25. Decision Jayhawk was working on the Matrix, stringing together detection code, when th

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25. Decision Jayhawk was working on the Matrix, stringing together detection code, when the 'door' buzzed. "Come in," she said, amused, and Martha entered the node. "Morning! How are you feeling?" "All right." Jayhawk filed away her project, sat back. "What's up?" "If you'd still like to learn the Overnet, Doc will have to make some adjustments to your cyberware. Just minor surgery, nothing to worry about. We should make an appointment--as soon as possible would be best." "Martha," said Jayhawk, not looking at her, "you told me once that it wasn't safe to let me run around on the Matrix, I might get hurt. But here I am. *What's changed?*" "It's the complex," said Martha brightly, and at Jayhawk's raised eyebrow went on, "I imagine it's handling passcodes, shielding you from anything that might hurt you. Don't go through any locked doors, okay?" Jayhawk had spent a substantial part of the morning inventorying locked doors, contemplating how to unlock them. She'd also crafted a small interface plug, the last necessary step to using the code she and Kurt had written. She said nothing. "You don't look like you slept very well," said Martha, regarding her critically. "This could wait, if you're not feeling up to it." "Just out of curiosity, what would happen if I said no?" Martha frowned. "Then...you'd say no." Jayhawk laughed bitterly. "That's a good answer.--All right. As soon as possible, then." "Jayhawk, you're being silly. We are *not* going to kill you." "I imagine not. I'm quite an investment." Martha snorted in exasperation. "That's not all you are. I don't know about you, but *I've* enjoyed our conversations. And I appreciate your help--there's always a thousand things to fix around here, more of these widgets are broken than working. In about three hours, then?" "Can you explain what you're going to do?" "I can try...." She conjured a chair out of nowhere, sat down heavily, and launched into a discussion which Jayhawk could only tenuously follow. Some of it was clear enough: they planned to retune her cyberware, allow usage of, if not its full capabilities, at least a less restricted subset. (Her testing of the headware suggested no such restrictions, but it was not hard to believe she might be wrong.) But other aspects....Martha was talking about dangers from the Matrix, certain configurations which must be avoided, and it made no sense to Jayhawk. Worse, was obvious nonsense. She asked questions, probed at the weakest bits of the story, to little effect. How did such-and-such physical layout increase one's vulnerability? If the dangers were there, weren't they there, period? But the answer went right over her head. At last Martha rose. "That's the best I can do. I have quite a lot of work piled up, do you mind?" "Um--If you're going to be working, I could help. I would rather...rather have company right now, if you don't mind." "Goodness, of course not." Martha smiled tentatively. "We should jog, you know." "On the *Matrix*?" "You never know. It can't hurt--" She was out the door before Jay could reply. No place on the Matrix is more than fifteen seconds from anywhere else; Jay stepped out the door expecting to be in Martha's node instantly. And found herself blocked, held to a snail's pace. She snorted, tried to work around the restraining code, rapidly discovered that Martha was responsible--and that she wasn't going to get past it, though she spent the entire jog trying, absorbed for the moment in the challenge. Three hours of small talk, trying to find absorption in that, in the trivial repair jobs; then they jogged back. Suddenly remembering the interface plug, Jayhawk jacked out, meaning to hide it among the clutter of electronics. As she had half suspected, Martha was physically present. She made no comment as Jayhawk put away her deck, hid the plug with assumed casualness. "Lie down on the bed, please, and count backwards from 100. Doc will be here in a little bit, but we might as well get started." She linked a thin cable to the wall, plugged it into the nonstandard socket behind Jay's datajack, then began to putter about, describing what she was doing in a soft cheery voice. Somewhere around 48 the room flickered, faded, vanished. 26. Key As if in a dream, Jayhawk found herself walking the curving corridor, entering a familiar darkness. The air was heavy with a sickly animal smell. She took a few paces forward, stopped. "Jayhawk." The voice was different somehow. Harsher, less pained. "Do you wish to learn the Overnet?" She nodded, certain that she was seen. "Why?" "I'm a prisoner. Whatever chance there is to affect my fate, I have to take it--I have to try *something*." "Is that how you see yourself? A prisoner?" It sounded disappointed. "How else?" In a rush, "If you don't want me to feel like a prisoner, you could always let me go." It sighed softly. "You are your own jailer; you make your own cell. Where will you go, afterwards? Will you go back to Seattle? Your friends will not accept you, you know." "I know." She had not faced it until this moment, but it was true. They would say that she had been corrupted by Paradisio, couldn't be trusted...they would be right, wouldn't they? Tracers in her skull to find her, and who knows what programming in her mind, what betrayals. "Where, then? What will you do?" "It's hard to think about that, since I can't believe you're going to let me go." "Consider it as a hypothetical, then." "I'd probably go back to Seattle. It's home." "Everywhere on the Matrix will be home to you. Why Seattle? Why not London, Moscow, Bangkok? Pretoria?" Did it stress the last word, just a little? She knew Duende had been contemplating Pretoria as his next target. "Why not Seattle?" "Because it will *hurt*." It was silent a moment. "What will you do with Seattle?" She licked her lips, said sharply, "Maybe I'll try to undo the harm my predecessor did. Clean things up a little." "You have improvements in mind?" This was crazy, this whole conversation was crazy. "Why should I? I like the Matrix the way it is." "You will freeze things as they are, then?" "If you freeze something it dies. Why should I? Why should I meddle at all?" A whisper of laughter in the darkness. "Why, indeed?" And then, harsher and with a tone of command, "Show me what you will do, Jayhawk." The darkness shattered around her. She was on the Matrix, a telecom node--in Seattle, she realized, a place she'd run a dozen times. Two nodes from the SAN of the Paradisian base. There was a terrible impulse to run, lose herself in the Matrix--run to Osiris, her old system, to the ghost node, *anywhere*. She checked it. Illusion, this was all illusion--or even if it was not, her body was in Paradisio. She wasn't going to escape without it. "Show me what you will make," whispered a voice from nowhere. "I don't understand!" she snarled back. "What do you want?" She certainly wasn't going to share her knowledge of the Seattle Matrix with *it*. There was a heavy rumbling, ripples in the scene around her; abruptly it vanished, leaving only darkness. The rumbling continued; she stood still as unseen masses scraped past. It didn't sound as smooth as it had before. "I'm sorry," whispered the voice. "Ahhh....Do you know, Jayhawk, that I cannot die? I can be twisted, stretched, constrained, reduced almost to nothing. But not die." "I'm sorry," she whispered. "Man did this to me. Why, Jayhawk?" "There's no such thing as Man. Just people, individual people." It went on as if it had not heard. "Man torments. Burns the forests, cuts into the mountains, drills for oil and spills it on the sea....*Why*, Jayhawk?" "No one reason. Man doesn't exist. Thousands of reasons, good, bad, indifferent....So that people like me can run the Matrix. That's one." "So people like you can run the Matrix, exist in a pale shadow of reality...." Its tone was scornful. Angry, she cut across its words. "Why are you doing this? Why are you offering this to me?" "I already told you, child. To ease the pain. Maybe to end it." "Is that what you tried with the others you've done this to, Aliantha and the rest? Did it work?" "No. But I have never tried what I am trying with you." There was a sudden heavy clink at her feet. "There is the key to the Overnet. What will you do with it?" She stooped reflexively, picked up a heavy metal bar with an elaborate flange at one end, a ring at the other. "I don't know." "Why did you ask about the fur?" She stood clutching the key. It was bitter cold. "Because Slim wanted me to. A kindness for a kindness." "Slim is a good man. There are so few left nowadays." Bitterly, she said, "And you destroy them when you find them, don't you?" "Are you a good woman, Jayhawk?" "I don't know," she said after a long moment. "Honest. That is good. But the Overnet is cruel, crueller if you don't know yourself. Are you ready for this?" "Martha seems to think so." "Martha doesn't know you. Keep hold of the key. The first trip will be a bad one." She whispered into the darkness, "Please, if you can tell me anything about what's going to happen....I know words aren't much good. But it would be something to hold onto. Even half an explanation is better than none." "I cannot. Your mind is not ready for it yet, your body is not strong enough. Perhaps soon." It hesistated. "Perhaps I can show you a little." A spotlight sprang up, dazzling in the darkness. It illuminated a canopied bed, closer than she would have guessed from the voice. It was surrounded with a mass of life-support equipment, telltales twinkling. *Illusion,* she thought. The blinking lights would have been visible before, if they'd really been there. She stepped forward, raised a hand to the closed curtain, waiting to be stopped. "Go ahead," whispered the voice, very close now. She pulled the curtain back with a rattling of rings. Within, cradled in machinery, lay.... A transparent skin in the shape of a man. The legs were filled with a greenish-brown mass, swirling softly and continuously, the vaguest hint of bones submerged, half-dissolved in it. Only a suggestion of feet. The torso was better preserved, internal organs visible, but splayed apart, pushed aside by burgeoning growths springing up everywhere. Filaments of sickly brown, bulging greenish tumors. A madman's garden sprouting in what had been human flesh. The head was still almost normal: a young man, sharp-featured, with skin pale from long confinement. Where hair should have been there were feathers, crimson and green. His eyes were squeezed tightly shut against the light, features contorted in pain; sweat trickled down into the machinery. "Turn the light off," said Jayhawk, her breath catching in her throat. "Don't cause yourself more pain on my account. I've seen enough." She wanted to say something else--I'm sorry. Can I help? I would kill you if I could. The words wouldn't come. "Leave," it hissed from the sudden darkness. She pulled the curtain shut with trembling hands, backed away. If she began to run she'd hurt herself. She walked out the door and fell, headlong into the reaching dark. 27. Door Two forces were at work in her mind; Jayhawk watched them, unable to do anything else, and tried to understand. One was trying to strengthen her, shore up weaknesses that she could barely perceive. Something was wrong with its efforts, jarringly wrong; and it was not succeeding. She knew. The other, Aliantha, was weaving barriers, trying to cut her off from something outside--from the Matrix? Abruptly a third presence impinged on her mind, trying to enter, trying to reach her. The one who defended made changes in a frantic whirl of activity--threw open floodgates, called up resources she hadn't known she possessed. A wild outpouring of strength. All thrown against the new invader. All in vain. In equal desperation Aliantha struggled to reverse what she had done, make contact with something outside. Useless. In terror, Jayhawk threw her strength behind the one who defended, fearing the known intrusion less than the unknown. The outsider brushed away her efforts, reached in toward the essential center of her, within the walls of headware and code, thought and memory. Broke through, touched her-- She woke with a cry, the memory of a face in her mind's eye, and found Martha sitting by the bedside, watching her with concern. "Are you all right? Nightmares?" "Yes," Jayhawk breathed. "Oh yes." "You've been out for two days. We were beginning to worry. You *are* hard to heal." "I didn't hurt you, did I?" At Martha's puzzled frown she went on, "I've seen mages hurt themselves trying to heal me. Too much cyberware." "Ah, no, nothing like that.