Prologue

   "It must be killing you to go this slow."  Her voice echoes in my ears.  This is a dream.  Or a memory.  A dream of a memory.  Definitely not the other way around.

 

   I'm asleep, and I give myself to the dream.

   I kiss and lightly bite her neck as she coos.  Her arms are wrapped around me, holding me close.  I smile and nuzzle my face in her neck.

   She rakes her nails across my back.  In response, I sink my teeth in her neck.

   Reality starts breaking down the dream; sunlight edges in around the windows and a part of me screams "No!  It was midnight!  No sun!  Go away!"  A child's tantrum, no matter how determined, how fierce, cannot keep The Real at bay.  The tighter I cling to the memory-dream, the faster it slips away.

   I give in, and as the last vestiges fade, I skip the dream ahead, to the post-coital snuggling, to that ephemeral moment where nothing exists outside her arms and all is contentment.

   I try to trick the dream in to staying, and it works for a moment.  Or maybe it doesn't and I only manage to trick myself in to thinking I'm still dreaming of that night a year ago.

   There's a knock at the door, and for a moment I'm uncertain whether it's my door in my apartment, or the door to the hotel room in the memory-dream.  I ignore it and whisper "I love you."

   The knock sounds again.  Louder now.  Decidedly not the hotel room door.

   I open my eyes to see my bedroom, dispelling the dream.  "What!" I shout at the door before it can knock again.

   The door answers back, "Wake up sleepy-head.  Got a package for ya."

   A courier service?  What time is it?  My phone says 07:12.  Great.  If there's one thing I hate about the summer, it's how early the sun rises, and the world with it.  "Alright.  I'll be there in a minute."  I throw on a t-shirt from the top of the "not-too-bad-yet" pile and a pair of shorts from the "mostly-clean" pile of clothes.

   The distorted delivery-woman on the other side of the door seems to be on the up and up.  I open the door and sign for the package; a small envelope containing a CD.  She walks back to her van, a job well done.

   I disconnect a laptop from my network and pop the disk in.  A video, encrypted with my public key and my contact Beni's private key, starts playing.  Beni, in the video, says he has a job for me: very lucrative and very hush, hush.  If I want more info, I am supposed to signal him before nine AM by walking down to a Turkish coffee shop near my apartment, and ordering a specific set of drinks.

   I figure the caffeine would be good whether I get a job out of it or not.  After a quick shower and a fresh t-shirt from the "mostly-clean" pile, I find myself sitting at a table with two cups of Turkish Coffee and an americano in front of me.  After I downed the second Turkish Coffee, I hear a voice behind me.

   "The blue rabbit is in the cow barn."

   I shake my head at Beni's overzealous security measures, and respond "Words to live by."

   "Words to live by," he agrees, then tells me there's a letter for me in the park.  Neither of us turn to face the other.  I sigh and sip the americano.  "Nine thirty," as he gets up and leaves.

   The caffeine kicks in about the time I get to the park.  I jog off the jitters until I collide with another jogger.  We apologize and agree neither of us were paying attention.  We go our separate ways and I notice a padded envelope on the ground.  It has my name on it.  A serendipitous accident, or Beni's messenger making it look like serendipity.

   I walk back to my apartment, envelope in hand.

World Tag: 
Ex Machina

Chapter 1

Perusing the information, Em saw why Teledyne wanted him specifically, and he knew he'd have to call another old friend for help.  He took a deep breath and double checked his mental list of net running acquaintances.  Hawk was in the hospital.  No one had heard from Missing Intellect for the last month or so.  Xaga would be able to handle the job except for The Gate ... No, it had to be her.  Em slowly exhaled, staring at his phone for several long moments.  His right leg bounced with nervous energy as he sighed and dialed the number from memory.

“Hello?” a lilting, possibly groggy but distinctly feminine voice asked.

“Varrow?  It's Em.  I need your help.”

Varrow sighed softly, “My help?  With what?”

“I can't say over this line.  Meet me at Joe's as soon as you can.”  Joe was an old friend from years back, and his diner was a safe haven, regularly swept for bugs, populated by a crowd that protected themselves and their friends.  Mutually Assured Destruction was the unwritten and unspoken ground rule at Joe's.

“Uh... okay?  I'll be there in ten minutes.”

“Want me to order anything for you?”

“Sure,” Em could almost hear Varrow's smile.  “A cup of coffee and,” she paused, “two eggs over easy, hash browns and a short stack.  I feel like I haven't eaten for a week!”

“Aye.  See you soon,” Em said.

“See you then,”

World Tag: 
Ex Machina

Chapter 2

“What is it this time?” she asked, gliding through the data structures.  Varrow had been running in the 'net for as long as she could remember.  She much preferred the direct interface of today's world to the clunky Hosaka & Gibson boards that she had learned on, with their electrode halos and keyboards.  She was glad technology had advanced to the point where a 'runner could have her rig completely internal, the only limitation was the speed at which she could think and react.

“I think I'm lost ... again,” a young male voice said sheepishly.

“Dammit Bobby, how many times have I shown you how to navigate the 'net?  Where are you?”

“I don't like that name,” he said quietly, wishing in that moment he'd been apprenticing for someone, anyone else.  It wasn't that Varrow was a bad teacher, quite the opposite, but he always felt like a kid around her.

“Fine.  Zero.  Where are you?”

