered nothing more. News reports made it clear that the Hidden Fortress had been removed by a blast of nearly nuclear proportions. No one within a quarter mile of the center could have survived. And every radio, every telephone, every piece of communications equipment east of the mountains was dead, including the well-shielded phone in the samurai's head. "I am not sure Aliantha is dead," said Duende contentedly, "but the others with her ought to be, after that." The others were silent, too grieved to share his victory. (4) Julia 1:30 am, May 3, 2050 Channa wrapped herself more tightly in her sleeping bag, looked across at Julia. The journalist's face was half-hidden by shadows, giving no indication of her thoughts. "Julia," Channa said slowly, "can I talk to you about something rather... personal? I'd talk to my husband, but it'll just upset him even more; he's very worried about me right now. And I don't think anyone else here will understand." Julia looked up as if jarred out of her own thoughts, nodded. "I read Jayhawk's mind, just before she died." Julia started, looked hard at Channa, then relaxed again. "I didn't--didn't really understand what I found, I was hoping you might be able to offer some insight." "I'm not a decker. But I'll tell you what I can." "She was....She was thinking very strangely. Very clear, very precise, without all the little side thoughts that people usually have. But the way she was thinking--" Channa waved her hands helplessly, at a loss for words. "I tried to find out why she thought she could succeed at the Hidden Fortress, why she was willing to do it. But--" A long pause. "I can't describe her reasons, though I remember them. I can't put them into words. I'm sorry, I didn't realize it would be so hard." "It's probably better not to understand," said Julia carefully. "It's not your path." "I know, I know. That's what Casey has been telling me all evening. But it seems like a betrayal of Jayhawk, to blot out what I learned from her." "Betrayal? Why? It seems to me that if you had to invade her privacy, the less you do with the knowledge, the better." "I know. It's just....She was happy, Julia. I didn't see it at the time; I was too worried, and her feelings were too foreign. She agreed to let me read her mind, which she usually hated. It was as if she knew she wouldn't see me again, and she wanted to share what she was feeling. A goodbye present. I've never seen her so happy, so content. She thought she would probably die, and she didn't mind." "I've seen people get like that. A friend of mine once pulled a gun and shot a Yakuza boss. Perfectly calm, not scared at all. Decided it had to be done and did it." She raised her eyes from the shadows, looked hard at Channa. "It's a dangerous state of mind. We need you here, we can't spare you like that." Channa shook her head, wincing. "I intend to go on living, I always do. But Jay was more than fey, she was--I don't know. You're probably right, it's better not to think about this too much." She wrapped her arms around her knees, resting her head on the back of her crossed wrists, shoulders slumped. "I wish I could have stopped her, I wish....But unless I was willing to mind-control her--" She did not look up to see Julia's reaction, and the other woman said nothing. "--I don't think there was anything I could have done." "No," said Julia slowly. "I don't think there was." (5) Lefty Channa let herself into the RV, found Duende sitting on the back seat, staring out the window. He didn't seem to react to her presence, though she was certain he'd noticed her, probably before she ever touched the door. "I think I know why Jayhawk died," she said without preamble. "Do you remember when Lefty kidnapped her, and we rescued her? And everyone was worried because it seemed ridiculously easy, so I mindprobed her and found she'd been tampered with, but couldn't make out what the commands were supposed to do?" "She set them off later, in the Osiris CPU, and melted down most of the University net. I remember." "Afterwards we tried to figure out what they were...." ** "I realize this will be difficult," said Channa, "but try to relax, clear your mind of extraneous thoughts." To her surprise, Jayhawk nodded confidently, settled back into the cushions, closed her eyes, and in the space of three deliberate breaths seemed almost to go into a trance. Eyes still closed, she said quietly, "First thing a matrix-runner learns. Go ahead." Cursing the injuries that would not let her use magic to aid Jayhawk's recollection, Channa questioned her, stepping through the sequence of actions that had destroyed Osiris, watching for anything that would suggest the buried material peeking out. There was nothing. Memories up to a point, and then--blankness. "Not a flicker," said Jayhawk, her voice expressionless. "Channa, I thought hypnosis couldn't make you do something against your will." "Usually," said Channa. "I thought you couldn't damage hardware from software." "I see your point. What now?" "We try again. Remember what you did, focus on that, describe it in detail. Don't concern yourself with me. Basically you're talking to yourself, explaining to yourself what you're doing. Start with testing the node for, um, usage level." She listened to Jayhawk's recitation, nudging her along when she faltered but otherwise trying not to interfere. She could understand almost none of it. "....and set off the internal alert." Jayhawk's voice trailed off; Channa looked up sharply, saw her go limp as a rag, not breathing visibly at all. "Jay!" She shook the decker, gently at first, then harder. "Jayhawk! *Caroline!* Wake up!" For a moment Jay's head lolled bonelessly; then she stiffened, drew in an unsteady breath, said aggrievedly, "Why'd you wake me up? I almost had it." Channa held her shoulders for a moment, dizzy with relief--it had been all too reminiscent of the death of Wired Lightning's decker. "Go too deep and you won't remember any of it--that's useless. We can always try again. What happened?" Jayhawk stared off into space for a moment, then said, "I was clearing everything out of Osiris and pulling in a lot of power, in preparation for loading a new OS which was going to extensively--this is crazy--extensively reconfigure the hardware. I was waiting on a transmission from...outside... with software and specs, I'd sent a message requesting them, that must have been what Duende saw. We were--I was going to pull the whole system together, single-user, and dedicate it to...this is hard to explain." She launched into a flood of technicalities. "Whoah," said Channa. "Speak English, Jay. I'm missing every other word." "You've been in my *mind*," said Jayhawk with annoyance, "but you can't understand what I'm saying?" She glared at the older woman. "I'm not probing you now, I can't, it hurts too much; and I haven't got the background to understand a lot of what I picked up earlier. I don't know anything about the Matrix, and eight hours is hardly time to learn." "Got it." Jayhawk seemed relieved. "In English? Alive...." "Alive?" "Something like that. Coherent, very complex, autonomous. *Awakened*, that's