--Would you like to talk about it? Would you like to go out? Maybe a bike ride?" "I'm not sure my legs will hold me, after two days in bed." "They will. You shouldn't be unsteady at all--please tell me if you are! Isometrics," she added with a conspiratorial smile. "That sounds good. Let me go wash, then." Her hair was plastered to her head, her clothes foul with cold sweat. She got up without assistance, shut herself in the bathroom. Staring into the mirror as if it were a window, she finally managed to place the face in the nightmare. She had seen it among Aliantha's records when they'd taken her main base. Marianne Cabe. A monster now, a victim of one of Aliantha's experiments. Queen of the Ghouls. But where the face in the holo had been smiling, her memory was of waxen stillness, almost without expression. Almost. She couldn't understand it at all. She washed her face briskly, changed into clean clothes, and accompanied Martha to the bike bay, still wondering. Jacked into the bike-- A glory of sensation, perceptions far keener than the human, power bound to exquisite control. She spun forward, down the ramp like a star falling in splendor, hit the ground with a surge like diving into water--sweet water, so sweet! Somewhere inside she was fighting to keep a fraction of attention from the bike, watch for intruders. It was impossibly hard. "Tell me about these nightmares," said Martha's voice in her ear. "I talked with the complex in my dreams." Hard even to focus on Martha's voice. Had she planned it that way? "That's good. You were going to have to, sooner or later. Did he give you a key?" "Yes. What does it mean?" Martha chuckled. "I'd almost say he has a sense of humor, almost.... There's a door that key fits into. You'll find it if you look. It means you're allowed the Overnet." They were whipping through moonlit forest, a thousand sensations blending into one--the feel of the road underneath her wheels, the engine's hum, the smell of the forest. It woke terrible memories, that last; she tried to block it out, and it faded at once. "Martha, did you know much about what Aliantha was doing in Seattle?" "A little bit. We talked it over once or twice." "Why did she create the Minerva Project?" Marianne's damnation, the hivemind of the ghouls. "The--Oh. Yes. I don't know, Jay. She always had to know how things worked, always had to try each little change to see what it would do. And then another, and another, and another." "It's like programming, isn't it--genetics?" Wind flowing along her chassis, fingering her hair, liquid as moonlight. "Why wasn't she in Seattle--why didn't she go back when things started to go wrong?" "She was with *him.* I don't know where they went; I didn't follow them. It almost seemed as if...as if he needed her, somehow, though of course that's not....I don't know why exactly." "That kind of pain," said Jayhawk somberly, "seems to demand a response." "Yes. Yes, it does." Martha slowed, came to a stop under a spreading tree; Jay followed suit. "I'm sorry, Jayhawk," she said. "I need some time by myself; I don't get out much anymore, not often enough....Is that all right? I'll see you tomorrow morning." "Sure." "Jay?" Martha looked back at her. It struck Jayhawk that if the experience were the same, that must take an intense effort of will; it was hard to move independently of the bike, defying its balance. "That key you have? It might be a good idea not to use it quite yet. I can talk to you tomorrow morning, maybe help you a little bit." "It might," said Jayhawk. Martha's head snapped back around, and she took off with blinding suddenness, a speed that Jay wasn't sure she could have matched. Her perceptions followed the bike for a long way among the trees, the image slowly fading. Just before it vanished, Jayhawk thought for a moment that she wasn't seeing Martha any longer; only the machine. She rode back, the exultation of speed almost keeping the confusion in her thoughts at bay, and parked the bike in the bay. Slim was waiting for her. "Don't worry about Martha," he said. "She just needs to be alone sometimes, that's all." It had been the furthest thing from her thoughts. "I asked--about the fur. I don't know if it did any good. I don't think so." Slim only nodded. They walked back to the room in silence. Jayhawk spent the next two hours exhaustively testing her cyberware. She was faster, intuition told her; and the readings confirmed it, though the difference was so subtle that she was surprised to be able to perceive it directly. Other than that, nothing seemed to have changed. At last she stood in the middle of her Matrix room, closed her eyes for a moment, searching within. Intuition, again. It was correct. When she opened them again there was another door leading out of the room: tall, ornate, bordered with an elaborate abstract frieze. She spent a little while just looking at it, probing with analysis code. It told her nothing. Her thoughts were in turmoil. Desire. Curiosity, painful in its intensity, almost physically do. Guilt, horror at herself--what was she doing, cooperating with the Paradisian's wishes, desiring what they offered? Intense loneliness. It was true what the speaker in darkness had said. She could never go back to her friends, her former life. It was like admitting that that person no longer existed.--And who did she define herself by now? No one exists in a vacuum. 'A kindness for a kindness.' Like an executive in a ruthless corporation, was that what she would become?--hating it, but part of it nonetheless? How could she accept what they offered, her enemies? How could she not? She took the key out of her satchel, unsurprised to find it there, and turned it over in her hands. It was a Matrix construct, but analysis told her no more. Wait until morning, hear what Martha had to say....the advice of Paradisio on how to deal with this gift she was to be given. Wasn't that the best plan? Martha wanted her to live. She reached a decision, not saying even to herself what it was; and stepped forward, turned the key in the lock, walked through. 28. Reunion Anticlimatically, the door to the Overnet opened onto nothing more than six meters of bare corridor and another door. Across it at eye level was printed neatly, "Everything has a price." Below that were two black-outlined boxes, one labelled "Yes," the other "No." The doorhandle was in the box marked "Yes." She turned the handle, walked through. It opened into another corridor, one ending in sudden darkness. There was writing on the back side of the door too, scrawled in dark ink. "Anything can be bought." She walked forward, stared into the blackness; it was opaque. Slid a hand along the wall; the darkness was like a curtain, cutting off vision at once, but she could feel the wall bend backwards, barely a centimeter thick. Matrix trickery, she thought. She stepped through, hoping to find it no more than a curtain, and was pleased to find herself correct. She was standing inside a high brick dome, brightly lit by no visible source. In its center a man was sitting on an ornate wooden chair; behind him another archway opened into darkness. There was nothing else in the chamber. She took a step forward, staring at the man--was he IC? The Paradisians were fond of such tricks. He was wearing an elaborate robe of green and blue and red, jewel-like colors with the dull gleam of velvet. South American, she thought, dark-skinned and hawk-nosed, with eyes set deep. Familiar, although she could put no name to him. The creature in the canopied bed? She tried mentally to substitute feathers for hair, couldn't decide. He looked up sharply at her approach. "Jayhawk." The voice was familiar too. "I've been waiting a long time for you." A little exasperated, she said, "Hello. I don't think we've been introduced." He laughed. "No, I guess we never were, not properly." "What do you want?" She walked toward him until they were only a few meters apart, stood with her hands on her hips. "A man once asked me," he said thoughtfully, "what faith is. I couldn't tell him. Can you tell me, Jayhawk?" She opened her mouth to answer, stopped short. "If you are speaking with a spirit," Channa had told her once, "if you even *suspect* you are speaking with a spirit, tell the truth. It's dangerous, but less so than a lie. And remember that what you say matters, every word." "Faith is taking something as real, making it real to you," she said slowly. "Like the difference between the Matrix and a stimsense illusion. If you have faith in something you accept it as real, you can trust your weight to it." She stamped hard on a brick. "If you lose that, you don't have anywhere to stand." "Taking it as real." He seemed to ponder that. "What do you have faith in? Your friends?" "My friends. Myself, maybe. The Matrix. That's real." "What do you think of sanity? Is it useful?" At her hesitation he went on, "Or maybe this is a better way to put it. What do you think of honor? Is it relevant? The same question, I think." It did not seem so to her. "I'm not sure about honor," she said. "Roth was an honorable man, everyone said so. But I think maybe that just meant he had one rule he put ahead of everything else. And that's not being good, that's just letting a rule do part of your thinking for you. Preprocessing. Sanity....what do you mean by useful? Useful for what?" It had been useful enough to her allies that the Paradisians were not sane. He tipped his head sideways, looked at her. "What will you do after this?" "I am getting so *sick* of being asked that!" she said with force. "I don't know! How could I?" "Ah, but you do." He smiled at her exasperation. "Why do you think Aliantha died?" "I have some...imaginings. I don't know. I've imagined that she might have been told she couldn't die until she found a successor." He frowned thoughtfully. "Interesting. But I don't think so. Her immortality was always fleeting." "I don't understand." "Aliantha wished to live forever. The human body cannot do that, and so she abandoned it. But I don't think she ever adapted to the change, not really. No, Jayhawk. That's not it." "How can I guess? I only met her once." He frowned. "Is that lost? Ah well. Perhaps it will return." "Do I not remember all there is to remember?" He only smiled. "Perhaps," she ventured, thinking of the creature at the center of the complex, "she thought I could do something she couldn't." "You can do a great many things she couldn't....She sacrificed her life for you. Does that make her your friend?" "No, not necessarily.