97. Kraken Eluding her escort by going first to the garden, then to the Matrix, Jayhawk sl

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97. Kraken Eluding her escort by going first to the garden, then to the Matrix, Jayhawk slipped off to Bangkok. She had several addressses to try, courtesy of the Turing Police. The first two seemed to be innocuous commercial systems, a travel agency and an entertainment center. The Bangkok Matrix was an odd mixture of archaic and modern equipment, but it served her well enough; she was in and out again in minutes, emptyhanded. The third system appeared as a cavemouth in a dark hill, blocked by heavy bronze doors. Etched into their surface was the system name, or so she guessed: Westking Enterprises. She looked the doors over carefully, caught movement above them out of the corner of her eye. Bats, hundreds of them, hanging upside-down in the shadows. A little work unknitted the locks of the heavy doors, but as she pushed at them she realized that they were fakes, never meant to be opened, leading only to alarms. The real traffic of the system couldn't possibly flow this way. Very carefully she drew the door closed again, millimeters from the laser-eye that would have brought the bats down on her head. As at the NSA, there was no apparent way to disarm the alarms. This simply wasn't a real SAN. Impressed, she stepped back from the door, raised her arms to the twilight sky of the Bangkok net and rose into the air. From above the system resembled a grassy hill, two entrances clearly visible. She chuckled to herself, landed to search for the hidden node. The second SAN was concealed behind a waterfall cascading down the hillside. She slipped behind it, through a complex net of alarms. The stream continued inside, flowing down a trough in the stone underfoot. Jayhawk hesitated, listening to the machine around her. She was coming to suspect that her success depended far more on her attitude toward the system she was running than it once had. What attitude was appropriate for Westking Enterprises? The water chuckled softly in its passage, running downward toward an unseen murmur--it almost sounded like voices, though she could distinguish no words. Otherwise the system was quiet, heavy with an impression of age, solidity, a confident strength that was pleasing to sense, even though she suspected it was going to make her task difficult. Calmness was the key, she decided, and deliberation. No sudden moves, no hasty decisions. It was far from her usual working style, but she forced herself to walk slowly, attend to the scene around her. The passage branched; she took the leftmost corridor, descended into a wide, high-ceilinged chamber with a mirror-still pool at its center. Rising out of the pool was a statue of black stone, a Hindu deity of a thousand arms. She walked slowly to the edge of the water, sat down to contemplate the statue. It was an Overnet construct, a piece of mobile IC--attack IC, she thought, though without seeing it in action she could only guess how it might work. One foot was raised as if frozen in mid-dance. It would be beautiful in action, she thought, but a difficult opponent to lose, once awakened. It showed no sign of awareness, no reaction to her presence, but she could sense the triggers all around her, latent in the system's calm confidence. After a thorough examination she went on, following another watercourse. She came to the false SAN, admired its defenses from the inside. There were more bats, clinging still as stone to the shadowy roof overhead, waiting for the beam to be broken. Something about them disturbed her. They seemed--alive? Not awakened, not creatures of the Overnet, but not simple code either. She could tell no more without disturbing them, and the thought of bringing the great statue running to her didn't appeal. Past the SAN the corridor descended again, opened into a long passageway lined with doors. Its ceiling looked odd, covered with oblong plates--she stopped short, recognition suddenly falling into place. The ceiling was the belly of a lizard, its legs pressed against the corridor walls, its head out of sight at the far end. A small, incongrously modern laser-beam was probably the trigger for its activation. Several minutes' careful watching gave her the pattern of the beam's movements; she wove a slow dance down the corridor, never where the beam would fall, ducking into doorways to examine their contents. Each held a round chamber with a well or pool at its center, light shining down from above to illuminate the contents--datastores, hers for the tasting. They proved to contain the records of Westking Enterprises, which might have interested her at another time; but no mention of her own name, of Grey or the Grey Knights, of Project Sunflower or the Gates. She found a branching corridor, was almost pinioned by the searching laser beam it held. She'd been moving too fast, carelessly--this system *did* reward patience, she was coming to appreciate. Backing off, she studied the beam carefully, found the subtle variation in its pattern. It was deceptively close to the previous one, but not so close that it could be handled in the same way. Adjusting her movements to correspond, she made her way to the single door that terminated the passage. It was a door of solid bronze, ornate mosaics rimming it. The ceiling mosaic was all of bats, interlocked like an Escher woodcut. She stared at their unmoving forms, felt the same sense of life she had earlier. *Slowly. Carefully.* She shaped a key of intuition and deceit, set it to the lock. The great door swung open slowly, revealing another pool. Slowly, every sense alert, she walked to its edge. Unlike the other rooms, this one had a large grille in the ceiling, as if to ventilate the otherwise sealed chamber. She peered into the water, felt an uncomfortable prickle at the back of her neck. Ventilation? Not on the Matrix, not in a system so little like a building. What was it? She rose gently into the air, peered at the grille from centimeters away, careful not to touch it. It held fire...she caught a glimpse of its Overnet reality, was impressed. Fire to fill the room, slosh back into the hallway if the door was open. No. It was keyed to close, keeping in flames and intruder alike, a true barrier like the one she had seen long ago in her first Paradisian system, proof even against jack-out. Fire to sear the life from a decker's mind and soul. She didn't think the doors could keep her from the garden, but she didn't want to test that conclusion. She noted the sensors that unleashed the hidden fire, positioned herself to avoid them as she descended, probed the depths of the pool. Her name brought up nothing, nor Grey's; but there were records of Operation Sunflower, hundreds of them. She looked in puzzlement at the plans for a space station, designs for the computer systems to fly it, the living quarters to house its personnel. What did a space station have to do with her? There were also notes on Gates, but so theoretical and abtruse that they meant nothing to her. She uploaded them to Anubis anyway, one eye on the ceiling grille. Then she let herself out, paused on the threshold to look up at the bats. They were still as painted outlines, apparently lifeless; but she could feel their waiting presence. She shook her head, went on. The lizard corridor ended in a branching, the water pooling at the junction, then running down both ways. One led back to the great statue. She took the other, descending steeply. There was a strange sound from ahead, a continual soft murmur. The passageway turned sharply and opened up into a vast, dim chamber. The floor fell away in a sheer cliff, ten meters down to a sandy beach, water lapping at it. She couldn't see the far side. Half-drowned buildings rose from their shallows, office towers and skyscrapers, their windows dark. Curled around them was an enormous squid. She couldn't make out its body, but there were hundreds of meters of tentacles in sight; more, perhaps, hidden among the buildings or beneath the green-grey water. It was a powerful image. She could smell the brackish tang of a tropical ocean, feel the soft cool breeze off the water. The air was heavy with water and salt and expectancy. There was no apparent way down. She stood where she was, eyes searching the depths, trying to understand what she was seeing. This was the CPU, surely. All of Anubis would have fit within the great chamber; and she sensed no distortion of perceived size, no attempt to falsify the image. Westking's machine was far more powerful than she had realized, but almost all its power was concentrated here, at the center. She could dimly make out cave entrances near the waterline. Were those the datastores she needed? Did one of them hold the Gate? The squid moved slightly, sending huge, concentric rings out from the drowned city. A tentacle lifted briefly, fell back with a soft slap that echoed from the cliffs. It was IC, of course. How far could it reach? Could it pluck her from the sky, probe into its own datastores? She sat down, began a methodical examination. It was Overnet code, the most complex construct of its kind she had yet seen. Code to snare the mind...she whistled softly as her programs teased out its nature, spread the story before her. A decker snared by those tentacles would be caught and held, but wouldn't know it; he would think he had escaped. And in his place something else would be sent back to his body, tied to him with fine tendrils of information transfer. He would think himself back among his friends, and his actions would be fed to the impostor, to guide it. She swore, very softly. It was by far the most beautiful piece of IC she had ever seen, stunning in its intricacy. It was also a reflection of the worst fears she and Yoichi had shared when they made their runs against Cavilard. Worse; more subtle, and more powerful than she had imagined. She found herself probing at her own past, trying to be sure it was real. How could you know? Once those tentacles closed around you, how could you ever be sure? The implicit challenge of the great squid drew her, but some shard of deliberation, drawn perhaps from the system's calm, held her back. This was probably the Gate guardian of Bangkok, and she had not done well against the guardians at Cavilard or Hobbinstown. And she didn't want to waste her time and energy questioning her own perceptions, wondering whether she had really won. The remainder of the accessable system held nothing