73. Crow Caroline circled the islands, late-afternoon sun casting her shadow sharp and dar

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73. Crow Caroline circled the islands, late-afternoon sun casting her shadow sharp and dark below her. She was trying to picture the changes she would have to make. Jayhawk was counting on her to complete the transformation quickly; she couldn't afford false starts. When she was satisfied with her planning she landed, set briskly to work--pulling bridges out by the roots, setting them into place again, shaping the topology of Anubis. The heavy labor was done by imagined machinery, but she watered down each bridge by hand as she set it, tamped the soil carefully into place. Seven bridges connected the islands to the shore. She considered leaving some of them intact, but a careful count showed her that there were no extra bridges; she had just enough to complete the pattern. So she separated the islands from the mainland as she worked. It didn't matter to her anyway, she told herself; after all, she could fly. The work got harder as she spiralled inwards. She developed a painful headache, made worse by the sunlight glittering off the water. A splash in the pool made her feel better, but only for a little while. Each time she closed her eyes, conjured up her bridge-pulling machinery, the bridges seemed to offer more resistance. There was rust in the cogs of her machines. She was terrified that she'd end up with bridges that didn't reach, but she was always able to make them fit. Exhaustion crept over her as the sun dipped. She tried to pace herself, saving her energy for the end, but she was afraid to rest. Jayhawk might be in danger, might be fighting desperately to hold Anubis and herself together. Toward the end she was lying curled into a ball on the central island, glancing up through pain-squinted eyes every now and again to make sure she was placing the bridges correctly. She was shocked to find that she'd come to the last one. She pulled it out, set her digging machine to making a hole for it, lowered it in--she'd stopped doing any of the work by hand some time ago; the machines were difficult to visualize, but better than manual labor-- Something picked her up with overwhelming force, flung her away. She found herself at the edge of a looming forest, tumbled on dry grass. She leaped to her feet, looked around wildly. Behind her, the grass stretched on and on, toward a horizon more distant than she had ever seen before. The sky was blue and utterly empty. A faint internal tugging suggested that Anubis lay the other way, into the trees. With a cry of frustration and anger, she willed herself into the air, forward. She couldn't get above the trees. After a moment's futile effort, she settled into a fast, weaving flight barely three meters off the ground. The canopy seemed higher here than it had near Anubis; she didn't *feel* any more limited, but she couldn't even come near the treetops. A black bird crossed her path, began to circle her. It was faster than she, mockingly so. She tried to ignore it. Another joined it, and another. They were big birds, though not as big as the hawk. One opened its mouth and let out a rusty creak; the others took it up, until her ears were aching with their clamor. Seven or eight of them now. She had to fight to keep from veering when they flew close to her. It seemed to her that they were laughing at her. Ten. Twelve. They were beginning to interfere with her vision. She landed abruptly on a wide branch, clutched the trunk as it swayed under her weight. The raucous cawing resolved into words. She could identify no individual bird as speaking to her--they tossed the words back and forth, circling her branch in a black stream, dizzying and confusing. "Quick! Quick! Where are you going? So fast!" "To my own place," she said, glaring at them. Were they stopping her? She'd made so little progress--Anubis hardly seemed nearer. "Your own place? A long way. You'll never get there like this." She could no longer count them: a cloud of birds. "Do you have a better idea?" "We could help the poor hawk. Give her speed. Never get there in time. Quick!" they cawed. "What do you want in return?" "Just a little pretty. Just a trinket. You'll never miss it." Her hand closed in the soft weave of the garment she wore, spun from the thread of her own life. It shimmered silver and icy blue in the dapples of sunlight. "You can't have that. It's mine." There was no doubt in her mind what they were looking at; their black eyes glittered with greed in its reflection. "It's just a pretty. Not important. Not nearly as important as speed. Quick! Quick!" A clamor of voices. "We won't hurt it, we'll keep it safe. Pretty!" "No!" She drew her lightblade, held it defensively across her body. The birds drew back a little. Realizing she was being stalled, she leaped into the air, flew onwards. The birds followed her, a seething stream of black. "Isn't there anything else you want?" she said, watching them as carefully as she dared while flying. She had an uncomfortable image of hundreds of black beaks and claws descending on the fragile thread. They were going to be sorry if they tried that, she resolved. She flew lower, ready to land if she had to fight. "Just a little pretty. We can make you fast, fast. More! Do you want a body? Can make you a body. Go anywhere you want. Be free." "Hardly. If you strip my life away I won't be going anywhere. What would you do with it, anyway? Stuff it into a nasty tree somewhere?" "Keep it safe," they cried. "Never lose it. Never die." "I can manage that for myself," she said. "No. Keep back, you, if you want to keep your beak!" She waved the blade at the nearest bird; it fluttered away with insolent slowness. An idea occurred to her. "How do I know you're telling the truth, that you can really make me fast? Show me!" The birds formed into two coherent streams, beaks almost touching tailfeathers, one circling her vertically, the other horizontally. She felt their power tugging at her, augmenting her own. For a moment the trees whizzed by, almost too fast to distinguish. Then they broke into a loose cloud again, and she slowed. She tried to imitate their quickness, found she had no power to do so. "That wasn't so fast," she ventured. "Is that the best you can do? Show me some real speed." The birds cawed scorn at her. "Give us the pretty! Or at least a little piece, a little bit of it. You won't miss it. You'll never get there without us!" The trees weren't even feathery here; and though she felt she was making progress, it was impossibly slow. Jayhawk could be dying....She landed on the ground, looked at the circling birds thoughtfully. "Well," she said, unravelling the very end of the life-thread, "maybe just a *little* piece of the pretty...." She held out her wrist. With every circle there were fewer birds. She never saw any of them leave, but their numbers dwindled and dwindled until there was just one, a fat black bird that settled onto her wrist, reached out a greedy beak for the thread. She seized it around the neck with both hands. It let out an offended squawk, struggled wildly against her. "Let go! No fair!" Suddenly she was holding a thick green snake, coils lashing against her arms. She screamed, held on for dear life, squeezing as hard as she could. It turned back into a bird, hung limply between her hands, glaring at her. "So!" she said. "I have a better deal in mind. How about you promise to speed me to my destination, and I let you go with your neck intact?" "Stupid deal," it said bitterly, then squawked again as she shook it. "Deal! Yes! Promise!" "With no side effects. No harm to the system or to me." "Side effects?" Cawing laughter. "All right. Promise." "And the greatest speed you can give me." "Promise." It struggled weakly, fixed a reproachful eye on her. She pursed her lips, let go with one hand and seized one of its tail feathers before letting go with the other. It pulled free reflexively, leaving a glossy black feather in her hand. "Caw!" It flew up to perch above her head. Looking down, it said thoughtfully, "I like you. Speed!" A raucous laugh. "You're going the wrong way. Your garden is over there." It jerked its head to the right. She waggled the feather at it in warning. It was a mage's gesture, and complete bluff in her hands--she didn't have any way to hurt it through the material link. But perhaps it didn't know that. Rightward didn't *feel* like the way to Anubis, but maybe.... She willed herself into the air, flew in the indicated direction. The bird followed her. "How about some fire? Do you want some fire?" it called out. Almost at once the trees became shorter, and glossy feathers replaced leaves and bark. "No!" she shouted back. She had what she wanted, and no interest in playing further games. Its laughter followed her all the way to the hedge maze. 74. Mark Caroline flew over the hedge-maze, looking in toward the islands. The water around them was streaked with whitecaps, waves lapping at the shore, though she could feel no wind. Abruptly the hedges reared up, towering about her, and she fell. Her ability to fly had apparently deserted her. She picked herself up from the feathered ground, tried to will herself upwards and was rewarded with a vicious stab from her headache. Nearly nauseous with pain, she decided not to try that again. It might be a maze, but it was *her* maze. She wouldn't get lost. "You should have taken the fire!" cawed a distant voice behind her. She ignored it. This place was a representation of Anubis; she would no more have set fire to it than to her own body. She didn't get lost, though the twisting pathways were more confusing than she had expected. Something inside her knew the way; she never hesitated for more than an instant at the crossings, even though she wasn't always certain exactly where she was. The maze straightened out into a last corridor; she could see surf pounding at the shore, the islands waiting