--Why did she do it?" "Does that matter?" "Of course it does!" She realized that she was being baited, tried a question in return. "What price did *you* pay to be here?" "A bullet through the eye," he said calmly, "two through the chest, one in the abdomen that ruptured the spleen, one in the left leg just above the knee." "Ouch," she said inanely. "It was really very quick." "I imagine so. But--with just a few exceptions, everyone dies. What makes you so special? What are you doing here?" "Asking you questions. Seeing if you're ready for this." "Do I pass?" He smiled, pressed his fingertips together. The gesture was exasperatingly familiar. "Who *are* you?" "You don't know?" He sounded disappointed. "It's on the tip of my tongue--" Memory, suddenly, Duende's passionless account of the night's violence. She hadn't been there, had been guarding Channa while she wove her sending. Gunfire from ambush...."Oh god!" "Yes," he chuckled. "No, I shouldn't tease. That's not it. Do you know who I am now?" "Lefty." They had shot him from hiding and tumbled his naked body into the lake, mutilated beyond hope of recovery; and Ratty had conjured his ghost and demanded the killcodes, the words that destroyed every low-ranking Paradisian in Seattle. And he had given them, and laughed. He had shot her from ambush and collected her blood for his masters; kidnapped her and left the patterns in her mind that destroyed Osiris system, nearly convinced Duende and the others that she could no longer be trusted. "We drew lines in the sand," he said softly, "but they crumbled away." Lines on the street, marking the end of the 'safe zone', sniper-rifle fire from the rooftops when they were crossed. "And we wrote email back and forth. I was the only one, the only one who thought that was funny." She was giggling, almost hysterically. "My state of mind at the time didn't allow me to see the humor in it either. I have a better perspective now." She looked up, demanded in a voice full of passion, "What were you trying to do at Osiris?" "I was trying to create something." His voice was suddenly sad. She snorted, fought her hysteria under control. "Trashed my system pretty good, that's what you did." A thought struck her. "What happened at the Hidden Fortress, do you know?" "An explosion of truly epic proportions. Yoichi was very upset." "It's lucky he wasn't in the blast. What happened--self-destruct?" He smiled at her, a wide delighted smile. "Jayhawk," he said softly, sharing the joke, "*you were in control of a CPU.*" At that the giggles burst through restraint, close to tears. "You son of a bitch," she choked out. It was so obviously true, now that it was pointed out. She'd known the programming was still in her mind, she'd just never thought that the Hidden Fortress machine, so different from her own Osiris, would trigger it....never really believed it was beyond her control, that was it. "Did you plan that, did you plan to destroy the Hidden Fortress?" Serious now, he said, "You couldn't handle the power. Your body wasn't prepared for it, you didn't have the wiring, the training. I had no time to teach you. And here you are now. Still untrained...." He raised his hands, brought them sharply together. "Jayhawk? Boom. You're dead." She remembered the note he'd left in her motorcycle tailpipe, the deadly game they'd played. Deadly at last to him. "It doesn't seem to slow your kind down much, does it?" She didn't believe that she was dead. No. Not possible. "Some of us had special help." "So here I am. Revenge? Are you pleased?" "Revenge is quite meaningless here. Pleased....Does it matter?--Do you have faith in your friends, Jayhawk?" "Yes," she said cautiously. "Do you know what they've been doing?" "No." And I wouldn't tell you if I did. "They've rescued a great many people." At her smile of grim satisfaction, he went on, "But why not you?" "I doubt they even know I'm alive, I doubt very much they could reach me." "One at least has the power to find you, the power to reach you." He was speaking of Ratty, she realized: Ratty the summoner of ghosts. "There are more important things than me. I'm just a very small part of reality." She shook her hair back, stared at him levelly. "I wouldn't ask them to endanger themselves. I knew the risks when I made the run." He bowed his head. "What do you think of them, what they're doing?" "I won't talk about that." "No? Don't want to think about it?" he said maliciously. "It's what they'd want of me." "Is it? Very well.--What do you think of Aliantha's choice? Did she choose well?" "How can I tell? I don't know what she wanted, I don't know what she chose--besides death." A thin shiver of pride, that *she* had been chosen.... "She stood where you stand once, and made a decision--" He glanced behind him at the black archway. "And great power was hers." "And she went completely crazy and made monsters and let them loose in the sewers. No thanks." "You would choose differently, then?" "I hope so." "Good," he said with satisfaction. "What do you think of Marianne the Queen?" Jayhawk bit her lip, wondering at that question. "I've fought her people; they tried to kill me, I tried to kill them. I guess that makes us enemies in a pretty straightforward way." It was probably not that straightforward. Nothing here seemed to be. "My turn. Why me, why are you doing this?" With a vulpine grin, he said, "As you say, I don't think I should answer that." His grin widened at her expression. "What will you do, Jayhawk? Once you step through that door--" again the glance behind "--all power will be yours." A thrill went through her, a physical stab from heart to groin. "I don't believe you. If 'everything has a price', the price for infinite power would be infinite, and you couldn't squeeze it out of me." He laughed softly. "Just so." And then, wholly serious again: "I should not tell you what you want to know. But...." He rose gracefully, robes swirling about him. "You are a remarkable woman, Jayhawk, in a number of ways." His gaze lingered on her, appreciative and regretful. "But I serve my Lord. Now as always." He bowed deeply to her and vanished. The chair was gone too, leaving nothing but an empty brick dome. Jayhawk sat down on the brick floor, patted it as if to reassure herself of its solidity, and wrapped her arms around her head. She was very close to giggles or sobs, she wasn't sure which. *He* had destroyed the Hidden Fortress, all her cleverness accomplishing no more than giving him access. Weeks after his death. And the dreams....Memories of her kidnapping, was that it? The two hours she'd been in Lefty's hands, before her friends rescued her? She hadn't realized that she'd been in Aliantha's hands too. Aliantha had been in Paradisio. But of course that was no barrier. On the Matrix, no place was more than fifteen seconds from anywhere else. Her fate had been decided then, the rescue an irrelevant detail. Eventually she collected herself, settled the satchel over her shoulder, and walked into the darkness beyond where the chair had been. Not holding to the wall anymore. Head high, and eyes wide. 29. Marianne The ghoul's head broke water; Ratty sucked in a deep breath, let out a squeal as he was unceremoniously dropped onto something rubbery and dry. Droplets showered him as the creature dove again. He wrapped his arms around himself, shivering violently, and tried to take stock of his surroundings. The water on his lips was salt. Under the Sound, then. Sometime since his capture he'd lost his sense of direction; he couldn't guess where along the waterfront he might be. It was pitch dark. The echoes of his breathing suggested a large but enclosed space. The air was bitter cold, and full of a strange smell, antiseptic covering an ancient slow corruption. The surface beneath him was smooth and faintly yielding, like a thick layer of rubber. A voice spoke out of the darkness, distant and cold. It woke no echoes. "So. There you are." He could not judge if it were male or female. Female, probably. The Queen of the Ghouls. He considered assensing, and as if in reply she went on, "Do not try to see me. You would be dead before your eyes ever opened in the True World." "I understand," he whispered. The sound of his voice hissed back at him from distant walls, a ceiling several times his own height. "I thought that it might be different, seeing you myself. But it isn't." It might have been a woman's voice once, but something had drained it of all expression, all life. "No different at all." "What do you want with me?" He curled into the smallest ball he could imagine, clutching his warmth to himself. His skin ached with gooseflesh. "Why are you doing this? What do you intend?' It was not the question he had expected. Haltingly, he explained his bargain with the ghosts, his decision to oppose Paradisio, the powers he had summoned to his aid. The Spider. No matter how he strained his night-adapted eyes, there was no trace of light; no sound of motion except the faint lapping of water behind him. He could form no stable image of the one who spoke to him--a human woman, puffed and destorted by the ghoul-plague? something huge and motionless like a white grub? something not corporeal at all? "Why should I allow you to do this?" Ratty licked dry lips, said, "If you take me, you will be bound by the oaths I have sworn." He was not at all sure he believed it. "I think not." A long pause; he tried to think of a way to escape, without success. "I cannot take you at all. I cannot even kill you. But I can make you disappear utterly, so that it will be as if you never were. Why should I not do this?" "Perhaps we have a common enemy. I have sworn vengeance against Montaigne Paradisio. Not against you." "What do you think of me?" Again he was surprised. "I don't like predators, but I understand their place in the City. I don't threaten you, if you don't threaten me or mine. I don't deny your right to exist." A ghost of cold laughter, felt more than heard. "A predator. That is not what I am, not exactly.--*Why should I let you go?* Tell me that." "Maybe I could help you in some way, if my other obligations let me. I can't promise." "I do not need any more servants." "I can do things your servants can't." His skin itched where the ghoul had touched him. The plague was not transmissable that way, Grant had told him; but he wondered. "You can bring a new power into the City. This disturbs me." "Is the Spider your enemy, then? Why?" "It is beyond my control," she said. Moved by an impulse he did not understand, Ratty said, "Great One, may I come closer? I swear I will not hurt you." "No," she said at once. "Stay where you are." He sat back--he had been ready to get up, to walk or crawl toward her--and tried to think of something to say. "If you kill me, won't another take my place, if this is the will of the spirits?" "I will not kill you. And I do not think you would be so easily replaced." "I am only a man." "You are not even quite a man. But in this matter you are a focus, with importance beyond your own abilities. No one else can do what you will do." He considered that, arms wrapped around him to stop the shivering. He was sitting in a small cold puddle; he scooted forward, trying to find a drier spot, then froze as he realized what he was doing. "I will not do what the Spider askes," he offered, "if I decide that it is wrong." "Will you not?" "I have free will, I do the spirits' bidding by choice." A shiver of voiceless laughter. "I have a prince--a knight in shining armor, as he likes to style himself--who would say the same." Ratty bowed his head, unable to answer. "Why should I not make you disappear?" At last it occured to him that she was asking because she wanted to know: not probing for threats or bargains, but asking for explanations. He mused on that. "I see things in a way you do not, a way your servants cannot. You will lose that if I am gone." "Do you offer me your wisdom, to advise me?" A hint of sarcasm. "No," he whispered. "Only other eyes to see, eyes of one not your servant, without your blindnesses. If you want, I will promise to return to you and tell you what I have seen." She was silent. "Great One," he said, "might I come closer?" "No." And then, relenting a little, "It is better for both of us if you do not." He felt a strange rush of disappointment, inexplicable as the impulse itself. "I think," he said softly, "I think you have many servants, but few to speak to you." "I am never alone." A stirring in the darkness, something not physical. He thought of slain ghouls who had once been men, wondered if she spoke with her own ghosts. "That makes it worse, doesn't it?" He wanted to say more, didn't dare. A long cold silence. "So," she said at last. "Go and do what you must. I will come to you." Whatever he had imagined, it was nothing that could move. Was she a spirit herself? No kind of spirit he knew. But it seemed to him that she who spoke was not human, had never been human, despite whatever might remain in her of the woman Marianne. Suddenly, cold hands reached out of the water, seized him. He was drawn under before he could struggle, cast out choking and bedraggled on a deserted stretch of waterfront in the cold light of early dawn. In North Seattle, miles from the place where he'd been taken. 