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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Rebecca's team needed time to look at the station design schematics and work out what needed to be done in order to eject Shodan's experimental grove. She had signed off while they worked out a plan, leaving Deck to prepare things on his end.

He decided he needed weapons. The only weapon he had at the moment was the short rifle he'd found in the freezer, and he was pretty sure it was broken.

The weapon was too large for the small holster built into his body sleeve. After some experimenting, he found he could secure it to his hip by moving the holster down his leg until it was positioned just above his knee. He then jammed the muzzle through the lower loop of the holster, and threaded the top loop of the holster through the trigger guard. It was a far from perfect fit. The rifle bounced around too much when he walked, but the arrangement gave him two free hands, and that was what was most important to him. He just hoped he wouldn't be needing it in a hurry.

He knew he needed some better weapons, or at least some weapons he knew how to use. There was a security station on the far side of the level. He decided that would be the best place to start looking.

The center of the level was a grid of living quarters that had housed the bulk of the station's crew. The units were divided into blocks - like prison blocks - and divided into groups based on rank and occupation. The low lighting made the already claustrophobic corridors feel even tighter and more oppressive.

He made his way through the cramped, narrow passages that made up the bulk of the crew section. The doors were spaced evenly, one every four meters, like rows of empty tombs. A few were open to reveal ransacked or bloodied quarters, but most were simply locked. Although the signs of combat and death were apparent, there were no bodies.

At the center of the living area was a nexus of corridors that converged on the main elevator. The elevator doors had been welded shut and poorly barricaded with benches and other loose items that were available. From this side of the door, he could see that it had also been heavily booby-trapped with hand grenades. The crude arrangement of tripwires and fragmentation grenades were set to go off if anyone inside the elevator tried to force the doors open. Deck was glad he hadn't messed with the door when he was stuck on the other side.

On the opposite side of the crew living area was the fitness center. Beyond that was the security station.

Just outside of the living area were the locker rooms. He thought for a moment how good a shower would feel. While his makeshift sponge bath (using paper towels) in the restroom sink had been nice, he still longed for a nice, hot shower.

The men's locker room was pitch black. A weak sallow light shone from the women's locker room. The smell of unchecked mildew filled the air. Inside, he could hear running water. He didn't know why water would be running, but it was a safe guess it didn't have anything to do with women getting clean.

He decided that being naked and separated from his weapon - broken or not - was not what he wanted after all. He moved on.

The security station was along the outer wall of the station, between the basketball court and the gym. Like the other security station he had visited, this one was still sealed shut. The surrounding corridor was dim and yellow. The door was burned and dented inward at the seam. The keypad had been removed from the wall and its contents hung from the gaping hole. Some of the wires had been clipped and re-routed, but the door remained intact and secure.

Deck rummaged through the tangled mass of electronics and found the dataport. Holding it in his right hand, he jacked in.

The keypad was configured exactly like the others he had visited. There was the usual configuration of shapes, joined with the now-familiar impenetrable barrier of Shodan's ICE. When he found the code in memory, it became apparent as to why nobody had been able to hack it open.

The code was changing at the rate of about once every five milliseconds. It looked like a blur. The ICE barrier flickered every so slightly, as Shodan lowered it to access the keypad and change the code, and then raised it again. The ICE itself was only down for a few nanoseconds, and Deck couldn't hope to hack his way past it in that short amount of time. He could cut the keypad off from Shodan, but that would announce his position. Right now she probably thought he was dead, and he wanted to keep it that way for as long as possible.

The best way to hack the keypad seemed to try to get in between code changes. He spent the next several minutes just flicking back and fourth between the code and the keypad numbers. He would get the code and then enter it directly into the system, but he found he just wasn't fast enough. Most of the time, the code had changed by the time he'd entered the second digit. Once in a long while he would make it to the third digit before the code changed. It was clear that getting in all five digits in would be impossible.

He stepped away from the keypad and leaned against the wall.

This was infuriating. The code was right there, but it changed faster than anyone could hope to type it in. The only way he could do it is if he knew what the next code was going to be and he began entering it ahead of time.

He could see why nobody had managed to open the door - conventional hacking methods and tools would be even slower than he was. He wondered how long someone had struggled with this door before they gave up and moved on or were chased away.

