00. Foreword
01. Keys
02. Search
03. Downward
04. The Undercity
06. Brain Surgery
07. Matter of Payment
08. Reboot
09. Biohazard
10. Cyberpuppets
11. Links
12. Encryption
13. Queries
14. Debugging
15. Disconnect
16. Downtime
17. Fletch
18. Learning
19. Predator
20. Decompression
21. Kinetic
22. Memory Leak
23. Chronology
24. Lockdown
25. Mind of the Monster
26. Empathy
27. Trojan
28. Reformat

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Deck squeezed the trigger rapidly, sending several bullets into the hind quarters of the short, stout bot. The deafening volume of gunfire never failed to surprise him. The projectiles glanced off the smooth metallic surface, leaving only dents.

An instant later, the bot had swiveled around to face him. It was obviously far more nimble than it appeared. He threw himself backwards as the guns mounted on either side of the robotic body erupted. The sound from the gunfire echoed throughout the network of hallways, making it sound like they were coming from every direction.

He reached around the corner and squeezed off a few blind shots in desperation. Quick metallic footsteps could be heard, rushing to his current position.

The bot was simply a smaller version of the bots Deck had encountered before his surgery. It was about a meter tall, with agile, bird-like legs propelling it. Its guns were mounted at the joints, where the legs joined the bulletproof chassis.

Its eye was a small lens fitted into the otherwise featureless surface. The chances of him hitting it with a pistol were astronomical.

He ran down the corridor, taking the first available turn in order to avoid giving the bot a clear line of fire. As he turned the corner, bullets bit into the plastic wall, sending beige and red fragments flying like shrapnel. He ran a few more steps and made another turn, then another. He was moving as fast as he could, but the plodding footsteps drew closer.

The next turn brought him to a long and darkened hallway with no obvious branches. He knew he would never make it to the opposite end before the bot arrived and began shooting. It was too late to backtrack. He sprinted a few steps and then sidestepped into a nearby darkened room.

He tripped over some unidentified debris in the darkness and fell sideways onto an overturned desk. He swore as he struck his shin, and the edge of the desk met him in the ribs. The impact knocked the air from his lungs. He flailed, trying to recover from his fall as the relentless footsteps drew near. He struggled to his feet. Debris shifted beneath him, stealing his balance.

In the darkness, he slapped the lock mechanism for the door. The door responded by sliding partly closed, stopped short by some broken fragment of furniture. It was part of the base of a rolling office chair.

He bent down and grasped one of the wheeled legs, trying to pull it free of the door.

The sound of dual machine guns again filled the corridor. Deck collapsed onto his back as bullets punched through the wall and passed through the space where he had been standing only moments before. The gunfire continued, chewing numerous broad holes in the wall.

Pain radiated from his ribs, and he wondered if he had cracked something. He covered his eyes to protect them from the flying chunks of hardened plastic as they were torn from the walls by the stream of bullets. After a few moments of gunfire, he rolled over onto his belly and began crawling. He didn't know where he was going, but it seemed better to not be so close to the door.

It was nearly pitch dark in the room. The only light came from the gap in the door, and through the increasing number of holes in the wall.

He crawled over unseen junk. Some of it felt like file folders and books, some of it was solid - hardware of some sort. Sharp items cut into his hands. He crawled behind the desk he had fallen on earlier. There was an impact as something struck him in the left thigh. He stifled a grunt as the pain traced the network of nerve endings from the point of impact to his brain. He touched his leg. It was wet.

The gunfire stopped.

There was a long silence, during which Deck could only hear his own breathing, and the ringing in his ears. After several seconds, the bot once again began moving. Then the door slid open, filling the room with light.

Deck knew that locking the door had been a bit of a long shot. Security bots that could become locked in or out of key areas would not be of much use.

The whirring of servos came from the hall as the bot tried to negotiate its way into the room. With the light from the corridor, Deck could now see that there was a door in the rear of the office. Reaching it now would mean crossing the open room - an act of certain suicide. At his feet were the twisted remains of some maintenance bot. The broken fragments of its frame were spread around its gutted carcass. This was probably what had sliced his hands open moments before.

His leg tingled with pain. He wanted to squirm, to adjust his position and nurse the wound, but movement would surely attract the lethal attention of the bot.

