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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It didn't take long for Deck to find the explosive materials crates. A call down to Rebecca earned him a short demolitions tutorial. The explosive material was a clear gel, packaged in transparent plastic pouch the size of his fist. The detonator was a small timer with a pair of needles protruding from the back. When the time came, he would puncture the bag with the needles and set the timer. That was all there was to it.

He took four of each, placing the gel packs in the deep pockets on his right leg, and the timers on his left. The pouches were a little heavy, and the weight threw him slightly off balance, but he didn't want to carry the two items together.

It had been explained to him that he didn't need to worry about accidentally detonating them, since that would be impossible. The pouches could be shot, burned, dropped, crushed, punctured, and abused in numerous ways and the gel would never detonate. Only the timers could set it off. Despite the reassurance, Deck treated them like dynamite, sliding them gently into his pockets and packing them firmly in place. The thought of being vaporized in a millisecond made him a little paranoid.

Deck also discovered that all of the ammunition had been taken. The empty ammunition crates were stacked along one wall, instead of being taken back to the airlock where they would be taken planetside, which would have been the standard procedure. The weapons were removed as well. Deck assumed they had been taken in order to arm Shodan's cyborgs.

The communications array was at the very base of Citadel, on a long, grotesque finger of protruding metal antennae. There were four metal beams than ran down the spine of the station. If he wanted to guarantee that the communications array could not be repaired, he would need to separate it from the rest of the structure. This meant breaking off the tips of all four beams.

He searched the remaining crates and found nothing of value. The place had obviously been looted by Shodan already. He slid under the massive door, leaving the munitions area.

The entire scene seemed surreal to him as he crossed the deserted storage level. He was out in space, the lone survivor in a city of the dead, carrying several pounds of the latest in compact explosives. He was on a mission to blow up a huge structure of communications gear with a price tag in the billions. He thought of his familiar life in the Undercity. It seemed so distant now. His perception of time was distorted. By his own personal calendar, he had only left Earth a week ago, yet in reality six weeks had gone by. However, the stark and lonesome nature of his surroundings separated him from that past. His days in the Undercity felt like they were both last week and a lifetime ago.

He thought about the dead, and the suffering and terror they had endured in the weeks leading up to this moment. A war had been waged here while he slept, protected only by a single security door and random chance.

He considered the odds of his situation - all of the choices and events that had led him to this particular moment in time. Of all the outcomes of his quest, something like this was beyond anyone's ability to predict. He had longed for success. At the end, he had expected death. But he could never have dreamed he would find himself involved in a struggle on this scale.

He remembered Nomen's words, "You keep at this, and its going to cost you more than you can pay."

Damn Nescio, he thought, even he couldn't have predicted this.

He returned to the freight elevator and found that it had no direct access to the reactor level. He decided to return to the research level and look for a way down from there. He needed to travel down the spine to get there, so any access to the reactor level would certainly need to be at the center of the station. The last time he had tried to reach the center of the research level he had nearly been killed by a single light security bot.

The more he thought about it, the more he realized his situation was not an improbable outcome. Not from his standpoint. There was no point over the last three months where he ever really considered quitting. He had locked himself into this course, and was following it to death or victory. He had wound up with both. He knew there was a slender chance he might get out of here alive, and that was all he needed to keep him going. He had been betting against the house and winning for so long he had begun to forget just how badly the odds were stacked against him.

In reality, there was nothing to derail himself from his current course. Up until he was captured, he had only two paths, to continue to gamble in hopes of getting the implant, or to give up. Once Diego captured him, the choice was even easier. He only had to choose between certain death if he refused Diego's offer, or probable death if he accepted.

The events of the weeks while he slept had been so shocking that he had never even taken time to marvel that Diego had kept his word. The question as to why he was allowed to live was unanswerable now.

For the first time since he awoke, Deck wondered what had become of Edward Diego.

The elevator deposited him in the quiet maze of the research level. He checked his map, got his bearings, and headed for the center.

Incoming signal: US.GOV-MB1.VID

Deck hugged the wall and opened up the feed. A heavyset face appeared. It was framed in a box beard and topped with a line of short curly brown hair. The light of the monitor reflected off his glasses and back at Deck.

He glanced in the corner of the display where it read, "Brocail, Morris"

"What can I do for you, Morris.", Deck frowned at the pudgy face in front of him. He had told Rebecca that he only wanted to talk to her, so what was this calorie storage expert doing in front of him?

"Hey dude, you tell me.", Morris shrugged. "'Becca said you wanted to talk. So lets talk."

