13. Jayhawk dreamed that night, a dream of memory, crisp and clear as if stored in circuit

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13. Jayhawk dreamed that night, a dream of memory, crisp and clear as if stored in circuitry; and woke disoriented, imagining for a moment that she was back in Seattle. For a long time she lay curled in a tight ball, wishing she could go back to sleep, could manage even that false escape. It was impossible. At last she gave up, went back to her coding. Her dream was of the night they'd destroyed Cavilard Base, nine desperate people against the largest Paradisian installation in Seattle, and were sitting in a parking lot planning their strike against the last and worst of the survivors, High Priestess Aliantha and her attendant sorcerors. Ratty was sitting alone on the pavement weaving a summoning, trying to call up aid for the fight they anticipated. Jayhawk watched him idly, expecting to see nothing, or at most a shiver in the air. The air shivered, shimmered, and a creature stepped out of the night, stood regarding Ratty. A spider nearly the size of their station wagon, its impossible bulk limned with a tracery of shifting green light, an ever-changing pattern flowing beneath the coarse black hairs that covered it. Smaller, it might have been called a wolf spider; it had the long legs of a hunter, knobbed joints towering far above Ratty's head. All conversation in the car came to an abrupt halt, seven faces pressed against the glass. Clusters of eyes, black tipped with sparks of crimson, probed into theirs, bent toward Ratty. He looked up at it, did not move. "What do you ask of me?" it said conversationally, a cool, vaguely sardonic voice with a distinct Seattle accent. "Help against my enemies, against the High Priestess," said Ratty in a voice she could barely hear. "And what will you give me in return?" This seemed to dismay the shaman. It went on, "I make an offer: for every life I take for you, I will take one for myself." "I can't let you kill my people, I would be no better than my enemy." "I do not mean to kill them. That would be wasteful." Ratty considered that, while the rest of the team held its collective breath, waiting. "I don't have the right," he said at last. "I can't give away people like that; they're not mine to give." "I will promise to spare you and your friends." "No. No. I can't do this." "Then may I have leave to go?" It turned a little, feather-light for all its bulk, seemed about to walk off. Its legs pivoted with the grace of a fine machine. Ratty raised one hand, made a convulsive clutching gesture. "Wait. I will make an offer, I will....if you will aid us, I will search for a student for you, someone to willingly accept your power and do your work in this world. Is that what you want?" It turned, stood almost over him, dwarfing his slim form. "And you will do this within three months, or else I will take you instead. Yes?" "What should I tell the one I choose, what will become of him?" Ratty whispered. "Do you wish to become my initiate? No? Then it is no concern of yours. He will share my power and my knowledge, and he will understand it. And I will help you against your enemy." Lights traced and shifted across its body, like a map of the dataflow, the endless dance of the Matrix. Jayhawk stared at it, caught between admiration and terror. It was beautiful, the most beautiful creature she had ever seen. She could barely breathe, afraid to attract its attention to her. And yet she didn't want it to go. "How will I know," said Ratty at last, "who is suitable?" "You will know them when you see them," said the Spider; though it had no face to show an expression, she thought she detected amusement in its eyes. It glanced up at them once more--at her, she thought, and would have drawn back if she could, hid from that probing many-eyed gaze--back down at Ratty. "Are we agreed? Yes?" "Yes." As if dismissed by his words, the Spider turned away, walked off in a direction that her eyes would follow only for a brief, offended instant. The night seemed very dark where it had been, and very still. The crickets had stopped. "All right," said Duende after a moment. "Are we ready, then? Let's go." 14. Exercise Jayhawk was startled by a buzz, so much like her apartment doorbell that she automatically said "Come in." The door whisked open, and Martha peered in. "Hello!" she said. "Feel up to a little exercise?" "Hello," said Jayhawk coolly. "I suppose so. Let me get dressed." She gathered up an armload of clothes, retreated into the bathroom. "How are you doing? Need anything?" "Fine.--Is there any, ah, news from Seattle?" Martha frowned. "Not really. But don't worry yourself about that." "I'm just curious," said Jayhawk as civilly as she could manage, re- membering that she was not positive Martha knew her for an enemy. "You said you were waiting to hear something." "Ah. Shamrock said he'd talked to your friends, they were fine....and the people who'd been sent to, ah, talk to them have apparently been called back. Nothing to worry about there." "Ha!" Jay said, almost with relief. "You do know who I am, then." The furrow between Martha's brows deepened. "Of course we do. I explained all this, didn't you understand? It was all in the message- squirt that came with you." "I thought you hadn't entirely figured that out." "Not entirely, not yet. But the part dealing with you was really very clear." Martha smiled brightly. "Is there anywhere in particular you would like to go?" When Jay shook her head, she went on, "I know-- exercise. We need to get you started on some kind of program. Can't have you sitting around all day, it's not good for you." Unwillingly, Jayhawk followed her through the featureless corridors to an equally featureless room. "Parallel bars!" said Martha, gesturing, and a floor panel slid back to reveal a pair of chest- high, polished wooden bars. With surprising ease given her bulk, Martha hoisted herself up onto them, arm-walked from one end to the other. "There. Now you try." Jayhawk managed a lurching progress about halfway across, dropped to the floor with a snarl. "I don't do exercise," she said. "Not since elementary school--" "High time you got back to it, then. You need to be healthy. Sitting around at a desk all day will not do at all." "--And the person who made me do it then was awfully sorry." It was a lie. She'd never taken the long-plotted revenge, though she wished now that she had. She folded her arms defiantly, back against the wall. "If you have to teach me--" A glimmer of real curiosity that she fought to keep out of her voice, but didn't quite succeed "--why not something useful, like the Matrix?" "First things first. You need to be in good shape for some of what we're going to be doing, especially the Overnet. A healthy mind, a healthy body, a healthy--" slight pause "--spirit." Jay wasn't sure whether it was the old hatred of forced exercise, or the new terror--a healthy body, a healthy host for Aliantha when she took over?--but she could not bring herself to cooperate. It was not the issue over which she'd have chosen to fight her captors, but...."I can't do it. Please. I can handle jogging, swimming, something that seems halfway real; but I can't stand exercise equipment, I never could." Martha opened her mouth to protest, seemed to think better of it, said apologetically, "I'm sorry, I didn't realize it was like that. How about jogging, then? We could go outside--no, I forgot, you hate the outdoors. In the halls, then. Would that be better?" "All right." It was a very small victory, but better than nothing. "I'm terrible at it, though, we won't be going very far." "Oh," said Martha with a smile, "I think you may surprise yourself." They ran through a maze of featureless corridors, filling in one blank after another on Jay's headware map. To her surprise, she didn't find herself noticably tired. "You're very healthy," Martha said when she commented on this. "Healthier than you've been in a long time, I think. Has Doc been to see you?" When Jay shook her head, she went on, "That's a good sign, actually; he's only interested when things go wrong. But so like him!" She pulled to a sudden stop, glanced backwards. "Um. How fast do you think you can run?" Before Jay could formulate an answer, she laughed, said, "Never mind then. I think we'd best hide out for a bit. There's a storm coming." With a palm-touch she opened one of the hundreds of identical doors, gestured inside. Jayhawk hesitated for a moment, looking backwards. She could see nothing unusual. The idea of bolting occured to her--into the "storm", probably to her death, but perhaps a death that would put her outside the Paradisian's reach....But Martha was faster, she told herself. It would never work. Martha took her elbow, and she allowed herself to be pulled inside. The room was full of heavy machinery. Martha called up benches, and they sat, catching their breath. "How do you know when a storm is coming?" "Something tells you," said Martha absently, apparently thinking about something else. "A prickly feeling? Something like that?" "Oh! No, you're actually told. It's the complex, as a matter of fact--once you have a direct link to it, it warns you about such things. It can also help a lot with the building itself, which as you may have noticed is something of a maze--and wait till you see a rearrangement, and have to learn the whole thing again! I don't bother anymore....It would like to meet you, Jay, but we've been fending it off; it can be rather, ah, over-eager with new people. Maybe soon. The direct link is extremely helpful." With an odd look at Jayhawk, she changed the subject. "I wrote some code that you probably still use at the University, some accounting packages. What were you working on?" "IC programming, mainly. Why did you give up being an accountant?" "Heavens, I wasn't an accountant, I just wrote the stuff. That was a long time ago, a lot of water under the bridge since then. Before the Matrix, even. Do you remember 'hackers'?" "I'm twenty-four years old," said Jayhawk with dignity, "I *was* a hacker, before the Matrix." Martha looked abashed. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize. You must have been quite young.