beyond. She broke into a run. Ahead of her, a section of the feathery hedge broke off, stepped into her path. It spread itself like a lesser wall, blocking her passage. She almost tried to crash through it, stopped at the last moment when she realized that it was a creature, not a wall. It seemed to be a green and gold peacock, its brilliantly-eyed tail reaching higher than her head. All the eyes were looking at her. "Who are you?" she said savagely. "What do you want?" She was growing furiously impatient with the delays. "Someone who belongs here," it said in a soft voice. "Where are you going? Think." On the last word all its eyes blinked in unison. "Where *I* belong." She waved a hand at the islands. "What are you taking there with you? What follows you that does not belong? Think." *Blink* She bit her lip. "I don't understand." "Think." *Blink* She looked behind her. The sky was cloudier than it had been, as if a storm was coming. The tops of the feathered trees rippled gently. She could see no pursuer. Abruptly a thought struck her. She dug the black feather out of her belt pouch, dropped it on the ground and put one foot on it. "There. Is that better?" "That is part of what follows," murmured the peacock. "There is more. Think." *Blink* She was sorry to give up the feather, though she had no idea what she could do with it. But she was desperate not to allow foreign influence into Anubis, into her soul. She folded her arms, tried to think. Dozens of green-and-blue eyes regarded her. *Blink* It was distracting. She closed her own eyes. "Oh!" she said suddenly, took the lightblade's hilt from her belt. It was ornate, almost baroque, the sign of Martha's tampering. She threw it on the ground, stripped off the lenses pushed back on her head, the communicator behind one ear, all the decking code she carried. Martha and the others might have meddled with any of it. Though it made her uncomfortable, she peeled off the silver body-armor beneath her glittering poncho, felt the gathering breeze probe in at her. It was colder than it had been. It was deeply disturbing to be without her decking tools. "All right?" she said to the peacock in a challenging voice. "Will that do?" It seemed to frown, said in quite a different voice "533--seg violation--core--" and then in its normal one "There is still something else. These represent the creature which follows, but not the place. Think." *Blink* She was naked except for the key, her poncho, and the code that made up her Matrix image. She wouldn't give up any of those. The Lefty code? But the hawk had freed her from that. Her links to Jayhawk, to Anubis? Those were *hers*. "Think," whispered the peacock. Words scrolled across its eyes, left to right: "sub 2/main partition/4b32/matrix." The eyes blinked, and the words vanished. "I don't know what you're talking about!" She would have pushed past it, except that it had been right; she would have been a fool to carry the feather, the contaminated code. She was terribly afraid of making a mistake. It seemed to her that any error now would be irrevocable. "Red!" it said in the other voice, a familiar voice, and broke apart into horizontal shimmers of light which rapidly faded to nothing. Its eyes were on her until they vanished. Caroline sat down on the ground, her back to the hedge, and tried to think. What could she be carrying that would betray her? Should she be listening to the peacock in the first place? Maybe it was trying to trick her. Maybe it was Lefty. She'd met him once on the Matrix, seen him fade out like that. But the voice had been familiar, and not Lefty's. She ground her palms into her forehead, felt the faint warmth of the scar she carried. She knew its pattern without needing to look at it: the outspread talon of a hawk. She snarled, tried to erase it by reshaping her image. She could change her form--it was easier here than on the Matrix, as if her will more than her code held it in place--but the mark remained through the changes. When she and her friends had been running from Paradisio, they'd spent a good deal of time being remodelled in beauty parlors. She visualized one of the rotating brushes that they'd used to remove old skin dye, tried to apply it to her forehead. Her skin tickled, then burned, then bled, but the mark remained in place. Jayhawk had warned her that she might not be her own master anymore, having bargained with the hawk as she had. She'd denied it. Was this proof that she was wrong? Was she about to betray Jayhawk, and *die* when her doubts were discovered, or worse, live to find she'd enslaved them both? She raised one arm, shouted into the gathering wind "Hawk! I need to talk to you!" A prickle ran through her arm, almost painful. High above, a point of darkness circled, stooped. "Why have you marked me?" she screamed at it as it veered close to her, climbed again to circle tightly just above. "It shows that you are real," it said. "They can't duplicate that as easily as a tapestry." She laughed, startled out of her anger. At Paradisio they'd confounded her attempts to distinguish the Matrix from the physical world, duplicating her Matrix tapestries on her bedroom walls. "Why can't I change it?" "You can," said the hawk, circling. "But only by changing yourself. That way you will always know who you are." She touched her forehead--the bleeding had stopped as soon as she stopped attending to it. "That's all? It doesn't bind me to you?" "No!" cried the hawk in a shrill voice. "I did not set you free only to tie you up again." "I may have to change myself, to do this--will you try to stop me?" "No. Do you need to be stopped?" "No!" she shouted back, fiercely exultant. She remembered looking into the mirror and seeing Angela, caught in the stimsense delusion. The hawk had given her a weapon against that. "Thank you!" She hesitated an instant, said much more tentatively, "Can you see any other bindings on me? You look like you have sharp eyes." It circled low over her. "No," it said. "Your soul is clean." She saluted it with an upraised arm. "Good hunting!" It beat upwards, vanishing almost at once. She turned, ran toward the islands. She'd left herself no bridges connecting to the shore. The water was frothy and opaque, but she remembered a place where it was shallow, went splashing into it. Only a desperate scramble kept her from being swept under. The water was deeper than it had been, and there was a violent current pulling downwards. She pulled herself back onto land, stood dripping. One of the islands was within two meters of the shore. Telling herself that she could always fly rather than fall, she backed up, made a running leap for it. It was almost like jumping in the low-gravity nodes of Anubis; she described a graceful arc like an echo of the missing bridge, landed firmly on the island. Wind whipped at her. She glanced around to orient herself, ran for the center. 75. Memory Not until Caroline was halfway across the final bridge did she see the woman waiting on the central island. She was sitting on the feathery grass, cross-legged, her hands resting palm up on her knees. She wore a grey jogging suit with a fine pink stripe up each side; her hair was chestnut brown, coming to a point in the middle of a high forehead, and her eyes were closed. Caroline had never seen her before. The bridge beneath her swayed alarmingly. She stepped off it, onto the solid ground of the final island, and at once the woman leaped up, snapped into attention facing her. Reflexively Caroline reached for her lightblade. It was gone. She'd left it in the hedge maze. "Jayhawk," the woman said, her voice soft and faintly accented. "If you're hearing this, then I've managed to fool them all." She stood silently. Intuition suggested that she was not dealing with a living being; it seemed to her that she would have known if someone else set foot here. "If you're here to trigger this, you must be quite far along. You're about to bind your own system, or you think you are.--I find there's not really much difference. "I don't know what name you know me by, if any; but you probably know my title. I was High Priestess of the Seattle area. "So, ask your questions. I'm sure you have hundreds of them." In a level voice, Caroline said, "*He* told me that you died to save my life. Why?" A point of light appeared at the top of the woman's head, swept downwards to her feet. It left her a man, dressed head to toe in black leather decorated with steel and chrome. He had wild black hair blending with a thick beard, a silver skull dangling from one earlobe. The flicker of light swept back upwards, and he moved, orienting himself on Caroline. In a rough voice he said: "So now ask yourself, What is human and what is truth? Ask yourself, Whose voice is it that whispers up to you From the cellars ofyour comes. From the tops of your city roofs? Ask yourself, Whose voice is this that whispers unto you?" The light flickered down and up again, faster this time, transforming him into a black-haired woman in heavy crimson and gold robes, cloaked in dark brown velvet. Jewels glittered in her hair. She didn't seem to see Caroline at all, or anything else around her. "Is this a dagger which I see before me, The handle toward my hand? Come let me clutch thee: I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. Art though not, fatal vision, sensible To feeling as to sight? or art thou but A dagger of the mind, a false creation, Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?" Her accent was unfamiliar to Caroline, and so thick that the words were barely intelligable. Caroline sat down on the end of the bridge, arms folded, struggling with anger. She was being taunted, not offered true answers to her questions--what had she expected, truth from the High Priestess? The image changed again, into a short, balding man with wire-rimmed, archaic glasses. He pursed his lips at her, said in an unexpectedly deep and rumbling voice: "He who fights with monsters might take care, lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes long into you." Caroline squirmed a little. That she understood. The image reformed once more, becoming Aliantha again. She bowed her head, said in her own voice, softly: "What is the worst of woes that wait on age? What stamps the wrinkle deeper on the brow? To view each loved one blotted from life's page, And be alone on earth as I am now. "That's not a question with a simple answer, I'm afraid." Wistfully, the image went on, "It's been a long time since I talked with anyone like this." "A couple of months, by the world's timescale," said Caroline, thinking of her meeting with Aliantha at the Hidden Fortress. "Much longer than that." Her eyes met Caroline's for a moment; they were blue-grey, old as the sea. "What else do you want to know?" "I have only one more question," said Caroline tightly. "How can I rid myself of you?" A flicker of sympathy, but it was lost in her desperation. She'd lived with the shadow of Aliantha's influence for too long. She wanted to be free, and know that she was free. "Just say goodbye. This is only memory, and it will disappear when you are done with it.