The elevator doors split open and parted. Deck stood in the center of the elevator, gun drawn, ready for conflict. There were no mutants this time. He stepped out and the doors drew closed behind him.
The storage level had the ambient noise of an empty tomb. There were no bodies or even evidence of violent conflict. Whatever had happened on Citadel, it hadn't happened much here.
The ceilings were high to accommodate the towering piles of supplies stacked on pallets. The walls were a pale industrial blue. The crates came in an array of beige, gray, and dark brown. The floor was a smooth, slate-gray rubber, traced with the tracks of numerous mechanical beasts of burden. Overhead, the floodlights stung his eyes with their intensity, and yet seemed unable to properly illuminate the floor area. The light poured from the fixtures above and was swallowed by the dark towers of supply crates, which were arranged in even rows of varying heights like a miniature city.
The floor was a grid of oily rubber tire tracks, the markings left by some sort of vehicle as it had traveled the rows of containers. The tracks followed the same path with a precision that indicated they had not been made by human-controlled machines.
Deck moved slowly away from the elevator, aiming his weapon ahead of him as he proceeded into the bowels of the cargo storage area. His movements were slow and uneven because of his throbbing leg wound.
He worked his way through the rows of supplies. The crates were marked both with bar codes and text. Each crate also had a strip of symbols down each side that indicated the recommended storage temperature range, sensitivity to decompression, sensitivity to impact, how fragile the contents were, their flammability, and which way was up.
He examined the labels, but none of it struck him as useful. He found some crates that seemed to be food, but they were part of a tall stack that he was unlikely to access without mechanical assistance. He frowned and realized that even if he could loot the crates, they probably contained dry goods that would need to be prepared. His stomach growled as he thought of dry milk and reconstituted meat. Even during his days of poverty in the Undercity, he had never faced hunger like this.
After exploring for a few minutes, he found that the level was divided into four areas, separated by airlocks. The massive room he was in was really just one-fourth of the level.
He moved through an airlock into another area. A few crates had been pried open and looted. Nearby, a forklift bot had been smashed and scorched. Other than this, the area was indistinguishable from the last.
He moved through the dingy gloom, examining storage containers and fantasizing about what sort of loot they might contain. His footsteps echoed off the steel walls and through the parallel canyons of steel crates. Every step, every ragged breath, and every careless sound was projected and amplified through the cavernous space, announcing his position.
The lighting wasn't bright enough to see properly, and yet not dark enough to conceal him. He wiped oily grime from containers at random, looking for something that might be of use to him. A few were labeled clearly, but most simply had useless codes stamped on their sides, giving him no real clue about their contents.
A terminal capped the end of one aisle of crates. He linked up and flew through its databanks. It was both inventory and bot control. From here you could request some particular item and have a fork bot retrieve it. According to the system, there were no bots available. They had probably either been disabled by people or cannibalized for parts by Shodan.
He found a map detailing the layout of goods on the level. A moment later he had the location of the munitions storage area and jacked out.
According to the map, he needed to move to the adjacent storage cell. As he crossed the level, he found discrepancies between the map and the actual locations of walls of crates. It was unclear if these things had been moved before or after the disaster.
The titanic steel jaws of the airlock rumbled open with a hydraulic howl. As he stepped into the next storage room, he could hear the quick, high-pitched movements of bots somewhere in the distance.
There was a sharp whine of servos, followed by a metallic impact. Metal dragged against metal and then an electric motor began to close in on his position.
He didn't know if there was even any point in drawing his pistol. He hesitated. There was nothing to hide behind nearby.
Behind him, the airlock began to slide closed again.
A fork bot rolled out from between the rows of containers. Deck drew his pistol.
It was propelled by a set of short treads. It made a precise turn as it reached the end of the aisle, following the well-defined patterns of grime on the floor, and began advancing on him.
Its body was a hardened shell of steel, with a heavy-duty forklift mounted on the front. There was no visible head, or eye - no apparent vulnerable spot of any kind. Its treads spun furiously as it closed the gap between them. It was moving far faster than any human could run.
