61. Manifestation Caroline had an intuitive feeling that she could exist in the physical w

---
Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

61. Manifestation Caroline had an intuitive feeling that she could exist in the physical world, and curiosity nagged at her to try it, difficult though it was to imagine. A little experimentation told her that she couldn't reach the outside from Osiris CPU; she needed a connection, perhaps an I/O port. In the EE building, she recalled, there was a dish antenna linked to the main computer, alone on a rooftop where she wouldn't have to deal with spectators. She found it without difficulty, a tangle of machinery on the Matrix. With a deep breath, she set her mind in the appropriate pattern, walked into it. High above the turning Earth, a telecom satellite made a minor course adjustment, a puff of vapor from its manuvering jets. Drifting downwards, into the fringes of the atmosphere, the icy droplets clung together, coalescing as the Earth tugged at them, their fall accelerating-- City lights, spread out in glittering complexity below, stretching out and out to the gathering horizons-- A flicker of self-awareness, falling, I'm falling, as layers of cloud whipped by, invisible touches, blending with the clinging droplets and weighing them down-- Icy cold, tangible now, she could feel herself in the accreting mass of vapor, the center of it compacting, forming into something solid. Ghost of wings, a beak-- She was dying, the careful weave of her life about her fraying, weakening. No. The fall would not kill her, but it would lessen her, life given up to the icy wind, the hugeness of the sky, for manifestation. A little death. Rush of wind about her, the city almost recognizable below, more continous than the Matrix but of the same awesome complexity-- Acceleration, the wind itself shaping her, speed beyond anything she had ever imagined-- Caroline pulled herself back, found herself curled in the center of an antenna dish, on the Matrix. She cried out aloud, pounded her hands on the cold metal. It had been glorious, the sense of freedom, the joy of feeling herself, despite all Paradisio's traps, still alive, still able to act in the physical world.... It spent resources she couldn't spare, not if she wanted to do what she'd bragged to the hawk she would do. Free those Paradisio kept imprisoned. Destroy *him*. She sent a message to Forked Lightning: I'd like to see you, maybe tomorrow night? And flung herself into the island-gardens, desperately determined that this time she would find their secret, not have to limit herself at all any more. 62. Bridges Almost before she realized that she was falling, Caroline hit the ground with a bone-rattling thud. All around her, she could hear birds taking flight, though for a moment she was too dazed to see. When she'd caught her breath, she sat up, looked around. She was among pillars carved with birds, at the foot of a huge, leafless tree. High overhead, a black speck was circling. There were no other birds to be seen. Back in the gardens, though not where she'd expected to be--she had visualized the central island. Why here? One of the nearby pillars depicted hawks, including a few like the one she'd spoken to. When she examined the pictures more carefully, each hawk was made up of smaller images, precise and detailed, no two exactly the same. And on even closer viewing, those too contained tinier hawks, multitudes of them. She touched the cold stone thoughtfully. A datastore of a kind, perhaps? It might hold answers to some of her myriad questions. After a moment she turned away. Still angry and hurt over her body's death, the hawk's presumption, she didn't feel like dealing with something so obviously part of its domain. Back at the islands there was power of *hers*, waiting for her to grasp--she was sure of it. She didn't need this. She willed herself into the air, grinned with delight--flying was much more comfortable than walking. The tree towered above her. She spiralled around it, curious to see what had become of the egg, the dead bird. But three-quarters of the way up, above the canopy of the surrounding forest but well below the nest, she seemed to reach a limit. The air was too thin to hold her up. Frustrated, she landed on a wide branch, looked down dizzily for an instant, then tore her eyes away and began to climb. She was sick of discovering limitations. She wasn't going to accept this one. There were branches in plenty, and she almost reached the top. But the last six meters were bare, and they ended in a spreading crown woven with thorns and pointed sticks. She balanced on the last branch, staring up. There was no way through, even if she could somehow have shinnied up the smooth trunk. *I have better things to do.* She launched herself from the branch, fell until the air enfolded her, winging out toward the break in the treetops which hid the island-garden. Testing her speed. No matter how fast she flew, the wind didn't tear at her; only caressed her, curling around her body like the promise of power. When she reached the islands she couldn't see the tall tree anymore, though it should have been clearly visible--she'd been able to see the break in the trees from there. She swore, hanging in the sky over the CPU-island, then dismissed it fiercely. *This* was the problem she'd come to solve. Not the pillars and tree. She landed at the center, tried once more to rearrange the islands by her will. As before, nothing happened. Unsurprised and even a little relieved--having come up with a plan, she wanted to try it--she sat down on the feathery grass, closed her eyes, and began to build. She'd done some research while she was on the Matrix, leafing through mechanical engineering textbooks, looking at machines. She hadn't been able to find one exactly suited to pulling out bridges, but she'd gotten some ideas. Wide feet to support it on the grass--she didn't want to damage the islands any more than she had to. A rotating belt to pull on the bridge, clamps to attach it. And a powerful engine. She colored it yellow, like the street-repair machinery she'd grown up with. It looked a little improbable in her mind's eye, but workable--or so she told herself resolutely. She mentally clamped it to one of the bridges, the one she'd decided should connect the CPU-island to a nearby but disconnected island which might be node 0-1, the isolation field chamber near the "Gate". Eyes still closed, she started up the engine. There was no noise, which shook her faith a little; but she persevered, putting the machine in gear, starting its belt rotating. -- Wild claxons. *System alert at 0-1.* Jayhawk teleported herself into the CPU, stared in horror at the fragile black-glass stairway which spiralled down to the isolation chamber. It was stretching, uncurling like an abused slinky. A railing shattered with a loud tinkling of glass. The system shuddered with the strain; she fed it power, struggling to contain the damage. "Dammit, Caroline!" she said aloud. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" She hoped it was Caroline. The stairway stretched further, indicators flaring red across the CPU as the stresses mounted. The outermost nodes, the SANs and watchtowers, were in real danger of being shaken loose. Desperate, she forced new connections, modifying the system map so that each SAN was bound to a triangle of adjacent nodes. It felt horribly wrong, a sin against the system's logic and beauty. But it reduced the shaking a little. -- The bridge had deep roots. Caroline could feel the strain on them as her machine increased its pull, a faint trembling transmitted through the concrete. She persevered, was rewarded at last with a wrenching snap, soft splashings along the edges of the pool. She opened her eyes. There was no machine to be seen, but the end of the bridge that had been anchored to the '0-1' island was several feet off the ground, a gaping hole beneath it. The situation felt a little uncomfortable, as if some flow or connection had been interrupted. Hastily, she set herself to cranking up the other end of the bridge as well. -- The stairway broke at last, leaving a gaping hole into greyness. As quickly as she could Jayhawk slammed down barriers, sealing off the wound in the system. It felt as if her own flesh were torn--not painful, but sickeningly wrong and ugly. She could contain the damage, for the moment. Furious and terrified, she dangled from her webbing in the CPU, cursing Caroline. A few more shocks like that and it wouldn't be just the outermost nodes breaking loose. The integrity of the entire system was deteriorating. -- It was peculiar to see the entire bridge suspended in the air. Caroline waded across the pool, picked up one end. There was a momentary resistance, and then it moved freely--though it looked like wood, it was feather-light. She turned it upside down, balanced it on her head to carry it to its new location. There she envisioned a new machine, this one taken straight from the textbook; a digging machine, to make holes the end of the bridge could fit into. She tried watching it dig, but that was too distracting; eventually she sat with eyes closed, finished both holes. The bridge fit fairly well, though it wasn't as secure as it had been. She pushed the dirt back into the holes by hand, tamped it down. Better, but still rather springy--it seemed that the bridge might have had roots, before she pulled it out. She fetched the trash can, dipped up water to wet the overturned earth. The resulting mud wasn't entirely reassuring either. She decided to wait and see how it dried before beginning another bridge. -- Jayhawk's improvised seal exploded suddenly, a prong of metal and glass sinking into the CPU--the missing stairway? But it looked *wrong*. No time for that, the join was imperfect, worsening the existing stresses. Hastily she tried to patch it up, pull the foreign material--it was the spiral stair