--Most deckers don't seem to realize non-Matrix computing ever existed. It's nice to meet someone else with an appreciation for the history of the field." "What system did you work on?" Martha rattled off a familiar machine name--a dinosaur, but still in use, Jay'd broken into it once just to see what the ancient archetecture looked like--and said with approval, "It's good to see you taking an interest in things." "I'm a decker. Curiosity is a way of life." "A way of life. Just you remember that." At Jayhawk's puzzled look, she went on, "We didn't think you were going to make it for a while, we'd just about given up hope." Jay shivered, thinking of the endless forest, the fever delirium. She had decided that whatever that nightmarish experience had been, stimsense or delusion or some arcane reality, it coincided with Martha's statements about how near she had come to death. Martha said thoughtfully, "What you went through is very difficult, most people don't cope nearly as well as you did. The methods we had to use to recover you were rather, well, arcane. Couldn't deal with it myself. But you seem to be managing extremely nicely." "What usually goes wrong?" said Jayhawk with morbid curiosity. "I wouldn't say there was a 'usually'. It varies with the person, varies a good deal." "Okay, what's been known to go wrong?" Martha sighed. "Ah, well, there's cyberware rejection. That didn't seem too likely in your case. And then some people just can't adapt, and they go insane, or the integration breaks down....A number of things can happen." She stood up briskly. "The storm's gone, why don't we head on back?" Back at Jayhawk's room, she asked, "Do you need anything?" "Computer access!" said Jay fiercely. "Oh, you haven't found your terminal yet? Terminal!" When nothing happened, she frowned, stared at the wall for a moment. "It hasn't been set up yet. Let me see." She extended a hand to the wall, three fine metal prongs reaching out from her knuckles to mesh with a previously-invisible socket. Jayhawk's hands itched with the desire to hit her, now when she was distracted...a stupid idea, she told herself, and petty besides. There was no getting out that way. A terminal unfolded from the wall near the bed. "There you go! Everything should be set up. I'll see you tomorrow--until then, just ask if you need anything. Ah, you'll find that a lot of files have to be secured against you at the moment. I imagine you can get past that if you try, but I really wouldn't recommend it. There are some rather dangerous things on this system, things you're not ready for yet." Jayhawk stared after her with tightly clenched lips, then sat down abruptly at the terminal, logged on. There was a genererous little subdirectory at hand, with her name on it; a quick investigation showed that it was part of an enormous network, larger than anything the University boasted. Most of the files were scrambled in some way, meaningless to her. Everything she had put in her headware was filed neatly away in a branch of her directory tree. Experiment revealed that the file was constantly updated with anything she added, and that the link was two-way. A more thorough search revealed that it was also being echoed to at least three places in the system--perhaps more, if it were being encrypted during transmission. She leaned back, shook her head in wonder and dismay. "It's no wonder they go crazy," she said softly, aloud. "No wonder at all." Eventually she went back to work. After all, she'd known there was no secrecy; this only confirmed it. If she was to escape, she would have to pull off something so clever that they wouldn't understand it even though they saw every step. It seemed to her that if she ever stopped believing in the possibility of escape, she *would* go mad, on the spot. 15. Inside Despite having written all the necessary code, despite headware that checked out perfectly as far as she could tell, Jayhawk found that she couldn't get onto the Matrix. The program carrier in her palm would link her with her terminal, give her a virtual keyboard and screen to play with; but whenever she tried to go further, she was slapped back into her body with startling suddenness, ACCESS DENIED flaring across the inside of her eyelids. She couldn't figure out why. The frustration of her fourth or fifth attempt brought memories stirring to the surface, memories of a dream of frustration. She had been trapped in a tiny doorless room, aware of everything she wanted just outside, but unable to get at it. And then something approaching, something at once desireable and terrible....She couldn't remember any more, though she thought the dream had continued. She went back to her coding, surfaced from the near-trance of concentration half an hour later with a gasp of realization. "It would like to meet you," Martha had said. "We've been putting it off; it can be a bit over-eager with new people. Maybe soon." Her dreams were not her own. She swore aloud, spent the rest of the evening devising checks on the files that gave access from the mainframe to her headware memory. Checks within checks, so that a cursory inspection would find only the outermost. A weak safeguard, but the best she could do. That night the dream returned: trapped in a tiny featureless prison, all creation waiting for her outside. Something approached, slipped inside along the traceries of headware, began to meddle with the code she had written. She tried to deny it access, failed. Lines of text scrolled by her eyes, changing too quickly for her to follow. The intruder was *inside*, within her, making changes in her--she could feel it groping out into her arms, tugging at them, restructuring.... She woke in a cold sweat, arms wrapped defensively around her head. Is that how it's going to be, is that what's going to happen to me? Suddenly the headware link seemed invasive, a penetration of her being; she scrabbled at the datajack ineffectually, caught herself. With an effort of will, she forced herself to check the safeguards she had set. None of her files had been accessed. As far as she could tell, none of the headware code had been changed. A dream. Nothing but a dream, a nightmare--and who wouldn't have nightmares in a place like this? she told herself firmly, and went back to work. Apparently sensing her mood, Martha was less chatty during their morning jog; but at the end of it she said brightly, "Jayhawk, there's someone who would very much like to meet you. Is that all right?" "Sure," she said with harsh defiance. "Any time." She was resolved not to show fear, empty though the gesture might be. "I'll try to set up an appointment for tomorrow, then. Have a nice day." That night she drove herself to stay awake, helped by the timeless constancy of the light. She tried the tricks Channa had taught her when the two of them were trying to disentangle the web of suggestions in Jay's mind, hoping to bring to light whatever was keeping her off the Matrix. She found nothing, though the forbidding was just as obtrusive as before. Memories pricked at her, times in the past when she'd been denied the Matrix for days or weeks. The craving was not bad yet, but it would be. She was an addict, had been for years. Morning crawled across her terminal clock, marked otherwise only by the accumulating clutter of coffeecups. Morning, and afternoon. Martha did not come. Toward evening she had to admit to herself that she was waiting for a knock on the door with as much impatience as fear, unable to bear the waiting any longer. She rubbed red-rimmed eyes, decided to lie down for just a little while....drifted off while wrestling with a detail of code, one more line in the escape plan. She woke with a cry, sat up bolt upright, hands clutching her head. A sharp stab of pain made her draw back. The program carrier in her palm was fully extended, a smear of blood from her face on the thin metal prongs. She shook her hand violently, willed it to retract. The dreams had returned, clearer and more vivid. An intruder within, modifying and revising--not her physical form, nothing so trivial, but her thoughts, the very structure and layout of her mind, the system under which it operated. She'd been helpless, little more than a spectator. And then another presence had joined it, working at the same tasks, but not quite cooperatively--she had dizzying memories of the two successively adjusting and readjusting.... She climbed painfully out of bed, stripped off her clothes and left them in a pile on the floor, and stood under a scalding hot shower. It helped a little, drove back some of the shivering. Silently, face tipped up into the blinding spray of hot water, she said: Spider, if you're really out there, if you're really listening, you had better do something soon. Because I'm going to go crazy if they keep me here much longer. I don't think I'll do you much good like that. There was no answer at all. [This one is particularly dedicated to the GM, Jon Yamato, who stayed up until 2:30 AM so that I could see what happened next....] 16. Bikes After the nightmares Jayhawk slept only fitfully; when the door buzzed she was awake at once, though painfully groggy. "Come in." "Hi, sleepyhead! Want to go for a ride?" Martha looked at her, frowned. "Are you feeling all right?" "I, uh, I'm not quite used to not having a window, and I think I stayed up too late." She smoothed her nightgown awkwardly. "If you could give me ten minutes or so to get dressed and freshen up--?" "May I see your wrist, please? No, the other one," when Jayhawk instinctively extended her left arm, unwilling to expose the program carrier. Martha wrapped her fingers gently around Jay's wrist, closed her eyes; Jayhawk tensed, but could sense nothing. After a few seconds Martha let go, looked up. "Nothing's wrong as far as I can tell. How does a bike ride sound to you? I can wait in the hall while you get dressed." Ten minutes later they were jogging through the featureless corridors. "Missed you yesterday," said Jay, the most indirect approach she could find to asking Martha what was going on. "I'm sorry about that. Other business. I hope you weren't too bored?" "Maybe you've forgotten, here, but out in the real world most people who run the Matrix for a living are addicted to it." "I know," said Martha uncomfortably. "But we can't let you loose on the Matrix until you've a little more fit. Today should be a good test." "Of what?" "Of how well you interact with the machine, how well your cyberware is functioning...." "Oh!" She had almost forgotten what the medical monitors had shown here, the complex traceries of the vehicle rig woven through her nerves. Her bare room provided no way to test those abilities. They turned down a corridor which did not appear on her map, entered a huge open bay. It could easily have accomodated a full-sized airplane, though at the moment it held nothing more than a pair of motorcycles. Martha gestured at them. "Go ahead, pick one." Jayhawk arbitrarily chose the left bike, looked it over carefully. There was some extra machinery around the rear wheel, and an unfamiliar panel at the front; otherwise it was not much different from her long-lost Rapier. "Good choice," said Martha. "That's Brown." She straddled the other bike. "Go ahead--jack in, see how it feels." A small port on the handlebar seemed designed to take the program carrier's prongs; tentatively she extended them, made the