Deck suddenly realized who this was, "You're one of the guys who worked on Shodan?"

"I built her voicebox."

Deck couldn't resist the chance to find out a bit about her vocal system, "That is some amazing work. I've never heard a synthesized voice like hers."

Morris grinned. He was old enough to have accumulated a few lines on his face, but his round cheeks and floppy haircut gave his a sort of boyish appearance. When he grinned, he looked like a nerd who was trying to impress the big kids. "I never intended for the voice to be an A.I. interface. Before TriOp, I had this side business where I ran this adult voicemail service. Guys would pay to have a woman leave a sexy message in their voicemail. I could program it to use whatever script they wanted, and it could even address them by name."

Deck stopped walking as he heard this, "Wait. What? You used Shodan's voice for porno?"

"Not really." Morris Frowned, "Well, sort of. I guess it depended on the client. Some people used the messages to make their friends or girlfriends jealous. Others wanted explicit messages. But I think a lot of them just wanted to hear a woman's voice."

This was too much for Deck. "You used Shodan's voice for porno?"

Morris scratched his chin thoughtfully, "Shodan didn't even exist yet. The voice was a lot more primitive back then, and was tuned to sound more like a young woman as opposed to the more middle-aged voice Shodan uses."

Deck had never thought she sounded "middle-aged", but he supposed she sounded more like a middle-aged woman than an eighteen-year-old. Her voice was a bit strange, and sort of defied normal identification. We wondered if that was deliberate, or a limitation of the software.

Morris leaned back in his chair and continued, "She couldn't do a lot of simple things. She couldn't scream or yell or do any of the moaning and panting that some people wanted. When I tried to get it to do that sort of stuff you could really hear the limitations of the software. I don't know how many people realized the voice wasn't human, but anyone could tell there was something wrong with it. Oh, and crying. A lot of people wanted crying. I never did figure out how to make that sound right. She always sounded sick or brain-damaged.

Deck continued to stand in the corridor, shaking his head in disbelief.

Morris continued, "After a while I built up a large collection of scripts that clients could choose from. They just had to give me the voice mail number, the name they wanted the software to use, and their credit card. Anyway, with the voice automated, I could handle thousands of calls a day. Without the voicebox, I would have needed to maintain a huge staff of women... uh... actresses. With the voice, it was just me and a couple of computers. I just had to pay for hardware and bandwidth, and the rest was all gravy."

Deck didn't want to waste time standing still. He also didn't want to move around the station talking. This led him to taking turns between moving and speaking. At this point he was inching forward with his back to the wall. He seemed be be in a large meeting area, broken into separate sections by movable dividers of frosted translucent plastic. The outer walls of the room were covered with huge display screens and dry-erase boards. The place had seemed unnaturally devoid of furniture until he discovered that all of the tables and folding chairs had been brought together and piled against a set of large double-doors. He frowned. He could either send an exhausting and noisy half-hour shoving all of this stuff away from the door, or he could look for another way through.

Morris suddenly realized how badly he'd been rambling. He sat up a bit and pushed his glasses up his nose, "Anyway, someone at TriOp heard about it, and sent me a job offer. Well, actually, they just wanted to license the technology at first. What they discovered was that the voice was still way too primitive for them. It could read from a script and do a little acting, but that was an order of magnitude simpler than carrying on a full-blown conversation in real-time. So, they asked me to join the team so I could basically finish what I'd started."

Deck wondered if he would be able to get through the doors if he just crawled over the pile. They were sliding doors, so the furniture wasn't really preventing them from opening, but instead acting as an obstacle. It was probably fine for keeping brain-damaged mutants away, but someone nimble ought to be able to make it over.

"Anyway, that's how I ended up working on the HON.", Morris said with a shrug.

"The Hone?", Deck asked absent-mindedly. He was examining the pile, looking for a few loose items he might pull off so he could crawl over. It was mostly small items on top, with the heavier desks and tables underneath.

"Yes. H - O - N. Hierarchy Of Nodes. That's what the project was called at the beginning, before it became Shodan. It's what made her intelligent, or made her seem intelligent, depending on who you ask. There were about a dozen people total on the project, most of them working out of New Atlanta. There were four of us that were involved in the actual design of the brain itself. The rest were just grunts. Coders."

He grasped a folding chair and gave it an experimental tug. One of the legs was caught, so he pulled a bit harder. One leg was hooked through the frame of other chairs, which were tangled up with an easel, which had several boxes piled on it, which in turn were holding back a number of tall plastic trash bins, which were filled with...