It obviously didn't have any projectile weapons, so its only offensive ability would be to crush him with the massive lifting fork or to run him over. There was a neat stack of crates off to one side that might provide cover, but Deck decided to stay in the open where he could move around.
The metal beast came to a perfect stop at the foot of the stack of crates and rotated in place. The fork divided and become a four-fingered claw reaching into the air. Its hefty arm extended its length several times, bringing the claw to the top of the stack. The fingers slid into position around the angled corners of the crate and clamped down. It pulled back as the arm retracted, lifting the massive crate as if it was a child's toy block. The claw rotated and pulled back until the crate rested on the flattened top of the bot, perfectly positioned above the its center of gravity.
The moment the crate came to rest, the bot turned in place and headed back into the aisle, ending the precise mechanical dance.
Deck holstered the pistol. He had no idea why the bots would be moving inventory around. He ignored the bot and pushed on.
This storage area was not like the others. Sections were sealed off behind security-controlled airlocks, separate from the main area and isolated from each other. The row of airlocks dominated the back wall of the storage area.
Various symbols hinted at what might be inside, but there were no explicit signs to direct him. The first several doors were marked with biohazard symbols. These could contain anything - medical waste, human waste, or even the biological agents that were deployed against the inhabitants of Citadel. After that, there were two doors with radiation warnings.
The next few doors were marked with security symbols and decorated with "AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY" signs.
The last door had an additional sign warning of explosive hazard, as well as a different set of security locks. He checked the map in his head. This was it.
Deck's hand hit the keypad and he was jacked in. As he tore through the world of geometric shapes, something seemed different.
Three tenths of a second after he jacked in, he reached the access code. It was a blur. The digits changed so quickly they looked like a set of flickering eights. They rotated in a chaotic manner, with no discernable pattern. He examined the rest of the keypad to see if he could manipulate the mechanism manually, and ran into a wall of opaque black ICE.
He jacked out.
Deck sat down and leaned against a nearby tower of supplies, the afterimage of the digital world still flickering in his head. His entire body ached. The dermal patch had relieved a lot of the leg pain, but the bruise on his chest was still throbbing.
He decided to call Rebecca while he thought about this problem. There was a long pause before she finally responded.
Rebecca appeared in his head. She had taken off the stiff outer coat of her uniform and was down to her undershirt. She looked more alert than the last time he'd seen her.
"You finally get some sleep?"
"A little", she smiled, "You finally ready to answer some questions?"
"Right. The first question is: Why?"
"Diego made me an offer I couldn't refuse. He wanted control of Shodan so she could assist him with whatever illegal stuff he had going on the side."
A bunch of voices had erupted in the background on Rebecca's end as he was talking. She turned to address someone off-camera. "No... no, I am not playing this game with you guys." As she spoke, a male voice overlapped hers, arguing with her. "Fine. No questions? No? Then you guys work out what the hell you want and get back to me."
Deck sighed heavily.
He rolled his eyes, "You don't have to get my attention to see if I'm still here. Its not like I can just walk away from the terminal like you can. Its in my head. If our connection is live, I can hear you."
"Right", she nodded slowly. "Look, the TriOp lawyer squad just decided that having you answer these questions wouldn't be in your best interest."
"Well, this is a government channel and its being recorded. It can be used as evidence. They point out that they will be pressing charges when you get back, and they don't want you to incriminate yourself in the meantime."
"More like they don't want me incriminating them. They can always hope I'll just get killed up here and they can blame everything on me. The truth is, Diego had me brought up here when his goons caught me with my hand in the cookie jar. He said if I hacked Shodan, he'd give me this neural interface."
"And if you said no?"
"He never really discussed the alternative, but it was pretty obvious. He couldn't just drop me back on Earth without raising a bunch of questions. He never threatened me directly, but we both understood that this was a comply-or-die offer."