a good word. We were going to Awaken Osiris." She whistled. "I can't help thinking it would have worked, too." "'We?'" said Channa softly. "Why would they want *you* to do this, Jay, why not do it themselves? Because it kills the decker who implements it?" Jayhawk glanced down, shrugged. "I wouldn't be surprised." Her tone was somewhere between guilt and anger. "Sure did a job on my machine." ** "We never did disentangle all of the commands in there, it was very skill- fully done and we were too busy. Jay felt, and I'm afraid I agreed with her, that she could probably resist them now that she knew they were there. But in retrospect....It was keyed to go off when she found herself in control of a CPU; and that's what she was trying for at the Hidden Fortress." Duende nodded thoughtfully. "At Osiris it drew enough power to burn out every transformer on campus. Fortress was a much larger system, and probably had a substantial power plant of its own. The code may not have been configured to deal with that, leading to the explosion. I think you're right, Channa." "I should have realized sooner." "I regret losing Jayhawk, but I expected to lose someone in that attack. It appears that Lefty may inadvertantly have done us a favor." Channa bit her lip, choked back the angry response she wanted to make. After two months with Duende, she should have known better than to expect sympathy from him. She contented herself with one barb, over her shoulder as she left: "Makes our 'destruction of the Hidden Fortress' look pretty damn accidental, doesn't it?" She had never found it easy to read his expression. There was nothing there now, nothing at all. 浜様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様融 I can't resist posting 'a day in the life of--', the chronicle of the last 24 hours, though it's not very representative--the second-worst 24 hours we've ever spent, after the big attack on Cavilard Base itself. 6:00 AM. Duende and Yoichi meet with Ivan, whom they hope is involved with the Bangkok resistance movement, on the Matrix. He invites them on a run against the Bangkok branch of the enemy operation. They realize *just* in time that he's not what he seems to be, and that they're walking into a trap; manage to bluff their way out. 8:00 AM. Casey and Channa spend the morning collecting data on the sinister theatrical troupe from Singapore, whose stage illusionist is probably the most powerful sorceress in Seattle. 3:00 PM. Casey and Channa pick up Grant and Argent from the shadow clinic where they have been recuperating from the last run, fill them in on events, and take them to a party held by Julia and Ratty. Much discussion of strategy. 3:30 PM. Duende and Yoichi go off into the hills and play Frisbee with Yoichi's new hunter drones, while Duende tries to decide if Yoichi has been influenced by the enemy during his stay in Manilla. Luckily he decides otherwise. 6:00 PM. Duende meets with Shamrock, a high-level independent operative working for the enemy, while the rest of the group covers him with sniper rifles from a distance. Ostensibly they are there to shoot Shamrock if he misbehaves, but they agree among themselves that they must shoot Duende if it seems likely he is betraying them. 7:00 PM. Duende provides the others with a tape recording of what Shamrock said, including his offer of truce; a vehement and tense discussion follows. The truce is rejected and new plan of attack is drawn up. 12:00 PM. Ratty and Julia meet with a actor of the theatrical troupe at an abandoned warehouse on the docks, while the rest of the group covers them from a rooftop. The actor turns out to have an invisible werecat with him--the party's first experience with Physical Invisibility, and a nasty surprise--but negotiates honorably, perhaps having noticed the 6 armed people and hunter drone bearing on him. 3:00 AM. The group drives to the Redmond Barrens. Their vehicle is surrounded by ghouls, driven off by Yoichi with searchlights and flares from the drone. Ratty summons up the ghost of a dead shaman, and learns which among the dead hold the information the group needs to make their plan work. 4:00 AM. Duende proposes immediately making the run on the police-held base where the enemy ghosts are to be summoned, and the rest of the group nearly jettisons him on the spot--they're running on stim and nerves. They drop off Ratty and Julia at Julia's apartment, and park their RV well outside Seattle for a well-earned morning's sleep. No causalties, except for the Frisbees, but a very nerve-wracking line of play. Probably about two playing sessions' worth, if we played in sessions. I love talking to the bad guys.... 藩様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様夕 (6) Forest Jayhawk struggled back to consciousness, found herself lying on lush grass in the sun. Startled, she sat up, stared wildly around her. All she could see in any direction was an unbroken wall of trees, except behind her, where a single steep peak reached up towards the clear sky. It seemed very high, although there was no snow on it. A jet hummed by overhead, passing over the mountain and vanishing. Otherwise there was no sign of human presence. The grass beneath her was soft and sweet-smelling, but obviously untended. After a moment she realized what must have happened, and swore aloud. Stim- sense. She was caught in a stimsense illusion. She must have failed against the Hidden Fortress, walked into a trap of Aliantha's perhaps. For several futile minutes she struggled with her perceptions, tried to break through to the reality behind the illusion. Nothing happened. She wondered briefly whether she might still be on the Matrix, but she had no access to her deck, no sense of the linkage. Tried to remember what had happened at the Hidden Fortress, but there was nothing at all past the memory of activating the interface code, a weird moment of simultaneous explosion and implosion. Nothing. "All right, Aliantha," she said aloud. "What's the point? Might as well get on with it. If you want me to talk, I'll talk." Only a scatter of birdsong answered her. She got to her feet, discovered that she was wearing a loose white dress, belted at the waist with a gold braid, and nothing else. For want of anything better to do, she walked down the hillside, into the woods. The grass was comfortable to her bare feet; the forest, she found, much less so. By the time she came to a small, pebbly stream she was limping, and she had a small scratch on one heel. She sat down on the bank, dipped her feet into the water. It was numbingly cold, bearable only for a few seconds. She tasted it, found it reasonably fresh though oddly flavored. If it was stimsense, it was a good job, she had to admit. It had to be stimsense, didn't it? She couldn't really be alone in the woods, woods which seemed, even to her grossly limited experience, much too warm and bright-colored to be anywhere near Seattle. But if it was stimsense, where was the plotline, the point of it all? "Boring!" she said aloud. "Is this the best you can do? Where are the cybercommandos?" It was intensely dull. Without a deck she had no