to 0-1, or at least appeared to be--into alignment with the rest of Anubis. She had little choice. She'd destroy the entire system if she fought back. Communication with nodes 0-1 and 0-2, the Gate chamber itself, was intermittant, almost nonexistant--as if information were leaking out of the breaks in system connectivity like water from a pipe. She tried to staunch the leaks; gradually they slowed, though she wasn't certain that it was her doing. She didn't dare send a daemon to assess the damage to those nodes; she wasn't sure she'd get it back. And the thought of going there herself--of leaving the CPU at all, when at any moment a node might be snapped off--terrified her. Disconnected from Anubis! She would probably die. At last a minimal sort of connectivity was restored, though she was dismayed by the awkward, alien feel that the stairway now had. Though she still didn't dare enter the area, flickering glimpses suggested that the nodes were relatively intact--luckily they weren't among the more fragile parts of the system. Suddenly the horrible stretching began again, this time on the walkway connecting the containment room with the Gate chamber beyond. "No!" Jayhawk snarled aloud, and clamped down on system resources, denying the intruder--God help her if it wasn't Caroline--purchase on her system. After a short, sharp struggle, the tugging subsided. Almost instantly it began again on another connector, the delicate cobweb bridge between the CPU and sector 2. Again she fended it off, wincing at the glitter of stress-lights across the CPU. And again, and again. The attacker was *not* going to get the better of her. She didn't tire, and she wouldn't relent. Anubis was hers, and neither Caroline nor anyone else was going to damage it this way. -- Caroline stamped her foot in frustration, balked. She could visualize her pulling machine, start it going, but almost instantly it would come to a stop, as if some intangible gear had jammed. She'd tried attacking different bridges, using different approaches--even the difficult intellectual trick of visualizing two machines at once, pulling on two separate bridges. Nothing worked. She had a vague sense that she was being blocked deliberately. By Jayhawk? She frowned at the thought. More pleasing to assume that Lefty or another of the Paradisians was responsible. In that case, maybe she needed backing from Jay and Anubis. Either way, the thought nagged at her until at last she gave up on her futile bridge-pulling, tried to will herself back to the system. She found herself in the CPU, Jayhawk staring at her, blade drawn. One look at Jay's expression made it quite clear who had been blocking her; Caroline took an instinctive step backward, hand going to the hilt of her own lightblade, then forced it away. A flicker of overwatch showed her what had happened to the system: the delicate outer nodes were braced with new connectors, perfectly in the style of the rest of Anubis but still jarringly inesthetic, while the connection to the Gate complex was...different. Not obviously so, she couldn't define what had changed, but it was not quite made of the same materials as the rest of the system. It might have felt good, might even have seemed an improvement, if it hadn't been subtly but noticably dissonant with everything else. Swallowing her pride, she said at last, "I'm sorry, I didn't realize it would have that effect; I thought the island-computer was inactive." "Apparently not," said Jayhawk in a toneless voice. Hearing her, Caroline knew already that the arguments she had been marshalling for why she should be allowed to continue were futile. *When I created you, my intent was to safeguard the system, and myself, and you. I didn't know then that I'd ever want to change it.* The transformed connection nagged at her like an unfulfilled promise, a promise of power and knowledge. 63. Minerva As Caroline had expected, it was futile to argue with Jayhawk. Jay pointed out, rather forcefully, that even if Anubis could somehow survive the repeated stresses, simply maintaining system integrity in the face of the mismatched connector was using up a full 1% of available resources. Furthermore, she added, there were over 100 connectors in Anubis. The system would hang before Caroline's scheme could be completed. Caroline had no answer to that, beyond an intuitive feeling that it wasn't so. Jayhawk refused to trust her intuition. She could hardly blame her; she wasn't entirely sure about it herself. "What am I supposed to do, then? That's my best idea!" she protested. "Find a better one," said Jayhawk harshly. "Use some of the power you've already got. You told the hawk you were going to free people. If you could free Martha, that would be a good start towards finding out what we need to know." "How?" "*I* don't know. Maybe looking at her will tell you something. Maybe you can trick it out of her. Quit moping and do something! Go ask Chalker his opinion!" Caroline shuddered. She'd dealt with Chalker and his ghosts once, and had little desire to do it again. "All right. Send me back to the Matrix, and I'll see what I can do." Back at Osiris, she sent Martha a message asking to talk with her, then considered her immediate options. How good of a decker was she, now? She had very little idea. Could she run the Paradisian satellite systems, pry their secrets out that way? Could she run the High Temple itself? That didn't seem too likely. How could she find out without getting caught? The Paradisian base in Seattle was empty, had been since their raid on it months ago; but its computer was still up, or had been last time she'd checked. What better way to test her abilities? There might even be information there. It had been Aliantha's system, after all. From the outside, the system appeared much as it always had, a high-walled castle with heavily barred gates. She went around to the "back", the peculiar third SAN by which she and Yoichi had entered it the first time. It was still there, a break in the walls blocked by no more than a thorny hedge with a closed gate in it. As she recalled from her last trip, this and the node behind it were 'dead'--some damage to the computer had deactivated them. They should have been non-existent. Duende had guessed that the Gate was somehow supporting them. They were still dead on the Matrix, but she could see activity on another level, one for which she had no name. It was eerie. The hedge didn't resist her when she pushed through it, only tingled along her skin. With no computer supporting it, the IC was long gone. She walked along the pebbled path, noticed that it had changed; it was dimpled with large, oblong depressions at regular intervals. Footprints, perhaps. At the crossroads they turned off in both directions, though there had seemed to be only one line of them. She took the branch that had led to the isolation field and Gate chamber, curious whether she would be able to get past it. As before, the isolation field appeared as a jagged chasm cutting across the road. On the Matrix she could see the folded-up bridge on the far side, inoperable without a hardware switch, the last line of defense against enemies trying to seize the Gate from either side. But she could also see a thin span of stone, without railings, arching across the gap. Not a Matrix construct, though she could put no better name to it. Memories of flight nerved her to walk across. As she stepped on the keystone of the arch the bridge trembled slightly; a faint echo like distant thunder answered from somewhere beyond the chasm. She hurridly finished the crossing, looked about. Empty road under a desolate sky. No; far off on the unturning road was a tiny black speck, moving toward her. She drew her blade, squinting at it-- And it was on her, impossibly fast; an opaque shadow like a cloud of flies, though the individual units moved so quickly that they blended together. Three arms coalesced from its seething mass, reached out for her. The mass itself *lifted*, brushing along the interface between the Matrix and the Overnet, rippling its surface. Drinking in power, she thought as she fended off the arms, sliced through one to leave it dissipating in the air. It had a vile acrid smell, somehow familiar. It struck at her again, more solidly this time; three talons pinched inward, seized her below the ribs. Suddenly she did recognize them; the three-fingered hand of a Minerva vector, Aliantha's deadly experiment. One sunk into her body, burning coldly, even as she beat the other two back. She screamed, tried to detach herself from the Matrix, return to the feather-garden--it was the easiest target, easier than Anubis from here. Blocked, anchored by its grasping claws. Something was probing into her-- It released her suddenly, drew back as if alarmed. Before it could move again she was gone. She found herself on the CPU-island, immersed in brilliant sunlight. With stumbling haste she threw herself into the pool, scrubbed at her body. There were deep bruises under the armor, but no punctures. She felt violated, worse than when Channa had mindprobed her; the attacker hadn't just been searching her thoughts, it had wanted to change them. Why had it drawn back? Because she was too powerful for it? Or because it had recognized her, knew her as someone it had already marked? She remembered the dreams at the High Temple. She collected herself with an effort, returned to Anubis. *Jayhawk* was free, even if she wasn't; and might be in danger as a result. Afraid, once again, to put herself in reach of the system controls, she sat in a test chamber in sector 3 while Jayhawk ran tests and described what had happened. There had been two attempts to break into the system. The first had come from outside, through SAN 2; the IC had driven it off before Jayhawk could get a good look. The second had come up through Caroline's personal datastore, where her decking code was kept; meeting no IC there, it had ransacked the datastore, then tried to gain access to the CPU. A guardian daemon had driven it away. Jayhawk described a black cloud, almost too fast to see. "You're clean as far as I can tell," said Jayhawk at last. "Do you know any differently?" There was a distinct edge to her voice. "No. No, I don't." She touched the slowly fading bruise along her side. It had wanted information; and control. Apparently Jayhawk had denied it control, but what would it do with the information? "I need better decking code before I run into that again." Jayhawk nodded sharply. "I'll work on it. You have an appointment with Martha to keep." *I'm afraid to go back.