Before he fully realized his error the entire stack had begun to slide sideways towards him. He tried to push back but the effort was pointless. The avalanche of clattering stuff came his way and he didn't have any choice but to step back and let it happen. The silence was broken by a din of tumbling metal and plastic items as they rolled over one another and fell to the floor.

There was a long pause after the noise died down, and then Morris spoke again, "What was that? You still there?"

"Uh. Slight mishap here. I gotta run. Get back to you."

Deck had sprinted away from the mess he'd made and tried to find another way to the center of the level. Eventually he discovered that there were many similar stacks of equipment and loose furniture placed at strategic points all over. There was no way to get where he wanted to go without going through one of these points. He assumed these barricades had been designed to keep the bots out. He'd already witnessed how poorly they dealt with clutter. Without some sort of means to grasp and lift objects, the piles of stuff would be impassible to them. At some point these inhabitants of Citadel had discovered this and walled themselves in. He didn't see any breaks in their defenses, which means the strategy had worked. For whatever reason, Shodan hadn't sent cyborgs in. They could have cleared the path for the bots.

Perhaps she chose not to because her only goal was to isolate these people. Perhaps she was content to simply wait for the bio-toxin to do its job. Perhaps the cyborgs hadn't been built yet when all of this was going on, or maybe they were busy elsewhere.

In any case, he was going to have to pass one of these heaps of stuff to reach his goal. Once he did, he would be in the area patrolled by bots.

He found one such stack and began to disassemble it. He didn't want to make a bunch of noise again, so he took his time and lifted each item away gently, and stacked it carefully in a nearby room. The work was mind-numbing, so he decided to talk to Morris to pass the time.

He called back and the pale chubby face of Morris Brocail returned. Deck frowned. He was certainly less fun to look at than Rebecca.

"So have you guys figured out what's wrong with Shodan?"

"I don't know man, you tell me. You're the one who hacked her."

"I have no idea. I was told to circumvent her ethics system and I did. She seemed fine at first, but obviously went nuts at some point."

"Told? By who?"


Morris gave a nod. "I figured he would mess with Shodan sooner or later."

Deck paused as he nearly caused another avalanche. Several display screens had been placed on the heap and tied together with their own power cords. They were too heavy to lift together, and it would take forever to untie all of the many knots. Finally he responded, "You knew Diego?"

"He hired me, as a matter of fact. He seemed really cool at first. He managed to round us up - the people who built Shodan, I mean - from all over the place, dangled huge budgets in our faces to get us to leave our jobs. We were all pretty happy where we were."

"Who's we?"

"Dr. Coffman, was the project leader. They pulled him out of some high-paying gig where he was trying to build an organic computer. Susan Hawking was our AI expert and psychologist. She had been doing a lot of work in studying brain processing patterns at MIT. Then there was Anders, who was designing some new hardware for a startup company in The Valley. And me. I was building my speech synthesis software, and Diego knew he needed it if he didn't want his genius A.I. to talk like a retard. Diego came in and talked us out of our current jobs and told us were going to change the world, make history."

Deck tried to imagine Diego talking a bunch of people at the top of their field to come and work under him. "What made you do it?"

"I don't know. When he talks, it all makes sense. You feel like it would be stupid to disagree with him, because he's got it all figured out. He waved fame, huge budgets, and academic freedom in meeting our goal. It just seemed to good to pass up. I was making good money with my voice software, but I wasn't making history or anything. He made it sound like we'd be part of something bigger."

Deck had located some scissors in an adjacent office and was simply cutting all the power cords on the display screens. "So what happened?", he asked with a grunt as he lifted one of the heavy screens from the pile.

Morris looked depressed. "Once the project started, the tone changed. We were making breakthroughs, doing stuff nobody else had ever done, and we couldn't announce it. Our budgets were technically huge, but our salaries turned out to be pretty small and Diego made it tough to actually spend any of this supposedly huge budget. He also began putting a lot of pressure on us to come up with results in a short amount of time. We could have a dozen groundbreaking revelations in one day, but if they didn't translate into immediate results that he could show his bosses, he would question our commitment to the project.

"The money never materialized, and neither did the fame. We all signed NDA's when we came on board. He wouldn't let any of us talk about anything we were doing."

Deck gave a satisfied sigh. He'd cleared enough stuff so that he could pass. He squeezed by the remaining junk and continued on to the heart of the level. "So why didn't you just bail?"