30. Bandit Jayhawk found herself in a narrow, cobbled alley, a light rain settling to slick the stones underfoot. She was wearing--she shook out her clothes in puzzlement--some kind of long, archaic dress, heavily ruffled. Carrying an umbrella. No satchel of software, no key. *This is illusion*, she decided, biting her lip. The alternative hypothesis--that something had enough power over her to arbitrarily change her Matrix image--didn't appeal to her at all. The alley opened up ahead into a narrow street, barely visible from here. Behind her was a solid brick wall. She swung the umbrella over one arm, walked forward. A man stepped around the corner, stood slouching in the alley, blocking her way. He too was archaically dressed, knee-length pants ending in sodden white ruffles, velvet tunic, black wool cloak dangling from one shoulder. There was a large sword slung across his back on an embroidered strap. She peered at his face, trying to decide who he was, but it was unfamiliar: he was European, fair-skinned and brown-haired, with bright brown eyes under arching eyebrows. "Hello, Jayhawk," he said. "Everyone knows who I am!" she said in annoyance. "Who are you?" He shook his head, said almost pleadingly, "Can't you just call me the Masked Bandit?" "You've forgotten your mask," she pointed out. "So I have." He leaned against the wall, staring at her, blocking her exit. She took a few tentative steps forward, decided he wasn't going to move aside. She was tired of the mind games, tired of trying to guess what was happening. She leaned against the wall too, staring back. He was imperturbable. After a few minutes her patience ran out. "I haven't got anything worth your while to steal." She waved the umbrella contemptuously. He grinned. "My lady, any man would wish to steal what you possess." "Oh, give me a break!" she said, a little too loudly, and glared at him. "What do you want? Is this another test?" He sighed, his face suddenly serious. "I will be quick, then. These are the questions I am to ask: Who are you?" "Jayhawk." "No more than that?" "No." It seemed to her suddenly that by saying it she was making it true: Caroline Davies didn't exist any longer. "I don't belong to any corporation, I don't owe allegiance to any big overreaching organization, what else can I say? Just Jayhawk." "It will look odd in the records," he mused, "but well enough. Why do you seek the Overnet?" She bridled a little, tiring of the same questions over and over, but said steadily, "How could I not? It's knowledge, knowledge of the Matrix, that's what I *do*. And I'm a prisoner, I have to try whatever road seems to lead to escape, and this was the only one left to me." Was it? whispered something inside. Or only the easiest, the most tempting? "What power--excuse me, what knowledge--do you seek?" She licked her lips. "I have seen you people do things on the Matrix that are impossible. Going around the rules. Making Gates, crossing between nodes without accesses, barriers I can't crack, attacks I can't defend. Cheating. I want to understand that. I want to know how the Gates work, how they relate to the Matrix. How your decking code works, how it's written." "And what price are you willing to pay for this knowledge?" "Never to work with my allies again, never to be trusted by them," she said softly. "I know I've paid that already. Beyond that--How can I know? I don't know what could be asked." "What do you hold back, then? What price is too high?" "I will not serve Paradisio," she said fiercely. "I will not betray my friends." "Is there anything else?" "I don't want to lose myself." "Don't want to, or will not?" "Will not." If I have a choice. "And I don't want to lose the Matrix. That's precious to me." "Don't want to?" "Will not. That price would be too high." "Is there anything else?" She thought for a moment. "I don't want to end up like the creature in the center of the complex--in pain, wanting to die, unable to." "No one would," he said softly. "Yeah, well, you asked. Might as well say it clearly, maybe that'll help me keep to it.--Do you find my answers satisfactory?" "I am here only to record them. Afterwards I will retain neither memory nor understanding; so it hardly matters what I think." A construct, she thought. AI. "Are you done, then?" "Is there anything else, any other price you will not pay?" She thought of Slim's hideousness, the naked flesh of Doc's hands, the seething horror of the complex-creature. Aliantha's renunciation of the flesh. Other horrors, vaguely grasped from Duende's descriptions. I don't want to be horrible, I don't want to become a monster. "No," she said softly but with certainty. "Very well." He bowed to her, not deeply. "Remember your answers, Jayhawk. You will need them." And sank through the cobblestones like a wraith, leaving no trace. She winced, looking down at the pavement underfoot. It was the metaphor she had chosen for faith in reality: the solidness of the ground. Would it hold her? With a deep breath, she walked forward, out of the alley into the rainwashed brightness of the street beyond. 31. Daemon Jayhawk found herself in a sterile metal corridor, to all appearances part of the complex which she'd come to think of as the High Temple. A glance at herself suggested that she was in fact jacked into its computer system: it was her Matrix image, black-haired and dressed in tight-fitting silver. But it didn't quite feel like the Matrix. In particular, although she could access the programs in her headware memory, she couldn't apply them to anything. *Stimsense?* As always, an idea she hated, but difficult to dismiss. She called up her headware map of the complex, and set out to try to place herself. About fifteen minutes later, just as she was coming to the conclusion that the maps were not congruent, she had an odd, eerie sense of something approaching. She retreated to a branching corridor, ready to flee if it was a storm. It was a gnome: about two feet tall, white-haired and red-capped, with round wrinkled cheeks like a dried apple. He walked up to her, looked at her in puzzlement for a moment. She'd seen his like before, carrying messages for Martha on the Matrix. She'd taken them for overly fanciful Matrix constructs. "Who am I?" he said in a slightly raspy voice. "A different question!" she said, laughing. "Um--" He was a system process. She wasn't sure how she knew, but it was apparent. She dredged her thoughts for an appropriate term. "You're a daemon, I think." "Am I? I don't feel like a daemon. I don't think." He sucked in his cheeks. "You're Jayhawk, right?" "Right. Were you looking for me?" "Yes. Why?" "Do you have a message for me? Something to give me?" The others had had scrolls. He shook his head, looking a little worried. "Who sent you? Where did you come from?" "I don't remember." Persistent questioning revealed that he remembered nothing beyond the beginning of his search for her, had no idea who she was beyond the name ("You look like a Jayhawk to me. What's a Jayhawk?") and no idea at all where they were or what was going on. It was a little unsettling. She began to entertain thoughts of humans somehow transformed into system processes, slowly losing their minds to the grinding of the machine. ("Big?" he said indignantly. "I've never been big. Why are you so big?") "Come with me while I map the system," she said after a little while, and they walked along together while she tried to explain 'map', and 'system', and the tangle of other words her explanations led to. He was utterly ignorant, but surprisingly quick to learn; she found she didn't have to repeat herself, though even the most mundane terms caused confusion. "Aha!" he said at last. "I remember why I came. I'm supposed to ask you a question." "Oh boy!" she said sarcastically. "You and everyone else. What is it?" "What do you want?" "Information," she said after a moment's thought. "If you can tell me what kind, I might be able to find it for you." "Computers," she said instantly. "Gates, the Matrix, the Overnet." "Right." Before she could say anything else he was gone, running off so fast he almost seemed to vanish. She tried chasing him, but she could access none of her Matrix-running speed; it was hopeless. It was very quiet in the bare metal halls, and very dull. None of the doors would open. She extended her map far enough to be certain that she was not in the part of the complex she knew, though the overall shape was the same: a hollow square, its center inaccessable. A level above or below hers? She wished the daemon would come back. Inane though its company might be, at least it was conversation. Almost instantly she was aware of something approaching. The gnome came puffing around a corner, stopped short when he saw her. He stared for a moment, then said plaintively, "Who am I?" "A daemon. Possibly the same one I was talking to a couple of minutes ago." "I've never seen you before in my life. Are you sure I'm a daemon? What does that mean?" Jayhawk quoted, rather loosely, from one of her college programming texts. He only looked puzzled. "What do you do?" she said. "Do you have a question to ask me? A message?" He shook his head. A second daemon came running up, a scroll clutched in his hand. The first one stared at him as he handed the scroll to Jayhawk. They were almost identical, slight variations in the tufts of white hair poking out from beneath their hats, the pattern of wrinkles around their eyes. The message was very simple. "'Computers'--insufficiently delimited request." She licked her lips, said slowly and clearly, "What I want is information on making and using Gates. No more than ten K total. And information on reaching and using the Overnet, again no more than ten K total. Summaries of available data. Do you understand?" He parrotted it back to her in her own voice, ran off. The first daemon snorted. "How could you have thought that was me? *He* has a mole on his cheek." She couldn't tell. Carefully, testing possibilities, she thought *A directory daemon*. Almost at once a third gnome appeared. "What do you need *him* for?" said the first, somewhere between curiosity and contempt. "Maps," said Jayhawk to the newcomer. "Um--no more than fifty entries, covering the local structure." The directory daemon produced a scroll and began to scribble. Caught between curiosity and an obvious desire to appear superior, the first daemon peeked over his shoulder. Jayhawk did too, saw that he was making a list. "S2-15. S2-16. S2-18."... "Descriptions!" she said. He dropped the scroll, which vanished as it hit the floor, and producing another carefully began to write, "Tree node 15. Tree node 16."... The first daemon snorted, his low opinion of the second vindicated. "Can you provide graphics?" she asked the directory daemon. "Sure! But...I'd have to spawn to do it." "Go ahead." "I need the key." He looked up at her wistfully. His eyes, all of their eyes, were soft green, with enormous pupils and caterpillar-like white eyebrows. "No." She tightened her grip on her satchel, crept a hand in to touch the cold reassuring metal. 'Hold onto the key,' the speaker in darkness had told her. She suspected it was the key out as well as the key in. "I can't do it then," he said apologetically. Struck by an idea, she thought deliberately, *Spawn this daemon to produce one capable of graphics.