* She bit back the words, nodded. 64. Megan Martha parked her motorcycle just inside the SAN at Osiris, found Caroline waiting for her. The decker was almost ghostly--not transparent, but attenuated, color leached out of her skin and hair, fragile and somehow incomplete. Half-glimpsed images which Martha couldn't identify flickered in the shadows of her hair, the folds of her clothing. Touch more than vision said that she was not a ghost; there was a glow about her, like sunlight on Martha's face. She was both warmed and saddened. Aliantha had been like that. "Hello, Martha. What's up?" Caroline said exuberantly. "Hello! Busy as usual, I'm afraid--two alarms this morning, probably five more this afternoon, you'd think the whole place was going to fall apart.--It's good to see you looking more cheerful." She wasn't at all sure it was sincere. "How are things with you?" "Coming along. Did you get my previous letter?" There was a bit of an edge to the smile now. "Yes, I got it. I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to reply." "Any comments on the situation now?" Still smiling, but through almost clenched lips. "No, I'm afraid not." "Any news from down there at all?" "Things are coming along." She smiled back at Caroline, wearily. "People are keeping busy, trying to fill in the gaps." The decker stared at her, hard-eyed. She would have liked so much to satisfy her, if only she had any idea what to say, but if Caroline couldn't ask.... "We aren't fooling anybody, you know." "If you'd like to be more blunt, go right ahead," said Caroline stiffly. "I'd be delighted to hear anything you have to say." Martha climbed off the bike, leaned back against it. What could she tell her? "You've surprised a lot of people, did you know that? I thought you might find it encouraging." "Good." "Did you, ah, use the darts? Did they work properly?" "I used one, and it worked fine; thanks. I can see why you don't have a whole lot of those. I'm afraid Jayhawk didn't approve, though." "So it really is you and Jayhawk now, isn't it?" So much like Aliantha. Caroline hesitated an instant, then nodded. Was that the final answer? Martha wanted to ask, but she was afraid that Caroline would resent the question, or misunderstand it. "What didn't she approve of?" she said at last. "She was worried about structural integrity; and system security." "I can see how she might feel that way...." She gathered her courage, plunged into it: "I'd urge you to keep in touch with people. Don't let yourself become isolated. I think that's how Aliantha went wrong." "Oh? What did she do?" "Let herself slip....In some ways you remind me of her very much." Images flickered behind Caroline's eyes, as if watching her. "I've been trying to rid myself of that idea; haven't had much success either." There was something in her voice that said *but it doesn't matter now*. "There's a lot of Aliantha in Jayhawk, in you...a lot of Megan..." She found herself confused, the easy correspondances suddenly not so clear. Perhaps there was a chance for Caroline after all. "I really hope you won't choose her path." "That's what he said, but it's not very helpful advice since I don't know what she did." "*He* talked to you about Aliantha?" She was shocked. "Wrong 'he'. Lefty, I mean. He's been hanging about a good deal, pretending to be other people." Something about that matter-of-fact statement disturbed her intensely. She tried to hide the reaction, wasn't sure she was succeeding. "I'm sorry. I remember when we first found him, he couldn't have been more than eight or nine years old, but there was already such an edge to him, so much energy...." "So what did Aliantha do?" "What do you want to know, exactly?" She realized that she was infuriating Caroline, but hedging had become such an ingrained habit....And the less she told her about Aliantha, the more likely that she and Jayhawk would find another answer, a better one. "Everyone keeps telling me not to follow Aliantha's path! I haven't the faintest idea what that is, so how can I follow it or not? If you think ignorance is going to keep me from doing anything, you're *wrong*." She was almost shouting. Martha's skin tingled where she was facing her, as if with gathering storm. "Aliantha and Megan were two different people." She struggled to put it in words. "There was a kind of spark in Aliantha, a brightness; but she gave it up. Sacrificed it, I think. There's a lot of power in losing that ...that connection to people, to the world....But it's not worth it, Caroline. No amount of power is worth that." "What happened to Megan?" "I think she just gave up. I talked to her near the end. She'd taken in some power, I don't know exactly what it was, but it was too much for her; it was burning her up from inside. She told me that she didn't think she could hold on here much longer, and anyway she was tired; she just wanted to let it all slide. And then she died. When your body died, I thought....but you're all right, and Jayhawk is--she is all right, isn't she?" "Yes.--What happened to my body, exactly?" Didn't she know? What was she asking? "It died...." "I know that, I was there. I mean, how? I can't really imagine it." "There were a lot of flashing lights and alarms....I don't know what else to say." At least it had been quick, quicker than what happened to Megan. She was grateful not to have had to go through that again. "Why are you willing to keep doing this again and again, if it ends like that?" A hard question, one that tempted her to thoughts she really couldn't afford. "Why? For the sake of people like Slim, and Charlotte, and Roth....And I have a job to do, and that still matters to me. Or maybe it's just that I'm not young anymore, and I've been tangled up in this for so long...sometimes I'm not sure how much is left of me." More than she had meant to say; but perhaps Caroline would understand. "You're not *that* old. This is the Matrix, anyway, what difference does it make? Martha, are we private?" Martha had to chuckle at that. "This is the Matrix; it's as private as we make it." She ran a pro-forma scan, already sure what the answer would be. "Yes, we are." As private as it gets. Caroline walked around her, leaned against the doorway of the SAN as if to block Martha's escape. Slowly and carefully, eyes probing hers, she said, "Would you be disentangled if you could?" The hairs on the back of her neck prickled. It was not a question, she sensed. It was an offer. Analysis code probed at her. With an effort, she refrained from blocking it. Let Caroline find out what she could, painful though she found it to have her weaknesses exposed. Perhaps it would help.... As honestly as she dared, picking her way through the mines: "I don't know. When I think about what I've lost...but then I think about what I would lose, and I--I really don't know, Caroline." "You should make up your mind." "I suppose I should." She shivered. "--You've changed, do you know that?" "So have you." *That* she definitely could not discuss. She cast about for another topic, remembered a long-ago conversation with Aliantha. "Have you started sleeping?" Caroline hesitated, clearly unsure whether to answer. "Not here." "Not here?--Aliantha had a place that she went to where I could never follow her. A kind of refuge, I think. After a while she stopped going there. I guess she didn't need it anymore." "Or she thought she didn't." Was that a hint of sympathy? "Yes. What's it like, this place of yours?" "Feathery." "Feathery?" she repeated in startlement. Having seen Anubis, she was amazed that Caroline's domain contained anything even vaguely biological. "Overwhelmingly feathery." Martha tried to smile at her, pained by the mistrust, the hardness of her eyes. "Feathery, that's a good word for how you look now...so bright.... Things will have changed for you, with your life gathered about you like that. If you feel the need to sleep, you shouldn't fight it. I think that was one of her mistakes." "I'll bear that in mind. Martha, what is he trying to accomplish, doing this over and over?" "You're only the second one." Caroline's eyes widened, obviously surprised and, Martha judged, pleased. "I thought there were a substantial number of High Priests." "There are, but not like you and Aliantha." "Multiple different experiments?" she said, in a voice somewhere between curiosity and horror. "Most of the High Priests aren't experiments at all; just people who wanted power, or magic, or knowledge." She shook her head wearily, thinking of Merrow. Suddenly a twinge went through her, sharp and impatient. She was back on the bike almost before she realized what was happening. It was worse than before, worse than she had imagined. "Caroline, I really have to go; I won't be able to do this too many more times....Take care of yourself." The frustrated curiosity in Caroline's eyes tore at her, but not half as much as the tugging from within. Caroline spread her arms, blocking the SAN exit, and said in a level voice, "What would I have to do to get a good long talk with you?" "I don't know. Heal *him*, maybe." She could hear the pleading in her own voice, closer to the surface than she had intended. "Or destroy.... No, that's not possible." She wasn't totally sure; and she didn't know whether she wanted to be right or wrong. She *had* to go.... "That question I asked you? If you ever figure out the answer, I'd like very much to hear it." Caroline moved aside, let her pass. She flung herself out the gate, barely managed to say over her shoulder, "So would I. Goodbye, Caroline." Barely heard the response, falling from the Matrix like a star into the sea: "Goodbye, Martha. Take care." 65. Background To kill time before her date with Michael, Caroline decided to try to find out whether Angela had been a real person. She began with the on-line telephone and class records, and was startled to find that Angela Whitechapel appeared in both, registered for the classes Caroline remembered taking in the stim-illusion, living in the apartment she recalled. She hadn't attended any classes for two weeks. Dismayed, she dug deeper. Angela was *real*? They'd admitted a stranger into Anubis, offered her their protection? Police records told her that Angela was listed as having disappeared on the evening of the theater performance. Her boyfriend Mark had been taken in for questioning, but no charges had been brought and the case was apparently inactive. People disappeared in Seattle every week. Caroline sifted through camera records from Angela's apartment building, found a couple of images of Mark--apparently he'd found a new girlfriend. No pictures of Angela, but the camera buffers were flushed weekly. Her bank account was real and fairly large, though there was a lock on it. Caroline might have broken it with work, if she'd had any use for money. Real grades in the University records, real email piling up in her computer account. Caroline read it, baffled. It was unhelpful, mainly class announcements and advertising. There was something deeply disturbing about the idea that Angela might have been a real, distinct person, a stranger with a life and identity of her own. What had they done to her? What had they done to *themselves*, dealing with her as they had? Caroline searched her memories, recalled sending in a job application-- she/Angela had been desperate for any approach to the Matrix, even a scutwork computer job. She broke into the company's files, searched through job listings. The job was real enough--still open, in fact, contrary to Angela's despondant impression that it would be filled instantly by someone far more qualified than she. But Angela's application wasn't on file anywhere. Caroline paced the records datastore, wondering. Perhaps Angela wasn't real at all, but a clever fake put together by the Paradisians. After all, they'd only have to doctor Matrix records, and they were surely capable of that. For the first time, her freedom on the Matrix seemed restrictive. Perhaps she had reason to manifest after all. But she sensed that she might be able to do that only a very few times, and she didn't want to waste them. Evening came while she was still searching; at last she gave up, went to meet Michael. 66. Lightning Caroline spent the evening with Michael, admiring his new Matrix image-- a slim tousle-haired boy on a floating skateboard, far handsomer than the robot had been--and his new job, Matrix watchdog on an elegantly Japanese system in downtown Seattle. There was black IC, killcode, on one of its nodes, a flicker of overwatch showed her. She mentioned it to him only when they were elsewhere, wandering the complexities of the downtown web. "There *is*? How do you know?" His eyes were wide. "I wonder, um, if I'm really working for the Yaks. I mean, it's a lot of money, with the cyberware and all." He was distinctly faster, though still no match for her. "Do you think so?" "It's possible. I could try to find out, if you like, though obviously there's some risk--more to you than to me." He considered that for a minute. "No, if I'm going to find out I should do it myself, the way a real decker would, and run my own risks." She nodded approval. "If you end up running it, I can tell you one thing--black's no worse than any other IC, except it hurts a lot more if you miss. If you can beat it, you can beat it, and it doesn't matter what it was trying to do. Keep that in mind and you won't psych yourself out so bad. And always have someone around in realspace, so they can get you to a hospital if something goes wrong." She wished she had that luxury. They ran the fringers of the entertainment district, systems contorted into lurid shapes of neon and glass, pulsing with traffic. Michael talked about his ambitions for the future, about wanting to *be* Forked Lightning--one of the names other deckers conjured by, like Fastjack, like the Silver Sliver, like (he blushed a little) *her*. His ideas about how to do this were rather vague and unformed, though no worse, she thought, than her own ideas about defeating Paradisio.... She asked him if he would talk to Angela's instructors, find out if any of them remembered her. Real people might be harder to fake than electronic records. He agreed at once, apparently finding something glamorous in the detective work. She didn't explain who Angela was, only that she might or might not have been a real person. She spun the night out until nearly dawn, finding that she didn't want to leave. A seed of a plan, an argument for Jayhawk, was beginning to germinate in the back of her mind, but she didn't want to look at it yet. And Martha had urged her not to give up human companionship. Martha's advice might be suspect, but her own intuition concurred. She and Jayhawk were many things to one another, but not...not quite friends. "I'm going to have to do something rather rash," she said at last. "I'm scared half to death; I don't know if I'm going to be coming back. I wanted you to know I've really enjoyed your company." "Not coming back? You can't do that! How am I ever going to learn all your secrets?" His tone was more than half serious. "Don't talk like that. You'll be fine, you're too damn good to die." "It's not dying I'm really worried about." She remembered being saved by Jayhawk, the feeling of effortless strength enfolding her. She wasn't sure she *could* die, if Jayhawk didn't wish her to. A good feeling, on the whole. "I don't want to end up working for the people I'm running against." "You? Punch a time clock? Never!" "I hope not." She looked up at the shadowy sky. "I...I have a sort of present for you, if you'd like." He looked at her in puzzlement, then smiled suddenly. "Sure!" She held out one hand to him. "Hold on tight, and don't let go." He took her hand gingerly. She took a deep breath--I hope this works, it's going to be damned embarrassing if it doesn't--and lifted them toward the greyness overhead. For a moment the Matrix spread about them, alive with the city's endless dataflow. Then exhaustion caught her, and she had to let them fall. They landed with a soft bounce; she sat down heavily, panting. Michael stared at her open-mouthed. "How did you do that?" After a moment, with obvious regret: "No, I guess I shouldn't ask." "Ask anything you like," she said between gasps. "Tonight I don't care. Whew! That was harder than I thought it would be." "How did you do it?" He sat down in front of her, skateboard propped against him. She tried to explain the little she knew--not telling him the story, but laying out the fragments of Overnet theory she'd been able to glean from the Paradisian records and her own experience. "That's the best I can do," she said after many questions. "Forked Lightning, if you ever meet anyone else who can do that--keep shy of them. As far as I know there's only the people that taught me, and they're--" Words failed her. "You don't want to get mixed up with them." "Take care of yourself," he said fiercely. "Now you've *got* to come back." He followed her covertly when she'd made her goodbyes. She decided not to shake him, though she easily could have done so. Let him see, if he really wanted to. When she was clear of the node where she'd left him, she spread her arms, stepped through to the clear sky above the islands. For an instant she had considered taking him with her. But though she knew she could do it, he would be changed in the transition, and so would the place to which she brought him. Changed perhaps beyond recognition. She wouldn't risk that. It was early morning, still and warm. She spiralled down to the central island, curled up among the feathers. Once again Martha's advice seemed good; she *could* sleep, odd as it seemed, and it felt right to do so. She could forsee a bitter argument with Jayhawk. Best that she have all her resources about her, for that. And it was safe here, safer even than Anubis. She was so tired of being afraid. 