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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The control room had slowly cleared out over the last twenty minutes. Rebecca sat in silence, watching the incoming signal feed in idle disinterest. She wasn't expecting Hacker to make contact, but it was her job to to sit here in case he did.

Their best guess was that a number of explosions - at least two, possibly more - had occurred several minutes earlier. The station was quickly hemorrhaging atmosphere, and would probably be uninhabitable within a few hours. However, the major problem was that the core was overheating, and if it wasn't shut down soon it would suffer a small-scale nuclear explosion.

"Ms. Lansing?", it was one of The Director's assistants, standing in the door to the conference room. It looked like just about everyone involved with the operation had gathered in there.

"Yes?", she sighed.

"The Director says you're done for now. You should probably just come in here."

The conference room had become a theater. The chairs had been un-stacked and were now arranged in groups facing the wall of display screens.

Everyone watched the screens in silence. The Director stood, stone-faced, at the front of the room with his back to the group. Several of the screens were eclipsed by his bulky frame.

Rebecca pulled another chair from the stack and found an open spot towards the back of the room.

The wall of monitors seemed to be watching about ten different news stations. There was an audio track playing, but she couldn't figure out which particular screen it belonged to. A woman's voice was going on about a shuttle launch of some sort.

Finally one of the screens cut to an external view of Citadel. The screen had the rough, blurry appearance of a digitally-enhanced telescopic view. It showed a small white dot emerge from the body of the station. The view zoomed in on the dot and it became possible to recognize the distinct outline of a TriOptimum orbital shuttle.

Everyone knew what this meant. The reactor core was overheating, and the only person who could do anything about it had just left the station. This was exactly the opposite of what TriOp had wanted. They had hoped that the station would survive and that Hacker would be killed. Now he was not only alive, but in front of millions of eyes on every network licensed to carry news. They couldn't just blow up the shuttle with the world watching, which meant that they would have to get him down safely. Rebecca tried not to smile.

The Director silenced the newscast and fired off a single query, "How?"

A voice from the front of the room jumped in, "He must know how to pilot a shuttle. There is no other way he could have made it out of there. In order to launch, he would have to prep the shuttle, open the bay doors, and then fly it out. Those birds are complex. You can't just jump in and start flying."

A voice came from off to her left, a voice she recognized as belonging to Morris Brocail, "The shuttles are usually programmed for launch. Theoretically, Shodan could have gotten him out."

Rebecca shot back, "But why would she do that?"

Morris shrugged, "I said theoretically."

There was a long moment of silence as The Director stood facing the wall of information in silence.

Rebecca saw that the footage of the launch was being shown again. Obviously this had all happened a while ago, and the media had simply been showing the footage every minute or so since then.

Finally The Director spoke, "Get him down here. Make sure he lands at the nearest airport with available orbital facilities. Seal off the entire facility..."

"Sir, we will never get an entire airport to ourselves. I can almost guarantee it. Not on such short notice. The airlines will respond with their lawyers and keep us out until this whole thing is over." The comment came from one of the cronies he'd brought with him. They seemed to be the only ones that had the nerve to tell The Director something he didn't want to hear.

The Director still had his back to the group, and it was impossible to read his face. When he responded, his voice sounded calm, "What about just one wing? If we let them know we could have a severe security threat on our hands, could we get that much of the facility sealed off?"

"Yeah. We're talking GALF, right? That would be the closest airport. The western leg of the place is reserved for a bunch of private jets and a few small-time carriers. I bet we can kick them out for a day or so, I just need to make a few phone calls."

The Director nodded, "Good. Get it. Seal it off, and I mean complete containment. Replace the security team with our guys, and kick out all of the airport employees. No media. Make up some excuse to give us license to shoot on sight."

"Wait. You want our guys armed with lethal weaponry?"


The assistant whistled, "That will be tough. It is just not easy to get that many guns into an airport legally." He sighed, and tilted his head back, looking up at the ceiling. He thought for several moments before responding, "You know, if airport security has rights to lethal weapons, then we can get the same rights. Totally do-able."