--Though I'll leave some clues as to how I did this. It's rather elegant." Her mind was clamoring with questions. What had Aliantha intended in saving her? What was the Lefty code intended to do? Who was *he*, and how could he be healed or destroyed? How was Marianne involved? Very slowly, she said, "I don't think I should ask you how you did things, because I know that you did something wrong, to end up as you did. I don't want any part of you and your plans. I'm sorry, because I'm sure it would have been interesting--" Her heart ached for the loss of knowledge; but she felt she had no choice. "Goodbye." The image bowed. "Just one final word. 'Operation Sunflower.' Goodbye, Jayhawk." It winked out abruptly. She stood a moment, hands knotted in frustration and anger. No good, Caroline. Calm down. You can't do anything in this state of mind. She scanned the island, searching for anything that might have been left behind, as Lefty had contaminated Anubis with his dust to give the fetus access. Nothing seemed out of place. Taking a deep breath, she sat down with her back to the central tree, gathered up her image of Anubis in her mind and set about recreating it. 76. Dissolution Jayhawk had reluctantly added new connections to the system, bracing the most delicate nodes. The three SAN nodes were now spliced to the nodes surrounding them, the watchtowers anchored firmly into the complexes on both sides, which were in turn cross-braced to one another. The Gate chamber was linked to the CPU. She hated the changes--they were bad security, and they cluttered up the system's beauty. But it had quickly become apparent that without them, what Caroline was doing would tear Anubis apart. She would have been tempted to deal with an invader simply by breaking one or two of the bracing connections, letting part of the system disintegrate around him. She didn't dare leave the CPU herself, for the same reason. She remained there as long as she dared, watching the outer nodes vanish and reappear, working constantly to contain the damage. The new connections meshed with the system a little less efficiently than the old, but system load was remaining within tolerable parameters. She'd sent a message to the Life-game: *Reduce your load to the absolute minimum. Send no processes out of your partition.* So far it had complied. But as Caroline worked her way through the inner nodes, datastores and I/O links only two or three steps from the CPU, the violence which she was doing to the system with every breakage and rejoining started to jar outer structures loose despite all the bracing Jayhawk could provide. Contact with the SANs became fuzzy, intermittant. Jayhawk had disconnected Anubis from the Matrix, and they hung alone and untethered in the Overnet. Reluctantly, she took down the peripheral IC, leaving them open. She wouldn't have trusted it anyway, with the nodes supporting it in such disarray. Anyone fool enough to come into the system now would probably be trapped by the waves of near-disconnection. Removing the demands of the IC bought her a few more minutes, three additional nodes. Then a deep crack shot through node 2-1, the lacy telecom structure of her personal area. Almost without considering it, she touched the circlet in her hair, let herself fall into the thoughts of the machine. Weeks passed. Her consciousness had to extend to the nodes which were being disconnected and rejoined, the new connectors Caroline was making. Each breakage separated part of her from the rest. More and more, when contact was restored the separated part took on a kind of autonomy: her awareness was becoming distributed into packets, each concerned with a different part of the system. It should have been a vague feeling, but like everything else it was crystal clear. She was being fragmented with the fragmentation of her machine. She didn't even consider trying to back out. After a while, the thought was no longer accessable. Past and future were irrelevant; she suppressed them, concentrating all resources on the present, on maintaining herself intact. Herself? On maintaining the system. More and more, that was the only consideration. She no longer thought of Caroline; the progressive changes were data, conditions with which she must deal, their purpose irrelevant. Once, during a brief respite from the stresses, she looked at herself, at the nexus of code in the CPU, its roots extending downward beyond her perception. It was no longer partitioned from the rest; she was wound through the operating system, echoed in the distorted reflections of the nodes. No longer executed as a single program; parts were under the control of auxillary subsystems, like the utilities that maintained the bracing connectors, the damage-control daemons that rerouted essential flows past the broken areas. It felt neither right nor wrong. Only necessary, and irrevocable. In the end, Anubis clung to existence with every resource available to it, power and will and desire. 77. Wave Wind and water were filled with chaotic force, pulling in all directions. There was enough power there to rearrange the islands-- enough to destroy them, Caroline could feel, and probably the surrounding garden as well. She struggled to rid her mind of the image of concrete islands broken loose from their bases, the dirt dribbling out into the water, raw concrete stumps sticking up from the bottom of the pool. That was what had kept her from trying to make an island-moving machine. But the water was deeper now, she told herself; the islands probably didn't even touch bottom. And in any case.... Was she a magician? Did she really believe that? She still wasn't sure. But if she was going to have to be one in order to get the islands moving, she would. It was rapidly getting dark, the sky shrouded in layer upon layer of clouds until it seemed she could reach out and touch them. She remembered vaguely that one wasn't supposed to stand under a tree in a lightning storm. She waved a defiant fist at the sky. Let the lightning hit her! It was hers. She called out to the islands, shaping the currents of wind and water around them, drawing them into place; and they answered her, ponderous as huge ships, gliding deliberately through the rising surf. The sky darkened further, lightning flickering in the distance, drawing closer. She began to see feathers in the wind, torn from the islands and the maze beyond. As before, she worked from the outermost islands, spiralling in. The bridges might have constrained her, but they did not. Each island fit into place with a sense of terrible assurance; there was nothing but her will, her cherished image of the system map, to hold them, and yet they felt like the roots of mountains. The wind was a hurricane now, spiralling around the point of stillness where she was; she could no longer see the hedge maze, walled off by feathers and water. Inward and inward. She no longer felt tired, only feverishly exalted, dizzy with the wash of power around her. She was not so much controlling the storm as riding it like a motorcycle, leaning her little weight into its balance to make it turn. Lightning again. It struck somewhere nearby, she couldn't see where, blinded by the walls of the hurricane. The final islands were gliding into place. Another flare, much more brilliant--and she saw the water rearing up around her, an impossible wave, fifty meters or more of water balanced for a frozen instant-- *There's not that much water in the entire pool!* she thought crazily, and threw her arms around the palm tree she stood by, bracing herself for the impact. No thought of flight. Here she was, and here she would stay. The wave crashed upon her, flung her high--but not away, still at the center, the eye of the storm. Darkness embraced her, supporting her with overwhelming strength--she could have been torn to pieces in an instant, but the water held her like a lover. It was Jayhawk's strength when she had saved Caroline's life, the unknown power that had pulled her back from the infinite fall after the stimsense illusion-- and more, power of her own that she had never tapped, never imagined. It lifted her to the sky, flung her high as spray, then subsided, setting her down gently on her feet. She was unharmed, not even wet. She opened her eyes to utter darkness. 