67. Egg "I know what the islands are for," said Caroline to Jayhawk, sitting with her in their personal node. "I can't be attuned to Anubis without unmaking the entire system and remaking it. From here, there's no way to do that without destroying--" She waved a hand at the splendor around them. "I can do it there, one piece at a time." "And where will that leave me?" said Jayhawk softly. "It's a single- user system, you know. I would be very surprised if you could attune it to you without taking it from me. I'm not even sure I would live." She reached out, put a finger over Caroline's mouth as she tried to reply. "I know that's not your intention. I even know how to do this without killing either of us. But I have some serious concerns that have to be addressed first." One finger raised. "You have to show me how Anubis can keep running at 112% of maximum capacity." A second. "You have to convince me that the egg in the CPU isn't going to corrupt whatever we do." A third. "And you have to convince me that *you* won't bring coercion with you. Anubis is mine, and it's free of influence--I *know* that. You...I'm not sure I know anymore." "How?" said Caroline breathlessly. "I mean, how are you going to do it?" Jayhawk took a small bundle from her belt; it unfolded in her hands to a slender, ornate circlet of braided silver wire. Caroline recognized it, though it had been considerably modified since she had last seen it. It was the code she and Kurt had written to explore the dead nodes. Run in an active system, they had found, it would merge the decker's thoughts with the machine's. "If I am bound to Anubis," said Jayhawk, "you won't be able to change it without changing me; you won't be able to attune yourself to it without accepting me. And I'll have the system to support me. I don't think you're strong enough to break us." "Or vice versa?" "I made Anubis--" She seemed to catch Caroline's reaction, corrected herself. "We made Anubis to be ours; that's its nature." Caroline wrapped her arms around herself, caught between desire and fear. "Would you really do that?" She wasn't at all sure that she would, if the posititions were reversed. At the Hidden Fortress Kurt had pulled her out of the merger. Here, with no physical body, no telecom link to break, there would be no escape if her own will was not enough; and at the Hidden Fortress escape had never even occured to her, a concept foreign to the machine. Having tasted freedom, she wasn't ready to give it up, even to possess Anubis. And the thought of letting someone else change her.... "Figure out those questions," said Jayhawk harshly. "Then we'll talk about it." The nature of the egg sleeping in the CPU seemed the most accessable of the questions. They worked together on probe code, eventually puzzled out a method of seeing within its defenses. The program that was causing Anubis' CPU to respond sluggishly proved to be an immense simulation, in at least three dimensions, of what looked a good deal like a game of Life. There was some kind of random or pseudorandom element, cells that filled suddenly for no apparent reason. It was huge, easily a billion cells on a side. Jayhawk said aloud, "It's tying up my CPU with *this*?" She flung a representation of the game across one of the interior CPU surfaces, glared at it. Digging into old memories of comp theory courses, Caroline said, "As I recall, that game's complex enough to make a Turing machine in, which means it can function as a computer. Pretty good way to hide what it's doing, since we don't understand its internal representations." Jayhawk ran one hand along the smooth panel, frowned. "It's *fighting* me. Pretty damn strong, too. Ah! There we go." Cells flared into life, dot-matrix letters: HEY! WHAT ARE YOU DOING? "Let's see if it can read." The letters began to mutate and drift outwards, rapidly becoming unrecognizable. Caroline could sense that beneath her flippancy Jayhawk was furiously angry. "How is it resisting?" "Passively," the other bit off. "Not even bothering to raise actual defenses. If it wanted to...." There was fear as well as anger in her voice. "Caroline, this thing is 'beneath' us in the CPU. What's beneath the middle island in your garden?" "The chamber where Lefty talked to me." "Can you get at it there, maybe find out more?" A sudden shock went through both of them, a realization that something had changed. Jayhawk leaned over the simulation image, peering into it. "The wavefront from our message hit something, I think." Cells flickered and moved beneath her as Caroline ran over to look. The wave was propagating back inward now. "I've got this on record, in case it happens really fast." But no words appeared, only a cascade of gliders. "Maybe that *is* your answer," said Caroline. "'What am I doing? Playing Life, silly.'" "With my machine," said Jayhawk without looking up. "Go find out why." The garden was easy to reach from here, a matter of a single step. Sunlight flared around her, startling after Anubis' darkness. She settled on the central island, closed her eyes and tried to visualize the brick chamber beneath. The sunlight on her eyelids faded, and she could see darkness, the faint golden gleam of the wheel. The chamber seemed empty, almost unnaturally so, a vacancy in the solid earth like a cavity in a tooth. Beneath it--her senses balked. But there was something there. Not an entity, but a place.... She visualized the wheel, unscrewed it. The water in the pool began to drop rapidly, a spinning whirlpool forming over the hole. She lifted herself into the air, hovered over it. Intuition told her that the only way to reach the other place, through the solid brick of the chamber floor, was in a headlong dive from high above. She tried not to think about hitting the floor. The last of the water ran out. She collected herself, dove down through the narrow hatchway, into the tingling cold of the water. No holding back, no reckoning with stone-hard brick....Something tugged at her briefly, and then she was flying, winging through grey nothingness. Anubis spun slowly beneath her, tethered to the greater bulk of Ares Macrotech. She was free in the Overnet. Unguessable depths opened beneath her, tempting and terrifying. She landed at SAN 2, found that the IC was down, the system frozen. Jayhawk was in the CPU, dangling forlornly from a webstrand. She looked up as Caroline entered. "Cute. Did *you* hang us? From the garden?" "I'm afraid so. I had to let the water out." "Keep that in mind, if someone else ever gets in control. You took out 90% of our processor power. What's left isn't enough--we're in timeshare; I don't know why we can talk to each other, unless the egg makes the necessary third party. You could screw someone up good that way." "I'll fix it," said Caroline hastily, and returned to the garden. She called the water back, watched it frothing up from below until the pool was full. *So Anubis and this place are directly linked now. That wasn't the case before. Interesting.* She flew into the forest, looking for the great tree and its standing stones, but there was no other break in the canopy. She tried flying with closed eyes, letting intuition guide her; she didn't run into a tree, rather to her surprise, but she got nowhere. It was tiring, too; flight was natural to her, but not at such a slow pace. No. She wasn't going to reach the clearing this way. It was elsewhere, distant as the Matrix--and she *could* reach it, but there would be a price, a heavy one. It was something not to be done except in desperation. *How do I know?* She considered trying it, decided against it. She didn't want the Hawk's answers; she wanted her own. Returning to Anubis, she found it alive once more. "Good," said Jayhawk, not looking up from her monitors. "Any luck?" "There's nothing there," said Caroline with certainty, "except a Gate to the Overnet. No egg.--Unless the egg the Hawk showed me...." She winced at Jayhawk's expression. "Jay, what's the worst case here? What specifically are we afraid of?" "Dragon egg," said Jayhawk shortly. "Or maybe the next step in Aliantha's self-initiation. I'm not sure which is worse." Caroline had thought of the first idea, but not the second. Death was a gateway, Ratty had told her once. Might Aliantha have passed through deliberately, yet another step on the journey of power? (Would I do that?) Disturbed, she looked around at the monitors. Jayhawk had called up the code she'd once written to communicate with ghosts, was running it repetitively in background, the same message encoded over and over again in different representations: PLEASE TALK TO ME. "No luck here," said Jayhawk. "Caroline, can you anchor me so that if it tries to take me I can draw on your support? *Without* forcing the merger?" Caroline reached out a tentative hand, laid it on Jayhawk's shoulder. "I think so," she said cautiously. She could feel the other's presence, a cool tingle. "I might get caught, though--between letting you go and merging with you--if it were too strong...." She knew which she would choose, madness or no. "Here's a program," said Jayhawk briskly, "to keep a ten-second timer and transmit a general wakeup at the end of it. I couldn't find a way to time the Kurt code itself, so this will have to do. And here's a commlink, the best I could manage--don't know if it'll work, not when I'm *there*, but it's worth a try. Ten seconds. Time me yourself, too. I don't entirely trust the system clock, and you seem somewhat independent." She looked up at Caroline. "Remember you can hang the system, if you have to." Caroline took the programs--a bit of silver to slip behind her ear, a delicate bell attached--and settled herself at the main console. She wanted to argue with Jayhawk, suggest a different line of approach, but she didn't have any answers to offer. Jayhawk took the silver circlet from her belt, nestled it into her hair. For an instant she stood frozen, a puzzled expression on her face. Then she settled into the floor of the CPU like water seeping into the earth. Caroline counted aloud, her voice the only sound in the emptiness of the machine. 