The Director turned from the screens and faced the group, "Fine. Get together a team that can keep their mouths shut, and get them into place. We seal off that wing, bring that shuttle in, and we deal with him once we have him unloaded. It looks like we are going to have 100% containment, so I think its time we let our PR guys loose. Let's feed this media dog so it stops biting us in the ass."

"Okay, so who will be in command on-site at the airport?"

The Director pointed at his chest with his thumb, "Me. Also, we'll be taking Lansing with us."

Rebecca was still trying to deal with The Director's thinly veiled orders to have Hacker murdered. She had guessed at what his plan would be, but was shocked to hear him say it aloud. Now he was going to bring her along to witness the whole thing. She knew better than to try to argue. Besides, she wanted to be there. She wanted to see how the story ended, and she knew she wasn't going to find out anything from watching the news.

Someone in the group gasped, and suddenly all attention was back on the wall of monitors. The loop of speculation and shuttle launch footage had ended as new developments emerged.

Nuclear explosions in space were dull in comparison to the Earth-bound version of the same phenomenon. Without an atmosphere to create the infamous mushroom cloud, and without a surrounding landscape to obliterate, it lacked the visual punch that everyone had been expecting. Citadel was vaporized instantly. Within two frames of video it was reduced to a cloud of tiny radioactive particles that were rapidly speeding away from one another, spreading the invisible remains out into deep space. The personnel in the control room were visibly shocked. Everyone had imagined that Citadel would perish in a glorious, roaring fireball fitting to its size and monetary value. Instead, they had footage of what looked like lousy special effects. The station was there, and then there was a white flash followed by a view of empty space. The station had been obliterated in absolute silence, without any pyrotechnics at all.

It was disconcerting to think that something so large, crafted entirely by human hands, could be so completely un-made in the space of a millisecond or so. Once it was gone, there was no visible debris, nothing to indicate the station had even existed. Even cities destroyed by nukes had the foundations of their buildings to serve as markers of what had once stood there.

One by one everyone slipped out, leaving The Director alone with the newscasts.

The rain, which had been splattering Uppernet all morning, finally took a break. For a moment it even looked as though the sun might stick around.

The sun reached down and warmed the small park area in front of the TriOptimum Corporation headquarters. Over the past few days it had become a sort of trailer park for a multitude of reporters and their vans, turning the area into a forest of broadcast antennae. The grassy square was covered with a mild overgrowth of cables for the video cameras and broadcast equipment. Despite the rain and lack of anything substantive to report, the reporters were glad to be here, because this was a choice assignment. The videos they had taken of themselves over the past few days would be played for years to come, and those who brought this story to the world were sure to see a positive affect on their careers.

The security forces had held the sea of journalists at bay with grim determination and lots of reminders that they were just doing their job. Their stunners hadn't been drawn yet, but the crowd was closing in and it was obvious that TriOp needed to say something soon to avoid an exchange that could only make them look worse.

The doors parted and a TriOptimum spokesman emerged from the building. The line of security forces parted, gratefully yielding their position as the first line of defense against the hoard of journalists who were waving their microphones in the air like the pitchforks of an angry mob.

This was a man designed to address the public. He had a wholesome, caring appearance that would instill trust in the most skeptical opponent. His age was ideal for delivering just this sort of message. He wasn't so old that he would turn off the average viewer, but he was old enough to convey a sense of wisdom and grandfatherly charm. He was dressed in a somber black suit, and his face was turned down in a look that was full of both sorrow and determination. His face was noble, chiseled with lines of care and seriousness, and topped with a perfect, silver hairline. He stood at the top of the steps and waited until the crowd had settled and everyone had their broadcast equipment in place.

Once the group fell silent, he looked into the wall of cameras and delivered his heartfelt speech, "Today, TriOptimum Corporation, it's families, and indeed the entire world suffered a terrible blow with the destruction of the Citadel Orbital Station. This is a shocking and horrible tragedy for all of us to bear, but we will bear it together."