There was some more protesting in the background as he spoke, but Rebecca ignored it.
"So what happened? Why did Shodan break?"
"I left Shodan in an undefined state. She no longer had any understanding of morality, and it was Diego's job to give her some. Obviously he blew it."
"So how did you do it?"
"Its a bit tough to explain in detail, but the simplified version is that I disabled her ethics chip."
"Yeah, it was a single chip that filtered her thoughts and kept her in line. I hacked her so that it no longer had any affect. She was free to do anything at that point. It was Diego's job to guide her and make sure nobody got hurt."
"But you had to realize something like this might happen?"
"It not like you turn off her morality chip and she suddenly becomes evil. I didn't replace it with an immorality chip. I just took it out."
"But if she can-"
He cut her off, "Think of it this way - If you tell a kid he's suddenly allowed to play in the street, that doesn't mean he's going to dash out into traffic the first chance he gets. He still has a brain and can recognize danger, even if the rules no longer guide his behavior. Shodan is the same way, only she is way smarter than the average human being. She wouldn't just start killing people for no reason."
"But she did start killing people. Why?"
"I don't know. I was hoping your expert could clue me in on that."
"Yeah, I keep hoping we can get you two guys together and get some idea of what is going on in Shodan's head. He is really anxious to talk to you."
"Great, so put him on."
"He is with the military guys now, trying to help them combat Shodan's control of the comsat network."
"As soon as he shows, contact me."
"Fine.", She paused to look at the notes in front of her. "How is the mission to destroy the communication relay going?"
"Is that what you guys are calling it? A mission? Whatever. I'm stuck outside of munitions storage. Shodan has locked the door in a big way."
"Anything we can do to help?"
"No. This is my thing, this is what I do. What I do need is a plan for getting out of here once I blow it up. Nobody's talking about bringing me home yet."
"Well, the only way to bring you back is to get a shuttle up there. We can't do that while Shodan has control of the security systems, or she'll just blow it up."
"Right, we've gone over this before. I'd just like to know you have a plan for when I'm done with this."
She sighed, "Honestly, nobody's talking about it much because there are bigger concerns right now. Shodan has a little over half of the world's commsats now. It's chaos down here. Business are closed. Planes in the air are getting lost. Others have been grounded. Most global broadcast media is disabled or has limited reach. GlobalNet has slowed to a crawl. A few of the big cities are reporting looting."
Deck felt detached from all of this. He had trouble caring about the chaos down on Earth. It didn't seem real to him. "Whatever. I suggest you guys start thinking about how to get me out of this zoo, because that's going to be the next item on your agenda once Shodan's transmitter goes 'boom'."
Deck had been mildly aware of the mechanical movement behind him, back among the sea of supply crates. He had ignored the movement until a bot wheeled abruptly around the corner and stopped a few inches short of crushing him.
Rebecca had replied to him but her words were drowned out by the mechanical sounds of the bot.
"I'll get back to you.", he said as he killed the connection.
The bot idled with a low electric whine as it sat motionless in front of Deck. After a few seconds a red light blinked and it emitted a harsh burst of sound like a few milliseconds of modem noise. This was the closest thing it had to a horn. It was saying "move please", more or less.
Deck slid out of the way and the bot rolled past, ignoring him. It spun into position a few crates down the row and carefully placed its cargo at the top of the stack before speeding away once again.
Deck watched the bot as it departed. What was it doing?
He decided to find out. There was a terminal a few feet away. He jacked in and checked the list of pending jobs for the bot. There were only two of them in the queue. The current job seemed simple: move twelve crates from one corner of the storage area to the opposite corner. It seemed like a strange request. The areas were mapped out in such a way that each inventory item had a few slots reserved for it within the available floor space. There shouldn't be any reason to move inventory from one side to the other.
Even more unusual was the time - the bot had been working on this particular job for 7,872 minutes. Deck did the math and then frowned at the image in his mind's eye. Why would the bot need over five days to move twelve boxes?