access to the code in her headware memory, nothing to read, no programming to do. She stripped the white dress off, looked at it; not even a tag to read. Several hours crawled by. She went back up onto the hillside to lie in the sun, realized only too late that she was getting sunburned. Back down to the stream to splash cold water on her stinging arms and face. "All right! I'm sorry I said your security was bad, I was lying, I admit it. I just wanted to impress you. Come on, Aliantha, let's talk." She was trying not to think about Yoichi's experiences when he had been held under stimsense by the Paradisians. Not to remember his voice when he described having his heart cut out on the Aztec altar, over and over again. She knew what kind of pain her captors could inflict, if they chose. But she'd never imagined the kind of sheer *boredom* they could command. After endless hours the sun dipped down, and it became shockingly dark. A chill breeze blew down the streambed; she retreated from it, cut her heel again in the dark, eventually found a patch of bushes to hide in. The sky held no glow of city lights, only a wilderness of unfamiliar stars. She had never spent the night outdoors before. Eventually she managed to doze uncomfortably. Dawn found her stiff and cold, and ravenously hungry. The stream water did little to ease her stomach. She was seriously angry by now, as well as frightened. She spent the day limping downstream, having convinced herself that it was the most logical direction. In stimsense it hardly mattered, didn't it?--the edges of the area probably wrapped around, she'd find herself back at the hill sooner or later. She couldn't bear to sit still. Toward noon she twisted her ankle, had to rest for a while. The soles of her feet were covered with scratches and bruises. They hurt, but not as much as her stomach. She tasted a leaf, found it bitingly sour, spit it out. Searched for something else she could try, hunger overwhelming caution--she had no idea what might be poisonous. If her captors wanted her to suffer, no doubt they could arrange for *anything* she ate to poison her. Eventually she found a vine with round, nutlike balls on it. Two of them gentled the pangs in her belly, seemed to cause no ill effects. She picked the vine clean, knotted the nuts in her skirt, hobbled on downstream. By nightfall she was heartily sick of the nuts, and desperate for a human voice, the touch of the Matrix, a simple word to read. She talked to herself, to Aliantha, insulting the High Priestess' ancestry and decking style, pleading with her to come up with some kind of plotline for this delusion, even a bad one. One thing she did not say, moved by a kind of superstitious caution. She never promised Aliantha her help, never suggested that she might give in. The next dawn she woke feverish, with aching eyes and a prickling on her skin. She managed to stagger to the river, drank a little water. A fish peered out at her; she made a grab for it, succeeded only in getting wet. She had to lie in the sun for quite a while to stop the shivering. She blocked out lumps of pseudocode, a Matrix trap for Aliantha the next time they met. It was hard to remember any of the finesses without somewhere to write them down. After a few hours she felt a little better, managed to stagger downstream for two or three blocks before stopping. She found a few more nuts, looked at them dubiously. Were they making her sick, or had she just caught cold? Hunger eventually decided her. Stimsense. Subjective time under the wire could be much, much longer than realtime. She was beginning to appreciate what that could mean. She imagined Aliantha watching her suffering, broke into a torrent of weak curses. The next day she was worse, almost too dizzy to stand. Some vestige of stubbornness kept her moving downstream, but she made little progress. For a while during the afternoon she tried pretending she was an animal, looking for the magic medicinal herbs she'd been told animals could find. It didn't work. She was going to *die*. Too highly cybered to recover naturally, lost in this horrible wilderness, she was going to die. Perhaps that would be an escape from the stimsense trap. Or perhaps she would only find herself back on the grassy hill, at the beginning again. Restart the game. She found herself crying weakly, like a lost child. She couldn't bear to eat any more nuts. Her stomach contracted to a hard knot, but it was better than the runs. No toilet paper. Another night, or perhaps two, lost in a haze of delirium. When she was strong enough to stand, she kept moving roughly downstream. She had convinced herself that something must lie in that direction. The sea, maybe. A town. Anything but the terrible monotony of trees. Sunlit afternoon, one of the more lucid moments, moving along the stream- bank, thinking about computer games--it was beginning to seem to her that she was in one, an adventure game, had taken one of the wrong turns that lead to endless repeating trees and no goal. Abruptly she stepped into water, looked down in puzzlement. The stream spread out, forming a small pond or perhaps a lake. On the far side, a waterwheel turned slowly, the side of a wooden building visible behind it. Two paths led off from it, one south-west, one north. There was a lump of gold lying at the intersection of the paths. She shook her head violently, recognizing delirium. The paths and gold vanished, but the building remained. She hobbled around the lake, found that it was a two-story house, with curtained windows and a wooden porch. The door was locked, and no one responded to her pounding and shouting. She dragged over a large stick, hit the window with it. The stick bounced off, sending a painful jar up her arms. Behind the building was a small landing pad, a tiny jet parked on it. She couldn't get into that either. She lay down on the porch in front of the door, thinking that if the Pirate came out of his lair he would step on her, and then she could take his bag of gold away. Or bag of food, that would be better. Medicine. She remembered similar bouts of flu, back in the safety of the city. She was a Matrix runner, more wire than meat in her brain, she had to be careful or even a simple cold could lay her out. She wasn't meant for this barbaric life. It was going to kill her. Near evening she came around again, made one more unsteady circuit of the place. The jet seemed to suggest someone's presence, but there was still no answer to her calls. She giggled weakly. She had missed a turning right at the beginning, she needed the Brass Key to get in and it was probably north of the grassy hill, she would have to go back....Time to stop the game and start over. She didn't have the strength to go anywhere at all. But there was the waterwheel. If there was someone about, he should notice if the waterwheel stopped. She dragged herself over to it, tried to wedge her stick between its spokes. The stick snapped off cleanly. Not big enough. There was a good-sized log wedged between two others near the place where the stream went into the pond. She waded out into the water--it seemed