for her; in particular, she could not find the Gate. She slipped out through the hidden SAN, returned to Anubis for a beacon--she wanted to see what Westking looked like from the Overnet. Back at Westking, she anchored her beacon in the SAN. Even from here she could dimly sense its presence, a glowing thread leading to Anubis. Something else stirred, deep within the system. With reckless haste she threw herself upward, into the open sky, the stink of salt and kelp in her nostrils. An instant later a long tentacle groped out into the net, waved in the air below her. "Nyahh!" Jayhawk said to it, rather shaken. It was *that* long? She was glad she hadn't tried flying across the great cavern. Her beacon went out abruptly. She sneered once more at the tentacle as it withdrew into its cavern, but made no move to follow. If Westking held further secrets, it would keep them for now. 98. Void The Gates in Argentina and Bangkok were well-guarded. Though Jayhawk felt she could get through, it was going to be painfully difficult. Impatient for understanding, she went back to Seattle. Its Gate had no human guardians, at least. The swarm of black flies still guarded the path that led from the dead nodes at Cavilard toward the broken Gate. Jayhawk teased it for a while, but didn't succeed in luring it away from its post. She was quick enough to avoid it, but she would have to fight to get past, and their previous encounter had not gone well for her. However, rather to her surprise, the second path, leading from the Red Tower of the security node towards the Gate, was unguarded and open. She walked it slowly, watching for flies, feeling the increasing pull of the Gate. The path curved slowly and steadily upward, climbing a single conical mountain, but more and more it felt as if she were descending, picking her way down an increasingly steep slope. She had tethered Anubis to Cavilard, heedless of the suspicions that it might raise in the minds of the Turing police. She needed her system here for this. That link was a comfort now, like an intangible safeline holding her on the mountain's side. Halfway up she dared to rise into the air for a brief instant, felt herself drawn forward swiftly and uncontrollably. She had hoped to be able to control her flight, but there was nothing for her to push against, as if space itself was streaming upward toward the Gate. Hastily she landed, walked on with care. Something felt wrong, painfully and increasingly wrong as she climbed. Like the nodes behind the hedge, this place was dead, unsupported-- except, she guessed, by the power of the Gate itself. She felt that power as an aching in her bones, a knot in the pit of her non-existant stomach. Like the magic of the feathered dart that had opened her way to the garden, it revolted her intuition, left a foul acid taste in her mouth. Her analysis code told her nothing about the dead nodes. She was left with nothing but feelings that warned her away, and a determination to ignore them. She was nearly crawling when she reached the top, raised her head to peer over the edge. The mountain was a volcano, as she had guessed, its interior hollow. She looked down. Distance. For a moment she thought she was looking at something, but so far away that her mind refused to grasp the details. Then it become darkness, then not even darkness. Terrible distance, a vista of emptiness stretching on further than she could comprehend. Nothing else. There were no sides to the gaping pit; it was not a crater but a hole torn in the fabric of the Matrix. This close, the nauseous rejection was almost unbearable, but mixed with it was a strange uneasy attraction, like the pull of a lethal fall to the suicidal. She climbed to her feet, balancing against the inward and outward pulls, and drew in a deep painful breath. *All right.* Stepped forward-- In the instant of decision she heard voices, whether in the node or her own mind she couldn't tell. *His* voice. "Consider. Everything has a price." And Aliantha's as she had heard it in the garden, somewhere between regret and amusement: "Yes, and today's is a special one-time-only offer. No refunds. No returns." Her planned dive turned into an ungraceful fall. Were they speaking to her? Or was it memory, impressed on the node, Aliantha's initiation? Distance opened before her, spread out to take her in. Instinctively she tried to fill it, as if she were possessing a system. She wanted to understand the Gate, master its power. Her consciousness diffused outward, finding no contact, no boundaries. Too far. The emptiness was greater than she; she could pour out her whole mind and soul, and nothing would be filled, it would make no difference to the void. And she would be nothing. She cried out, her voice inaudible even to her, and curled into a tight ball, burying her head in a cage of her arms and legs, trying to hold herself in. *No!* Her fall was still accelerating, the distance between herself and Anubis, between herself and *anything*, increasing faster and faster. *No! I deny that! There is no distance between me and Anubis; I am one.* The void cared nothing for her denials, nothing at all. Her link to Anubis thinned, frayed, the eternal hunger of the emptiness wearing it away. It wore at her, a deadly thinness and coldness in the edges of her thoughts. She could see nothing ahead, nothing in any direction. Behind there was a faint sense of Anubis and the world's presence, but it was dimming rapidly. The Gate was broken. There was nowhere, nowhere to go. Nowhere all around her, drinking her in. *There is no distance that can separate me from her.* Her system almost appeared to her as another person now, infinitely precious. *We are one, we are together, we cannot be separated!* Something was tearing inside her, connections breaking, leaving gaping wounds to bleed her life out into the emptiness. Something more precious than life. *No! I won't lose her!* In the instant of decision her headlong fall reversed. She found herself clinging to the thin rim of the crater, barely aware of how she had gotten there. The void pulled at her with contemptuous mockery. Sick and weak, she forced her eyes from it, reached out to the island-garden, made the transition. Sunlight enfolded her, and the touch of restored life like sweet water, cascading in unchecked abundance. She threw herself down in the soft feathers, crying in a confusion of pain and joy. The void's insinuations were *lies*, she and Anubis were one, here there was no doubting that. She was alive, and whole; every sense proclaimed it, the gentle tickling of the feathery grass, the clean smell of water sparkling in the pools, the sunlight's caress, the smell and taste of living earth beneath her where she lay face-down, trembling. She could hear her own heartbeat, feel the feathery stems dance with her breath. A tear trickled down, soaked into the earth. Deeper down she could feel it spreading among roots, blending with the garden's life. Deeper still, the touch of Anubis, beyond all senses and images. She let herself fall into that, into full identification with the system, glory of silver and sapphire and black. Like a drop of water into a troubled pool, her awareness spun outward in perfect, concentric rings, met the boundaries of her being and was reflected back, organizing and patterning all it touched, meeting in a shimmer of harmonics at the center. She was the pattern, processor and datastore and telecom, mind and spirit and software. There was no gap, no absence, no void. She knew herself, knew the truth that the void's lies taught. No divisions. Even her initiation had not taught her so well. *I exist in this, the reflection of consciousness to this point, the completion of the pattern. Only in this. I can no more be separated from Anubis than the wave from the water.* Out of those lies, had she learned what she'd intended to learn? She considered it for a while, realized her mistake. The Gate was indeed broken; it led nowhere, and she had been going nowhere. The Paradisians used two High Priests to set a Gate; one at the source, and one at the destination. She could do the same unassisted, linking Anubis to the target system, using her link with it to forge the connection. It was that simple. She felt rather foolish that she'd missed it before... she'd been lucky to get back. She returned to the Matrix to test her conclusions, passing from the islands to Osiris in order to avoid her escort. Almost at once she realized that something was wrong. Although her movements on the Matrix were unhindered, something nagged at her, a vague sense of discomfort or wrongness. Analysis code told her nothing. It felt like a cyberware failure, though of course that was ridiculous. Hastily she returned to Anubis. Everything there was as it should be; she flung herself into identification to see the system all at once, whole, and could find no flaw in it. But when she went back to the Matrix, the niggling discomfort returned. She put distance between herself and the University system to which Anubis was tethered. The feeling worsened, a tension in her gut, a vague irritation in her nerves. She felt misplaced, or perhaps misattached. Across the North American grid, into the rougher network of South America, eventually into the sparse Antarctic Matrix she went, and every switchpoint she put behind her added a steady maddening increase to the wrongness. So did time, even if she stood still. She ran tests, broke into a large machine in South Africa and brought its full power to bear, stalling out the few users' programs ruthlessly. She found *nothing*. Neither her own code nor anything else she could call up saw anything wrong with her at all. Nor did Anubis. Nor did she, except for the slow, relentless increments of isolation and wrongness and pain. She sealed herself in the African machine, tried to use its resources to distract her, ease her discomfort. With some difficulty--her concentration was lacking--she rerouted the operating system so that the users were drawing on adjacent machines, using this one only for trivial storage and retrieval. The full attention of the machine, she hoped, would comfort her. She was resolved to stay where she was, to wait out the swelling waves of distress and come to their end. That was the way to break addiction, so they'd told her while she was in the hospital, though her bond with the Matrix had been too deep, too basic to overcome so easily. Or perhaps she had never waited long enough. The wrongness crested, a continual nagging