He had no clear moment of awakening, no definitive instant at which he moved from unconsciousness to being aware of the world around him. Instead, the cloudy layers of heavy, numbing sleep were peeled away, one at a time, allowing his mind to slowly flicker to life like some ancient florescent light. Like the rising tides, there was no perceptible change, only a slow, laborious advancement stretched over a featureless expanse of time.
He felt himself rising from a deep, timeless abyss. There were no dreams, nothing in his mind but a cold blank hole where thoughts and dreams and recent memories would normally reside.
He fumbled with consciousness, slipping briefly into the darkness again for short periods, only to be tugged out again by some subtle compulsion.
As his mind struggled to recover, he slowly became aware of his body. At first it was distant... unrelated. It was some slow, pulsating sensation that seemed only vaguely relevant to him. Then, the pulse became stronger, and he was somehow aware of some discomfort, some nuisance that nagged the functional corners of his mind. His murky thoughts could not process the input at first , but as he fought his way out of the depths of sleep, he became aware that something was horribly wrong.
The input from his body was confused and disjointed. Strange sensations enveloped him. He felt hunger. He felt pain. He felt cold - a deep, penetrating, absolute cold.
He suddenly realized that he was gagging. Something was caught in his throat. Something was holding his mouth open, extending down his throat and choking him. His gag reflex fought against it, but it only made him choke more. He tried to cry out and expel it, but he could not find his voice.
He tried to open his eyes, but they could not adjust to accommodate the light. Opening them only brought stinging agony. The world around him seemed to be bathed in penetrating white light.
He rolled over onto his side. His body felt like it was made of mercury. His limbs and face were numb from the cold.
He grasped at his face with his numb, limp hands, trying to find what was in his mouth. His skin was wet and slick with some unknown substance. He could feel the icy wetness of his hands against his chest, but his hands could feel nothing. It seemed as though someone else's hands were grasping at him. He tried again to cry out, to scream, but only managed a weak, animal-like rasp.
He tried to force his eyes open, and his eyelids trembled as the painful, searing light poured into his eyes. He caught a brief glimpse of his surroundings before his eyes slammed shut again, but he could not make sense of the image. He saw a white, cushioned surface beneath him, encased in clear plastic, and a white featureless wall in front of him. He continued to gag.
His trembling hands had somehow grasped something protruding from his mouth and nose. He pulled. He forced his eyes open again as he franticly pulled at his face. He tugged at the long wet, tubes reaching into his face and and felt them sliding against the inside of his head, but the gagging continued. He continued to pull and produced more tubing from his nose and throat, but it seemed to extend deep into his body.
Pulling the last of the tubes out, he felt his throat open up and he began to vomit. Clear water ejected from his mouth onto the spongy, plastic-sealed surface beneath him and gathered in a puddle.
Deck lay, gasping, in the puddle of water as his eyes focused on his surroundings. He was in a hospital room, on some low, narrow bed. Overhead was a potent florescent light, beating him in the face, while the rest of the room lay in relative shadow. His eyes couldn't focus well enough to take in the rest of his surroundings.
He looked down at his body. He was naked, and covered in a slick, wet gel. More tubes protruded from his lower extremities. His skin was ghostly white. His body looked thinner than he remembered it, almost emaciated.
He pulled the last of the tubing from his body and rolled over onto his side, shivering violently. As he exhaled, he could faintly see his breath in the chilled air.
Deck could feel a powerful, stabbing hunger like he had never experienced before. His head ached and throbbed. He could see his vision actually waver in time to the pulsing of the potent migraine.
He knew he wanted to escape the piercing light. There was no comfort from the pain on the bed. He rolled his body forward and flopped onto the floor with a dull, wet thud. The floor was far colder than the bed, and he gasped as his chest smacked into the icy surface. He began to crawl.
Across the room was a gurney. Deck dragged his limp body over to it and pulled off the blanket. He wrapped the thin, stiff fabric around himself and slumped up against the wall, panting.
The room was bare and featureless. The bed he had been in had a twin next to it, and there was a locker beside each. There were no windows, no defining marks on the walls, save for the featureless blank display screen on the wall above his reach.
Where was the doctor? The nurse? Why was he being neglected? He summoned his strength, and drew in a deep breath. He let out a ragged cry for help. His throat was raw and horse. His voice sounded distant and empty.
He waited, watching the doorway and hoping for someone to come in to help him. After a few minutes, he cried out again, filling the room with his tortured, barely-human voice. Again, nobody came.