“I was skirting the ice on Teledyne, just kinda poking around, you know?  Just seeing what was there s'all... “

“Bobby! What was the first thing I told you when you came to me?”

“Uh ... that ice, especially corp ice, can seriously mess a runner up?”

“Before that.”  Varrow was nearing the edge of her patience with her young charge.

“Basics ... what we typically call 'ice' is sorta like an upgraded firewall from twenty years ago ... “

“And?”

“And ice stands for Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics, and it's proactive ... Most ice knows when you're lookin at it.”

“Good.  Sounds like my teachings are getting through, somewhat.  What did I tell you about corp ice?”

“Since the corps are more paranoid about data theft--”

“With good reason” Varrow interrupted.

“With reason, their hackers and runners style the ice to do more than watch and assess observers ... If a runner even looks at a slice of corp ice wrong, he better hope he's got some good defenses of his own.”  Zero seemed proud of his answers thus far.

“Good enough.  Go on with your story.  I can't help you until I know more.”

“Okay.  Well, there was this weird flash of light ... only it wasn't light.  More like dark.”

“So you were blinded by a flash of darkness?”

“Yeah, weird, huh?  Next thing I know I'm somewhere out in the wastes.  Nothing around as far as the eye can see.”

“So ... pick a dest point and go?  It's not like it'll take any time ...”

“That's the thing though.  Every address I put in comes up invalid.  I had a helluva time even contacting you.”

Varrow grinned.  “I've taught you better than I thought, kid.  Sounds like you've been isolated.  You've got to watch what you're doing around the big corps.  They take their security very seriously.  Lucky it just isolated you instead of sending a spike to fry your brain.”

“What can I say?  I learned from the best,” Bobby chuckled, realizing that for once his teacher was actually complimenting him.  “So, what's the plan, boss?  How do I get out of here?”

“It'd be pretty easy from this side, especially since you've already gotten a carrier signal out to me.  I'll start a slow hack that'll get you out in two days, but I'll mark a fail for you if you haven't gotten yourself out by then.  See if you can contact anyone else and have them take care of your meat, otherwise you'll feel like absolute shit when you get out.  I'll check back if I haven't heard from you in a day.”

“That's it?  No hints on how to get out?” Bobby asked, frustrated and confused.

“Nope.  Find your own way out, or wait for the slow hack.  Your choice.”

Now, what was I doing? Varrow asked herself, ignoring anything further from Bobby and setting up the the slow hack.  A flash of Darkness ... why does that sound familiar?  She decided to take a look at Teledyne, to see if she could figure it out.  She approached the massive pyramid slowly, cautiously, the ebony representation towering into the ether.  To be on the extra safe side, she fired up the camouflage program she wrote last month, masking her virtual presence to look like any other stream of data, so long as no one looked too close.

By unspoken agreement, the 'net was represented as a network of the major cities in the physical world, each corporation represented by structures and objects, located in the same cities in which they were headquartered.  There was no other reason for the net to occur this way except that most runners just found it easier to cope with something familiar, so a consensual hallucination became the de facto representation of the electronic world.   Sometimes Varrow would hover above a “city” and watch the data packets flowing from one location to another, across the vast highways traversing the wastes between cities.  This was one of those times.  She floated above the Teledyne pyramid, careful to stay well away from the ice around the building, out of reach of their countermeasures, just observing.

She was stirred from her observations when her phone rang.  Logging out of the net, she answered.  “Hello?”

“Varrow?  It's Em.  I need your help.”

Varrow sighed softly, still a bit groggy from waking into the real world from the electronic.  “My help?  With what?”

“I can't say over this line.  Meet me at Joe's as soon as you can.”

“Uh... okay?  I'll be there in ten minutes.”

“Want me to order anything for you?”

“Sure,” she smiled, excited by the prospect of food.  “A cup of coffee and,” she paused to think for a moment, “two eggs, over easy, hash browns and a short stack.  I feel like I haven't eaten for a week!”  It was closer to a day and a half.  She would rather have stayed in the net, but a free meal is a free meal, and Em wasn't bad company

“Aye.  See you soon,” Em said.

“See you then,” Varrow said, hanging up as she stretched out her tired body on the bed in prelude to beginning the day.

World Tag: 
Ex Machina

Chapter 3

   From the neon signs and chrome siding outside, to the black and white tiled floor, red vinyl booths and sparkling chrome trim inside, Joe's Diner was a throwback to a time when malt shoppes ruled the Earth.  Em liked his usual booth, it had a good view of the entrance and he could put his back against the wall.  He always felt better when he could devote less attention to what was behind him.  He focused instead on the butterflies and the aerial acrobatics they were doing in his stomach.  He hadn't seen Varrow in six months, not since she walked out that night.  To say he took the breakup hard would be an understatement, but he couldn't bring himself to hate her, still thinking of her as a friend.

   She had been well known in the hacker community since she entered it, not only because she was a she, or that Dix took her as an apprentice, but because she was drop-dead gorgeous.  Every deck-jockey and keyboard cowboy wanted to get into her pants, but she was looking for something they couldn't offer.  Em never knew what she was looking for, but she found it in him one night, and he didn't ask questions.