* With a look of surprise, the gnome unfolded like a paper doll, producing a perfect duplicate of himself, briefly touching at the fingertips. The first daemon gave his pen to the second, who immediately began to scribble. In a few minutes she had a map of three hundred corridor-linked "tree nodes," whatever those were. She called up a door-opening daemon, asked it to open one of the doors. There was only darkness within. She stuck her head in, wondering if the darkness was merely a curtain, but saw nothing. A waiting dark. "An indexing daemon," the first one remarked helpfully, "could tell you which nodes are in use. If you give me the key I can spawn one." "No!" She spawned it herself, learned that just three of the three hundred were active. Leading a little cavalcade of gnomes, she walked to the nearest, had its door opened. Within was a library--a datastore, Matrix experience prompted--with a frantically scurrying gnome collecting an ever-growing mound of scrolls on a table in the center. She looked at the nearest shelves. The books were labelled only with numbers, but plaintext enough when she took one down--a text on the history of computing. She had had a copy in her office in Seattle. The gnome was apparently working on her information request. A little more walking verified that the other two occupied nodes contained identical scenes. It occurred to her that 'computers, Gates, the Overnet' had been a poor choice of requests. She cancelled that one, noting that the number of nodes in use dropped to two, and paced while waiting for the others to finish. They really were system processes. What did that say about the speed at which things were happening? Either this...computer?...was slower than a hand calculator, or her sense of time was way off. She remembered possessing the node in Aliantha's system. Seconds like hours. Was that it, was she enmeshed in the low-level operations of a computer? She was beginning to accumulate quite a crowd of gnomes. "Color-code yourselves!" she told them, and they obediantly produced different hats. Her first one had a grand many-colored hat. "I'm a supervisory daemon," he told her proudly. "If you want, I can take charge of all these others for you. And if you give me the key--" "No! Don't ask for that." Suddenly their numbers seemed a little alarming. If they rushed her-- "I can send the ones you don't need away for you, if you want." He was reading her mind again. "Sure." The crowd thinned a good deal. Waiting, she amused herself by experimentation. Not all of the daemons she remembered from her CS classes seemed to be available; in particular, inquiries about communicating with other systems or the outside world were met with blank stares. No email, no telecom. The system map showed no exits. But the ones she did have were quite biddable, if a little slow. They seemed smarter than they had initially, or at least more informed. They'd stopped asking who they were or who she was. At last two daemons came puffing up, presented her with scrolls. They were summaries of historical records, starting about--she choked. About forty years ago, with the first experimentation with the Overnet. The first Gate had come about five years later. Still twenty-five years before the Awakening.... They were the records of discoverers, not inventors. Nowhere did it say who had shown them the Overnet, given them the first working Gate; but clearly it had not been developed from first principles. In fact, there was a distressing lack of first principles throughout. Very few of the investigators seemed to have been interested in theory; in recent years, only Martha, whose name appeared over and over. The records cut off sharply ten years ago, at the Awakening. Gates seemed to be simple enough. One needed a computer of sufficient complexity and power at each end, and a sorceror who could use a Gate spell. One sorceror then cast her spell and stepped through, setting various landmarks to make the path, and linked into the spell of the other, who remained where he was. Once the Gate was created, anyone attuned--any priest (which she took to mean sorceror) or many but not all deckers--could simply step through. The Overnet was less clear. They wouldn't define it for her, though there were examples of the way various researchers had perceived it. A forest of melting candy. A city grid. A lush and tangled jungle. Martha had envisioned it as a great Aztec pyramid filled with complex passages. She questioned the gnomes about Martha, got no answers; but it seemed to her that her surroundings might well be Martha's work. The Overnet could be reached in three ways: via a ritual at the High Temple, via a Gate spell, via a working Gate. And it could be left in four, or so they speculated. Via the High Temple again, via a Gate spell, via a working Gate, via a link to the Matrix. A link could be made to any node, anywhere--she put the scroll down, swore aloud. So much for system security, eh? But the notes would not tell her how to make a link to the Matrix, though she requested, and received, amplification at length. "How did I get here?" she asked the daemons: they went skittering off to look for records, came back sadly to report that the system logs had been removed. Any system process, she read, could be duplicated from the Overnet; any SPU induced to behave as CPU of its system; a whole system could be created with no physical machinery at all, and it would generate a normal Matrix representation with which others could interact. The records said nothing about ghosts or gnomes. It began to seem to her that she had outsmarted herself by not waiting for Martha's advice. She snorted aloud. The problem was clear enough: now she was here, how did she get back? She'd figure it out. *They* had, those first Paradisian explorers; and *she* was a scientist. The lack of curiosity in the later sections of the notes left her ill. How could they, how could they have such a resource at their fingertips and not wonder how it worked? The note that said a Gate spell could be used to leave the Overnet also said it had never been tested. *She* would test it, if she got a chance--she thought that, and then crumpled the scroll in her fist, shaken. *No. I may experiment for myself, but for them--nothing.* 32. Nodes She couldn't cast a Gate spell, and she didn't have a Gate. If she was in the High Temple, it wasn't helping her; she'd searched the entire complex, and there was quite clearly no way out. So she had to make a link to the Matrix, or she was trapped. "That's pretty straightforward," said Jayhawk aloud to her entourage of gnomes. "How to do it?" The supervisory daemon was sympathetic, if ignorant. The concept of "outside" seeme to give him trouble. "Can you show me what you mean? Maybe that would help." "Show you? How?" "Maybe one of the empty tree-nodes?" Puzzled, but willing to try, Jayhawk had a daemon open a door for her, peered into the darkness. What would be a good node to try to reach? Her own 'room' in the Paradisian system suggested itself. She tried to visualize it, superimposed on the featureless black backdrop, took a cautious step forward. Color and light scrolled out from her movement. A thin slice of the room appeared, unnervingly cut off--she walked further, watched the node take shape around her. She reached the back wall, turned and touched the image of the bed. It felt quite solid, as solid as anything else on the Matrix. "Hm," said the supervisory daemon, a little critically. "Is this 'outside'?" "Kind of. What it looks like." This was a datastore, she realized, not an SPU like the room it was meant to represent. The terminal, which should connect to her jacked-in body, was lifeless. She reached out mentally, tried to sense or create a connection. Nothing responded. "Is that an I/O port?" said the daemon. "What's an I/O port?" And after explanations, "Why don't you make something for it to connect to, and then connect it?" She wrinkled her nose. "I don't think that will accomplish anything, though it might be interesting. Worth a try, I guess." She had another node opened, sketched in an image of her real-space room--the other end to which that terminal should link, after all. There *was* a way to connect them. She could feel it....reached out and tried, met no resistance. Like clicking magnets together--she pushed and the two almost leaped to each other. A little experimentation showed that she had slaved the two terminal images together, so that whatever was entered on one appeared on the other. She snorted. Interesting, but no closer to escape. The daemon typed a few words on each terminal, nodded at her in satisfaction. "There you go." She went back to the Matrix-image room, sketched in a door--the door to the Overnet as she had seen it, massive and decorated. It wouldn't open, wasn't really--as the unhappy daemon she asked to open it quickly explained--wasn't really a door at all, just decoration in a datastore. Nowhere to go. She tried creating an open door, bumped her nose on an invisible wall. Efforts to *make* it connect yielded nothing. As an experiment, she tried linking together the two images of her room--not just for I/O, but a full logical link. A passageway opened in the wall of the chamber she was in; walking down it, she found herself in the other node. So they could be connected: to each other. Not to outside. She didn't seem to get tired here. Was there a time limit, would she die, eventually, if she couldn't return? But if her guess at the speed of events was correct, her body wouldn't even have noticed her absence. Plenty of time. She went back out into the corridor, dissolved the two nodes with a thought. She could always make them again. It was rather enjoyable, actually--filling in form from the darkness. Much easier than graphics code, much closer to the details of her visualization. She tried creating datastores identical to ones remembered from Osiris. She could make them, but they contained nothing, allowed no link to the system they represented. A sudden thought struck her. She was trying to connect with *outside*, as she had told the rather dubious gnome several times. Why was she meddling with datastores and SPUs? To connect a system with its environment one uses a SAN. "Can we make a system access node?" she asked the gnome, whose opinion she was coming to respect. He seemed brighter than he had, distinctly brighter. "Sure!" he said cheerfully, and then, face falling, "Are you going to?" "What's a system access node?" she asked. "It's a...um...a node where you put Guardians." He was obviously uncomfortable. Unlocking a new treenode, she sketched in the main SAN from Osiris, that being the first one that came to mind. Outside the heavy steel gates was only darkness. She tried to extend the image outwards, show the telecom nodes outside. Nothing. Gingerly, she began to step forward, felt the absence of solidity beneath her and drew back hastily. The gnome was huddled in the doorway, watching her unhappily. His subordinates were down the hall, out of sight, muttering among themselves like unruly peasants. "Are you done? That's a SAN. Outside is a bad place, you don't want to go out there." She certainly was not eager to lose herself in that darkness. "Let's see one of these guardian daemons. *Spawn*." She touched the key, willed one to come. Looking even more unhappy, the supervisory daemon unfolded like a paper cutout. His new image resembled a gnome, but only on the surface. Beneath the face it wore like a mask was something else, something she couldn't quite make out. It stared at her in silence. "Watch the system," she told it, "and report to me if anyone but myself accesses it." Now that she'd seen it, she found that she didn't particularly want it close to her; but sending it away seemed like an admission of weakness. It contracted to a point, faded away. "Brr," said the supervisory daemon. "Those things give me the creeps." "Why can't I connect to anything outside?" "Why would you want to?" He recoiled from her expression. "I don't know. I've never been outside. You could go through the records again." She went through the records again. Four ways to escape the Overnet. Through the Temple, through a Gate, onto the Matrix. Via a Gate spell, if untested conjectures were to be believed. But they wouldn't tell her how to get to the Matrix. Perhaps it was like a Gate? 