00. Foreword
01. Keys
02. Search
03. Downward
04. The Undercity
06. Brain Surgery
07. Matter of Payment
08. Reboot
09. Biohazard
10. Cyberpuppets
11. Links
12. Encryption
13. Queries
14. Debugging
15. Disconnect
16. Downtime
17. Fletch
18. Learning
19. Predator
20. Decompression
21. Kinetic
22. Memory Leak
23. Chronology
24. Lockdown
25. Mind of the Monster
26. Empathy
27. Trojan
28. Reformat

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Deck emerged from D'Arcy's office into the main corridor, brandishing his metal tube.

The corridor, like D'Arcy's office, was utterly trashed. The cold air reeked of sewage, death, and burnt plastic. There was a thick smoky haze gathered near the ceiling, a remnant of some long spent fire. Lights were burned out or shattered, and broken equipment and smashed bots littered the floor. Human waste had gathered in puddles in the corners. Most of the public display screens that dotted the hallways had been destroyed, and the few that were operational displayed static or gibberish. The unmistakable pockmarks of bullet holes peppered the edges of walls and framed doorways. What were once wide pools of blood were now simply blackened outlines on the floor.

Deck stood for a moment, afraid to proceed. There was simply no explanation for this level of chaos and destruction. He could see the uneven outlines of what could only be human corpses in the darkened corners. Fear of death and fear of the unknown compelled him to stay, to turn back, to return to the recovery room and wait for help. Eventually the taskmaster of hunger drove him onward, and he headed carefully down the corridor. His plan was to reach an elevator and head for the crew level, where the cafeteria was.

Most of the bodies in the hallways had been horribly mutilated. A few were in piles, and weren't surrounded by blood, which suggested they had died elsewhere and had then been brought here for whatever reason. There didn't seem to be anything threatening at the moment, but his body had gone into full-scale flight or fight mode. His heart pounded away in his chest. The pipe in his hands became slick with sweat. He licked his lips. His pace quickened, partly due to fear, but partly as a way to cope with all the energy now flowing through his veins. He was weak, confused, terrified, hungry, and alone, but in some primal corner of his mind he still knew what to do next: Get some food, and kill anything that stops you.

The corridor curved to the left, taking him counter-clockwise around the level. Eventually Deck came upon a corpse lying in the fetal position in front of the elevator. It hadn't been mutilated like the others, but it was still horribly disfigured. Most of its teeth were gone from the gaping dry mouth. Its closed eyes were sunk deep into the skull, and it was emaciated, suggesting that it had gone without food long before death. Its fingernails were long, impossibly thick, and colored a jaundice yellow. Just a few scattered strands of white hair remained on the balding, bruised scalp. The skin was a lifeless slate gray and somewhat translucent, spotted with tumorous lumps. He could clearly make out the patterns of blue veins below the surface. It had probably been male, but that was impossible to say for certain without further investigation. The tattered jumpsuit was a filthy, bloodstained orange, stained from the waist down in excrement.

Deck realized he was going to have to step over this abomination to get to the elevator. He thought of dragging it off to one side, but decided he didn't want to touch it. Besides, what could he really do for this person? It wasn't like he could just bury them. The dignity of a proper death was a luxury beyond them at this point.

Deck carefully stepped over the putrid mess. He wiped a damp palm on the leg of his pants and hit the elevator button. The door instantly popped open to reveal the yawning throat of the elevator shaft. Air rushed out of the shaft as the separate areas attempted to equalize atmospheric pressure.

Deck heard movement behind him and turned to see the body at his feet stir. Its bent, deformed head lifted. The eyes opened and focused on Deck. An instant later the thing was scrambling to its feet, clawing at his face.

He smacked its grabbing claws aside and jabbed at it with the end of his pole. Too late he realized he'd forgotten to lock it in the open position and it simply telescoped closed as he pressed it into the sunken chest of his opponent. The mistake threw him off balance and brought him stumbling forward. The ex-person reached out and gouged at his face with its hardened nails, cutting into his skin. Its breath smelled like rotting meat, and its ragged breathing sounded like its lungs were full of swamp water.