   He had dabbled in 'running three years ago, using the antiquated and nearly deprecated electrode halo interface, unwilling to commit to the surgery that would implant everything in his skull.  Those opinions changed six months later with the comprehensive new line of ocular implants from OpTechs.  Varrow and Em had been 'running under Dix, the widely recognized, aging master hacker.  He had to pull a few strings to get Dix to take him as a student, but she earned her apprenticeship on talent alone.  They were Dix's only students, and before long it seemed like all of the lessons focused on Varrow.  In spite of, or perhaps because of, the focus of the lessons, Em found he was much more interested in the hardware side of the netruns, something about the meatspace he preferred over the electronic hallucination.  He hung around, monitoring the medical equipment that sustained Dix and Varrow on the deep runs, and just watching Varrow on the less intense excursions into cyberspace.  He fell in love first, and she followed soon after, thanks in no small part to Em's devotion and kindness.

   Back in the diner, Em knew he had to shake himself out of reminiscing, no matter how pleasant it was at that moment, it always ended the same way.  He had already scanned the building for surveillance bugs, and knew Joe did the same on a regular basis.  Em focused instead on idly watching everyone in the building.  His left eye first switched to infrared, tracking the scans of the motion detectors above the doors and the laser fence around the cash register.  A blink and the eye was tuned for X-Ray, confirming his theory that most of the patrons and wait staff were armed, mostly with standard pistols.  A few had some of the new plastic polymer models that barely registered on a scan.  One girl seemed to be ready to open a cutlery shop with the array of knives concealed on her body, more than half looked to be balanced well for throwing.  Em made a special note of something he hadn't expected: a grav rifle mounted under the front counter.  When did Joe put that in?  Em considered for a moment, And what's my tab up to ...

   “Here's the second cup of coffee, sweetie,” Wendy said, breaking Em's train of thought and setting an empty cup on the table.  He blinked again and his left eye reverted back to the visible spectrum.

   “Thanks, Wendy,” he said as the waitress filled the cup.  “Could you give this to Joe for me?” he asked, handing her 100 credits.  Wendy took the credits and scuttled immediately across the tiled floor to Joe at the counter.  A red flash in the upper right of his field of vision alerted Em to a new patron walking in. He turned off the watchdog program and turned toward the door.  “Oh. My. God. She's more beautiful that I remembered” he thought to himself as Varrow walked into the dining room.  Em fumbled for his sunglasses, desperate to put them on before she noticed he was leering at her.  With a thought, every camera on him recorded her graceful entrance, capturing it in video and still images.

   She wore tight black leather pants that hugged her calves, tapering to her ankles.  Her black patent leather heels clicked on the linoleum as she walked.  Em forced himself to look up as she approached, noting her bared midriff and navy corset.  Her black leather jacket hung open.  Her hair was a mousy brown frame for her face, draping over her shoulders.  Em always had a difficult time figuring her race ... the shape of her face and her button nose were distinctly Asian, but she had full, pouty lips and the bluest eyes he had ever seen.

   “You haven't changed one bit, have you.  I know you're leering.  You can't hide behind your sunglesses,” Varrow admonished, taking her seat opposite Em.  The vinyl of the booth's seat covers groaned its appreciation for her lithe form sliding across its surface.

   “Guilty, as charged,” he responded.  “But can you really blame me?  You are a goddess, and like a fine wine you've only gotten better with time.”

   “Knock it off you old charmer.”  She brushed a lock of hair behind her left ear before raising the coffee cup to her lips.

   “I don't suppose these are doing much good,” Em said, removing the sunglasses, his eyes tracking the cup's path, tracing the curve of her lower lip.

   She blanched at the coffee.  “So what's this thing you need my help with?” Varrow asked, adding cream and sugar to the cup.  Em took the mission brief out of his satchel and slid it across the table.  “Literally your eyes only?  That's kinda weird ...”

   “You're tellin me.  Looks like I'm going to do this whether I want to or not. The only question is, will you help?  And before you ask, yes I know it seems like a trap, but there's also a very plausible reason they want me in particular.”

   Varrow shot Em a skeptical look before she opened the packet and thumbed through the contents.  “You sure we should be doing this here?”

   “Safest place we could be doing it.  Trust me.”  Em glanced at the other patrons.

   Wendy walked up to the table carrying two plates.  “Two eggs over easy, hash browns and a short stack of pancakes.  You need anything else?” she asked Em.

   “Oh!  Juice!” he exclaimed.  “Two glasses of orange juice, please.  Thanks doll.”

   “Coming up” Wendy said with a wink and a smile, padding back to the kitchen.

   Varrow took another sip of the coffee, finding it more to her liking this time.  “Seems like a run of the mill data grab.  Quick in and out job.  This guy sure knew what he was doing though, almost no trace except for ... Wait.  Is that one of --” Varrow gasped.

   Em grinned.  “Security found that spliced in behind the mainframe console after the data was found missing.  It let the thief bypass the security by opening the door for the hacker on the outside.  A hardware trojan horse.”

   “But ... that's a ...” Em grinned, watching the spark of recognition behind Varrow's beautiful blue eyes.  “That's one of the DataFlex switches, like the ones you used to mess around with.”

   “Not 'like,'” Em corrected, “Is.  That is one of the five I sold, with our lite ice breaker built in.  Remember that little script we wrote?  It could barely break in to an unprotected system.”

   “Unless it was already on the inside!” Varrow nearly shouted.  She reigned in her voice and whispered, “Dammit, I told you that was a bad idea.  How could I have been so stupid?  Why didn't I stop you from selling it?”