78. Union Caroline found herself in velvet darkness, standing on nothing perceptible. She was carrying nothing except the shimmer of her life- thread around her. The key was gone. She turned slowly, found a single point of brightness in the dark. It resolved into an image like a mirror of herself, but naked without the protective cloak of light. She stood still, watching as the other approached. It was Jayhawk, she felt that with certainty; Jayhawk as she had never truly seen her, a separate person--perhaps a friend, perhaps a beloved sister, perhaps an adversary, but utterly separate from herself. Jayhawk stopped a few meters away, said softly "Caroline." It was more recognition than question. "I don't know if I succeeded, if I kept the system together long enough. I was failing, at the end." The key was at her belt. "Long enough," Caroline whispered. Jayhawk frightened her as the tsunami had not. "You know, all the arguments for doing this seem pretty hard to believe, now." Jayhawk nodded, silently. *I want to share this with her, I love her....the glory of the wave, the power of Anubis....but to *become* her....* Something almost akin to embarrassment gripped her; she couldn't find anything to say, couldn't bring herself to make any move, toward Jayhawk or away from her. Still silent, Jayhawk put her arms around Caroline, drew her close. She was cool to the touch, cool as the water had been. Caroline rested her head on Jayhawk's shoulder, struggling for words. She remembered what the other had told her. '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.' But which one first? It seemed to matter terribly, and she couldn't decide. Suddenly she laughed aloud, put her arms around Jayhawk, mirroring her embrace. No words at all. A soft bell chimed somewhere, and a voice spoke, not quite her own: "Process 1247 terminated. Process 0001 terminated." An instant's pause. "Goodbye." She spun in darkness, a single crystalline point of light. Slowly, precise as the growth of a crystal, graceful as an elaborate dance, Anubis formed about her, reflections echoing outward and coming back to her at the center, each time greater and more beautiful. The pattern resolved, each detail perfect: the spiderwork of the CPU bridges, the watchtower windows mirroring the entire system, the patterns of light on light in the main datastores, the pulsing ebb and flow of the machine's life. The extraneous connections were gone, all of the damage she had fought to contain healed as if it had never been. More than healed. It was *right*, right as it had never been--it had always mirrored her division, from the moment of her attunement to it. It mirrored her wholeness now, more beautiful than she had ever imagined. 79. Silver Suddenly she found herself at the center of the garden, though she hadn't moved; she could still feel Anubis around her. Brilliant sunlight revealed islands cleansed of vegetation and soil, stripped down to silver metal in graceful organic forms. The water was clear and calm, showing no sign of the storm; but beyond it, the hedge-maze was in ruins, every feather torn from it. The ground was heaped with sodden plumage. Something moved behind her. She turned, finding that the palm tree to which she had clung during the storm was still there, incongrous amidst the metal. Behind it, a few meters away, stood something like a silver image of herself, though her hair was tumbled loose down her back. She smiled shyly at Jayhawk. Even her eyes were silver, mirror- bright. Jay clutched at the tree, fighting a sudden strong desire to run away--or, better, fly. She could see the silver woman's nature as if she were running analysis code, probing her. She was Angela, and Piebald. She was also Jayhawk herself, in some way which she didn't understand; and Anubis. Holding the tree as if to anchor herself to the spot, Jayhawk whispered, "Who am I, then?" "Jayhawk," said the other. The voice was not quite hers. "Aren't you? Jayhawk and Caroline." It had been so simple, after all the fear and resistance. She remembered what she had done as Jayhawk, as Caroline; saw, as neither of them could, just what she had lacked. So simple, and so sweet....But Jayhawk had been *herself*, Caroline had been....Who was this, what claim did it have on her? "What do you want? Who are you?" Why did it terrify her so much? The silver one glanced down. "Angela, in a way; and Piebald, I guess...." She looked up, eyes wide. "Part of you, or that's what I want to be. What I should be." Jayhawk's skin crawled. She dug her nails into the feathery bark, managed to keep herself still. "Was Angela a real person?" "Yes. I'm not exactly her, though. I think I started out as a simulation, though I'm more than that now." She made no move to approach Jayhawk, though something in her stance suggested that she wanted to. "I'm scared to death," Jayhawk whispered. It was impossibly hard to confront the thought of merger again; she'd been sure it was done, once and for all. "So am I." To Jayhawk she seemed more shy, and a little embarrassed, than frightened. Jayhawk held out one hand, very slowly, then dropped it. "A simulation? *They* made you?" "I don't serve them," said the other with calm certainty. "I never will." She had promised Angela: Whatever strength or surety I have, I share with you freely. If you are a part of me, all this is yours too; and if not, I will see to it that you have your chance. She had promised Piebald the same. Remembering both, she fought against her terror. She wanted desperately to flee, to the Matrix, to Anubis proper, even to the physical world--anything to avoid the silver woman, so much like her, so different. Alien. She remembered Piebald's crazy flashes of insight, the ridiculous mess he'd made of her IC. And yet...'I am Jayhawk too,' he had told her when she named him; and somehow she had always believed him, in a baffled uncomprehending way. She rested her forehead against the tree, hiding her eyes, and held out her right hand. Smooth cool fingers brushed hers, took her hand in a firm grip. Water, tingling with sunlight, flowing into her veins, hot and cool at once...mainly cool, soothing as the water around the islands, and yet bright with power. She knew the one who touched her, entered her, finding her place within. She had felt that strength before, pulling her back from the darkness and its alluring promise of death when Jayhawk broke the stimsense dream and nearly destroyed Anubis. She had felt it around her in the embrace of the great wave. As before, it was simple, far simpler than she had imagined. She let go of the tree, let her perceptions shift until she saw Anubis around her again. The light-play of the CPU welcomed her. She sank down in a webwork hammock, each strand achingly distinct, felt not only with her body but with the far greater clarity of her attunement to the machine. She had not cried since she was lost and dying in the forest, after the destruction of the Hidden Fortress; not since her father had refused to pay for decking headware, and she'd realized she faced four long years bound to the dreary life he'd chosen for her. She almost wanted to cry now, but the tears didn't come. The ones within cradled her in their strength--her strength now--and their love. 80. Reflection She lay for a long time, swinging gently, half dreaming, letting the confusion in her thoughts settle like water after a storm. At last she rose, called up a reflective surface on the interior of the CPU, stood before it. Her hair was black, caught by a silver circlet and then falling down her back in unconfined waves. A hint of silver glittered in it, reflection of the system's light. Her skin was very pale, marked at wrists and temples with faerie traceries of silver. Burning softly against it was the hawk's mark, the talon's curve now completed and reflected to make the image of an eye. Below it, her own eyes were blue-silver and slightly mismatched, one brushed with sunlit gold, one with luminous white. She was wearing the delicate weave-work of her life, arranged into a gown that flowed gently over her body, gathered at the waist by a silver belt. It was herself, though she struggled to set a name to the image. *Jayhawk. I will be Jayhawk; it's the only one of my names I chose myself.* She was as lovely as Anubis around her; and that was fitting. She remembered Angela, who had looked into the mirror and despaired. Not a person, not then, only a tenuous overlay imposed on Caroline's mind from without. A mask shaped from the real Angela. But when the stimsense was broken she had become something more than that. A true AI, perhaps. *Though I didn't realize it, not until later, when Piebald and I were trying to remake ourselves. And I was dismayed. It's not that I wanted to be Angela; she seemed weak to me--no ambition, only daydreams. I wanted to be Jayhawk.* She remembered holding out her hand, far more afraid of the possibility of refusal than of anything that might follow acceptance. She remembered Piebald, though memory brought little understanding; he had told the truth when he claimed no memories, no understanding of who he was. He had scarcely been a person when they first met--only a bundle of thoughts, feelings, crazy insights like the password he'd given Jayhawk. The Angela construct had given him personhood, in the long slow rebuilding after they joined, as he had given her....She could put no name to it. Magic, perhaps. Roots in the paradoxical, the impossible. *I didn't even know what I was lacking, just that I felt empty. It was loyalty to Jayhawk and to Anubis that made me agree to the merger. She thought I belonged. I wanted to prove she was right.* She remembered Jayhawk, her desire for the embrace of the machine, and her despair....remembered the terror of dissolution. *I wasn't even afraid, I'd forgotten how to be afraid. Forgotten Caroline, myself, everything. Not strong enough.* She put one hand on the reflecting surface, felt the complex pulse of the system's life within it. It was her own pulse; she *was* within, as if she were using the Kurt code....as deep as she chose to be, experiencing it from whatever perspective suited her best at any moment. Effortlessly, she could reach out until the whole system was contained within her awareness--she did so, searching for signs of damage or intrusion, found none--could attune her consciousness to the machine's speed until seconds stretched like minutes, like hours. Closer than Jayhawk had imagined, but without the loss of self. She had nothing to fear from Anubis any longer. And she remembered Caroline, her defiant rejection of Aliantha's plans for her. *I did the right thing, refusing to hear her out; it was a trap for me, a self-fulfilling prophecy.