sense that something was not linked as it should be, her channel with Anubis perhaps...crested and held constant, not damaging, not overwhelming, just a steady wash of pain. Nothing she did eased it. Nothing made it worse. She couldn't get a grip on it at all. Three hours into her vigil, she looked at the small, crowded control-center around her, CPU of the machine its users called Admin-3 at the University of South Africa, and realized that she was pulling it more and more into a warped copy of Anubis. The walls were bending, shaping themselves into smooth curves; wires and beams thinning, fraying into gossamer webwork. The system trembled under her touch, on the verge of some transformation which she doubted it had the power to survive. Hastily she restored it to what it had been, went back to Anubis. In the instant of trasition the pain disappeared as if it had never been. She knew that for the lie it was. The Void had spoken truth. She could be one with Anubis, if place and circumstances permitted. But that link could be compromised--could be broken, as the Void had begun to break it. She remembered her conversations with Martha, how they had always ended with the other woman's desperate flight back to her own system. Was that the price of power over the Gates? For Martha it seemed that the price had been her freedom, and in the end her soul. 99. Flaw The pain that separation from Anubis caused Jayhawk didn't rise to a peak and then fade, as even Matrix addiction had. It rose to a peak and remained constant, eased only by movement toward Anubis, ended only by her return to her system. It was not incapacitating; with effort, she could put it completely aside. She proved that to herself by breaking into another of the Paradisian systems in Bangkok, one less well guarded than Westking. Anubis had resources to let her focus her mind wholly on her decking, almost oblivious to her distress. But it wasn't going away, and the knowledge of what it must mean preyed on her mind. At her daily appointment with Dr. McDougall, she explained her problem in short, clipped, bitter sentences. He sat silently for a moment, clearly thinking about it. "Are you sure this isn't a trap Paradisio set for you, an illusion to trick you into a course of action they want?" "I suppose it could be, but it's a remarkably well-hidden trap if so. I've looked at myself at Anubis, in the garden, on the Matrix. I can't find anything wrong." "Maybe nothing *is* wrong." She snorted. "I'm in pain, distracted, inefficient. And...I was counting on my wholeness, the fact that I've been through what I have and I'm still healthy and sane and free; I was counting on that when I...." She wasn't willing to say what she was thinking; she wasn't really ready to admit it to herself. *When I try to heal *him*.* "Is it possible that your subconscious is responsible? Trying to protect you, perhaps? It sounds as though the Gate was a pretty traumatic experience." "Do I *have* a subconscious?" she said, intrigued. "I am quite sure you do. From your test results, you're surprisingly human." He smiled warmly at her. "Really?" She was rather taken aback. "Are you sure of your tests?" "Not positive, of course, but fairly certain." The smile faded slowly as he looked at her, replaced by puzzlement. He'd meant it as a compliment, she realized suddenly. "This doesn't please you?" She shrugged. "If it's my subconscious, how do I fix it?" "Should you? Maybe this is a warning that you're going too far, pushing yourself too hard. Such warnings shouldn't be lightly dismissed." "A bit late if so! How can I find out?" "You're the only one who knows that. What else do you think it might be, if you don't like that hypothesis? You must have some idea." She laid out her ideas with all the bluntness and objectivity she could muster. Perhaps this was a last effort of Paradisian programming, meant to ensnare her now that she had the power to be useful to them. Perhaps she had done herself irreperable damage by using the Gate as she had. Perhaps she was in pain because she'd stopped halfway, before the Void could complete its work. Perhaps this was the price for the Gates' power, and there was no avoiding it. "What will you do if that turns out to be the case?" "Keep trying. I have no choice." "You sound desperate to me; like someone who could throw her life away in a moment of panic. I don't want that to happen." She shrugged. "I've faced that before. I've died...how many times, now? Two? Three? I won't give up--I *can't*--" She was desperate, there was no hiding that from him. "Why is it so unacceptable?" She turned that question over and over in her mind, trying to find a way around it. "I had planned," she said at last, very quietly, "to use my own health and wholeness as leverage to deal with *him*. It's all I have--the proof that it can be done, the evidence of my body and mind and soul. Without that I don't see what I can do. I'll try anyway." With sudden savagery: "But damn it, if there's a way around this I want to find it! I don't want to leave them this--this hold on me. I don't want to live the rest of my life knowing that I had perfection in my grasp, and I threw it away." He nodded slowly. "If it's something they've done, or some psychological scar from the experience--well, there are methods for dealing with such things. A lot of them aren't directly applicable to you; it's hard for me to perscribe drugs, for example...." His smile vanished quickly as he looked at her. "There are a number of things I can try. Let me run tests today, and I can give you the results and initial recommendations tomorrow." She left his office machine in a state of tightly suppressed frustration. A day. She'd promised not to try anything rash, let his treatments have their chance. What could she do in the meantime? She went back to Anubis, away from the continual reminder of her problem, and tried to program. For short periods she could immerse herself in her work, building code to see with, to analyze and dissect and record. She tried it out on the teardrops, for want of a better target. On herself--and that brought her back to her distress with a shock. She could see nothing wrong, no matter how she refined her perceptions. Was it a lie, the pain that marked her separation from Anubis, denied their unity? She so desperately wanted it to be a lie. She ran another Paradisian system, was ambushed by a decker in the form of an island native, spear in hand. With contemptuous speed she evaded his attack, slipped past him and fled. She had no stomach for hurting someone so much weaker than herself, and no patience for the long hard search through his system, in any case. She didn't dare match herself against more challenging opponents. The lapse of concentration that had let the decker catch her would be fatal if she were playing with a Gate guardian or one of the High Priests. She went to the brick-walled chamber beneath her islands, probing into its walls with her newly-tuned vision. They told her nothing. She remembered discussing Lefty with Dr. McDougall, wondering whether he was an outside enemy or an expression of her own inner perversity. She'd met Lefty here, twice. With lips pressed tight together in defiance--it wasn't a good idea, but at this point she didn't care--she tried to sketch in Lefty's high-backed chair at the center of the room, the shadow of his robed form within it. Only a flicker, quickly fading, unrepeatable. She went back to Anubis and wrestled with her sensors, baited the Turing police, wove bits of code and unwove them when she saw their flaws. Frustration and desperation were even more distracting than pain. Long hours till her appointment with McDougall. She was almost tempted to slant her personal time in the other direction, but it seemed such a waste. And the session, when it finally came, proved fruitless. His tests had revealed nothing. His advice was calm and clear and sensible, but it did nothing for her distress. "I'd advise you," he said at last, "to consider ways of making the best of the situation, and not keep flying at it like a moth into a candle." Long hours later, those words returned to her, crystallized into decision. It was like her initiation. There was no stopping, no turning back halfway, not if she ever wanted to be whole again. But fire would have seemed welcoming, beside that darkness. 100. Fall After three days of increasing frustration and dismay, Jayhawk went back to Cavilard, stood at the crater's rim, staring downward. It felt just as bad as it had before; worse, perhaps, because imagination filled in what was below. There were knots in her nonexistent stomach. Taking a deep breath, she flung her arms upward, imagining wings, and dove headlong into the dark. For an instant she *felt* wings, feathers clothing her, great pinions folded into her dive. Then the darkness opened up all around her, and the feathers disappeared into the void. Her link with Anubis pulled at her, raw pain, worsening with every second. She fought to ignore it, even deny it. *I am Jayhawk, I am alive, I am here; only that.* Fought to focus herself on her speed. She remembered the exultation of the motorcycle ride, struggled to recapture it as the void opened wider and wider about her. She couldn't fill it, couldn't hope to begin. Instinct screamed at her to fight the endless attenuation of her self, her link with her machine. She rejected that. *Nothing that can be taken from me is me.* Struggled to keep just one thing, her image of her goal. Something was torn from her, some part of her life, incomprehensible once gone; and she was falling in blue sky, the earth spinning dizzily beneath her. She caught the wind in her pinions, for a strange instant halfway between hawk and woman, and found herself flying over verdant treetops. Something was missing, lost forever. Savagely she pushed that insight aside, turned her flight to a spiral around the hilltop she could see below. Beyond the hill, above her now as she descended, rose high snowless peaks. She spun downward quicker and harder than she intended, fell the last few meters to land in a tumble on the grass. With a shock of memory she found that the form she wore was her Matrix image, clothed in a flimsy white dress. She had no sense of the lifethread around her, only the faintest link with Anubis, impossibly distant. *No. Distance doesn't matter.