   Em stared into his half-empty cup of coffee.  “Because you loved me and we needed the cash?” he offered.  Varrow glared at him in response, crossing her arms on her chest.  “Look, what's done is done, let's just move on.  The client has already done a lot of the legwork on this.  They traced the switch to a guy named Sahdur.  I remember him, sort of a squirrelly little Indian guy, had the air of a wannabe techie.  He asked how traceable signals sent through it would be.  I lied and told him it was 100% untraceable, that trace programs would hit it and either die, or redirect somewhere else, anything to make the sale.  But you know me, paranoid data packrat.  Part of the switch's algorithm is a logging function. Everything he did is probably logged on Vurdalak.  I hardly bother to check it, mostly because the sheer volume of data makes browsing it unworkable, but now that we know what we're looking for ...”

   Varrow had relaxed a little and started in on her breakfast.

   “You're the best runner I've seen.  Hell, by the end of that first year you were running circles around ol' Dix.  It'd be damn near impossible for any other runner to track Sadhur's partner, but for us it'll be a snap.  Can I count on your help on this one?”

   Varrow suppressed a grin.  “I told you to knock off the smooth talking. Besides, you knew I'd be interested in this challenge before you even asked.  Who's the client?  And what are they paying?”

   “Haven't worked that out yet.  From what Beni said, it sounds like Teledyne really wants their data back.  How's 20K each sound?”

   Varrow nodded her approval.  “Teledyne?  That's weird ... Bobby ran into some black ice around there this morning ... tossed him into isolation.”

   “Jesus.  Really?  How'd you know?”

   “He's learned from one of the best, right?  He found a way to get a signal out to me.  I've got a hack working to get him out now, but it won't finish for another forty six hours or so.  Figured he could stand to learn how to get out on his own,” she added with a grin.

   “Same old Varrow ...” Em sighed, his eyes drifting from hers, down the gentle contours of the soft skin of her neck and shoulder, following the outline of her jacket down her arm over her slender fingers.  “You still hang around Dix's place?” he asked, desperate to get his mind on any other subject.

   “You haven't heard?  Dix passed on about four months ago ...”

   “God, I hadn't realized ... ”

   “Yeah,” she paused for a short moment of silence for her mentor.  “He hit some of the blackest ice I'd ever seen.  Shit, I was damn lucky to get out, probably wouldn't have if Dix hadn't been hit first.  His heart couldn't take the strain.  Neither could his mind.  Doc wasn't really sure which gave up first.”

   “You were with him?”

   “Yeah ... one last run for old time's sake, you know?” she replied slowly, poking idly at her pancakes before resting the fork on the plate.  “You know, I'm not really that hungry after all ...” Varrow pushed the plate away and folded her hands in her lap.

   “I –- I'm sorry.  I didn't mean -”

   “It's alright.” She looked down at her hands.  “It's just hard sometimes; remembering that day.  I hadn't seen him so happy in a long time.”

   Em cleared his throat softly, looking around and asking “Where's my juice?” of no one in particular.

   As if she had been summoned by the phrase, Wendy appeared at the table with two glasses of orange juice.

   “Thanks doll,” Em smiled at her.

   “Let me know if you need anything else,” the waitress said before disappearing once again.

   The rest of the meal was spent in idle chit chat, Varrow nibbling at what was left of the pancakes and eggs.  Em was content to watch her and sip his juice, gathering the information packet back together and tucking it in his jacket.  They talked about almost everything, catching each other up on the last six months of their lives, tiptoeing around the issue of why they hadn't spoken for six months.  Several times Em started to reach for Varrow's hand resting on the table, but each time thought better of it and clumsily masked the action by runnin his hand through his hair, or reaching for the salt shaker.  Varrow pretended not to notice.

   Eventually, the check was brought and Em paid fifty credits without looking. “Ready to go?” he asked.

   “You're not even going to look at the total?”

   “Nah, I owe a bit to Joe anyway.”

   “But ... what about the tip?” Varrow protested as she slid out of the booth. The vinyl again groaned its appreciation to her.

   Em managed to turn his own groan into a shrug.  “Either it'll pay down my debt to Joe, or it'll make Wendy's day and I'll pay Joe after the job.”

   “If you say so,” Varrow said, walking to the door.  Em followed a step behind, keeping his eyes straight ahead while the camera on his right shoulder watched her ass.

World Tag: 
Ex Machina

Chapter 4

   “Jesus, Em.  Don't you ever clean up?”  Em chuckled nervously, clearing a spot on the sofa for her.

   “I'm not really here enough to care mostly.  When I'm home, I'm either in the bedroom or the workshop.  Somewhere around here though is The Key ...”

   Varrow carefully picked a path through the piles of junk covering the floor, settling gingerly on the sofa.  “What do you need a key for?  Isn't the datastore on the net?”

   “It is indeed, but we need The Key to unlock The Gate protecting the data.” Em wondered silently why he had to explain this to her.  She had helped him create both Key and Gate.  He let his mind wander while searching through the flotsam of the last year that had accumulated in his living room.