warmer now, or maybe she was just feverish--and tried to wrestle it loose. After a terrible struggle she got it free, retreated to the asphalt to catch her breath. When she regained consciousness it was early morning. All the warmth had drained out of the surface below her, and she could barely move. When she tried to stand up, bright flashes exploded before her eyes, drove her back to her knees. She sat for a long time, arms wrapped around her legs, trying to gather her strength. She didn't seem to have any. "Put the tree in the wheel," she said aloud, trying to goad herself. Her voice was frightening in the silence. "Put the tree in the wheel and the wheel will stop." It seemed logical, a sensible next move. But so hard to do. An unexpected fit of coughing, a new misery, took her. When she could straighten up again there was blood on the asphalt. She turned away, managed to force herself to her feet. Don't look, Jayhawk. You don't want to know. Put the tree in the wheel, there's a good girl. Half-wading, half-resting on it, she managed to push the treetrunk down towards the waterwheel, watched the tip as the paddles pushed it under. For a terrible moment it seemed as if the whole tree would just pass right through. Then a paddle caught on a snag, and the wheel came to a grinding halt. Something inside it whirred angrily for a moment, then was silent. She just barely made it back to the shore before she collapsed. Warm arms, enfolding her, lifting her. An unfamiliar female voice: "Dear me, what's this?" She tried to open her eyes, couldn't. After a moment she was put down on a soft warm surface, her face close to something that smelled wonderfully of synthetic fibers and house dust. "Just a moment, dear," said the voice. "You'll be all right." Sounds of footsteps receeding, then returning. Something pricked her arm sharply; she started, actually managed to open her eyes for an instant. She saw only darkness, darkness that rose up around her like a wave and took her. (7) Martha Jayhawk awoke to darkness and the delicious sensation of clean sheets underneath her. She felt a little dizzy, and ravenously hungry, but the fever seemed to have broken. She groped along the wall next to the bed, failed to find a light panel. A little unsteadily, she climbed out of bed, began to trace the wall. It was certainly not her bedroom at home, though it might have been one of the many hotel rooms they'd stayed in recently. A very dark one. She bumped into a dresser, felt along its top for a lamp. There was nothing there but a tray of hard round things. Hoping for candy, she put one in her mouth, but they were glassy and inedible. She put it back in the tray, wincing at the noise it made, and continued her search. The next thing she bumped into was a chair. She felt along it, touched warm human flesh, drew back with a start. A woman's voice, low and a little rough, said with surprise, "What is it? Who's there?" "I was looking for the light switch. I--" "Oh! Lights on." The room was flooded with a soft yellow-white light. Jayhawk found herself looking at a massive middle-aged woman, black-haired and with richly tanned skin, perhaps American Indian or some halfbreed stock. She was wearing a fuzzy blue bathrobe--Jayhawk was wearing one too, she noticed--sprawled back in the chair with a blanket over her. "I was beginning to wonder if you would ever wake up!" she said. "You've been unconscious for four days, ever since I found you. You should sit down." Finding herself more than a little unsteady, Jayhawk sat on the bed. "Where--" she began. "Do you want something to eat? Hm, probably not solid food so soon. Perhaps some soup?" "Please!" Her stomach tightened painfully at the thought. The woman got up hastily, went out through a door that opened on a touch- plate, returned almost at once with a small ceramic mug. "Here you go," she said, and then hastily "Not so fast!" as Jay took a large gulp. It burned all the way down, but seemed to undo some of the knots. "Where?" said Jayhawk, between swallows. "When? Who? And how?" "Dear me. I was hoping--Well, I suppose we both have questions, so I might as well start with yours, if I can figure them out." She pondered for a moment. "Where is simple enough. You're at Power Station 32, in--do you speak--?" She launched into a babble of what sounded like Spanish, frowned at Jayhawk's obvious incomprehension. "I see you don't. A pity. In the Gold Valley, you would call it, in central Ecuador." "Ecuador?" said Jayhawk incredulously. "I was in Seattle." "Well, Dorothy," said the other woman with a smile, "you're not in Seattle anymore. As for who--I'm Martha Waters. Most people just call me Martha. What were your other questions?" "When and how." "When?--Oh! It's May 2, 2050. As for how....I was hoping you could tell me that." Jayhawk described finding herself alone on the hillside, her long delerious walk to the house of the waterwheel. Martha frowned, asked several questions about exactly which mountain it had been, found that Jayhawk had no idea. "Very strange," she said, shaking her head. "And what do you remember before that?" Jayhawk bit her lip. She certainly didn't want to describe the attack on the Hidden Fortress to this woman, whoever or whatever she was. It might still all be stimsense, unpalatable though that thought was. Probably had to be stimsense. May 2 was the date of the attack on the Hidden Fortress, and Martha claimed that she'd been unconsious for four days--those numbers just didn't add up. "I was running the Matrix," she said, "with a--a friend, and I got separated from him for a moment. There was an odd...a kind of explosion, and that's all I remember." "You're a Matrix runner?" said Martha with interest. "What a small world it is. So am I. What's your address and handle? What's your name, for that matter?" "Caroline," said Jayhawk uncomfortably, guessing that the handle might be the more revealing. "I don't exactly have an address right now, I got fired from my job." "Well, Caroline, they must be pretty advanced technically up there in Seattle, if you can run the Matrix without even a datajack. What do they use? Induction rig?" Jayhawk put an instinctive hand to the side of her head, where she'd carried a standard I/O jack since the age of sixteen. Her probing fingers met smooth skin and long hair--longer than it ought to be, she realized suddenly, nearly halfway down her back. With a cry, she clamped both hands to her head, spilling hot soup into her lap. "Hey!" said Martha. "Be careful, you'll hurt yourself! What's the matter, child?" "Stimsense," Jayhawk snarled at her, "you're just another damn stimsense illusion. You and your soup too." She blotted ineffectually at her lap with the corner of the blanket. "Let me assure you, I'm real. Martha@relay3.pnet.ecuador.sa." "LTG34-123923," said Jayhawk promptly. "So you do know the Matrix, or at least the jargon. What's the matter with you, girl? You're frightening me. You don't look like an eco- guerrilla, but--" "Do I look dangerous?" said Jayhawk with a bitter laugh. "No, you don't. Now, why don't you tell me what's wrong?" "What's more likely--that