connection. There was a brief, soundless, dizzying explosion of sensation; she found herself sitting on the bike, vaguely aware of having run through a series of checks. It was a very odd feeling. She could sense her body, sense the bike, but both were distant, filtered as if through several levels of indirection. She felt as if she were floating in space, disembodied, manuvering body and bike through some kind of remote. "All right?" said Martha's voice in her ear. "How does it feel?" She struggled for a moment, discovered how to talk. "A little strange." "Strange? In what way? Describe what you're feeling, please." Martha's tone was unusually insistent. "It's a lot like running a security system from the Matrix. Aware, but detached. It's probably just habit--I've run security a number of times, but I've never done this before." She didn't believe that explanation herself, but she didn't want to tell Martha any more than she must. She tried to shift her weight, found something resisting her. It seemed unnatural to move her body separately, awkward; she was interfering with the bike's balance. But she could do it, with concentration. "Have you ever flown? No? Then we'll take it slow at first. Ready?" Martha wheeled forward; ahead of her, a door slid upwards. For a moment she was silhouetted against bright sky; then she vanished. Jayhawk moved forward, saw from her weirdly disembodied point of view that they were high up on the side of the pyramid, perhaps half a klick. A dizzyingly steep ramp plunged down toward the grassy lawn far below. It all seemed a little too distant to be really frightening. Before she had time to think about it, she was skimming downwards. There was no sensation of speed; it was more like playing a video game than being on a motorcycle. She found herself disappointed. Riggers she'd known had described the experience as comparable to sex or running the Matrix. This was nothing. Blocked! She was being blocked out of a full link with the bike, just as she had been blocked off the Matrix--and probably by the same mechanism, whatever that was. The ramp flared out a little at the base. Martha was already racing out across the lawn. For just an instant Jayhawk felt the speed at which she was moving, like a stone plummeting from the pyramid, felt the wheels spinning smoothly, the gyros adjusting to her weight. Then it was gone, leaving only vision. She gunned the bike after Martha, who plunged in among the trees, following an almost impossibly narrow path. It hardly seemed necessary to concentrate at all; the bike knew what it was doing, needed only her cooperation. Ignoring the trees streaming past, Jayhawk concentrated on her link with the machine, trying to break whatever barrier was keeping her out. The barrier was not quite adequate to its task; bits of sensation leaked through, the pulse of the engine, the level of charge in its capacitors, the wind in her hair. An instant of breakthrough, dizzying exultation of speed--and something reached back at her through the link, *into* her, trying to change-- She jerked her awareness forcibly back, almost disconnected from the bike--looked up to see trees whirling at her, realized that she would crash. In an instant of panic she brought the bike to a skidding stop, then tore her hand free and jumped off, backed away. The engine wound down to silence. Martha did a hasty reverse, rode back to her. "Jayhawk! What's the matter, are you all right?" Jay slid down against a tree, arms wrapped tightly around her. "Is that what was supposed to happen? Because if so, I don't think...I don't think I'm interested in having any part of it." "What's wrong? Tell me what happened." She looked up at Martha, terror and hatred naked in her eyes. "You're my enemy. I shouldn't tell you anything." Martha's eyes widened; she went on, regretting what she was saying but unable to stop herself, "Everything I tell you, every bit of cooperation I give you, is one more step in damning myself." In a voice thick with loathing, "You belong to the people who cut my boyfriend's heart out on an altar." Martha looked down as if unable to meet her eyes. "I'm sorry, Jayhawk. There are some truly loathsome people here. I'm sorry you ever had to get caught up in this, as I'm sorry for myself." "Is this how it was for you?" Curious despite herself. "Not exactly. I was out exploring, years ago, and I found something.... I'll tell you the whole story, when I can.--Jayhawk, I want you to survive. Whatever you may think of me, that's the truth." "Martha." The older woman looked up. "Tell me how I can die. If I know that...maybe I can go on living for a while." "Do you really have to know?" At Jay's nod she hesitated a moment, weighing her words. "It's really very simple. Ask Slim to kill you. He *will*; and you won't be recoverable." "Thank you," Jayhawk whispered. "But tell me, *please*, what is happening that is so dreadful." "Something is trying to get into my mind, change me. Just now: and I've sensed it before, in my dreams." "Here? Through the bike link?" Martha frowned. "What do you think it is? I know you have some idea." In an utterly toneless voice, Jayhawk said, "We had several indications that Aliantha had no body of her own. I believe that I am to be a host for her." Martha shook her head. "No. I don't think so. I saw the message she sent, and it didn't sound like that.--I taught Aliantha, Jayhawk. I know her. She has other choices, far more effective ones. Using a host body....The body image is never quite right, it never meshes perfectly. And that's catastrophic when doing anything...dangerous. I'm sorry, I'm not explaining this very well. The vocabulary--" "No, I understand you. What *did* she say to do with me?" Martha hesitated. "Part of the message was only for the Lord. But from what I saw, it sounded to me....High Priestess. Though I don't know of where." She wiped her hands on her pants, went on, "Possibly the complex itself has taken an interest in you. It is sometimes *much* too eager with new people." "That would have been my second guess." "I could check that, if you like." "Is 'who' really the important question?" said Jayhawk bitterly. "How can I stop it?" "What did you do to bring it on?" "I was trying to get around the override, whatever it is you've done to keep me off the Matrix." "I hoped you could break that. I didn't use any Overnet tricks at all." Martha smiled tentatively. "It's probably the only thing that's saving me. God, Martha, do you remember...do you still know what it is to be afraid? Some of them seem to have forgotten." She was thinking of Duende. "Oh yes. That's something that never goes away. For some of us here, that's all there is anymore." She looked at Jayhawk with concern. "I can check if you like, see if the complex is responsible for this... intrusion." "If you want." She buried her head in her arms. "Martha, could you try to arrange that...the meeting you mentioned? Maybe we can work something out. This sneaking in behind my back will not do." Her voice was not as brave as her words. Martha was silent for a long moment. "It says--not now, but tonight. And it denies any responsibility for what you say just happened." Jay nodded, not looking up. Martha hesistated, went on more softly, "We've quite a way from the complex, and it's actually fairly private here. There aren't many who have the power to monitor this place. A lot of us come out here sometimes, when we need to be alone....careful, of course, that we don't run into each other. It's something you should keep in mind. I want you to survive, Jayhawk, and I think you can. But you're going to have to work at it." "Should I? Isn't it my duty...to deny my enemy use of my talents?" "And not to learn what you can, to escape with knowledge and power to help your friends?" Jayhawk looked up sharply. "If you start thinking that way....Is that what Roth and Chalker thought? How they were caught?" "Not exactly." She sighed. "Roth and Chalker were good men, there are too few like them. I regret that bitterly, I regret the hasty decision that cost us their lives. I don't want to lose you too. You're incredibly gifted, Jayhawk; you took to the bike like someone who's been a rigger for years. It would be such a waste." A waste for what? What is going to happen to me? Aloud, she said quietly, "I guess there are some questions you don't ask around here." She stood up, offered Martha her right hand. Martha looked at her in puzzlement. "What--?" "As one of the lost to another...thanks." Martha smiled briefly, took her hand. "I don't know what an old fool like me has done to deserve this," she said hoarsely. "That's probably one of the questions it's better not to ask." "I suppose so.--Jayhawk, everyone here is crazy, one way or another. But if you can figure out how...you can cope." Jay laughed suddenly. "That's what Duende said. And Grant said, joking, 'Everybody but you, of course.' Duende just looked at him and said 'No, everybody.' You should have seen Grant's expression." There was a nervy hysterical edge to her laughter; hearing herself, she sobered suddenly. "He was good," said Martha. "A little rough, but good. I think you could be better, I really do. But at the moment it's all potential." "Don't tempt me," said Jayhawk sharply. "I'm confused enough as it is." She sat on her bike. "Shall we go back before we're missed?" "Do you think you can handle the bike?" "No problem." "Do you want me to set up an Overnet program, to protect you from...whatever it is?" Jayhawk shook her head. "I was aiding and abetting it, I don't think it can get at me while I'm awake." "While you're asleep, then? It's perfectly safe, I use one myself." "No." Martha sighed. "Jay, you really have to do something about these self-destructive impulses." "It's not self-destructive." She struggled to put her reasons into words. "We have to find out what this is; I can't survive without the Matrix, and you can't protect me there. And we won't find out if you block it, will we?" It occured to her that she was hoping Martha would disagree. "No, we won't." Martha nodded in apparent satisfaction. "Jayhawk, do you want me to remove the Matrix restrictions?" "No." At the other woman's questioning look; "I want to find out what's going on; but a speeding bike is probably not the best place." Martha chuckled. "All right. I think--I think I'm going to stay out here a while. You're welcome to hang around, do some exploring on your own--" Jayhawk shuddered, looking at the dense forest on either side, something she had been trying to ignore "--or head on back. You shouldn't stay out past sunset, it gets pretty wierd around here at night.--You're sure you can manage the bike? No control problems, no sluggishness?" "I'm fine," she said, a little more forcibly than she had intended, and jacked in before she had time to think about it. The transition was much smoother, no explosion of sensory input, just the strange distant awareness of flesh and machine. "See you later.