   A little over a year and a half ago, Em and Varrow were living together, and while he was tinkering with the DataFlex switches while she ran in the net.  He couldn't remember which of them suggested adding the logging to the switch's native trojans, but both knew the data store had to be as foolproof as possible.  While Varrow designed The Gate, Em built The Key.  In principle it was no different than a tandem netdive setup, allowing one user to actively dive while the other watched, with the option to take control when required.  Functionally, however, it was the next logical step.  Where the traditional tandem rig would keep the two minds distinct, The Key merged them.  The two users were literally of one mind while using it.  They became a new being, an aggregate of the two personalities, surface thoughts and recently accessed memories merging to the point that it was no longer clear who had experienced what.  Em and Varrow called itself Vex while merged. While they dove, Vex implemented Varrow's designs, and even improved the design with some of Em's knowledge.

   While Em searched for The Key, Varrow decided to hack in on her own.  She scanned the room quickly and found a datajack just above the back of the couch behind her.  She leaned back on the couch, closing her eyes as she reached the cable from the back of her neck to the wall.  A moment later and she was online. She could have simply started from inside his network, but decided to try from outside, skating past his demarc (dee-mark) to an external location.  Even without following her path back, it was trivial to find Em's apartment in cyberspace.  She made a note to ask him later about the nearly constant dataflow into his apartment, but that could wait.  She followed a packet to the external wall of Em's demarc and paused only briefly to hack past it, leaving barely a trace of her passage. Trusting a hunch, she followed the marching bits through Em's simple network to what she guessed was The Gate.

   It looked like a large brick wall, ten feet square if her avatar's height matched her own.  Varrow floated to the left and to the right to get around it, but each direction she went, the wall grew to compensate.  She watched the data packets, floating steadily up to and in to the wall.  She tried the direct approach and followed the data.  The fact that no packets were being sent out didn't register with her.  The wall remained solid to her, as the data passed through easily.  She looked in her standard back of tricks and pulled out the cloaking program, setting it to mask her as a standard data packet.  Disguised, she tried again and was again met with only the solid wall.  She searched slowly for any cracks in the brick and mortar, taking her time.  If there were any ICE here, it would have attacked her already.  There!  A tiny hole, barely more than a pin prick, was between two bricks.  She barely saw it at first, but size doesn't matter in cyberspace.  The flaw was there.  She had her way in.

   The cloaking program shrunk her avatar small enough to fit on the head of a pin, and Varrow was a little surprised to see the wall not shrink with her.  She crawled into the hole and congratulated herself on finding a way through the wall. The darkness was near total, but she had just enough light to see it move. Terrible fangs and menacing claws shot toward her.  She scrambled backward and tumbled out of the wall, glimpsing its head as it emerged after her.  It quickly retreated back into the hole, but she saw enough to know it could have swallowed her whole at her size.

   Em shouted in triumph, holding The Key aloft, having liberated it from a tangle of cables.  His excitement faded when he turned to Varrow.  Her head was tilted back resting against the wall and her eyes were rolled back in her head, her eyelids half open.  He knew at once what was happening.  He had seen her like this when they were testing The Gate, but that was under controlled conditions.  He had been watching her then.  He knew what she was doing and what he could do to help without hurting her.  Now, though, the monitors weren't set up, and Em had no access to the Gate's systems.  He set The Key aisde for the moment and knelt next to her.

   “Varrow?  Can ya hear me?  You've got to log out.  We've been through this before, you cannot beat it alone.”  He slapped her cheeks lightly, trying to rouse her out of the net.

   “Huh?  Wha?” She blinked slowly, her thought process spinning back down to real time.

   “Jesus, I thought I'd lost you ... Didn't figure you'd try to hack it on your own ...”

   Varrow gently, but insistently, put a hand on Em's chest and pushed him back.  Em sat on the arm of the couch, most of a cushion's width between them.  “What are you talking about, Em?  And what the crap was that ... thing in the wall?”

   “Sort of a dragon looking thing?  Lots of sharp teeth?  We called him Baub.  He guards the Gate from what it can't outright stop.  I think he feeds on broken and malformed packets.  I found the Key though.  We can walk right past Baub and the Gate to get the data we're after.”  Em held the Key up for her, obviously proud he was able to find it amidst the piles of junk in the room.

   It looked, for all intents and purposes, like an electrode halo a net runner would have used five years ago.  The wires trailing down from the elastic loop connected to a small black box, about the size of a grapefruit, if the fruit were square.  Another wire dangled out of the box, terminating in a standard data jack.  “It doesn't look much like a key..” Varrow offered in puzzlement.

   “What do looks matter in the digital world?”  Em put the halo on his head, making sure the electrodes lined up at his temples and the base of his skull.  He handed her the data jack.  “Here, plugs this into your auxiliary port and we'll dive in together.  We'll walk past Baub and get the activity report for Sadhur's switch.  That'll at least give us a clue what they took, and where they took it.”

   “Oh, a tandem dive rig” Varrow thought to herself, plugging it in to the aux port on the back of her neck.  “Why didn't he just say so?”

   “Ready?” Em asked.

   Varrow nodded and they closed their eyes.

   

   When they opened their eyes again, they looked onto the digital plane of Em's home network.  They looked around and found themselves alone.  Varrow's panic overwhelmed Em and the digital landscape took on a darker tone.  The colors on the horizon deepened to a uniform black.  All around, lights indicating network hosts went dark.  Soon there were only two lights.  A glowing “EXIT” sign above and just behind them and a spotlight shining on a brick wall fifty yards ahead.

   A word asserted itself in their mind: Vex.  The word repeated, echoing in the nothingness until it coalesced into a phrase.

   “Vex.  We are Vex.”