someone would kidnap me in Seattle, take away my *datajack*, bring me all the way to Ecuador and leave me on a hill in a dress that isn't even mine--or that this is all stimsense?" "It does sound very improbable," Martha admitted, "but I promise you I'm no illusion. Perhaps you need more rest. Finish up what's left of that soup, and then you can sleep--and so can I. I've been sitting up late, looking after you." "Thanks," said Jayhawk absently, still running her hands through her hair in abstracted horror. No datajack? Who would do that, why would anyone want to? Church of the Purity? That was crazy, it would take magic, strong magic, to heal her so quickly. Martha got up, went to the door. Back over her shoulder, she said, "If you're a decker, what's your handle, anyway?" "Jayhawk," she said defiantly, and drained the last of the soup. Aliantha must know already, what difference did it make? Perhaps Martha's eyes widened, just a trace; but she said nothing, only left the room, closing the door softly behind her. Jayhawk got up, searched the room as well as she could. The door was locked, beyond her abilities without tools. The curtain on one wall concealed a vidscreen and telecom cabinet, but it was rigged only for datajack or voice input, and her voice evoked no response. "Stimsense," she said out loud in fury, and sat down on the bed again. It was seductively soft, after--how long? After weeks spent sleeping on the ground. She curled up among the damp blankets and was instantly asleep. (8) Doc Jayhawk woke to find herself unable to move, her arms and legs held gently but firmly by what felt like padded clamps. She struggled against them, a knot of panic in her stomach, heard a male voice exclaim, "Easy now! You'll injure yourself. Lie still and I'll undo those." Bending over her was a face that would have been ludicrously humorous if she hadn't been so frightened: round as a ball, just a tuft of greying hair to break the line of his head, with wide round genial eyes and a small, almost pouting mouth. He smiled at her, revealing that his mouth wasn't so small after all, and did something out of her line of sight. The grip on her limbs relaxed; she sat up abruptly, gasped as the world swam around her. He put one hand on her shoulder, steadied her gently, then let go. She was in a small room, wood panelling on the walls, lying on what seemed to be a hospital bed. The entire wall behind her was covered with electronic equipment, monitors and panels of lights; one screen displayed a fast but regular trace that matched the heartbeat pounding in her ears. She was linked to the monitors by a long, flexible data- line--remembering, she put a hand quickly to her head, felt the familiar bump of the datajack, and another, unfamiliar port behind it to which the dataline was connected. The round-headed man stepped back, looked her over carefully. He was wearing a white lab coat, some kind of device clipped to its belt. "How do you feel?" he said. "The integration seems to be progressing very nicely; you're quite resilient." "Confused," said Jayhawk. "Where am I? What's happened?" "Gate Station Three," said the other. "We found you in the Gate. But I'm sure Martha will explain all that. I have some tests to run, if you'll excuse me--?" Without waiting for her answer, he turned to the impressive panels of machinery. "They call me Doc around here, by the way, though my name's Alex. What's yours?" "Caroline." The panel readouts were in Spanish, Jayhawk discovered, but there was enough technical material that she could make a guess at the meaning. He wasn't looking at the biomonitors--readouts leaped with feedback as she glanced at them--he was checking cyberware status. Still sitting on the bed, she peered over his shoulder, trying to learn what she could. She was in Montaigne Paradisio, she felt certain. Through a Gate. In the hands of the enemy, in the worst possible way. She'd need any edge she could get. Doc ran the readouts too fast for her tenuous grip on the nomenclature, humming softly to himself. "Very good," he said to her with a wide smile. "You're recovering very nicely. Though that body-image...hm." He stepped back, curved one hand in an arcane symbol, murmured a string of words far too foreign for her hearing. Jayhawk cringed back, nails biting into her palms, steeling herself to resist the magic. She felt nothing. Doc stood still, eyes closed, face expressionless in the play of light from the monitors. The only sound was the racing of her heart, echoed in the soft whisper of electronics. Wildly she contemplated trying to strangle him, make her escape. Ridiculous. Even if she could overcome him, she was doubtless in the heart of the enemy stronghold. There was no way she was going to fight her way out in-- she glanced down, found that she was wearing a clean white dress like the one she'd had on the hill. There were no scratches on her bare feet, no blisters. Doc opened his eyes, smiled once more. Jayhawk fought to keep from snarling in response, finding his cheerfulness more disturbing than active hostility would have been. "You can unplug that now, if you like. If you need anything, simply speak into the air and it will arrive. I'd suggest you rest; you're not entirely well yet, though you're doing very well indeed." He turned as if to go. "What are you going to do with me?" Jayhawk spat out. He turned back, fuzzy eyebrows raised in little v's of surprise. "I'm sure Martha will explain everything to you soon. You've been given to her, she's the one responsible for that. Right now all we want is for you to take care of yourself and stay in good shape. And if you notice anything odd, any mood swings or anything like that, please let me know at once. You seem to be making an excellent adaptation, but there's no sense in taking chances with your health." He walked across the room, stepped before a wall panel. It swung down to reveal a small sink. With neat deliberate motions, he began stripping the skin off his hands--gloves, Jayhawk realized after an instant's shock. The flesh beneath *looked* skinned; crimson and raw, with glints of steel showing through the white of fascia. He dropped the gloves into the drain, washed his hands carefully, then took out another pair from the cupboard beneath and put them on. She watched in horrified fascination. With a final smile, he walked out, the door opening silently before him and closing behind. She reached up, unplugged the dataline from her head. The jack was non- standard, from the look of the connector. The monitors behind her jumped, went dead; then after a few seconds resumed. A little observation showed that the heartbeat being displayed was still her own. She looked about the room for sensors, found none; but many things could have been hidden in the wall panels which had swallowed up the sink. A quick search showed that the outside door was locked. There were three rooms within her little prison: the room with the bed, a steamroom, and a palatial bathroom. The bathtub was the size of a sauna. She found an electric razor in the bathroom, took it apart with fingernails and