* And yet she regretted it. She'd killed Aliantha once again in destroying the recording--it was gone, nothing left in storage but the four quotations and a technical note on how the recording had been generated. She might have preserved it, even Awakened it as she had the simulation of Angela. She no longer feared Aliantha's influence, certain in herself. She took a deep breath, turned away from the mirror. Whatever Aliantha's goals had been, she knew her own. She'd begin by reweaving her decking code--Caroline had destroyed it, even the carefully protected backup copies, during the remaking. And then she would try the Matrix, learn what she could do. She meant to free Martha. A test of her powers, and information that she might be able to trust. 'Heal *him*,' Martha had said, 'or kill him.' She intended to do so, confident in her power; but she needed understanding. Aliantha might have been able to tell her....but she thought she could trust Martha, if only she could set her free. 浜様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様 This is a sample Shadowrun character to illustrate the changes we made to magicians. Asterisked values have been raised with Karma during the course of a 17-month campaign. Channa "Blackwood" Tomkins, Hermetic Sorceress Body 2 Quickness 3* Strength 2* Reaction 4 Willpower 4 Intelligence 6* Charisma 4* Magic Rating 5* Spell drain resisted with: Intelligence Conjury drain resisted with: Charisma [These can be any two stats (not the same one) but if a physical stat is used, all Drain is physical; and the side effects of cyberware enhancing such a stat would be unusually drastic. The idea is to reflect the way the individual does magic. Channa's approach to spellcasting is very intellectual, but she conjures out of the murk of her own unconscious (and isn't very good at it).] Skills: Sorcery 6 - spellcasting 7* Conjuring 5 - elementals 6* Magic theory 2 - design 4 - hermetic 6 Psychology 4* Etiquette - street 4 - corporate 3 Interrogate 1 - verbal 4* Stealth 2 - urban 4 Firarms 1 - pistol 3 English 8, Welsh 3, Latin 3 Magical Abilties: Spellcasting - all 5 spheres (restriction: no Physical spells) Conjury - elementals Astral Perception Astral Projection Ritual Magic (restriction: solitary only) [The restrictions are not point-balanced with anything; they're just a way of limiting and adding flavor to the character.] Spells: [note that some Drain codes have been increased] Control Thoughts 6S2 Control Emotions 4M1 Mind Probe 6M2 Mask 4L2 Mana Dart 6L1 (does Fatigue damage) Sleep 5D1, expendible fetish (glass spheres with powdered herbs) Heal 5, exclusive, expendible fetish (packets of herbs in alcohol) Analyze Truth 4M1, reusable fetish (wedding ring) [We allow more than the starting allotment of spell points, because with spells resisted off Force one needs considerable Force for the spell to work, and we don't like casters to have only 1-2 spells. Fetishes add additional dice, not additional Force: 2 dice for exclusive or expendable, one die for reusable. The Heal spell is a general-purpose but dangerous healing spell, following roughly the rules posted earlier by Carl Rigney.] Contacts: Charivala Green, Wiccan sorceress Jim Mwaba, Dog shaman Rudy Toynbee, Psychologist Murgen, proprietor Shangri-La Imports Irene King, Administrator, University of Seattle Description: Channa is the wife and partner of the private detective Casey Tomkins, who rescued her from the diabolist circle that first taught her magic. She's a mind mage, one of the rarest and most feared types of spellcaster; she keeps her powers relatively secret to avoid being feared or hated, though she can be ruthless when she feels hiding is impossible. She enjoys her power, though she tries to deny this even to herself. She relies on Interrogation whenever possible, since Mind Probe is a dangerous spell; the victim may notice it, and it also runs the risk of infecting the caster with the victim's mindset and neuroses. She dared to read the mind of a Will 9 adept once, and nearly went mad. Though she can be friendly and chatty with an effort, her natural demeanour is aloof and detached, except with Casey. This is a major limitation on her power; she doesn't understand or sympathize with other people well at a gut level, which reduces her ability to manipulate them. She's also rather afraid of her powers; she doesn't want to alienate Casey or her few other close friends, and she doesn't want to become as inhuman as the powerful mages she's met. She can't let other people get close enough to her for group ritual magic, though if Casey were mageborn she could probably work with him. The increase in Magic Rating from 4 to 5 came about during a run in which she hid on a balcony and started a large riot with Control Emotions (repeated castings, strategically placed), and then had to take desperate risks to get a friend away from the police while still exhausted. She knocked herself out cold--almost died. She'd never pushed her magic to that extreme before, and apparently it undid some inner resistance. Since then she's had a lot of trouble sleeping when other people are around, especially if Casey is not. She seems to pick up fragments of their nightmares. She and Casey have decided not to have children, afraid that they will be abnormal, as the children of the mageborn often are. They've recently met a 12-year-old fire sorceress who made their fears worse. Channa tends to use the Combat spells in combat (which she loathes) and the Control spells in non-combat situations; she's afraid of what will happen to her if someone she is mind-controlling is killed. In combat, she has the choice between needling away at enemies with Mana Dart and taking no fatigue, or using the major spells and taking fatigue. Out of combat, she personally prefers Control Thoughts (being an intellectual type herself) but will resort to Control Emotions when she needs not to take Drain. She doesn't cast either of them very often. The law is harsh on mindrape. 藩様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様様 [Episodes will be erratic for a while, as the campaign is mainly following the adventures of Duende's group in the Congo; they are getting too far behind this line, and need to be caught up.] 81. Software Jayhawk found that recreating her decking code was an adventure in itself. She remembered how she had written it--all but the attack code, which she'd disassembled so many times it was almost equally familiar--but now, as she laid out her frameworks, began filling them in, new possibilities kept occuring to her...shortcuts and elaborations, new principles and strange variations on old ones. As Piebald's ideas had always been, they were a mixed lot--some brilliant, some tantalizing but unworkable, some wildly incorrect. She learned to ride the waves of crazy insight, taking what worked, letting the rest go by. It was exhilirating. She had never been so inspired, and even if half the ideas were insane, it felt good. The attack code demanded the most revision. Laying out its structure, she realized that even her highly sophisticated program, Japanese software less than six months old, channeled its operations into a very few lines of attack, ignoring a world of possibilities all around it. It took her a long while--though the system clock reported only a few minutes, her personal time running fever-quick in her excitement--to craft a framework that could take advantage of all the opportunities she now perceived. She dashed off blocks of code with dizzy haste, tested them and was amazed to find them good. The finished product was strangely crooked and unstable, more like a lightning bolt barely constrained by its hilt than the sword she had carried. She drew it slowly through the air, feeling the patterns of disruption chained within it, and smiled. She missed the bells whose noise had followed her everywhere, revealed Lefty's imposture. But they seemed too likely to betray her on the Matrix. She crafted a single bell, a warning of Trace to wear at her belt; but its silence was not satisfying. At last, as she worked on deception code to allow her through system security, she found herself weaving bells into her routines, a chaotic music of sensor confusion. She could hide in the sound, like a message encoded in static. The final product, thrown over her shoulders like a cloak of braided glass trimmed with transparent bells, followed her movements with a pleasing, everchanging sound. She danced a little, listening to the bells. Jayhawk had never danced, never known how. It pleased her to find that she could. She wrote analysis code, lenses to focus every level she knew how to reach: the Matrix, the Overnet, even the shadowy subworld of hardware (though those routines were silent in Anubis, bereft of contact). She found that most of the canonical analysis routines were unnecessary--she needed no code to interpret her vision, beyond the code woven into the root of her being. But her vision could be enhanced, focused, and she worked diligently to do so. She surprised herself with aspects of Anubis which she had never seen, intimately though she knew them. Implicit in the dataflow like negative images, bright-winged and dark-eyed, the daemons echoed her dance. When she had finished the standard programs, she added a few of her own. The ghost code made to talk to Chalker, still untested--she added a few more subroutines, remembering the Life-game's conversation from both sides. Ancillary routines to communicate with the Matrix, the Overnet, speculative attempts to detect the operation of a Gate, traces to bring hidden nodes to light. She still had a copy of the Kurt code, threaded into Anubis by Jayhawk's possession. She would never again need it to unite her with Anubis; but it struck her that it had other uses now. With it, she might be able to pull a foreign system into alignment with her own, bring the power of Anubis to bear on the other machine in its entirety. The idea was both tempting and disturbing. Calling up the silver circlet that Jayahwk had worn, she tore it apart, reworked it to her new purpose. She wove in destruction, keyed to any touch but her own. Though she no longer had much fear of invaders--she was too powerful, too certain in her bond to the system--she did not want to give them such a tool to use elsewhere. It was a responsibility, this slender piece of software. She could see, now, what the Hawk had done to Caroline, the changes Jayhawk had sensed: not constraint, but awareness. She could do whatever she wanted, open-eyed to the consequences. She was deleriously happy. None of her daydreams, not even the seductions of stimsense, had come close to the joy of understanding, the delights of creation. There were so many things she could make, tools and toys and pieces of sheer artistry: ideas in abundance, cascades of them at her fingertips, tricks and algorithms and murkier processes that might verge on magic. Most of them would have to wait; but they were hers, all those possibilities. Like Aliantha, she could live forever if she chose. Unlike her, she had found no reason why she might choose otherwise. 