He wanted to stay there, leaning against the wall. He thought perhaps he could go back to sleep, that somehow things would be better when he awakened. Perhaps the doctor would come back. He longed to rest until his strength returned, but his hunger and the chill drove him to keep moving.
He crawled to the door and slapped his hand against the cold metal surface, but it didn't open. Locked. He looked up to see a control pad on the wall, out of his current reach.
He gathered his strength. Deck stood, bracing himself against the wall with one hand while he clutched the blanket around his shivering body with the other. His head spun as he brought himself up to a near-standing position. A spike of dizziness and nausea washed over his body.
Deck clung to the wall until it passed, and then turned to examine the control pad. The world around him was still a blurry haze, and he had to bring his face close to the controls before he could read them.
He found the spot on the smooth surface labeled "unlock" and poked it with a numb finger. The door slid open.
A wall of warm air greeted him as he crossed into the next room. It was probably still chilly, but far better than the room he had just left behind. He found himself in a large area separated by moveable dividers. The room was trashed. Cabinets had been forced open and looted. Tables were overturned and most of the light fixtures were smashed. There were blackened, melted spots on the wall where something had burned the surface. Yet, there was something familiar about the room itself.
Questions rushed though his mind for which there were no answers.
He stepped further into the room. He didn't know what had happened, but he realized that medical help was probably not on the way. There had been some sort of emergency, or disaster. He began to think that perhaps Citadel had been evacuated, and he had been forgotten.
Suddenly he realized that he had stepped onto a sticky area of the floor. There was a tacky residue that tugged on his feet as he walked. He looked down to see the floor directly underneath his feet was a darkened outline of some long-dried puddle. He grimaced as he tried to imagine what he had just stepped in.
His eyes swept across the spread of out-of-focus debris lying on the floor and came to rest on the source of the puddle - an empty soda can. Deck looked to see an overturned mini-fridge nearby, its door hanging open as it filled the area in front of it in a tiny pool of light and chilled air.
Deck got down on his hands and knees and searched through the scattered collection of smashed, empty cans. He picked each up and shook it, in hopes of finding something inside. Instead, they had all long since leaked out and dried up.
Finally his eye caught the unbroken outline of a can. He scrambled across the sticky floor, abandoning his blanket, and grabbed it. There was a rush of joy as he lifted it and felt its full weight in his hand. His dead, shaking hands managed to crack it open and he began chugging greedily. In the back of his mind he knew he should drink carefully, unless he wanted to barf up the precious liquid as soon as he consumed it, but his hunger was absolute. He drank until the can was as light and empty as the ones on the floor. Deck pulled the can away from his lips and gasped, sputtering on the warm, carbonated solution of sugar. He held the can inverted over his mouth and shook it, making sure he had every drop.
A few minutes later, Deck stood, strengthened by the infusion of sugar. The sensation had slowly returned to his limbs, although his feet were still dead with numbness.
He continued his search of the area. The cabinets had been completely cleaned out, and what was left on the floor was of no use to him. Most of the desks were mobile, lightweight surfaces with no drawers, and the one desk that did have drawers had been looted already. There were a few lockers, all of which were empty or locked.
Suddenly Deck remembered the lockers in the recovery room where he had awakened. He returned and found that the one beside his bed contained his possessions. Deck grabbed the bodysleeve first. He had to lay his shaking, unstable body on the floor in order to put it on without falling over. He opened his bottle of analgesic painkillers and ate one dry before pocketing the rest. He took the $50 from among his possessions and left everything else there.
The effect was far from instantaneous, but Deck found his strength begin to increase as the sensation returned to his limbs. However, the dual tormenters of headache and hunger continued to dog him.
For the past several minutes, he had been noticing an almost subliminal flash in front of his eyes, like some form of visual hallucination. It was just a tiny blink of light at the corners of his vision, like watching television in the dark and then suddenly looking away. He had ignored it, assuming it was related to his headache or starvation, but the images were becoming more frequent now, and more easily visible.
He closed his eyes and the images became stronger, more pronounced.
The flashes became more frequent and intense, and looked like horizontal streaks crossing the edges of his vision. He held his hands over his eyes, as if to block the hallucination.
His migraine turned up a notch, and each agonizing pulse of pain was accompanied by more streaks of white assailing his vision.
