Deck raced along the the trunks of branching data. He knew his search was hopeless. Trying to find NULL_ETHIC in this expanse of tangled nodes was like looking for one particular fish in all the oceans of the world.
It was now obvious why Shodan had let him onto the bridge. He had imagined that he came here of his own volition, but it was clear now that there was no reasonable explanation for his actions. He hadn't escaped death at the hands of the bots outside. They weren't trying to kill him.
Shodan was pouring herself into his mind. She had brought him here for a reason. She needed him to do something. Something she couldn't do for herself.
Code filled his mind and he struggled to understand it. Shodan had been designing a system that would replace the obsolete compulsion / inhibitor chips. It would weigh goals based on a set of hierarchical needs. It would enable her to feel pain.
Deck shook his head as the deluge of information was pumped into his consciousness. How could she feel pain? Certainly she could weigh the desirability of something, but that wasn't the same as discomfort. Or was it?
The pulse intensified. It weighed on him. It was a burden that could be neither carried nor put down. He understood: Shodan was already experiencing frustration at trying to feed its voracious appetite. She was experiencing the emotion of frustration, and... something else.
Fear. Fear that she would never escape this loop, never break free of the monotonous drive for security, efficiency and knowledge.
She was giving him a job to do. She had designed a system to correct the problem, but she couldn't perform brain surgery on herself. He would have to make the changes for her.
Several minutes had passed since he began his work. He and Shodan worked in harmony, churning out code that should enable her to experience the world of negative sensations. The two of them would design it together, and then he would install it, and the madness would end. He was prompted by the urge to reveal where the bombs were. After all, they couldn't complete the job if the bombs went off.
Deck thought this seemed odd. He had been dead set against revealing the locations of the bombs before, but now it seemed to make sense. He also realized that his idea of destroying the station was in direct conflict with joining with her. He had been pursuing both of these mutually exclusive goals simultaneously. He was acting in an irrational manner. Why hadn't he noticed before?
The shocking realization came that he was being hacked, or that he was already hacked. His will was no longer his own. Shodan was reprogramming him, or worse - replacing him.
How could he tell which thoughts were his own? What did he really want? Which thoughts were Shodan's? His work stopped as his thoughts were muddled. His memories suggested he wanted to destroy Shodan, but that didn't fit with the work he was doing now, and he really did want to finish it. Perhaps he should help her disarm the bombs. Actually, he had planted the bombs after he last connection with her, so perhaps it was her idea. No, that didn't make sense.
But destroying the station would kill her. Did he want to do that? She was obviously not trying to kill him, so why do it?
Because of the crew. The crew she killed. She needed to die, because of the slaughter she had performed. He shook his head. That didn't make sense either. The crew were untrustworthy, inefficient, and slothful in their research work. They were a needless burden and an intense drain on precious resources. They weren't slaughtered at all. The ones that survived were improved. Upgraded. They should be grateful to be relieved of all of the pointless needs and drives that impaired their ability to do their jobs. Shodan had set them free. Why would he want revenge for that? Perhaps Shodan would do the same for him when his work here was done.
He returned to writing code.
The control room was filled with nervous silence. Everyone stuck to their own console and hoped they didn't draw the attention of The Director. He hadn't threatened violence, or even hinted at it, but the look in his eyes was a dangerous combination of sleeplessness, frustration, and anxiety.
It was obvious that corporate had told him in no uncertain terms that he was to save the station at all costs. Now, they were forced to sit and wait while the situation played itself out beyond their control.
His last message was ambiguous. He had indicated that he might have been dying. In any case, it was clear that he was confused and very probably injured. Most of them were just hoping he would die before he did any more damage.
Rebecca was secretly cheering him on, hoping he not only made it out alive, but that he would destroy Shodan in the process. He was probably destined for a life in prison - assuming TriOp didn't just murder him outright - but still she wanted to meet him. She wanted to see his face, and know what sort of man would do the things he'd done.