"I wish to say to the families that have lost loved ones, that your loss is our loss. When the citizens of Citadel perished, we lost our friends and coworkers, our trusted partners, and some of the finest scientific and business minds the world has known. This is not just a loss for TriOptimum and our families, but for humanity itself.

He paused, looking upward as if searching for the strength to continue. After a calculated pause, his eyes met the crowd again and he continued with renewed strength, "Despite the terrible financial loss that the company has suffered, we are bound by conscience to stand by those who have shared our loss. That is why TriOptimum has dedicated a generous sum of money to start a support fund for those who lost loved ones on our beloved station. I hope everyone will join us in giving generously to these families in this, their time of greatest need.

"However, we must not let our grief deter us from our duty to find out what went so terribly wrong. We will be conducting an intense investigation, and we intend to share all of our findings with the public. We promise that everything that can be known, will be known. We will not rest until we have discovered all we can about what has taken so much from all of us. However, a great truth is that information is often listed among the casualties in times of disaster. With the destruction of the station, the truth of what happened may never be known. Like Amelia Earheart, or the Jamestown colony, some disasters are forever hidden in mystery, their secrets buried along with the brave souls who were taken from us in so untimely a manner.

"We will never forget this day, or this loss that happened so many miles from the surface of our Earth. We believe that by standing together, we will face this challenge. Let us turn our hearts from the sorrow of the past to the hope of the future, and let us stand together, that we may stand strong. I thank you."

The spokesman turned on his heel as the barrage of questions began. The line of security forces parted, and he disappeared into the building.

The rain, invigorated by the short rest, began again in earnest.

The operation to bring Hacker down safely was more difficult than they had expected. The shuttle hadn't been refueled since its journey up to the station weeks earlier, and had only the bare minimum supply of fuel required for a safe flight home. The return trip needed to be as fuel-efficient as possible, not allowing for any errors in piloting. This was made harder by the fact that Hacker had absolutely no idea how to fly the thing.

A doctor was brought in to talk him through the process of treating some of his more serious wounds using the shuttle's emergency medical supplies, and a group of pilots were called up to help him put the shuttle into a safe re-entry trajectory.

The Hacker then raided the supply of in-flight snacks and took a short nap while everyone on the ground worked out what to do next.

The main problem for the ground crew was that no amount of coaching from a pilot could get Hacker to fly the shuttle with the precision required to bring it in safely. Shuttles normally required a crew of three highly trained pilots, although it was possible to do the job with only two if they had enough experience.

Eventually the ground crew worked out a system with Hacker where he would jack directly into the controls, and then open his communications link to them. He would pass information between the ground and the shuttle controls, using himself as a bridge between the two. In effect, the pilots could fly the shuttle from their stations on the ground.

It was far from perfect. The consoles they were using required a lot of changes to be able to act as the interface for an orbital shuttle, and in the end it would prove to be one of the most challenging feats of shuttle piloting ever performed.

Rebecca was escorted out of the building and to a black towncar. The Director sat in the front seat with the driver. A pair of security guards accompanied them, riding on either side of Rebecca in the back seat. It wasn't clear to Rebecca why they needed so much protection on the way to the airport.

The backbone of GALF - the Greater Atlanta Launch Facility - was a shopping-mall style conduit of travel that ran north-south. It was lined with shopping facilities, lockers, parking access tunnels, security stations, and the docking bays for the multitude of bots that served the airport.

On the north end of this axis were the five radial arms that spread out like an asterisk. Airplanes and shuttles would dock along the tips of these arms to do their business.

At the opposite end of an hour long car ride, they rolled into the main entrance of GALF and abandoned the car. Some airport security stepped forward - probably to let them know this was a loading zone - and then got out of the way once they realized who The Director was.

The group, consisting of The Director, Rebecca, and three TriOp security personnel swept past the first layer of security with a single wave of The Director's magical TriOp ID. They ran with The Director and Rebecca at the center, and the three guards surrounding them. One guard ran out in front and barked at people to clear the way, while the other two brought up the rear.