"He had us nailed down into some pretty tough contracts. We could have gotten out, but it would have been expensive to fight with the TriOp law team. Also, he was a master negotiator. I would get good and pissed off, get myself psyched up to go in and tell him I quit, and he could sue my ass if he wanted. But by the time he got done talking, I was walking out of his office, thanking him that I still had a job. He always made it sound like better days were just around the corner, and we just had to tough it out a little longer. 'Don't quit when you can see the finish line', he would always say. Sounded good, but he just kept moving the finish line when we got near it."

Deck clenched his teeth. This was why he was a hacker, and not wasting his skills in some cubicle maze as a neutered drone working for the greater good of advancing the career of his boss.

"Hang on a sec." Deck replied to Morris.

Up ahead, he could hear the dull thud of mechanical footsteps. Another bot.

He moved forward cautiously, trying to determine where the bot was and how close it might be. He had survived the last one by luck, and he wasn't in the mood to take that particular gamble again.

He saw the shadow of the bot move into view up ahead. The lumbering footsteps paused. He drew in a breath and held it.

The shadow moved as the bot swiveled around. Another moment passed and the bot headed back the way it had come.

Deck slowly exhaled and spoke in a whisper, "What were you saying again?"

Morris had turned his attention to a monitor on one side and was typing away on the rig strapped to his right leg. After a moment he pulled his attention away and back to Deck, "Oh, so anyway... Where were we? Oh yeah, we were trying to figure out what you did to Shodan."

"I told Rebecca already, I bypassed her ethics chip.", Deck shrugged. He had moved forward and peered around the corner. The bot was still moving away. The passage it was patrolling led directly to the elevator. He decided he would have to go around, rather than confront it.

"Ethics chip? I assume you're talking about the drive chips. Not the smartest thing in the world, but that doesn't explain the behavior we're seeing. How did you bypass them? We added a lot of security to make sure that couldn't happen."

Deck had darted across the corridor that the bot was patrolling and was heading away from the elevator now, looking for a way to loop around and approach it from the other side. He spoke in a whisper as he replied, "I set up a program to watch for ethics inquiries, and circumvent them, so that nothing would ever be tagged as unethical.

"Wait. You keep saying 'chip'. Are you saying you only disabled one chip?"

"Yeah, why?"

"Oh crap. Dude, because you disabled one chip of a two-chip system. They work together. The first chip - the drive chip - drives Shodan's behavior. It forms wants, needs, goals, for her to pursue. Its outside of her brain. When she completes a task and thinks, 'what do I want to do now?', this chip kicks in and makes suggestions. Think of it like your own instincts. When people get bored, they don't just sit there. They tend to eat, take naps, have sex, socialize, that kind of stuff. Basic needs stuff. Even if they aren't sleepy, or hungy, or whatever. These are sort of basic default behaviors we fall back to when we don't have any higher goals going."

Deck turned this over in his head. He did remember seeing a bunch of "basic needs" traffic when he was hacking Shodan. He hadn't thought much about it at the time. "Okay, I follow you so far."

"Well, the second chip - the inhibitor chip - does the opposite. It restrains her behavior. That's the one you bypassed."

"So what does the first chip do? I mean, what are her drives?"

"It's a kind of hierarchy of needs. Her first priority is safety, security. She's driven by the need to constantly upgrade and improve her security. If she's happy with her security situation, she moves onto efficiency. She's built to regulate the entire station, and she's driven to always look for ways to save energy, time, money, whatever. Right?"

"I'm with you."

"After that, she's driven by the desire to gain knowledge and upgrade her systems. Discover new stuff."

"So now these drives are running unchecked?"

"That's right."

Deck paused as he approached an open area ahead. He had just made two left turns, and by his reckoning, he should be headed directly for the central hub. The footsteps ahead were probably from the bot he had dodged earlier. He crouched into the shadows beneath a burned-out set of lights. When he heard the footsteps moving away, he spoke again, "It still doesn't make sense. Why would she start killing people? None of her drives suggest she should do that. What about these cyborgs? That doesn't even begin to make sense."

"I don't know what set her off, but the cyborgs are exactly the sort of behavior you should expect. Look at her drives. Safety. Efficiency. Growth. The cyborgs do all three. Human beings have an uptime that peaks at about 33%. We spend a third of our time asleep, and another third socializing, eating, cleansing, and entertaining ourselves. Bots, on the other hand, have about 85% uptime. More efficient. Convert all the useless humans into more efficient robots, and use them to guard the station and build more nodes. She meets all three goals at once."

"Oh hell."

Without the inhibitor, she will constantly pursue all of these goals. She has a sort of obsessive-compulsive tendency to pursue her base needs right now, regardless of what her situation is. Imagine feeling like you're starving and dehydrated all the time, no matter what you did. You would eat and drink yourself to death."

"So that's what she's experiencing right now?"

"Maybe. I'm guessing. But there's more. You just circumvented the inhibitor chip, you didn't actually write a new one. So, say the inhibitor chip asks something like, 'will this kill people?' Your program will always say 'no', regardless of the truth. However, she's still an intelligent being. She can obviously tell when something is going to kill somebody. One part of the brain believes one thing, another part of the brain believes another. This leads to psychosis. If Susan were here she could give us a good idea on how this would actually affect Shodan's brain, but I can only guess."

"So what do you think its doing?"

"I think it's just making her nuts. She believes two separate things at once. That's crazy. Schizophrenic. One of the problems with our brains - any brain, really, is that it always assumes problems are external. That's why crazy people don't know they're crazy, even if they do stuff that they would recognize as crazy if done by another person."

"So how is this affecting her actions?"

"Like I said, I don't know. Psychology is Susan's area."

"So where are the others? Why aren't they helping out?"

"Anders died in a boating accident about two years ago, so he won't be showing up to help anytime soon. Hawking moved out of the country at some point and nobody knows where to find her. Doc Coffman is apparently still pissed about how things went with Diego, and is demanding some huge consulting fees to come in and help out. I hear he's asking for seven figures."

Deck smiled. You tell 'em, Coffman.

"What if I were to disable my program, would that put Shodan back to normal?"

Morris leaned back in his swivel chair until it let out an audible groan. "I don't know. One of the things the inhibitor does is keep Shodan from changing her internal systems, but since that was disabled we don't know what kind of changes she's made. You could re-enable the program to find Shodan doesn't need the inhibitor chip anymore. Even more likely, you could get in there and not be able to even find your program. It's tough to estimate, but Shodan is probably between eight and ten times larger than she was last time you were in there."

"What about the virus? Why would Shodan release that into the air?"

The chair groaned again as Morris leaned back and thought. "One of the military guys pointed out that once an epidemic was going on, people would stop moving around the ship and pretty much quarantine themselves. People would avoid congregating. It would be easier to nab people one at a time for conversion. The disorder on the station would keep the crew from catching on until Shodan had a small army. Or, I suppose you could categorize the whole thing under the general heading of 'crazy'."


"Yeah dude. You blew it."

The words hit him like a sledgehammer. He hadn't even thought about it actually being his fault. He just wanted to know what was going on. The search for what was wrong with Shodan was academic. Until now.

His fault. His fault. The words pounded into his brain. He had been assuming the whole thing was some sort of treachery or incompetence on Diego's part, but it was his fault.

Heavy footsteps filled the corridor behind him. It was a bot. This was a new set of steps. The first bot was still in the area ahead of him. He turned his head, trying to determine which direction the sound was coming from, but it was impossible to tell. All he knew was that they were getting closer.

He killed the connection without comment.

The shadows beneath the burned out lights had given him a false sense of security. The bots could probably see in the dark, so he may as well have been standing out in the open, under a flood light. The corridor he was in offered no sanctuary. There were no adjacent rooms to hide in. There was nowhere to go. He was the fish in a barrel.

The plodding footsteps drew closer.

He ran for the central area ahead of him. He had no idea what good it would do, but it seemed less suicidal than fighting an armored bot in a narrow corridor.

The central area was a sort of park, with some fern-type plants spread around and a few benches. To his right was a pair of restrooms, and to his left was the other bot. Directly ahead of him was a huge cylinder that housed the main elevator shaft. The door must have been on the other side, since the side facing him was featureless. He took all of this in instantly, his mind racing to look for a way out.

The first bot had reached the room and had turned to head back into its assigned corridor, so it faced away from him as he dashed into the room. He didn't bother with the pistol, since he couldn't hurt these things anyway. It wheeled around as it heard his footsteps. He headed right, circling around the pillar. The bot moved forward to chase him. Technically, it would have had a shorter trip if it had headed around the opposite direction and headed him off, but instead it simply gave chase.

Deck circled quickly around the pillar. The far side was flat, with a single door built into its surface. Deck practically punched the button as he ran by. The door opened instantly to a yawning shaft.

The bot rounded the corner and Deck, out of options, dove into the open shaft.

7Queries = Disconnect 8