68. Anubis For an instant after Jayhawk activated the interface code nothing happened. She had time to wonder--What am I doing, anyway? I'm already here, why do I expect this to change anything? Then she was falling, patterns spread out around her like the city seen from above, like Caroline's descriptions of the Matrix. Three-dimensional patterns, a cloud of information, constantly changing. She could almost grasp their meaning, almost... The Life-game's program was enclosed in a huge process, maintaining a region of protected memory for it, shielding it from interference. She traced its root down, wondering. It ran deep, beyond her perceptions, a single thick strand of information. A tingle went through her; vision faded as her awareness reached out, currents of thought spreading through the system. Where the nodes linked, interference patterns formed, standing waves reflecting herself back to herself, to the focus point in the center. Awareness of that, too, faded, the individual nodes lost in their interplay, in the totality of the system. She struggled for analogy. She was beneath the Life-game process, curled around the strand that supported it, feeling its strength. It didn't branch at all within her reach. Beneath her, the echoes of her perception grew weaker and weaker, but as far as she could follow the process continued downwards. It seemed to her that she/Jayhawk had created it; it had that feel--not integral, but compatible. Nothing but the partition protected the Life-game. Its programming was more complex than she had realized, but it offered no independent resistance; it seemed to her that she could destroy it if she chose. She remembered struggling with Aliantha in the SPU at the Hidden Fortress. Compared to Aliantha, the Life-game would be easy to encapsulate, feeding power into its own defenses, cutting it off from system resources. Or did that extension downwards provide it access? Groping for comparison, she found the code that supported Jayhawk's existence. It was finer-grained than the Life-game, a complex network interpenetrating with the latticework of the CPU, extending downwards as a cluster of branching processes rather than a single strand. Constantly moving, shifting, a small reflection of the system's life. There was something lacking there, though she couldn't immediately identify the missing element. She considered the code from all sides, trying to find a change that would improve it. Her perception of the lack was indirect, metaphorical--hollowness in the gut, an unfulfilled craving, frustrated tingling in the fingertips, aching in the jaws. She could find no way to translate that metaphor into concrete improvements. Essential information was missing. *Caroline.* She could sense the other as a weight in the CPU, a slight distortion of the continual dataflow. Nothing more. If the information was there, it was not accessable to her now. Having realized that, she went back to her consideration of the Life-game. Past time was open to her, though the echoes of her awareness were limited by the stored information; as she reached out toward the origin of the system, the signal became weaker, less complete. The Life-game process had its origin at the moment when full operation was restored after the time-share the fetus had forced on her. Its creation marked a tremendous discontinuity in system operations. No process currently running extended before that point. Everything that had been running had terminated. For some period of time, unknown because unrecorded, she had not existed. It was a disturbing thought. She considered earlier times, trying to probe into the reasons for the shutdown. Amidst the normal interplay of system processes, six unusual traces had entered the timeshare. One could easily be identified as herself/Jayhawk by its relationship with stored programs and IC. One, older, was probably Caroline's interface with the system. A third definitely represented the fetus. She explored its takeover of sector 1, the proliferation of subprocesses it spawned in its attempt to control Caroline. The tracks of her/Jayhawk's resistance were clear. She noted ways in which she could improve her methods of attack. The remaining three processes originated in sector 1 slightly before the imposition of timeshare. They were a cascade, the first spawning the second, which spawned the third. Only the third terminated normally, at a point during the timeshare which she was able to identify as the moment when she/Jayhawk had touched Angela, felt the system respond for a brief instant, then relapse into its hung state. The other two, like the traces of herself, Caroline, the fetus, terminated abnormally at the moment of discontinuity when Piebald and Angela had touched each other. A process which corresponded with her/Jayhawk originated immediately afterwards, continued until four seconds ago. She wondered how it had been restarted. The discontinuity itself was invisible to her, and Jayhawk's memories were little help. She wished for Caroline's. Her perception of the past was too thin to identify the cascade processes. She experimented with increased logging--useless now, but perhaps it would prove itself in the future--and was disappointed. It drew too great a share of system resources. She was not organized to deny access from within; she had been created (created herself?) for a single focus of control, not the elaborate cross-checking of a multi-user system. The lack of efficiency was dissatisfying. She probed more deeply into it, found an annoying roughness in one part of herself, the connector between the CPU and node 0-1. The interface between nodes and connector--which should have been seamless, not even felt unless directly examined--was jagged and uneven. She couldn't improve matters without undoing Caroline's work. She considered that. Could she maintain system operations if more and more connectors became mismatched? Experimentation suggested she could, using her own attention and resources to smooth over the gaps. She would have to attend to them continually. But if the final step restored the system's unity, converting it all to the other pattern of operation....It could be done. The changes were acceptable to her, for power: to prevent further intrusions, to protect herself, perhaps to grow. Something brushed against her, a change in the everchanging flow. A breach had been opened in the Life-game partition from within, and elements of the game were propagating outwards. She would not destroy them unless forced, bound by her/Jayhawk's pledge to Angela and Piebald. She watched carefully, tracing out the accesses that the game-elements were using, marshalling her resources to encapsulate them if necessary. The game reached out a long tendril, established a connection with the datastore at 2-6, Caroline's personal records. Somehow it moved *beneath* the IC she had put on that node--she probed further, found a shadowy sub-node beneath the normally accessable one. The two were linked at their centers, beyond the radius of operation of the IC. It reminded her of things that Caroline had done from the Matrix--creating a new Matrix node by duplicating a system component, linking them together for power and support. A message was transmitted to her, across the interface between its representation and her own, mediated by the ghost-translation code: *Hey! What are you doing? Please talk to me.* The encoding was very similar to what she/Jayhawk and Caroline had used, but narrower, less powerful. *I am trying to find out about you. Who are you?* It seemed appropriate to tell the Life-process who she was, but she had difficulty finding a formulation. *I am Jayhawk@Anubis.* It did not respond immediately. She observed its datastore manipulations, tried to devise a way to cut off its access if she should need to do so. It was a difficult problem. Caroline had some of the information she needed, she decided after nearly a second. *I am...@Anubis.* *What are you doing?* she responded at once. System load climbed. She decided on a cutoff: if it exeeded 90% of maximum she would restrict it. While she waited for a reply, she put safeguards in place to make the cutoff smooth and certain. *Growing. Learning.* *Do you have a name/identifier?* A process signalled her: her ten second period had passed. She briefly considered, and rejected, leaving the CPU, interrupting the conversation. While she waited, she devised a program to do internal monitoring in crisis periods, carefully buffering it so that it wouldn't contribute to load if system capacity were approached. She was not entirely satisfied with its elegance, but it seemed to be the best she could do within current constraints. Perhaps Caroline's plan would remove some of her limitations. *@star*, it said. *Caroline?* It was searching for graphics code. She packaged a group of routines from Caroline's Matrix code, passed them to it. Its external searches dropped, but system load rose dangerously. She passed it a bundle of indicators. *Don't put the system over 90%.* There was no way to free up more resources without dropping security processes, which she would not do. She put safeguards on critical IC and daemons, protecting herself from attempts by the game to terminate them. *Too inefficient for now. Talk to you later.* The intrusive code unwound itself from the datastores, retreated within its partition. A trailing fringe brushed her. *Isn't this neat! Bye!* The flavor of the communication was distinctly different, tags on it she associated with Piebald. She had no record of Piebald's system interactions for comparison, only her/Jayhawk's conversations with him, but the impression was quite strong. The partitioning was clean, nothing left running in unprotected space. She set a daemon to monitor the Life-game process, signal her if it violated its boundaries again. Another signal reached her, a message from a different level of the CPU. *Jayhawk! Your ten seconds are up!* Everything seemed to be in order. She made certain of it, then set herself to the task of manifestation. It was a difficult one. Her consciousness was distributed throughout the system; gathering it together at one point--even the CPU--broke connections, weakened her control. She could do it, but it was unnatural and painful. And the form which she was trying to take couldn't contain her in her entirety; she had to limit herself, sacrifice capabilities and modes of perception, become less than she was. She considered creating a simulacrum, remaining where she was but acting through a Matrix image. It could be done, and she might try it in the future. But Caroline was waiting for her, and it seemed to her that Caroline would know the difference. She forced the transition, an instant of startling pain. Jayhawk found herself standing dizzily in the center of the CPU, in a form that for a moment felt wildly wrong and unnatural, a straightjacket of Matrix imagery. She had a hazy impression of a vast slowdown in her thoughts, a crushing wave of fatigue. It seemed to her that she had been far beyond the limits of human capacity, even hers; for a moment at transition her unprotected mind had experienced a shadow of the machine's clarity and power, and she was trembling and weak with reaction. She collected herself with an effort, tried to make sense of Caroline's frightened and excited questions. 