--Take care of yourself, Martha." It was hard to believe that she was even this close to freedom, hard not to turn the bike and head off into the hills. The knowledge of the headware radio stopped her...that, and a certain unwillingness to subject Martha to whatever penalties the unseen masters of Montaigne Paradisio would devise. She kept her awareness carefully distant from the bike, gave the unseen presence nothing to work with, and reached the pyramid without incident. Slim was waiting for her at the hanger. She thought he might question Martha's absence, but he said only, "She's a good woman, Martha is." Jayhawk nodded, afraid to answer, and they walked back to her room in silence. At the door, prompted by some kind of morbid curiosity, she said, "Would you like to come in, have a soda?" "No thank you, ma'am. I'm a little shy with women, m'afraid." Somewhat relieved, she watched him go, then went into the bathroom and stripped off her pants. Scored into her leg were half a dozen long, shallow scratches, where she had driven the prongs of the program carrier through the cloth into her skin. She put some antiseptic on them, sat on the bathroom counter to think. Aliantha intended her to be a High Priestess. She remembered what Duende had said about them, the power and the madness he had described. She remembered Aliantha. 'Everyone here is crazy, one way or another.' Even Martha. High Priestess. What did that mean, beyond the undeniable power? Why would her enemies put such power in her hands? If they could make her loyal, what were they waiting for? And if not-- Everyone. She whispered aloud to the reflection in the mirror: "Even me?" 17. Darkness Resolved not to go to sleep, Jayhawk paced and drank coffee and put together useless bits of electronics. Hours dragged by. Now and then she glanced at her terminal, but left it alone. Her imagination suggested a sinister presence just outside the walls of her room, just behind the glassy screen, waiting for her. At exactly midnight she was startled up from the cable she was wrapping by the soft whisk of her door opening. "Hello?" she called. There was no response. Skin prickling, she walked to the door, looked out. The hallway had changed; it ended in a blank wall just to her left, curved off to her right, the first curves she had seen in the complex. She retreated into her room, hastily assembled a pocketful of useful tools from the electronics kit, then stepped out cautiously into the hall. After all, she told herself, she hadn't been forbidden going out alone, only told that if she *did* go out she would have an escort. Their fault if they'd slipped up. Some thirty meters along its gentle curve, the hallway ended in another door, which hissed open as she approached. The room beyond was pitch dark. She stopped on the threshold, waiting for her eyes to adjust. A voice, somewhere in the darkness: "Please come in." It was barely more than a whisper, the voice of something broken and in pain. Jayhawk stepped forward; behind her, the door sliced off the light. There was a pungent smell in the room, something that had not been apparent from outside; the smell of an animal imprisoned in a too-small space. "I've been wanting to meet you," the voice muttered, ahead of her and to her left. Machinery hummed all around her. "I noticed," said Jayhawk. "Was that you in my nightmares?" "You have nightmares? So do I....ahh. It hurts to talk, did you know that?" "I'm sorry." "They're all sorry. But it doesn't help much, does it? I have not been controlling your dreams, no. I can't even control my own." "My name is Jayhawk," she offered after a moment of silence. "I know," said the other, and chuckled laborously. "If not you...who is it? What is Aliantha doing with me?" "Aliantha is dead. You killed her." Jay drew in a sharp breath, surprise and a vicious satisfaction flooding through her. "I didn't think that was possible." "Normally it is not....It might be more accurate to say that she sacrificed herself to save you." "*Why?*" Her voice echoed off the surrounding machinery. "Why me? I don't understand." The other sighed. "Neither do I. I never understood Aliantha, and I have been trying for a long time. Think on it, child. Perhaps you can tell us." Jayhawk frowned. "Her operations were in ruins, she'd lost just about everything she had in Seattle. If she cared about that, then maybe....I don't know! I didn't know her." The voice in the darkness groaned softly, like someone rolling from one position to another when all positions are painful. Jayhawk froze in place as huge masses of machinery slid by her, unseen but felt, almost brushing her hair. For an instant she seemed to be enclosed by massive walls. Thinking of sharp edges and live wires, she did not reach out to confirm the impression. "Have you ever loved anyone?" "I don't know," said Jayhawk shortly. "Honest...that is good. Not even your parents? Or is that a painful thing, should I not ask?" "No, no. Mom and I...we weren't particularly close, but I guess we loved each other, *that* kind of love. But she...she didn't take to the Matrix. I haven't seen her in a while." "You are hard to understand. All of you." "If you want lessons in being human," said Jayhawk, "you're asking the wrong person." "I am not interested in becoming a human." Again the soft groan, and the sense of massive objects shifting all around her, leaving only a tiny spot untouched. "You were one once, weren't you?" "You are quick." Jayhawk reached out a hand cautiously, found that the space in front of her was empty again. "Do you want to see me, is that it?" said the voice. "Curiosity?" "No, if you want your privacy who am I to take it away?" She felt just a little sorry for the--what *was* she speaking to? The voice was not discernably male or female. "Interesting code, what you were writing." "*I* don't get any privacy," she said bitterly, her sympathy evaporating. "Child, child, you told it to me." "I know that now. I didn't then." "Everything you do, everything you say...shouts at me." "Not my fault!" "No. No one's fault." "Someone set this up, someone created Paradisio, *someone* is responsible." "So long ago. And that person has paid the price, far and above. Or perhaps not. It becomes hard to remember." The other sighed again. "If you would like to see a working example of that code--" A directory path. "Martha wrote it, years ago. Can you guess for who?" "Aliantha." "Yes. But she never tried it. I wonder why? Perhaps you will tell me someday." Jayhawk shivered, said unhappily, "May I sit down?" "There is a chair behind you." She felt backward, found it, sat down heavily. "*I've* tried it. It was an interesting experience. But damn it, you people seem to have done everything first." She had killed Aliantha, the trick had been good enough for that. It was almost a comfort, almost. "It was a very profitable line of research...for some. I would not recommend that you try it here. Or perhaps...perhaps I would." A long pause. The animal smell was thick in the air. "Do you believe in fate?" Before Jayhawk could answer, the other went on, "I don't, I think, although they tell me....Perhaps I am getting senile. That might be it. I like to think that all of this will be over soon, one way or the other. "You are probably tired. I should let you rest." Jayhawk stood, holding the back of the chair with one hand. "If you want to talk again--well, I'm not going anywhere, and I doubt you are either. Feel free." "Let me give you something before you go." A sharp tingle, almost painful, ran through her, as if she had touched a live wire. "You are free to access the Matrix now, within this complex; we cannot let you go further yet. Take care." "Thank you," said Jayhawk in a very small voice, caught between desire and fear. "You're welcome." Behind her a door slid open, flooding the room with glare; very vaguely she could make out the glitter of glass ahead of her, the duller reflections of metal. She groped her way out, walked back down the corridor to her room. She found Martha's code in a file which had previously been scrambled, but was now plaintext. It was fairly similar to her own. Code to merge headware OS with the mainframe's, set her thoughts free within the machine itself. Written for Aliantha. It had the earmarks of something created on and for the Matrix, difficult to understand outside its native habitat. She puzzled over an odd construction for a while, then almost without thinking about it set her hand to the I/O port, jacked in. The transition was perfectly smooth, without disorientation or shock; to her surprise, the node she accessed was an almost perfect copy of her room. Martha's program was lying on the 'desk', a slender silver needle. It was a beautiful piece of code, written, examination suggested, as much to be beautiful as to be optimal. Her own Matrix image was just as she remembered, black-haired and sheathed in silver. She frowned, wondering at that. The code which maintained that image was lost with her deck. Where was it coming from? Abruptly she jacked out, sat back, arms folded across her chest. Free on the Matrix, whatever barriers had kept her from it gone. Did the presences that lurked in her dreams have free access now too? She had sensed nothing while she was jacked in. Not yet. Her nerves prickled, teased more than satisfied by the brief delight of the Matrix. Deliberately she shut the terminal down, lay down on the bed. As she was drifting off, a thought occured to her, an imagined scene: A young woman about her own age, sitting at a terminal much like her own, talking to an unseen presence. 'Is there no way I can escape, not even to die?' 'Not even to die, Aliantha. Unless--unless you bring us someone to be your successor. Then you can go free.' 'She sacrificed herself for you,' the voice in the darkness had told Jayhawk. But it seemed to her now that it was the other way around; that her life, her soul was the price for Aliantha's long-awaited death. 