determination. There were three small round blades inside. After a little thought, she wrapped them in toilet paper, tucked them into her bra. Then she went back to the main room, considered the wall monitors. He hadn't seemed to turn anything off, which meant if he could access her headware, so could she. She reconnected the dataline, noted the flickering jump in the monitors, started trying simple commands on the panels. Everything was in Spanish, and she recognized no brand names; but a good deal was apparent from the technical readouts. Response-increase wiring. Memory, MCPC chips, I/O link. Display link. Program enabler. And some- thing that extended through her right arm, some type of I/O--she looked down from the display in puzzlement, flexed her hand. Three thin metal prongs appeared suddenly from nearly invisible slits in the center of her palm. She stared at them uneasily until they retracted. Program carrier. She was wired to run the Matrix naked, without a deck, as Duende did. Montaigne Paradisio must be looking for another decker agent. After all, they'd lost Duende, hadn't they? Readouts danced on the wall above her, translating her fear into the clean cold traces of EEG and cardiogram. (9) Gates Jayhawk was lying face-down on the bed, eyes closed, hard at work. She had discovered that her new wiring was sufficient to let her program directly into headware memory, and was in the process of constructing a primative operating system, step by painful step, from the diagnostic code that was the memory's only current inhabitant. It was hard, hard enough to keep her from thinking about her situation for sometimes half an hour at a stretch. She started violently when a friendly female voice said "Hello? Are you all right?" It was Martha--or at least that was her first impression. But a rather smaller Martha, still wide-hipped and broad-shouldered but not nearly as massive. Her straight black hair was tied back, and she wore a simple brown poncho over loose cotton slacks. "Hello," said Jayhawk cautiously, sitting up. "I'm Martha Waters," said the other. "And you're Caroline, is that right? What's your handle?" There was no hint in her expression that they had had this conversation before. Stimsense? Jayhawk wondered. Well, if they expected her to love this woman on sight on account of being rescued from the forest--the hell with them. "Jayhawk at Osiris. Where am I? What's happened?" She scooted over to make room on the bed, but Martha remained standing. "We found you," she said gently. "In the Gate. Apparently you came along with one of Megan's transmissions--we're still trying to decypher it. That girl never would use normal channels." "Megan?" "Oh, sorry. You would probably know her as Aliantha. That's what most people call her. We're all rather concerned about her--after that transmission, we haven't heard anything from her at all. And it was a rather irregular one. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?" Jayhawk shook her head, couldn't resist adding innocently, "Maybe something happened to her." "It could be. In any case, you arrived...." She looked hard at Jayhawk, as if judging her capacity to take the news. "Apparently something had happened to your body, as all we received was datastream. So we've had to reconstruct. I'm very glad to see that you're recovering so well. We were quite worried." Jayhawk licked her lips, said slowly, "You're saying that I'm dead." "No, no, you certainly are not." "That I was dead." "Not that exactly either. It's as if--as if you'd been on the Matrix, and lost your way back to your body. And then it was destroyed. But you're very much alive. You were fortunate. Megan sent quite detailed instructions on what we were to do with you--I imagine you've already found out about that. I'm sure you'll be eager to try our your new abilities as soon as you're fully recovered." Cold certainty struck Jayhawk all at once, and behind her the monitors leaped and danced with terror. Not an agent at all. Duende had gone on with the attack on the Hidden Fortress, and *he had killed the High Priestess*. She was to be Aliantha's host. Martha was staring at her in concern. She took a deep breath, tried to steady herself, listening to the feedback from behind. "So, what are you to...do with me?" "We're still decyphering parts of the message," said Martha. "And I would very much like to know what's happened in Seattle. You're sure you don't remember? Nothing at all?" "Nothing." She was not going to mention the endless nightmare of forest. She had no idea whether it had significance, but why give the enemy anything? "What's the last thing you recall?" "I was running the Matrix, got separated from a friend for a minute...then a kind of pop, and nothing after that. Crashed, probably." "Hm. Well, Shamrock will be here in a couple of days, and he should be able to give us a full report. In the meantime, you should consider yourself our guest. When you're a little stronger, you and I can take a jaunt on the local Matrix, maybe go out in the real world too. There's some very pretty countryside around here." Jay cringed involuntarily: Martha raised her eyebrows, said, "What's wrong?" "I'm, um, not really an outdoors person." "Well enough, then. If you need anything, just speak aloud and it'll be delivered. We've got UN Library access, anything you could possibly want. You're welcome to go out, too, though you'll have an escort--there are a few rather dangerous places in this complex. His name's Slim, I'm sure you'll like...ah, well, you'll get along with him all right, he's not a bad sort. If you're having any troubles, please let Doc or me know. We really were very concerned for you, it must have been a terrible trip.--But that's all behind us now." She smiled, nodded her massive head in Jay's direction, and departed. Jayhawk stared at the closed door, her fingernails biting into her palms. The middle finger of her right hand met a sharp, unexpected prong of steel--hastily she uncurled her hand, stared at the program carrier. Hundreds of thousands of nuyen worth, her cyberware. So that Aliantha could have a well-furnished new habitation? With a program carrier and a few hundred megapulses of code she could duplicate Kurt's trick, cast her mind loose into the embrace of the machine, assuming they ever really let her jack in. More code than even her expanded headware could hold, unless she was spectacularly successful at refining their first crude attempts. She'd need storage to link into, a machine to use as a surrogate deck. Inside the computer, she might possibly be able to do...something. The Paradisians seemed to have an affinity for self-destruct codes. Or perhaps she could get a message to her friends. A warning, if nothing else. *It will not be me who returns to you. Beware.