Deck recovered in an instant. He elbowed his foe to push it back, then followed up by smashing his free hand into its throat. As the creature stumbled back, he swung his pipe in a perfect arc, snapping his wrist at the apex of the blow. There was a pop as the metal connected with its jaw, shattering it. The thing fell backwards and hit the wall.

Deck extended the pole again, twisting the separate sections to lock them in position.

The creature recovered without pausing and advanced on Deck without flinching. It had no fear of him, and didn't seem to be affected by the damage he had inflicted. Given the staggering number of things already wrong with its body, a destroyed jawbone was probably the least of its problems. Deck easily blocked its primitive grabs at his face and throat and countered with a strike to one knee with the heavier end of the pole. He followed up with a jab to the throat that pushed it backwards.

Showing absolutely no understanding of self-preservation, it came at him again. Deck deflected its animal-like attack and spun around, bringing the end of the pole to bear on the side of its neck. There was a pop, and it flopped forward onto the cold, hard, no-skid surface of the floor.

He crouched, catching his breath. His ears were filled with the rushing sound of his own breath. His lungs burned. He spat on the floor. There was a strange taste in his mouth. He stood with his hands on his knees, his head drooping low as he fought to recover. He saw blood dripping from his cheek onto the floor. Deck touched the side of his face to find he'd received at least two deep gashes for his tactical blunder. As he wiped away the blood he found a foamy, white substance seeping from the wound.

He remained crouching, catching his breath and listening for further danger.

He looked down into the open, unblinking eyes of his opponent. He had no idea what had happened to this person. Radiation might cause the hair and tooth loss, but that wouldn't explain its insanity or the tumors. There was no single thing that could account for everything that was wrong with it.

Once he had recovered from the battle, he tried again with the elevator to find that it pulled the same trick again. The doors popped open to reveal the deadly drop as soon as he hit the call button. That wasn't going to get him anywhere.

He decided to return to D'Arcy's office and look for some dermal patches. As he made his way back through the corridors, he carefully regarded each corpse, checking to see if it might be alive. Some were just dead people, but many had been marred and mutated into whatever it was that he'd just encountered. Most of the bodies had been torn apart to the point where it was clear they could be of no threat to him, alive or not.

In D'Arcy's office, he searched through the medical supplies. Clearly whoever had trashed the place had made a point of collecting the dermal patches, since most of them were gone. Deck managed to recover a few patches that had been inadvertently placed into a box of detox, and thus overlooked by whatever scavenger had cleaned the place out.

Suddenly a message appeared on his HUD:

Warning: Bio-Toxin (synthetic) detected - Identifying...

He stared in disbelief at the message. The implant was buried in his skull, and doubtless wasn't talking about some airborne threat. It had detected some nasty stuff in his bloodstream. How had he been infected?

Realization struck and he bolted to the nearby industrial-size, stainless steel sink. He began pouring water over the wound on his face. While radiation and disease would never cause the deformations he witnessed on the mutant by the elevator, a biological weapon probably could. The fat, yellow fingernails that had broken his skin could have been host to any number of poisons. Following another logical leap, it could have been carrying whatever biological agent that had caused the person's mutation in the first place.

He suspected that is meant that he was as good as dead, and that all of his efforts from here on out were a great flaming waste of time.

Rebecca Lansing tapped on the console screen as she spoke, "We've got a directional on the signal. It has to be coming from Citadel. This isn't a prank. This guy is for real."

"I just don't get it. You've been paging the station for days. Why didn't he answer sooner?", Buchanan asked.

Rebecca gestured towards the console, "You heard him. He was in a coma."

"A healing coma."


"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard.", he muttered.