He stumbled forward, unable to hold his balance. He fell to his hands and knees, gasping in panicked confusion. The lines became more numerous, tighter. He tried in vain to make it stop. He closed his eyes, he opened them. He hid his face in his hands, he stared at the light. Nothing would stop the visual assault.
The lines multiplied and grew brighter, closer - eventually forming patterns of light and dark. He clawed at his eyes, trying to halt the agony. More lines filled his vision, running together until they were indistinguishable from one another.
Suddenly, a moment of recognition came. He began to see clear patterns. The patterns were arranged in rows and columns.
The patterns were alphanumeric characters.
Deck realized what he was seeing and his hand reached for the back of his neck. At the base of his skull he felt a dermal healing patch. He tore it away and prodded the tender skin underneath. He couldn't feel any perceptible scar, but that patch had been there for a reason.
Kneeling on the floor of the crashed office of Doctor Nathan D'Arcy, Deck watched as the scrolling parade of data danced in his visual cortex, and he began to laugh. Tears of joy ran down his cheeks as he looked into the face of technological perfection.
It took several minutes for the characters to settle into a stable pattern that he could read. The instant this clarity arrived, his headache broke and he could suddenly see again.
The implant was feeding image data into his visual cortex, but the image was separate from his normal vision - much like the eyes can form a single image or be viewed independently. If you have both eyes open, you do not get a double image, but one coherent picture of the world around you. However, if one eye is closed you do not see a giant black field on one side, but instead the closed one is simply ignored. It was the same with the HUD image from the implant. He could focus on it and ignore the input from his eyes, or he could ignore the HUD and concentrate on what his eyeballs were showing him. Even when it was fully visible, the HUD could never actually obscure his normal vision.
The HUD was unlike anything his mind had ever visually experienced. It had no size, no distance, no single point of reference or focus. Unlike normal mental pictures, which are very detailed at the point of focus and are hazy and undefined on the edges, the HUD was always sharp and well-defined. He was never "looking" at any particular portion of it, but was able to perceive the whole in perfect clarity.
Currently, his HUD displayed little of interest to him - just the time, the date, and a message stating that it had rebooted twenty minutes earlier.
Deck was still kneeling on the floor, smiling. He had been remade. Reborn. Rebuilt. Upgraded. No longer just another bag of meat looking to carve out a niche in the hacker sub-culture, competing against others for jobs and hardware. No longer just a hacker. No, he was now The Hacker. He was at the top of the foodchain. He could take whatever jobs suited him, and name his price. If they wanted the best, they would pay it.
The image changed. A message appeared on his HUD.
Incoming signal: TO-RL1.VID - Compatible video codec available
Incoming signal? What the hell? He found it unnerving to have words suddenly appearing in his head. He turned his head in an unconscious effort to look away from the glowing green text.
Someone was trying to contact him. After a moment he figured out how to interact with the HUD. By manipulating the message he could examine it and get more information, or he could simply open the connection and talk to whoever was trying to get in touch with him.
He examined the transmission. He found that it wasn't addressed to him, but instead was just a generic wide-band signal intended to reach whoever was listening. There was nothing else to do. He opened up the feed.
An image appeared in the HUD. It was the face of a woman, early thirties, dark hair. He couldn't see her body but the little bit he was able to see of her shoulders suggested she was wearing a uniform. The picture was grainy and punctuated with bursts of static.
"Hello? Can your hear me?", her voice was highly filtered, like some distant AM radio signal.
"I'm here. Talk"
"Can you please identify yourself?", she asked in a crisp, businesslike manner.
"You called me, lady. Who the hell are you?"
"I'm Rebecca Lansing of TriOptimum corporate communications. Who is this?"
Deck smiled, "Call me Hacker"
Under normal circumstances, this would not be a good handle. This is like a policeman insisting everyone call him "The Cop". But the name works if you find yourself as the new god of your profession. He transcended the need for a handle now.
"What's wrong with your signal? There is no ID and no video. Where are you transmitting from?" He could see her squinting at her screen, as if that would help her see a video feed that wasn't there.
He figured that explaining about the implant wouldn't be a good move at this point, "Nothing wrong with the signal. What is going on?"
"You tell me. You're on the station. We have been trying to reach you guys for over a week. What is going on? Who's in charge?"
This was not good news to Deck. He had been assuming that there was someone on the outside who could tell him what sort of situation he was in. "Nobody. I don't know. I just woke up from surgery. Healing coma, actually. There is nobody around."