   Confusion became anger.  The spotlight flared a bright red and went out.  Vex stepped backward, under the exit sign, and it too went out.

World Tag: 
Ex Machina

Chapter 5

   “WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?!” Varrow shouted at Em, ripping the Key's plug from her neck.

   “Varrow!  Calm down, please!” Em pleaded, stumbling backward, treading uncertainly over piles of junk. He heard the crunch of a circuit board and was at once glad and sorry he was still wearing his boots.  He kept his hands at arm's length, palms toward Varrow.

   “CALM DOWN?!  YOU WANT ME TO CALM DOWN AFTER THAT STUNT YOU JUST PULLED!”  She showed remarkable restraint in staying seated on the couch, despite every muscle of her body screaming at her to jump up and rip out his throat.

   “I can explain.” Em had backed up eight feet, his back pressing against the wall.

   “Alright.  Explain.”

   Em had seen her that angry once, but he had never seen her as calm as she was now.  He wasn't sure which made him more afraid.  He swallowed hard and put his hands down.  “The Key is a customized tandem netdive rig.  Both users have to have some skill at diving and navigating cyberspace, but their relative skill levels are irrelevant.”  He paused, waiting for some indication that this sounded familiar to her.

   “Go on.”  The eerie calm continued to permeate her voice.  Varrow folded her hands in her lap.

   “So, unlike a standard tandem rig, where the secondary would simply follow and watch the primary, the Key will actually merge the users' consciousnesses, a new digital entity.  We called ourselves Vex”

   “Why?”

   “Why Vex?  I dunno ... guess we just liked the sound of it” Em shrugged.

   “No.  Why build it?”

   Em puzzled for a moment, staring into space above and behind Varrow, a look of confusion plastered on his face.

   “Why build it?” Varrow asked again, a little louder.  “And why force me in to it?”  She unfolded her hands and turned toward him.

   “D'you mean to say you've no memory of it?”

   Varrow looked at her lap again, her hands resting palm down on her thighs. Slowly she shook her head side to side, trying to remember.

   “You called it another of my harebrained and halfbaked schemes ...” Em had a wry grin on his face as he stepped slowly back toward the couch.  “It was originally a way for a couple to be more intimate with each other than was possible in meatspace.  After, ehm (clear throat)” Em cleared his throat, “initial testing, we found that the resultant being was more a gestalt than an amalgam.  Instead of simply combining the two users minds, it amplified their unique strengths and specialties, creating something greater than the mere sum of its parts.”

   “Vex”

   “Right, yeah.  Exactly.  That first test was a bit shaky though ... Vex disassociated and I was unceremoniously dumped from cyberspace.  You managed to stay logged in, with half an ear open to the physical world.  You started working on designing the gateway while I fine tuned the Key, getting the resultant personality to stabilize.”

   “Why build the gateway though?”

   “You never did think my home security was good enough.  Said Vurdalak was a hacker's treasure trove of information, and if we were going to keep the Key safeguarded, we'd need something a lot stronger.”

   “Why me though?  Why use me like this now?”

   “Varrow,” Em said softly, resuming his perch on the arm of the couch, “I'm sorry.  I didn't mean any harm.  I thought you knew what would happen, after all, you built half of it.  A month ago I tried using a simulation, reconstructed from a scan of your brain map.  I couldn't hold Vex together for more than a few seconds. I tried diving with Xagafinelle, but we couldn't get past the Gate.  And when we almost did, Baub stopped us.  He's the second best hacker I know and I know the Gate better than anyone but you, so it seemed there was no other way than to ...”

   “It wasn't quite mental rape,” Em relaxed a bit as Varrow's voice took on its usual tone.  “But it was goddamned close!”  She looked up suddenly, startling Em in to falling backward off the couch.  Varrow laughed through her anger.

   Em picked himself up and took an exaggerated bow.  “If you like, we can teach Baub to let me through in the future, but either way Vex has to go through the Gate at least one more time.  We can wait a bit if you need ... but the sooner we get the data, the sooner we can track down Sadhur and get paid.  After that we can go our separate ways again.”

   Varrow nodded slowly.  Em picked up the cord end of the Key and stepped toward her.  She put up a hand and waved him away.  He took the halo off and set it aside.

   “Would you like anything to drink?” he asked, heading toward the kitchen.

   “No, thank you.”  Varrow leaned her head back and closed her eyes, logging back in to cyberspace.  When she was here, she felt like a different person, some how detached from her flesh.  In times like this, that detachment helped her clear her mind, setting her thoughts in order.

   Em nodded toward Varrow, recognizing her body language and knowing she'd be away for a bit.  He continued to the kitchen and brewed a fresh pot of coffee.

 

   Varrow bounced around Em's network for a bit, drifting with the dataflow as she lost herself in her thoughts.  “Why can't I remember everything he's saying?” She turned her mind's eye inward, searching her memories.  She saw her childhood. Her twelfth birthday.  She had asked for only one thing, and knew her parents had saved for months to buy it: her first cyberdeck.  It looked like a glorified computer keyboard, four inches thick, a foot and a half wide and six inches deep with a dozen different ports on the back.  A few ports were for outputting video to a monitor, most were just the various “standard” data jacks of the day: Ethernet, USB, IEEE 1394, even an RJ14.  It had a battery pack on the right hand side, almost a four inch cube itself, but the deck also had a C14 inlet on the back so it could be plugged in to an external power source “For extended duration cyberspace experiences!” according to the box.