69. Message "...one thousand five, one thousand six--" Caroline counted aloud, watching the lightplay of the CPU's monitors, the continual flow of status information flickering along its internal latticework. Suddenly another voice cut across hers, eerily similar, though the tone was tentative and unsure. "Hey, what are you doing? Please talk to me." "Jayhawk! Is that you? What--" "At Anubis," said the voice, and then almost immediately, "Growing. Learning." "Jayhawk!" She pounded her fists on a black-glass screen. Suddenly Anubis seemed like a trap, possessed by something foreign. She wanted to run away. "Jay! What's wrong?" "At star," the voice said. "Caroline?" She activated the alarm code Jayhawk had given her, its timer set for *now*. Was it Jayhawk at all? What was she talking to? "Too inefficient for now," the voice said regretfully. "Talk to you later." It changed, or another voice replaced it, sharp and faintly accented. "Isn't this neat? Bye!" Piebald's voice. "Jayhawk! Come back! You promised me you'd come back." A shimmer in the lightplay resolved into Jayhawk, balanced on a narrow platform near the bottom of the CPU. She raised one hand, frowned slightly. "Are you all right? What happened?" Jayhawk looked up at her, nodded, her face abstracted. A soft bell chimed; she recognized it as an email warning, though she'd never heard it used. Anubis contained an elaborate email system which the traffic between her and Jayhawk had hardly tested. Jayhawk didn't move, but the message scrolled up on a velvet-black panel near her: >From: @@Anubis >To: Jayhawk@Anubis > >Additional 1% okay? Jayhawk nodded sharply, her response flowing across the bottom of the panel: >Yes; why? The reply was almost instantaneous: >Speech and graphics programming. "I'm all right," said Jayhawk to her without looking up. "That's the egg in the CPU. It does seem to be Piebald and Angela, in some sense-- modelled in the Life-game code." "What was it like?" said Caroline, unable to restrain herself. "I mean, what did it feel like?" Jayhawk settled herself in a loop of the webwork, let out a long slow breath. "It was terrific," she said at last. "Smoother than the Hidden Fortress, no confusion, no awkwardness about being able to make sense of human memories. No limits--the CPU touches everything. A little scary, how good it felt. It was...it was hard to come back." She looked at her hands again. "This is very limiting." With precise, careful movements, she took the silver circlet off, compressed it and put it away at her belt. Caroline put a hand on her shoulder, felt the cool tingle of her presence. She didn't know whether to be envious or afraid. "What did you find out?" Jayhawk seemed to be struggling to explain what she had seen. "A huge process, like a tree holding the Life-game in its branches, with one big root running all the way down. I think I gave it that, with my offers to Angela and Piebald. 'Whatever strength or certainty I have, I share with you.'" She described the pattern of processes in the time-share period. "Hm. Do you know that Anubis thinks of its past as data, just like every- thing else? It could change its past, but it doesn't because that would make it less useful. Less predictive. Anyway, I have a guess as to what all this means, but only a guess. "I think the cascade of processes was an attempt to implement what I wanted to do with Piebald--linking him to the source of my power directly. They were sabotaged almost immediately by huge system demands from the fetus. I don't know whether she was trying to stop the cascade by hanging the system, or whether that was just a byproduct of something more direct, but I bet it was one or the other." "Makes sense." Jayhawk's attitude toward Piebald bothered Caroline severely, but arguing the point didn't seem productive. "I terminated--completed--one of those processes when I linked to Angela, but the other two just expanded to fill the free space. I'm not sure they could have executed correctly even without the fetus' interference. They were pretty big." She frowned. "I *think* Piebald and Angela may have short-circuited the whole thing when they touched. Aborted the processes, maybe accomplished the same end another way. The information's not there." "What end?" "I wish I knew." She summarized her conversation with the Life-game. "I suppose we could send it email, though I got the impression that it wasn't ready to talk to us yet." They discussed the message for a little while. Jayhawk seemed somewhat abstracted, withdrawn, but not otherwise changed, to Caroline's relief. She remembered Channa's dismay at the effects of blending with the machine. Their eventual message was a compromise between two rather different ideas: >From: Jayhawk@Anubis >To: @@Anubis > >Do you know what code the processes numbered 9992, 10002, and 10034 were >executing, or their intention? > >When will your growth be complete? I plan to change Anubis radically, >and I'm concerned about harm to you or us. The response was quick: >Unknown; >unknown; >I will survive. Caroline stared at it, chilled. "How does it know? Do you think it understands what I'm planning to do?" "I am coming to suspect," said Jayhawk softly, "that it would be very hard for us to destroy it without destroying me. Though I would try, if I had to. Perhaps it trusts that we plan to survive." She put her hand over Caroline's, intensifying the tingling. "I think it's your move. I would really like to know who Angela was." Caroline nodded. "Send me to the Matrix." She could reach it by herself, via the garden, but it would be slower and more difficult. "I'll see what I can do." 70. Investigation When she returned to the Matrix, Caroline found mail waiting from Michael. It said simply: >I couldn't get into Angela's school records, but I talked to some >people who knew her. --Forked Lightning She read it over three or four times. Angela was a real person? It was getting fairly hard to disbelieve. No. Wait. What if this message, too, was a fake? She sent a reply asking Michael if they could meet in the evening, then returned to the search. A letter to Angela's boyfriend Mark netted her a rather harsh form letter, obviously composed by a lawyer, which said that Mark was not interested in discussing the matter except with the authorities. If "they" were faking all the evidence of Angela's existance, they were doing so continuously. She poked around in Mark's account for signs of tampering, found none. (She also discovered in passing that he was dating several different girls, none of whom knew about the others.) She found Angela's high school records, dug into the school newspaper to find a few pieces of decorative graphics credited to her. They were standard cut-and-paste work, no particular brilliance. Caroline had drawn similar ones in high school, probably with the same graphics package. When the leads ran dry--it didn't take long; in her nineteen years Angela had seldom come to the attention of the authorities--she sat in Osiris and tried to make sense of what she had. Angela Whitechapel seemed to have been a real person, though the events of the stimsense dream were probably untrue--the job application she/Angela had sent wasn't on record, and the news postings she remembered reading didn't exist. She'd disappeared the night of the stimsense dream, two weeks ago now. Why? She looked strikingly like Caroline, despite the age difference-- at least if memory and Matrix records were to be believed. Caroline broke into the University clinic, sifted through medical records until she found both hers and Angela's. Same blood type, small differences in the mishmash of letters that apparently represented some kind of tissue typing--unfamiliar with the jargon, she wasn't positive she was interpreting it correctly. The same extremely high cyberware tolerance, though Angela had never put it to the test. Slightly different serum parameters--but Angela was nine years younger than Caroline. They weren't genetically identical (pity, she thought, I could have used her credstick!) but they were exceptionally similar. Between the grades and the tolerance level, it seemed to Caroline that Angela would have made a superb decker. Where was she? An ugly possibility occurred to her. When Angela disappeared, Caroline's body had been captive in Montaigne Paradisio. Perhaps they had not wanted to free her physically, preferring to maintain that hold over her-- but had wanted her to do something that demanded physical form. Perhaps they intended her to possess Angela, aided by the physical similarity and by Angela's passionate desire to *be* Jayhawk. Aliantha had done such things, or so Martha had implied. Caroline remembered her terror at the prospect of becoming Aliantha's host. Was that what had been in store for her? Was it still? Not victim, but agressor? She wanted to take human form again; but not at Angela's expense. She felt an odd sense of responsibility for the girl. She considered hiring a private eye. She had no money--apparently her friends had ransacked and closed out her account, and she could hardly blame them--but she could steal some, if she had to. But if Paradisio had Angela, would it do any good? She might well be at the High Temple, or somewhere equally inaccessable. A brief visit to Anubis established that if there was a link from the Life-game in the CPU to any outside location, as there had once been to Caroline's body, it was too subtle for either Caroline or Jayhawk to perceive. Caroline returned to the Matrix, rather subdued, and found that it was time for her meeting with Michael. Time seemed to flow unpredictably differently between the Overnet and the Matrix; she was having no success