18. Matrix Jayhawk barely slept, afraid that something would intrude on her dreams. The door's buzz was a relief from her tossing. "Hello!" said Martha. "Having trouble sleeping? I thought you might be. Doc sent some pills, if you like." "*No*. Not a good idea." "All right. How did, ah, your meeting go? What did he say?" "He? That's a he?" The speaker in the darkness had reminded her, if anything, of her grandmother, dying slowly in a rest home. "I think so, though I'm not quite sure. It may not be relevant." "He said that Aliantha was dead." She had trouble keeping a certain satisfaction out of her voice. Martha stiffened, then let out a long slow breath. "I know. The news came in last night." Jayhawk bit her lip. "Martha, were you and Aliantha friends?" "I try to be friends with everyone. We were quite close for a while, though we drifted apart. Friends, yes." "I...I can't say I regret it. But I sympathize." Martha looked up. "Oh, don't worry about me, Jay. I'll cope, I always do." And in a softer voice, "But thank you for the concern. Did he say anything else?" "Not really. More introspection than conversation, if you know what I mean. He seemed unhappy." "Yes....How are you feeling? Are you up to a tour of the Matrix?" "Sure." She crawled out of bed, settled herself in her chair. Martha merely reached out, set her hand to a suddenly-appearing port in the wall. Smooth as silk, the transition, easy as opening her eyes. She found Martha already in the simulated bedroom, looking at her intently. "All right?" the older woman said. "No problems? Let's go." For over an hour they wandered through the system. As far as Jayhawk could tell, it was a ridiculously accurate copy of the physical layout. She could sort out nodes from internodes, sense the underlying archetecture, but it would have been easy to pretend that she was still in physical space. They never approached the outside, never saw a SAN node. Martha gestured briefly at a glass-walled hall. "Security." Inside, banks of monitors flickered with activity, ringing a huge, rotating model of the Northern Hemisphere. Lights glittered across its surface. Everywhere they went, Jayhawk had the impression of many people, furious activity, just out of sight. But she saw no one. "Data Control Central." Remembering the perfectly bare room Slim had shown her, Jayhawk was intrigued to see a room packed full of computer equipment, rather archaic but still impressive in its size. Only on the Matrix? Or had it existed in the real world, and had they somehow blinded her to it? At last they made their way back to her room, Jayhawk filling in details of her map as they went. "So," said Martha. "Tell me what you think, honestly." "Honestly? A remarkably inefficient use of an unbelievably powerful computer." It had been all one system, as far as she could tell, a system far huger than anything she had ever run. Martha sighed. "I think that once you get used to it, it adds a certain...hominess? I rather like it." "It's very impressive." Jayhawk turned away, the midnight hair of her Matrix image cascading over her shoulder. "If this was a test--and I imagine it was--did I pass?" "Can't you stop--" Martha began in annoyance. "No, I suppose you can't. It's not a test, Jayhawk. I just thought you might be having trouble sleeping, and might like some company, that's all." "I'm sorry," said Jayhawk, a little abashed. "I did enjoy it." Casting about for a safer subject: "How does the interface work? How is the Matrix image maintained without a deck?" They spent the next several hours in an intense technical discussion. At first Martha seemed to be feeling her way, trying to find how much Jayhawk knew, but when her first attempts were met with ready comprehension she unleashed a flood of information. She seemed to have all the technical journals at her fingertips, papers that Jayhawk had intended to read but never gotten around to, others that she had never heard of. She called a halt only when Jayhawk was dizzy with exhaustion. "You'd better at least try to sleep, this is not good for you at all." Jayhawk bit her lip, tried to reason it out through the haze in her mind. If she stayed awake, eventually she would have to deal with the enemy befuddled, sick and weak. And she couldn't stay awake forever. "Good night, then, and thanks again for the tour." Martha nodded, and walked out of the room--still on the Matrix, Jayhawk realized in startlement, leaving her body, presumably, jacked in near the door. But when she jacked out, looked around the room, Martha was gone. 19. Dreams Something was inside her, editing her headware code, the MCPC chips that let her run the Matrix...probing into her thoughts, the vaguely-sensed system that supported them. She could not understand what it was doing; she didn't know her own mind well enough. She could only watch, helpless. Another joined it, a second presence...sometimes amplifying the changes of the first, sometimes altering them, sometimes...restoring? She couldn't tell. Jayhawk woke abruptly, lay staring up at the ceiling. Her thoughts were crystal-clear, sharper than they had been for days. Almost too clear. It was hard to push the terror away. She recognized the second presence; it seemed to her that she had always known who it was, managed somehow not to grasp the obvious until now. It was Aliantha. The first was familiar also, but she could put no name to it. She lay and thought of ghosts, of Chalker and his gang haunting the ashes of their hideout. She recalled the run she had made against a computer which no longer existed, the cold shadows that had reached out at her from places which the Matrix should never have touched. She remembered Aliantha. For a few hours she had dared to hope that her death meant....It meant nothing. They had learned that, fighting the Paradisians, living with Duende. No escape. She herself had died, if Martha was to be believed. And here she was. Jayhawk got up, logged into her terminal, checked the time. Only an hour had passed since Martha left her. She rubbed her eyes, checked again, wondering if she had slept for twenty-five hours; but the date was the same. She was not tired. She felt perfectly rested, almost unnaturally clear-headed, utterly healthy. Cleansed, as if by a full night's sleep and a vigorous shower. Tingling with energy. Letting out a long, slow breath, she jacked in, examined the safeguards she had put on her headware code. From the Matrix they looked primitive, almost childish; she could see half a dozen ways around them. She added another layer of defenses, Matrix code which she could never have matched from outside. None of her alarms had been triggered. She was not terribly surprised. She spent a moment considering how she might allow the code to signal her--could it sound an alarm? Her terminal didn't have the capacity, though she might be able....She shook her head, startled. What had she been thinking? Code to access the outside world directly, to change, not this Matrix representation of her room, but the reality? Impossible. For a moment, until she attended to her own thoughts, she had been planning to do it. And she had known how. She finished setting the safeguards, went looking for Martha. The previous day's tour had included her office, a cluttered room somewhere near the center. Jayhawk found her there, bending over a bit of code manifest as a broken bell. She looked up when Jayhawk knocked, smiled. "Come in. I was just about to have a coffee break anyway." Her smile faded as Jayhawk cleared a place on one of the tables, sat down. "Are you all right? It's not been very long. Couldn't sleep?" In a quiet toneless voice, Jayhawk said, "I slept for an hour. I'm wide awake, not tired at all. Completely rested. My dreams were horrendous." "I'm sorry," said Martha, putting the bell down, then seemed to register what Jay had said. "Completely rested? Physically? Did you check, is your body--?" "I didn't move around much, but I felt fine. Usually when I'm tired my head aches, my eyes ache. None of that." "I think we should have a look at you," said Martha briskly. "If you don't mind?" "I would like to understand." Even to herself, she seemed unnaturally calm, dangerously so. So clear. A little panic would have been a kindness. They returned across the Matrix to Jayhawk's room, and Martha asked her to sit in the console chair, 'where' her physical body would be in the real world. The older woman then proceeded to pull out a succession of tools from her pockets, some so ludicrous that Jayhawk suspected she was deliberately manipulating the Matrix representation. Trying to set her at ease, perhaps. She sat quietly while Martha peered and prodded at her. "Wonderful," she said at last with a smile. "Absolutely wonderful. I wouldn't have believed it. Your cyberware is--your whole body is fine-tuned, as it were. Perfectly balanced. You're making a superb adjustment, much better than we could have expected." She looked at Jayhawk's expression, winced. "In any case, it would seem to be a temporary condition, though perhaps later when you have better control--" "It wasn't me," said Jayhawk grimly. "What? Ah, the dreams. There's been no sign of intrusion, though I can check again if you like. I think they're just nightmares, Jayhawk-- after all, you're trying to adapt to a radically new situation." She met Jayhawk's eyes for a moment, looked away. "I've never seen such a perfect match. She was right after all." "*Match with what?*" Her skin crawled. Her mind, her body, with Aliantha's? "Body and cyberware. I had some doubts, but apparently she knew what she was doing, as usual. You're very luck--Well. I don't think anything is wrong with you. Quite the contrary." A third person entered the room with them, a stocky gnome with long pointed ears; he handed Martha a slip of paper, bowed and vanished. Martha unrolled and read it. "No, no intrusions in some time.--I could have a ward circle set up for you to sleep in. Some people find them helpful, though others--like me--can't tell one way or another." Jayhawk hesistated, wondering what the powers that moved in her dreams would do if their access were blocked. "No, thanks." She had not known what she would answer until she heard herself say it. "If you're right it won't help, and if I'm right...it won't help." Martha frowned. "I could monitor you more closely, if you didn't mind wearing--" The device she produced resembled a tall, conical hat with a red light at its top. She chuckled at Jayhhawk's expression. "I have one with a propellor at the top, too, but I didn't think....No, I thought not." She set it on Jayhawk's head, where it tingled a moment, faded to unnoticability. "Make sure you're wearing that whenever you're on the Matrix." "I don't think that the Matrix--" "No, well, it has extensions to the Overnet, and to a few...other places. Worth a try." "Martha. What will happen next, what is to be done with me?" And when the other woman hesitated, "Short-term, at the very least. It would really help to know." "I imagine you'll finish recovering, and we'll make sure everything's working correctly, body and cyberware." Martha glanced at Jayhawk as if wondering whether to say more, decided against it. "I should get back to work. Always something going wrong around here. It's enough to wear an old woman out. Not that I can't cope, mind you. It just feels like emptying the sea with an eyedropper sometimes." "Can I help?" "Bless your heart. Of course you can." She turned toward the door, then stopped. "Let me show you a shortcut. This