The whirring of servos continued. The bot was obviously having difficulty navigating through the debris. It had been designed to travel over open, flat surfaces, and was not properly equipped to wade through the clutter. Its legs prodded the ground, testing for stable terrain.

Deck lay on his back, bleeding all over himself for several minutes while the bot explored the stability of the junk that littered the room.

Finally, there was the sound of metal surfaces colliding, and a frantic burst of servo activity. Moments later he heard the bot topple over and hit the wall.

Deck wiped the blood from his hands and drew in a deep breath. He knew this was his best chance of escape. He leapt to his feet and jumped the desk. As he landed, a lightning bolt of pain shot through his leg and he collapsed.

The bot thrashed vigorously, but was unable to recover. It had caught one of its large feet in the framework of an office chair. It was laying face-down in the corner, unable to stand or roll over without the use of both legs.

Deck crawled out the door and pulled himself to his feet. He needed to stop and tend his wounds before he could proceed, but he wanted to get some distance between himself and the bot before he did.

He retraced his steps as well as he could remember. He entered another lab at random. After making sure he was alone, he locked the door.

It was a small lab, with a long counter in the center. A sink was built into the countertop. A small fridge was built into the wall opposite the door. In the corners were a few small desks. A lab coat was hung on a hook inside the doorway. He searched the pockets but came up empty. He took the lab coat over to the sink and unzipped his suit.

He pulled his upper body out of the suit, and peeled it down to reveal the wound on his thigh. The cold air met with his sweaty skin and a chill came over him.

He realized that it would be better to take the suit all of the way off, as opposed to leaving it hang between his legs where it would only trip him up if he needed to run or fight. Fighting naked was preferable to fighting with his pants around his ankles.

He faced the doorway and placed his pistol on the counter in front of him where he could reach it in a hurry. He stepped out of his blood-soaked bodysleave and set it aside.

A chunk of beige plastic jutted out from his left thigh. He had assumed it was a bullet wound, but apparently he was simply struck by a piece of the wall as it was torn apart by the hail of bullets.

Balancing himself on his right leg, he grasped the wet plastic and pulled. He was shocked by both the intensity of the pain, and the length of the plastic fragment. It took him several agonizing seconds to extract the jagged, three-inch triangle of plastic from his thigh.

Once freed of the foreign blockage, the wound began to flow.

A new message appeared in his HUD:

Connected. US.GOV-RL1.VID

"Lansing here."

The image of Rebecca appeared in his head. "Hey, I need -"

"Wait. Don't say anything more."

"What?", Deck made a confused face at nobody in particular.

"The military guys here are worried that we're using a non-encrypted signal. TriOp is worried about it too, but for different reasons."

"What do you mean?" He was naked, sitting in the corner of the lab, holding a formerly-white lab coat over his leg. The bleeding had slowed. He winced as he pressed the rough fabric into the wound.

"The military is worried that Shodan is listening to our conversations."

Deck reflected for a moment, "You know, that makes a lot of sense. It would explain how they found me up on the medical level an hour ago. I just figured it was random at the time."

"And TriOptimum is worried the media will find our feed and tap into it."

"Fine. Let's encrypt it." Deck shrugged, " What should we use as a key?"

Rebecca shook her head. "I don't know. They have some military spooks here - one of them suggested using landmarks. For example, pick a city you're familiar with, and name an intersection."

In order for two parties to share encrypted information - text, audio, video, or some other form of abstract data - they both must agree on some "key" to use. The key could be any piece of information that was exclusive to those exchanging the data. That was the trick - they needed information not available to Shodan or the potential media listeners. They couldn't use the feed to exchange the key, or else everyone else would have it as well, thus making the encryption useless.

Deck wondered if this wasn't a subtle attempt to find out where he was from. "I don't see how that would work. Shodan has access to phone books. She'll just look it up."

"No, make it something that's not in the phonebook. Make it the slogan of some small store, or the graffiti on the wall. Just give us a location, and we'll have someone go there and see what the sign says, and we can use that as our key."

"I've been out of it for at least six weeks - more like seven, actually. A lot of signs could have changed since then. Besides, that might stop Shodan, but that won't stop the media. Any journalist can swing by and see the key for themselves."