A pair of opposing conveyors divided the main part of the mall in two. They avoided the crowded conveyors and instead jogged in the aisle alongside. It was a long trip from one end to the other, but they were all paramilitary types and none of them was about to complain about a simple half-mile jog. Rebecca was just glad to finally be getting a little exercise.

The rain had finally given up for the day, and the sun beamed down into the concourse through the arching glass ceilings above them. Huge, semi-transparent display screens interspersed flight times with loud, animated advertisements for the nearby shops. One screen listed all of the flights using the western gate, followed by the word CANCELED.

A phone rang just once. The Director retrieved his and answered it with a single question, "How long?"

There was a pause before he replied, "Fine, we will be ready in ten minutes. How about the press?"

He nodded with satisfaction, "Great. We can live with that. You can't take over something this size without attracting a little attention, just keep them guessing. I don't want this turning into a circus until we're done here."

He hung up without waiting for a reply and returned the phone to his breast pocket. As they jogged he brought them up-to-date, "The Hacker lands in fifteen minutes. We took this place so fast the media didn't have time to react, so we won't have to deal with a mob. There may be a few loners around, trying to peek in, so stay sharp. We didn't get shoot-on-sight rights, so don't get trigger happy. If you find someone who doesn't belong, get them out of the encounter area and then hospitalize them - just don't use your firearm unless you have to."

Everyone nodded, including Rebecca, although nobody had bothered to give her a firearm.

The crowd scattered out of their way as they pushed north through the terminal. The only things that didn't get out of their way were the bots, who were notorious for being in front of you when you were in a hurry. The group slowed for a moment to go around a pack of lumbering luggage carriers, heavy with items destined for the belly of some airplane.

They reached the nexus where all six corridors converged on a food court. The place was packed with people who were, for the most part, not hungry - but who decided that eating was the best way to cope with the boredom, fatigue, or frustration they were experiencing. The police presence was higher than usual, and a group of uniformed officers escorted a peace sentry around the edge of the dining area.

The western leg was closed off by TriOptimum security forces who were being harassed by a couple of civilians with video cameras - obviously reporters.

The group came to a stop.

"I knew it", The Director mumbled under his breath. "Roberts!"

"Yes sir!", it was one of the security guards. He had served as driver on the way to the airport, and was now bringing up the rear of their little team. He joined The Director and stood ready.

"I'm going to need you to sacrifice yourself for the greater good here."

"Sir?", Roberts said, not liking the sound of the orders he was about to be given.

"I don't want these reporters moving from this spot. I need you to stand here and say 'I don't know' for the next half hour, okay? If they ask you what's happening, you don't know. If they ask you when the shuttle is landing, you don't know. If they ask you what day it is, you don't know."

Roberts nodded, "Got it."

The Director clapped him on the shoulder and pointed at the group, "Good. I know it seems pointless, but they will be glad to have someone to talk to, and it will keep them busy. I'd rather they fight with you than wander around looking for answers. They will get pissed at you, and will probably even cuss you out, but just stay cool and keep them talking, right?"

"I'm on it sir."

"Good man. Follow me.", he said, heading for the group of reporters. A few more had joined the crowd and begun setting up their broadcast gear.

As they drew near, a middle-aged woman stepped forward and thrust hear microphone out, "Excuse me? Why have TriOptimum forces blocked off access to the west gate?"

The Director shrugged and pointed at corporal Roberts, "Commander Roberts there is in charge of this operation, you should ask him."

His words deflected the group and he brushed past them. They closed in on Roberts, who seemed to be bracing himself for impact as if they were going to hit him with a full-body tackle.

As Rebecca followed The Director up the stairs leading to the west gate, she could hear the first of the questions in what was sure to be an unpleasant interview, "Excuse me Commander Roberts, but who was the man in the suit that just introduced you?"

"I'm sorry ma'am, but I don't rightly know."

They moved up the stairs and through the next line of security scanners, which were currently switched off.

The western gate was only slightly narrower than the main concourse, but much simpler in design. Along the length of the southern wall were gates with standard waiting areas, interspersed with a few modest shops. The opposite wall was mostly windows, occasionally covered with two-meter tall display screens that spewed out a steady flow of flashy, animated advertisements and flight data. Rebecca had never seen the airport completely free of traffic, and it was a creepy feeling to see such a massive space so uninhabited.

Without the pressing crowd to absorb the sound, their footsteps echoed throughout the concourse. As they drew near to the end of the terminal, a group of eight TriOp security personnel emerged from one of the waiting areas and fell into a loose formation.

The Director walked to the end of the line of men where an officer stepped forward and received him with a nod. In the pseudo-military world of TriOp, it was the closest thing they had to a salute. The officer's nametag bore the name "Bruton".

The Director turned around, taking a long look at the surrounding area, "Tell me how perfect the operation is so far, commander."

Bruton answered quickly, "We have swept this place three times. The only way we missed anyone is if they were invisible. All of the entry points are sealed from the inside or guarded by our guys. This terminal is completely clear, and assuming the men guarding the main access points do their job, it's going to stay that way."

The Director glanced uneasily at the numerous security cameras covering the area. "We have exclusive control of the security station for this wing, right?"

The commander spoke up, "Yes Sir, I believe so." He winced slightly. He knew that was the wrong answer.

The Director pointed two fingers at him as if her were aiming a gun in his face, "Make sure."

Commander Bruton barked the order to one of his men, who took off sprinting for the security station.

The Director took one last look at the men and began firing off orders, "Alright Commander, the subject is due to arrive in about five minutes. You and your men meet the subject at the last gate. There is a good chance he'll be armed with a Fletch."

The commander raised an eyebrow.

"He is not expecting opposition. Furthermore, he doesn't seem to have any real combat training, and he's been injured as well, so I don't think he should pose a problem for your team. Just make sure you keep him away from electronic equipment and you'll be fine."

The Director continued, "You bring him down here to where we are standing right now, and we take care of everything then. That means he needs to be alive until we get him right here. Don't kill him sooner unless you have to, understood?"

"Understood", the commander said with conviction.

"Good. Get going."

Bruton and his team took off, double-time, for the last gate in the terminal.

The group now consisted of The Director, Rebecca, and the two security guards that had ridden with her in the back of the car on the way here. They were direct assistants to The Director, and didn't have identifying nametags the way most guards did.

Their party moved into the adjacent waiting area.

One wall of the waiting area was lined with a solid formation of tightly grouped black panels. These were lockers. The smooth black surface of the door served as the palm scanner, which could control both access and payment.

On the opposite wall was the flight desk, which was just a small desk in front of a large bank of interactive screens.

The outer wall had windows looking out onto the runway. Out on the tarmac, scores of bots could be seen milling around, refueling, repairing, and transporting personnel and luggage.

There was an airlock here that would provide access to an aircraft if one were connected to this gate. Just in front of the airlock was the final security scanner, the resonant imager. It was a noisy, dreaded beast. The scans took forever - almost a full minute - and used a variety of different types of radiation to gain a very detailed picture of all "solid" objects, including those made of glass or plastic. The scans were unpopular and slow, so the airport only used them when absolutely necessary.

The regular, familiar howl of standard turbines passing overhead was broken by the echoing wail of shuttle propulsion systems. The Hacker was landing.

Rebecca watched as the lumbering craft turned off the landing strip and headed for the last gate. Despite the limited volume available to passengers and crew, the craft was actually quite large. The twin black rectangles that were the cockpit windows looked miniscule, even out of scale, atop the bloated body of the shuttle. She knew that behind those black windows, the hacker sat at the controls, somehow connected to them, while the TriOp-commissioned pilots navigated the thing from miles away. It was odd to think that a lone person rode atop such a massive beast.

Rebecca turned back to The Director and glared at him. How could he do this? How could he kill Hacker after all that had happened? She was sickened to think that all of these people were actually prepared to stay quiet about what was so clearly an act of cold-blooded murder.