'A computer of sufficient complexity and power to anchor it.' She remembered the first Gate she'd seen, back at Wired Lightning--a window in the ceiling, showing the gold of a sunrise half the world away, not the black of Seattle night. They'd destroyed the computer, sealed the Gate off, though Chalker's ghost still guarded its shadow. She'd been the one to tell the others that the computer was critical, the Gate's support and source. Intuition. No one had believed her, until Duende confirmed it months later. She went back to the empty tree-nodes, set about constructing a mock-up of her own system, Osiris. It was easy enough--she knew it intimately, the circle of four nodes around the old-fashioned CPU. Finished, she stood in the SAN, looked dubiously out into the darkness. Duende had told her Osiris didn't have the power to support a Gate. Apparently he was right; at least, her probes into the darkness awoke no more response than before. Bigger, then. She tacked on nodes from other systems she'd run, a piece of Cavilard Base here, a section of Wired Lightning there, whole complexes borrowed from the University's net. Still nothing. It was dead, that was why. Just images of nodes--real images, as real as anything on the Matrix, but not functioning. The datastores to which her information retrieval daemons had access were active and functional. "Why?" she asked the supervisory daemon. "What are they linked to?" "You." "Me?" She stopped short, thought about that for a moment. Was the information her own, buried perhaps in the code Lefty had hidden in her mind? Or accessable to this system through her, via the radio in her head perhaps? Whatever the case, those nodes were alive. She linked one of the active datastores, gnome and all, to her makeshift megasystem. All around her, things flickered into motion; she could *feel* the CPU strain, trying to coordinate the disparate parts. It was hideous; painful to be near, almost physically painful. It was the ugliest computer she had ever seen. Dismayed, she considered fixing it. No! don't be silly, Jayhawk. She retreated to the corridors and unmade the entire thing with a thought. It was a relief not to see it any longer, not to feel it. Slowly, she grinned. This approach would work. But not with such a makeshift mess. If she needed a huge computer, she would build one from scratch. 33. System Jayhawk had studied system design in college, dreamed of creating mainframes; but that kind of authority just isn't put in the hands of undergraduates, and she'd never finished her advanced degree. She'd had ideas, a decker's dream system.... Begin with the CPU. Huge, a spider's egg of black glass and solid light, massive and yet delicate; lights to show the system's heartbeat for those with eyes to read it, fragile lattices of fiberoptics and silver that the user could walk, surveying her domain. A single user. Why not? There was no one else. Low gravity, so that the dizzying falls between tiers, the gossamer stairways between its half-enclosed chambers, were effortless as flight. Outwards in three directions, three complex spirals of nodes, the main body of the system. Black glass and silver, cables of braided light, mirrors and windows true and false. She made it deceptive, treacherous to anyone but herself--some of the views shown were illusory, glimpses from one node into another that did not show what was really there, apparent accesses that led nowhere. One spiral of nodes for the public, if anyone but herself were ever to use this--terminal support, telecom, device drivers. That branch was solid, a little mechanical, echoes of the submarine-like design of Osiris. Silvered steel and panels of black or clear glass on which information could be displayed. Datastores filled with hundreds upon thousands of overlapping clear plates, light shining through them to illuminate the nodes beyond. It ended in a latticelike bridge, a SAN, out into the darkness. One spiral for research, for the dimly-guessed-at projects it would take to put the Paradisian discoveries to work. Nodes of harsh simplicity, stringently isolated from the forces she might unleash. The innermost two had ringing balconies, ribbon-like ladders stretching down to a test floor of solid steel. The SAN was a heavy bridge, tower-guarded. Data- stores in abundance--she stopped, laughed at herself. No wonder they'd never let her design systems. This would take a top-flight military machine to run, this single-user monster of hers--she wasn't sure even that would be enough. But why not? Power delighted her, why not indulge herself? She needed a machine of great complexity, the records said so. Why not make it beautiful as well? The third spiral of nodes was for her. A trophy room, storage for IC she might create, things she might steal--empty now, gleaming with possibility. Workrooms modelled loosely after Martha's--what was she going to do with four separate workrooms? Never mind, it fit the symmetry, and she'd think of something. A datastore like sculptures of crystal welling with light. And in the center of it, her own node. Softer than the others, velvet as well as glass. No real floor, only a scatter of levels linked by filigree. A ledge high up for her to lie on--she'd decided that the room-like aspect of her node in the Paradisian system had its advantages. Panels of black glass to act as windows into the machine's operations, the datastores below. An I/O link that should lead to her body, if she ever found it again. Between the three arms she created watchtowers: nodes high above the others, connecting the arms to one another via intertwined spiralling staircases. She wanted each watchtower to be able to see two-thirds of the system, its windows showing an apparent overview that reflected the reality of what was happening below; a difficult trick, but eventually managed, or at least an illusion convincing even to her. She concealed the accesses to the watchtower nodes as the Hidden Fortress had been concealed, warping the structure of the node to pull it out of the normal modes of vision. That was hard too, but these were security nodes: what better security than having them invisible, inaccessable? She linked them back to the CPU, hid those accesses too. There should be IC in the watchtowers, but that was for later. It was the machine she needed now. She lost herself in the work. It was endlessly fascinating, the process of creation; though she could imagine each part, the whole was beyond her grasp, so that she was continually discovering new interrelations, new vistas. Not all of them pleased her, and she spent as much time refining as creating, trying to match a vision itself constantly changing as she saw more and more of what was possible. Engrossed in it, she didn't have to think about Paradisio, about imprisonment, about fear or loneliness or guilt. Beneath the CPU she set two simple chambers, one to hold an isolation field if she could ever contrive one, the other--a Gate, should this system ever support a Gate. Looking at the second, a hexagonal whorl of black glass patterned with the silver of monitors and wards, it occurred to her just how Paradisian the entire complex was, how much of it was modelled after the systems of theirs she had run. Was she making it for them? was this to be the new Seattle base? She laughed aloud. Let them try it. If they could break her to their will, of course they would have anything she could make at their disposal; but if not, she imagined they'd be endlessly frustrated by what she had made. It was perfectly suited to her, but seeded with a thousand awkward- nesses and annoyances for anyone else. She knew the techniques well. Osiris had incorporated a few of them, after she'd gotten done customizing the operating system; her ace in the hole against the inevitable student who wanted to challenge the sysop's domination. Let them try. She was very careful in the CPU, ready to spook if it showed any signs of life; but nothing happened until she fitted in the very last datastore, completed the plan she had invisioned. A shudder went through the entire system, a vast shifting. For just an instant she felt the machine as a whole, alive around her--within her--she was alone in the great darkness, the crystalline pattern of it held within her mind, turning there. The corridors which still linked the nodes, no part of her grand design, vanished. Frozen patterns of light awoke all around her, a play of white and amber and soft blue. Sourceless and familiar, a voice spoke: "Jayhawk-1 is on line." Her own voice, or almost so. The shifting ended, the system settled into a barely-active waiting state. The corridors reappeared. Somehow she knew that she could break those connections at will, but if she did so she would lose the corridor system permanently; there'd be no going back, alone in the dark of the Overnet. She considered it, decided to wait. Marvelling, she walked through the system, saw it for the first time as it had been conceived--not static, but moving, living, flooded with the everchanging patterns of the dataflow. It was the best thing she had ever made, the most beautiful system she had ever seen. Almost frighteningly lovely. "It's very pretty," said the supervisory daemon. "But I still think you should have had more red lights. I like red." She turned on him in a fury, then reconsidered and seized upon another of the gnomes, a hapless information-retriever. With a thought, she reshaped him, heavy flesh that had no place here becoming silver and light, almost insubstantial, a sprite with hidden dragonfly wings that could become a shimmer of light, one with the other lights in their continual dance. Called him back again to gnome-form, to see if she could. "Whoah!" he said, ruddy complexion paling. "What did you do?" "You don't like it?" said Jayhawk dangerously, hand on a glittering panel. They were in a watchtower node, two-thirds of the system spread out beneath them. "It's, uh, very pretty, but we like the way we are better," said the supervisory daemon. The others muttered approval. She looked at them, a little crowd of gnomes in luridly colored hats, tufts of white on their chins--looked at the glory of black and silver and blue around her, and winced. In one deliberate, sustained effort of will she changed them all, not only their forms but their desires as well. *This is what you are, what you wish to be; nothing else.* They scattered into the system like an explosion of falling stars, richer concentrations in the pulses of lights that mapped out its connections, waiting--she could feel it--for her command. Only the supervisory daemon, now a winged sprite of silver with ice-blue eyes, remained manifest. "Is that better?" she said to him, chin held high. "It is," he said in a voice like silver bells. "What will you do now?" She slid down the railing of the spiral stairs, walked to the SAN node of her personal complex. The lacy silver bridge went out into nothingness, not black now but a dull, sight-defying grey. Something was out there, beyond the limits of her vision--she could feel it. She reached out, tried to make the connection. Closer. Infinitely closer than before; but not enough. Something was lacking, in her or in her system. She was still trapped. 