Buchanan was one of the higher-ups at TriOptimum. Rebecca couldn't remember exactly what his title was, but he seemed to have been given the job of managing the Citadel crisis because nobody else wanted it or knew what to do about it. He was tall, fiftyish, with deep, unhappy creases in his face. The dye job he'd had performed on his hair was wearing off, and the gray was starting to peak through black strands that framed his face. He either owned an entire wardrobe of dark suits, or ran out each evening to have the same suit cleaned and pressed so he could wear it again the next day. After five days of nearly living in the control room, he had finally given in to debauchery and loosened his necktie by three-quarters of an inch.

She shrugged, "I don't know if he's telling the truth or not about the coma, but we have no idea what is going on up there. This guy is the only one talking to us. Even if he's lying to us... or nuts... or whatever - it doesn't matter. We'll talk to him and humor him and see what we can learn."

"After over a week of paging the station we finally get a response, and it's a ten second conversation with a nutcase. You're sure he's not some prankster, and he really is on the station? I mean", he paused for a moment to bring his scowl to full power, "really sure?"

His humorless, severe manner had an imposing effect on the TriOptimum employees around, but Rebecca was a consultant so that sort of thing didn't work on her. "The directionals say this guy is somewhere on this line", she pointed to a wireframe image of the Earth, with a bright blue line projecting from the surface of the planet and intersecting the the large orbiting 'C' icon. "So either he is on the station or he is floating in deep space between there and our Mojave towers."

Buchanan muttered to himself as he stared at the display.

The control room was at the heart of the building, which meant it was a five-minute walk if they wanted to visit the closest window. As far as Rebecca could tell, this place had been the security center for the building before the disaster. Since then it had been converted into the crisis command center. Most of the space in the room was filled with banks of security stations, each with multiple screens and consoles. The outer walls were covered with dry-erase boards and large interactive screens. Overhead lights were few, dim, and confined to the outer walls where whey wouldn't cause glare at the security stations. At the rear of the room was a small folding table with a silo of coffee and a large box of stale doughnuts.

At any given time, there were a dozen or so technical people milling around with nothing to do. They were experts on computer systems, shuttle piloting, orbital safety, robotics, and a host of other subjects from the obvious to the obscure. They were here in case anyone needed to ask them a question. In the interim, they drank coffee. Rebecca had been one of them until Hacker showed up.

Finally he brought his eyes back to Rebecca, "What about the rest of your group? Are they ready to go?"

"They are on the ground at GALF, geared up, and ready to go. The next launch window opens at sixteen hundred."

"Well", Buchanan coughed at the mention of a launch, "we won't be launching just yet, but keep them on standby. In the meantime, get that guy back and see what you can squeeze out of him."

Biological agents were frightening things. Deck knew that this stuff was in his system, but he had no idea how much or what it was going to do. He didn't know what the lethal dose was, or how much of a dose he'd absorbed. He didn't know anything except that he had some.

He was bent over the edge of the sink, with his head underneath the spigot. Warm water washed over the back of his head and ran down his face. The sound of running water echoed off the sides of the large basin. It was good to feel warm again. He wanted to immerse his head, but it would take forever to fill a sink this size. He was too hungry for that right now. The primal part of his brain rose again, and told him to go find something to eat.

He pulled his head from the flow and stared at the pale blue tile behind the sink. He wished there was a mirror here. He wiped the water from his face and slapped a dermal healing patch over the wound on his cheek. He took a deep breath and headed back to the corridor. He was going to find another elevator.

A new message in his HUD:

Incoming signal: TO-RL1.VID - Compatible video codec available

TriOpimum was calling again. Maybe they had some news for him. He opened up the feed.

The face of Rebecca appeared, "I think I got him again. Hello?"

He glanced out into the corridor, checking for movement. He began talking at the slightest whisper. Since the audio was coming directly from his head, he only needed to speak loud enough so that he could hear his own voice, "I'm here."

"Hi, uh... Hacker. I just wanted to check and see how things are going, and make sure you're still with us. There are a lot of worried people down here. Lots of people haven't heard from their families, and if you could tell us anything..."

Deck clenched his teeth. They wanted to know what was going on. He could understand that. What irritated him was how she felt she needed to pretend they cared about him before asking their questions. Their concern was about as authentic as a Canadian taco. "I've been infected with a biological agent. A bio-toxin."