82. Records Having resolved to find Angela, Jayhawk went hunting the records of her disappearance at the University District police station. It was a painfully drab system, inside and out: long, bare corridors noisy with the sound of paperwork and records-shuffling. Something about it bothered her, as she slipped through the SAN with the flow of reports and requests. The computer seemed...bored? Unhappy? All too anthropo- morphic, but that was the impression she was getting. She hesitated in a main routing node, trying to pin down the feeling. The operating system under which it was running was optimized for untrained people, and wasted the computer's time and space with abandon. A fair amount of its power was also dedicated to routine janitorial duties--coffee-makers and soda machines, elevators and lights. It was something of a shame--the machine was one she recognized, a good piece of work, though not particularly well designed for this kind of drudgery. Could she do something to improve matters? She poked around in the operating system, decided that without junking the user interface--which would doubtless get the machine dumped and rebooted--there wasn't much she could do to improve the software. She could--she caught herself, startled. She could change the hardware, if she chose. But the occupants of the building would no doubt be dismayed by the side effects. Could an exorcism get rid of her? She had no intention of finding out. A system process queried her intentions. Almost apologetically, she asked it to find the records for Angela Whitechapel. The machine's irritation bothered her, like a lingering unscratchable itch. Rather to her surprise, it accepted her request. A floor panel lit up, directing her inwards. There was no IC in her path; the machine almost seemed to have accepted her as a legitimate user. She found the records without difficulty, guided by the glowing floor. They were brief and disheartening. The case was closed: the police had interviewed Angela's friends and family, but found no leads. They'd only persisted as long as they had because of pressure by her parents, who had offered a million nuyen reward (Jayhawk, contemplating ways to find Angela, hardly noticed the number). The final note in the file mentioned that Interpol had been contacted, but that in the opinion of the officer in charge Angela was not going to be found. An ordinary runaway, like thousands in the city, interesting only because of her parents' wealth. Jay uploaded the files to Anubis anyway. Maybe they would mean more to a professional PI than they did to her. "Thanks," she said aloud to the machine, and made her way thoughtfully back out. There was no resistance from the IC, not even the routine queries she had faced on the way in. She *had* been accepted as a legitimate user, it seemed. Her next stop was in SeattleBank's main office, where she found that Angela's account had been redirected to her parents' and tapped with a small Trace. Sidestepping the Trace carefully, she was able to siphon off ten thousand nuyen before it became too risky to continue. She didn't like to steal, but what better use for what was, after all, Angela's money than to rescue Angela? She sent a message to Forked Lightning, asking to meet him that evening. Trying to hire a PI herself seemed tricky--what if the PI insisted on meeting with her in person, or checked up on her background? She planned to enlist physical help. The police system itched at her. After a fruitless search for some way she could help it, she put it firmly out of her mind and turned to an accessable problem: the records at Cavilard Base, Aliantha's headquarters. The Cavilard system was as she had last seen it, empty and quiet. She slipped in through the hedge guarding the 'back' entrance, walked along the worn dirt path. The deep indentations, like a single row of giant footprints, were still there. They seemed a little deeper. She came to the crossroads, stood still for a moment. To her right, a thin bridge spanned the abyss that had protected Aliantha's Gate. The Gate was supposed to be broken, but *something* tugged at her from that direction, like an unseen downhill slope to the level ground underfoot. To her left rose the Red Tower, Cavilard's main security node, a silo of intense red brick with a flat top. She remembered the winged black serpent which had guarded the Tower, and which she'd always assumed was IC until she hurt it and saw the decker behind the mask. A Paradisian had devoted his life to protecting that node. It was empty now, barred off with heavy police IC. She turned right, came to the edge of the abyss. The bridge was trapped, as she knew from experience. With an effort, she lifted herself into the air, hovered just above it. She could fly here, but it was hard, and the forward/downward pull was stronger. She touched down on the other side with relief. The path led on towards distant mountains, barren land around it. Although it seemed to be level, perhaps even sloping a little upwards, the tug increased with every step until she was bracing herself against the fall. The Gate was active; she could feel its presence, the warping of Matrix space downward toward something else. Not the Overnet, not exactly. She turned back before the pull became too great to resist. She'd come for datastores, not Gates, no matter how intriguing. Not yet. The police IC was quite impressive--a total block, meant to make the machine unusable. She contemplated taking it down and trying to neutralize the inevitable alarms, then began looking for ways to avoid that. Carefully, she reached out to the crossroads node. It had been a routing processor, handling traffic to other parts of the system. Given the authorization, it could route her as well. The task would have been easier nearer the open Gate, drawing on its power; but more dangerous, since that power pulled so strongly in one direction. Where she was, it was a difficult trick. She wished that Anubis were here, and not tethered to a fast-food restaraunt system in Yokohama. Even at such distance, she could bring a little of Anubis' power to bear, though there were stringent limits. It was enough. With an almost absent-minded flick--Cavilard system was still tremendously powerful, even blocked and silenced as it was--the routing node accepted her authorizations, placed her inside the Tower. It was completely empty, scars on the floor where something had been removed. Police tape decorated its other exits. She looked around quickly, then more slowly, searching for the Matrix trickery that was a Paradisian trademark. There was a trapdoor in the ceiling, high overhead--obvious once noticed, but so far out of reach that most deckers wouldn't have thought to look for it. She levitated to reach it, forced it open. The tower-top was bare, except for a small squeeze-bulb--a program of some kind. She probed into it, tasted raw power contained in a complex piece of code. Not Matrix power, something more formless. Magic? She checked it over carefully, found no links that could betray her presence, no traps. It went into a belt pouch for future reference. She was no longer particularly afraid of Paradisian innovations; it seemeed to her that she had already faced the worst they could create. The Tower looked out over most of the system, almost like the watchtowers of Anubis. She could see the path leading towards the Gate. Something was coiled at its threshhold, sleeping--she had felt its presence in the instant of the teleport, and from here there was no mistaking it. The guardian she had fought on her previous visit? She wasn't sure. In the other direction, the main system was spread out for her inspection. There was another route toward the Gate, and connectors into nodes she had visited before, when she and Yoichi hunted the system, then living, for information on its masters. The step-pyramid of the CPU rose above them all, though its feathered guardian was gone. She descended, wove her way through stillness to the center. She had never managed to get into the CPU before. It was a single chamber, almost a duplicate of the altar room where she'd seen Yoichi sacrified: a wide, low room like a converted warehouse, with an empty altar at its center. Behind the altar was an empty framework bolted to the wall. It had held something, an Overnet construct she thought; but it was broken now. The edges of the room had at one time been filled with equipment, but it, too, was gone. The datastores had been gutted. Piqued, Jayhawk sat down on the floor, considered her surroundings. She couldn't tell what the framework had been intended to be--it looked almost