Rebecca glanced sideways and shrugged slightly. It was clear she didn't care if the media found out and everything went public. Maybe that's what she wanted.

"Gimmie a moment to think about this."


Deck leaned back against the cold wall. How could two strangers exchange private information in a public forum? What information did he and Rebecca have access to, but not Shodan or the public in general?

While his left hand kept pressure on his leg wound, he used his right hand to prod the bruise that was forming at the base of his ribcage on the right side. Every time he breathed in it caused a sharp jab of pain. His shin was already sporting a large lump.

Finding information not available to the public would be easy. Anything out of the TriOp database would work. However, Shodan would certainly have access to that. For it to work, he would need something from the database that Shodan somehow couldn't access.

His head snapped up, "I got it."

Rebecca had slouched down into her seat, and it looked like she was ready to nod off. As he spoke her eyes snapped open, "I'm listening."

"There is an employee in the database that I created about five days before I went into stasis. I guess that would have been almost seven weeks ago. It has executive-level access. I don't imagine there would be any other brand-new executive employees created around that time, so it should be easy to find."

He tore the foil off of a dermal patch and unfolded it. The bleeding had finally slowed down to the point where a patch would stick. He was freezing and in a hurry to get dressed.

Lansing shrugged, "Okay, I can look it up, but Shodan can do the same."

"Right, don't worry about that for now. Look up that account, and use the employee number as the encryption key. Shodan won't be able to do the same."

There was a pause while she gave him a curious look. Finally he added, "I made some changes."

He winced as he gently pressed the plastic circle onto the damaged area. As the medicated surface touched his skin, it began to contract and pull the wound closed. Healing enzymes soaked into his skin, along with a small dose of local anesthetics.

"Yeah, there are a lot of people here who want to ask about the 'changes' you've made. Like what did you do, and why did you do it?"

"That will have to wait until we're on an encrypted channel" He killed the connection.

His hands had stopped bleeding. The left one had a row of deep parallel abrasions. The right just had a pair of minor cuts. He decided to spend a dermal patch on the left hand, and let the right one heal on its own.

He pulled on his bodysleave and washed up in the sink.

He checked the fridge, hoping to find some food, but it was full of vials that seemed to contain a variety of human fluids. After a few minutes of looking around and ransacking cupboards and drawers, he concluded the room had nothing of value to him.

He decided to check out the local data archives while he waited for Rebecca to get back to him. He limped over to the small desk that had been shoved into a corner, and turned it around so that he could face the door while sitting at the desk.

He plunged into the sea of data. This console was apparently shared by a number of people. He found various video feeds recorded by a handful of former employees. He flew through the strands of video, briefly glancing at each one to see if it held anything interesting. Most of them seemed to be dated from months ago, and of not much use to him.

Finally he came to one that was three weeks old. He flew to the top and rushed through the stack. The data tag indicated it was recorded by Paul Stannek.

Paul was in his early thirties, with dark hair, and suffering from a bad case of 'low, sloping Neanderthal forehead'. "D'arcy called a lot of us together in his office today and shared some of his concerns. It turns out, the sickness isn't a disease, its the effect of some biological agent. Even worse, its one that apparently we manufacture. He didn't know how it got loose, but he said that he didn't think it was a mistake. I guess there are a bunch of safeguards against this sort of thing. An alarm should have sounded as soon as the stuff hit the ventilation system. Someone had to turn off all of the safeguards for this stuff to get by."

Paul sighed and looked to his right at something off camera. Deck realized he would have been looking at the small air vent built into the wall beside the desk.

Paul continued, "What worried me most was that he thinks someone is still releasing this stuff. Its like, it doesn't live long once you get it into the air. So, the only way to get infected is to come into direct contact with someone who's infected, or to breathe in a dose that was released in the last few minutes. D'Arcy is looking at the infection rate and grouping, and he's convinced this is all deliberate." He reached to turn off the recorder and then paused, "One other thing - when we got back, someone had taken a bunch of augmentation equipment. This is really strange. I'd be on the next shuttle home if the place wasn't quarantined."