* Limping a little on the rough ground, she walked down the hill to the stream she knew would be there, gathered up a hem-full of stones from its bank. She carried them back up, built a small shapeless cairn. "Jayhawk was here," she said aloud to it. A Piebald thought, no doubt, but it was somehow comforting. Then she set off downstream, came almost at once to a halt. If she went on this way she'd get lost; would arrive, if she did arrive, helpless and delirious as before. She frowned, wondering whether she *could* fly. The fall had felt rather emphatic. She could, though it was hard, harder than it had ever been. No sense of wings, only the long laborous climb, weary as stairs, up through the canopy and into the cloudless sky. She forced herself to go as high as she could, until the jungle spread out below her like a map, the stream an occasional glint in the relentless green; then headed downstream in a long, gliding dive, eyes slitted against the wind. It was falling as much as flying, an endless near-horizontal fall. It nearly ended in water; she realized what was happening just in time, managed to push herself the last few meters to hit pavement and roll, the breath knocked out of her, on the margin of the waterwheel pond. After a moment she could sit up and look around her. The waterwheel and its station looked much as they had before, though the log she had used to jam its spokes was gone. A jet waited on the tarmac, stubby wings folded. Trembling a little with strain and memory, she got up, walked over to the little house and knocked on its door. 101. Interview Jayhawk knocked on the door of the waterwheel station, but there was no answer. After a moment's wait she bent to look at the lock. It seemed to be a standard maglock, the kind she'd foxed to break into the computer center at the University. Chuckling--she'd never thought she'd be picking another lock--she loosened the front panel with a thumbnail under an ill-tightened screw, started to probe the key-panel's responsiveness. A few minutes' work gave her the combination. There were only four rooms in the little building; a smallish one that held what she guessed were controls for the waterwheel, a compact kitchen, a larger living room with an extensive telecommunications console, and a familiar-looking bedroom. A small light was flashing on the telecom console; an alarm, she quickly verified. She let it continue. The telecom setup was monitoring news. A little fiddling gave her its search list. She asked to see the articles that had been saved, was prompted for a password. She hadn't done manual hacking for quite a while either, but she hadn't forgotten how, though she was shocked at how long it took. Just as she finally managed to access the stored files, she heard engine sounds outside, like an old-fashioned gasoline motorcycle. She glanced at the files quickly as the motor stopped, the front door clicked open. There were only two: a telemetry report on the status of a 'Sunflower satellite', and a note on the price of sunflower seeds. The second was linked to a bit of hypertext. She traced it down, found a brief message: 'Probably Interpol in DC, or maybe the CIA?' She cleared the screen, settled herself in her chair as cautious footsteps approached. A moment of doubt: what if it wasn't Martha? She was completely unarmed. A quick glance around revealed nothing even remotely like a weapon--not that she'd win a brawl anyway, she chided herself. The door slid open and someone dove in with a fast, professional-looking roll, came up pointing a strange gun at her. The barrel pulsed an angry red. Behind it she met Martha's eyes, hard and hostile. "Who are you? What are you doing here?" Jayhawk tried not to show her surprise and dismay. Not the same Martha? Was she a software construct, memoryless and new at each invocation? "You don't remember me?" she said softly, holding perfectly still. She recalled how Duende had reacted to any movement in someone he was covering. The gun barrel dipped just a little. This was not the Martha she had known in her imprisonment, but a much larger woman, sharp Indian features a little obscured by chubbiness. "Mm," she said slowly. "I remember. You're the one we picked up out on the tarmac. Jayhawk, isn't that right?" "That's right," Jayhawk said with a tentative smile. "Thanks for helping me out, by the way." "What are you doing here now? How did you get here? I didn't see any vehicle." "Flew," said Jayhawk simply. "Hmph. Must have missed it. Out in the woods somewhere? There've been some pretty nasty things out in those woods lately, I'll warn you. You might want to move it in closer." "I figured I'd see about what I came here for first, and then worry about getting back." "Oh? What did you come here for, then?" Jayhawk's thoughts raced. What *was* she talking to? Not the Martha of Paradisio, it seemed. "I had a problem, and I thought you might have some insight into it, so I dropped in to ask you. I hope you don't mind.--By the way, what happened last time I was here? I don't really remember." "You lay for several days in a delirious stupor, and then I imagine you went on, when you'd recovered." "Did someone come by and pick me up, perhaps? I doubt I went off on my own." "No," said Martha heavily, resting her gun on the floor as if weary of holding it. "I would have noticed, I'm sure." Jayhawk considered bragging of her own undetected approach, decided against it. "Do you mind if I sit down?" said Martha, and lowered herself heavily into one of the chairs, the gun at her side. "So what's this problem of yours, and why do you think *I* might know anything about it?" "I have a friend," Jayhawk began slowly, biting her lip, "who looks a lot like you, and who has a serious problem. I thought you might be able to give me some help." Would she explain Paradisio to this woman, if she were innocent of that knowledge? It seemed cruel. In a tired voice, Martha said, "They tell me that there's someone out there who's a dead ringer for each of us. Just coincidence, really. I doubt I'll be able to tell you much." Jayhawk nodded, thinking of Angela. "Anyway, the problem is this. She's a decker--like you and I--who works at a huge system in South America. I've noticed that whenever she's away from that system, she's edgy, uncomfortable, apparently in increasing pain...." She spun out the story. "It's not just that this is painful, it's getting in the way of her, um, making a decision about the people she works for and whether she wants to stay there or not." "Sounds like a pretty bad addiction," said Martha. "Probably a psychiatrist would be the best one to talk to." Was that pain in her voice, or shame, or only weariness? Jayhawk cursed her perceptions, sensitive to the moods of machines but clumsy and blind with people. "I plan to do that, but since I was here I thought I'd ask you too." Martha shifted a little in her chair, one hand sliding along the gun barrel. It had gone dark when she put it down, but it flashed now, a single blood-red pulse. "Why don't you cut the crap now," she said sharply, "and tell me who the hell you are and what you're doing here." "I'm Jayhawk, Caroline Davies legally," Jayhawk said, as gently and quietly as she could; her heart was racing. "I was a decker in Seattle, and I ran afoul of someone called Megan, or sometimes Aliantha." She would have told the whole story, but Martha interrupted her. "Megan. I remember. You're a lot like her, always asking, always probing. She thought she wanted answers, knowledge, power, all those things. She was wrong." She lifted her head, stared at Jayhawk with hard dark eyes. "Don't ask those questions. You don't want to hear the answers." 102. Offer She was talking to Martha after all, Jayhawk realized, though not the Martha she had known; the little game of pretending normality was over. "I'm not Aliantha. I didn't come looking for power or glory." She met Martha's gaze, said with pride she didn't try to conceal, "I *have* those." "And it's not enough, is it? Never enough." Jayhawk shook her head. "That's not it at all. I have what I need. But I don't want to stand by and see a friend hurt, or..." She realized what she was about to say, cursed herself for it. It had been in the back of her mind for a long time, but she still hated it. "Or *him*." "Well," said Martha with deliberate cruelty, "they're going to die. All of them are going to die, and there isn't a damn thing you can do about it. That's the first answer. Do you still want to hear any more?" Jayhawk considered for a moment, nodded. "You could be wrong, you know." You *are* wrong, she added silently. "And if so, how else can I find out?" "A lot like her. No wonder she chose you. Why do you have to come nosing around here, making me remember? I'd almost forgotten, or at least managed to put it aside." She slumped back in her chair. "All right. Here I am. Ask away." What to ask? She was terrified she'd miss the essential question. "Why are they going to die?" "They'll let in the ghosts, hundreds upon thousands of angry ghosts. Did you see the waterwheel? Do you know how many people that represents?" Sickened and angered: "I can imagine. I don't need to know." "You should know, if you're going to be asking questions. Thirty people. Thirty people a day die to turn that wheel. But the resevoirs are almost full. Thirty thousand angry ghosts. Perhaps that will be enough." "Enough for what?" "Do you really have to? Do you really have to put me through this?" She sighed. "All right." Jayhawk waited while she stared out the window, apparently collecting her thoughts. "I can see you're just as stubborn as she was, too." After a long silence she closed her eyes, said wearily, "Cyberware and magic don't mix. Not now, not ever." *You're wrong*, Jayhawk wanted to say, but she bit her lip, kept silence. "It's not in their nature. "A long time ago, ages ago, there was a great creature living in the world. He went to sleep, because there wasn't enough life to sustain him anymore; in the depths of the earth, one with the stone, where nothing could harm him. "In 1998 a certain country was worried about nuclear attack from their 'friendly' neighbors. The leadership got paranoid, and decided to build something so secure that even a direct hit wouldn't take it out, or so they hoped. An underground complex, with a computer that was the most impressive of its day, and miles and miles of underground cables so that its communications would be secure. They had lots of money. They made the first step in one of the most popular addictive drugs of that period. "They chose the worst site in the world, though it was a very natural choice for them; a little cave, soft fractured