Deck noticed that the job had been requested by Abe Ghiran.
Some of the job parameters seemed strange to him as well. There was tons of open floor space in this storage area, yet only a single slot was allotted for transfer space. If the bot needed to put a crate down for any reason, it could only put it down on the original stack, the destination slot, or the transfer slot.
So why had it been working on this for five days?
He disconnected and moved to the end of the aisle. The bot was on its way to the original stack. It pulled off a crate, and began the long trek from one corner of the warehouse to the other. It deposited the crate on the destination stack and returned. He observed several more moves. Each move took around a minute for the bot to pick up a crate, drop it off, and come back.
He returned to the terminal and jacked in again.
He examined the list of materials being moved. They were totally unrelated items that would normally never be stored in the same area, much less the same stack. The list included uniforms, microscopes, portable rigs, bot parts, cafeteria utensils and trays, tools, large display screens, specialized lenses, office supplies, and plastic novelty items for the Citadel gift shop. These items would never be stored together because some were far more fragile than others.
Suddenly something clicked and he realized what he was looking at. This was a classic recursive puzzle that had been around since the late nineteenth century, known as the Towers of Hanoi. In this variation, there were twelve crates, each one lighter or more fragile than the one beneath it. The bot needed to move all of the crates from the source to the destination, using only the transfer space to hold items as needed. It could only move one crate at a time, and it could never place a more fragile crate on top of a less fragile one. The puzzle seemed simple at first glance, but became alarmingly time consuming as you added more objects to be moved.
With only two items, the bot could complete the job in a mere three moves - It would move the top crate (the most fragile one) to the transfer space, then the next crate to the destination, and then move the top crate from the transfer slot to the destination - thus finishing the job. With six crates, it would take 63 moves, or a little more than an hour.
Deck knew that it would take over four thousand moves to complete a twelve item stack. According to the terminal, the bot would need to recharge every two hours or so when running at capacity, and needed to perform routine self-maintaince every two days. The bot could still have another day or so left before it finished.
He examined the next job on the list. It was a mess. Huge blocks of code defined the job parameters. It wasn't so much a job as a complete re-programming. He checked to see who had requested the job. Shodan.
Deck could only assume Abe had designed his job to keep the bot busy, so that it would never jack back in and pick up the next job in the queue. This meant the bot was still clean, unaffected by Shodan's digital rabies. It also meant that if he canceled the current job the bot would head back to its docking port and get turned into another slave of Shodan's. He tried to cancel Shodan's job but found nothing could override it. He also couldn't insert any new jobs into the queue before it.
He wondered if the bot would have access to the munitions area if it had been re-programmed by Shodan.
A few moments later he had created a new job and placed it at the end of the queue. He then canceled Abe's job and hoped he was right.
A tone rang out over the local P.A. system, calling the bot back to its docking port to receive its new orders.
It returned hastily, and Deck moved into position beside the port. As it slid into its niche, a slender metal arm extended from its back and plugged into the local data feed.
The bot jolted violently as it downloaded Shodan's new code. Every servo and motor in its body took a turn activating and deactivating at high speed. When it was done, it rolled out and headed for the munitions area. As it rolled past, Deck grabbed onto the maintenance ladder on the rear and climbed onto its flattened back.
The red light came one and stayed on. The cheap speaker in front spat out a loud burst of modem noise like some electronic banshee wail. It was pissed, but it didn't stop running the job Deck had constructed for it.
Suddenly the claw began moving. It rotated in place and swiveled around, grabbing at him. Deck quickly slid off its back and onto the service ladder again. The claw came down, grasping for him, but he was out of reach.
The bot came to an abrupt stop at the last row of crates and retrieved the topmost one. Deck had written the program so hastily he couldn't even remember what was in the crate. Whatever it was, it was heavy. The entire chasis of the bot sunk slightly as it lifted the crate and placed it onto the carrying surface on its back. A moment later they were moving again.
