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 Undercity

The Undercity was named for its dwarven buildings that stood at the feet of the giant skyscrapers in the neighboring parts of the great urban network. It was a crater in the shining face of a city otherwise populated by magnificent structures that strove for the heavens and shone in the sun. The buildings of the Undercity were short old concrete cubes, arranged in uneven clusters and separated by narrow streets and dirty alleys. New Atlanta had never been any more successful at ridding their city of crime and poverty than any other major metropolis, but they had managed to compress it into the very small, concentrated area of the Undercity. The surrounding city was driven by both a need to expand and an aversion to crime and poverty. These two forces formed a sort of surface tension, preserving the aged, filthy, landscape of the Undercity in a bubble of social and economic forces.

Organized or not, virtually all criminals had been well-armed until the government released its so-called "Peace Sentries" in the early fifties. They were automated drones that roamed the city, scanning the crowds, able to spot the telltale metallic signature of a weapon through solid concrete. Suddenly every concealed weapon became a beacon, announcing the owner's position to any police drones within a three-block radius. What followed was a chaotic year of massive arrests and desperate gunfights as the criminals fought to keep their weapons. Their primary tools for doing business had suddenly become a deadly liability. Within eighteen months most criminals were in jail, disarmed, or dead. Entire criminal organizations, deprived of the weapons they needed to defend their interests, evaporated overnight. Urban life was forever changed.

Like any Darwinian model, there were always a few that managed to adapt in time to survive. Criminals with no weapons don't suddenly turn into investment bankers. Most fought and died trying to protect their particular way of earning a living, but many of them - mostly the younger generation - evolved in time to survive. Their organizations became small but fierce clans armed with customized plastic and glass knives and trained in martial arts. They gravitated to the pizza parlors, bars, and dojos of the Undercity. "Self defense" training franchises exploded in popularity, dotting the face of the city like teenage acne. A new breed of criminal emerged before the old was fully extinct.

Deck emerged from the subway into the evening glow of the Undercity. The sun had long since dipped below the mountain range of high-rise structures in the distance, and the light of day was slowly giving way to the harsh glare of streetlights and glowing neon. He hurried up the street past the filthy storefronts, strip clubs, and micro-casinos.

His destination was Actio's Pizza. Most businesses in the Undercity were fronts for some form of criminal activity. Mercenaries, gambling, drugs, weapons: All of them made their homes behind, below, or above the dirty storefronts that filled the city. Actio's was no different.

The street traffic was always light here. Only a small portion of the population had both the money to purchase a car and the means to defend it. Thieves would avoid the luxury cars owned by high-ranking members of the various clans, because of the dangers inherent with angering the disciplined and often violent owners. Thieves also ignored the cars at the other end of the spectrum - vehicles so old and worthless that they could never be worth enough to pay for the time and trouble required to steal them.

The sidewalks teemed with activity this time of night. Most of the vice-oriented businesses were just getting started, and the strippers, dealers, bartenders, prostitutes, and bouncers of the city were on their way to work for the evening. Other businesses - check cashing, dojo franchises, pawn shops, and body shops - had closed for the evening and were now sending people home before the streets became too dangerous.

Like packets on the global network, it was impossible to track them all, but they each knew their destination, and arrived there.

The police stayed in their armored cars, cruising through the streets behind a Peace Sentry. Just getting out of their cars would cause the crowd to scatter. When the police got out of their cars, it usually meant armed and violent conflict was to follow. The police were the only ones with guns, but clanners were viscous and cunning, and managed to keep the casualties nearly even.

He moved quickly down the street, keeping his eyes open and his body loose and ready for conflict. The streets of the Undercity were dangerous enough on a typical night, and tonight he was dressed like an executive type from Uppernet. This made the chances of him encountering trouble exponentially higher.

Actio's Pizza was a cramped alcove facing a minor street. It was decorated in faded red and white in a halfhearted attempt to create some sort of Italian theme. It featured a modest three tables, shoved up against the outer wall and each flanked by a pair of usually empty chairs. Actio's was all about delivery.