walking around is all very well, but sometimes one's in a hurry." She raised a hand in a gesture startling only in its setting, the graceful shaping gestures of magic. Jayhawk tensed, watching in intent curiosity. A silver line formed in the air in front of Martha, then rotated, gaining width as it did, to become a shimmering rectangle of silver. Martha stepped through it, vanished. Jayhawk lingered a moment, wishing for code with which to analyze the construct, then followed her. She found herself in Martha's workroom. The silver door rotated back to a line and vanished. "Just CPU teleport, really," said Martha confidingly. "Generalized, as it were." She cleared Jayhawk some working space, handed her a tangle of wiring. "Here. See what you can do with this." Jayhawk sat down, began to tease out the purpose of the code she was examining. It was a trivial alarm of some kind, familiar in general though constructed to unfamiliar standards. "Jayhawk," said Martha after a few minutes, "are you interested in learning the Overnet?" "Passionately," she said without thinking, engrossed in her problem. Martha sighed softly. "All right. I'll see what I can do." 20. Ghosts Jayhawk sat in confinement and brooded on ghosts...Aliantha's, and eventually the first she had met, the ghosts of Chalker and his gang, murdered by Parasdisio. Terminated, rather, when it seemed that the attack Jayhawk's group was making would succeed. The blood was on her hands too. --As was Aliantha's, by all accounts. A shiver of bitter pride, through the fear. Memories barely more than a month old. It seemed like years. ** Jayhawk sat sulking in Grant's bedroom, pretending to work. It was no use; curiosity was gnawing her out from the inside. A node associated with a non-existant computer! What kind of freak of Matrix space could that represent, what might its implications be? Yoichi was watching her carefully, making quite sure that she didn't try investigating it on her own. She bristled with fury. How dare he, what business was it of his? *She'd* rescued *him*, and now he was behaving as if he were her nursemaid. An idea occurred to her. "I'm going to work from the Matrix side," she said sweetly. "I'll turn on the video monitor, okay?" Yoichi nodded approval. Video monitored. Anything she did on the Matrix would be displayed in glorious full color for everyone in the place to see. At least that was what they thought. She put together a packet of code quickly, pulling in recorded images from earier runs. Innocuous images, everyday Matrix operations. From this side, the video monitor appeared as a security camera fixed on her. She hung her handiwork over its lens, grinned at it. Within the box she'd crafted, a miniature Jayhawk went on with her innocent business. Free, she flashed across the Matrix, into the loose openwork tangle of the Redmond Barrens. The ghost node was still there, a flickering reverse-video image of the castle gates that had once graced Wired Lightning's system. Destroyed a week ago, she had picked through the pieces herself. Was the image being sustained by some resonance among the surrounding nodes? Her analysis programs insisted that nothing was there at all. What kind of data would flow through such a node naturally? She pondered for a moment, set up a loose generic disguise. She'd pose as network packets, electronic mail--*everyone* got electronic mail. Even ghosts. Slipped through the portcullis, and was inside. She had run Wired Lightning before, twice. This was nothing familiar. Grey mist, no sign of the node boundaries, no sense of the dataflow. Somewhere behind her, an actinic spotlight cut into the mist; she could see her own shadow, like a dwindling black tunnel. She turned and looked for the source of the light, succeeded only in blinding herself. Her analysis programs offered nothing, not even the deceptively normal readings of outside. She might as well not have been on the Matrix. The light would at least serve as a landmark. She walked forward along her shadow tunnel, the mist thick around her. Like a Smoke program, maybe, confusing her readings. Abruptly it cleared. She stood in a small, cluttered, unfamiliar room, no part of the system that she'd seen before. Wall hangings of wood and leather, one whole wall apparently just a curtain of deerhide. The other furnishings were equally primitive, a bed stuffed with some kind of plant, bare earth for the floor. She peered more closely at the walls. Not a room at all, a *cave*. How peculiar. A shaft of sunlight made its way through the curtain. She pushed it aside, looked out. The sunlight illuminated a small clearing surrounded by mist and the suggestion of trees. At the clearing's center something peculiar was hanging in the air--like a window, but unsupported, unattached to its surroundings. She could see forest and mountains through it, tall mountains snowless to their summits. A middle-aged man dressed in ragged furs was sitting in front of the window, legs folded, chanting softly. He broke off the chant abruptly, turned to stare at her. It was Chalker. She had helped carry his body to the pyre. The first dead man she had ever touched; she could still remember the waxy coldness of his skin. "Hello?" she said, rather inanely. He rose, stood with his back to the window, one hand raised. There were faces in the mist around the clearing, she saw now. Pale, pale faces with empty eyes. He spoke, apparently to her; the words were meaningless, a peculiar mumble. "I don't understand." He frowned, spoke again. Encrypted, she thought suddenly, and by a protocol she wasn't set to handle. The thought was a flicker of reassuring normality. He spoke a third time, more sharply, and took a step forward. She shrank back, felt something cold brush against her. Unseen, the mist had curled in, creeping between her and the curtain. The faces in it were speaking too. She didn't understand them, didn't want to. Cold fingers of mist plucked at her. Cold waxy fingers. *I can't talk to him anyway. What's the point?* she told herself, turned and fled through the curtain. There was no room beyond; only mist, clinging and opaque. She thought she could see a glimmer where the searchlight had been, but she wasn't altogether sure. Fighting panic, she groped her way toward it, struggling with her software. It still told her nothing, denied that this place even existed. There was the light, and the shadowy gates. She flung herself out, heedless of alarms--who would respond to an alarm here? The telecom node outside was reassuringly clean and normal and solid. She fled back toward Grant's system and her body. Jacked out, and looked around in relief. Across the room, Ratty's head pricked up, crimson eyes fixed on her. "Quick!" he hissed. "Jay, don't move. Everyone else, get out of the circle." Weeks ago Channa had painted a warding circle on the bedroom floor; Jayhawk's chair and terminal were in it. She clutched the back of the chair, wondering what was happening, as the others crowded into the marginal amount of unwarded space. Ratty uncurled from the floor, raised his hands. "Let me see you, trespasser," he whispered. A coldness like mist brushed against Jayhawk, coalesced. The shadow of a woman, mist-pale and translucent, stood at the circle's center. "What are you doing here?" Ratty demanded, his own face almost as pale. "Cold," the apparition. "So cold....waiting so long...." "Go back," said the shaman in a voice of authority. "You have no right to be here, to take this one. Don't you trust my word? I have promised you your vengeance, and you shall have it. But you must wait for the time of my choosing." The woman bowed deeply, shivered into nothingness. There was an instant of stunned silence; then half a dozen voices babbled at once, questioning Ratty. Through the hubbub Jayhawk saw Yoichi looking at her with an expression at once hurt and faintly admiring. "All right," he said. "How did you do it?" Jayhawk grinned sheepishly and explained. Yoichi shook his head. "I should have known. All right. But next time, will you *please* tell me? Someone has to keep an eye on you." ** She would never see Yoichi again. Or perhaps she would, and he would look at her with the same wary disdain he gave Duende. An agent of the Paradisians. Worse, if Martha was to be believed. A High Priest. Even Duende had not been that. 'Isn't your duty to live, to escape back to your friends with power and information they can use?' She wished she believed it. 21. Charlotte Jayhawk paced in her room like a caged animal, unable to concentrate on anything for more than an hour at a time. She had nearly finished rewriting the interface code, but she no longer had any hope that it would help her escape. The Paradisians had thought of it first, as they seemed to think of everything first. She searched the Matrix for Martha, but couldn't find her. She managed to spend several hours mapping the system before that, too, staled. At last she said to the listening air, "Send an escort, please, I'd like to go out." When she walked to the door Slim was already there, tipping his hat to her. She tried not to look at what was underneath it. "Morning, ma'am. Where'd you like to go?" "Where would you recommend?" He thought about it for a moment, forehead splitting into moist furrows. "I could take you to the preservation range," he offered. She nodded, let him lead. According to her headware map--which seemed to need continual updating, new passages appearing or disappearing daily, though the basic layout was constant--they walked nearly across the pyramid, skirting, as always, the very center. Slim palmed a door open, gestured her inside. Or outside--it looked like night, starry night with trees all around. The air was full of birdsong and the rich heavy smell of tropical vegetation. "Are you afraid of cats?" "No..." said Jayhawk dubiously. Animals of any sort made her somewhat uncomfortable, but she was disinclined to explain even such a trivial weakness to a Paradisian. "Good. I'll show you Charlotte." He set off down a vaguely-discernable path. Jayhawk followed, wincing as the trees closed in. Slim stopped in the middle of a clearing, pulled at a metal ring set incongruously in the grass. It lifted to reveal a small compartment, from which he carefully removed several wrapped packages. They proved to contain--Jayhawk turned away hastily, somewhere between horrified giggles and nausea. *Someone who looks that much like raw meat himself should--should be careful around predators, that's for sure.