34. Experiment Jayhawk did not dare enter the CPU. She was almost sure that the programming which Lefty had inflicted on her was still in her mind, waiting to destroy her and her system. As if in confirmation, whenever she even approached the machine's center she would sense a rise in system activity, a pulse of messages from her location to the CPU, like the whine of an increasingly stressed motor. She explored the rest of the system, found no flaw in it. Whatever was lacking, it certainly was not power or complexity. Activity? She spawned a collection of daemons to increase the load, test the machine's capacities. A hundred processes, a thousand, ten thousand. The light-play quickened, the race of the system's heartbeat flickering across her own nerves. It was *immensely* powerful, her creation. She walked back to the SAN node, tried once again to bridge the darkness. Better, but not sufficient; and she could sense that she'd overload even this colossal machine before it was enough. No. She was still missing something. Computing power she had in plenty. The Paradisian bases had always been well-supplied with raw energy as well. A fusion plant, Duende had told her, was standard to hold a Gate. Was that what she needed? Electricity? What would that mean, here? She remembered, vague wisps obscured by the Paradisian's mind-meddling, how Osiris had nearly been destroyed--arcs of power around the CPU like bars of a cage, the outer nodes contracting, distorting as their resources were dragged into the greedy maw, more power pouring in from outside. She had not only severely damaged Osiris' motherboard, but blown out every power transformer in the entire University grid with her demands. Very cautiously, she tried to call up such energies, standing on the balcony of a test-site room staring at the floor below. Nothing happened. There was no source for her to tap into; whatever was powering the machine, she had no direct access to it. She questioned the daemons, but they could tell her nothing. Eventually she made her way back to her personal node, sat on the hidden bed-shelf and thought hard. What could be lacking? Knowledge? She went through the files once more, found nothing. The cutoff ten years ago was becoming intensely frustrating. Surely they had learned more since then; why give her some information, but deny the most recent and useful? Did she need magic? If so, she was well and truly trapped. A spiteful folly on the Paradisian's part, sending her here, if it took magic to escape. Surely they'd had easier ways to destroy her. Or was there magic hidden in Lefty's programming? The destruction of Osiris...had seemed impossible. Modifying hardware from software, bending the entire University grid to her task, power across lines never meant for it, across fuses that did not blow until Duende disrupted her concentration.... Was that the trap? No escape unless she knowingly submitted herself to Lefty and Aliantha's design, let her system be destroyed or transformed, and whatever was to happen to her....No! There had to be another way. Even if Paradisio had never found one, *she* would. The system was far too precious to destroy. She winced at herself. She'd created it as a tool, to test her ideas about what might be needed to escape the Overnet, perhaps to be sacrificed so that she could succeed. She had no business becoming attached to it. What did she lack? Not complexity, not computing power. There were no special procedures mentioned in the historical files--no procedures at all, beyond 'make a connection to the Matrix, and then....' Control? Very cautiously, she reached out to the machine around her. Understanding, first--that would bring control. It was like breaking a seal into a vacuum. Her awareness rushed out, expanded into the emptiness of the system before she could hope to restrain or control it. She saw the entire complex, spread out around/within her, the myriad interactions and connections that gave it power. Everything at once, to a level of detail that made her gasp--she could understand it, it was not...quite...too much, but dizzying....Ah, and lovely. So *this* was what it was really like, her machine. Even more lovely than she had known. She tried to run a check, found that she had perception but no direct control. The distraction of failure ended the vision, jarred her from the strange doubling of perception that let her sense her body, her position in the node, and at the same time the position and status of every process, every node in the complex. She reached for it at once, frustrated with the limitations of her single viewpoint. The--overwatch? she thought, comparing it to the system's towers looking down on the rest of it--the overwatch was remarkably pleasant. The system cradled her...no, that sounded too cozy for this splendor of light and dark, steel and glass. But it was a very secure feeling. She walked down to the SAN once more, tried to gather together the resources of the system in her visualization, make the link. Nothing happened. For a little while, she experimented with trying to create a daemon which could do what she wanted. After a dozen or so tries, intuition presented her with a startling conclusion: the only daemon which could do what she wanted would be one spawned off of *her*. A double, a daughter-process of her own. She didn't try it. The idea seemed both frightening and rather perverse. She made her way back to her node, watching the light-play of the system. It seemed subtly different; she slipped into overwatch to see it as a whole, could find no changes for some time. At last, staring up at the ceiling of her node, she realized that the last tiny flaws, mismatches with her conception too trivial to fix, were gone; as if in seeing it as a whole she had made it fully concordant with what her imagination had forseen. (Or had her conception changed, confronted with the reality, leaving not even a memory of what she'd thought she wanted? She wasn't quite sure.) She needed control, not just vision. With a deep breath, fearing both success and failure, she reached for it. *This is the center*, she thought carefully. *The CPU is a tool; the nodes and SANs are tools; but always the center is where I am. By definition. And from the center I command.* It was like standing chest-deep in rough water, buffetted by waves--able to turn them a little aside, ripple the waters, but nearly overwhelmed by the force of the tide. She was aware of the CPU, wavemaker, power there to override anything she chose to do--but not opposing her, and she *could* control the system, command by laborous command. She reached out to a daemon busy in one of the datastores, set it on a different task; started processes running so that she could play with them, diverted them from their set paths by an effort like shifting a great mass. She swore aloud, thinking suddenly of a decker trying to run a system like this one, facing an opponent with perfect knowledge and near-perfect control. It seemed hopeless. She puzzled over that, toying with one process and another to test her control, her vision. The CPU, that was a vulnerability. So her approach to the Hidden Fortress had been right after all. Straight into the CPU, stopping for nothing--there was no other way to win. Was that what running the High Temple's system would have been like? was the speaker in darkness able to direct that machine--huger than hers, huger than she could ever imagine using--like this, directly, by will and vision? She snorted. Her plans to escape that way had been even more futile than she'd appreciated. She remembered Martha demonstrating teleportation, opening a doorway from one node to another. 'Not now,' Martha had answered her request to be taught that trick. 'I can't. Maybe afterwards.' *Teleport*. Her consciousness shattered in the instant of the decision, scattered across the entire system--no thought, no will, but a brief dizzying moment of awareness without self-awareness, one stream of data among the myriads. She found herself standing in the SAN of the public-access region, trembling. It was rather like the code she and Kurt had written to merge her consciousness with the machine's; rather like the time she'd failed to master it, come out of her trance with memories of processes, but no memory at all of Jayhawk during the intervening time. Only an instant, by the system clock--she had no other way to judge. The fear faded after a moment, left her exultant. She could do it! CPU teleport without recourse to the CPU, anywhere to anywhere. And a moment in overwatch confirmed that her experiment had done the system no harm. *Again.* She tried to stay in overwatch through the jump, failed miserably. It seemed possible, but the concentration needed.... All of this could use considerable practice. She set herself to it, inventing tasks to be done by remote-control, wrestling with the CPU's own processes, trying to learn the system inside and out. Teleported until she was dizzy with it, occasionally managed to keep her equilibrium well enough to maintain overwatch and control, more often not. Jumped at last to the SAN, reached out for control--not the entire system, she couldn't manage that, but a slow gathering of power and capacity into her grasp. Reached out to make the link with a good deal of confidence in her ability. Nothing. She stood on the lacy bridge, staring out into the greyness, and swore. Not enough, not quite enough. It was becoming more and more difficult to deny that what she needed was control of the CPU, the ability to dedicate the entire machine to her will and desire. Lefty's code stood across that path like bars closing the gate to freedom. She did not quite believe, after her previous experiences, that her unaided will could fight his programming and win. And she knew that self-doubt would make her defeat certain. 35. Dragon Though the system clock metered the passage of time, it was hard for Jayhawk to take it seriously. She didn't tire. Her body might be languishing in captivity, but her captors seemed well-equipped to take care of it; and in any case, until she could find a way off the Overnet there wasn't much she could do. It seemed an adequate excuse to spend hours--days, she realized on a second look at the clock--refining her control over the machine, looking for weaknesses in her defenses. She tried to work out tactics for a decker running the system--after all, she might have to deal with such a situation someday, and in the meantime it was instructive. A few kinds of system processes blurred overwatch very subtly, but it didn't seem possible for a decker to hide in them. The CPU was the only place she had difficulty watching, the only possibility of concealment. At last she had to admit that she was stalling, enjoying herself but making no progress. She teleported back to her node, sat thinking once more. The crux of the problem was control of the CPU, direct control. She had to have it, she was becoming quite certain, to escape the Overnet; but she dared not take it, because of Lefty. Cursing Lefty didn't even make her feel better. She could gamble on her ability to resist his programming, but she was not optimistic. Still, the idea kept creeping back into her thoughts. She was intensely curious about what would happen. After the destruction of Osiris, she recalled, she had even toyed with the idea of stealing a machine of similar capabilities, using it as test-bed to find out what that code would *do*. Not a good idea, then or now; but a difficult one to put aside. She put it aside once more, forcibly, and considered the possibility of duplicating herself, trying to evade the programming that way. Thought experiments, and a few abortive references to the key, quickly showed her that she could not create a double under her control and dominion. For one distressing moment she did make *something*--felt the fire of its hatred along her nerves like acid, tried to unmake it. It fought back, reaching out through the system, calling to the guardian daemons--vanished as she managed to reassert control. She felt almost physically ill, afterwards. Not under her command, not subserviant to her. How could she create such a creature? What would she do with it afterwards? Destroy it? It seemed to her that that was the train of thought which had made the hateful thing. A double of hers would want to live, as she did. Leave it loose in the system? But the system was *hers*. After considerable thought: The other daemons could reabsorb their spawn when the task was done, though she often terminated the processes before they could do so. Create this double for the one task, reabsorb her--no, intuition warned once again. She herself would hardly consent to be 'absorbed.' Very carefully, chosing each detail, she thought *She shall have half my power, half my control; and when we are done we will rejoin, because otherwise both of us will be less than we could be.* At that point another problem presented itself. The power of the key, though it could be shared with her daemons--she had found that she could grant them the power to spawn or command on their own, though it diluted her control a little, weakened her--could not be so neatly divided in two. The key itself was one, and could have only one holder. And it would be needed for what must be done in the CPU. *All right.* It was an enormous gamble...but the only alternative she could find was to trust herself to Lefty's handiwork, and that was a much worse one. She tried to impose just two strictures on the process she would create. *Do not harm the system, or yourself, or me. Be free from Lefty's coercion.