Deck moved to the next recording. It was Paul again, "We came in to work this morning but there's nothing to work on. Every scrap of prosthetic and augmentation is gone from inventory. Even the brand new prototype models that were in the security locker. Only three - well, two now - only two people have the code for that thing, and neither of them opened the locker for anyone. I went to call home a min-"

Deck skipped through the message. He knew how the story ended. He scanned through a few more logs. Most were personal and fairly emotional. Each crew member would pour out their heart as someone close to them vanished, was infected, or killed. The logs stopped about a week before he awoke. There was never any mention of the cyborgs. Either people stopped making entries at some point, or the cyborgs swept through so fast that nobody had a chance to talk about them.

Deck leaned back and stretched gently, careful to avoid aggravating his numerous wounds. He had lost track of time as he waded through the messages. It was time to get moving.

Incoming signal: US.GOV-RL1.VID - signal type unknown.

Deck figured it was the encryption. He used 2-4601 as the key and the feed opened up.

"Looks like you found my employee number."

Every time he saw her she looked a little more burnt out and haggard. "I have so many questions for you I don't even know where to start."

"Screw your questions for now. What the hell am I going to be doing when I get to the reactor level?"

She seemed surprised, "When you get there? We figured you would be there by now."

"I suppose I would be if all I had to do was walk there. It's not like I can just wander around freely. This place is crawling with crazy stuff and getting from A to B is dangerous and time-consuming. Which makes me wonder why I'm doing it. "

She glanced over to someone off camera, "Actually, there's some debate on that now. The military guys want you to go down and blow up the antennae array."

"Sounds like a lot of fun. What the hell good will it do?"

"The array is what Shodan uses to communicate with the satellites. With everything, really. Blow it up, and you will cut Shodan off from the satellites. I don't know if we'll get them back at that point, but it should stop her from getting any more - and stop her from using the ones she has. You can't imagine the uproar caused by losing a fourth of the world's comsats."

"Actually, I can. So what's the debate?"

"TriOp argues that the array cost about two billion dollars, and you don't need to blow it up - just disable it."

He laughed, "To hell with that. I'm only going to do this once. If I turn it off, she'll turn it back on. If I break it, she'll fix it. The only way to stop this is to destroy it."

"That's exactly what the military guys are saying, but TriOp disagrees, and it is their property. It's not really very clear who's in charge here."

Deck growled, "You know who's in charge here?"

She raised an eyebrow.

"Me. I'm up here alone, and I'm the one risking my life." As he spoke, he could hear outraged yelling in the background on Rebecca's end.

He responded, "Hey, if you guys don't like the way I run this show, feel free to send up one of your own guys. Otherwise, I'm gonna blow up your damn antennae."

Rebecca smiled weakly.

"So we're gonna blow it up. That sounds great, but I'm fresh out of plastic explosives."

"Well, the records we have indicate there were some various munitions stored on level four - that's the storage and cargo level."

"Moving around isn't that easy up here. I can't just hop from floor to floor. I nearly got killed about forty-five minutes ago when I ran into some bot. Now I'm supposed to hunt around on level four before I head down to engineering?"

Someone began talking to her in the background. She held up a hand to silence them. "A TriOp lawyer helpfully points out that you don't need explosives if you are just just going to disable the antennae."

Deck drew in a slow, angry breath. "Fine. Storage. How do we get there?"

"There is a freight elevator that goes from levels two through five. That might be better than using the main elevator."

"Yeah, that would be good. Mutants seem to congregate around the elevators for whatever reason. I'd better get moving."

"Wait. Don't hang up on me again. You keep doing that, and it's making me crazy."

"Well? What else do you need?"

"She paged through some paper in front of her. Look, there are a bunch of questions I'm supposed to ask you. You dropped quite a bomb on us earlier when you said you were the one that messed up Shodan."

"Yeah, well, I was supposed to get a chance to talk with the tech guy - one of the Shodan designers. I have some questions for him."

She sighed, "Where do I start?"

Deck gazed at the tired, frustrated face in his mind's eye. "You look like hell. I'll tell you what. I want to sneak up, er down - I guess - to level four. That means I can't be talking to you. Why don't you get some sleep and I'll contact you when I get there?"

She nodded, "Sounds good to me."

"See you on level four, Out.", he closed the connection and began the long crawl across the research level.

7Links = Queries 8