stone around it, held in a basin of much harder, flawless rock. "Cyberware and magic don't mix. Do you have any idea how much wiring miles of tunnels would be? We think we've seen the effects, we think we know something about the 'Black Path'.... "There was only one person in the complex at the time. A boring job, really; just making sure everything was maintained, ready if it was needed. Wired into that machine, which is still one of the largest in the world, even today. I'm glad there weren't any more." Almost inaudibly, "I don't think I could stand any more. "Miles of tunnels, and the whole center of it wired, everything under computer control, and memory--they'd been extravagent with memory, more than they would ever have needed. When it awakened...." Her face was expressionless, her voice almost matter-of-fact. "I'm told the isolation tank exploded." When Jayhawk realized that she wasn't going to say any more: "Why? Why the murders, the tortures, the destruction?" "He's not human. Ethics, morality, good and evil...it's not the same." "No, wait. I asked Aliantha why, and it turned out to be the wrong question. All I got was a bunch of poetry; which said why, I guess, but it wasn't what I needed. I mean, *what for*? There must have been a purpose." "To ease the pain, he says. The life helps, a little bit, and for a while we hoped....But now it's to make an end, the only way it can be done. Maybe a new beginning, for him. Maybe. But for her, just an end." In a harsh whisper: "At least the pain will be over." Jayhawk nodded slowly. "Despair. That's how Aliantha died." She rose, crossed the room to stand in front of Martha. The older woman looked up briefly, down again at her hands, folded in her lap. "Martha," she said pleadingly, "I don't know if you can see me as I am; I'm a long way from home, and it's hard....Try. Look at me, touch me if it helps. See what I am." She held out her hand. "I don't know who you think you are or what you think you've got," said Martha bitterly, "but you're wrong. You have no idea what's going on, and you insist in coming blundering in here, when I had actually found a little peace." Her eyes met Jayhawk's, but there was no recognition in them, nothing but pain and weary anger. "There's nothing you can do. Go away." Stifling tears, Jayhawk said with all the conviction she could muster, "I am alive, I am free, I am *whole*, Martha, I can be happy. It's true--it can be done." Martha's rejection hurt, but her own doubt cut deeper. It had all been true once, she knew that with certainty. But was it true anymore? She remembered the aching pain of separation from Anubis. How much worse would that be now? How deep did the flaw run? Was it all a lie, her hope, her joy? More harshly than she had intended: "And I won't go away until you tell me what I need to know, so you might as well do it now." "Do you want some tea?" Martha levered herself to her feet, leaving the gun in the chair, and went into the other room. "Or chicken soup? I think I have a bit left. It keeps, you know." Jayhawk followed her, struggling to get her emotions under control. "I'm not sure that eating is relevant anymore." The idea seemed a little perverse. "Eating is always relevant." Martha pushed two mugs into a microwave, tapped the timer. "You could just lie in the sun and soak up energy." "If you had chlorophyll, you could." "Hey, do I look green to you?" She had never seen Martha so bitter. It hurt. "Green with envy." The machine beeped once; Martha pulled the mugs out, offered one to Jayhawk, who took it dubiously. "Cream? Sugar?" The words came exploding out, too hard to restrain. "My feelings are hurt, I am angry, I am afraid, I am *frustrated*, Martha. I am *certainly* *not* *envious*." The cup rattled in her hand. Martha looked at her askance. "Hmph. You have a lot of nerve, breaking into someone's sanctuary and harassing them like this. I suppose yours isn't very nice anymore, with an attitude like that." Jayhawk put the cup down heavily, afraid she would drop it. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize." She imagined Martha in the island-garden, how *she* would have reacted. "I apologize for the intrusion. I just didn't know any other way to get in touch with you." "So you just walked in like you owned the place. Broke my door, I bet." "I did not! And I did knock first." Martha snorted, picked up Jayhawk's cup as well as her own and went back to the telecom room. "You're damned hard to get rid of. A *lot* like her. Almost got under your skin, though, didn't I?" "After Lefty," Jay said with a sudden laugh, "no one else really seems that annoying." "Lefty?--Ah, yes. You know, you're a long way from your system. I could just call him up and ask him to drop in." She went to the computer console, began to type. Hastily, Jayhawk ducked under her wide arms, added a few extra characters to the command line. "Hey!" said Martha, almost laughing, though with a distinct edge to her voice. "What do you think you're doing?" She fenced with Jay for a few seconds, failed to get a coherent command out. "Haven't you got what you came for?" In the instant of Jayhawk's distraction by the question, she spat out a message with lightning speed, slammed the return key. "Ha!" The screen blanked before Jayhawk could read it. "How is this destruction going to be done?" The brief flash of humor drained out of Martha, leaving her dark and still as earth. "At Highsummer, when the resevoirs are full," she said slowly, as if reciting, "Martha will climb up the beanstalk, through the Void; and if she reaches the top she'll send down the satellites and their little bundles of death, and let the ghosts in. I don't think she can do it." "I don't understand. Why are missiles on satellites any better than ones at ground level?" Martha sat down, carefully balancing her tea, and sipped at it. When she spoke again, it seemed to be to herself, as much as Jayhawk. "You're here, so you must have come through the Void. The ugly, ugly Void.... You try to fill it up, but you never can, not even one tiny corner of it. Never enough, and if you try everything goes, drained away. When you're empty, something else might even come in, something that looks and sounds like you, but it's not. A bad trip, wasn't it?" "Very doable," said Jayhawk, trying not to think about the price. "Very doable, but not something you'd care to repeat, I imagine. Though I'm impressed that you managed it at all. Twice, even. You're talented. I wonder....You were a decker first. Maybe that's why Aliantha chose you, maybe *you* could do it." "I can basically go anywhere I want." Into space? She remembered her first attempt at manifestation. It had begun at a geosych satellite, high on the fringes of the world. "But why? Aren't there enough fusion plants already at Paradisio to make all the clean fire you could want, if you're determined to immolate yourselves?" "The fire's not enough, though it's a start." She laughed humorlessly. "They never did tell you about Project Sunflower, did they? Have you ever seen an interruptor field? Pretty neat trick, isn't it? They took that idea, twisted it just a little. So simple, it's a marvel no one else has thought of it. The governments hate magic, you know. They can never feel really safe, really in control. So they came up with the disruptor field, their little trump card. They're up there, and no one can touch them; and they can destroy anything they please down here. No more Amazonas, no more Ghost Dance. No magic. Wherever they need it." "How big?" whispered Jayhawk, shaken. The Matrix is the Awakening of the Net. It seemed to her that she would cease to exist in an instant if magic failed. "Depends on how many satellites you blow up. A maximum of forty or fifty kilometers, I think. Enough." "Why not just do that, then? Why the killings?" "He's survived times without magic before. That's not enough. Even fusion fire isn't enough. But we hope it will make chinks in his armor, his defenses....He can't drop them himself, you know. Not allowed, I guess. But perhaps there will be enough chinks that when we free the ghosts, give them back their lives, they'll be able to do it. Thirty thousand angry ghosts. It should be quite a sight to see." Softly: "I'm glad I won't." 103. Leavetaking "What are you?" said Jayhawk to Martha. That question had been bothering her for--how long no? Months, or lifetimes.... Martha snorted. "What are you? Guests first." "I told the Turing Police that I'm the center point of a circle with 'human' and 'AI' and 'Matrix spirit' on the outside. It might not exactly be a circle, though. But I'm definitely in the middle." "Hmph. I suppose I'm the midpoint of 'computer' and 'human' and--" Jayhawk couldn't make out the word she used; it was thickly slurred, sounds in it she'd never heard in speech. "Or I suppose you could say 'dragon', though that's not really right. "That's all any of us are. Fragments of *him*, broken, hurting.... And there's nothing we can do. Except wait. I thought I'd at least found a quiet place to wait." A moment's silence. "He's asleep now. I managed to put him back to sleep. But even like that, his perceptions are so much more intense than you or I could ever imagine. He sees, hears, feels, smells, so much more than we do....And *all of it* is painful." She bared her teeth at Jayhawk, who winced involuntarily, remembering the Dragon's eyes. "What did Aliantha think of this plan?" "She didn't care for it. She still hoped we could do something else." "I think so too." "So that's the form your insanity takes." Martha smiled at her like a coroner pleased with his autopsy. "Irrational optimism." "I've died three times, and here I am. Optimism has its uses." "Death, real death, is...is a gift. I hope you're never in a position to appreciate that. So. Do you have what you wanted?" "I'm not sure. It would be a pity to forget something and have to make another trip." "Not up to that, eh?" At Jayhawk's snort she went on in a more kindly voice, "My advice to you is to get out of this bloody mess while you can, before it's too late." "I could walk away," said Jayhawk with proud certainty, "and I would live and be free. But I would grieve for my friend." Martha nodded, eyes downcast. "Do you know--While I was a prisoner at Paradisio, she offered me death. I never knew whether she was sincere, whether she could really do it, what would happen to her afterwards. I didn't take her up on it...." "She did that?" Martha was silent for a moment. "That was very gutsy. I'm surprised she