   She had nearly missed her birthday dinner later that day after jacking in for the first time.  He mother said she took to it like a duck to water.  Varrow didn't understand until she looked up the aphorism on one of her daily excursions.  Her father made a deal with her: she could go online whenever she liked, as long as one of her parents were watching through the external video, and as long as she had all of her school work done.  This proved to be an excellent motivator for the young student.  Every afternoon after school she would do her course work, using the desktop computer to access cyberspace through the archaic hypertext transfer protocol.  Her homework was almost always finished before dinner, allowing the girl to spend the hours between dinner and bedtime jacked in and surfing at her leisure.

   It wasn't long before she had learned to record and playback the external video, giving herself nearly free reign over her activities.  When her father would glance up from his evening reading, he would see her avatar on the screen joyfully scanning through the library's index, or flying between two schools' public nodes. More often than not, Varrow was hacking through her school's ice, into her teacher's files to take a look at the week's lesson plan and homework assignments. She never copied the answer key or changed her grade though.  Some honest bit of her, or perhaps her father's mere presence in the room, urging her to just read the the projected lesson plan and use it to get a head start on the week's work.

 

   Varrow's memories brought her forward half a dozen and one years.  She had moved out of her parents' house, sharing an apartment with a friend while they went to college.  Varrow continued to use the cyberdeck as a carrot on a stick to keep up with her coursework, with the exception that she used it to do her research as well.  The temptations to simply change her grades, or take the answer key for the tests were greater now that no one was watching her.  More and more often she found herself standing in the digital representation of her class room.  The lesson plan was in the same place it always was, laying face open on the top of the desk, available for any student to read.  She knew the answer key was inside a desk drawer.  Often she stood before the desk, staring at and reaching toward the drawer.  Once, she had opened the it, carefully, cautiously, wary of any lurking ice.  The lock was easy to pick and Varrow wondered who among her classmates had done it before.  She saw the answer key inside, and quickly closed the drawer, her heart racing.

   She asked her friends if any of them had ever done it.  Most said they had only ever looked at the lesson plan and left.  A few said they had tried to pick the lock and failed.  Word quickly spread through the students that Varrow could get the answer key and she quickly found herself facing a decision: refuse the money the others were offering and keep her principles, or take the money and the answer key.  She went back and forth on her answer for a week, running the scenario in her mind when she was thinking about the hack.  It wouldn't be hard ... She'd gotten into the protected directory before with no repercussions.  How would the school know the difference between looking in the directory and copying data out of it?  

   Finally, on a darker impulse, she snuck into the electronic office one night and took the answer key.  The file was mostly gibberish, waiting to be decrypted into sensible data.  Varrow thought briefly that she would have a sizable sum of money coming to her, but she focused instead on the thrill of the hack.  She had done the impossible and felt her spirits buoyed by the accomplishment.  She started the decryption routines and went to bed for the night.

   In the morning, she was having second thoughts.  What if everyone got a perfect score on the test?  Would the administration suspect anything?  She could change a few answers, but then everyone would have the same wrong answers ... She resolved to rewrite the answer key into eight distinct versions, or rather she wrote a small program that would rewrite the answer key.  They all had at least 75% correct answers, but each had different wrong answers.  She would distribute these files later that morning at school and in the afternoon, every student that had pitched in to pay Varrow had a passing grade on the test.  More than a few others had passed on their own merits and if the administration suspected anything, Varrow never heard anything about it.

   

   She woke from her reverie for a moment and stared at Em's network's glowing structures.  She unfocused her eyes and let her memories take her again.  This time, she found herself staring at a door.  The place had a sense of the Real to it and she knew this door actually existed in the real world, or it at least had existed three years ago.  If she opened the door, she would find a short, pudgy man in an immaculate white suit with a scruffy beard that would once have been a deep red but was fading to a dignified gray.  It was the door to Dix's studio, and the pudgy man would be Dixon Green.  She pulled the invitation out of her pocket again and double checked the house number.  As she reached for the doorbell, the door opened and Dixon stepped out to greet her.

   “You made it.  Excellent, just excellent.”

   Varrow balked on first seeing the jovial little man, nearly six inches shorter than her own five foot frame.  “I uh... I've got this invitation ...” she stuttered, brandishing the piece of paper at Dixon.

   “Of course you have.  I sent it to you, and people generally get things when I send them.”

   “You're Dix?  The famous master hacker that teaches by invitation only?”

   “Last I checked.  Let's not stand out here all day though.  Come in, come in.”  He gestured inside the building, holding the door open for her.  He followed her and threw four deadbolts and a turnkey lock on the door.  He shooed her out of the foyer and into the living room with a gentle “Come along.  We mustn't keep your classmate waiting.”

   Varrow tread lightly down the hall in mild confusion.  “Classmate?  Only the one other student?”

   “Oh yes, very selective.  Not just anyone can be taught, and very few have the true knack as you do.  This one,” Dix gestured toward the young man seated on the floor, legs crossed with a Hosaka deck in his lap, “Doesn't have the knack, but has an eagerness that can sometimes be enough.”