She sighed, "Alright, listen to me very carefully. Something has gone terribly wrong on Citadel Station. Normal communications are being jammed."
"Something has gone wrong? Can you give me a little more to go on than that?"
"Not much. A few weeks ago one of our shuttles was destroyed while trying to dock at Citadel. There were a number of distress calls from all over the station, but eventually they were jammed. From the outside, we've seen evidence of fires, decompression, and radiation leaks. I've been trying to reach someone for the last week and you're the first response we've gotten."
His heart quickened, "Can you get me out of here?"
"We don't want to risk another shuttle. We can't risk another shuttle, actually. We need to find out what happened in there before we can know how to proceed. Who has control of the station? What destroyed the docking shuttle? Why are standard communications being jammed?"
There was a long silence as Deck took this in. He finally had his goal. He had the neural implant for which he had worked and sacrificed so much, and he found a new and potent will to live now that he had it. The thought of dying once he had achieved his goal was unbearable to him. He longed for the coarse streets of the Undercity. The streets were full of danger, but it was a danger he knew and understood.
"What do you need me to do?"
"Get us some info. Find out who has control of the station, what they want. We need info."
Deck could hear the voice of the corporation in her words. She never asked him to find survivors. They didn't care. They wanted their multi-billion dollar installation back.
"You you listening to me? I just woke up from a healing coma. I can hardly stand, much less run around this station playing detective for you. I'm weak, I'm hungry, and I have no idea what to expect." This was a calculated exaggeration. In fact, he found he had recovered quite a bit of strength now that he had some clothes on and he was warming up.
Rebecca nodded, "I understand. I'll be honest with you, we can't do anything until we know what we are dealing with, so its your call. You can hide wherever you are and hope there is someone alive up there that will find you, or you can have a look around and see what you can tell us so we can help."
"I'll get back to you.", he cut the connection.
First he needed food.
He slapped his hand against the door to D'Arcy's office, but it didn't budge. It was locked.
Someone had apparently tried to force it at some point, as the door was opened about a half-inch, and its edges were dented and scratched by whatever tools had been used on it. There was a keypad beside the door, but he didn't know the code.
He reached through the crack and pulled on the door, but it wouldn't move. He needed a lever.
He searched through the debris and found the hollow telescoping pole of a portable IV stand that had long since been separated from its wheeled base. It was lightweight metal, but strong. He found he could lock it in the extended position by twisting the ends in opposite directions.
Deck shoved the thick end of the pipe into the gap in the door and pulled on the opposite end. No effect. He tried again, putting his full weight onto the narrow end. After a few seconds of struggling, all he had managed to do was put a kink in the fat end of the pipe. The door remained unmoved.
He cursed and smashed the pipe into the unmoving door in a fit of rage. As the metal surfaces connected with a loud metal crack, something stirred in the rear of D'Arcy's office. Deck wheeled around, pipe in hand, looking for the source of the noise. He collapsed his pole a bit to make it shorter and to concentrate the weight more. Fully collapsed, it was about the length of his forearm.
From the back of the office a small assistant bot wheeled into view. It was a short white metal cylinder that stood at about waist height, with a pair of slender, slightly bent metal arms. Its surface was beaten, but it was still apparently functional. Deck shook his head and turned his attention back to the job at hand.
He peered through the gap in the door. The corridor beyond was unusually dark, and he couldn't see much beyond the immediate area on the other side of the stuck door. There were many dents bulging outward from the surface, suggesting that someone in the corridor had been pounding on it, trying to get in.
He could hear the whirring of servos behind him. The bot had come over to the doorway, probably wanting to leave.
Suddenly Deck felt a painful, high-speed blow on the back of his leg, and the impact caused him to stumble sideways. He swore again as he spun around, nursing the new wound on his leg. He looked down to see the assistant bot wheeling away, waving its long, slender arms.
Deck stared in disbelief at the mechanical prankster as it turned around for another run. As it darted towards him for the attack, it swung a skinny metal arm directly for his groin.
Deck managed to parry the blow with his pipe.
"You little bastard", he spat as it sped away.
He waited for it to come around for another swing and then nailed with a solid blow to the top of its chassis. He knocked it off balance, but its arm shot out and righted itself with mechanical precision. It came for another round. Deck blocked it and struck again. He only added to the already large collection of dents the bot had collected, without harming it in any significant way.
Deck let the bot come back for the next round while he extended the pipe to arms' length. He realized he might have to get hit again for this to work. As the bot closed in, he broadened his stance and thrust the tip into the bot's camera housing. The bot managed to give him a good whack on the knee in exchange.
He lifted up on the pole and slammed the bot backwards into the wall. He leaned his weight into the pole, driving its length further into the chassis. The bent metallic arms flailed and went limp as he broke through and destroyed some critical component.
Deck stood with his hands on his knees, gasping. The brief encounter wouldn't even count as exercise for him under normal circumstances, but he found that the scuffle had left him spent. Severe hunger and muscular atrophy had stolen his physical prowess. He panted for air.
He extracted his weapon from the smashed visual cavity of the robot and turned his attention back to the door. He doubted he had the ability to pry it open, and currently lacked the strength to even try. He looked to the keypad.
Suddenly it occurred to him that his new implant should enable him to hack it.
He had no idea how it worked, though. Under normal circumstances, someone would have been here to give him the tutorial, but now he was left to work it out on his own.
As an experiment, he held up his hand to the keypad and waited. Nothing happened. Nothing new appeared on his HUD. He tried pressing a few keys, but nothing unexpected happened. The numeric keypad buzzed as he entered some random five digits. He frowned.
Then, on a whim he tried his right hand. He could feel a tingle in his right arm, as if he had a very localized case of the jitters, or had developed dozens of tiny, fluttering tics in his forearm. His HUD lit up.
Compatible device detected. Negotiating. Connected to security device class KPD-NUM131-0 (numeric keylock).
He smiled. He had no idea what to do from here, but he knew it worked. This was the payoff.
He was a bit disappointed to find that the interface was in his right hand. D'Arcy hadn't bothered to ask if he was left handed. Idiot.
A simple geometric cube appeared. Its surface was a flat, featureless yellow. It was comically primitive, like some child's first program in grade school. It looked out of place next to the grace and complexity of the rest of his neural interface.
The cube seemed to represent the keypad. In his mind's eye, he moved closer to examine the artifact. As he did so, detail appeared. The cube actually seemed to be made up of smaller, more detailed pieces. By the time Deck was "beside" it, it was a collection of smaller interconnected cubes.
His hand began to fatigue as he held it up to the keypad.
The exploration continued. Each of the components was some sort of representation of data. He found one that represented the keypad interface and moved in closer to examine it. As he did, it broke into an intricate collection of geometric shapes. There were twelve in all, and they were designed such that they could be re-assembled into a cube, but had now arranged themselves into an interlocking pattern that formed a long, flat surface. Each represented a button. He touched one.
Suddenly the keypad beneath his hand beeped. He glanced down to see that he had typed a six without touching the actual buttons. After exploring this a little more and typing in a bunch of random codes, he backed out and examined one of the other components.
He found one that was an unlabeled collection of complex shapes. He moved in further and selected one of its pieces at random.
The entire system reminded him of a fractal pattern that became more complex as it was examined in further detail. Deck was zoomed in so far now that the original yellow cube that contained everything else now looked to be the size of a building, not that size had much meaning in the virtual world inside his head.
Exploring the keypad further, he found that parts of it were fashioned after their real-world counterparts (such as the circuit board) while others were completely abstract. This was the beauty of the implant. It was able to take the known data about the keypad and represent it to Deck in an interactive form. The program to handle this must have taken years to develop. He wondered if Shodan had helped.
His arm ached. He stepped closer to the pad and shifted his weight, trying to alleviate the burning in his muscles.
The shapes rushed by in a blur of glowing colors as he navigated up and down the hierarchy of geometric data. The colors were bright and basic, like some giant city fashioned out of simple children's toys. The interface became easier to use, and his movements become faster, more fluid. He flew through fields of geometric primitives, through translucent walls of color, through lattice patterns of wireframe mesh, and across the surface of spheres with seamless fractal patterns etched into their faces. All of this was part of a simple numeric keypad.
There were parts relating to the hardware, security alarm, the door mechanism, the numeric display, and the lockdown mechanism
His upper arm and shoulder burned. He dropped his pipe and massaged them with his left hand.
There was one part that seemed to be a container of sorts. As he examined it, he could see its surface become slightly translucent. As it tumbled in the imaginary space in front of him, he could see digits through the shimmering walls: 45100.
He dropped his aching arm and typed in 4-5-1-0-0. There was a cheerful beep and the door slid open.