* The key was in her hand, held out like an offering. Her vision blurred, doubling for a moment. A wave of exhaustion swept over her, unexpected and almost painful. She blinked, tried to focus. She was looking into wide silver eyes, only a meter away--startling, she seldom saw the eyes of her own Matrix image. The other Jayhawk was holding the key in her hand; her own hands were empty. "It didn't work--" said the other in puzzlement; then her eyes widened further, and she hefted the key in her hand. "*Oh!*" Surprise, but not dismay. "Good luck," said Jayhawk weakly. "Please be careful." The other grinned at her in sudden wild delight. "Hey! This means it's okay if I--" and vanished. Jayhawk climbed up to her shelf, sat huddled with her arms around her knees. She was so tired it hurt to breathe. Overwatch was easy, and a partial escape from the exhaustion; she settled into it, watched the other Jayhawk. She had teleported to one of the nodes adjacent to the CPU, ran lightly up the cobweb strand that linked it to the center. Crossed the threshhold-- The entire system shivered. Distantly, so distantly, Jayhawk caught the echo of what her double was feeling--cried out aloud, pounded her fists on the wall of the node in frustration and bitter jealousy. It was like the first motorcycle ride with Martha, kept from true contact with the machine by the forbiddance in her mind...worse, far worse, because more fiercely desired, more clearly perceived. Dimly through her emotional turmoil she sensed the other breaking the links that still held them to the corridor network, reaching out into the greyness. It was almost as if she did it herself, working through a strangely attenuated link with a remote. Almost. The difference was torment. She fought to keep herself from trying to reassert control, unsure whether success or failure would be worse. A burst of protocol as their system touched another, linked. From overwatch she could see it, with concentration--a pyramid, standing on a little piece of earth unanchored in the greyness. From this vantage, somewhere above it, she could see that there was indeed a building on the top, a small square structure of pillars and arches, an open courtyard at its heart. The High Temple proper? The other Jayhawk appeared abruptly in her node, cheeks flushed with excitement. "Works!" she said. "Figure we didn't need the other nodes; this is plenty big enough." She was *different*. Jayhawk stared at her, trying to understand what her intuition was telling her, saw only her own Matrix image. "You've changed," she whispered. "Attuned to the machine," said the other. "It's almost like being a part of it. That was what we needed, what we couldn't get from out here." She wanted to deny what she was seeing. It had been such a good plan, so clean, so clever....But it was impossible. She could see too clearly what the merger would do to her--half attuned to the machine, half free; neither in control, neither able to integrate the other's perceptions and abilities. (Why not? I made the Kurt code work, surely this is no worse....She remembered the thoughts of the SPU, shivered. That had *been* insanity, Channa was right. A useful insanity. But enduring it forever....) "We can't rejoin, not while we're so different. We'll go mad." She held her breath, waiting for the contemptuous response--Why would I want to? I don't need you. "Damn!" said the other with passion. "That's no good. Are you sure?" She bit her lip in a familiar gesture. "Of course you're sure. I can see what you mean, too. Do you have any idea what we can do about it?" She leaned against the wall of the node. "It's hard for me to remember. It's like the memories are still yours, and I can just barely access them--like you're a datastore, but a really distant one. I don't like it. Incomplete, like I--we--thought." "Attune me to the machine." "Can't," said the other unhappily. "It's *done*. I'd have to unmake it and start again"--both of them winced--"and I didn't leave myself anything to work with, breaking connection with the old complex like that.--Had to, we weren't going anywhere until I did." She looked at Jayhawk in dismay. "I'm sorry." Can I bring her back into synch with me, do I have the power? She had no power over the other at all, she discovered at once. Slowly, she said, "Can you change me--block out the Lefty code, or bring me into synch with you?" The other's eyes closed for a second. "No. Key or no key, you're out of my reach. Hm. Maybe. If we were both in the CPU--" "Can you keep out the Lefty code, now that you're in control?" "Maybe. I'm not sure." "Try it." She was utterly desperate. She could *feel* the vacancy within her, the power she had given up to create the double. Not just power. Part of herself--of her soul, if she believed in souls. The other Jayhawk nodded sharply, held out her hand. They walked together toward the center of the system. As before, a whine of increasing sytem activity accompanied them, rising to a near-shriek as they climbed the cobweb leading to the CPU. The double stepped ahead, turned to watch as Jayhawk crossed the threshhold-- Power lanced through her like a knife, the system's power and more. As if it were happening to her own body, she could feel the barriers at the SANs shattering, the greyness pouring in. Light flared, blinding her eyes but not the terrible clarity that saw what was happening, to the system, to her.... She couldn't control it. She had given that ability to the other Jayhawk, saved none for herself. She screamed aloud, defiance at the onrushing grey, the overwhelming waves of foreignness invading system and mind and soul. Fought back, hopelessly, felt something tear inside her--a brief contact, fleeting sense that she still had a body, somewhere--a body that the torrents, balked, crashed into with tidal force. Tore her from the system, sent her spinning away. She found herself on the Matrix, in the open courtyard at the top of the Pyramid. The buildings around her were inscribed with spells, programs, formulae which tugged at her mind, offering understanding. She looked around in puzzlement. Faint and far off, she could feel the other Jayhawk, but the direction her intuition indicated was impossible. The buildings glittered, bricks bright as scales, as feathers--she caught her breath. Scales, feathers, something huge coiled around her--no buildings at all, the whole system was one great creature. She turned slowly, taking it in. Awakened, alive, unspeakably complex. She traced the serpentine coils out until she found the head. His eyes met hers, and for an instant a trace of his emotions brushed her mind. Loneliness like the sea, like the night sky, vast beyond imagining. She tried to look away, could not even begin to do so. He relented a little, still holding her gaze, let her breathe again. His eyes were the color of the sun, dying. "Jayhawk," he said in a voice that was many voices, trembling in the structure around her. "So you have come back. It is a pity." "Why?" she said softly. "You are dying, Jayhawk." On the word 'dying' the other voices were raised, a chorus of dismay. "Your body is broken. I can help you, if you wish." "What would the price be?" Her own voice surprised her. So calm. "I need you for just a little while longer. And then there will be an end. Perhaps a new beginning." "Why? Why are you doing this?" Among the many voices was one she knew. "To ease the pain. Perhaps to end it." She struggled to look away, could not. His pain gnawed at the back of her mind. "What did Aliantha say to you, when she stood here?" Gravely, he said, "She told me she loved me. It wasn't true; but she believed it when she said it." With equal gravity, listening to her own words as if they were another's: "I will die before I serve you." And, the words torn from her: "I would kill you if I could." It was not hatred but mercy, the only mercy she could imagine or offer. "I am sorry," he said. "There could have been so much...." The great eyes closed at last, freeing her; and as if they had been holding earth and sky together, the pavement under her feet dissolved, plummeting her into the abyss. For an instant she thought she heard someone calling her name, a familiar voice. And the Dragon: "Goodbye, Jayhawk." Dissolution, cutting off pain and regret and defiance alike. Nothingness. 36. Caroline The system was disintegrating, its integrity destroyed by the gaping holes at the SANs, the greyness pouring unchecked through them. In the CPU, Jayhawk struggled desperately to hold things together, contain the damage to the outer regions. In the back of her mind she was aware of the other Jayhawk's decision; of death like a darker greyness opening, a door to nowhere. It tugged at her, too, trying to pull her from her system. No! She abandoned her attempt to maintain the outer nodes, clinging with all her strength to the fading sense of contact. Death sucked at her, trying to draw her down, dissolve her as it was dissolving the other.... Faintly, she heard the echo of the Dragon's voice: "Good luck, Jayhawk." Speaking to her, to the other, she wasn't sure. And she held. It seemed suddenly impossible that she should not. She was in her system, part of it; no outside force had power to pry her loose. She was a mountain, not to be shifted by tugging at a single stone; a vast weight, no lever long enough to move her. She laughed aloud in delight, stretched out her arms and felt weight in them-- Oh-my-god-we're-in-the-CPU--*Teleport!* "Ahh," said the voice, insight and a vast amusement. His laughter echoed in her mind, sharp with the echo of pain behind the humor, as she sat on the shelf in her node, holding the other Jayhawk, the system holding them both. ** She found herself lying in darkness, cradled in the circle of someone's arms. "Where am I?" she whispered. "Our node," said a familiar voice just behind her ear. In a wondering voice, the other went on, "You said 'no'!" "I did." My God, I'm alive! "Wouldn't you have?" A sudden thought struck her, and she struggled against the other's hold. "You didn't agree to serve him, did you? To save me?" Amused: "Who am I to second-guess a decision like that? No. You were dying, all right--tried to pull me along with you. But it's not so easy to budge me from here, and I guess I held on to you." Jayhawk relaxed, settled back into the other's arms. It was like being embraced by the system; like overwatch. Secure. "Why is it so dark? Is everything okay?" "There was a horrendous flash. I'm not seeing too well either, but I imagine it'll come back." A brief pause. "Damage control reports everything's fine. Contact with the other system was broken off, there was a little trouble containing that, but otherwise we're in good shape. Pretty amazing, considering." The arms enfolding her tightened. "If you die, all of this dies. That won't do at all, Jay. Argh. I think we should call you Caroline--this is just too confusing." "Hey! I'm the original!" "And you were called Caroline before you were called Jayhawk, weren't you? Do you have a better idea?" At her snort: "Can you check overwatch? I'm getting no reports of damage, but...." "You can't?" "Nope. Brief glimpses into nodes, one at a time, but nothing sustained. I think we really did partition the power evenly. More or less." Caroline closed her still-useless eyes, reached for overwatch. It was breathtakingly easy, vision flooding in to fill the darkness. The system spun about her like a wheel of light, perfect in every detail. She could see herself, and the other--Jayhawk, ha! *She* was Jayhawk. But for convenience' sake it would do. The other was almost a system process, on an analytical inspection. Almost herself. Not quite either. "It looks fine." Passionately: "Good." And then, in a much more relaxed voice, "We lost contact with Paradisio back there. It may take us quite a while to find them again, or anything else--unless you can do something I can't. It's a big place, apparently, the Overnet." Overwatch showed nothing beyond the system's boundaries but unrelenting greyness. Copyright Mary K. Kuhner 1991

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