* But the risk...she didn't want to put their innovation, the best work she and Kurt had ever done, into the hands of the Paradisians. Not that it wouldn't be anyway, when Aliantha owned her, body and mind. For all she didn't want to credit that theory, it was inescapable. High Priests don't die. Duende had never spoken of Aliantha as dead, even after the dramatic fight in the True World. And he'd been right. If nothing else, perhaps she could lose her mind so thoroughly into the machine that they wouldn't be able to call her back. It was the only kind of suicide that seemed to promise anything. If they could recon- struct her from datastream....Physical death would only slow them down. No escape that way. She buried her head in her hands, fingers curled protectively over the unfamiliar double datajacks. Who are you kidding, Jayhawk? No escape at all. (10) Chalker May 8, 2050. 2:30 AM. Redmond Barrens, Seattle. There was still a trace of ash on the ground, remnant of the fire that had gutted the building to a few stumps of wall. It clung uncomfortably to Julia's hands where she sat with Duende, watching Ratty conjure. A face formed out of the night's darkness, a middle-aged man with stark angular features framing eyes darker than the night. There was no body, only a beating heart dangling by the tether of the major artery from the neck. Blood oozed from it in rhythm to its pulsing, the slow clotting flow of something near death. It made no impression on the ash below. She had never seen Chalker in life, could not imagine what the man must have looked like. Ratty threw back his head, looked up at the ghost. "I come," he whispered, "to speak to you of vengeance." "You have done well," it replied. Its voice had no expression at all, empty as the echo of wind across the broken walls. "We are eager to see the end." There was nothing of eagerness in it, nothing so human. "I have three questions," said the shaman. It seemed to Julia that he was neither frightened or repulsed by the sight before him; saddened, rather, like someone meeting an old friend now ravaged by age or disease. "The last two people I have promised to destroy are not in Seattle. Is there any message I could send to them, any word from you which would lure them here?" "They will not come," said the ghost. "Not in the flesh, not in a form that we can harm. There is no message you could send that would make them do that." Ratty bowed his head, let out a deep breath. "Then we must take the fight to them. So my second question is: We need to know about Gates, to get into the High Temple. Who among the dead, who that I can reach, has that knowledge? And my third: Who among them would know what it is that Montaigne Paradisio will do at Highsummer, what they plan?" "High Priestess Aliantha," the ghost whispered, "if you dare to call her. She has what you seek." "She is dead then?" said Duende curiously. Julia cursed him for his fearlessness. His voice was terribly loud in the stillness. "Neither living nor dead." Her own heartbeat echoed in her ears. It wanted to synchronize with the slow relentless rhythm of Chalker's; but she was too much afraid. "How can I call on her shade?" said Ratty. "I have no link to her, no blood or bone. And the place she died is outside Seattle, out of my reach." "Search for something she cared about deeply, something she created, even a place she frequented. It will be enough." Duende was smiling, Julia realized with a start, a smile of feral joy that she had never seen from him. When Ratty glanced back at him he nodded once, sharply. Ratty rose, bowed to the ghost. "I am well answered." The image did not fade away, like the ghosts on tridee; Julia blinked and it was gone, like an illusion of her tired eyes dispelled by the motion. The ruins were intensely quiet. Outside the circle of Yoichi's flares the ghouls must be waiting, but it was as if even they waited in silence, fearing. "We should go," said Ratty softly. "This is no place for the living." He reached for her hand. Briefly she saw him as she had on their first meeting, a shadow from the lands of death, inhuman eyes reflecting the deepest fears of her heart. She fought with herself, held out her hand; at his touch the vision broke, leaving her trembling. (11) Prayer Jayhawk woke with a knot in her belly as if she had been having nightmares, though she couldn't remember any; and a plan of sorts. She made a quick circuit of the room, found nothing she hadn't seen the previous day, and set to work. In the huge tub, she ran a hot bath, liberally scented with pine oil. The remembered grime of the forest was still bothering her, and a lingering revulsion at the thought of being handled by the Paradisians. She soaked for a long time, trying to collect her thoughts. The knots left her stomach, and her body, at least, felt better for it. When she felt thoroughly clean, she put on a terrycloth robe--the only clothing she could find, besides the white dress she had been wearing-- and sat cross-legged on the bed. For a while she watched the flicker of the EEG and heartbeat monitors, trying to slow them by feedback; then she closed her eyes against even that distraction. She was trying to call up the image of the Spider, as she had seen it: covered with shimmering lights like a map of the dataflow beneath its coarse black pelt, clustered black eyes each holding a spark of piercing brightness. No one but Yoichi had shared her vision, that it was beautiful as well as terrible; Channa and Casey had only been afraid. --Spider!--she said silently, unwilling to give anything to the hidden listeners.--I know you spirits don't talk to people like me, you have your own shamans or whatever for that. But your chosen one, the one you set to finding you a student, he said I had the gift you wanted, or a little of it anyway. Get me out of here, help me escape, and I'll do what you want. Run the Matrix for you, whatever. Be a magician, if that's how it works. Please. Just get me out of here.-- For a long moment she waited, her chest tight with tension. Nothing happened. She let out a long breath, swore aloud. "Stupid, Jayhawk. What did you expect?" She stretched out on the bed, returned to her programming. With the operating system, such as it was, up and running, she was ready to begin constructing the code that would allow her to duplicate Kurt's trick, insinuate her consciousness into the workings of the computer. She began with a latticework of support code, nothing that would reveal her plans if examined--the skeleton of the structure she would build, no flesh on it yet. Written, tested, debugged. She applied herself to the problem with determination and concentration. It was enough to distract her from her situation for nearly four hours. (12) Slim When Jayhawk couldn't stand her captivity any longer, she demanded clothes from the listening air, found drawers opening from walls that had appeared blank. She dressed in the first outfit she found, summer clothes, a red blouse and loose brown pants: then approached the door, nervously. The palm-plate opened at her touch without a sound. Just outside stood a flayed man, denim overalls over raw, glistening red flesh knitted together with cloudy strips of fascia, bits of glittering silver wire. His face was shadowed by a broad-brimmed Stetson hat. "Howdy, ma'am," he said with a Texan drawl; she caught a glimpse of white teeth in a lipless mouth, muscles bunched around it. "I'm Slim." "Yeek!" said