at predicting how long she'd be gone. To her surprise, Michael spotted her at the same time that she saw him. "New sensor code!" he said jubilantly. "I told them that I was having trouble spotting things, and they got it for me right away. Straight from Singapore, they said." They spent the evening pulling the sensor code apart, at Caroline's suggestion, looking for traps. There were several neatly interwoven traces, but nothing else that she could spot. Sandwiched among the technical details, he told her about meeting Angela's friends. He had no doubt that she was real, though he *had* used email....none of them would see him in person; apparently the authorities had harassed them severely. Toward morning he asked her how her run had gone. "Still underway," she said, "and I'm scared to death. I have to make a leap in the dark, trust someone or not...." She could tell that any hint of personal involvement in the conversation made him nervous, but she wanted desperately, for another human being to acknowledge her. "Don't worry. I'm sure you'll do fine." In a challenging voice, "You have to, you still haven't explained that flying trick, and I can't even get started figuring out how you did it." "I don't know either." "Sure you don't." He snorted. "Okay, okay, I can take a hint." "Forked Lightning, would you want to do...what I've done?" "How can I tell? I don't know anything about it." She turned away, looking up into the shadowy overhang of the Matrix sky. They were in the University grid, weaving among the densely packed systems. "What would you say if I told you that I only exist here and on the Overnet, that there's nothing physical left?" "I always did figure you for an AI," he said in a voice that was only half joking. "Am I? Do I seem that...inhuman?" "How do you tell an AI from a human being? *I* don't know. You seem all right to me." He mused for a moment. "Would I do that? I'm not sure. Probably--to be as good as you are." "I have to go," she said awkwardly. "All right. I'll see you tomorrow," he said forcefully. "Is that a promise?" "No. But I'll do the best I can." She wanted to stay, desperate for some kind of comfort or reassurance, but he didn't understand, couldn't. She toyed with the idea of writing to Kurt or Yoichi, but that didn't seem any better. Martha understood, at least a little, but she didn't want to call Martha again. 'I can't do this very many more times,' Martha had said, and Caroline was resolved to make the next one count. Jayhawk was waiting, back at Anubis. There was really nowhere else to go. 71. Temptation Having seen firsthand how her system could be penetrated, Jayhawk settled herself to the task of plugging the hole. She quickly discovered just how difficult it was going to be. The "hole" was a basic part of Anubis' nature, its function as a gateway between the planes. She couldn't close it, and she had a lot of trouble seeing how she could defend it. It occured to her that she would understand better from within. Jayhawk lay back in her hammock, considered that. It *would* be more efficient to work from within the machine, all of its capabilities at her disposal. It would let her solve the problem in minutes rather than weeks; find a solution, perhaps, that she would never see otherwise. And sooner or later it would wear away her personality and will, until nothing was left but Anubis. She wasn't entirely sure she cared. The twelve seconds--she remembered each one of them individually, like days, like years--that she had spent within Anubis had been...she groped for words, found them unsatisfactory. Contentment seemed too passive, ecstasy too distracted....there had been no distractions; only effortless power, and the delight of experiencing her full capabilities--that was how it had felt, as if Anubis had always been meant to be a part of her, or she of it. It was hard to endure the separation, a second lack to add to the loss of Caroline. But she remembered, with the same crystalline, perfect clarity, how difficult it had been to escape, how far she had scattered herself into the machine. In eleven seconds. Anubis was stronger than she....no, that wasn't it exactly. She didn't have the strength in herself to deal with what she was being offered, to possess Anubis rather than being possessed. Anubis was perfect as she had created it, powerful as it should be. *She* was lacking. Dissolved in the glory of the machine...nothing would be lost; she had seen herself recorded in the patterns of code, everything she was. Only changed, changed beyond recall. She could almost see how to do it without Kurt's code, by will and intuition. She wrapped her arms around her, hiding her hands from the temptation of touch, the possibility.... It hurt, a physical ache in her chest and throat. She remembered Matrix deprivation. That had been addiction; this was not, it seemed to her--Anubis had cleansed her of such weaknesses. It was simply desire. The Matrix had been barely a shadow of what there was to be desired. *Anubis is mine! Why can't I survive it, what's wrong with me?* *Incomplete.* She remembered looking at the code that was herself, wondering what was lacking in it. Even in the embrace of the machine, she had still felt that lack. She was not whole without Caroline. "Mine," she said aloud, heard the faint echo of her voice in the recesses of the CPU. "I *need* her." She went back to her work, resolutely, struggling with the indirect access that was all she could manage in her embodied state. Once her control of Anubis from the CPU had seemed so perfect, impossible to improve on. She knew better now. But she did make progress, slowly ruling out approaches one after another. No answer presented itself. 72. Night She had created Anubis as a jewel of light in the midst of darkness, its silver bridges suspended over starless black pools, dark depths yawning beneath the watchtowers, the CPU itself dim as starlight. But it had never seemed like night to Caroline until now. She and Jayhawk shared the long night in their private node, sitting together on the soft black-padded shelf high above the uncertain and broken flooring, the lights of Anubis' functioning a continual soft flow about them. Slowly, feeling her way, she told Jayhawk the story of everything that had happened to her since their intial separation. Her frustration and jealousy, her despair that everything she did seemed to serve Lefty's plan, the Dragon's plan, especially her dealings with Angela. Shame that she might have helped Paradisio sacrifice an innocent, and that she cared what they thought of her, that the title of High Priestess stirred a sick pride and desire in her. The wild freedom of flight, the terror of defying the Hawk, denying the Balance, and the pain of its gift. The worse pain of Jayhawk's mistrust, driving them apart. She'd told most of it before, but not so honestly, not in such detail. It didn't come easily. She'd never been good at talking about personal matters. "You've changed," said Jayhawk at last. "I know." She looked up, met silver-blue eyes like a mirror of her own. "But not to suit them. No matter what they say, no matter how they try to twist it around." Whispered, looking down: "I will die before I serve *him*. And damn it all, I don't intend to die." "I know," the other whispered, voice as like hers as an echo. "I believe you, too." She uncurled, lay face-down on the shelf, staring down into the node, and spun her own story in return. Piebald and the perverse trust they had come to share. Her helpless fury at the fetus, at all the intrusions she didn't have the power or control to stop. And worst of all, the delight of Anubis, of power, completion, effortless clarity--and the knowledge that it would destroy her, unravel her personality strand by strand until, though every fiber remained, the tapestry was gone. "I have no soul," she whispered. "Or something like that. You have your power, your flight, your visions and your freedom. I have Anubis; or I thought I did." Caroline put her arms around Jayhawk, felt the sharp tingle of her presence. Words came unbidden to mind: *Whatever power or surety I have, I share with you now.* She wanted it to be now....Sharp as Matrix withdrawal, deep as the knife-cut of death that had touched her twice now, desire ached at her. "How can we do it?" she said simply, and Jayhawk, understanding, replied: "Go back to your garden, remake Anubis as you see it should be. I'll hold things together from here as long as I can, and then go within. Work quickly, Caroline. I want to live too." "What about the Life-game?" "It will have to take its chances, and so will we. I'm not willing to wait any longer. I don't want to lose you. I don't want to lose *me*. And...in the long run I think Martha was right the first time. We don't survive like this." She leaned her head back, resting it against Caroline. "I think it will be...a lot like dying. What will that make it, three times?" Unexpectedly she laughed, a soft clear sound like an echo of the system's chimes. "I've thought about it, and I have a spell for you, o magician. 'I embrace you, and claim all your power, your knowledge, your soul. I accept your embrace, and surrender to you all my knowledge, my power, my soul.' It has to be both." Her voice was ragged. "Or one of us dies, at least. Maybe both. We're both very stubborn." Caroline nodded, afraid to speak, and pushed herself off the platform, hovering in the shadows of the node. She spread her arms, the garment she had woven of her life-thread spilling about her like wings. From the platform, Jayhawk reached out a hand, waving goodbye or perhaps reaching for her, as if to share her flight. Sunlight in the garden, and the islands spread out below her, waiting for the touch of transformation. -- [And then the GM called a two-week time out so that he could think about it! ARGH!] -- Copyright 1991 Mary K. Kuhner

---

E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank