85. Repairs +quot;Can I get you to do me a small favor?+quot; said Jayhawk to Forked Light

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

Skeptic Tank!

85. Repairs "Can I get you to do me a small favor?" said Jayhawk to Forked Lightning during their evening meeting. "Sure!" "Can you get into the basement lab in the English Department? There's a printer there I want you to have a look at." She'd located it that afternoon. It was an old model, probably used only towards the end of the quarter when printers of any kind were at a premium, and silent now: an essential connection was missing, probably corroded away in the damp, though the power was still on. Forked Lightning opened his mouth to question, thought better of it. "No problem, they never lock that when classes are in. What do you want me to look for?" "Figure out what's wrong, then power it back up and give me a ring-- there's a terminal down there. I'm going to try a little experiment." Alone, she slipped into the English Department's network, unseen by its familiar IC, and nestled herself in the I/O node controlling the ancient printer. With deliberate care she explored the connection, reached out into the machine. It was barely a computing device at all, nothing but a small collection of fonts and some queuing capacity. The missing circuitry should have blocked her awareness, as it blocked tranmission of documents from the mainframe into the printer, but it did not. She was able to explore the break from both sides, probe into the fine details until she felt she knew the machine inside and out. Abruptly it tried to power-down; she almost prevented it from doing so, then realized that Forked Lightning must be responsible and withdrew. He seemed to take a long time at his examination. She spent much of it wondering if she could really have kept the printer running after he disconnected its power line. She could, she decided. Anubis gave her that. The machine came humming back up to life, red fault indicators flaring in the I/O node. Jayhawk took a deep breath, visualized the pattern of the printer as she had seen it, the obvious break in the dataflow, and reached out to touch the reality. Drawing on Anubus, she tried to bridge the gap. For an instant she hung suspended, dangling over the impossibility that she was attempting; then, suddenly, it was simple. The pattern was still there, part of the printer, implicit in its design; it was the easiest thing in the world to restore it. Anubis' power utilization surged briefly, settled back to ground state as lights faded to green around her. She found herself dizzy, every nerve tingling. It felt *right*, like rearranging the islands, like learning to fly--not a drain on her resources at all, almost a source of power. She let herself be drawn in by the newly-freed dataflow to see what she had done. Something had changed, beyond the flawless repair of the missing circuit--from the Matrix, she couldn't guess how that had been accomplished, though she knew that it would hold without her intervention. There was something latent in the old printer, almost a presence--not awake, not even close to awareness, but a potential she had not felt before, the barest spark of life. Careful to disturb it no further, she withdrew, found Forked Lightning staring at her. "*What did you do?*" he demanded breathlessly. "That's what I sent you to find out," she said dreamily. "There's a printed circuit on the inside of the printer cover, with a little bump of wire that just touches a contact on the masterboard, so when you close the cover it completes the circuit. *You* did that! How did you do it?" His voice was almost angry in its intensity. "I don't really know." It was hard to focus on what he was saying, as if she had not quite successfully disentangled her awareness from the machine. It was an oddly pleasant sensation. "I just saw what had to be done to complete the pattern, and did it. I suppose I'm more of a magician than I realized." "You changed the hardware from the Matrix. If you can do that...." Words failed him. "You could do *anything*. Jeeze, you could rebuild my deck, or my headware--" He reached out to grab her arm, thought better of it at the last moment. "Couldn't you?" "Don't know. Headware's not the same as hardware; it's part of *you* too. I don't know what that would do to you. It did something to the printer...." At his puzzled look, she tried to put her perceptions into words. "Awakened it, almost, though it's not really big enough to be AI or anything like that. There's something there, though, like the spirit of a house, maybe. I knew a shaman once that talked to houses.... Something that wasn't there before. I need to know more before I go screwing around like that again, I need to know what I'm doing." It had felt so good, so natural.... "God, I'm spaced." "Matrix spirits." He drew back, just a little. "Imagine them waking up everywhere and trying to get back at us for the way we've exploited them...." That didn't fit her perceptions at all; but Michael was frightening her with the intensity of his greed, and it seemed like a useful caution. "It might be like that, I don't know." "How am I ever--how can I ever learn to do that? That's it! that's what I want for my favor. Teach me!" "I don't know if I can." It was hard to face the intensity of his desire, knowing where it might lead him. She thought of Aliantha, and Megan. "I'll teach you what I can, the parts I can put in words." Suddenly his presence was very hard to bear. "Can you excuse me? I really am spaced, and I need to rest. That wasn't as easy as I thought it would be." It was a lie; it had been the easiest thing in the world. She wanted to do it again. But a subtle fear nagged at her, an image of herself as an extension of the Matrix, a repair utility perhaps. It would be an easy role to lose herself in, she could sense; and there was no end to it. 86. Dust Driven by the need to understand, Jayhawk wrote to Dr. McDougall, the psychiatrist she had dealt with earlier, and asked to talk to him. She ended up with a daily appointment, over what she guessed must be his lunch hour--perhaps he didn't want to admit to spending time with an insubstantial, unverifiable, and non-paying patient. She'd expected a barrage of tests, some clever attempt to verify her story, pin down her nature. Instead he mainly listened to her. She'd tapped into his terminal's graphics routines so that he could actually see and hear her, though with the equipment at hand there was no way she could hear his replies, and she had to be content with his one-finger typing. Sometimes he would ask questions, but they were seldom the ones she had expected. He asked her whether she thought Angela was a real person, whether Jayhawk herself might have forged the Matrix documents that proved her existance, as well as the email Forked Lightning had recieved from Angela's friends. "Why would I do that?" she said in puzzlement. >I'm not certain. I'm just trying to cover all the possibilities. Whereupon he put forward the even odder suggestion that Angela might have been a *physical* projection of her own personality, an independent person but created by her. >I've heard of such cases. The age difference is quite characteristic. "I don't *think* so, I've certainly never had any evidence of it....I never met Angela before Paradisio, or even heard of her; it's hard for me to believe we had anything to do with each other." He had similar questions about Piebald, though her answers were different; she knew the truth now of his claim to Jayhawk that he, too, was Jayhawk. "I saw him at Paradisio, apparently in the flesh; but I'm not sure. I'm confused about a lot of the things that happened there--whether they were stimsense, or Matrix or physical reality. They tried to keep me confused." She told him the story of putting wall hangings up in her Matrix room, and having the physical analog delivered to her door. >Interesting that he's male. Intuition is usually seen as a feminine >attribute. "Usually? This kind of thing happens to other people?" >Not exactly, as far as I'm aware, no. He had a lot more questions than answers, she soon realized. "Can't you do anything to find out what I am experimentally?" >I'll ask Dr. Marsh--he's a colleague of mine who has some experience in >these matters--and we'll see what he can do. Over the next lunch break he introduced her to Marsh, whom she remembered from her researches into the group was a sorceror of some kind. After five long minutes' silence, Marsh reported that he could sense no trace of her presence. "If I manifested physically, could you do better?" She remembered manifestation, and the price it seemed to carry...but she wanted to know what she could do, and she was intensely curious about what they would see. On and off, she suspected that McDougall really didn't believe her story, and was just stringing her along to observe this interesting new cyberpsychosis. >Can you do that? Without harming yourself? You expressed some concern >about that earlier. "I'm willing to take the risk." She had to wait while Marsh and McDougall hiked across campus to their office. She spent her time exploring their machine--McDougall had given her the passwords, though she certainly didn't feel she needed them. It was rather a desolate place, apparently little used, not the machine they received their daily traffic of email on. By the time they were ready, she was comfortably familiar with it, and resolved not to harm it by what she was doing. She collected herself, visualized the screen as a window through which she could walk, and stepped forward. Instantly, warnings flared across her nerves, utilization levels at Anubis skyrocketing as the system tried to create a near-complete duplicate of itself. She felt the strain as connections frayed, disruptions began to propagate through the delicate network of her machine. There was a sharp sound, like breaking glass, a sharp brief pain with it. *I didn't want to break anything!* She was standing on thick carpet in the midst of chaos. The room was small and cluttered, bookcases lining the walls. Every book had been thrown down, every paper dislodged, and the air was heavy with dust and lint. Three men were staring at her warily from the far side of the room. She recognized McDougall by the red hair she'd seen in his Net photograph. The tall, lanky one who was--He was casting at her! She tensed instinctively, felt her toes dig into the carpet, a breath of wind on her skin. Nothing more, no spell attacking her. The third man, small and dark in drab coveralls, glanced behind her. She followed his gaze, saw a dead terminal, its facepiece shattered into tiny shards. Anubis was struggling to maintain her form, slow progressive deterioration setting in. She looked down at herself, saw something human-shaped, nearly translucent, drab-colored but faintly sparkling. Slowly, careful to strain Anubis no further, she dropped to one knee, touched the carpet. It felt like carpet, though she was aware of the frenzied processing which maintained that simple sensory contact. "Jayhawk?" said McDougall uncertainly. "Yes. What happened? I'm sorry about the terminal, I didn't mean to do that." Her voice sounded much as she expected, though softer--she had to strain to be heard clearly. "Quite all right--it comes off the grant. There was a--well, a sort of whirlwind." His hair was standing nearly on end, one strand slipping down over his eyes. He brushed at it absently. "Are you all right?" "This is hard, harder than I expected--it's costing me a good deal to hold." She looked around, smiled at the other two, who tentatively smiled back. "This is Dr. Marsh, and this is Dr. Jones from the computer center--I think you've talked to him before." McDougall took a cautious step forward, staring at her. "What do I look like? What do you see?" She had mainly been talking to Marsh, but McDougall answered first: "Something like a cloud of dust particles, very thick, in the shape of a woman. There's quite a glitter to it, as if it were metallic, though I don't think it could be. Rather lovely, actually." Marsh dropped his eyes, said in an unexpectedly husky voice, "The nearest thing I've ever seen to you is a great spirit of the air, though that's not very close. Not a magician, but extremely magical. If you're human you're an enormously powerful one. Interesting." "I must have made this form out of the dust in your office." She would have done better with something more compatible with her nature, she realized. Given flesh, she might be able to stay embodied as long as she wished. She thought of Angela--not only flesh, but practically identical to her own lost body--and shivered. There was no great joy in it, other than the satisfaction of her curiosity, and the wonder of being able to do something so clearly arcane. She raised her arms, turned slowly, feeling Anubis labor to maintain her shape. To herself she felt solid enough, but she could see the strings behind that illusion. There was very little here but will and dust. "I like to shake hands with my patients," said McDougall, "if you wouldn't mind--?" She extended her hand cautiously, ready to react if he squeezed her--she wasn't sure Anubis could handle that, and wasn't going to risk her system to find out. But he barely touched her, a soft brush across her fingertips. "What do I feel like?" He licked his lips, considering words. "Like a bundle of static electricity, I think. Does that disturb you?" "No....I don't think I should stay here; I'm damaging Anubis. Repairable, but I'd rather it didn't get any further." "Can you get back all right?" He glanced at the broken terminal. She reached out to touch it, found that it was still linked to the Matrix; only the picture tube and screen were gone. It was easy to return, simply let go of the task of manifestation, let Anubis return to ground state, dust return to dust. She found herself within the machine, the familiar comfort of the Matrix around her. With the terminal broken, she had no way to communicate with them. Guessing that it would take them another ten minutes to walk back to the computer center, she returned to Anubis, began dealing with the damage. It was not severe, though she was troubled by a nagging sense that something had been irreparably lost, some small but precious part of her being. As she re-established links, knit the complex redundancies and cross-checking back into form, she considered that. She was no longer native to the physical world. Did she need to be? Was it a problem to be tackled, or just another facet of her nature? If it was a problem, it certainly wasn't the most urgent one. Running her personal time up high, she had a good start at the repairs before it was time to return to McDougall. She found him at the computer center, as she had expected; blind to the outside, she couldn't tell if the others were there. >Are you all right? "Yes, though doing that costs me something permanent, some loss--I don't really know what it is." >Your soul? Was she talking to Marsh? "I don't know. I don't really know what a soul is, I guess." >I need to go now. Please don't worry about the terminal or the books-- >it's well worth it as a learning experience, for all of us. "How do you put that down on the grant?" There was a slight pause. >Experimental expenditures. Take care, Jayhawk. Tomorrow? "Tomorrow." She returned to the island-garden, to sit in the warm sun and consider what she had done. The sunlight seemed subtly less bright, as if her act had tarnished it ever so slightly. She wouldn't be doing that again soon, she decided. Perhaps not at all, if she couldn't learn how to avoid the cost. She didn't need to. She had the Overnet and the Matrix, world in plenty for anything she wanted to do. 87. Congo Yoichi checked the windows once more before settling into the front seat. The Congo was swarming with insects, many of them aggressive and a few poisonous. Awane had found a spider in Channa's purse that morning which would, he said, have killed her in seconds. Channa had not been pleased. The windows were tightly sealed, air coming in through filters that almost removed the relentless stink of vegetation and standing water. He leaned his forehead against the armor glass, staring out into the impenetrable darkness. "No Matrix link. I didn't know there was anywhere in the world without a Matrix link." "It's a strange place." Mazeratti was lying cradled in the rigger's nest, but his voice whispered from the console speaker. Since they'd entered the jungle he'd hardly jacked out at all, driving, sleeping, keeping watch all within the machine. "What's the matter? Can't sleep?" Yoichi looked at him, unmoving body barely visible amidst the support mechanism, and said softly, "I need someone to talk to, and the others...they're in the same boat as I am, they can't help me. Someone who's outside this whole mess." He turned away, staring into the dark. "Do you mind?" "I'd be glad of the company myself." Even in the vehicle it was hot, though not as stifling as the outside. This was their last day on passable road. Yoichi was not looking forward to the three days' march through jungle that would take them to Forvalaka's lair and the Paradisian Congo base. He drove his thoughts away from that, said slowly, "I had a girlfriend, a decker named Jayhawk, back in Seattle. She's the one who got the others to rescue me, when Paradisio picked me up. I didn't know anything about them at all before that, though I think she did. We ran their main system together, saw what they could do, pulled off a few good ones against them. We were with Duende on the last attack, the one that destroyed the Seattle base. She got crushed in an emergency door, had to be hospitalized--she was wired up high, didn't heal very well. Jay always hated being cooped up, and they wouldn't let her deck from the hospital. When she got out, she was so gung-ho to do something...I remember.... "The High Priestess, Aliantha, had holed up in this place outside Seattle we called the Hidden Fortress. We were going to do a run against them, and Jay was handling security, decked in from a van ten miles away. She....I don't know what she did exactly. The whole base blew up. We were a mile away, and nearly too close as it was. "When we got back to the van, the whole thing was in ruins and she was dead. Something had come back down the lines, maybe some defense of theirs, I don't know." "I'm sorry," whispered Mazeratti's voice from the speakers. Yoichi turned away, unable to frame a reply. After a long moment the African continued: "When I was growing up, there was a girl named Sarabande in my town. Somehow we always got assigned to the same classes--it was kind of a joke, though we pushed for it too; we worked well together. Same assignment right out of school, working for the same company. Same doc to do the wiring, though she wasn't a rigger--too tame for her, she liked to be right in the middle of things. "We were out here, hunting, when something got her, scooped her up. She went all limp. I think she might have fainted. She wasn't one to faint easily. I shot at the thing that had her, but it didn't stop. I thought...I could move the laser just a little bit, a fraction of an inch." Outside the window, the vehicle's targetting laser traced a slow pattern across the dark trees. "Before I could decide she was gone." "Jay was always the better of the two of us," Yoichi said. "I can't match what she could do, no matter how hard I try." "Yes. I know how that feels." "I could have accepted it, though. She gave her life for something she thought was worthwhile...." His voice trailed off; out of the corner of his eye he saw a sound panel swivel a little to focus on him, amplify his whispers. "I could have come to terms with that. But a few weeks ago, when we were in Argentina...I got mail from her. Someone claiming to be her. She said she'd been captured by Paradisio, but she was loose on the Matrix. She told me not to come looking for her, that I'd be in danger." "Sometimes, late at night," said Mazeratti, "when you're rigged in like this, you hear voices. Very soft, but clear. The machine knows when you're hurting, that's what I like to think, and it tries to give you what you need. I've come to find that a comfort." "It's not like that. The message was very detailed, very technical-- reports on Paradisio's agents, their bases, their networks. Duende says that most of it seems compatible with what he saw when he was there." He was silent for a moment. "I don't know what to think." "Did it sound like her?" "Yes. No. I'm not sure. Colder, maybe. But she'd been through terrible things, if what she said was true. What they did to me.... They had me under stimsense, and they played through cutting my heart out on an altar. Over and over again, and the only thing I had to cling to was that it couldn't really be true. I didn't find out until a long time afterwards...that when they came to rescue me, they found me lying on an altar with my heart cut out." His voice was almost a shriek; he struggled to control it. "Good mages, good doctors, they saved my life. But Jayhawk....Mazeratti, I'm so afraid. We're going to make a run against the innermost base, the High Temple, sooner or later. I'm afraid I'll meet her there, working for them--or maybe I won't be able to tell--if it's her or not, if she's working for them or not--I don't know how to tell...." A long silence. "I dream of meeting Sarabande sometimes. Often the dream ends with me moving the laser just that least little bit, to end it. If it really happened, I don't know what I would do. Kill her, probably, and then afterwards....I don't know." "What took her?" "Forvalaka." Yoichi drew in a hissing breath. "Oh god. I didn't realize. I'm sorry. So you do know what I'm talking about." He made a fist, beat it softly against the console. "I could have lived with her death. Sometimes I want the messages to be false, because I need the hate to keep me going, and it's a distraction....Sometimes I want her to be alive so badly, and I'm not sure I would care if she was...if she was Paradisian now. They're all crazy, you know. Even Duende is. I told him about her, and he wasn't bothered at all. He knows we can't decide if it's really her, if she's still our friend, and he just...just takes that for granted. Sometimes I wish I could be like that." "He's Forvalaka's brother, that's what he says." "I believe him. I follow him anyway, because he seems to have a chance--a chance to hurt them--" Yoichi shook himself, turned sideways in the chair to look at Mazeratti once more. "I hope it works out okay, with Sarabande. I wish there was something I could do....God, I need to do *something*, I'm losing it." "Ask for a meeting. Whether she accepts or refuses, it has to tell you something. I know it's dangerous, but everything's dangerous now." Yoichi sighed. "No Matrix link. I didn't think there was anywhere in the world without a Matrix link nowadays." "Yoichi--go to bed. I've got the watch, but you might as well be asleep. Tomorrow is going to be gruelling." Yoichi got up, began squeezing his way back toward the sleeping quarters. The vehicle was painfully cramped for so many; even the laboring fans couldn't strain out the smells of confined men and goblins in the jungle heat. He glanced back once, saw the bright dot of the targetting laser moving through the foliage, as if searching for something long out of sight. 88. Lion Jayhawk stood perfectly still in the outer approaches to the node, peering inwards. As before, the lion-headed decker was pacing slowly, a thin, wiry latticework behind him suggesting the tripwire that her analysis had indicated. He left faint smoky smudges on the floor of the node as he walked. The NSA system was not one machine but two, as she had discovered when she tried to force one of the outer nodes to teleport her past this obstruction. The outer machine knew nothing of this SAN, and had no power to help her. She could faintly feel the inner one, but until she could gain access to this node, she had no way to influence it. She had to admit that it was a very pretty setup. In a whisper of bells she crept into the node, avoiding the lion's gaze, and tried to slip through the meshwork. It had changed since her last visit, she found at once. She recoiled, wondering if she had set off an alarm-- Stars exploded all around her, tingling harmlessly against her skin like a cascade of fireworks. Louder bells drowned out hers, clanging like air-raid alarms. The decker growled low in his throat. Above him, something took shape in the air, a small dark sphere with circular markings etched on it. As she drew her lightblade, constructs began to pour out of it, faster than she had ever seen IC activate. Some went humming out of the node, tiny starships tracing down the path that had led her there. Others formed into a pack, came strafing down at her. She ignored them, dove for the decker. Bitter experience with Paradisio had taught her that people were far more dangerous than IC. She hadn't realized how fast Anubis made her; it was with a feeling of dizzy unreality that she saw the decker's image flicker and fade under a hail of disruptive blows, wink out before he had time to react. A small starship bore down on her back, sent missiles needling into the weaknesses of her Matrix image. Not dangerous yet, but-- Above her, its parent ship continued to turn sedately, pouring out IC. *So that's an icefloe. Wow!* It was spawning new processes faster than she could deal with them. *Got to take that down first.* She aimed a blow at it, the pent disruption of her blade crackling into freedom. Shields flared around it, forced her back. She realized that she was being foolish. The alarms were up; the decker would be slumped unconscious at his station, and no doubt the machines monitoring him were sounding a physical alarm as well. She might make it into the inner sphere at this rate, but she'd have no time for an uninterrupted scan of the files. And the double structure of the system worried her. Anubis was anchored securely to the outer sphere of the orrery--but what if they could deploy an interruptor field between the outer and inner machines? It seemed to her that she could die. She retreated to Anubis, noting in passing that the Trace code was piled up in the node to which she was linked, scenting her but unable to reach the Overnet to identify or attack. The NSA would probably put this down to an inside job. She hoped she hadn't just cost some hapless office worker his career. No; she'd linked to a datastore, nothing any human decker could use as his access to the Matrix. They would probably decide that their code had been fooled. She/Anubis hung just off the turning orrery, watching it. There was no sign of the teardrop-like deckers she had seen earlier. Faintly she could sense the alarms within, as they propagated and were finally stilled. If only she could reach the inner sphere from Anubis, she wouldn't have to mess with the heavily-guarded internal SAN. She was locked to the outer sphere, but the inner was moving relative to her, in a complex precessing motion that was difficult to analyze. Cautiously, she applied force to the outer sphere, trying to tilt its rotation to match the inner. For an instant it seemed that she was succeeding. Then, with a terrible glitter of crimson that prickled along her nerves like foxfire, every alarm in the entire system went off at once. She hastily released it, backed off. Seconds later the entire system vanished from her sensors. She was alone in the empty Overnet. She hung in greyness, staring. Invisibility? A cautious transit of the space where the orrery had been disproved that. The system had simply ceased to exist on the Overnet. So they *did* have an interruptor field. A bigger one than she had guessed, in fact. She was passionately glad that she had not been in the system when the connections between it and her world were broken. She waited for some time, but the system didn't return, nor did the teardrops appear. She was disappointed. She'd crafted new code to deal with them, a complex process to slow their subjective time, once they were prisoned in Anubis. She wanted badly to talk with them. Analysis of her memories suggested that each three-lobed teardrop was actually three people, two of them subsumed so deeply into code and machinery that they were barely conscious. Were they that way by choice? If not, she intended to free them. 89. Fortress Frustrated, Jayhawk considered her options. The information she wanted was no longer in the accessable copies of the files from Cavilard. The NSA was proving a tough nut to crack, as she probably ought to have expected. She certainly didn't feel herself ready to tackle the High Temple yet. Where else could she find out what Aliantha had planned for her, what Operation Sunflower was? After Cavilard Base was destroyed, Aliantha had taken refuge in the small mountain hideout they'd named the Hidden Fortress. Perhaps she had kept backups there. Lefty had claimed, and checking into newspaper reports seemed to confirm it, that the Hidden Fortress had been obliterated by a huge explosion. But might there be some trace remaining on the Matrix or the Overnet, like the dead nodes at Cavilard, sustained by the power of the Gate? She went hunting in the sparseness of the rural Matrix, found that even the concealed node which had led to the Hidden Fortress SAN was gone. There was only a faint trace suggesting that anything had ever been there. She planted a beacon in the telecom grid, returned with Anubis to consider the situation. Even a trace might be enough. After all, she had known this system intimately--she had escaped Aliantha the first time by merging with one of its subprocessors, losing herself in the thoughts of the machine; and she had destroyed the system and Aliantha with it by possessing its CPU and loosing Lefty's program of destruction. Drawing on Anubis' resources, she began to construct a replica of the nodes she had known, beginning with the imposing castle doors of the SAN and their hidden drone port, then the subprocessor in which she had confronted Aliantha. There *was* something there to respond to what she was making, faint but tangible. She filled in a security node, then began to shape the outward aspects of the CPU. If she had ever been inside, the memory was lost. Something flickered weakly under her touch, like the final embers of a dying fire, reached out to her. Carefully, she fed it power, filling in the interior structure of the CPU. She wasn't sure whether her own memories or the ghost-shadow on the Matrix provided the details of the single, plain chamber, like Cavilard's but without the altar. When the CPU was completed, the other nodes settled into its control, almost solid now. She could feel the Fortress CPU drawing on her, using her power to maintain itself and its dependents. It was an odd sensation, almost like having two minds at once. It wanted to exist, wanted to live.... Left to itself it would make Anubis the yolk of its egg, power and support as it recreated itself. A part of her found that entirely reasonable. It was a superb machine, powerful and well-integrated, though for a long time before its destruction it had been painfully under-used. Aliantha had never appreciated it as she did. She put the thought of Aliantha forcibly aside. She didn't want to meet the High Priestess' shadow here. The datastores of the ghost system still contained files, although they were fragmentary and disordered; but the nodes she had recreated were stuffed with uninteresting information like the building's security parameters. She began reconstructing nodes on the other side of the CPU, found a datastore full of schematics for IC and system utilities. They were still readable, though they would need considerable work. Carefully, she compressed and encoded the files before transmitting them to Anubis. It seemed very much in the Paradisian style to seed their own files with worms or viruses. She had planned to uncreate each terminal node when she was finished with it, but it seemed easier to leave them up, in case she needed anything further from them. The third arm of the system was easier to evoke than the others had been, as if the CPU was gaining power as it went along. One of its datastores held technical notes on a wide variety of projects. She searched for 'Sunflower', found several references. They were all chatty little notes embedded in someone's working files: "Wonder if Sunflower has anything like this?" tagged to schematics for a new kind of attack code, clearly not yet workable. She compressed the files and stored them away, returned to the CPU to consider her handiwork. Without a physical machine to support it, when she deprived it of her link to the Overnet the Fortress system would relapse into the near- nonexistance in which she had found it. She could think of no way to make it truly nonexistant, to lay the ghost. Regretfully, she retreated to the SAN, began to take the simulation down. The Fortress CPU fought her, clinging to her resources, her existance. Part of her mind protested--the system was beautiful, it had secrets she had not yet learned, how could she let it vanish? Beneath that was a raw, wordless desire to live, or so she felt it, clinging to the cobweb of her own life. It was hard to shake it loose. She had *been* that CPU once--she still couldn't remember the details, but inchoate impressions came swimming up from the depths of her mind, sensations and thoughts that she had had no perspective to understand at the time. She could almost understand them now, out of her union with Anubis. If only she could explore-- She unmade the machine, stood trembling in an empty interstice of the telecom grid. "I'm sorry," she whispered aloud, to nothing. It was only when she had returned to Anubis that the wonder of what she had done really hit her. Ratty had called up Lefty's ghost to learn the kill-codes that had destroyed Cavilard. She could do the same, wakening the memories of a dead machine. She had never expected that kind of power, found it difficult to conceive. She set about the careful task of straining viruses and worms from the Fortress files in a mixture of awe and triumph at her accomplishment. But the files held nothing to answer her questions. 90. Responsibility After considerable thought--she was rather sorry she had told Forked Lightning as much as she had--Jayhawk told Dr. McGregor about fixing the printer, and what she had felt when she looked at it afterwards. He was silent for a long time. He had finally put in a small camera and microphone, so that she could see him; but she couldn't guess what he was thinking. "Are you lonely?" he said at last. "Not exactly. Not the kind of lonely where you need someone to lean on, someone to cheer you on when it gets tough. Not since my--initiation, is that a good word? But I do like to talk to people." "Do you miss it--being lonely?" "No," she said in puzzlement. "Some of my colleagues would be surprised to hear that. Doesn't fit their theories." She shook her head in bewilderment. "Why? I suppose because of privacy, but that's not a problem for me. It's not like there's a crowd of people in my head, or anything like that. I just know--" She had trouble putting her surety into words. "I have what I need." "You describe the experience, interacting with the printer, as being pleasurable. I wonder if it could possibly represent a kind of reproduction? That generally is pleasurable--a survival imperative, as it were." He looked at her carefully, as if trying to judge her reaction. It was her turn to be silent. "It's possible," she said at last. "A lot of responsibility, if so. I shouldn't do that again until I understand what I'm doing." She thought of the dreaming presence in the heart of the NSA machine, tried to imagine what awakening it would be like. The idea sent tiny shivers up and down her spine. "I agree." He sounded pleased. "Does the idea of having someone like yourself appeal to you?" "In a way....I'm not sure it would be anything like me. I'm not entirely an AI." Vaguely uncomfortable, she cast around for another topic. "I have a friend, a human friend, who wants me to teach him to be like me. I don't really know what to do about that." "You don't want to do it?" "I think it'll kill him. I don't think...I don't think he's ready, and I don't know how to help him. He really has no idea...." McDougall listened carefully while she described Forked Lightning as best she could, said at last, "Why don't you think he'll survive? You did, after all." "He's not..." She waved her hands in frustration. "He's not intimate enough with the Matrix, he doesn't know himself well enough, he has no idea of...of what could happen. I don't want to see him die, or worse. Some of the things that came out of Paradisio...." "Can't you teach him what he needs to know?" "I don't know what that is, exactly! *They* didn't tell me anything." Softly, "I was hoping you'd have some idea." "Can you remember being that young and naive? What did you need to learn? How could you help him learn it? I agree that you can't necessarily teach it to him." "*Should* I be doing this in the first place?" "Do you want to?" She considered that carefully. "Yes," she said at last. "Yes, I do. I don't want the Paradisians to be the only ones...and he wants it so badly...." McDougall nodded. "But my gut feeling is, if I put the key in his hands it'll destroy him." Brief intense images flashed through her mind: Slim, skinless and glistening; the High Priestess in her bubbling tank; Yoichi on the sacrificial altar; the twisted hand of a Minerva vector, once human. McDougall said nothing, simply waiting, as she had learned was his practice when he thought she already knew the answers to her own questions. "I suppose," she said at last, "I could teach him the Matrix, and hope he learned the...the other stuff somewhere along the line." "You might be in a good position to find out," McDougall suggested. "Could you pose tests for him, find out what his weaknesses are before they're tried in the fire?" "It seems cruel," she said, thinking of the way Martha had tested her willingness to die. "Less so than letting him get hurt, perhaps. I don't suggest you do anything he doesn't ask you to, anything deceitful....It's something to consider, Jayhawk. And good that you're considering it now, before something irreparable happens." He seemed to remember the peanut-butter sandwich in his hand, nibbled at it. The camera had confirmed her suspicion that he was talking to her over his lunch hour. "It seems to me that it's perfectly natural for you to be looking for someone else like yourself, someone who can understand your experiences--I know I can't, not really. But I'm glad to hear that you're considering the consequences." Jayhawk hardly heard him, lost in thought. When her appointment was over, she went back to Seattle, to a wide-open auxillary machine in the English Department. The small printer it controlled was active, printing out an early term paper. She sat in the subprocessor and watched the text spool by. The machine was happy. She could feel that clearly, as clearly as she had felt the police station's boredom. It seemed very strange, picking up such a reaction from a tiny bundle of processors, specialized for font construction and little more. But there was no denying it. Careful not to touch the printer, she stared at it for a long time. Its contentment warmed her like sunlight, almost enough to overcome her doubt. 91. Johannesburg Yoichi considered Mazeratti's advice for a long time, and finally decided to send Jayhawk a message. Painstakingly crafted and recrafted, it finally read: >Jayhawk, > >I realize that it's risky to meet, but if you're truly free I'm willing >to take the risk, and I would very much like to see you and be sure >you're okay. Where would you like to meet? On the Matrix or >physically? You can choose the place; that way you can be sure I'm >not setting you up for some Paradisian trap. > >Panda He sent it, and received a reply before he had finished his first anxious re-reading. It had a garbled return address, like the messages he'd gotten from Jayhawk earlier, and read simply: >Name any point on the Matrix and we'll meet there five minutes from >now. No time for tricks on either side. He cast about for a machine far enough away to conceal his physical location, but not across intercontinental lines. >University of South Africa, Pretoria, main administrative system. The pause was again very short. >I'd prefer to avoid cities with Paradisian bases, if you don't mind. Yoichi bit his lip, wishing he had chosen a different city in the first place--but Pretoria was the only African city he'd worked in, other than the decaying port of Wilmstown in the Congo where he was currently jacked in. While he was still casting around for another site, Duende leaned over him, typed rapidly. >The base in Pretoria no longer exists as of May 14. The base in the >Congo no longer exists as of June 2. However, I appreciate your >concerns. Would Johannesburg or Sun City be better? >University of South Africa, Johannesburg. Agreed. Five minutes. Yoichi glared at Duende, then dropped his eyes, unable to meet that cool curious gaze. "You coming?" he said after a moment. "Yes." Five minutes later they made their way into the SAN of the main administrative system, a machine so wide-open Yoichi wondered how the school grading system survived. Hand-posted grades, maybe? The node appeared as a carpeted, airy hallway, wide glass windows along two sides showing false views of the University, stairways and passages leading off in several directions. A slim woman in silver and blue was perched improbably on the railing of one of the stairways, one leg dangling, watching their approach. She hadn't changed at all, not to his eyes. Yoichi paced foward, the grizzled black fur on his back prickling, reared up to look at her. "Is that you, Panda?" she said calmly. He realized that his image had changed since her--since they'd lost her; she had never seen him as Grizzly. He nodded. Her gaze flickered behind him, to where Duende waited by the door. Yoichi doubted she could recognize him either-- Duende seemed to change his Matrix image for every run. He was currently a black-skinned rifleman in jungle camoflague. Now that he was facing her, he had no idea at all what to say. "It's good to see you again. I like the bear--very impressive. Quite a headware upgrade in there too, isn't there? Was it you who took out the two bases you were telling me about? That's amazing." Her words came tumbling out, just as he had imagined his would, if they ever met again. "I know it's hard for you to trust me, but is there anything I could do to help that wouldn't risk compromising your plans?" From behind him, Duende said, "What do you know about Gates? Can you use them? Make them?" "I can use them, I'm sure. I don't have the knowledge yet to make one, but I intend to learn." "Do you have a map of the Gate system?" She smiled brightly. "Yes, I do." From a hidden pocket in the tight-fitting silver of her armor she took out a packet, pitched it across to Duende. He caught it without flinching. "How do you know?" said Yoichi. It wasn't the way he'd meant to begin, but he had to say something. "I got the map out of the files at Cavilard and the Hidden Fortress. It's a deduction from a lot of mail messages, but I think it's pretty accurate. Haven't checked it, though." "The Hidden Fortress was destroyed," said Yoichi in puzzlement. She winced, as if regretting what she'd said. "There are traces left in the Overnet after a system's been destroyed, especially a powerful one. I managed to pull some data out of that. Most of it was from Cavilard, though. You can check that out--it's at the Bellevue police station." "Jayhawk--" It hurt to call her that, against the doubt and mistrust in his heart, though it looked like Jayhawk, sounded, almost, like Jayhawk. "What's happened to you? How did you get free?" The last phrase rang even more false. How could she possibly have gotten free? He didn't believe it. "They had to risk letting me free on the Overnet in order to make me as powerful as they wanted. They hoped that keeping my body hostage would control me--that, and the stuff Lefty did to me. They were wrong." She tilted her head back, said with something approaching pride, "I don't exist corporally any longer, only here and on the Overnet. But I'm free, which is worth it." "Then you're a ghost." He had never thought of that. "No, I'm alive; just different. Like a Matrix spirit, almost. Not a ghost. I do know the difference." Yoichi sat back on his haunches, ears aslant. It was almost plausible, in a terrible sort of way. "I'm sorry." The words caught in his throat. "God damn them!" She bared her teeth in an expression he remembered, the fierce delight with which she contemplated opposition. "They'll pay.--But it's not as awful as it sounds, Yoichi. I'm....This is natural to me now. I'm happy here." They were almost the words from his recurrant nightmare of meeting her; but at least she wasn't professing allegiance to Paradisio. As if reading something from his expression--he was glad of the bear, it covered the worst of his bewilderment--she went on quickly, "And it's a hell of a position to harass them from. Please, is there any way I can help? I'm a damn good decker now." Duende said thoughtfully, "Could you complete this map? The subsidiary Gates from the Bangkok station are missing. And, since you seem to have database access, could you search for records on Grey and the Grey Knights? There may be other things too, but that seems like a good start." "Sure," she said, nodding briskly. "I'll look." "You could start at Argentina station. That's where we first encountered Grey; it may be his base." Yoichi didn't turn to look at Duende, afraid he would snarl, or perhaps bite. "Is there...anything we can do for you?" Jayhawk shook her head. "Just take care of yourselves. I'll be fine." A little sadly, "When this is all over maybe we can get together, have a real talk, tell some stories and maybe straighten things out a bit. I know you can't really trust me now, and I'm sorry. Good luck, Yoichi, Duende. Give my regards to the others." "Goodbye," Yoichi muttered. He couldn't quite bring himself to use her name again. She pulled herself up onto the railing, balancing with outstretched arms, and walked gracefully up it into the node above, out of sight. "Come on," said Duende. "We could be traced; it's dangerous to stay here." And then, with more kindness than Yoichi could ever remember hearing from him: "Working with someone is one of the better ways to decide whether you can trust them or not. That's as valuable as the information, maybe more so. Let's see what we find out." 92. Argentina The Argentine base was in a small corporate enclave, Hobbinstown, on the southern plateau. The name niggled at Jayhawk until she finally dredged it out of long-ago memories. Duende had named the High Priests for her, one night while they were sketching out long-range plans of attack. Hobbins was the High Priest in Argentina. "Blatant!" she said aloud to the machine whose address she had quarried out of the Paradisian files. It looked like an office building, two security guards just visible through its ornate glass doors. She shook out her bells around her, slipped through the doorways with system traffic, unseen and unheard. Searching the easily accessable parts of the system was a tedious but easy job. Hobbins' operation seemed to be a public relations firm of some kind. Its files held nothing on Grey or the Grey Knights, no maps of the Gate system, no mention of her name or of Operation Sunflower. One corridor, leading to a bank of elevators guarded by a troll, remained to be searched. Her first venture in that direction nearly ended in disaster; she was bombarded by requests for identification, fended them off wildly as she retreated. Stung, she chose the most powerful of the administrative routing nodes, tried to force it into CPU emulation. *You have the right to transmit me; transmission of information is your purpose.* It resisted, safeguards intended to maintain CPU control cutting in. She worked around them, skirting the edge of a deeper reluctance which she could sense, though none of the system indicators reflected it. She had a brief, vivid sense of the CPU, somewhere above her, its officious jealousy over its preogratives. *You too are a central unit, responsible for coordinating others; it is natural for you to handle such tasks within your domain.* She fed it false limits to its domain, and it placed her neatly within the elevator bank, beyond the reach of the IC. The tiny cubicle was unexpectedly claustrophobic. Jayhawk tensed, waiting for alarms, but there were none. The elevator had only two buttons, labelled 'TOP' and 'MIDDLE'. She pressed 'TOP', wondering what had become of the bottom, and was drawn upwards. The elevator doors opened, giving her a view out into a busy, cluttered room filled with system processes. At its far end, banks of brightly-lit and somewhat archaic-looking computer equipment were protected by a glass wall. She could almost feel the machine's regard, here from its center--it was powerful, despite the imagery; in fact, it seemed excessively powerful for the work it was doing, though she sensed no trace of the frustrated boredom she had encountered at the police station. There were no datastores at hand, nothing that might contain the information she needed; and the bustle of the room almost surely hid IC. After a moment's admiration, she let the elevator doors close. There were again two buttons, but labelled 'MIDDLE' and 'BOTTOM'. She laughed, pushed the 'MIDDLE' button. It proved to be a complex of laboratory datastores and I/O. She picked her way through them carefully. There were no references to Grey or to the Gates, beyond a few theoretical notes; but under Operation Sunflower she found hundreds of files. They dealt with highly theoretical plans to build--a space station? She probed further, confirmed that impression. Environmental management, zero-gee manufacturing, construction methods. Puzzled, she filed the references away in Anubis. Aliantha had thought this was important to her...or was it a false lead, something to distract her? Somehow that seemed unlikely. Where was the Gate? She had searched the entire system without finding a trace of it. It might have been hidden beyond the CPU, but she didn't think so. She let herself out of the system as easily as she had gotten in, willed herself up into the hazy twilight of the Bangkok telecom grid. The Hobbins system loomed beneath her. There was *something* linked to the entry SAN, something she had missed from within the system: an extra thickness in a wall, some kind of passage leading down. She returned to the SAN, searched it more carefully and found the hidden node--a sliding wall panel covering a single, heavy-duty elevator. Pleased with herself, she went in. There was only one button, unlabelled. The feel of the machine around her changed as she descended: livelier, more energetic, almost excited. The doors opened suddenly into an immense starry darkness, air puffing out around her--just a special effect, nothing that could harm her, but it was impressive. She leaned out, could see nothing beneath her but more stars. Puzzled and delighted, she drew on lenses of various kinds, tried to probe the darkness. There *was* something out there, a wafer-thin walkway--she put a foot out where her program indicated, found solidity. A few careful steps forward--it was tricky going, would have been terrifying had she not been able to fly-- Something lanced out of the darkness at a speed she could barely register, spun into a tight arc around her. It was utterly silent, but it left a trail of pearly white behind it, surrounding her with a glowing ring. At the end of its first circle the stars all around her exploded, unbearable light stabbing into her sensors, shattering constructs never meant for data in that form. At the end of its second--she was still whipping up her lightblade, everything happening as if in slow motion--the cloak of shivering bells about her shoulders brushed against the ring and caught fire, glassy flames that licked coldly at her, further dazzling her vision. At the end of the third--her blade careened off one of the ring's component strands, silent in the vacuum--something was constricting her, draining her, drawing her life to sustain its impossible speed. A pulse of music where her scream should be, like an ironic comment by the construct that was strangling her--it looked like a spaceship, what she could see of it. Too fast! With a wrench, she tried to pull herself free of its grip, of the entire node, throw herself into the gardens of her home system. It clutched at her, greedy for her life, but it was not prepared to meet a lunge in that direction. Air and sunlight struck her explosively, knocking her to her knees in the feathers. She was almost blind, sensor code in chaos, and gasping maniacally for breath. She slumped into the feathers, managed to catch her breath after a moment. Slowly, the sun's warmth quieted her trembling. She was drained, but not permanently hurt, she decided. She would recover. Left to itself, it would have wrapped her up within seconds, sucked the life out of her until--until what? Death? Somehow that hadn't seemed to be its intent. She pictured herself brought before Hobbins tied up, powerless and helpless, and swore feebly. She had walked unwarily through an internal SAN--the machine she'd explored was powerful, but not nearly powerful enough to hold the node of stars and darkness. There would be no simple teleport trick to get her past *that*. What was it? Duende had spoken of defenses at the Gate. "Gate guardian," she said aloud, still groggy. Something had attacked her when she approached Cavilard's Gate too, a different image but the same impossible speed. It was going to be a difficult nut to crack. She cursed herself for not having shielding code running--she was getting too cocky, not taking Paradisio seriously enough. But even with shielding, it was not at all clear to her how to cope with speed so much greater than her own, power sufficient to destroy code not even engaged with it, like her masking cloak. She *could* be faster, drawing more deeply on her link to Anubis than she had yet attempted on the Matrix. But it seemed to her that she would damage the system, and perhaps herself with it. At last she shook her head, rolled over to let the sun warm her face. "Time to try another station," she said aloud, enjoying the sound of her voice, the answering music of wind and water. "Hobbins can keep his Gate for a bit. Bet he doesn't have anything back there but the Gate itself, anyway." A memory of music crept through the garden sounds, more complete than she had heard it in the starry node. She listened to it, swore again. Impressed on her datastores like a virus, though it was so lacking in content that it had slipped through her defenses without ever triggering a warning, the tune and its name were the Gate guardian's final word on her intrusion. A TV theme song, carefully footnoted. Star Trek: The Tholian Web. She had vague memories of seeing it as a child. Now the tune jingled in memory like a taunt at her failure. She almost flung herself back into Anubis to prepare, make ready for another attack on Hobbinstown, but something caught her up short. So much to do, so many delights--should she risk them all for such a petty revenge? Her revenge, when it came, would be far grander and more thorough. 93. Envy "You seem reticent about certain aspects of your life: why?" said Gregor to Jayhawk, watching the image on his screen carefully. He wasn't sure to what extent the image reflected the reality, but it was the best cue he had. And, like most deckers, Jayhawk didn't strike him as socially sophisticated; he doubted very much she could fool him with fake expressions. "I don't want to brag." "Why not? What's wrong with bragging?" "I don't want you to envy me, since there's little or nothing you could do about it." He suppressed a snort, said carefully, "I don't envy you, Jayhawk. Why do you expect that I would? I have my own life, and I'm quite content with it." She tilted her head, looked at him with something between puzzlement and amusement. "Everyone who's really known me has envied me, that's all. I was terribly jealous myself." He guessed that he was speaking to Angela, at least in part--at least, that was the only way he could parse that comment. "But if you don't, good for you." "What do you have that you feel is so much to be desired? Are you happy?" "I'm happier than I've ever been in my life." Her smile was startling, quite different from her usual cocky grin; he was reminded of an Indian statue he'd once seen. "It's not even the power, the freedom, though that's utterly wonderful...." She paused, apparently lost in memory. "I don't think I ever really loved anyone, before. I'm not at all sure I had the capacity." "I doubt that very much. I think you might have surprised yourself, given the opportunity." She shook her head. "Maybe; but I don't think so. I didn't...I didn't really have anywhere to stand. Does that make sense?" Eyes closed, she went on slowly, "I've been so lucky. Caroline could have rejected me, she had every opportunity--practically everything she wanted, magic and the Matrix and the Hawk's gift. She could have sacrificed me for power, as Aliantha sacrificed Megan. She could have let me die, dissolved into Anubis--" So he was listening to the one who'd been called Jayhawk during their split, he realized. "I would have, sooner or later. I wasn't strong enough to resist. And instead she risked...everything she had, her life, her soul, her identity. For me, when she had every reason to hate me--I took Anubis from her...." "Why?" he said softly. "Because she loved me," Jayhawk whispered. There were tears in her voice, though none on her face. "I know that now, know what it means." For a moment he almost did envy her, monster though she was. "That must be a very comforting thing to know." He tried to imagine what her consciousness must be like, how she handled the hints of plurality he occasionally heard in her conversation. She didn't seem bothered by them. An intimate marriage, a well-integrated psychosis? He was probably anthropomorphising her. With a rueful inward grin, Gregor admitted to himself that he probably always would. Perhaps a decker could come to some understanding of her situation, or perhaps even that was grasping at a weak analogy. To him, she was and would probably remain alien, easy though it sometimes was to delude himself otherwise. 94. Preparation Still smarting from her encounter with the teardrop-like deckers, Jayhawk sequestered herself in Anubis to work out tactics for dealing with them. She pored over her records of the meeting, discovered that each teardrop contained deckers, bound intimately together by hardware and software. She wondered if that was what gave them access to the Overnet. If so, an attack launched at their connection to one another would probably take them out cleanly. But she was really more interested in capture than combat. The idea that they might have been coerced into that bound-together state bothered her. After some thought, she began working on code to manipulate the perceived time flow of something within Anubis. If her personal time were faster than theirs, she could counter any attack they made, repair any damage to her IC before a second attack could threaten her structure. For several hours she puzzled at it; then pieces fell together, a bizarre Piebaldish algorithm, but workable. To save time, she tuned it to Anubis' particular specifications, and the procedures she guessed that the teardrops were using. Time enough later to make a more general version. She wasn't sure that the idea could be extended outside Anubis anyway. The damage to her containment node, repairable though it was, worried her. They were meant to contain, after all; they hadn't performed well on their first test. Could she make them stronger? Experiment suggested that she could invest a lot of time working on Anubis' internal structuring, with very minimal results. There was no single, sweeping change that would do what she wanted; it was a matter of tiny adjustments, adaptations to the changes that had shaken Anubis since its creation, a lengthy process of fine-tuning. Worthwhile in itself, but she needed something quicker. She went to the island-garden, considered the problem from that angle. Here the nodes were cylinders of tough material--at different times she'd identified it as concrete, ceramic, steel--containing earth and feathers and roots, if these feathery things had roots. How to make something like that stronger? The base material seemed beyond her manipulation, unless she were willing to make wholesale changes like embedding reinforcing bars in it--and she wasn't, protective of her own nature. Eventually she sat down, eyes closed, and began to design machines. She envisioned a polymer mesh with fine irregular holes to accomodate the greenery, spreading over the surface of the island and securing it from disturbance. Could she simplify matters by making it self- polymerizing? She imagined it spreading from the island, across the bridges, over the water, until the entire system was tied down by aggressive fibers. She imagined herself hovering over the islands, afraid to land....Definitely not a good plan. She'd make a machine to spread the mesh, something she could halt when its job was done. (The other idea was filed away--someday she might need a virus that worked on this level.) With considerable thought, she came up with something that appeared to her imagination as a large carpet steamer. She set it to making slow passes across the island representing the containment node, returned to Anubis proper to assess the results. The node was superficially unchanged, but it looked sharper, each detail precisely defined, emphatic in its brilliance. It seemed to her that if Anubis were somehow destroyed, the image of this node would remain, a ghost in the Overnet's greyness. She thought of the dead nodes at Cavilard. Had they been similarly reinforced? She was pleased enough with the result to treat the other containment node as well. The fine dark fibers were practically invisible under the feathery grass. However, she balked at doing the entire system. The treated node felt a little stiff, slightly less flexible and responsive. For a containment node that seemed appropriate enough, but not for the system as a whole. Back at Anubis, she worked on her time-alteration code, tried to puzzle out the specs of the attack the teardrop had used on her. Both were projects that could have occupied a great deal of time, but after a few--days, she realized, looking at the system clock. Days? She snapped a message to the Matrix, received a prompt reply. Seconds, by the time-flow of the outside world. Three days, to Anubis. She hadn't realized the differential could swing that far in her favor. The program she'd been writing wasn't perfect, but it seemed workable. Without a test subject it was hard for her to be sure. She wasn't tired, but she felt entitled to a break. The idea of making something for herself, something fun rather than practical, appealed to her suddenly. It began as a reflection of the orrery, objects moving in complex interlocked orbits, but midway through it occured to her that it was an image of the Overnet itself. She grinned, crafted a tiny crimson sphere to represent Ares Macrotech, dangled it from a pivot. As she built more of the toy, the miniature systems sliding past each other on baroque crystal pathways, the relationship became more explicit, bits of memory falling into place, the spatial patterns she had searched for as she travelled the Overnet. Her memories were a delight, clearer than she could have imagined as a human being. When it was finished, for a dizzying instant she felt movement, within the model, around her. She touched it, eyes wide with delight, and watched the intricate dance of light and darkness, wheels within wheels. Piebald had taught her this. She set the model in her 'trophy room', bright against the deliberately velvet-dark background, and went back to her preparations. 95. Turing After considerable preparation, Jayhawk judged herself ready to deal with the teardrop deckers. She crept across the Overnet to the great orrery of the NSA machine where she had met them earlier, and was not disappointed. Three of the teardrops were circling it in protective orbit. She stopped short at a distance she hoped might be beyond their sensors, and considered her options. She'd intended to capture one, analyze it, perhaps question it. The idea was suddenly unappealing. They were deckers, however strange their decking style, and the only contact she'd ever had on the Overnet that was neither Paradisian nor monsterous. She'd probably have to fight them, maybe hurt them. They might hurt her too.... A comment of Dr. McDougall's about her contempt for authority rankled at her. All right, she'd try being proper and polite, see how that worked. A little surprised at herself, she set up the ghost code for external communication, scattered a message in their direction: "I am Anubis. Who are you?" Their orbits sped up suddenly, and a message came prickling back like a laser into the greyness: *I am Lieutenant Martins, Interpol Special Ops. What do you want?* She adjusted her communications, trying to retrieve voice and expression from the message encoding, replied: "This system has information which was taken from me, and which I need access to." Interpol. They were supposed to have good deckers, she'd heard. *Why did you engulf Captain Ericson?* "I didn't know what you were, and I was trying to find out. I apologize for my abruptness. I felt threatened, and acted hastily." It galled her to apologize, but their hostility annoyed her even more. Perhaps she could smooth it over--at least McDougall couldn't criticize her for not trying. *What are you? What is your real name?* "I'm midway between a human, an AI, and a Matrix spirit," she said recklessly, and finally managed to decode the voice portion of the message. Martins' voice was male, young, and distinctly frightened. "My name is Jayhawk; Caroline Davies, once." He went on with his questions, sharp, probing, rather hostile. Other probes prickled at her; she blocked those that would have told them anything about her internal structure. In quick bursts of transmission she sketched out her kidnapping (as she chose to call it) by Paradisio, and the experimentation they'd performed on her. It occured to her that adding to Paradisio's troubles couldn't do her any harm. "Why did you attack this system?" "According to files in the Bellevue, Washington police records, they have classified information taken from Paradisio, records that might help me to understand who and what I am. I was hoping to retrive those files. I'm sorry about the system decker, but he surprised me. Is he all right?" A sudden, unexpected flare of sympathy. That might as well have been Yoichi, or Kurt, or Michael. "He's recovering. What files are these?" She explained, added, "Could you do me a favor?" "What favor?" She could almost visualize his strained face. "Could you relay a message to him?" She composed a brief apology, beamed it. That should calm them just a little, she hoped. There were six more teardrops in position behind the orrery. She was not totally confident of her ability to handle nine. "The agency involved does not have any knowledge of the files to which you refer," said Martins formally, "and suggests that you make a request through normal channels to the Bellevue Police Department. We can help you do so, if you like." She had a sense that intense conversations were going on across a channel she was not currently in position to monitor. "What are your future intentions?" To her non-comittal reply, he went on, "Would you object to being assigned an escort?" "Yes, I would," she said testily. "Why?" In guardedly diplomatic phrases, he pointed out that she had admitted to gross violations of UCAS and international law. "We don't feel that we need to press any charges on this matter, but we'd like to insure that further...unpleasantnesses...can be avoided. It would also serve as protection for you. I don't know how long you're been out here, but this area is fairly hazardous." "It's not clear to me that you have jurisdiction," she pointed out, more than a little annoyed. "We're charged with monitoring the Matrix worldwide, and this is conceptually a part of the Matrix," said Martins. He did seem calmer now, perhaps because of the advantage of numbers. "If you wish to file for citizenship of the UN or of any nation, we can certainly provide communications and legal support. However, we do have a responsibility to the people of the world to protect Matrix access and security." "Turing police," she said suddenly. A decker's myth, straight out of science fiction. Was that a note of embarrasment in his voice? "It's an unofficial name." The fictional Turing police had been in charge of hunting down rogue AIs. Was that how they saw her? She had to admit she wouldn't blame them, especially after her rash introductions. "What form would this escort take?" Three teardrops, relieved at 8-hour intervals, in constant communications with their headquarters--a trick she wished she could duplicate herself. "One stipulation," she said carefully. "It *is* dangerous out here, even to me. If I meet something I don't think I can deal with, I'll run. If you can't keep up, you're on your own." "We might have to take action in that case," said Martins stoically. She was so far into identification with Anubis that she had no sense of her body; if she had, she would have pursed her lips in annoyance. "All right, with that caveat," she said. "I won't endanger my own survival." *And if you do, that's the end of our association,* she added silently. They sprayed her with a metallic dust, reflective to the probes they used--a clever trick, she had to admit, for locating her at the extreme range of their sensors. Angry, but not quite ready yet for violence, she drew away from the orrery, set herself to determining her new 'escort's' capabilities. 