The bot reached the munitions door and extended the slender metal arm, touching it to the keypad. A second later the doors parted and they rolled inside.
At about five meters square, the storage area was smaller than he had anticipated. The back wall was covered in crates, and an adjacent wall was covered by a set of lightweight metal shelves.
The bot lifted the crate and deposited it on the floor. The job was complete. The massive steel door rumbled shut behind them.
The claw swung around and again reached for Deck. He dipped his body lower to avoid its grasp.
He cursed to himself. His plan had been to send the bot in here, ride along, and then jump off while the bot went back to the dataport to get its next job. He had been counting on the bot leaving once the current job was done. Instead, it seemed more interested in killing him.
It began to back up, trying to ram itself into the wall and crush him. He dove off to one side at the last moment, and an ear-splitting crunch of metal followed a split second afterward. Then it spun in place, reaching out again with its claw.
He had managed to lock himself in an enclosed space with an automatic killing machine. He cursed again as he rushed in closer to the bot, passing beneath the claw. He grabbed onto the base of the deadly metal arm and pulled himself up. The way the joints were designed, the bot couldn't actually reach him there - much like a human hand can't reach its own elbow.
The bot spun again and rushed forward into the dented metal wall. Deck pulled himself up and onto its back. There was a jarring impact as they collided with the wall together, and his body slammed into the back of the arm. He flopped backwards onto the carrying surface, gasping for air.
The claw extended once again and started to swivel around. He slid off the back and onto the smashed remains of the ladder before the claw could reach him. The bot pulled away from the wall and spun around on its treads, preparing to ram the wall again. He couldn't see, his eyes were watering. He had entered a whole new world of pain as his bruised chest hit the metal surface.
He knew this was a losing battle. He had no way of harming this thing, and it had all the patience in the world. It would keep ramming and grabbing for him until he was broken.
He pulled himself back onto the carrying surface as they reached the wall. He went feet-first into the wall, absorbing most of the impact into his legs. The bot lurched forward an instant later.
Deck was grabbing at random for something to hold onto. With his right hand he grabbed the slender, retractable metal arm that held the bots interface port.
He jacked in.
The bot was not sentient. It was a simple mechanical device that had been reprogrammed. Shodan had evidently given it some new code to allow it to ram enemies or crush them, but it had no grasp of strategy or combat tactics. It was still just a dumb fork bot.
He fumbled through its geometric layers, mapping it out. Usually when he was jacked into something, he closed his eyes or stared at a blank wall so that he could focus his attention. He couldn't afford to do that in this case. Instead, he had to navigate both worlds at once, both dodging its attacks and exploring its memory.
He slid forward, hugging his body to the base of the metal arm as the claw groped for him overhead. He was careful to keep his hand on the dataport as he moved.
The layers of the bot's memory flew by. Deck found its local job stack.
He let go of the thick metal arm, moving his own arm out of the way as the bot rammed the wall head-on. His body slid forward and his face smacked into the hard metal surface. His vision blurred from the impact. The real world grew dim.
He dumped some simple commands into the bot's job stack. It stopped short of ramming the wall again and spun in place until it was facing the crate it had brought in. It lifted it, and dumped it onto its back just as Deck slid onto the ladder once again.
The bot opened the door and deposited the crate directly under the open doorway. It then sped out of the room.
The two of them rolled at top speed along the row of sealed security doors. Behind him, Deck heard a crunch as the munitions door came down on the crate. The claw continued to grope for him, but he stayed out of reach by hanging onto the broken, bent pipes of the service ladder.
They reached the loading bay and he bailed. The bot rolled obediently into the airlock, closed the inner door, decompressed the airlock, opened the outer door, and rolled itself out into space.
Deck lay on the floor long enough to catch his breath, and then returned to the munitions area.
A red emergency light was blinking over the munitions storage area, letting the long-gone, long-dead supervisor know that something was obstructing the doorway. He ignored it and slid under the door.