would do that." "She's a good woman." "Yes. Yes, she is. She's never given up. I suppose I have. I'm out of shape--" She patted her stomach critically. "No time to get back into it now, even if I wanted to. What date is it, outside?" "The tenth of June, last time I looked. Time's probably different here, though. I could bully you outside, make you exercise. Useful and vengeful at the same time." "No, you couldn't." "Is that a dare?" "No, it's a statement of fact." Looking at her solidly-rooted mass, Jayahwk had to admit she was probably right. "Are you done, then? Going to leave me alone?" "I asked the--the other Martha what I would have to do to get a real talk with her. She said 'heal him, or kill him'. In that order. Do you have any idea, any insight at all, into how?" Martha shook her head heavily. "I have tried everything I could think of, everything *he* could think of." She frowned at Jayhawk, almost as if seeing her for the first time. "You've come here twice in just a few months. That's very quick to learn so much. Talented, I have to admit. Maybe you can do something after all, I don't know. You should talk to *her*. Though the best advice is still to keep out of this. And drink your tea." Jayhawk took a cautious sip, savored the unexpected bitterness, the soft liquid warmth. She didn't need food, but she could still enjoy it. "Thank you," she said at last. "And my apologies again for intruding into your sanctuary. If I should want to get in touch with you again, how can I do so without--?" "If you'll just sit on the doorstep," said Martha in a resigned tone, "I'll probably be back soon enough. I don't go very far anymore." She stood up when Jayhawk did, proceeded her to the door. Jayhawk took a few steps out onto the tarmac, poised to fly. She wanted Martha to see her flying, share at least a hint of her power. The older woman said, "Goodbye, and I hope I don't have to see you again," and turned on her heel, disappearing through the door before Jayhawk could reply. Stung, she stared after her. Suddenly a detail she hadn't immediately registered came clear, and she laughed aloud. Martha's fingers had been crossed. She rose into the cloudless sky, seeking her way home. 104. Rescue Casey heard a shout from the dormitory, turned to see Channa waving at him. "Casey! There's someone still in the cottages! Quick!" The central building complex was burning wildly, flames leaping ten and twenty meters above its wood-shingled roof. The fire hadn't yet spread to the small cottages just beyond it, but they were clearly too close to be safe. He swore under his breath, ran. Another hostage? Why were they split up? Duende and the others were already chafing at how slowly the group was moving. Every minute increased the chance that someone would notice the fire, isolated though the commune was. The first two cottages were open and empty. The door of the third was locked. Casey took a step back, hit it hard with his shoulder; it rattled but didn't open. With a glance back at the flames, he reversed his pistol, slammed its butt into the window beside the door. Glass shattered inwards into the thick curtains. Grateful for the protection of his heavy jacket and gloves, he scrambled through, stood blinking in sudden dimness. The interior of the cottage was a single room, bed and small table in one corner, dresser and wardrobe in another. A small computer stood on the table, incomprehensible text scrolling rapidly across its monitor. Curled up in the bed, linked to the machine by a slim cable, was a motionless black-haired girl. Casey bit his lip. A decker? He'd hurt her if he broke the connection suddenly. A roar of sound from outside as the fire met a fuel tank somewhere inside the main building decided him. He rolled her over as gently as he could, found the release catch for the datajack connection, and only then saw her face. His first, utterly shocked thought was that it was Jayhawk. After an instant he rejected that. The resemblance was very strong, but this girl was a little rounder-cheeked than he recalled, and her hair was darker. And in any case, Jayhawk was...dead, or lost. And then he wasn't sure again. It had been months since he'd seen her. One arm, outside the blankets, was wrapped in fine silver tubing attached to a small metal box. He paused only briefly to make sure that it wasn't connected to anything else, then gathered her up, lifted her with an effort. She hung limply in his arms, not stirring. The door wouldn't open from this side either. He tried to lower her gently out the window, but the dead weight slid from his grasp. Sprawled on the grass in the lurid firelight she looked even more like Jayhawk, like the nightmare image of her death that he'd imagined, consumed in the fireball that had scarred Kurt. He gathered her up, jogged toward the van where the others were waiting. Behind him, the first flames licked out into the cottages, found welcome. 105. Return Jayhawk climbed into the sky, circling, wondering how she was going to get back. As if summoned by the thought, a shadow appeared above her, a tear in the clear blue sky, darkness beyond it. She dove upwards, found herself falling. There was no tearing pain, no sense of loss: only a brief plucking, as if the Void were pulling at the fringes of her mind. Then the crater-mouth spit her out like a rejected candy, tumbling dizzily in the Matrix sky high above Cavilard. With a struggle she righted herself, looked down. The crater was gone. The mountain had closed in upon it, leaving a featureless flat top. She could feel no trace of the Gate. She landed, looked at it in puzzlement. Had she done that? She wasn't sure. Something else was stirring in the system-- With a start, she realized that the Gate node was no longer dead; the computer around her was active, no longer an empty shell sustained by the Gate. Someone had repaired the machine. She probed out, felt activity in the CPU. A new owner? Had Cavilard finally been sold? In the moment of system access it finally occured to her that the pain of separation was gone. She stood frozen, suddenly afraid. *Anubis!* With a wrench she threw herself into the gardens. Sunlight poured down around her, tangible as water. It was high noon, luminously bright. Into Anubis itself, into full identification, desperate to know if she *could*, if her link still held. A long, luxurious second later, she materialized in the CPU, danced a brief wild dance of triumph on the gossamer webstrands. She had done it! accomplished what she had barely dared to hope for, freed herself from the nagging sense of separation, both reminder and denial of her union with Anubis. Something amiss caught her eye, froze her in mid-dance. After a moment she laughed, though there was a thin edge of anger beneath it. In the very center of the CPU a white line was chalked on one of the platforms, encircling a sheet of white paper. She probed into it with all her senses, but found, as Anubis had already told her, that nothing dangerous was present, only a small amount of foreign information. Fists clenched, she walked over to the paper, looked down at it without touching it. In angular black letters it said: "Nice system." She recognized the handwriting. One of Lefty's favorite jokes, several times repeated, had been to leave notes in the tailpipe of her motorcycle. Usually they'd said 'Boom! You're dead.' She'd had nightmares about the consequences if he'd used real bombs. With a flicker of will, she unmade line and note. Even the evidence of intrusion couldn't dampen her joy for long. She was healed! She'd found out so much, and though the price had been high--like manifestation, the Void crossing had stolen a little of her life--she had come through it unstained, uncompromised. All that had been lacking was the courage to face the Void head-on, just as she had faced her initiation. (And Lefty thought she was beautiful.) She caught that last thought, snorted at it. The teardrops had noticed nothing; her whole journey had been outside their perception. She sent them a cheery message, then went back to the Matrix--via the gardens and Osiris, avoiding them entirely--and set about proving to herself that she truly was free. Distance was no obstacle. She went to Johannesburg, checked the machine she had inhabited there for damage. It seemed unharmed, unchanged; it had forgotten her, rather to her relief. To the University of Washington, where she looked in on a small printer in the basement of the English Department. It was chuckling along, spitting out term papers, pleased with itself. Or was she, as Gregor had once suggested, feeling the emotions of its users? But she doubted that English students at term-paper time were that cheerful. She went hunting for Forked Lightning, didn't find him. His mail hadn't been answered for a surprisingly long time. Alarmed, she searched for his real name in public records, eventually spotted it. He was at Seattle General Hospital, being treated for 'cyberware malfunction'--a euphimism, she guessed, for the consequences of getting thoroughly thrashed on the Matrix. Tapped into the Hospital's system, she managed to locate him, throw up a window on the video monitor he was using. He was delighted to hear from her, fairly morose otherwise. He'd been surprised by an intruder into the system he'd been hired to guard, and now he was off the Matrix for another three days--practically held in bondage, he informed her. She offered to help, but they could find no way for her to reach him--he was forbidden Matrix contact of any kind, and the terminal he was using wasn't adequate to let her touch him, unless she chose to manifest. She wasn't willing to pay that price to get him out of the hospital a little earlier. She did want to help him, badly--wanted to prove to herself that she could. She tried forging a request for him to be given stimsense access. A few minutes later he stopped responding for a little while, came back on-line with a tale of having been roundly lectured over his perfidy. She must have gotten some detail of protocol wrong, she decided, and apologized. >I'd really like to help, but I don't know how I can. >It's all right, Seeker. There's really nothing much we can do. But >I'm so incredibly bored off the Matrix! It was more than boredom, she suspected. She had been an addict too, like most good deckers. Sympathizing, she sat and talked with him until the nurse came to chase him off-line. Then she went arrowing across the Matrix, delighting in its beauty, in her freedom. For an hour she put all her concerns aside, simply enjoyed herself. Then she sent a letter to Martha, at the address the other Martha had given her long ago. Martha: I would very much like to see you, if that's at all possible. If you come in person, please be careful of the automatic defenses-- they're rather aggressive. Jayhawk A day ago she wouldn't have been willing to let Martha into Anubis, but after her intrusion into the other Martha's place of sanctuary, she didn't feel she had the right to refuse her. She sent the letter and went back to work, trying to tease out the secret of creating a Gate. She had few practical ideas, but a strong conviction that the power was there, if only she could learn how to bring it to bear. 106. Vision Jayhawk lay in her garden under a cloudless sky, basking in the warmth and light, thinking about Paradisio. Why was she resolved to help *him*? Why not let him be destroyed, or even help in his destruction? Images of Paradisio's actions unscrolled in her mind; and for every horror she'd seen, a hundred more at the other Gate stations....The blood of thirty thousand people, if Martha at the relay station was to be believed. Why not try to save Martha, if she was insistant on meddling? 