He stepped up to the keypad again. He would see if he could find a way to predict upcoming codes. Perhaps Shodan was using some simple method to generate them that he could unravel. He spent the next twenty minutes gathering numbers and comparing them in different ways, looking for patterns.

There were no patterns, or at least, not any that could be detected with the 24,000 numbers he'd managed to collect. It could be that patterns would be detectable with even larger sets of numbers, but he didn't have that kind of time.

He could enter the first three digits ahead of time, and simply wait for a code to show up that started with those three digits. If he did that, he would only need to enter the last two digits. The only problem with this method was that there was only a 1:1000 chance of a particular three-digit combination coming up, which - at that rate of twenty codes a second - was a little better than once a minute.

He entered a simple sequence: 1 - 2 - 3. Then he sat and waited for the rotating code to match the first three digits. Its was two minutes before a match came up, and when it finally did happen, he was so surprised it slipped by before he could react. While he was cursing himself for the blunder, another match came and went. He tried to nail it, but was over a quarter second too late. He swore at himself.

This went on for another ten minutes. He finally realized that it wasn't going to work; he just didn't have the reflexes for it. Nobody did. Probably the only person who could hack this thing was Shodan.

A smile crept across his face. He knew how to beat it.

He connected each digit of the code with the software portion of the keypad interface, using his own neural interface as a bridge. As Shodan sent a new digit into the code, the digit would also be sent to the control pad as if someone had just typed it in. She was both changing and typing in the code at the same time. The instant she finished changing the code, she also finished typing it in.

The small, naked speaker that hung freely from the wall gave a loud chime and the door popped open.

The security station was in good order and fully stocked. This one was much larger and better equipped than the one on the medical level. Racks of various exotic weapons covered the east wall, and a two person security station dominated the middle of the room. The back wall featured a bank of display screens filled with snow. A row of red lights built into the desk were flashing in time to the sound of an irritating electronic alarm. Along the west wall were a series of simple lockers filled with an assortment of uniforms and some riot gear.

The alarm was an aggravating buzz, almost like an alarm clock. The red lights were attached to various security systems, indicating various security breaches throughout the level. There was a light indicating that someone had broken into the first aid station. Another showed that someone had vandalized the elevator controls. There was even one showing that someone had attempted to break into the security station. He turned them off.

He dropped himself into the chair and slapped his hand down on the local dataport. He jacked in.

The cyberspace world filled his vision. It was a sea of routine log entries. Stack after stack of dull text messages were arranged in even rows, columns, and groups, forming a huge 3D grid. Most of it was part of the routine logs kept by the station's guards. Hourly reports were recorded, as well as other mundane events such as people caught not wearing their proper badges, forgetting to "sign out" sensitive materials, and other minor security infractions. It recorded, in meticulous detail, a job that was routine, petty, and boring.

Near the end of the log things got interesting. There were a few video entries, and several video interviews with suspects involved with the disappearance of biological materials. One of the last entries caught his eye. He played it.

The strained, tired face of a man in his early forties appeared. His hair was short and the shoulder boards of a security uniform were visible in the frame. In the corner of the image it displayed, Wilkenson, Harry. "I should never have agreed to it, but hey, it�s what they wanted. With all the craziness going on lately, and especially with the murderous mutants running around, a bunch of the execs decided they�d escape in the south grove. Since communications are down, there was no way to get approval from corporate. They evacuated to the grove and we launched it. We lost contact with them immediately. As far as we can tell, there is absolutely no power in there, so once it disconnected from the station the whole thing went dead. We expect the grove will burn up in the atmosphere in about four days, although I'm sure everyone has frozen to death or suffocated by now."

The last few entries catalogued a series of riots and fights throughout the level, and then the records ended without explanation. He jacked out.

He investigated the metal cabinets along the west wall. The first one held a stash of uniforms and some riot helmets, the next had some batons that were so light and of such low quality he would rather fight bare-fisted than try to wield one of them.

The next item in the cabinet was a military-grade, kinetic gel vest. He had never seen one before, but he knew they were supposedly able to stop bullets - even armor piercing bullets - from even bruising the wearer. As he slipped it from the rack, he was shocked by the weight. It was heavier than he could have dreamed. He dropped it over his head and let the weight settle onto his shoulders.

He spent a few minutes pacing and trying to get used to the weight before giving up on the vest completely. The lack of mobility would almost certainly get him killed no matter how tough the vest was. Besides, a vest had limited utility when used against bots that were probably programmed to shoot for the head anyway.

The last item in the cabinet was a sword. He stared at it in disbelief. It was made of a smooth, solid black material that felt almost like Teflon. The handle was made of a very hard rubber. Deck pulled it out and took a few swings. The handle was much heavier than expected, but it was still a solid and well-balanced piece of hardware. He was far from a master, but he had invested several months in learning swordplay during his martial-arts training, and he could hold his own in a fight against everyone but the hard-core swordfighters.

He had always wanted one, but they were an exotic expense. Their usefulness was limited in his line of work, since the rare occasions when he did encounter opposition, they were usually armed with firearms. Also, swords - good swords that had a benign metallic profile - were more expensive than guns.

He spun the sword around, practicing some moves and getting a feel for its weight. He wondered how well it would cut. He took a test swing at the vest on the floor

There was a dull thud as the edge of the blade smacked into the vest. It jerked slightly as he struck it, and his sword left it without a mark.

He decided that pitting the sword against the toughest personnel armor ever designed wasn't a fair test of its capabilities. Instead, he pulled a black jumpsuit from the uniform locker and tossed it into the air. As it fell, he spun and slashed at it with his blade. There was an unsatisfying smack as the sword met the fabric and the jumpsuit wrapped itself around the tip. He examined the uniform to find that it had sustained no damage. He didn't know what TriOp jumpsuits were made of, but he was pretty sure they weren't impervious to edged weapons.

He examined the blade to find that it didn't have any edge at all. It was completely dull. Instead of a cutting edge, there was a hairline groove down the length of the blade. It was either a dummy practice sword, or it was missing a separate metallic piece that would fit into the groove and provide an actual blade. Possibly both.

He tossed it onto the desk and moved over to the weapons rack.

The weapons were locked in place by a metal grate, that was in turn held shut with a single, heavy-duty padlock. He didn't have any lock-picking tools handy. This was a good time to try out his new toy.

He pulled the rifle loose from its makeshift holster and brought it up to his shoulder. He balanced the lock on its edge, so that he could shoot directly through it while aiming parallel to the weapons rack. He didn't want to have to worry about hitting any of the goods inside.

He brought the muzzle to rest a few inches from the lock and squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened.

There wasn't even an empty click. There was nothing at all. The trigger felt mushy and unresponsive under his finger. He frowned.

He hammered on the lock with the butt of his rifle, but was hardly even able to dent it, much less beak its steel grip on the doors.

Thinking that perhaps the desk might contain some items that could be used for lock-picking, he opened the top drawer to find a single metal key mixed in with a bunch of thumbtacks and paperclips.

Dumbfounded, he took the key and opened the padlock.

Same of the guns were pretty standard, but most looked more exotic. He needed some advice.

Connected. US.GOV-RL1.VID

"Anyone there know anything about guns?"

Rebecca wasn't at her terminal. Her disembodied voice came from off camera, "I have some weapons training. If you need a real expert, I can put one of the military guys on."

This was the first time he had been able to get a good look at the control room without someone blocking his view. In the background, he could see a short bank of terminals, probably identical to the one Rebecca used. It was hard to make out in the dim edge of the room, but he could see various people in uniforms and business suits milling around. "I've managed to get into the security station, and the place is loaded. I need to know what's good."

"What have you got?"

He started at one end of the rack, working his way left to right. "Okay, the first one looks like a telescope. Its big and... man, its heavy, too. "

Rebecca came into view carrying a carton of Chinese food. She put the food down and popped a soda open. "Pardon my eating while we talk, but around here you have to eat and sleep whenever you can."

"Same goes up here."

"Tell me more about the weapon."

"I don't know - its a big black metal tube. Hollow. Looks more like a high tech tennis ball launcher than a weapon."

"Right in front of the trigger, does it have a cylinder-shaped magazine, or a round socket where one would connect?"

"Yeah. That's right."

"That is a Magpulse rifle. It shoots magnetic spheres that grab onto the surface of anything metal and kill it with an electromagnetic jolt. It would be perfect for bots. Its a one-shot-one-kill weapon. No matter where you hit them, they go down."

"Does it do anything to non-robotic targets?"

"Well, it still hits them with a metal sphere at ninety miles per hour. That would really hurt, but it's non-lethal."

"Too heavy and too specialized." He set the weapon on the floor and moved on. "Next one. Nothing spectacular about it. Looks like any assault rifle."

"You shouldn't throw term 'assault rifle' around, since most of the time it is misused. What is the caliber?"

"I don't know. How can I tell?"

"How wide do you think the muzzle is?"

"Um, I suppose I could get my thumb in there without too much trouble."

She paused for a moment, chewing her noodles thoughtfully. "Either you have really tiny hands or you've got a shotgun."

"If you say so, but it doesn't look anything like a shotgun."

"Looks like an automatic rifle?"


"I can't say for sure, but my guess is that you're looking at a DC-05 Riot Gun."

"Any good?"

"Shoots rubber bullets."

"Hell.", Deck dropped it carelessly on the floor. "Next one. Looks like a standard shotgun. Probably not a good choice against bots."

Rebecca nodded as she slurped up more noodles.

The next one was an energy weapon of some sort. He skipped it, since it would be of limited usefulness against metal targets. The last weapons were identical to the one he was carrying, save for the dents and scratches on his.

"Okay, here's one. Looks pretty sophisticated. Display screen on the side. Several buttons. It has some sort of socket on the side. I've been lugging one around for a while, but I think mine is broken."

"A socket?", she paused and thought for a moment, "Is there a catch just behind the grip, like a small metal latch or something?"

"Hang on."

He checked, and found a small mechanism recessed into the surface of the stock. He hadn't noticed it before. There were a pair of metal latches surrounding a twisting, spring-loaded knob. All of the parts were very small and close together, to the point where it was almost impossible for an adult male to manipulate them. After some experimentation, he found he could move the latches if he turned and held the knob at the same time. It took both hands, but he managed to activate the mechanism. The moment he did, the stock fell from the rear of the weapon and the grip and trigger housing swung free from the frame.

"Oh hell. I found it, but when I used it the damn thing fell apart."

She rolled her eyes, "I wondered what was taking so long. I only asked if it had one, I didn't say to try and use it."

The weapon was now much smaller and a few pounds lighter. The trigger housing could be slid free and removed completely now. "Oh. Well, what the hell is the point of that? Just in case you need your gun to fall apart?"

"It's for mounting. You can attach it to a mounting arm or a sentry tripod or whatever. The weapon is usable directly as a firearm or it can be attached and used in other ways."

"You can mount this on a bot?"

"I'm sure you can, although the main use is to attach them to tripods and hook them up to motion sensors. In cases where you have a lot more money than personnel, they make for good sentries."

"So is it any good? For me, I mean."

"The weapon you have is nicknamed 'Fletch'. Consider yourself lucky. Those things cost more than I make in a year. I got to fire one of them once. They are pretty amazing weapons."

"I'll bring one back for you.", he grinned.

She smiled. "I think you'll have a little trouble getting it through terminal security once you're planet-side."

"So how does it work?"

"The weapon is a flechette. It fires slender, caseless rounds about the proportions of a sewing needle. They have an extreme penetration value. The rounds used by your new friend here are 'smart' rounds. They are able to explode a specified number of nanoseconds after impact."

"I don't get it."

"The rounds - the bullets - detonate, right? A small explosion in the center of the round will cause the case to mushroom outward and splinter into smaller shards. You can adjust when the rounds detonate on the weapon itself. Say you're fighting an unarmored human. You would set the rounds to go off on impact, which will knock the target down and damage them similar to a hollow-point bullet. That's great for fighting soft, organic targets, but it would be useless against a bot or someone with some high-tech armor."

"It would?", Deck began to realize that knowing how to load a gun and pull the trigger was a far cry from actually knowing anything about firearms.

"Yes, all the damage would be absorbed by the armor, while the target itself would hardly be damaged at all. When fighting an armored opponent, you want the round to penetrate the armor and then explode once it gets inside. That's what makes Fletch so cool. You can adjust the depth, or have the rounds never explode at all."

"Why would you do that?"

"Say you had a target on the opposite side of a solid wall, and you know where they are. Maybe you have some thermal detection gear, or maybe you just know where they're standing - the point is, you know where to aim, but there is a wall in the way. You would set Fletch to maximum penetration, aim at them through the wall, and be able to score a hit. The rounds won't tear the target apart, but it will perforate them - which is good enough when dealing with organic targets."

She had set the empty carton aside and was illustrating her point by making sharp, stabbing motions with her index finger. There was an enthusiasm in her voice that he hadn't heard before.

He looked down at the weapon, "So how do I use it?"

She explained how to put the weapon back together. It turned out that it wasn't broken - he just hadn't turned on the power. Rebecca spent the next twenty minutes explaining how to use and care for Fletch. He learned how to power up the weapon, adjust the rate of fire, set the penetration value, and control the amount of spin placed on rounds leaving the chamber. The spin setting was a bit complex and she advised him to just leave it at the default value.

Just beneath the muzzle was a tiny lens. The weapon could send visual data back to whatever machine connected to it, providing targeting information. On top of the weapon were mounting brackets for a scope, although none of the weapons were equipped with one. Along the stock was the battery housing, which grew warm when the weapon was switched on.

Directly underneath the weapons were the appropriate ammunition. Deck found what he needed and Rebecca explained how to reload.

The clips - magazines, she corrected him - were incredibly heavy. Each one was about the proportions of a pack of cigarettes, but felt like brick in his hand. He slipped four of them into his right thigh pocket to counter the weight of the weapon on his left leg. There were more available, but he didn't want to give up too much of his mobility. Besides, he could always stop back and pick up more if he ran low. He didn't imagine he would need very much - it wasn't like he was about to start a one-man war with Shodan's armies.

She gave him a quick lesson on how to hold the weapon, how to stand, and how to fire without overheating or losing his target due to kickback. It was a lot to learn, and Deck knew he was only scratching the surface of what he needed to know.

Once the lesson was over, Rebecca told him to head back to the storage level, and they would explain the plan once he got there. She signed off.

As he turned to leave he paused for moment to consider the dummy sword. It might still be useful against mutants. Perhaps he could find the edged component.

The sword was straight and short, almost exactly the length of his arm from shoulder to fingertip. It was shaped like a double-edged, European-style sword. It was different from the Asian types he had learned to use, but the idea was still the same.

He took a few more swings, spinning the blade in a dramatic and showy series of imaginary attacks. He movements were hampered by the hardware he was carrying on his legs.

The grip seemed to be separate from the rest of the sword, as if it could be detached. Curious, he pulled on the handle and tried to twist it free.

A hum rose from the blade and a line of blue light traced the outer edge. It emerged from the groove and shimmered like a gas flame. The ribbon of light was so thin it couldn't be seen edge-on - it was perfectly two-dimensional.

Deck stared in disbelief. He had never even heard of technology like this. Was it hot? Radioactive? Electrified? What was it?

He took a few gentle swings, testing the weapon. Aside from the trail of blue light, it behaved exactly as before.

He decided to test it. He set the impact gel vest on top of the desk and stepped away. He spun the blade a few times and then struck.

At first he thought he'd missed. The vest didn't even move. A few seconds later, a dribble of clear gel leaked from an almost invisible wound in the vest.

It was pretty clear that he would be taking it with him, just needed to figure out a way to carry it.

Ten minutes later Deck emerged from the security station. He had found a weapons belt among the uniforms, and had buckled it to his bodysleeve so that he could store the sword on his back. He was learning to move gracefully with all of the hardware on his legs, but he still resented the drag they put on his mobility.

He retraced his steps across the level, back to freight elevator.

He hit the elevator call button and waited. He needed to get to the storage level and contact Rebecca.

After a few more seconds of waiting, he realized that the elevator should already be on this level. He glanced up at the display. It was on its way down from the research level.

The only reason for the elevator to be on some other level was if someone else had been using it. Whoever it was might still be on it.

He was in a wide open corridor. The door to the kitchen on his right was heavily barricaded. He didn't have any cover. Franticly, he began to pull on the straps that held Fletch in place, trying to get it free.

There was a friendly chime as the elevator arrived.

7Downtime = Learning 8