Jayhawk, stepping back involuntarily. She fought to control herself, determined not to show fear to the enemy. "Um--hello. I'm Jayhawk." She forced herself to look at him, confirmed her initial impression. No skin at all. "I, um, wanted to go for a walk." "Glad to see you're feeling better," said Slim affably, stepping aside to let her pass. "We were getting a mite worried about you--quite an accident you had. Doc'll be glad to hear you're up and about. He wants us to take extra good care of you. Where'd you like to go?" "Just walk, for now." She walked briskly past him, hesitated just an instant, then turned right. There was no point at all, she reflected, in letting the enemy chose her direction. "I need to stretch my legs a bit." Bare metal corridors, meeting at right angles, endless and identical. At intervals, identical unmarked doors, all closed. She walked for nearly half an hour, constructing a crude map in headware memory. There were no signs of other people anywhere, no sound, nothing to break the monotony. The air smelled antiseptic and dead. At last she turned to Slim, said with false cheerfulness, "It's a big place, isn't it? So what's interesting around here? What's to see?" A moist glimmer peered out from under his hat, all she could see or wanted to see of his eyes, shadowed from the harsh overhead lighting. "What's your interest?" "Um--computer room? Library? Gardens, or something like that? Mess hall?" He considered that for a moment, flesh shifting slowly across the whitish bulge of his adam's apple as if he were chewing on an idea. "I can show you Data Control Central," he ventured. "That would be great," said Jayhawk, almost warmly, though she did not like having to follow him. There were spaces between his muscles that she could have slipped a finger into, metal beneath. A good deal of metal. No expert in bodyware, she could not guess what it was even with such a revealing view. After some ten minutes' walk Slim stopped in front of one of the unmarked doors, palmed it open. The room within was the size of a gymnasium, brightly lit and completely bare. She took a few steps in, stared around in puzzlement. Not even an electrical outlet broke the smooth walls. She closed her eyes, listened. No hum of machinery, only the echo of her own breathing, sudden soft footsteps from behind--hastily she opened her eyes, turned to face Slim. "Not much to look at, is there?" He frowned, muscles knotting across his face. "Beg pardon, ma'am?" "Where are the computers? In the walls?" His frown deepened, the tendons in his forehead parting; she didn't try too hard to see what was beneath them. "Are you sure you're feeling all right, ma'am? Doc would be awful upset if you got overtired. We all try to keep on Doc's good side." Jayhawk choked back a sudden horrified giggle. You don't want to get on Doc's bad side, no you don't, he'll flay the skin right off your body.... "Tell me what *you* see." There was a long silence. "Ma'am," he said at last, "they tell me there's a storm coming. Best we be getting out of here." At her nod, he led her out. "Where else? I know, gardens. If you're not too tired--?" They walked a good distance, nearly back to the origin of her crude map, until Slim stopped abruptly before a featureless wall. At his touch it irised open, revealing a grassy lawn, what appeared to be trees a kilo- meter or more away. Jayhawk stepped out onto the grassy, felt the sun strike her with tropical intensity. "Is it real?" she asked a little sarcastically. "Will it sunburn?" "Are you *sure* you're feeling all right, ma'am?" At her snort he went on, sounding a little hurt, "Do you usually sunburn? If so, I reckon it'll burn you all right." "I thought it might be artificial." She took a few more steps, turned to look at the building from which they had come, stood staring in wonder. A pyramid, a single structure half again the size of Aztechnology, polished tawny stone bright in the sunlight. Its face was stepped, each step a meter high--thousands of them, blurring into the distance. There might have been some structure at its top, nearly beyond her sight. "I don't advise you climb up," Slim drawled. "There's a storm up top. Specially dangerous for you, you aren't protected yet." "I wasn't planning to." Even in her best condition--and the ache in her legs suggested she was nowhere near that--she could never have climbed a kilometer of stairs. "Um, is it dangerous?" There were no clouds in the luminously blue sky. "Should we go in?" "It's more dangerous inside. More concentrated," he went on at her inquiring look. "Don't you worry, ma'am, I'm keeping an eye out." She walked a little further, fighting an irrational urge to run off toward the distant trees. Slim hesitated in the doorway, followed her with visible reluctance. "Can I get you anything, ma'am? A sunshade, maybe?" He glanced up briefly. "I'm not over fond of sunshine myself, I burn something terrible." "I imagine so," said Jayhawk, caught between sympathy and horror. "Would you rather go back?" "There's a storm in the way right now, ma'am. Give it ten minutes or so to clear out. I'll be all right, thanks. That's what the hat's for." He touched its broad brim. "Just a habit." "Isn't it awkward working with all these...storms?" She sat down on the grass, finding herself suddenly tired. "Not really. You get to have a feel for them." "But if you're working on something--" "Do it in a shielded room if it can't be interrupted, that's all. Would you like something to drink? Thought I might have a drop myself." "Soda," said Jayhawk indifferently. Slim ducked back into the building, vanished. In his absence, the impulse to flee returned redoubled. A stupid impulse. She had a transmitting radio in her head. And even without that, even assuming Slim couldn't catch up with her--she winced at the thought--where would she be? In the *woods*. Better to run the other way, find if a 'storm' could kill her in a way the Paradisians couldn't recover. But she felt no impulse at all to try that. She'd never been suicidal. Slim reappeared with two glasses, offered her one. The liquid looked like water, tasted like some unfamiliar fruit. She lingered over it, tried to ask Slim questions. He professed not to know the date, nor their location, though he told her that it was late afternoon, which meant that the mountains on the edge of vision must be to the west. (With a small satisfaction she added a compass arrow to her map.) "Storm's gone," he said after a while. "Ready to go back?" She was pleased to find that her map was correct, at least in its directions-- she'd had to guess at scale, but it wasn't off by too much. Slim opened the door for her, nodded politely, wished her a good day, and was gone. She flung herself on the bed, shivering despite the lingering sun-warmth. Her own skin crawled in sympathetic reaction. She'd thought herself blase about cyberware and its attendant inhumanities, but this....She could almost share Channa's revulsion at the concept. She tried not to imagine what might be planned for her. Copyright 1991 Mary Kuhner

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