* She bit her lip savagely. If she laughed out loud, Slim would ask why.... Slim sat down, apparently prepared to wait; after a moment she followed suit. The bird sounds, dampened by their presence, flared up again, then died away suddenly to nothing. Silent as thought, a huge shape paced out from the darkness of the trees. It did look like a cat, tawny-gold and richly furred, with dark tufts on the tips of its ears and tail. But it was larger than she had imagined such creatures could become. "Hello, Charlotte," said Slim softly; the cat walked up to him, accepted a bit of raw meat with a dainty nip. He scratched behind her ears. A mountain lion? Jayhawk wondered. A regular lion? The cat had no mane, only a slightly thicker ruffle in her fur. She vaguely remembered that only male lions had manes. But surely they didn't get this big? Her head would have reached nearly to Jayhawk's shoulder, standing up; at it was, Jay was looking *up* into wide golden eyes. Gengineered, probably. Another crazy Paradisian project. "What is she?" Gingerly, she reached out, brushed her fingers across Charlotte's fur. It was softer than she had expected, and very thick. "Like this," said Slim, scratching more forcefully. Charlotte lay down at his side, began to emit a rumbling purr. "She's a hunting cat," he went on. "High Priest Merrow's project, before he died. I've been taking care of the projects, more or less. Seemed as though someone should." He offered Charlotte the rest of the meat, which disappeared in two gulps. "Isn't she beautiful? So much fur....I always liked fur." Charlotte rolled over, her paws kneading gently at the air. Jayhawk scratched her stomach, nodded. The cat *was* beautiful, in an somewhat frightening fashion. She was reminded of the Spider. "There's all sorts of animals here. I think Charlotte's parents are still out there, somewhere." Slim's voice was almost dreamy. The space on her map was grossly inadequate to the apparent size of this midnight forest. "What do they look like?" "Like her, I think, but smaller. She's still growing, that's what they tell me. Will be, all her life. She's slowed down a little, though. She grew powerful fast when she was a cub." "Wow," said Jayhawk cautiously. She didn't want to interrupt Slim in a confiding mood. The High Priest had died? So it could happen? "Sometimes I come out here and we lie down, Charlotte and I, and look at the stars. I always wanted to go to the stars when I was growing up. Crazy dream. You ever look at the stars, Jayhawk?" "Not often, not in Seattle....Where did you grow up?" Tonelessly: "I don't think about that much anymore." Stupid, Jayhawk, she berated herself. If you can't say the right thing, at least keep your big mouth shut. For a long moment they sat in silence broken only by the subterranean rumble of Charlotte's purr. "Merrow said I'd have fur like this someday," Slim said at last, to Charlotte or the air, she thought, rather than to her. "But I guess he was always too busy, and then he died. Gone to heaven. You believe in heaven, Jayhawk?" She thought about it for a moment. "No. I've *seen* where dead people go." "You have?" She caught herself, remembering that the Paradisians might not know about Chalker. "Some people, anyway. Maybe if you lived a good life...." She laughed softly, inviting him to share the bitter joke. He only nodded gravely. Silence again. Charlotte seemed to have fallen asleep, her head on Slim's knee. The birds, emboldened, resumed their noisemaking. "I like animals. I guess I sort of took charge here, though there's them as would dispute it." "If you're taking care of them," she ventured, "you seem to have as much right as anyone." "Any animals around where you come from?" "Squirrels, at the University. They're real tame and cheeky, everyone feeds them." She'd been bitten by one once, when she disputed ownership of her sandwich. "We have squirrels around here, too. Charlotte doesn't like them much." "Or vice versa, I imagine." He chuckled. "Most of the animals, they're what you'd call real used to people being around. Not too wild anymore. Charlotte and me, we're pretty good friends." Unwise though it seemed, she could not resist the opportunity to ask questions. "Slim, do you know--do you know why they're keeping me like this?" Like a precious animal in an invisible cage.... "No, ma'am." He rose, gently shifting Charlotte's head to the grass; she hardly stirred. "Best we be getting back." His voice was more sad than secretive. The door back into the corridor-maze looked, from this side, like a panel set into the trunk of a banyan tree. Slim hesistated just before touching it, said softly, "Jayhawk, you've been to see His Nibs, haven't you?" The speaker in darkness? she guessed, nodded. "If you see him again, would you ask him about the fur?" Caught by a sudden wash of pity and fury, she knotted her hands until the metal of the program carrier bit into her fingers. "I will. I promise." They walked back in silence to Jayhawk's room. "One thing, ma'am," he said at the door. "You don't have to call for me." "They told me I needed an escort to go out." He touched the brim of his hat in a kind of salute. "I'll be there." He was gone before she could think of a reply. 22. Storm Jayhawk dreamed that she was travelling, flowing from one abstract place to another, or perhaps stretched between them. Travelling to a destination that was somehow subtly wrong, held back by a vaguely- sensed attachment. It broke at last with a terrible internal snap, catapulting her forward into--sunlight? Into awareness. Wide awake. Three hours had passed on the terminal's time display. She wondered whether her captors were playing games with her. Without external cues, she had only the clock and her own biorhythms to go on, and they clearly disagreed. But somehow she didn't think so. It had *felt* like three hours' sleep. But...sufficient. She went back to her programming. Several hours and an untasted lunch later, she was interrupted by Martha's appearance. "Ready for a jog?" She looked Jayhawk over carefully. "You look like you're feeling better." Jayhawk snorted, followed her out. As they wove the maze of corridors, Martha said seriously, "Do you still want to learn the Overnet?" Jay nodded. "We'll have to get Doc to give you a full checkup, then. This afternoon, would that be all right? He'll have to be, ah, thorough, I'm afraid. I can stay with you if you like, or ask someone else....Of course, if you'd rather I didn't, I would understand completely." "I don't think it matters," said Jayhawk. She'd been in and out of cyberclinics since she was eighteen; medical examinations no longer bothered her. Martha looked at her sharply, seemed to decide that she was sincere. "It'll depend on what Doc says, of course, but if everything checks out we can begin quite soon." "Begin what?" "Introducing you to the Overnet....I, ah, it would be better to save this for later. Procedures, you know." Jayhawk stopped cold, collected herself with an effort, went on. At Martha's inquiring look, she said in a low voice, "When you tell me that you can't explain something now, but it will be all right later, I worry. I think you should be able to understand why." Martha snorted. "I am *not* going to mess with you. Don't worry about that.--It's just hard to explain in advance, that's all. Impossible, really. Jayhawk, did you enjoy the Matrix, the first time?" Jayhawk stared at her. "Of course I did. It was like...like doing one-finger typing all your life, and then getting a full-response keyboard. Or--or like--" Martha laughed. "You don't have to tell me, I know." "Why?" "The Overnet...it reacts differently to different people, and they to it. Have you ever been the target of a spell?" At Jayhawk's nod: "What did it feel like?" "Depends on the spell." Martha looked at her in apparent surprise as she went on: "Sometimes you don't feel it at all, sometimes it's really obvious.--Martha, is this instructions, or on your own initiative?" "Some of both, really." The older woman pursed her lips, thinking. "Have you ever been invisible? What did that feel like?" "I didn't feel anything in particular. It was disturbing, not seeing myself, but no worse than playing games with my Matrix image, and I've done that. You get used to it." Martha stopped abruptly, nearly tripping Jayhawk. "Damn! I've got business elsewhere, urgently. Can you find your way back?" "Sure." She was still mapping every twist and turn in headware. "See you later." Without a word or gesture, Martha vanished, suddenly and completely. Jayhawk reached out, felt empty air. She stood in the hallway with her mouth open, amazed. Alone.--It's a test, she realized suddenly. To see which way I'll jump. She turned slowly, considering the labyrinth of the pyramid around her. Well. I should probably go back. But there's no one to say I have to hurry about it. "Especially since I'm out of breath," she said out loud, and panted a little for the benefit of the unseen listener. She mapped out a route back to her room, not quite the shortest, and began a leisurely walk in that direction. Some ten minutes later--the corridors were all identical, nothing but her map to suggest progress-- there was a chime in the air about her. An inhuman, sourceless voice said softly, "Warning. Storm at 28777 dot 50." Experimentally, Jayhawk responded, "Tell me where there's a room I can shelter in. I don't know the complex yet." There was no answer. The nearest room on her map was one of the gardens Slim had shown her. She made a sharp turn, headed in that direction--jogging, now. "Warning. Storm at 28777 dot 5." Something was moving in the passageway ahead of her. A shimmer in the air, like heat mirages over a summer road; translucent, but somehow obscuring what lay behind it. Jayhawk froze, one hand on the cool metal of the wall. It crept toward her silently. *What would happen? Would I die, could even the Paradisians bring me back from that?