Something else had been bothering her about all of this as well. Why did they bother to bring her along? She expected to be a part of this operation somehow, but nobody had bothered to arm her or give her anything to do. Her biggest job had been to communicate with Hacker, and there would not be much need for that once he was dead. Why would they want another witness? Even worse, she would be a witness not controlled by TriOp.

Her eyes met those of The Director's as she came to the realization of what was happening. Without even thinking, she blurted it out, "You're going to kill me."

He didn't seem surprised at all, "Little late in the game to figure that one out, Lansing."

"What! I told you I'd play along with your stupid story with the media.", She stepped closer to him as she spoke. He never moved, although his guards moved their hands onto their weapons.

The Director nodded, "That's right, you did. And if I believed you, you'd still be alive right now."

She stepped forward and drove a sweeping kick at his head.

He didn't even blink. His hand shot out and caught her foot in mid-swing. She looked at her foot in dismay. Nobody was that fast. Even if someone was somehow quick enough to perform such a move, it would take fantastic strength to simply stop someone's leg in mid-kick. In martial arts, you were supposed to deflect attacks, not absorb them. She struggled to keep her balance on one foot.

She heard two almost simultaneous clicks as the guards brought their firearms into play. One was on each side of her, and it was a sure bet they were aiming for center-torso. In this position and at this distance, it was insane to imagine she could evade their fire.

The Director released her foot and she stumbled forward. "Put those things away.", he snapped.

The handguns returned to their holsters.

She had no idea why he didn't just have her shot, but she wasn't going to just wait around to be killed at his convenience. She recovered her balance and kicked again. This time she aimed for the groin, hoping the lower, faster move would make it through.

He pulled the same trick, grabbing her foot mid-kick. He held it for just a second, and then released her, causing her to fall slightly forward again. She saw his upper body turn, and before she realized what he was doing he had landed a sledgehammer blow to her sternum.

Her mouth opened wide in a vain attempt to draw in breath. She doubled over and fell to her knees, eventually curling up into a writhing ball as she fought for air.

She lay on the hard floor while drawing in short, spasmodic breaths. She rocked back and fourth as tears streamed down her face.

In the distance, she could hear the sounds of bots securing the docking assembly to the shuttle. It was almost over.

She played the brief fight over in her head. Whatever his implant did for him, it clearly made him a killing machine. She had never been beaten so easily, and that included many opponents even larger than The Director. She thought it was strange that he didn't want to kill her yet, and he had attacked her in a way that probably wasn't going to leave a bruise. She knew there must be a reason for this.

Several minutes passed as she knelt on the floor, recovering her breath. The guards fidgeted, obviously anxious for action. The Director stood, impassive, as if he was simply waiting for a bus.

A luggage bot lumbered by, it's heavy black frame loaded with assorted personal possessions sealed in durable packaging. A thrower - a bot with multi-jointed arms designed to move the luggage around - chased after it with a lone suitcase. It's body was carried by a pair of hefty tank treads that provided a good anchor of weight for heavy lifting tasks.

When she had the breath she spoke, "So... you bring Hacker down here and shoot us both. Then you can claim he put up a fight, shot me and forced you to kill him."

The Director nodded, "Like I said, its a bit late in the game to start figuring things out, Lansing." His vox squawked and he lifted it to his face, "What's the situation?"

The voice of Commander Bruton answered, "This guy is a mess. He won't be giving us any trouble. He can hardly walk."

The Director nodded, "Bring him down. Let's finish this."

A vacuum bot rolled idly by. Another bot followed, buffing the floor in its wake.

Another minute passed. A courtesy bot zipped by, covered in pockets filled with maps, travel guides, and brochures. After that was another thrower.

The Director frowned, "What the hell?"

He lifted the vox again, "Bruton, where are you? What's taking so long?"

The reply came, "Almost there, Sir. Just running the subject through the scanner now."

For the first time since she met him, Rebecca saw The Director display some real emotion. A look of disbelief and outrage crossed his face, "Dammit! I said no electronic equipment! That includes the scanner!"

The nervous voice of Commander Bruton came back, "Right. Sorry Sir. Just having a strange problem here."


Bruton's voice sounded confused this time, "Sir? Did you send for all these bots?"