like a Gate, the broken Gate she had expected to find in Cavilard, but then what was that on the mountain path? And who would put a Gate into their CPU? It seemed like a horrendous security risk. She remembered being part of Anubis, probing back into her own system's past. There were no records left at Cavilard, but once the information she wanted *had* been here. Might the machine remember? It seemed illogical on the face of it, but oddly plausible. Cavilard was sleeping, and she couldn't wake it without waking the guardian at the Gate, which she didn't feel quite ready to do. Did it dream? A still pool, dark, dark, nothing moving, the life of the system shut down to the barest maintenance level. Reach below the surface, stir the depths.... Anubis broke the connection between her and the Cavilard system, protecting her; she came to herself suddenly, a death-scream ringing in her ears. Nightmare, the system dreamed nightmare, the destruction of the base. For a moment she toyed with the memory, hearing the echo from Anubis, then decided against pursuing that further, at least for now. Two hundred people had died in the fall of Cavilard. She didn't want to face them. The emptiness ached. She wanted to wake the system, guardian or no guardian; but it seemed irresponsible to play with it while Angela was still imprisoned and needed her help. She nudged the CPU into letting her out past the police blocks, considered her next move. The records were somewhere, she felt sure; probably in the hands of the police. She went searching, found that the Bellevue police system was a sibling of the one she'd run in the University District. Like the other, it felt morose, irritable with overwork and inefficiency; but it yielded up its secrets with little fuss. The records were voluminous--apparently the police had taken every scrap Cavilard had. She uploaded them laboriously to Anubis, followed them herself. It felt good to be back, the flow of the system's processes like an echo of her own thoughts, its power supporting her as she began the massive task of sorting through her find. Operation Sunflower was referenced once, as a heading attached to five megapulses of blank space and the line "Deleted by order of the NSA." Her own name appeared five times. Once on a comprehensive list of Seattle deckers. Twice on inter-office memos, apparently from Aliantha to some crony, complaining that Lefty had been assigned to hunting "Jayhawk's group" and was screwing the job up. "Why is he taking so long? After the others are disposed of we can pick her up at our leisure," Aliantha had written. Another note from the same source, all but the header and signature of which had been deleted--it began with her name, and ended with two question marks and an exclamation point. Scrutinizing it more carefully, she found the comment encoded in that text, impossibly concise--it seemed unreasonable to her that she could decode it--but unmistakable. It said "Recruit sequence one." And last, her name all alone in the middle of a long blank file, with two question marks before it and two after. It seemed to her, as she sat running the text through processing like sand through a seive, that there had been other names removed, one by one, until only hers was left. She laughed a little, imagining Aliantha's frustration with Lefty and his cat-and-mouse games; then her mood turned to anger, at Aliantha and Lefty, at the NSA, at everything conspiring to keep the truth from her. She'd never run a top-security government installation. But it would be easier than running Paradisio. 83. Bargain That evening Jayhawk went looking for Forked Lightning, found him skateboarding in the corridors of Osiris at the University. She managed to sneak up on him, much to his dismay. "How do you *do* that? It's supposed to be top-notch sensor code, straight from the Phillipines. Is there something wrong with it?" "I don't think so; I'm cheating, that's all. Sorry." She tilted her head, looked at him quizzically. She'd expected some reaction to the changes in her appearance, but he seemed oblivious. "How are you doing?" "Spent the whole night sitting up waiting for a break-in that didn't happen. What a bore. Is it always like that?" "No, sometimes they do come and you wish they hadn't...." She laughed at his crestfallen expression. "Sounds like you might be seeing some action soon enough." "Yeah, I hope so. Hey, what about you? What you were going to do--did it work? Are you okay?" She spun in a whisper of bells, the wind of her motion tingling in the gossamer of her dress, and realized he could see none of that. "It worked--I'm free! At least I think so. Yes, I'm okay, better than okay in fact." It felt strange to be talking to him this way. She was not exactly the person he had known, though she didn't feel that she could really explain that. "I learned a lot.--Fork, could I ask a favor of you?" "Sure!" His grin was wide and bright. The detailing of his Matrix image had improved, or maybe only her perceptions. Caught by a sudden thought, she probed into that image, testing it. As far as she could tell, she really was talking to Michael, not to someone else wearing his form. "What do you need?" "I need a PI hired, to look for that girl I was talking to you about-- Angela Whitechapel. I'd do it myself, but if they wanted to see their client...." He laughed, though there was an edge of nervousness to it. "Yeah, I see your problem. I don't know much about PIs, though. You have someone in mind?" She'd only ever known one PI, and Paradisio had uprooted him from home and job, forced him into an unwilling role in Duende's private war. She toyed briefly with the idea of calling Casey, but she doubted he could help her. She wasn't at all sure he'd even be willing to talk to her. She could hardly blame him. "Not really. Maybe you could ask around, see who gets recommended to you, check out the bulletin boards?" He nodded seriously. "I have a little money--I don't know how much they charge--" "Taken care of, at least the first ten K. I hit her bank account-- figure she wouldn't mind having the money spent on finding her. Anyway, you can offer to split the reward. Her parents have a million nuyen out on 'information leading to the safe recovery of...'" Forked Lightning whistled piercingly. "A *million*? Who is this girl, anyway? Some oyabun's daughter?" "Corporate, and on a big guilt trip about her, I think." She hesistated, thinking about the money for the first time. "It *is* an awful lot." Angela remembered an almost possessive concern, but a million nuyen worth? Why would her father do that? "I'll work on it, sure. May take a bit, I'm not supposed to moonlight on duty, but I've got plenty of free time." The defiance in his grin suggested that he'd dropped out of his classes, or resigned himself to cheating his way to a degree. She considered criticizing him on the point, decided it was none of her business. "What do you want in return?" "Oh, it's no problem, I...." His voice trailed off as he looked at her speculatively. "Hm, maybe you could do *me* a favor." "What is it? Won't know until you ask." "Oh, not yet. Just a favor for the future, that's all. Never know when it might come in handy." "If you're willing to take the risk I might not be around--sure." She had a guess what she might be letting herself in for--teaching him the Overnet--but refusing to promise wouldn't get her off that hook, not if she wanted to retain his friendship, and she *needed* to find Angela. Forked Lightning held out his hand, shook hers firmly. "It's a deal, then. I'll get on it as soon as I can. Be seeing you around?" "Probably. I have a lot of things to do." She turned to go, felt his gaze on her. "You going to Trace me again? It won't work." "Can't fault me for trying, can you? I've refined the code quite a lot. My bosses don't mind me moonlighting as long as it's on better IC for them!" In a more serious voice, "I'm going to figure out how you do that, by hook or by crook. It may take me a while, but I'm going to do it." "I'll be impressed." "You will?" His grin widened. "Go ahead, lose me." He uncoiled a program from his backpack, set it down. With skittering speed, drawing on Anubis' capacities, she led the hapless Trace to the adjacent node, reprogrammed it, and sent it off to the Stuffer Shack with an order for fries. It *was* better code, but nothing like up to her. Perhaps without Anubis' backing it would have had a chance; she wasn't sure. It was hard to imagine being without Anubis, almost as hard as imagining being like Forked Lightning again. 84. Orrery The location of the NSA central computer was not, of course, on file in the public databases. Jayhawk ended up breaking into the Seattle office and tracing out their contacts. They led to Washington DC, to a machine that she contemplated from the outside for a little while and decided that she would need her full resources. She went back to Anubis. Paradisio used beacons to navigate the emptiness between Gates, and presumably on the Overnet as well. She didn't know how to make something visible at a distance, and was somewhat afraid of the consequences if she did manage the trick. She'd been lucky in dealing with Overnet intruders, so far. But she *could* make a remote directly linked to Anubis, a thread to follow across the Overnet. She would need to move quickly, before anything else traced it out to her. The eventual construct was a compact piece of code, something she might hope to hide in a busy node, though on the Overnet it stood out like a sore thumb. That shouldn't matter, she told herself, and went off to test it. She crept into the NSA system in a shiver of bells, a whisper of static on the lines. There was a trap at the SAN the likes of which she had never seen before, something approaching Overnet manipulation; a maze of false connections to lead the unwary in and out again without ever reaching the interior of the system. No threat to her, but she was impressed. After examining it carefully, she began to map out the system's complexity. The machine was immense, both in power and in content, and it felt somehow--inhabited? Something was sleeping, deep inside it. She chose her direction based on that, found herself at an internal SAN even more heavily defended than the main Matrix connection. Guarding it was a pacing figure she identified as a decker; a lion- headed man, heavily muscled, with flames licking in his mane. She ducked back, placed her beacon in a nearby auxillary node where it would hopefully be lost in the continual shifting of the dataflow, then fled as quickly as she could out through the gates, back to Anubis. A silver thread stretched from her SAN 3 into the greyness of the Overnet, just as she had imagined. She let herself blur into the machine until she could see in all directions, knew the status of every indicator, like a rigger wired into a strange vehicle. Winding the link in as she traced it, she moved toward her target. Ahead, she spotted a brightness on the line, like a patch of hoarfrost. She materialized from the lightshimmer of the SAN, walked gracefully out along the line until she could see it more clearly. The grey void opened below her, but learning to fly had robbed it of its fear. The brightness was crystals of ice--of IC? she wondered: was it symbolic or literal?--thickly encrusting the link between her and the NSA system. She threw out a loop of new line, spliced it in place before and behind, cut the contaminated segment free with her blade. As the broken line faded into nothingness, the frost coalesced into a small, glittering cloud, drifting sedately back. She drew the link out of its way; as if noticing her movement, it veered, tried to settle over her head. Her blade gouged a huge swath in it, but it didn't seem deterred; unwilling to be touched, she spun around the line until her head was pointing 'downwards', retreated back to Anubis. The ice settled slowly back onto the connector, blocking her way. It seemed harmless as long as it had something to perch on. Well, she could give it something to perch on--something other than Anubis; she didn't want to reel that line in, contaminated as it was. She put together a tiny beacon, a bit of code that could exist independently in the Overnet. It would dissolve in minutes, too small to maintain itself, but that should be enough. Carefully avoiding the patch of crystals--were they growing? it was hard to tell--she cut the line again, linking first one end, then the other to her beacon. Sustained by her construct, the line hung in the greyness, sparkling with frost. She directed Anubis around it, went back to her journey. The tiny point of red light and silver reflection dropped behind, faded from sight. She imagined returning accidentally to this place in the trackless Overnet and finding some huge snare constructed of lines and beacons like the one she had given it. It was not a pleasing thought. From the Overnet, the NSA system appeared as a pair of crystalline spheres, one within the other, both turning. The outer sphere was engraved with stars and planets; she couldn't quite make out the details of the inner one. There was no connection between them; in fact, they were not turning on the same axis, so a stable connection would have been difficult to construct. Puzzled, she probed deeper, found the internal SAN she had seen from within. It led to a translucent whirlpool, swirling down from the outer sphere to brush the turning surface of the inner. She whistled softly in admiration. A difficult construction to get into, even more difficult to get out of--the vortex led downward, and trying to fight its flow looked to be a real challenge. There was a word for the image she was seeing, out of Angela's memories: the NSA system was an orrery, a model of the celestial spheres. She wondered what that implied about its creators. When she tried to anchor Anubis to the outer sphere, an unexpected barrier flared into life, pushed her back. It was coded with the same protocols as the external SAN she had already run; she was able to circumvent it, bind Anubis to the routing node where her link led. But it was clearly Overnet code, crudely constructed but surprisingly powerful. Paradisians in the NSA? It seemed unlikely; more probably they had come up with it independently, or pulled something out of the captured files. She found it obscurely comforting to know that her enemies didn't have a monopoly on their power, difficult though it made her task now. She slipped down the link into the orrery. Close proximity to Anubis lent her power and understanding; she could feel the movement of the system around her, a strange feeling on the Matrix, and the sleeping presence within was almost close enough to touch. She could awaken it, if she chose. With a shiver, she set that idea aside. The inner SAN carried IC that she had never seen or heard of, as she found when she coaxed the node into indexing itself: icebreakers and icefloes, catalysts and rerouters. All were linked to a kind of tripwire--startled, she seached harder but could find no way to deactivate it. How did its owners use the inner sphere? Dedicated I/O directly to it, no use made of the Matrix links at all? She stepped past it, on the shivery interface between Matrix and Overnet, supported by Anubis' presence. The decker stirred, eyes flickering about; there were flames in his pupils, wisps of smoke rising up where his gaze rested. She tried to lose herself amidst the IC, skirting the dangerous edge of merging with the machine, felt his gaze sweep over her like a wash of furnace air and pass by. Clinging to the SAN, she contemplated the upper reaches of the whirlwind, which appeared on the Matrix as a smooth-walled, faintly pulsing tube leading downwards. Something dreamed there, a heartbeat rhythm to the pulsation. She invoked the code she had made to speak with ghosts, sent words fluttering downwards like scraps of paper: Hello? Will you talk to me? There was no reply. She could awaken it, but not stir its dreams to answer. Anubis reported something approaching at the edge of its perception. She reached out, shared its vision. Moving through the greyness of the Overnet was a three-lobed construct, pearly-grey teardrops clustered together like a thick dart, their points fused together and directed towards Anubis. Behind it came another set, and another. Their surfaces gleamed like oil in the luminous greyness of the Overnet. She gave up thought of entering the inner sphere, at least for the moment. She wasn't sure how easy it would be to return, and she wouldn't let Anubis face possible attack alone. Slipping past the decker on the wings of her link with her system, she returned to the Overnet, watched them approach. Compared to her they were slow. A message probed out from one of them towards the orrery; she intercepted it, worked to decrypt it as she waited for their reaction. They veered toward her, another message pouring out, bending toward Anubis as she exerted control. They were *deckers*, she realized in startlement, though hidden almost completely within powerful but painfully crude Overnet constructs. She sent a message of her own, hesitating for an instant as she searched for a name for herself. She didn't want to give them the one that might appear in the Paradisian files. *I am Anubis. Who are you?* There was no response. Could she capture them, perhaps talk to them, without letting them spread the alarm? She wove a false node out of her power, an extension of Anubis, like a silver and black net to draw them within reach. Her first target dodged out of her way, speeding up dramatically; they scattered as she reached for another, caught it like a struggling fish and pulled it into her radius of control. She'd often considered what she would do if she caught one of the Paradisians, and put the plan to use now: teleport, continuous teleportation back to the same place, locking the teardrop into one of her containment nodes. A message stabbed out from one of the others, not towards the orrery but back into the greyness of the Overnet. She let it go, concentrating on her captive. It seemed disoriented by the teleportation, spinning wildly in the center of the containment chamber, unable to escape. A lurid white beam shot out from the tip of the bottommost teardrop, lanced into the endless waterfall of her barrier IC and shattered it into a thousand coruscating fragments. Shocked, she dissolved the adjacent barriers before they could be destroyed--it was easier to restore them without the collateral damage. The next beam struck steel and glass, the stuff of Anubis itself--and dug in, breaking connections, fusing the intricate patterns into slag. Reflexively she seized the teardrop, flung it to the limits of her perception--I didn't know I could do that!--drove all of Anubis in the other, fleeing the orrery and its protectors. Her thoughts were clear, but crimson with pain and the wrongness of damage. It had *hurt* her, damaged the actual structure of the system, something she had not dreamed was within its power. There was no pursuit. Eventually she found a system to bind Anubis to, a sadly underutilized supercomputer used as a demo model by a retailer. The presence of actual hardware seemed to make repairs easier; the other machine was an anchor, steadying her for the task. A more exact analog of Anubis would have been better. She had the power to create such a thing, she realized, but it would be vulnerability as well as asset, as her own flesh had been. No. She was not willing to give Paradisio--or anyone else--the chance at such a hold over her again. She lay off the other system, slowly rebuilding the damaged connections, driving the pain and disorientation of the injuries back. Nothing moved in the greyness outside, though she kept careful watch. She didn't want to meet them again until she was prepared. -- Copyright 1991 Mary K. Kuhner

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