'I will die before I serve you,' she had told him. Wasn't that what she was contemplating now? Even though he couldn't stop his own nightmares, so he had said, for one night he had warded her from hers. One act of kindness against all that blood. She shook her head. Did she have any *right* to try to save him, when failure or even success might unleash so much more horror? But it hurt to consider destroying something so beautiful. She was a creator, not a destroyer. And not a healer, she had to admit ruefully. How on earth was she going to do this? She'd fixed the printer, but it had had the pattern of its own wholeness within it, easy at hand. And surely if it was that simple, Martha would have found a way to do it. She shook her head again, recognizing the resolve even if she couldn't explain it. Perhaps she'd been damned from the moment she saw him. Or perhaps she simply recognized that she had no other way to save Martha, inseperable from *him*, she guessed, as she was from Anubis. A system alarm jarred her out of her concentration. She flung herself into the CPU barely in time to see Martha settling her bike on a gossamer strand of webwork. The other woman looked tired, worn nearly to the bone, a trace of grey in her thick black hair. "Hello, Martha," said Jayhawk, sliding down a web-strand to perch near her. "Hello, Jayhawk. I can't stay long, I'm afraid." She touched the bike with an anxious gesture. "Is there something in particular you wanted to talk to me about?" Jayhawk licked her lips, plunged into it. "I had a talk with someone who lives at the relay station, and she suggested some questions that I could ask you." Not knowing the relationship between the two Marthas, she didn't know how to phrase things any better. "The relay station?" "A waterwheel in the middle of the jungle...." "Oh." Martha looked down through the meshwork supporting her, shoulders slumped. "I see." "One of the things she thought I should ask you--" Jayhawk dropped down lightly onto the level where Martha stood, spreading her arms a little for balance on the delicate fiber, though there was no chance she would fall, here. "What do you see when you look at me? Really look, with all the resources you can?" In short, clipped-off words: "Someone well on the way to losing her humanity." Stunned, Jayhawk whispered, "I think you're wrong. Why do you say that? What do you see that leads you to that?" "Someone completely sure of herself, no doubts, no hesitations. The Gatekeepers are like that--no qualms at all about what they do." Jay shook her head wildly. There were tears swimming in the corners of her eyes--she could have cancelled them, she controlled her image, but not without falsifying her expressions. She didn't want to do that. "I'm not like that at all--I've been stewing for hours over what to say to you--" She wanted to scream at Martha, to run up and shake her, and the effort to restrain that was going to make her do something really foolish. She hadn't cried since...she couldn't remember. "What do *you* see?" said Martha flatly. Taking that as an invitation, Jayhawk called up the analysis code she had so painfully crafted, probed into the image before her. Martha was...was something new, so foriegn to her experience that she had trouble interpreting the information she was getting. It could be analyzed later, but she needed insight *now*. There was something incomplete about Martha, something lacking. She remembered Piebald and Angela. There was no easy correspondence, only a feeling. Martha shifted uneasily under her gaze, said, "So you've been *there*. A long journey. Did you know where you were going?" "I've got no model of where that is in relation to anything else, but I did go where I intended to go, yes." "I'm not sure it has a meaningful relation to anything else." She frowned, puzzled. "How did you know where to go?" "I'd been there before." Martha's eyes widened perceptibly. "You had? When?" "When Aliantha sent me through the Gate. I was lost there, nearly dying, and the other Martha found me and fed me chicken soup." "You were there *before*? You're certain? Where did you think you were? Did you go there on purpose?" "No--I had no idea where I was; I thought it might be stimsense." "It may be, in a sense." As if to herself: "That's very strange. I had no idea that was possible. You're talented." "Does that upset some plan or other?" With a shaky smile through the lingering sting of tears, "I have the feeling I might run off the end of your plans any day now." "No, it's just very...odd." It seemed to Jayhawk that Martha was finally looking at her, perhaps actually seeing her for the first time. "I didn't tell you before because I didn't want to give the enemy any information. Name, rank, and serial number, that kind of thing." "Aliantha told us quite a bit more about you than that." "I know, but when you're in an impossible situation, every little thing helps." It surprised her that she didn't hate Martha for the terror of her captivity; but it didn't seem relevant, now. "So what did you talk about behind my back?" said Martha at last, a little less harshly. "A lot of things....She talked about the Black Path, and her opinion that it could never lead to anything but horror and corruption. Is that really what you see when you look at me?" "No," said Martha slowly. "Whatever else we may have done, we did manage to accomplish that." Jayhawk, who thought of the accomplishment as her own, bristled a little. "She was very bitter; she felt she'd pretty much given up. But she said you hadn't. I hoped...I hoped that I could show you some reason not to despair. I need your insight, your knowledge, if I'm going to do anything to help you." "What do you see when you look at me?" "Something that could be--could be very beautiful; but incomplete. Not whole." "Incomplete. Hmph. That's one I hadn't heard before." With sudden intensity: "Are you whole, Jayhawk?" She raised head, said proudly, "There's a lot I don't know, a lot of things I don't yet have the reach to accomplish; there always will be. But yes, I'm whole." "How?" Groping her way--she understood, but it was so hard to put into words-- "I shattered myself into different pieces, to escape what was being done to me; and I made alliances with others....After a while I realized that I couldn't bear to live like that anymore, and I--" She thought for a moment. "I sacrificed myself--those individual identities, what they represented--to be whole. Not to destroy them, but to end the split. A willing sacrifice, I think that's the only way it can be done--that's how Aliantha went wrong, or one of the ways. "I didn't understand, while I was like that, what I was really missing. Even before, when I--" She almost said *when I was human*, realized in time how that would sound. "Before I got involved in all this...there was so much I was lacking. Such a shallow existance by comparison. I don't know how to tell you how good things are for me right now. I hoped you could see." Defiantly, "I *prove* that it can be done, that you can walk the Black Path and come out whole." Her eyes were wet again. For a long moment Matha weighted that, eyes shadowed. "What did she tell you about me? Something pretty awful, I'd imagine." "She actually spoke very well of you: a good woman, she said. She was really down on herself, though. She told me that she'd given up, let herself get fat, that she was just waiting for the end." "Did she?....Hmph." Martha shifted uncomfortably, put one hand on her motorcycle as if looking for support. "What do you want, Jayhawk? I can't--I'm needed back there, things tend to fall apart when I'm away." Jayhawk took a deep breath, shivering inside at what she was going to say. "When I asked you what I'd have to do to help you, you said 'Heal him.' I'm going to try to do that. I need you to tell me as much as you can about his problem, your problem...our problem...." "And explain everything that's wrong in the world while I'm at it, I suppose?" "That will wait," said Jayhawk, not smiling. "First things first." Martha looked down through the thin lattice that supported her. "I don't know how much she told you--" "She explained your plans fairly well; but she didn't tell me what I need to know about *him*." "Jay--" There was real pain in her voice, beyond her usual reluctance. "I don't know--I don't know that there's anything you can do. I don't want to see you dragged down in this." "*What do you see when you look at me?*" Somehow it seemed to her that that was the critical question. Light flickered around Martha, responsive to her unspoken desire--a web of light, reaching out to hold her in place, though there was no power in it yet to do so. "Something fairly glorious," said Martha softly, staring into the light. "And I don't want to be the wicked stepmother who pulls her daughter into her plots and destroys her. I don't think you understand what I'm really like, or you wouldn't--" "If it helps, bear in mind that I've heard all this from *her* already. Can we consider it said? I'm not doing this because you manipulated me into it." She wished she were more sure of that. "Please, Martha. I'll go ahead whether you help me or not. Don't deny me the information that could make it work." In a choked voice--was she crying, too?