* She stared into the rippling air, caught on the edge of decision, then tore her eyes away and ran. Once more her own endurance surprised her; she reached her room only mildly out of breath, having lost the storm almost at once. She paused in the open doorway, looked for it. The corridors were empty and still. In all the times she had walked those halls, she had never seen a living thing besides Martha and Slim. She rested her head against the doorframe, wondering at herself. If it had been a test....What would they conclude? That she didn't have the will to kill herself, or the initiative to grab at a chance to escape. Duende had escaped Paradisio; reprogrammed the biomonitors and defused the bomb they'd left in his skull, shattered a Gate behind him and walked away free. She was not Duende. If there was any hope for her, it lay elsewhere. On the Matrix-- She went back to her programming once more. 23. Package The medical exam came and went; Jayhawk was sardonically amused to note that Doc seemed quite curious whether she was fertile. If they thought that B-movie horrors would impress her.... Some hours later, the door swished open. She snatched up her toolkit, looked out. There was nothing to be seen but a large cardboard box. She brought it in, set to unwrapping it, snorting at her immediate suspicion that it might be a bomb. She should be so lucky. There was a silver card just inside the outer wrappings. It said, "Enjoy the present. J." Under that, carefully packaged in foam, was her deck. She turned it over several times, then took it to the workbench and methodically disassembled it. It *was* her deck, down to the little bell Yoichi had installed to signal that she was on the Matrix. The wire leading to it still hung loose; she had clipped it herself. She buried her head in her arms. How had the Paradisians come by it? Her friends.... Who was J? She ran through names, beginning at the top. Aliantha, or Megan as Martha had called her. Martha. Slim. Shamrock. Lefty. The Steel Mage, the Investigator, Rhesa.... Jorge Mixcapotec had sacrificed Yoichi. A priest, though not a High Priest, she thought. But Jorge was dead, burned to ashes in the last fight at Cavilard base. As if that mattered. Eventually she put the deck back together, rigged up a connector cable that would match her datajack. Holding her breath, she made the connection--headware to deck, first, while she ran through the checklist, then deck to mainframe. She found herself in the Matrix image of her room. Nothing had changed, except for the menu of software nestled comfortably somewhere in the back of her mind. Her own programs, as a careful inspection verified. *Something* should have been different. She'd been running naked on the Matrix, nothing but headware between her and the machine. Having a deck *had* to make a difference, didn't it? All that stimsense software, all that preprocessing? She ran tests, jacked out and ran them again without the deck. Nothing. Identical to the limits of her measurements. Because both were stimsense illusions? she wondered. It was an unappealing idea. The near-perfect Matrix copy of her room was beginning to bother her. In a distracted mood, she might mistake one for the other....Not a good situation, instinct warned her. She dug through the deck software, found a semi-abstract pattern of gold and orange and plastered it across the Matrix walls. There. That was better. The Matrix-image door whisked open. Still jacked in, she looked out into the next node. There was nothing, not even a package. Puzzled, she disconnected. The real-world door was also standing open, a bundle of fabric blocking it. Jayhawk got up, nudged the bundle with one foot until it unfolded. Wall hangings. Gold and orange wall hangings. She swore aloud, backed away as if the fabric might bite her. The consternation turned to giggles, almost hysterical ones. So much for getting a grip on reality, eh? Well, she was *not* going to put the stupid things up. Let them do their own redecorating. She logged back in for the illusion of privacy. No doubt the Matrix room was as well-bugged as the real, but somehow it felt more solitary. Methodically she checked through the software, found a program she had been working on before her capture. She was still engrossed in it when Martha arrived. "Hi! Glad to see you're okay--?" A questioning look. "Just came by to see what all the activity was. Mm, I like the walls." "Just unpacking," said Jayhawk. "Someone sent me a present." She gestured at the software, represented here by a wild collection of blue-and-silver gear. "Oh? I thought you'd written it yourself." "All of this? In an *hour*? I'm good, but not that good." "Oh, I think you might surprise yourself. I have a great deal of faith in you." "I don't know whether to be flattered on my own account or offended on my code's." "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to step on any toes.--A present? From whom?" "I don't know. The package said 'J'. Martha, this is *my* deck, as far as I can tell. Does that mean my friends...?" "Not as far as I've heard," said Martha briskly, "and I expect I would have heard. That's very strange, I can't think who could have sent it. I can check, if you like. And on your friends, though there's no one in Seattle anymore, so I can't imagine....Is there anything else you'd like, while I'm at it?" "News would be nice.--What did Doc say?" She tried to keep the eagerness out of her voice, failed. Too much versimilitude in the Matrix image, a mixed blessing. "He's still working on his report. I'll see if I can manage a newsfeed. No posting priviledges, I'm afraid." She smiled apologetically, excused herself. Jayhawk finished inventorying her software--not a bad assortment, if she did say so herself, including a working copy of the code she and Kurt had written, the OS/wetware interface. She stored it carefully, not in headware. She didn't want the nightmares pawing through it. A small gnome scurried into the room, offered her a card. She took it, read the text as the gnome stood by, arms folded behind its back. 'Nothing on either question, sorry. Enjoy the news. Martha.' She crumpled the card in her fist, deleting it, and nodded to the gnome; it ran off. She jacked out and lay on the bed, sudden exhaustion catching up with her. Exhaustion and something else. 'I thought you'd written it yourself.' Martha was a programmer, she knew how long it took to write good code. Maybe she *had* written it herself. J for Jayhawk. Like the wall hangings. The pattern was there in her mind; she and Grant had designed her deck from scratch, all the code was hers, or hers and Kurt's, or hers and Yoichi's. She'd been working on trying to reconstruct some of that code, and the machine, responsive to her desires...had provided it. Don't be silly, Jayhawk, she told herself. Why don't you go to sleep? It will probably look better in the morning. "No!" she said aloud, sat bolt upright, heart racing. *Would* it look better in the morning, was that the trap? Until the High Priestess' power was as natural to her as breathing, and as essential? No. No. She was fabricating terrors out of nothing, as the person who had sent the package no doubt intended. She mustn't let them get to her like this. Tired as she was, it was a long time before she could go to sleep. 24. Honor The whisk of her door opening woke Jayhawk from a heavy sleep. She slung her toolkit over her shoulder and went to investigate, still in her nightgown. Outside lay a long, curving corridor which she had seen once before. She frowned, biting her lip. She didn't feel particularly wide-awake or particularly eager for company. But there might be something to learn; and in any case, she had promised Slim. The door at the passage's end was the same, and the musky darkness beyond it. She walked in, stood listening. "Are you still interested in the Overnet?" said the soft, broken voice, not quite where she had expected it. "Yes. Or maybe interested is the wrong word. I don't know enough to be interested. Curious." The darkness seemed to make the dreamy, not-quite -awake feeling worse. "Can I sit down?" "There is a chair behind you." She groped for it as the voice went on, "What will you do there, Jayhawk? Where will you go?" It seemed to be speaking more to itself than to her. "I don't know." "What are you? What are you doing here?" "I don't know!" she snarled. "You should be able to answer those questions, you've been watching me hard enough. Why am I here? Why are you offering me this?" "To ease the pain, child," it whispered. "I don't know what I could tell you that you don't already know by now." "Information," it mused. "Is that what I need? Will that let me understand you? I think not." "I can tell you," she said in defiant anger, "roughly what must have happened--the intent, if not the details. We'd run Aliantha and her bodyguard to ground, and we intended to kill them. I imagine I found a way to do it. For my friends, for all the people whose lives she'd destroyed." And your turn is coming. "Vengeance? Is that what moved you?" She looked down, suddenly abashed. "I'm not a big fan of vengeance. But it had to be done, to stop them." "A matter of honor?" She snorted. "I've seen what honor gets you. Roth was an honorable man." "Is that honor?" There was a huge shifting in the room around her, quicker and more powerful than it had seemed before. She froze, a tiny island of stillness in the maelstrom. "Honor. Preservation of one's life. Which is paramount, Jayhawk?" She wanted to say: Can you destroy Paradisio, is that what you are hinting at? *Do it.* It's worth our lives. She couldn't say it. "Words," she muttered. "Honor, survival. You can't take them in isolation and put them on a balance. A living person, a decision to make, that's what's real.--That's what they taught me in college, anyway." "Situational ethics." "Whatever you want to call it." A moment's silence. Its voice when it spoke suggested something short of breath, but between sentences there was no sound of breathing at all. "Tell me about Ratty. Is he an honorable man? Is it worthwhile, this...." Very carefully, she said, "If I willingly told you about him, it would be betrayal. No." Her own kind of honor, such as it was....She considered her choice of words, winced at it. 'Willingly.' She knew, and they doubtless knew as well, that there was no question she would not answer, given drugs or threats or simple pain. "I see." Another long silence. "You should go back to sleep." She got up, leaned on the back of the chair. "I--I promised to ask this, I think you're the right one to ask. Slim...wanted me to say that he would still like to have fur." "Fur." Almost a chuckle. "Pleasant dreams, Jayhawk." The door slid open behind her. "You too," she said with a barely-suppressed snarl, suspecting irony, and turned and walked out, not looking back. She climbed back into bed thinking that she wouldn't be able to sleep...quickly found that she'd been mistaken. Her dreams were of great masses sliding past her in the darkness. Nothing more. She woke a little tired, ran herself a hot bath. Sitting in the steaming, rose-scented water, pondering the night's events, she came to three conclusions. It was good to be tired again, to wake up slowly with coffee and steam, not be flung awake by some convulsion of her reaction wiring. It had seemed natural enough at the time, but she appreciated now what it had cost her nerves. She owed the creature that spoke in the darkness--*was* it Merrow, the dead High Priest? she rather thought so--a more sincere thank-you. It had warded her dreams. And something was nagging at her, some missed nuance of the encounter. She pegged it down at last over coffee and donuts. The room she'd awakened to, when she went out to speak with Merrow, had been emblazoned with the orange and gold wall hangings of her Matrix node. But the room she had returned to after their conversation had not. Mary Kuhner 2/25/91

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