She stiffened as he said this. Deck suddenly realized he'd said something very stupid. If he wanted them to come rescue him, the last thing he wanted to do was tell them he was infected with something like that. He tried to smooth over it, "Well, I don't know about infected. I guess I was exposed would be a better way of saying it." He knew it was too late. They wouldn't want to risk exposing themselves, and they would just write him off as dead. He cursed himself for being so short sighted. He knew he wasn't thinking clearly. He needed food.

Rebecca had recovered and had her calm, even face on again. "What leads you to believe you have been infected with a bio-toxin?"

In the darkened corridor, he was a silhouette, his black bodysleeve turning his figure into a gliding shadow of movement. He held the fully extended metal tube in his hands as if it were a fighting staff, and not a fragment of broken medical furniture. He stopped in the shadows of an intersection. "I've got one of your neural implants in my head. It ID'ed the toxin for me." He winced. He hadn't meant to reveal the implant, either.

She pursed her lips, "Neural implant? I don't know what that is."

He didn't know this part of the station, as he had never had any reason to come this way. He was at a three-way intersection, with the direction he desired to go being the one not available. That meant his choice was pretty much a coin toss. He hissed in a barely audible whisper, "You need to find out. Also, find out about this toxin." He read her the serial number.

"Fine. I'll ask about that. Do you know how you were exposed?"

He turned left and moved down the hallway, hugging the wall.

He hissed under his breath, "Yeah, I was attacked by - hell, I dunno, something. It was a former crew member, but he was covered in tumors, totally insane, and running short on teeth and hair. He looked so bad I mistook him for a corpse at first. He - or it - managed to gouge my face pretty good."

He continued, "Looks like pretty much everyone is dead. There are a lot of bodies spread around. There have been some gunfights. Lots of broken bots. Impossible to tell who was fighting, or what the sides were."

Her face had contorted in disgust. She was still stuck on his description of the mutant. "Okay Hacker, I'll see if I can get some answers about the toxin. It sounds like it got loose and killed everyone."

"That doesn't explain all the gunfights, or the smashed bots."

The image of Rebecca shrugged, "They were probably defending themselves from the victims of the bio-toxin."

The corridor curved around and narrowed. He passed the scene of some long-expired fire. The pale blue walls were blackened around the site where some crates had been left to burn. The plastic outer shell of the crates had melted into a hard, lumpy mass at the base, leaving the charred steel framework naked. The main overhead lights were out, and everything was bathed in the weak, pale yellow gloom of emergency lighting.

"That doesn't make sense. Assuming the toxin is what messed up that guy I met, there is just no way that could account for all the fighting. These things are animals. They're all primal instinct. In a gun fight it would be no contest. No way would they kill this many people."

She wrote something down as he said this, "Do you have any theories?"

"Not anything that makes sense yet."

He came to an intersection where an currency access machine had been deliberately vandalized. He could proceed further down the darkened hallway, or make a right into a larger open area. He crouched in the shadows to consider.

"What are you doing now?"

The large room looked too open and bright. It was apparently the local supply nexus. A freight elevator dominated the center of the room, surrounded by various crates. The elevator was dark, and its doors were jammed open. It was a safe bet it was no longer functional. His instincts told him to stick to the shadows and avoid the unknown.

"I gotta get me some food. Need fuel. I'm so hungry I can't think straight. I'm heading for the crew deck. I tried one of the lifts and it was out."

He came to a room locked with another keypad. He had skipped most of the rooms he had encountered up until this point, since they had probably been looted and would have nothing left to offer him. This room appeared to be sealed tight. It was a safe bet a mutant couldn't open keypad-controlled doors.

She nodded and checked some screen that was out of his view. "You're still on the medical level, right? If you're in a hurry, there's a break room on the north end of the level you're on. All I have are floorplans and notes, but I would assume it would have some vending machines or something. If you don't mind vending machine food."

The thought of stale, foil-wrapped food made his mouth water so intensely it hurt. "North? I dunno if you noticed, but I'm not planetside. There is no magnetic compass up here."

"Its just terminology. You need some frame of reference. The maps I have all use compass directions for orientation."

"Whatever. Just tell me which way is 'north'."

"Well, where are you now?"

"I don't know, some corridor. All looks the same to me."

"Ok, where did you wake up?"

"D'Arcy's office."

"I don't have names on this diagram. Hang on." She turned sideways and began typing at a console out of view. Deck realized she must have been surrounded with screens and consoles. After a few moments she turned back to the camera, "The information I have here is a few months out of date, but assuming D'Arcy has retained the same office since this file was updated, then the door out of D'Arcy's office faces 'west', if that helps."

"It does", He ended the connection.

Hacking the keypad was much easier this time. Instead of five minutes it took him fifteen seconds. He realized there was a knack to it. You could move through the floating matrix of geometric data as fast as you wanted, the only trick was not becoming disoriented. He also realized he didn't need to type the code in once he found it, he could just use the neural interface. He could think a lot faster than he could physically push the buttons.

The door slid open to reveal a cramped room, just big enough for the desk and the surrounding shelves. It looked like a local security hub. The walls were dotted with display screens - some broken, some not. The real attention-grabber in the room was slumped in the chair at the desk.

At some point in the past few weeks, someone had sealed themselves in here and then sat at the desk and committed suicide. There was a splash of black on the wall behind the chair. It was an epicenter of dried blood, surrounded by a gaussian distribution of smaller splotches. The occupant was dressed in a black security jumpsuit. The stench was overpowering, even with the ventilation system replacing the air in the room once every few minutes.

Deck pushed the chair sideways with his foot, wheeling the unpleasant mess out of his way. Beneath the chair was the gun that had been used to end this person's misfortune. He took it.

It was a simple pistol. He didn't know the make or model. It was of the nine-millimeter variety, and only had five shots left. He slipped it into the holster on the left leg of his bodysleeve.

There were a few other items of value on and in the desk. An access card, an EMP grenade, and a fragmentation grenade. He shook his head in disbelief. Having security forces carry live grenades on a space station was like defending a log cabin with a flamethrower. It was an act of lunacy. He took them anyway.

He thought of the bio-toxin, slowly spreading through his system, possibly turning him into some freakish nightmare of a former human being. It could be eating away at some critical component of his physiology, eroding his humanity even now. How much time did he have? Would he be able to feel it happening, to know what was going on, or would he just wake up at some point, engulfed in madness?

Deck looked down at the suicide victim. It was a safe bet he knew the answers. He was infected, and he knew he was out of time, and that's why he punched out early.

The realization hit him that there was probably no cure. Here, in one of mankind's most advanced medical facilities, piles of people had succumbed to it. If there had been a cure, they would have used it.

There was a display screen on the desk but no rig was present - not even a dummy keyboard. He didn't need one, though.

Deck slapped his right hand down on the desk where a portable would go and it connected to the local node. Without any sort of physical interface, he had to rely solely on the virtual world provided by his neural implant.

The console was different from the keypads he had hacked earlier, but the concept was the same.

The console was a collection of three shapes. The most prominent was a red cylinder that seemed to represent this particular console. Above it was a flat, translucent panel, which was the display screen. The final object was a cube that seemed to stretch off into the distance, and it was probably the connection to the station-wide network.

Moving in close to the network node he found that no further detail appeared. It was just a featureless cube. He inched closer still and found a thin, almost invisible black barrier around its edges. ICE. His forward movement stopped and he bounced backwards off the wall. It wouldn't let him pass. He didn't have any software for dealing with it, so he had to leave it alone for the time being.

He backed out and examined the console. As he moved closer, the cylinder contained many smaller cylinders, groups of long thin towers bunched together like cables. On their surface were trails of moving light, like a thousand fireflies tracing the patterns of some circuit board.

Sailing through the imaginary world inside his head, he knew this was what he was born to do. To hack. To be free of the limitations of human interface. To interact on a level where thought and deed were one in the same. His mind unhooked from his weakened, shaking body, the putrid smell of the nearby corpse, and the pangs of starvation. It unhooked and dove into the perfection of the digital world.

He rushed down the side of one of the cables like he had just jumped off a thousand-story building. He moved closer to a series of long, glowing towers, darting between the undulating strands of brightly colored cable. The radiant towers seemed to be made of millions of precisely stacked, perfectly square panels, loosely spaced so that he could pass between the layers. On each square was an image nearly identical to its neighbors. As he passed downward through the stack, passing through the intangible images, he noticed that they formed a sequence, and when viewed in order they produced movement.

It was a video feed. Beside the tower was a narrow ribbon of light and dark patterns. He assumed this was the audio portion. He connected it to his internal audio and plunged down through the stack of images. The video played.

A young man with short blonde hair and a serious expression was talking to him, "- like we have to wait and see. So far nobody's talking. Diego is pressing us for a breakthrough but I don't know what more we could be doing at this point." Some text in the corner of the picture indicated the message had been recorded by "Honing, David - Security"

Deck reached the bottom of the tower and the video feed ended. He backed up, maximum speed, through the miles of images and shapes, until he found the top. He plunged downward again.

"Doc D'Arcy informed us that he has discovered the cause of the recent outbreak. It turns out, it's not a disease... its a biological weapon, produced right here on the station. I didn't even know we made that kind of stuff. We got clearance to go into inventory and it turns out there are several canisters of it missing. We have launched a full investigation, and Diego has ordered that no reports of this be sent to corporate until he have some solid info to give them. This crime raises a lot of questions. Who took the canisters? How did they get access to such a sensitive area, and who the hell would actually release the stuff once they had their hands on it? We're rounding up the people we know had access and asking questions, and it looks like we have to wait and see. So far nobody's talking. Diego is pressing us for -"

He pulled out of the stack and looked around the collection of video feeds, trying to determine their order. He located the next one in the series and watched it.

The next several videos cataloged the course of the investigation. Only four non-executives had access to the canisters and they were the focus of the investigation. Security never properly explored the possibility that someone might have hacked their way in. They seemed to lack the technical expertise to search for the telltale signs of an electronic break-in. He also noticed they never even questioned the executives. Cowards.

The investigation never seemed to make much progress, and eventually deteriorated into a bitter circle of speculation and accusations. He found the last entry.

The face of David Honing had broken out in a rash. His voice was raw and his words were occasionally broken with a wet cough, "There is no doubt about it, I'm infected too. We were sent to pick up some of the victims that finally died in quarantine. I hadn't seen any of them since they went in last week, and they looked like - I dunno. We could hardly tell who was who, they all looked so bad. Anyway, we just stacked them up in a big container labeled 'medical waste' and hauled them down to storage. Diego tried to make it sound like they were going to get sent planetside for funerals or something, but everybody knew they were headed right for the incinerator. A few hours after hauling the bodies, I got this rash. I wore plastic gloves and followed D'Arcy's instructions and everything, and somehow I still got it."

David looked away from the camera for a moment, balanced somewhere between fear and rage, "So, I'm as good as dead now. What do I have? A day or two before I lose it? All I know is, I'm not going out like those guys that got thrown in the furnace today. I'll make sure of it." There was a long pause while David looked into the camera. Finally spoke he the words, "I'm sorry", before he ended the recording.

It took Deck a few minutes to figure out which way was north, given the number of twists and turns he'd made since he left D'Arcy's office. It turned out he was headed in more or less the right direction. The thought of food drove him hastily onward. He paused at yet another three-way intersection. There was audible movement on the path leading to his right. In the darkness, a bent figure could be seen moving away from him, dragging something heavy.


He didn't want to tangle with it. Its frail body and animal-like mind were no match for him, even in his weakened state, but the thought of the deadly poisons seeping from its pores gave him pause. He didn't want a second dose.

He went left and rounded a corner into an open area that seemed to be a nexus of converging corridors.

It was a meal area of sorts. There were small white plastic tables dotting the open spaces. In the center, there was a large planter filled with withered plants, framed in plastic trash cans with "thank you" stamped onto their gaping mouths. Beside the restrooms was a kitchen area where meals might be served. It was too small to actually prepare meals, and he assumed the food was just brought up from the cafeteria. Beside him was a pair of darkened restrooms, and on the far wall were more doorways, leading off to unknown sections of the ship.

He peeked over the counter into the dishes area, but it was clear that there was no food around. Dirty trays were stacked in a dry sink, and a bloodstain on the floor hinted that someone had been killed here before being dragged elsewhere.

There was a door nearby marked "vending machines", but it was obvious the machines wouldn't be in there. The machines had been dragged into the lunch area, leaving deep gouges in the tile floor. He crept from the shadows, hesitant to bring himself into the light, but beckoned by the promise of food.

There was a soda machine that had been pushed over, smashed open, and then had burned from the inside out. Beside it lay a coffee machine that would be useless without the water and power feeds required to make it work. Another machine was standing upright. It was a sandwich machine that offered various microwave meals from a rotating column. It had been long since been broken open and cleaned out.

Deck moved carefully between the machines, trying to remain as quiet and as low as possible. He was in the middle of the room, under the full glow of the overhead florescent lights. The room had numerous entrances, so there was no one point where he could focus his attention.

There were several more machines, an ATM, a change machine, and some other public device - probably a phone - that was broken and burned beyond recognition.

The last machine was a snack machine that offered various cookies, candy bars, and assorted flavors of chips. It had been broken into but a few morsels remained.

Deck dropped his pipe and grabbed at a bag of potato chips. He tore it open and began to devour the contents. When it was gone he peeled open the bag and licked the inside, making sure he had every crumb. He ate hunched over, guarding his food like some animal, crouched and ready to either run or defend his meal at the arrival of danger.

He opened another bag. It was salt and vinegar flavor. His memories told him that he despised salt and vinegar, that he would normally rather eat dog food than torment his mouth with the salty horror of salt and vinegar flavor potato chips. Now, he couldn't imagine anything better. It was a feast.

And dog food didn't sound that bad, either.

By his second bag he was overcome with a predictably potent thirst. He grabbed what was left from the machine - mostly candy bars - and filled his pockets.

From here he had two choices, he could see what was left in the vending machine room in the way of drinks, or he could look for water in the pitch-dark bathrooms. It wasn't much of a decision. He picked up his pipe and moved on.

He stayed low, darting between the machines as he worked his way toward the vending room. As he did so, he saw the shadow of a figure standing inside.

Deck held his back against the wall just outside the room. He could skip this room and try the bathrooms, but there might be more vending machines still left inside, and he wanted to see for himself. Besides, he could handle mutants easily enough even when he didn't have the element of surprise.

He peeked into the room to size up his opponent. There were two of them, and they weren't mutants.

The figures stood just inside the doorway, regarding the walls with a vacant stare. They looked like they had signed up for every prosthesis offered by Citadel, and then neglected to have the aesthetic portions put on. Their arms and legs were exposed metal, and lumps of mechanical parts protruded from their skin and embraced their bodies. One of them simply had no jaw. The bottom of its face was an open hole, framed on top with a set of crooked teeth. The other had so much metal in its face that its gender was impossible to tell.

The prosthetics had been attached with a great lack of care. Blood framed the joints where flesh and machine had been married, and the swollen, pink tissue surrounding the metal told of unchecked infection. They gave no indication they saw him or reacted to his presence in any way.

Deck pulled back behind the doorway. He collapsed the pipe and slid it into the weapon holster on his right thigh. By inserting the narrow end into the adjustable Velcro loops, he found it could be held neatly in place. He drew his gun.

There was no obvious move for what to do next. Who were these "people"? Were they sane? Were they safe? They didn't look it, but he didn't want to start shooting until he knew what they were all about.

He poked his head around the corner more obviously this time.

No reaction.

He slid his body further into view.

Still nothing.

He thought he could greet them but couldn't bring himself to invoke his own voice. The gun become slippery with sweat in his left hand. He stepped forward slightly, as if to enter the room.

They both began moving at once. Each raised their right arm. At the last moment Deck saw the outline of a muzzle, built into the back of an arm. He pulled back behind the wall.

The sound of gunfire broke the silence like dynamite in a graveyard. Bits of plastic tile flew as the bullets smacked into the door frame and surrounding wall.

After a few shots, the gunfire stopped. He could hear no movement inside.

In a single movement he wrapped one arm around the corner and followed with his head. He squeezed the trigger and the jawless face turned pink.

He pulled back in a quick motion as the remaining enemy returned fire.

Heavy, slow footsteps came from inside. The thing moved awkwardly, lurching forward at a deliberate, clumsy pace.

He poked his head out, leveled his arm and fired two shots. One struck the metallic center of the face, and the other missed. Neither caused any noticeable harm.

He pulled back and drew out the pipe. As the stumbling footsteps reached the door, he jabbed the metal shaft around the corner, aiming for the legs. The pole caught between the knees of his slow-moving adversary and it tumbled forward. The metal body struck the floor with a crash. The thing was laying face-down on the floor, moving its limbs spasmodically in an effort to correct its posture. Deck placed the barrel of his pistol on the exposed neck and fired.

Deck crouched, panting, in the relative shadow of the vending machine. He was afraid that the sound of combat might have attracted more unwelcome attention. After several minutes, he decided it was as safe as it was going to get.

The vending machine room had been completely re-made. Most of the white tile was torn from the walls, revealing the metal framework of the room and the network of power and network cables beneath. All of the existing cables now connected to the new structure in the center of the room: a cluster of four black pillars made of small matchbox-sized pieces, connecting to one another through a complex series of connectors and cables.

Memory cores.

They resembled the memory clusters in the computer core, but these had a disorganized, uneven look to them. Aesthetics had been abandoned, and the pillars were a rough mass of loosely erected computer parts. Holes had been torn in the floor to allow the pillars to extend down to the next level. Without the bright florescent lights and the white wall tile, the room was a darkened electronic tomb.

Incoming signal: TO-RL1.VID - Compatible video codec available.

He ignored the message. He didn't have time to talk to Rebecca right now.

Stepping into the room, he took care not to trip over the cables that converged at the center. He had to step over a few dusty piles of shattered wall tile. He suddenly realized what was going on, but he still didn't know why. On impulse, he yanked the pin on his frag grenade and dropped it between the pillars. He ran out of the room and dove behind the burned-out hull of the soda machine.

In an environment such as a space station - where even the superstructure is built from the lightest possible components - the force of something like a grenade detonating can feel like an earthquake. The entire room seemed to spasm around deck as the explosion ripped through the thin metal walls of the break room.

The lights dimmed, flickered, and went out in the space of a few seconds.

Suddenly the room was filled with pale green light. Every operational display screen went momentarily blank before showing a cascade of scrolling emerald characters. All of the screens the same. All of them in synch.

Who are you?

The voice poured from every speaker of every display screen, from the PA system, and from the adjoining corridors. It was a female voice. A voice of authority. A voice of discord.


The computer nodes can be repaired, but you...

The voice was a chorus of conflicting tones - each of a different pitch and speed - all competing for supremacy. It was like the voice of a queen, mixed with the voice of an insolent child, mixed with the voice of an angry god. The walls trembled as the deep, resonant tones poured from the speakers and filled the volume of the room. The face of Shodan appeared on every display screen. The room was bathed in putrid green light. The face was changed since Deck had last seen it. Now it appeared warped, perhaps even demented.

Who ARE you? My cameras and probes scan your body, but you do not match any employee file.

Deck wheeled around, pointing his gun at the numerous open doorways, looking for threats.

When my cyborgs bring you to an electrified interrogation bench, I will have your secret.

The outlines of figures appeared in the green glow of Shodan's face. They seemed to come from every direction at once.

And you will learn more about pain than you ever wanted to know.

He took off running.

7Reboot = Cyberpuppets 8