Suddenly gunfire erupted in the distance, followed by screams. The Director shot a severe look at his men, "Watch her. If she moves, kill her. Otherwise, wait for my order." Then he turned and ran for the end of the terminal with a speed that Rebecca wouldn't have thought possible for a man his size, much less dressed in a business suit.

The men grabbed her and pinned her to the floor, face-down. One of them pinned her arm behind her and dug his knee into her spine.

There was more gunfire and shouting in the distance. Suddenly the lights went out. Sunlight was still streaming in the windows, but the place took on a dim, gloomy appearance without the constant bombardment of fluorescent lighting.

The high-pitched sound of bot motors returned. With her face mashed into the floor, she couldn't see what was happening on the concourse, but it sounded as though the group was heading the other way, back to the main axis.

They were followed closely by the yelling, cursing sounds of the remaining TriOp guards. Rebecca could hear the Director's voice as he ran by, "Take care of her!"

The lighting changed as some new source of light came on from the main corridor.

The knee dug deeper into her back as her captor drew his weapon. It clicked as the cold metal met the back of her neck.

"What the hell?"

"Wait a second."

"Is that on all the screens?"

There was a pause as the other guard walked a few feet away, "Looks like it."

The one on her back pulled the pistol away, "We can't do it with all of those on. Who knows where its being displayed?"

"Hey, The Director ordered us."

"Fine. You do it."

Rebecca used her free hand to push herself up so she could turn her head. Looking out into the concourse, every screen she could see had the same image. It showed two TriOptimum guards standing over an unarmed woman, holding her down. One of them was pointing a gun at the back of her head.

More shots rang out in the distance, followed by a security alarm.

The standing guard looked around, "The camera must be around here someplace. All we have to do is nail it and finish the job."

The other one snorted, "Forget that. Say this is being shown out in the main corridor..."

Rebecca fought to escape the hold, but he tightened his grip and smashed her in the back of the head with his pistol. She fell back onto her face as she covered the wound with her free hand.

He continued, "...say it's being shown out in the main corridor, and everybody's seen it already. If they see you destroy the camera and she turns up dead, it's gonna be obvious what happened."

"Is that why you're pistol-whipping her on TV?", the standing guard shot back. He paced back and fourth in frustration. Finally he said, "So, what to you want to do? Disobey a direct order? What did he say? He said if we obey orders he will take care of us no matter what."

The guard on her back eased up on his hold as he thought. Finally he responded, "I don't know. He's got friends in high places, but I don't think he could get us out of an execution in front of the entire population of GALF."

"You don't know that. It might just be this wing. In that case, who cares? Shoot her."

The guard's anger rose, "That's easy for you to say, you're not the one doing the shooting. You don't know where this is on display. It could be all over the city for all you know."

There was a long pause. Still more shooting could be heard in the distance. There was an agonized scream cut short, and the shooting stopped.

The standing guard placed his hand on his weapon nervously. When he spoke, his voice had a tinge of fear in it, "What the hell is going on down there?" He paced some more and continued, "I don't think the signal is all over the city. I mean, he's just one guy. He can't just hack a whole broadcast network like that."

The arm lock released and the guard that had been holding her stood, "Oh, like you would know! Forget it, I'm not shooting her. It doesn't matter if it's all over the city or not. If it's on these screens, someone has seen it, and I'm not going to freaking jail for the company."

"Look out. One of them is coming back."

Rebecca sat up to see a thrower heading for them. Both of the men aimed their weapons at it.

Rebecca laughed at them, "Run you idiots. You can't win."

One of them snapped back, "Shut up before I feed you a bullet. I think we can take a baggage handler."

"There are plenty more where that one came from.", she argued, "This is the exact same thing that happened on Citadel. You can't..."

The two men began peppering the bot, cutting her off in mid-sentence. They backed away, trying to stay beyond the reach of the grasping claws as they unloaded their their weapons into the already bullet-scarred frame."

She backed away from the fight and took off running in the direction of the main axis.

7Empathy = Reformat8