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 managed to bring the crate of EVA suits down by climbing to the top of the stack and pushing with his legs. The container had a security seal on it, and in the end he had to hack it open with his sword. He managed to damage three of the four suits inside in the process.

Rebecca gave Deck the plan. It was simple: Launch the grove that contained Shodan's genetic playground. To launch the grove, he would have to enter it to enable the mechanism and change the trajectory settings so that it would aim itself away from the Earth. In order to survive in the grove, he was going to need the EVA suit. Once the launch was enabled, he would then make his way to the security station, and launch it.

Once she was done outlining the plan, she talked him through the complex process of putting on the EVA suit.

The first part was called the "shrink wrap". It was a black, rubbery material that reminded Deck of a wetsuit. It was normally worn over simple undergarments, but he decided to keep his bodysleeve on underneath, since he didn't know where he was going to be when he took this suit off. A number of overlapping strips combined to form an airtight seal around him. With the first layer on, only his hands, feet, and head were exposed. Tiny hoses, about the diameter of a drinking straw, dangled from various parts of the suit.

The second part was a set of gloves and boots that sealed as he connected them to the rest of the suit. They had small sockets into which he plugged the loose tubes that hung from his arms and legs.

The head gear followed. A black, rubbery mask wrapped around the bottom of his head and neck, covering his mouth, nose and ears. Rebecca instructed him to connect it to the tubing in the suit before he put it on, so he could breathe. Soft speakers were built into the sides and fit neatly over his ears. Another piece went on top of his head, covering his forehead and crown. A single piece of flexible clear plastic went over his eyes and connected firmly to the seal formed by the other parts of the head gear. After this, his body was totally encased in airtight rubber and plastic. His movements were stiff as he fought against the pull of the garments.

He looked down at himself, "I look like a toy ninja action figure."

The next part was the PSU, or Pressurized Support Unit. It was a small, uncomfortable block of equipment that strapped to his chest and connected to the loose hoses that hung from his torso. It took several minutes for Rebecca to talk him through the process of starting and checking the machine, and running a diagnostic to ensure that both it and the suit were fully functional. The display screen was tiny and hard to read. Deck began to sweat underneath the confining gear.

"Okay, I think you're ready to pressurize the first layer.", Rebecca finally said after several minutes of tedious button pushing. There was no dataport on the device, so he was forced to interface with it manually.

"Yeah, lets get this over with."

"Okay, I just want to warn you that this is going to be a little weird. Just so you know - the suit is going to adjust to your proportions. Once its done, it will pressurize. Okay?"

"Just tell me which button to push."

She did, and as soon as he hit the switch the suit began to move. There was a loud hiss, and air was ejected from the sides of the PSU. The suit began to get tight.

Deck grunted as the suit collapsed in on him. It became tighter and seemed to thin out. The PSU was pumping all of the free air from inside the suit, causing it to cling to him. The tubes retracted, loosing their slack and tightening against his body.

"Crap this hurts.", he grunted. Thankfully, the part around his face was rigid and didn't seem to be shrinking like the rest of the suit.

Rebecca broke in, "It will for a few seconds. Just move around. Bend all of your joints and try to take them through their full range of motion if you want the suit to fit right when this is over."

He did as he was told. The suit was now so tight he could see the individual folds and creases in his clothes underneath. Despite the fact that it was shrinking, the suit seemed to somehow stay smooth and tight on the surface.

When it was over, it looked like someone had just put a coat of black paint over his normal clothes. He could see the spider-web patterns of the tubing within the suit. The main tubes broke off into smaller tubes, which in turn broke off into even smaller tubes to form some sort of circulatory system.

A few seconds later the suit pressurized. Air was injected and the suit expanded away from him. It retained its proportions, but now the it seemed to be riding a millimeter away from his skin on a constant cushion of air. He prodded the rubbery surface, which now moved like some sort of gel.

Deck stretched and performed a few motions of a kata. He was quite mobile now. The suit seemed to thin out at the joints as he bent them, and expand again as the joints straightened. Other than the unwelcome weight on his chest, the suit didn't really interfere with his movements at all.

"Looks like it's working great. I think I can deal with this", he said with a nod of approval.

"Good, but uh - you're not done yet."

"There's more? Come on.", he said with some irritation.

"Well, you are protected against extreme temperatures and decompression, but the rest of the suit is needed to navigate in zero gravity."

"I'm not leaving the station, so I shouldn't need that part."

"It also has the power and oxygen supply for the part you're wearing now. The inner suit can only hold about five minutes of atmosphere at a time."

"Fine, what do I need to do?"

The outer suit was bulky and added several pounds onto his frame. It was made up of smaller sectional pieces, like a suit of armor. Each piece needed to have a pair of cables connected to it. One provided the power and data feed, and the other provided the fuel for the maneuvering thrusters that were positioned all over the suit. He left the thrusters themselves off, since he didn't plan on using them.

Every part of the suit had to be plugged into another part, and the chest had to be connected to the inner "shrink wrap" suit. Just putting it on and connecting it took twenty minutes.

Once the suit was assembled, he powered it up. The kinetic assist kicked in, and the weight of the suit was lifted from his shoulders. The suit was now standing by itself, with him inside. As he moved, the suit moved with him.

"Cool.", he said after moving around for a few minutes, "How much can it lift?"

"If you stand right, it can lift a half ton, but go easy on it. Heavy lifting will drain the power cells in a hurry", she advised.

The final part was the dome helmet. Once it was in place, Rebecca showed him how to draw in air from the outside, so that he wasn't draining his oxygen reserves until he needed them. The controls for the suit were mounted on the back of his left arm.

"How come nobody ever designs things for left-handed people?", he muttered as he fumbled with the tiny buttons under his twice-gloved right hand.

"I didn't know you were. I could have had you mount the controls on the other arm. Takes about ten minutes."

"Forget that", he said as he worked the controls. "Ok, it's done. The suit is using the external atmosphere instead of the tanks."

"Just don't forget to switch your tanks back on before you enter the grove, or you're dead."

"Right. How bad is this stuff that she's growing? If I'm exposed, how will I know?"

She sighed, "There are several life-forms in there we are concerned about, but the worst is the virus. It looks like some of our biotech guys have managed to piece together the genome, so we know what it is on a genetic level, but that doesn't really give us an explicit picture of what it does. To understand it, we would have to create some in a lab down here and watch it go. That's way too dangerous."

"So what do you know about it?"

"Based on our computer model, it pretty much just eats you. Not very clever, but really effective. It just consumes your cells and replicates. According to the simulation, any form of contact with the virus - even topical - will result in a fatal infection. You'll start with a bad rash, which will then begin to bleed. After that, probably a high fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. By this time the virus has hitched a ride in your bloodstream and spread throughout the body. You would probably start bleeding from your mouth, nose and ears, and finally just bleed through the skin. Most of the biotech guys agree that you would be dead in under twenty-four hours. It would kill even faster if you were exposed via the mucous membranes or by inhalation."

Despite all the awful things he had endured and witnessed, he never lost his ability to be horrified by some new menace. He face twisted in disgust as he pictured the bloody, painful death Rebecca described. "You're sure this suit will keep it out?"

"Well, it can keep out the vacuum of space, and there is nothing in the DNA to suggest the virus can eat plastic, so you should be safe while you're in there. Our main concern is decontamination."

"The place should be pretty well decontaminated once I launch it into space."

"I'm not talking about the grove, I'm talking about you. After you've finished in the grove, you'll need to get any traces of the virus off of your suit before you can open the seal. You'll be covered in the stuff, and you need to make sure it's all dead before you take off the suit."

"So how is that going to work?"

"We have a few options. The best one is if you can get your hands on some Biological Destruction Agents."

"I'm guessing I won't find that in any of the vending machines. Is this something I will find here in the storage area?"

"We hope so. The stuff you're looking for will probably be listed as ITM: Incendiary Toxic Material, or as BLC: Biological Liquidation Compound. Either product will do the job."

He turned and headed back to the closest inventory computer. He hooked the sword through one of the tool hooks on the belt of the suit, and carried Fletch. He had to walk carefully until he was used to the extra bulk of the suit. It carried its own weight, but he was still several centimeters taller and wider while he was wearing it. "What will this stuff do?"

"The ITM will burn the virus off, and the BLC will liquidate it."

"How does that work?"

She shook her head, "I don't know, all I have are my notes here." She waved a file folder up in front of the camera. The point is, either agent will kill the virus on exposure. They are designed to completely kill organic material to the point where even the DNA is gone. Both of these chemicals are way more deadly than the virus itself - the first one would kill you in under a minute, the second would probably kill in seconds. These are industrial-grade BDA - Biological Destruction Agents. They are designed to destroy biological material. They are usually used to get rid of stuff created for experimental purposes in a lab. After you're done playing with some bio-toxin, you can't just throw it away, you have to kill it. That's what this stuff is for."

"Wait. You want me to get the deadly virus off of my suit by covering myself in something even more deadly? What do I do once I'm covered with these industrial-grade cooties?"

"That is what is so cool about these BDAs - they are short-acting. As soon as they connect with the air, they begin to break down. After about five minutes, it should be safe to take off the suit."

He was going to get his suit covered in flesh eating organisms, and was going to get that off by covering himself in flesh melting poison. Over the years he'd done a lot of gross and hazardous stuff to get the job done. He'd hidden in dumpsters, entered insect-infested crawlspaces, and even waded through a sewer once. He liked to think of himself as a fairly bold person, but this was crazy. He found the best way to deal with it was to avoid thinking about it. "I'm searching the database for it now", he said.

"If they don't have any, or you can't get to it, then we will have to settle for plan B, which is decompression."

"What do you mean?", he asked warily.

"If you can't get your hands on any BDA, you can use some blasting gel to decompress the grove, which would probably kill all of the virus."


"Just find some BDA and you won't have to worry about it."

It took him twenty minutes to locate some of the stuff. With the suit, he was easily able to shuffle the crates around and retrieve the one he wanted. He tore off the various seals with danger and chemical hazard icons, and hacked the crate open with his sword. He had to be careful in opening it, since he didn't want to accidentally rupture the contents and send deadly skin-melting (or whatever it did) toxins into the air.

The ITM came in an assortment of egg-shaped glass containers. The glass was clear, aside from the tiny print that covered its surface. Rebecca instructed him to take two of the largest, which were about half the diameter of a chicken egg.

"They are tougher than they look.", She reassured him, "These things usually go into some sort of reinforced container with the material to be destroyed, and are broken open by a machine. You will really have to hit them hard to break them open."

That was easy for her to say. She wasn't the one holding them in her hand. Deck treated them like what they were: glass eggs. He gently slipped them into a pouch on the arm of the EVA suit and zipped it shut.

The executive level was just as he had left it. The EVA suit was still using external atmosphere, and he could smell the heavy, damp air as it rolled into the elevator. There was a pungent, mold-like quality to it that made him sick.

At first, the outer elevator door wouldn't open all the way, preventing him from exiting. The huge holes ripped in the door had caused the surface to bend, making it unable to slide. With the help of the powered suit, he was able to force them open.

As he stepped into the lobby, a door opened and a hulking security bot marched into the room. Deck was already holding his weapon up. He brought the barrel around and clamped down on the trigger.

The bot was shredded before it had time to turn to face him. The huge metal body twitched as the steel shards exploded and fragmented inside its chassis. Even after it stopped moving, Deck held down the trigger until it had toppled over. For almost ten seconds the room was filled with the high-pitched scream of his weapon and the impacts of metal tearing metal at high velocity.

He assumed this was the bot that had punched the holes in the elevator earlier, and he wasn't taking any chances with something like that.

The air was again filled with the smell of scorched circuitry and melting plastic. Smoke drifted from the cratered and perforated metallic carcass.

He consulted his map and headed north. The groves connected to the outside edge of the level, at the four compass points.

The level had been engineered to look like traditional executive areas. Everywhere was plastic that had been molded to look like marble, granite, and wood. Many areas were even carpeted. There were no windows, and the seams created by airlocks were tastefully hidden. Drapes and paintings had been hung to hide protruding pieces of the infrastructure. There was nothing to remind you that you were even in space.

He came to the security station, and found it was guarded by a pair of cyborgs. He identified them around the corner, and managed to retreat before they spotted him.

He paused. He was feeling ready to kick some ass with his powered EVA suit and Fletch, but he didn't want to tip his hand to Shodan. He would need to get into the security station once he was finished in the grove, in order to launch it. However, if he struck now, She might guess what he was doing, and launch it herself.

He doubled back to the lobby and turned east. He would go to the eastern edge of the level and head counter-clockwise around the perimeter. That would allow him to go around the security station without attracting attention. Once he'd done his job in the northern grove, he expected Shodan was going to know what he was up to. When he left the grove, he was going to have to come out shooting.

The air seemed to cling to him inside of the EVA suit. The choking humidity was oppressive. He adjusted the internal temperature downward a few degrees. There was a soft hiss as his internal ventilation pumped air over the inside of the dome helmet, to prevent condensation.

The east grove was quiet. The entrance was a pair of four-meter tall airlock doors that led into the dimly lit area of green vegetation and fuax-stone sidewalks. He could see the neatly arranged park benches and what he assumed were imitation trees.

It reminded him of the empty park in front of the TriOptimum building. "Wooden" fences and rows of small shrubbery divided the space into discreet sections so that people could read or talk in relative privacy. The windows were narrow rectangles about two meters tall and about the width of someone's hand, offering a tiny slice of the outside view. A layer of thick green carpet served as a halfhearted reminder of grass.

He proceeded carefully through the level, peeking around corners and making sure he didn't stumble into any unexpected danger. It was difficult to be stealthy given his new size and weight.

The northern grove was sealed off from the rest of the level. Both airlock doors were shut. Deck approached it carefully, checking for resistance. Once he was sure he was alone, he checked in.

Connected. US.GOV-RL1.VID


"I'm outside of the northern grove."

"Everything ok?"

"Yeah. I'm about to go in. Just be ready to nuke this place once I'm clear."

There was a long pause where she just stared blankly at the camera. Finally she responded, "We will be ready for the next part of the operation once you're clear."

He clenched his teeth for several seconds. He knew what was up. "You guy's aren't gonna nuke this place, are you?"

"Once you disarm Shodan, there is no immediate need to destroy the station."

"You don't think it will occur to her to use another grove? I'll bet she will have a new batch of virus cooking in another grove before this one leaves orbit."

"Dr. Coffman believes he can convince her to surrender once you launch the grove."

He snorted, "Doc Coffman. It figures. I knew he had to have a better reason for coming to help. He wants to save his monster."

"Hacker, that place cost billions to construct. Billions. Once the danger is over, there is no reason to blow it all up without at least trying to salvage it."

"How many more people have to die? This computer has killed hundreds, and has demonstrated her ability to kill millions. How many more lives will you greedy bastards risk to keep your stockholders happy? Why don't you come out with the story in the media and see how the public feels about it? Do you think they are willing to risk Shodan's death plague for your bottom line?"

"Its not as simple as that!", her voice wavered. He didn't know if she was trying to keep from screaming or trying to choke back tears. He didn't care. She paused for a moment to compose herself, "Look, I don't make policy, I'm just telling you what it is. I'm not even supposed to do that much. I'm going to take a lot of heat for just telling you this. So don't blame me!"

"Right, you're just following orders. Well you should know better."

She finally cracked, "Don't get sanctimonious with me. I'm not the one who cut her loose and got all those people killed!" There was a long pause where both of them were shocked at the words that had just come out of her mouth.

"Hey, Diego would have killed me, I didn't have a choice. What's your excuse?"

"You hypocrite! He never put a gun to your head. You did it for the implant and you know it.", her voice cracked again. She glared at him defiantly, trying to bare-face the tears.

"Bite me." He killed the connection.

The first airlock door rumbled open and he stepped inside. He reached for the control panel on the wall beside him when he remembered that his EVA suit was still set on external atmosphere.

He hit a button on his left arm and the damp smelly air of the executive level was replaced with the cool, dry air from his oxygen tanks.

He closed the outer airlock. For a moment he stood silently in the wide steel vault contemplating the next step. In a moment he would be surrounded with Shodan's genetic freakshow. He padded his sleeve, making sure the ITM "eggs" were still there. He checked his weapon. This was it.

He took a deep breath and hit the open button for the inner airlock.

The northern grove was bathed in a dim, jaundiced yellow light. Some sort of yellow fungus encrusted the walls and the fake plastic plants. Its texture was rough and covered in tiny sharp points that grew from the surface of the mold. The original plants had long since died and been replaced with the flourishing yellow growth.

The mold was thickest at the edges of the room and in the corners, and became thinner as it advanced up the wall or across the ceiling. It completely covered the narrow windows along the outer wall. The mold covered the light fixtures in the ceiling, darkening the grove and giving the area the sickly yellow glow.

This section had been partially flooded, turning the now-blackened carpet into a swampy mess. He could see small, crablike shapes darting quickly through the soaking shag. Their translucent forms were barely visible until they moved.

The ceiling had been ripped open and the ventilation tubing hung down to the floor. Long, black tentacles of hose reached down from the slime-caked ceiling and rested on the moist ground. Small organic lumps covered the end of the tube and filled its inner edge.

A few of the crablike shapes were running up and down the outside of the vertical tubes. They gathered at the top edge and seemed to gnaw on the mold that encased the socket where the tubing ran into the ceiling. The small ones seemed no bigger than a spider, while the largest were about the size of a scorpion.

The faux-wooden dividers were covered with the stuff, except for along the base where it had been chewed away. The plastic foliage combined with the dividers to form a maze through the grove.

Deck moved along the outer wall, wary of going into the open. The humidity must have been fantastic. Tiny droplets of water condensed on the outside of his dome helmet, gathered in beads, and ran down the glass surface like sweat. His entire EVA suit was covered in moisture. It was designed for deep space, and not swamps. Deck hoped it wouldn't short out.

He crept through the grove, leading with his gun. He stayed close enough to the fake foliage to use it for cover, but not so close that something hiding within could reach out and grab him. He thought for a moment that he could just hose everything down with a heavy stream of exploding projectiles from Fletch. He entertained the thought for a few minutes, but stealth had brought him halfway across the grove, so there was really no reason to start shooting now.

At the far end was a small control station. A simple terminal was set into the outer wall. The display was covered in a thin film of slick yellow slime. He held his hand up to the dataport.

Nothing happened.

He pressed his hand harder into the controls, but was still unable to make a connection. Either the dataport was malfunctioning from the mold and humidity, or the thick gloves of his suit were blocking the connection.

He scraped the slime off the terminal and went to work. He fed in the table of numbers provided by Rebecca's team.

Rebecca. Deck frowned as he punched in the numbers. Calling him a hypocrite? She sat down there, nice and safe on Earth, surrounded by military personnel, and she had the nerve to judge him? She didn't know what it was like. She wasn't going to have to face Shodan. His mind replayed the conversation again and again. He was up here, bailing them out and putting a stop to the machine they had built.

You did it for the implant and you know it. Her words stabbed him in the ear like an ice pick. He imagined the conversation over and over, but never came up with anything to say to her.

The water ran down the front of his helmet and made the display even harder to read. He pawed at the glass with a gloved hand, but only managed to leave a yellow smear.

Once the numbers were in and he had double-checked them, he tore the access panel from the front of the console. He pulled out the thick artery of data cables that connected the terminal to the rest of the station and tore them free. Shodan would probably know something was wrong now, but she could no longer re-program the trajectory.

He retreated quickly. Shodan would no doubt be sending some forces to the grove now, and he needed to be gone before they arrived.

Ignoring stealth, he plowed through the plastic scenery, sloshing across the rotting carpet in a direct-line approach to the airlock. With the strength of the suit he was able to push obstacles out of his way like a bulldozer.

He stopped. Ten meters away, a humanoid form crouched in the shallow water.

The long, sleek body looked like a cross between a championship bodybuilder and a starvation victim. Everywhere the skin was either stretched over bulging muscle or clinging to the skeleton beneath. The stringy muscle and the spider web of blue veins were clearly visible beneath the translucent surface. Two black, shark-like eyes were set on opposite sides of the narrow head, giving the creature a reptilian look.

It scooped up a large scorpion-sized creature. The victim wiggled impotently in the grip of the gnarled, claw-like hands before it was crushed in the predator's powerful jaws. The victim fought fiercely, puncturing the mouth from the inside out, but the predator didn't seem to care or even notice the wounds, which closed instantly and bloodlessly.

Despite the fact that Deck's huge robotic form was standing in the open, the creature seemed to somehow not notice him. It quickly swallowed its meal.

Deck relaxed, letting his arms drop slightly to his sides. At the same instant, the creature launched itself at him, letting out a high-pitched wail as it rushed him like a jungle predator. The howl was an otherworldly chorus of tortured souls.

He clutched the trigger and sent a fountain of explosive metal shards at the creature. Its speed was fantastic. Only a few rounds managed to hit the beast as it arced sideways to flank him. The few bullets that did meet their target tore at the flesh but did not slow it down.

It pounced forward, impacting him in the side of the chest. His entire body was lifted off the ground as his bulky metallic frame was thrown backwards. He held down the trigger and brought the weapon up, cutting across the path of the advancing creature.

His weapon found its mark, and the reptilian head was replaced with a cloud of red gore.

The battle had taken less than five seconds. He gasped. The naked, unarmed creature had nearly won a fight against an armored opponent with combat training and an automatic rifle. If it hadn't been for the EVA suit, the thing probably would have disemboweled him.

All around him, the synthetic foliage began to stir. He picked himself up and started running.

As he reached the airlock, he turned in time to see another predator burst into the open and rush him. Two more followed. He set the weapon to the highest speed and carved the advancing foes with streams of projectiles. As he fired, he backed into the airlock and punched the close button.

Once the doors had sealed, he let out a slow breath. His heart was still racing.

He unzipped the pocket on his sleeve and brought out a single glass egg. He held it in the palm of his hand and squeezed.

It was like squeezing a rock. He couldn't even feel the egg give. He set the weapon down and held the egg between both hands. He clamped down on it with all of his strength, but he still couldn't crack it.

The hands didn't have any kinetic assist. He needed to use his arm strength to break it, so that the suit could help. He placed the egg on the inside of his right elbow, and bent his arm to crush it. As his arm closed, the egg slipped out and rolled across the floor.

"Damn it.", he muttered, reaching for the next egg.

There was a clank, and the inner airlock door began to open again. His eyes widened as he dove for his weapon.

Another predator entered, squeezing its body through the impossibly small gap between the doors. He shredded the creature as it slid through. His weapon ran empty. The door continued to open.

He reached down to his thigh and realized that the rest of the clips for Fletch were in his bodysleeve, inside of the suit.

Another creature darted in. It lunged at him, knocking him backwards again. The claws hammered at the sides of the suit. Alarms began to go off in his internal systems.

He didn't even bother to pull his sword out of its makeshift holster on his tool belt. He just turned it on and swung. It cut through the straps that held it to his waist and slashed through the abomination attacking him.

The floor of the airlock was slick with whatever fluids these creatures used for blood. As Deck struggled to stand, he heard more movement outside.

He saw the egg, laying in a pool of spilled mutant blood beside him. Another predator rushed in, and he brought the tip of his sword down on the egg.

The egg fragments shot in opposite directions from the force of the gas inside. The heaps of broken mutant bodies began to smoke.

The predator lunged, and Deck swung blindly with his weapon. He was still trying to get his footing on the slick floor. The creature ducked the blow and struck at his side.

The claws found the gap where the two halves of the chest assembly met, and punctured the side of the suit. There was a violent hiss as Deck's suit decompressed.

In a panic, he slashed with his sword and removed one of the deadly arms at the shoulder. The creature didn't even flinch. With its remaining arm, it struck again and tore into the cables that led into the chest assembly of the suit. The airlock was filling with thick smoke as the ITM burned its way through the heaps of available organic mass.

The abomination began to twitch and shriek as smoke poured from its burning flesh. It retreated, pawing at its face with the remaining arm. Deck swung blindly into the thickening smoke. Something was wrong, and he couldn't move his arm properly.

He backed up a few more steps and reached the control panel. He didn't know if he was alone in the airlock or not, but it didn't matter anymore. He punched the emergency close button.

Smoke was pouring from the glistening surface of his suit and from the puncture wound in the side. He could feel the suit heating up.

Once the doors slammed closed he hit the lock button. It was over.

7Learning = Decompression 8