He passed through the deserted dining area and went into the thick, humid haze of the kitchen. He stayed well clear of the cooks, while earning more than a few odd looks for his unusual attire. At the back was a worn wooden door, flanked by a pair of women. They looked like any pair of college-aged slackers, slouching against the wall, seething with attitude and boredom. As Deck approached, they were suddenly animated. Their young, sleek frames rose to block his advance. They adopted loose fighting stances and glared at him.

They were both in their early twenties, healthy and hardened by their profession. The one on the left was dressed in a loose-fitting black outfit. Her hair was bleached pure white, and she seemed to have makeup on to make her complexion more pale. Her top lip was a stripe of brilliant crimson lipstick, while the lower one was coated in a deep lavender. Her eye makeup was red eyeshadow over impossibly lavender pupils. She stood sideways, holding a small plastic tube that looked almost like a slender flashlight. Deck had never seen it in action before, but he was guessing it telescoped into a fighting staff when the need arose.

The other guard was at least partly Asian. She was dressed in loose, black pants and a white lycra top. She had applied her lipstick in a pair of intersecting lines, so that if she were to kiss someone it would leave an "x" shape behind. Her long black hair was drawn back into a ponytail. At her side hung a plastic Wakizashi, trimmed with a slender ribbon of metal to provide the cutting edge.

Deck hated these two. He came here every few weeks, and yet each time they acted as though they had never seen him before, and treated him like a potential assassin. What were their names? Sarah, Sandra, Sally? He couldn't remember exactly - much less care - but he knew they had similar-sounding names and he could never remember which was which.

"Hey, I'm here to see Nomen Nescio."

Without speaking blonde stepped backwards and entered the door, while the other one moved to the center to guard it alone. In a few moments the blonde returned.

"He says you don't have an appointment", her voice was a mixture of west-coast attitude and Japanese accent.

Deck had spent a few years in the Ryobu-Kai Dojo before he became a professional hacker. He was confident enough in his skills to walk the streets of the Undercity at night without a weapon, but he knew better than to pick a fight with these two. They had probably spent the bulk of their lives training to fight, and even one-on-one, unarmed, he would never stand a chance.

He opened his mouth to protest.

"But he says you can go up anyways", she fed him a mocking smile.

"Yeah, I know", he said, as he stiff-shouldered her on the way to the door. She could kick his ass, but not without Nescio's permission.

Nomen Nescio was six feet of hard-core Undercity businessman. He had spent his youth as one of the most unstoppable hackers the residents of Uppernet had ever had to face. Nobody could keep him out. He had never served prison time. On the exceptionally rare occasions where he was caught in his career, the worst anybody could hit him with was illegal entry - and nobody served time for that anymore.

About a decade ago, Nomen had hooked up with a girl and announced he was retiring. He dropped off the face of the hacker scene and later opened up Actio's Pizza. That seemed to work out for a year or two, but eventually his ties to his old profession brought him back. He began acting as an agent for the next generation of hackers. He set up his office above the pizza place where he acted as agent, mentor, arms dealer and fence, while his girl ran Actio's.

Deck walked up the creaky, narrow stairs to the office. The heat from the ovens downstairs rose upwards, filling the small, cramped room with more heat than any simple air conditioner could contend with. The office was a mixture of the advanced and the antique. Computer equipment was heaped in one corner in front of large, dusty bookcases, filled with thick textbooks Deck had never bothered to investigate. The heat and humidity were natural enemies of both books and computers, and yet this is where Nescio made his home.

Nomen Nescio sat behind an old, abused oak desk. He was smoking an unfiltered cigarette, which had filled the top two feet of the room with a thick layer of smog. Sweat glistened on his smooth black scalp. He was a little over forty. His thin, serious face had just begun to crease. He conducted himself with careful confidence - always in charge, but never flaunting his power. He was a man who had survived for two decades in a business that devoured most people within months. He was careful about what sorts of jobs he took, and even more careful still about who received them. He didn't wear a shirt. He smoked with one hand while typing with the other.

As Deck entered, Nomen look up from his work and greeted him, " "Deck, son. Welcome." He smiled a broad smile, revealing brilliant rows of perfect white teeth like the Cheshire cat. "I wondered what to expect when Sabrina told me some suit was in here looking for me."

Deck glanced over his shoulder to see that the blonde had actually followed him up the stairs without him noticing. She was behind him, standing ready in case he suddenly did something threatening. As Nomen nodded to her, she faded back into the stairwell.

Deck moved to one of the hard wooden chairs that faced the main desk. He was always in a hurry to get his head below the choking layer of smoke. "It's a good thing remembering faces isn't part of their job."

Nomen shrugged, "You're looking good, aside from the ridiculous outfit. I assume this is part of a disguise and not indicative of some career change on your part?"

Nomen's speech was a strange blend of street talk and college-educated discourse. Nobody had ever found out his real name, much less where he went to college. (Investigating the background of a fellow hacker was considered a very threatening and hostile thing to do.) It was anyone's guess as to why an intelligent, college-educated man was working the Undercity instead of earning easy money in the corporate web of Uppernet.

Deck shook his head. "No career change. You have the stuff I asked for?"

The smile disappeared. "You're in a hurry. Too much hurry."

"Sorry, It's just that I need them for this run I'm making tonight."

Nomen frowned, "I've got a job for you, I think you should take it."

"I've already got a job."

The smile returned, "No Deck, you've got a hobby. It's not a job until you get paid to do it."

Deck looked away, "This is gonna pay off. It's just taking a while."

Nomen rebuked him with a laugh, "When you started this project three months ago you said it would take you a couple of weeks. A month ago you said you'd be done by the next Friday. How far are you from being done now?"

"I need to do maybe one more run." He paused for a hew moments while Nomen continued to smile to him. Finally he drew a breath, "Well, maybe two more. Probably two more."

Nomen leaned forward and lowered his voice, "You haven't had a paying job in three months. There is no way you are going to last long enough to make two more runs."

"I've got my hands on some money, I can pull it off."

"Yeah, I found out about that. Some of the Miyamoto clan stopped by, looking for you"

Deck's mouth went dry. He had known in the back of his mind this would happen sooner or later, but it was still a shock when it finally did. "What did they want?"

Nomen's voice become even more agitated, "What do you think they wanted? What were you thinking, borrowing money from those psychos?"

Deck stared at the dusty stuff on his desk and ignored the question.

Nomen leaned back in his chair, "Most hackers start out reckless and then either wise up or crash and burn. You started out wise, and now that you're growing up you are getting set to self-destruct. You know I retired from hacking when I was about your age? You are getting way too old to act like this."

"I'll get them their money once this job is over."

"You know if they come here again I can't protect you."

Deck nodded.

"My girls are tough but they can't take on an army, and I wouldn't risk them defending your fool ass in this case anyway." Nomen locked eyes with Deck and pointed his cigarette at him, "If they ask me questions, I'll answer them. If they want your address, I'll have to give it to them. Do you understand?"

Deck nodded again. Nomen was telling him he needed to move soon, and not leave any clues about where he could be found - unless he wanted to die in his sleep at the hands of Miyamoto assassins.

"So, I think you should put your pet project on hold and do something a little more lucrative." Nomen leaned further back in his chair. It creaked loudly as he shifted the center of gravity backwards. It had once been a fine, high-quality leather executive chair, although it was quite old and abused now. He took a huge drag from his cigarette, then tilted his head back and exhaled the smoke upwards.

The smoke stung Deck's eyes. Smoking was the one facet of Nomen's life Deck didn't want to emulate. That, and living in a mildewing box above the roaring pizza ovens.

The cloud on the ceiling thickened. The heat, the humidity, the mildewing books, and the smoke combined to make the upstairs office a kind of suffocation chamber. Deck was wearing twice as much clothing as he normally did, and the sweat saturated his new white dress shirt. Sweat gathered in his hair and made his scalp itch. He would be glad when tonight's run was over and he could shave it again.

"So what's the job?", he finally asked.

Nomen stabbed the cigarette into the heart of his ashtray. As he spoke, puffs of smoke came from his nose and mouth, "Simple erasure. Some suit from the Uppernet wants to disappear."

The government maintained files on all citizens that contained a large bulk of their personal, financial, educational, and medical data, along with some other behavioral and statistical information. Most people had no concept of just how many gigabytes of their lives occupied the government's servers. When someone wanted to vanish into the underground, flee to another country, or change their identity, they needed to have their file altered so that they could no longer be linked to their original identity. It wasn't possible to delete the file without being detected, but it was possible to corrupt it and render the contents useless. Doing so was called an "erasure".

Usually it was done in such a way as to make it look like a series of unlikely clerical errors once the change was discovered. The hacker would give the client the same address as someone else with the same name, replace their credit history with that of someone with a similar citizen number, swap criminal records with someone living at a similar address, and replace fingerprints and DNA with that of a known relative. When it was complete, your fingerprints and DNA were no longer of any use for the purposes of identification. In theory, nobody could know who you really were unless you told them.

Most hackers performed this procedure on themselves as a sort of initiation into the profession. It was a necessary step to enter the business, and a good test of a newcomer's skill. Deck had ceased to exist as a legal citizen six years ago.

"You pull it off, it pays 15k. That should go a good ways towards appeasing your new friends in the Miyamoto clan." Nomen ignited another cigarette and took a deep pull off of it.

"I'll think about it.", Deck said. They both knew what that meant, but that was it.

Nomen put the cigarette down. He drew a plastic anti-static pouch from a desk drawer and tossed it across the desk. "I managed to get you everything, except I could only get you three flash. Those things are catching on and everyone wants them these days."

"What's the damage?"

"Three k.", Nomen replied, taking up his cigarette again.

"I've only got eighteen hundred."

"What is this, 'eighteen hundred' business? I am not bartering here."

"I'm just saying this is all I have right now.", Deck said with a shrug.

Nescio's face turned to stone. There was a long pause while smoke drifted up and filled the air between them. Nomen fed Deck a hard stare and held it until Deck gave in and looked out the window. At last Nomen spoke again, "Why did you even show up here with that much? You had to know that wasn't enough, and I was supposed to have two more flash for you, that would have been another couple hundred."

"Yeah but you didn't. Besides, all I've got is eighteen hundred."

"You ought to give that money back to the Miyamoto instead of buying hardware from me."

Deck knew better than to tell him that the Miyamoto money was long gone, and that this money had been borrowed from one of the lesser, more desperate clans. "Once I finish this job, I'll be able to settle up. To do that, I need this hardware. Eighteen hundred."

Nomen tightened his face, clenching his teeth for a moment before he spoke, "At eighteen hundred, I take a loss. Despite the long and profitable relationship you and I may have, there is no way I'm taking a loss for you when you're turning down paying jobs so you can work at some mystery project you won't even talk about."

Deck stared at the pouch and thought about tonight's run. If things went to plan, he wouldn't need any of it. He had all the hacking gear he needed, he just wanted some defensive hardware in case he got into trouble. If he did get in trouble, the gear could be the difference between getting caught and getting away.

Nomen opened the pouch and withdrew a pair of small metal tubes, pocketing them. "I'll keep two of the three EMP's, and you can have it for eighteen hundred."

Deck slapped a wad of wrinkled currency onto the desktop, "Sold."

Nomen sat with one hand on the pouch. "Here is some advice, worth a lot more than those two EMP's: You have been at this project for months. I don't know what it is or what you think you are going to gain at the end, but I can tell you this...", he leaned forward and met Deck's gaze with intensity, "It is going to take longer, and cost you more than you could ever imagine. I have seen hackers on this road, on some final project that will give them fabulous power or fame or riches. I have seen good kids, smart kids, throw themselves into a job that ends up consuming far more than they had anticipated. You keep at this, and its going to cost you more than you can pay."

There was a long silence, while Deck sat and sweated heavily.

He continued, "I think you should take this job, and get some money to the Miyamoto. They know you're a hacker, and they know how fast you can disappear. They won't waste time with trying to scare you or slapping you around. If they think you won't pay them back, they will shut you down. And Deck?"


"From where I sit, I don't think you're going to pay them back."

Deck looked down at the floor. He was past his prime. He knew it. Hackers peaked in their mid-to-early twenties. He knew he was in decline now. He couldn't feel it yet, but he knew that he was imperceptibly losing the edge he once had. Someday he would wake up and find he was too slow, too rigid, too set in his ways to survive in the fluid world of counter-security. It had been a couple of years since he had taken a swipe at a hostile system after being awake for two days straight. He used to do that sort of thing all the time, but somewhere deep inside he suspected he couldn't do that anymore. A few months ago he realized that he was going to have to either retire or adapt. When he heard about the implant, he realized it was a way to cheat fate, a way to overcome his limitations and extend his life as a hacker.

This project couldn't wait. He couldn't wait. If he waited until he had the resources for this, it would be too late. Getting his hands on the implant was going to be one of the biggest jobs of his life, and he needed to do it while he still could.

Now he had borrowed large sums of cash from some of the most ruthless and deadly men in the city. He had stood in front of men who killed for a living and swore an oath to pay them back in a timely manner. As part of the oath, he was forced to recite all of the horrible things they would do to him if he failed to pay off the debt (and the massive interest) on time.

Somewhere over the past few weeks he had begun to figure it out for himself. Nescio was right. This was a reckless and deadly gamble, but he couldn't do anything about it now.

Finally he met Nomen's gaze, "I have to finish this. I can't stop now."

Nescio released his grip on the goods and the money disappeared from the desk.

Deck faded in and out of consciousness during the short car ride. There were four other people in the car with him: the driver, the two security goons, and some middle-aged suit in the front seat.

The Suit was packed into his crisp tie and jacket like a shrink-wrapped anvil. His neck was thick and his shoulders were wide. It was a safe guess he spent his younger days either guarding or hurting people's bodies for money. His face was a hard, square mask beneath his gray-streaked receding hairline. The deep lines on his face revealed that he had spent very little of the last forty years smiling. He was obviously running the show.

The driver was a kid in his late teens. He was tall and lanky, but probably being groomed for a position in security someday. In five years he would be part of the immense immune system of the business world.

Deck wondered what the hell was going on. Nobody arrested him. Nobody even asked him anything. They had just slipped past the police at the scene, and Deck assumed the cops would still be looking for him.

They arrived at one of the upscale hospitals that graced this section of the city. Deck came from the Undercity, so he wouldn't even be able to buy aspirin at a place like this under normal circumstances, much less get medical care. But The Suit just waved his TriOp ID around and made things happen. Deck had no idea why people at a hospital would respond to a TriOp ID like it was some decree from Zeus himself, but they did. For all he knew, TriOp owned the place.

Deck was loaded onto a gurney and wheeled to a private room where he apparently had his own matching set of nurse and doctor. They smiled plastic smiles and handled him in the same way some researcher would handle one of the lab mice. Their manner was friendly and cordial, but their attitude was cold and indifferent. The Doctor was a blonde female with short hair in her early forties. Her matching nurse was a blonde male of about the same age. Neither one asked any questions except to find out if he was allergic to any drugs (no), and if he currently used drugs (no). Nobody asked for his name or gave theirs.

He was always surrounded by at least five people, the doctor, the nurse, The Suit, and the goons. The Suit made Deck's medical decisions for him.

They slapped dermal patches over his various scrapes and cuts like they were patching an old inner tube. The doctor made sure his dislocated ankle was back in alignment and gave him a simple brace, along with a generous supply of narcotic painkillers. They didn't bother with the usual formalities of telling him when or how to take them, or warning him about the dangers of addiction and overdose. Instead, they handed him a full bottle with a terse message on the side indicating its contents and dosage.

They drew some of his blood and packed it into a suspension canister. Instead of taking it off to wherever they always take blood in hospital, the nurse handed it to The Suit. Deck had no idea why The Suit would want some of his blood. There was certainly plenty of it on the back seat of his sedan.

The whole procedure took two hours. In the real world, it would have taken that long just to get into the emergency room. It was over in minutes, without signing papers, and without any last-minute admonishments for him. Instead, they dumped him in a wheelchair and carted him out to the parking lot.

The driver had either spent the last two hours scrubbing the back seat or had just picked up a new car. The back seat was pristine. Deck slumped into his designated spot in the back between the two goons. He pulled the lid off his painkillers and popped one. He didn't know where they were going. At this point, he didn't care.

He was asleep before they left the parking lot.

The trip out to Citadel Station took just under thirty-six hours. Deck had tried a couple of times to engage his captors in some sort of conversation, hoping to soften them up and then get some information, but they were stoic and his questions were ignored. The goons changed shifts every twelve hours or so, replacing the former stiff, unremarkable faces with two new equally emotionless and forgettable faces.

The Suit, on the other hand, didn't seem to sleep at all. He fed himself a steady supply of pills during their thirty-six hour odyssey to Citadel, and didn't seem to need much else.

The waiting list for orbital shuttles is usually a month for the average citizen, and a few days for VIP's. The Suit flashed his magical ID and they had two seats on the next launch. There was no need for guards once he was on a shuttle. Where would he go if he escaped?

He slept most of the trip. He wasn't allowed to have anything that might occupy his time, so he chose to embrace the warm, dark oblivion of his painkillers.

Citadel Station hung in orbit far above the network of communications satellites distributed across the airspace of Earth. Its immense dome was a smooth hemisphere of steel, speckled with portals and airlocks to the outside. Hanging below was a long tower that swept to a point at its base, where a formation of communications gear hung, pointing at the planet surface. Along the tower were several long arms, reaching out from below the dome to embrace the empty coldness of space. Each arm was capped with a grove; an area encased in a UV shielded dome that allowed for a small ecosystem to flourish beneath. Below the arms was the bulbous outline of the second-generation reactor that was the heart of the station. At the crown of the dome was the command deck.

It was a nearly self-contained system, and would not need any supply from the earth at all were it not for the population of humans on board that needed to be fed and have their excrement carted back to the planet.

The station had been established primarily to allow for scientific research away from the confines of regulation and hidden from the endless investigation of the curious public. To avoid the possibility of any nation claiming it was in their "airspace", and thus attempting to project their laws onto the station, Citadel was in geosynchronous orbit over an empty area of the Pacific. It was an island - a self-contained corporate nation beholden to none. Its position over the Pacific also meant it was jacked into the fattest pipes on the global network. The datastreams that arced from the U.S. west coast to Japan were the fastest anywhere, and provided the station with all the connectivity it needed.

Deck tried to imagine why they were lugging him all the way up to Citadel. They were obviously not going to kill him, since they had just rescued him from the police and provided him with some pretty exclusive medical care. Didn't he just try and rip these guys off? What were they doing?

They could have been curious about how far he had hacked into their system, what sorts of secrets he saw, and who he shared them with. Given that the primary export of Citadel was information, (in the form of scientific research) this seemed plausible. If information was their bread and butter, then they ought to be pretty sensitive when the wrong people get their hands on it. By its very nature, the research process converts hundreds of millions of dollars into small sets of information that, in theory, will be worth a great deal more money than was needed to acquire it. Anyone who held information as a prime asset was faced with the burden of guarding it from everyone else. A company could protect themselves by compartmentalizing data - by making sure that no one person had access to any more than they absolutely needed. Each group of researchers might have some idea or concept they develop autonomously, ignorant of how their work may fit into the greater whole. However, in order to become useful, all of that data needed to go into a computer at some point. Once the data was in one place, it became vulnerable. Deck had made a career out of exploiting this weakness.

However, they should have been able to answer questions about what he saw all by themselves. By retracing his steps they should have some idea of what sorts of data he was exposed to. It didn't seem to justify the expense of dragging him into orbit.

What else might they want from him? Deck could only guess. There was always the mindless hacker fantasy that the victim would be so taken by the hacker's skills that they turn around and offer the hacker a job. This was a popular fantasy among hackers, but not really worth considering.

The shuttles moved to and from the station at a steady pace. They were a line of worker ants lugging the bulky cargo of human affairs up the long climb into space.

Deck had trouble sleeping on the trip up. He had never been weightless before, and the novelty wore off quickly. The weightlessness combined with his painkillers to provide vivid and constant dreams of falling. Every time his eyes closed he was freefalling from the side of the TriOptimum building.

The Suit never seemed to shut his eyes or grow bored. No matter when Deck awoke from some falling nightmare, he would find The Suit sitting opposite him, alert and unoccupied. It gave Deck the creeps.

The rest of the passengers were a mixed bag of professionals and crew personnel. Although the seats were interchangeable and not assigned, the groups seemed to naturally segregate. The crew sat closer to the rear door, and talked among themselves. The professionals sat closer to the front, and focused more on whatever work they had brought with them. The crew treated the trip into orbit like a busride to work, while the professionals obviously regarded it as more of a business trip. The groups never spoke to each other.

They were all packed into seats that made coach class on an airliner seem roomy. The seats were tighter than airline seats, mostly because they didn't need to comply with regulations about how much ass a seat needed to accommodate, and because they didn't have to worry about people who possessed asses that exceeded regulation. The ceilings were low and windows were tiny and sparse. The air was heavy and slightly damp from all the other people breathing so close together, despite the steady flow of air through the cabin. They were cattle.

Spaceflight was not for the claustrophobic.

Deck occupied himself by removing the dermal patches he had received at the hospital. He found all of his cuts had been healed. Narrow red lines ran across his skin where the day before there had been open wounds and deep abrasions.

While everyone was following instructions and buckling up for docking, The Suit signaled for Deck to follow and headed for the closest exit. The flight crew saw someone out of their seat and began to protest. As soon as they recognized his face they melted out of his way. Deck followed. They were on the flight deck before the other passengers had even stood up.

The flight deck was a hub of activity. Crew members in orange vests jogged from one location to another, loading, unloading, and refueling the massive shuttles.. Overhead were control rooms where others directed the traffic below.

A female voice poured from the loudspeaker, welcoming new arrivals to citadel, and explaining the layout of the station.

"Welcome, to Citadel Station."

It was a precise female voice. Usually he ignored airport announcement chatter, filtering out the extraneous noise, but this voice captured his attention.

It continued, "Healing suites are located on the first level. Level two contains the research laboratories, three houses the crew facilities, and the storage cells are on level four. You are currently in the flight deck on level five. Level six holds executive suites, and level seven is systems engineering."

Deck realized that the station's levels were numbered upside-down, with level one at the very top. Instead of numbering the floors like levels in a building, they were numbered like a naval vessel. That would take some getting used to.

The announcement concluded, "We hope you have a pleasant stay on Citadel Station."

Deck and The Suit were greeted by another pair of guards and a smiling woman in her early thirties.

"Good morning, I'm Marci. Welcome to Citadel.", she offered a handshake to Deck.

Deck didn't like this first-name basis crap, and he wasn't here to socialize. Treating him like a tourist didn't change the fact that he was a prisoner. He refused the handshake and folded his arms.

She steered the eager handshake over to The Suit, "Director, good to have you back."

"Thanks.", he replied, still not showing any signs of being a sane human being by demonstrating the capability to experience some emotion other than "calm and alert".

Deck was surprised to hear that it was morning. It was all relative on an orbital platform and thus it didn't really matter, but to him it seemed like evening.

"I assume you guys will want to have some breakfast and get some rest.", she smiled. She was dressed in a casual, loose fitting gray outfit. Since they didn't use military - style insignia to denote rank, Deck had no idea if she was a bigshot or if they had just sent some lackey to welcome him.

The Suit nodded, "Thanks, I just need some sleep. You can take it from here?"

"I'm all set, thanks."

"Good night", he handed her the metal canister of Deck's blood without comment, as if this was a perfectly normal thing to be passing around. He nodded to Deck and moved off into the crowd exiting the shuttle.

She turned to Deck, "You need a place to rest? And freshen up?"

"I've been asleep for two days. I don't need any rest. Let's get this over with"

7Downward = SHODAN 8