--Martha said, "I'll write to you, and I'll tell you what I can. I owe you that much. But I *can't* *stay*--" With a sudden lunge forward, Jayhawk wrapped her arms around Martha. The other woman resisted for an instant, then embraced her tightly. She felt a dizzy, falling sensation, as if she were touching a powerful system into which she could dissolve, merge, if she let herself. *No! Not yet--* With an effort she held herself away, felt only the warmth of Martha's body, the trembling in her arms. Martha pulled away, almost fell onto her bike. One leg over the seat, hands tight on the handlebars-- She was gone. No power-surge of teleport, no trace of system access. "Magic," said Jayhawk aloud, softly, staring into empty space where Martha had been. She ached with something that was almost like loneliness, tears glittering in the corner of her eyes. With an effort, she remade her image, banished them. There was so much Martha could teach her; so little time. 107. Letter Martha constructed a semblance of her workroom around herself and began the weary task of trying to put together a reply to Jayhawk. She felt like a fisherwoman, pulling up words and phrases out of the murkiest waters, looking at them and wishing she could throw them back. But she'd promised. Her arms still ached where she had held the girl. >Jayhawk, > I hope you're doing well. I will try to be straightforward and >concise in answering you. Our problems are as follows: >(1) We are party to a nearly immortal, highly magical entity who has had >his "body" hollowed out and then replaced with enough "wiring" to light >all of downtown Tokyo with. Said proceedure resulted in elevated levels >of discomfort which have not abated to this day. She shook her head at that, hearing an echo of a Martha who had once written documentation for accounting programs. So long ago.... >(2) The above entity was dissatisfied with the results of said proceedure >and is seeking a way to raise his level of comfort, both physically and >spiritually. Specifically to the latter, he seeks some manner of redress >with the original offending parties. >(3) Numerous attempts at more traditional means of comfort management >have not been able to address the above entity's concerns or problems >either physically or spiritually. Therefore, a fairly non-traditional >means of redress has been undertaken (though there are numerous >precedents in earlier ages for this means on the physical level). She read that over again, tsked at it, let it stand. Jayhawk probably knew as much of that ugliness as she needed to, already--at least she'd implied that she did. >(4) I don't know what you are truly capable of, don't tell me. Much though she would like to know....She wondered what she had been expected to see, and whether Jayhawk would take that tack with Him. >(5) You have approximately 10 days before the above non-traditional >procedure will be attempted. For a little while, she fished in clearer waters, almost recognizing the thoughts that came swimming up to her. The clarity ached too, but she was quietly grateful for it. She wasn't sure she'd been making any sense. >(6) I think that if you could fix the physical problems, the >mental/spiritual might follow (in any case you might be able to sway Him >enough not to seek immediate redress). >(7) Said entity's physical presence is immobile and nearly >indestructible in its current form, making any attempt at physically >dealing with the problem practically impossible. >(8) I think it's my body involved too (or at least what's left of it). >Seperation might be a good first step. It also might be a complete >fiasco, I'm most of His restraint now-a-days. Perhaps Jayhawk would kill her. She didn't think so, didn't think it was possible, but the idea had a dreary appeal. No. She was not done yet, not quite. With an effort she turned her thoughts from that well- worn path, bent again to her work. >(9) Due to proceedures already undertaken said entity is currently the >focus of a great deal of destructive potential on both the spirit and >the magical planes. Any plan of action must deal with these levels in a >thorough and conclusive manner. >(10) I'll append my access codes to matrix equivalents for all stations. >Don't trust them for too long, He's likely to change them when He finds >out. >(11) Said entity is determined to survive and "win". No other outcomes >are likely to be acceptable. She cast about, trying to find something else. What she'd already set down surprised her a little; both more and less than she had thought she could say, in some ways more than she'd ever known. Or perhaps she'd always known it...but it looked different face-to-face. >Us, >martha@paradisio.Him > >P.S. Good luck, I hope you can do something here... Did she really? Hope niggled at her, reopening old wounds. She was tired, drained by the effort of forcing the greyness into words. Tired and a little confused--even the words that were definitely hers didn't seem to say exactly what she'd meant, though she couldn't find any mistakes in them. She packaged the letter and consigned it to the Void, wings to carry it across. Darkness without end. She imagined death that way, and tried to forget the ghosts. 108. Reasons Gregor watched his peculiar patient out of the corner of his eyes, mulling over what she had just told him. She had freed herself from the dragging pain-bond to Anubis, she assured him; she'd mastered the Gate. But she seemed more disturbed than triumphant. "What are you going to do now?" he ventured. She was silent for a long moment, locked in the still-photo pose he had come to associate with deep thought. "I am going to think very hard about what I'm doing. I need to know...if it's my decision to help *him*, or someone else's influence." "Does it matter?" She looked at him incredulously. "Of course it matters! If the reason I want to do it is that Paradisio wants me to do it--then I shouldn't. I am *not* a servant of his." "Why do you think you want to help him, then?" She shook her head, a cascade of bells. In a tense, clipped voice, she said, "It would be comforting to think that it was out of a desire for revenge--that simple death is not sufficient punishment for what he's done." "That isn't it." "No. That isn't it." She ground her fists into her forehead. As he had many times before, Gregor found himself wondering just how artificial those gestures were. "It would be simpler, though. As it is, I can't help but wonder if they--" "Well, how could you find out?" She said nothing, but words scrolled rapidly across the bottom of his screen: /I thought possibly you would have some idea. Silly me./ He'd never seen her do that before; he wondered what it was meant to imply. Not for the first time, he wished that Jones from the CompSci department would agree to monitor these conversations live, rather than simply looking at the tapes later. The computing idiom was still foreign to him. "What do you see as the possible reasons? Maybe I can help you decide among them." "It could be mind control. It could be something more subtle--if you know enough about someone, I imagine you can find ways to nudge them into doing things, just like a computer. It could be that....It could be that I'm just crazy. It could be that having seen *him*, experienced his pain, I....I don't know exactly. It doesn't make sense to me." "Do you have reason to believe that you might be under their control? I thought that the hawk you spoke to told you otherwise." Her eye widened a little, and she touched the faint red scar on her forehead. "It did. That's true. No direct control...." She shook her head. "That would be easier to understand too, if not to deal with." "Do you care what they think of you--Martha, the other Paradisians, the Dragon? It's natural to be concerned with the opinions of those you see as your peers." That had hit home, he suspected. "I care what happens to Martha," she said slowly. "I guess I do care what she thinks of me. I don't really understand that either, except that it seems like she's the only person alive who might be able to shed some light on what I am, what I've done. Aliantha's dead, and I destroyed her records. And...she was kind to me." She shook her head fiercely. "Not that that should matter, given the circumstances." "Do you see her as a victim of Paradisio, rather than an agent?" "They're all victims. Even *him*, if what she told me was true. But still--they've done so much harm, killed so many people, and worse--did I tell you about the ghoul-plague in Seattle? Why can't I be content to let them carry out their self-destruction?" In a whisper: "I could make it certain. I don't know if Martha can cross the Void. I can." "But you don't want to." "If he can't be healed, I *will* kill him. But...." She spoke softly, looking not at him, he thought, but at some private vision. "Being able to heal him, to know that I'd done it, would be so glorious." "That's why, then." Her eyes snapped back to him. "*That's* why? Self-aggrandizement, glory hunting?" "No," he said carefully, "that's not quite what I mean." "What do you mean, then?" Her tone was almost hostile. "I think you know, yourself; you're dodging around it, and it won't do any good for me to tell you, but you have the answer there. I don't think it's necessarily such a bad one either." She folded her arms, sat staring at him for a long minute. "It's the only way to save Martha, I think," she observed at last. "And that matters to me, God knows why. Am I in love with her?" "Are you?" He was pushing the edge of her tolerance, he suspected, but there was a sense of urgency about her, of terrible and irrevocable decisions about to be made, that seemed to him to justify such tactics. Jayhawk snorted. "It seems a little silly. When we were both human, we were both women." "Something else you have in common." She was still, mulling over that. He wondered if she were really still, or if she just stopped updating the picture. Perhaps it was a meaningless question. He still hadn't formed a clear conception of what her life must be like. And probably never would, he reflected. "Could you ask Dr. Marsh to talk to me next time? I have some questions for him about initiation, and spirit journeys." "I'll see if I can arrange that.--Have you decided?" Her image on the screen vanished, replaced by the email utility she had pre-empted; but he still heard her voice, whispering from the speakers. "Oh, I've decided. I only wish I understood why." -- Copyright 1992 Mary K. Kuhner

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