96. Avery The teardrop deckers were nearly as fast as she was, Jayhawk discovered, but they couldn't duplicate her manuvering. She broke off a tight high-speed turn as soon as she realized they couldn't match it, hoping they hadn't noticed. The commander of her escort, or at least the one who responded when she talked to them, was Lieutenant Avery DeHaviland. He hailed her now, asking what she was doing. "I'm interested in how well you can handle yourself here--that might be important, if we run into trouble. I'm impressed. What's it like?" "Very disorienting at first--quite different from normal decking. It takes a while to learn to interpret what you're seeing. How was it for you?" Unlike Martins, he seemed unafraid of her, curious and almost friendly. "It's fairly intuitive, but then I'm native to this place, so to speak. --What's it like to be one of the other two?" She was fairly sure she was speaking to just one of the three deckers, not some combination of them. The other two seemed more deeply subsumed into the software that was letting the teardrop operate on the Overnet, little more than part of the package. "Almost like being asleep, except you're not, really. It's not unpleasant." "You've done that too?" Her model of the subordinate deckers as unwilling tools seemed to be wrong. "Oh yes; all of us have. It's part of the deal." As he spoke she tethered herself to an adjacent system, the controlling machine of a fast-food emporium. "Hey! What are you doing?" "Putting down a communications link, for news and so forth." Avery laughed. He had a pleasant voice, cheerful and with a congenial West Coast accent. "So you have news! Thank goodness. I don't know if I could live without it, and I get off shift in eight hours." "What else do you do to entertain yourselves? This is likely to be a pretty boring job." "Escorting the first alien intelligence we've made contact with? I doubt it. We've got a pool going on how long before you do something, ah, illegal. I've got ten nuyen on the three-day mark. What do you think?" She had to laugh at that. "What odds did you get?" "Ten to one." "Pretty good. I could take some of that money myself, if it weren't cheating....Don't suppose your friends would go for that. They're monitoring our conversations, of course?" "Of course. Constantly. You get used to it after a while." She slipped down the link to the Matrix, discovered to her surprise that the teardrops were there too, hovering in the sky above the fast-food system. A message reached Anubis, was relayed down to her. *Is that you? What are you doing?* Surprised and more than a little embarrassed, she returned to Anubis. "What was that?" said Avery insistently. "An aspect of myself, a sort of remote," she hedged. "What were you doing?" "I wanted to make some database inquiries." Again, she had the distint impression that a hurried conversation was taking place outside her hearing. "We could make them for you, save you some trouble and risk," said Avery, a little apologetically. She nearly refused, caught herself. What point was there in aggravating them? What she needed was a way to get rid of them, or around them. "Ask them how the investigations are going, will you, and look up a few articles for me?" They were simple computer-science topics, reading she should have been keeping up on. "And transmit this report." She'd pulled it together out of old database files, a carefully edited mixture of the report she'd sent to Duende and the file she and Grant had once put together to give to the police on the event of their deaths. On a sudden impulse, she shifted herself to the garden, back again. Avery didn't appear to have noticed. Ah-ha! So she could get away-- from Anubis to the garden to Osiris, far from their prying eyes. "What does this place look like to you?" How were they maintaining themselves on the Overnet? Presumably the presence of three minds in the one construct had something to do with it, though she couldn't imagine what. They weren't integrated into one being, not if they switched places and partners. Avery described a place of continual bewildering motion, endless torrents of information that was mostly noise, almost overwhelming the subtle patterns that let him perceive systems, connections, his companions. "When we move as quickly as we just were, there's nothing interpretable at all. I count on my partners to keep us from getting lost." "How do you navigate?" "Navigate? I know where I am on the Matrix, as soon as I slow down enough to see it. We don't go anywhere where the Matrix isn't accessable. Do you? How do you see this place?" "Like space, but grey--no stars, featureless except for the occasional system. Not mapped onto the Matrix at all, for me. I work from landmark to landmark." It was no longer strictly true. More and more, if she wanted to find something she could choose a heading, locate it unerringly among the greyness. She could find systems she'd never seen before, which she found startling. As if her desire reached out, found its matching pattern and drew them together. So the Turing deckers were on the Matrix as well as the Overnet. Perhaps that was what let them survive, that solid link back to the world they knew. A weakness, if she could exploit it. She found herself hoping that she wouldn't have to. She liked Avery. But she couldn't let them interfere with her plans. What was next? Understanding the Gates, that was it. Duende had asked her for a map. Could she simply trace them out from this side? She found her way to the Bangkok address the records at Cavilard had given her, saw a distant brightness across the Matrix. Her escort didn't notice it until they were much closer. "What's that?" "A beacon on the Overnet," she said honestly. "I'm mapping them. Do you know where we are, on the Matrix?" "Overnet? Is that what you call it?" He rattled off a computer address which matched her expectations. She oriented herself, searching for the next beacon. There it was, barely at the edges of her perception. Whoever used them had good eyes. Slowly, watching on all sides, she approached it. There were men there, inconguous in the vacancy of the Overnet: a company of Jaguar Knights as she had seen them in life, with fur-ruffed ceremonial cloaks slung over their combat armor. They clustered around the beacon--a pile of skulls draped with a jaguar pelt, so much brightness spilling from their vacant eyes that the greyness turned to black around them--then set off, vanishing almost at once. She looked for the armor of a Gatekeeper, leading them, but saw only a tall Jaguar Knight with a crimson plume on his helmet. Avery saw the beacon light, but no more, as his questions made clear. Pleased to have found a use for him, she asked him for the Matrix address, then traced the lights to another beacon, and another. She knew she was constructing a map for Interpol as well as herself, but that didn't bother her at all. "I suppose it was inevitable," said Avery heavily, "that someone else would figure out how to get up here eventually. We've been lucky to keep the monopoly as long as we have." "If their records are to be believed, these people had you beat by years. What does this look like to you?" They had come to the end of the chain, a system like a cluster of coral atolls. "A map of islands, with greater and lesser depths marked, and reefs. What is it?" It should have been the terminal Gate, but she could sense nothing of the sort--the system was large, but not massively powerful, and she could detect no hidden nodes that might conceal her quarry. Disappointed, she turned back, tracing the links in the other direction. She found the central Bangkok node, saw several beacons radiating outward from it. Methodically she mapped them out, occasionally responding to Avery's questions. One strand seemed longer than the others. Her already-cautious advance slowed. Something was approaching, a ripple in the fabric of the Overnet. "Avery. Something's coming. When I run, *run*." The ripple was tracing out the beacon-path, moving rapidly. For an instant she saw the previous beacon through it, light dancing as if through water. A concealment, tremendously powerful, beyond her sensors' abilities-- She fled its approach, was relieved that it did not follow. For an instant she had brushed the fringes of the power beneath the disguise, and she was impressed. Her nerves tingled with it. "*What was that?*" demanded Avery. "Something using the Gates, I suppose. I couldn't see it clearly. What did you see?" To her surprise, he replied immediately, "A red dragon, wreathed in flame. I've never seen anything like that out here. It was very clear, almost to the exclusion of anything else. We were lucky not to lose you." Was it *him*? But he was a feathered serpent, not the lizard that Avery described. And she couldn't imagine him moving. One of his servants, more likely. She filed that away for future reference, went back to a very cautious perusal of the beacon-chain. Something was ahead, beyond the last beacon. She had a sudden, curious impression of great height, something far above her in the dimensionless Overnet. She remembered the great pyramid, the temple at its peak. Though she had barely glanced at the view, it had seemed to command the whole world. Something was watching. Again she fled, and felt that cold distant regard behind her. She did not explain to Avery, only: "Don't go there. There's something there that neither you nor I can handle." No creature of fire and destruction, nothing so simple. Had he seen her? Was she ever out of his sight? "I didn't see anything. Your sensor code is superb." Wistfully: "It must be nice." "Do you like it here? Do you enjoy this?" "Yes, I do. It's something of a childhood dream, I guess." He laughed softly. "Hunting down bad guys and all that. And this place...is hard to understand, frightening in a way, but it's also very fascinating." Something about his manner of speech intrigued her. "How do I appear to you?" "Like a pattern of swirling chaos, all dark colors...there's order there, though I can't describe it, I'm not sure how I'm seeing it. It changes too quickly. Rather beautiful, in a way. I've never seen anything quite like it." His voice was almost dreamy. Possibility pricked at her. "As I see myself...I'm sitting on a silver bridge over a black reflecting pool, with an intricate silver gateway behind me." It was SAN 2, the doorway to her personal domain, though only a fraction of her presence was specifically there. She could see Avery and his allies, orbiting her like tiny moons. "If I could invite you in, what would you say?" Open yearning in his voice. "I'm afraid I'd have to refuse. I'm sorry." She remembered the pain and desire in Angela's eyes, remembered from within what the sight of Anubis had meant to her. Suddenly she saw him-- saw all of them--not as annoying threats but as possible companions; the only human beings outside of Paradisio who might be able to understand, who might be able to see her as she truly was. It stirred a hunger she had not known she possessed. -- Copyright 1991 Mary K. Kuhner

---

E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank