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 slumped against the wall as the thick smoke continued to fill the airlock. He listened in horror to the squealing death throes of the remaining mutant, hidden nearby behind the curtain of dense fog. He could barely see the glowing blue outline of the sword a half meter in front of his face.

Incoming signal: GOV-RL1.VID - Compatible video codec available. Encryption key matched.

He ignored it. He was too busy to talk to Rebecca right now, even if he wanted to.

After thirty seconds he concluded that the first layer of the EVA suit must still be intact. If it had been ruptured, he would be dead by now. He drew the second glass egg from the pouch on his arm and set it on the floor. Movement was difficult. The entire left side of the EVA suit was paralyzed, so he was forced to carry its bulk under his own strength.

He stood and crushed the egg under his heel. There was a pop as the glass hull ruptured and the pressurized contents launched fragments of broken glass out from under his foot. There was a short pause, and then the BDA went to work.

He could feel the toxins consuming the organic matter around him with their chemical burn. The heat was most intense on his hands and at the puncture wound in the side of his suit. The dome helmet became blackened with a cloud of tiny scorch marks. The fog became utterly opaque, and darkened as more and more of the surrounding light was absorbed. Minutes later the world outside of his helmet was the color of deep space.

He waited for five minutes and opened the outer airlock. He needed to take off his suit to get to his ammunition, but he needed to get away from the smoke before he cracked it open.

The airlock opened and the smoke poured out like water from a broken dam. Pulled by the local air currents, it expanded as it spilled into the corridor. The black cloud drifted down the converging hallways, filling everything. As it touched the ceiling, the local fire hazard alarm erupted. A siren began to wail.

He stepped out of the airlock cautiously, hidden in the opaque cloud. He could hear the heavy march of numerous metallic footsteps closing in. The speakers in his helmet relayed sound, but prevented him from determining the direction. He took a guess that they would be coming from the corridor directly ahead, since that was the most direct route to the elevator.

Incoming signal: GOV-RL1.VID - Compatible video codec available. Encryption key matched.

Whatever she wanted, it was going to have to wait. He needed to clear the area before he was overrun. He had no idea how he was going to get to the security station. They hadn't really thought that part of the plan through.

There was a hiss as the fire-control system deployed. Water rained from the ceiling. The emergency lights kicked in. The lights, intended to help illuminate the area and guide people to safety, had the opposite effect. Like shining high beams into fog, it turned the cloud into a wall of featureless gray.

The water ran down his dome helmet and washed away the layer of carbon residue.

He could see the enlarged silhouette of an approaching bot, backlit in the dense smoke. More appeared. There were way too many to fight, even if he had access to a firearm. He made a right, heading into the western side of the level. He tried to run, but the lack of kinetic assist on his left side made movement difficult. His run became more like a high-speed limp. After several seconds of power-limping, he broke free of the smoke. The fire-suppression systems rained down on his head as he struggled to put distance between himself and the bots.

He reached the edge of the fire-suppression zone and exited the downpour. The addition of the water to the already humid atmosphere had turned the executive level into a steam bath. The water condensed on every surface and the air itself was a thick haze.

He came to the closed airlock to the western grove. If he made a left, it would take him back to the main elevator and the incoming wave of bots. On his right was the massive airlock.

He could continue south, but that wasn't going to get him anywhere. He needed to reach the elevator at the heart of the level. There was no way he was going to get there without doing some shooting, and that wouldn't happen until he could reach his ammunition.

It was time to see how fast he could get out of the EVA suit. He tried to open the helmet, but the seal wouldn't release until he switched to external atmosphere. He hit the switch and the heavy, damp air of the executive level was pulled into his suit.

Nothing could have prepared him for the smell he encountered. The horrifying stench of burning flesh filled his nose and mouth. Although the smoke had dissipated to a thin haze, the rancid odor was still overpowering. The sudden heat and humidity only served to make the air even more revolting.

He gagged as he drew in an uneven breath.

To his left he saw the dancing patterns of moving floodlights on the walls. Something was coming, searching for him. In the distance, he heard the fire-suppression system sputter to a stop.

He opened the looming airlock on his right. He could hear the approaching metal stampede as he stepped in and closed the door behind him. He needed to work fast, since it wouldn't take them long to figure out where he went.

The western grove was long gone, ejected days earlier during the crew's battle to survive. On the other side of the outer door was the empty vacuum of space.

Deck pulled open the maintenance door just below the main controls. The short, heavy steel door groaned open to reveal a small, safe-like alcove containing various electronic systems. He reached in and grabbed the dataport, but got no response. He pressed it into the palm of his hand, trying to reduce the distance between his skin and the dataport.

Compatible device detected. Negotiating. Connected to ACCESS device class DOOR-XLOCK6-1 (EXTERNAL AIRLOCK).

The layers of geometric data flew past so quickly he didn't really even see them anymore.

Most external airlocks on the ship had physical devices that would prevent both doors from opening at once. These airlocks, however, had a loophole that allowed both doors to open when the grove was present.

He could feel the vibrations in the floor from the crowd of bots inside.

He hacked the system to convince it the grove was connected, and then hacked the internal pressure gauge to make it appear that the inside was already depressurized.

The inner airlock began to move. Shodan knew where he was, and was opening it for her automated minions. He sealed it again. She tried to open it again. Eventually he gave up on the tug-of-war and finished his hacking.

He jacked out and switched his suit back to internal atmosphere. A stream of cool, dry air filled his lungs.

Deck opened the outer door. A rush of air swept through the airlock. With his right arm, he grabbed onto the maintenance access door. In seconds the wind became a hurricane trying to shove him out into space.

The bots had no logic for dealing with decompression. They made no effort to flee, but mindlessly massed at the door for their chance to kill him. As the doors parted, the station vomited them out into space.

The wind picked him up, pushing his body horizontal with his feet dangling out into the abyss. The kinetic assist in his arm strained under the pressure as he fought against the overpowering jet of escaping air.

The massive bodies of various types of security bots sailed past him like steel boulders. They slammed into each other soundlessly in the storm as they tumbled helplessly. Benches, potted plants, and a flurry of paper and other debris fell from the side of the station. A lamp struck him squarely in the helmet, but he managed to retain his grip.

When the avalanche of debris had passed. he reached out and hit the close button. The outer door began to slide closed.

He pulled himself in against the weakening force of air. A few seconds later he flopped to the ground.

Deck found that standing up in the suit without kinetic assist was an ordeal. He had to brace himself against the wall with his left arm to get enough leverage to get onto his feet. His movements sounded distant in the thin air. Once he was standing, he paused for a moment to catch his breath. The taste of scorched flesh filled his nose and mouth, and no amount of pure air seemed to be able to purge it.

He still needed to get out of his suit, but the external pressure gage showed that he was in less than 0.3 atmospheres. He was going to have to wait until the level re-pressurized before he could open it up.

It was a safe bet that Shodan wasn't going to give up at this point. He headed back to the elevator as fast as the suit would allow. His steps were heavy and uneven. The weight of the suit pulled on him. He limped as if dragging a ball and chain from one leg. As he reached the nexus at the heart of the level he saw that the elevator was already on its way. He jacked in, hacked the local lift controls, and cut power to the doors. He knew this wouldn't be the only way onto this level, but it was probably the most convenient. Blocking it off would force Shodan to use some other method to bring in new forces.

He headed north again, aiming for the security station.

He was tired. He was sick of it. Sick of Shodan. Sick of mutants. Sick of fighting. The constant sine wave of adrenaline activity had drained him. For a long moment he experienced some sort of detached self-examination. How did he get here? What was he doing on this giant tomb floating miles away for Earth? If he had imagined every possible outcome of his quest for the implant, he would never have dreamed of anything like this. He had always assumed that he would either succeed or die. This was neither death nor victory, but some strange blend of both.

For a moment he was able to appreciate how bizarre his situation was.

Incoming signal: GOV-RL1.VID - Compatible video codec available. Encryption key matched.

"You're on the air."

"Hacker, I just have to warn you that Shodan has... learned about what you are doing."

"If she didn't know what I was doing by now she would be an idiot."

"Not just launching the groves, everything. Pretty much everything we've discussed doing has made its way back to her."

"So she cracked our feed here?"


"So what does that mean? Did you tell her? I sure as hell didn't."

"I can't say.", She was giving him a poker face. She was either hiding something or trying to tell him something without saying anything.

"I hate this secrecy crap. The only way she could find anything out is if someone told her..."

Rebecca raised an eyebrow.


There was a long pause while he looked into to poker face some more. "I can't discuss it."

She didn't deny it.

"Fine. Thanks for the heads up. I assume the problem is taken care of now?"

There was another pause. Finally Deck realized that she was waiting. Someone was probably talking to her over her headset, telling her what to say. Finally she responded, "I don't expect to have this problem again."

"Fine. I gotta get back to work." He disconnected.

The security station was now unattended. The guards had been swept away in the decompression. A single security camera watched the entrance.

He stepped in front of it and looked into the unmoving glass eye.

"Can you hear me?", he yelled at the camera.

There was a long pause. He hadn't really thought about what he was going to say. He pointed a thickly gloved finger at the security station.

"I'm going to go in there, and I'm gonna launch your science project into space."

He waited. He wasn't even sure why he was doing this. He just wanted to see how she would react. She already knew where he was and what he was trying to do. He stared into the camera for a few more moments to see if she had anything to say.

When he decided that she really wasn't going to answer, he turned abruptly and entered the security station. Then he realized why the place had been guarded.

The entire room has been transformed into an almost solid mass of computer chips and cable. Uneven pillars of wire and plastic stretched from floor to ceiling. Nests of cable were gathered in bunches like nerve endings and fed into the walls, which were now covered in plugs and openings, transforming the room into some sort of electronic hive. The cables were draped between the pillars like synthetic cobwebs. They eclipsed the overhead lights, banishing the place to gloomy darkness. The computer terminal had become one with the mass, like an organ absorbed by cancer gone unchecked.

Deck squeezed his cumbersome mechanized frame into the room and fought his way to the terminal through the hanging vines of colored wire. He wanted to drop a gel pack right in the middle and vaporize the whole mess, but he needed to launch that grove first.

He ripped the terminal from the mass. He tore it open like a child searching a box of breakfast cereal for the prize inside. After a few seconds of careless destructive digging, he managed to extract the dataport from the broken plastic case.

As he connected with the system, he could feel a tingle in his arm. It was always there when he interfaced, but was usually too subtle for him to notice. This time it was more pronounced. His nervous system was acting as a conduit for a much larger set of information than usual.

A universe of data filled his mind. The local node, which had always seemed to be a complex and intricate thing was as simple as a geometric primitive compared to the galaxy of data that surrounded him now. The mutant pillars of memory cores were connected directly to the terminal. For the first time, he was no longer behind a wall of opaque black ice. Instead, he had direct access to the brain of Shodan.

He pulled back, trying to get a feel for the shape of the data around him. Huge constellations of information where condensed into more basic shapes as they grew distant, and yet he was still overwhelmed. There was just too much to take in. Infinite plains of parallel circuit patterns framed massive skyscrapers of moving images. Racing particles blurred together to form cities of flickering wireframe. The tingle in his arm become an ache.

A wave of deja vu came over him.

When he was young, his parents had a bot that vacuumed the house. The bot was low and square, with a puffy bag mounted on top to receive the dust and debris from the floor. It had no face, just a single dome of mirrored glass that served as its eye. It had fascinated him. He would stand in its path, and watch as it came to a halt, waiting patiently for him to move. It never went around. It just waited.

Deck once sat in front of it, wondering how long it would take before it got bored or gave up. He parked himself in its path and waited. The minutes stretched on with a slowness only possible for a young boy who is anxiously waiting for something to happen. What would it do when it realized he wasn't going to move? Would it attempt to go around him? If it did, he planned on moving to stay in it's path. Would it speak? Give up and go back into the closet? Try to vacuum some other area?

After what seemed like hours to his young mind, his mother found him and yelled at him to get out of the way. He tried to explain the importance of his experiment, but she was unmoved.

He stopped his voyage through the waves of color as he relived this forgotten memory in vivid detail. He began to cry when mommy yelled at him.

His arm began to burn.

Flashes of other memories came and went like subliminal advertising. He struggled to focus on the task at hand, but the mind of Shodan was a blur to him now. He couldn't think. Competing emotions attacked his concentration. Needles of pain shot up his arm and into his shoulder. His eyes rolled back into his head.

The digital world faded, and he fell into darkness.

7Predator = Kinetic 8