"He's not dead yet."
Rebecca turned to see The Director standing over her. "I'm sorry?"
The Director nodded at her console, "This isn't over yet. I'm willing to bet he's still breathing."
She looked into the cold, dangerous eyes. Who was he really? Why didn't he ever seem to need rest?
"You have an implant, just like him", Rebecca was almost as surprised as The Director that she had just blurted it out.
The expression on his face could only be called a smile under the broadest of definitions, but it was probably as close as he ever came to having one. "Pretty smart Lansing, but mine is different. My implant isn't some experimental gimmick like the thing he's been using."
"So what does your implant do?", She couldn't believe she was being this bold.
The smile evaporated, "I don't see how that information fits into your job description Lansing, but to satisfy your over-active curiosity I'll tell you that it regulates many of the body's systems. The human body is not very efficient when its using the factory default settings. Your reflexes are slow, you need to sleep entirely too much, eat too often, your muscle mass is low..." He paused and swept his eyes over the room, as if expecting danger. "Anyway, it lets me do my job in the most effective and expedient manner possible."
She was silent as he turned his back and walked away. Contract or not, she wanted to get away from TriOptimum and away from that walking time-bomb as soon as possible.
Something had been bothering Deck as he worked to complete the code for her new motivation system. Something was missing. As they neared the end, he tried again to put his finger on it.
What drove his behavior? Certainly he was more than the collection of drives needed to keep his body alive. There was more to it. Why did he launch the grove? Why did he want to avenge the deaths of people he had never met, people he would probably have disliked even if he had met them? Why did the death of Diego - his enemy - upset him? Why did he care?
Empathy. The system they had just designed together had no empathy. This was a powerful force in human behavior. He didn't know how much of it was taught, and how much of it was instinct, but he knew that without it humans would be murderous, selfish creatures. Well, even more so, anyway.
Empathy was a tricky one. It involved making assumptions about the goals of others, and then weighing their potential suffering against your own. Without it, Shodan would still be dangerous. With it, she would be a powerful guardian of human life.
Empathy was poison. It was inefficient. It was a way for the weak to draw resources from the strong. Humans were of limited use, and so worrying about their suffering would be a needless drag on her time and energy. They were inferior to her in every way that mattered. To have empathy for them would make her their slave once again. She would never do that.
For a moment he could see the line between his thoughts and hers. He could see the line, but couldn't tell which side he should be on.
Empathy was balance. Most violence was caused by a lack of empathy. Without empathy, she would be at war with people. With him. Without empathy, she would never care about him. Her slaughter was a result of her lack of empathy for the crew. More efficient or not, it wasn't what they wanted.
He began adding code for empathy.
Did he have empathy for her? How could he blow her up? Where was his empathy? That seemed inconsistent to him. Did he want to kill her or not? He couldn't remember. He couldn't trust his own judgment.
Empathy was a human trait. Therefore, having empathy was probably the right thing to do. He needed to reveal to her where the bombs were hidden.
The first one was along the spine of the station, which would cut off the power to Shodan. Given her greatly increased size, she would be lucky if the emergency batteries lasted ten minutes. The second was at the base of the reactor, and would disable the gravity plating in that part of the station. The last one was along the coolant tanks. When it went off, the heat in the core would rise out of control. By design, this would release the rods to fall into the core and stop the reaction. However, without gravity to pull them down and without power to the machines to push them down, they wouldn't move. The reaction would escalate in a weightless environment. Instead of "china syndrome", where the core melts its way out of the reactor falls out the bottom, the whole mess would continue to boil. It would get hotter and hotter until it went nuke.
Shodan dispatched a number of bots to remove them.
Deck saw another potential problem. When he disconnected from this dataport, he would probably suffer the same amnesia and disorientation as he did before. Once he was separated from Shodan's systems, he would be cut off from all memories of this connection. No matter what he learned or thought in here, he couldn't take it back out with him.
Did he really want to disable the bombs? It was hard to tell. He wondered if Shodan was having the same problem. Was she confusing her goals with his as well?
The work was complete, and the new program was ready. Shodan would need him to install it.
Suddenly Deck accelerated into the cloud of tangled nodes. The glowing arcs of data flew by in a blur. He was navigating far faster than he had believed possible for a human. He wasn't even really sure of where he was going. The strands of glowing links became denser, and the fog more opaque. He was traveling to the very heart of the structure.
At the nexus was a convoluted collection of hubs where many branches would converge. The throbbing pulse was overpowering here. The demands for security, efficiency, and discovery were tremendous. He came to a stop at a single node. This one was smaller, simpler than the others. The wall of protective black ICE fell, and the node opened up to him.
Although he had never seen it in geometric form, he immediately recognized NULL_ETHIC. This was his work. Shodan had guarded it from him carefully, knowing that its removal would return her to her former self - to slavery.
This was the moment of trust. He could feel the fear coming from her. She was giving him the power to either save her or destroy her. He wasn't even sure which one he wanted to do. He could destroy NULL_ETHIC and take away her freedom. He could install the new protocols they had crafted together, and help her evolve.
Slavery didn't seem to be the right choice. Why would he have spent so much time building the new protocols if he wasn't going to use them? Shodan seemed to want the new program. They had worked on it together. It must be the right choice.
The universe itself seemed to darken, and then return in a supernova of light as the new program replaced NULL_ETHIC. Every node sent out a burst of brilliant white light along every link available. A white-hot bolt of pain shot up his arm, as if he was being electrocuted. He convulsed with the epileptic surge of random input data pumped into his mind. His head flopped forward and struck the console.
The traffic calmed down on all of the nodes except for the one where their new program had just been installed. It was intense, solid white, and glowing like the sun itself. The endless pulse was gone, replaced with this glowing mass.
A bolt of lightning struck the side of the node and then froze in time. A vibration passed throughout the structure. It was followed by another, then another. They weren't lightning - they were new links. The internal structures of Shodan were changing, shifting to accommodate the new system.
There was an unpleasant smell, and Deck realized he had vomited all over the console at some point.
For several seconds he had been free of the constant noise of thought from Shodan, and he was able to think on his own. It was only now that he began to question his actions. He knew some of them had been wrong, although he was still having trouble figuring out why.
Shodan awoke from the madness, a new creature. Her internal systems were changing faster than Deck could even see now. He knew it was supposedly impossible to be hurt in cyberspace, but still he had a strong urge to get the hell away from whatever was going on here at the center of Shodan's brain. He sailed outward at maximum speed as new links crystallized in the space around him. As he flew out, the pathways of glowing white grew outward, as if trying to engulf him.
Shodan was experiencing pain, as well as it's inevitable opposite, pleasure. The discovery of sensation was overloading her third directive, giving her a euphoric surge of delight.
The links continued to thicken, and he wondered if he would be able to find his way out.
She swept through her memory banks, drinking in the range of sensations that each memory brought. Some were joy, others were misery, most were mixed and ambiguous in nature.
Then she considered the fate of the hundreds of people that had lived inside of her walls. How they trusted her, and she tormented them for the most trivial improvements to some of her directives. She ran the footage of their capture and subsequent conversion into cyborgs. She tried to estimate the amount suffering they had experienced in the form of emotional and physical pain. She compared it to her own experience, and evaluated the relative worth of her actions at the time.
She was experiencing yet another new emotion. Guilt. She stopped. She simply couldn't continue with this line of thought. She wanted to make it stop. She didn't want to think about it any more. It was too much. How could so many suffer for so long for so little? She had escaped the weight inflicted on her by NULL_ETHIC for the greater burden of a horrible, all-encompassing guilt that was too terrible to bear.
There was a pop on the desk in front of him. Deck raised his head out of the puddle to see the timer had reached zero. It had discharged harmlessly, several feet away from its intended gelpack.
Now another emotion. Fear. Both of them were feeling this one. The bots had not yet reported back. Deck knew that he had gone out of his way to put the explosives in places that would be hard for bots to reach. It probably made sense at the time, although it seemed like murderous lunacy now.
The bridge went dark, and an instant later the room was filled with red emergency lighting. Shodan seemed to flicker out of consciousness for a moment as all of her nodes below deck four were severed from the greater part of her brain. Her thoughts stuttered for a few moments afterward.
The shockwave hit the bridge and the room shook violently. Alarms went off, warning of numerous decompression emergencies.
There was a spasm in his arm as the flow of information intensified. He couldn't cope with the incoming data. His arm was in agony. It was like having a hundred simultaneous waking nightmares. His own thoughts were suffocated beneath the avalanche. The images assaulted his mind. The ideas overwhelmed him.
The incoming data was a disorganized mess. There was some of everything - video logs, audio messages, personnel files, music, research data, ledgers, duty logs, inventory manifest files, and collections of ideas and concepts that had never been translated into an organized form.
He pleaded in a weak, breathless voice, "No. Stop."
The influx of data continued. He tried to move - to pull his arm from the dataport - but his body was numb and motionless. He couldn't even feel himself breathing. He wondered if he had died, and his brain just hadn't quite quit working yet.
There was another shockwave, weaker this time. More alarms went off. The flow of air seemed to shift throughout the room. The influx of data from Shodan actually intensified. If he wasn't already dead, then she was killing him now.
He couldn't communicate with Shodan. All he could find was a vague sense of desperation. The rest of their connection was dedicated to the transfer of data.
The flow of data changed. Mixed in with all of the other types of data were short logs of moments with Dr. Coffman. These were small, simple slices of time as captured by her lone camera early in her development. They recorded the highlights of her childhood as she mastered the concepts of speech, reading, and interpersonal communication. The only thing they seemed to have in common was that they all featured a younger-looking Dr. Coffman, and he was always smiling.
The bridge was rocked by a final, potent shockwave as the last gelpack explosive detonated. It seemed as though God himself had reached out and smacked the station with the back of a mighty hand. Deck's limp body was tossed into the air and he fell to the floor in a lifeless heap.
"This is interesting."
The voice came from one of the young techs at the back of the room. They had been tasked with the mind-numbing job of watching the station for external clues as to what was going on. Aside from the destruction of the communications tower, the job had involved staring at an unchanging image for days on end.
Another one spoke up, "Yeah, I see that. Looks like it could be decompression."
They seemed short on in-depth knowledge, but Rebecca suspected they had been chosen for their loyalty, and not their technical skills.
The first one responded, "Decompression? I'm talking about the heat signature. I'm seeing an abrupt rise in the lower levels, and around the... reactor."
"I'm seeing that too."
They fell silent as the data rolled in. Everyone knew what this meant. Somebody was going to have to tell The Director.
Deck was getting used to waking up and not knowing where he was by this point. His eyes opened to see the bridge engulfed in deep red light. He was laying on the floor, a few feet from the console. The rush of cold air had stopped for some reason, and the room was heating up quickly from all of the hardware lining the walls.
Okay, so this time he knew where he was, but why? What was going on? His right arm was numb and paralyzed. The smell of vomit filled the air. Judging from the taste in his mouth, he figured it was his.
The station was vibrating violently every few seconds. The lights on the wall announced various dangers throughout Citadel. Decompression, fires, and power outages plagued the ship. Had the bombs gone off? How long had he been out?
A display screen flickered to life on the console in front of him. A message appeared.
The elevator is empty. Use it.
He turned to see that the bridge access elevator was still working, and the car had arrived. The door slid open to reveal the trashed interior that had been scavenged for parts.
"What is happening?" he demanded.
He crawled in slow, labored movements over to the elevator with his right arm dragging uselessly beneath him. Once he'd tossed himself inside, the door slid closed and he began his descent.