   Varrow took a closer look at her classmate.  His eyes were closed, and his back was perfectly straight.  The electrode halo looked like it was a bit tight on his head, but he either didn't notice or didn't care.  He had a soft face, the kind that seems to say “I'm alright, you can trust me” without any effort.  The effect was somewhat marred by the light scruff that might be a beard given more time.  It was difficult to judge his height as he sat with his legs crossed, but Varrow guessed him to be between five feet nine inches and five feet eleven inches.  His brown leather jacket hung loosely on his frame, draped over the white t-shirt and faded blue jeans.  “He's kinda cute.  What's his name?” she asked Dix.

   “Ed MacKenna.  He's not very deep right now, so he's probably heard everything we've said.  Isn't that right, Ed?”

   The young man nodded in reply, and managed to shoot a wry grin in Varrow's direction.  “You sound pretty cute yourself.”

   “Ed, this is Varrow.  Finish up there and we'll have a proper introduction.”

   “Yessir.”

   The memory suddently went black, as if a movie that had been playing had several frames replaced with an opaque filter.

World Tag: 
Ex Machina

Chapter 6

   “Em?” Varrow called, stepping carefully toward the kitchen.

   “Yeah?”  Em put down the coffee mug he had been washing as Varrow walked int to view.

   “Er.. don't you have a dish washer?”

   “Not worth running it.  I only have four plates and three mugs anyway. What's up?”

   “I think I'm ready to log in again.  With you.”

   “You sure?  If you'll forgive the innuendo, you sound sorta dreamy. Something happen while you were in there?”

   “Sorta ... just some ... reminders.”

   Em decided not to press the issue and quietly walked back to the couch with Varrow.  He sat down next to her, with the electrode halo on his head.  She plugged the Key's lead into her auxiliary data port and inhaled deeply.  “We can stop whenever you need.”  Em leaned his head back and said softly, “I'm ready when you are.”

   She took a moment to watch him sitting there.  He looked so much like he did when she first saw him, slightly cleaner shaven, but still gangly and a little gaunt.  Varrow exhaled and sent the mental command to her cyberware to log in.

 

   Vex looked around slowly.  The lights were back on, every node in Em's network reporting an active status.  Everything looked normal.  Vex quickly routed itself to The Gate.

   “Baub.  I need you.”

   The tiny dragon wriggled out of his hole in the wall.  As it left the gate, it grew in apparent size until it stretched nearly a meter from snout to tail.  It's head was 12 centimeters long, 8 of which were jaw.  The body was a uniform four centimeter diameter, save for the last 10 centimeters of the tapering tail.  Its small legs, two a head's length behind its ears and two mid-body, looked almost perfect for helping it navigate the tiny tunnel of its home.  “Who calls for me by name?”  

   The response was short and to the point.  “Vex.  The Creator.”

   “Welcome back, Master.  There have been four failed attempts since your last access.”

   “Thank you, Baub.  I need you to grant access to a being called Em.  He is half of me.”

   “Acknowledged.  Accessing records.”  The data dragon swum in a tight coil in the air in front of Vex.  “Record found.  Access granted.”

   “Thank you, Baub.  You may sleep now.  I'm going in.”

   “Acknowledged.”  The dragon flew back to its hole.  Vex stepped toward the wall as a doorway opened.  A white light flooded out into cyberspace, washing out the light green background light of the network.  Vex instinctively put its arm in front of its face to shield its eyes.  It stepped forward and found itself in a white room, the file cabinet drawer lined walls stretching in all directions as far as Vex could see.  The doorway closed behind Vex.

   “No use standing around” it said to no one.  Vex called up a search program from Varrow's deck.  A ruddy blood hound faded in to existance at Vex's side.  The dog wore a collar around its neck, with a tag dangling below its jaw, naming it Kate.  Kate started sniffing the air hungrily and pawing at the ground.  Vex knelt next to her and held out a handkerchief; a representation of the serial number uniquely identifying the DataFlex switch used in the Teledyne robbery.

   Kate barked.  She had the scent now.  Vex stood and the dog ran full tilt. Vex watched as the dog disappeared in the distance.  She barked once.  A second bark a moment later was followed quickly by a third.  The fourth came after along pause.  Kate barked each time she found a matching file, pressing her right paw on the drawer, marking it.  Vex heard 17 barks by the time Kate returned to its side. Vex nodded and the dog faded away again, the program unloaded from memory.  Vex calmly walked the room, opening each marked drawer and pulling out the folders representing the data that had matched Kate's search.

   Vex returned to the doorway and tapped the blank wall.  The door opened and light flooded out into the network again.

   “Baub.  Wake up.  I'm done here.”

   Baub's reply came from the wall, but the dragon did not show itself.  “Acknowledged.”

   Vex, folders in hand, made its way to a glowing network node; Em's laptop computer. The glowing sphere looked inviting as Vex floated closer.  It put its hand on the edge and found the structure was gelatinous.  Vex's hand passed through the wall with minimal effort and the rest of Vex followed soon after.  The inside of Em's laptop looked like Em's living room, but far less cluttered.  Everything was piled somewhat neatly, organized in rows along the walls, stacked on the table and desk in the corner.  Vex walked to the desk and copied the 17 folders, placing the duplicates on top of the least precarious looking pile, before logging out.

 

   Varrow spoke first.  “I forgot how big that data store was ...”

   Em chuckled, blinking as his eyes readjusted to the light of the apartment. “A hacker's treasure trove, remember?”

   “Yeah, but ... damn.  Baub's a lot cuter when he's not trying to kill you.”

   “Cute and deadly.  You want to sort through your copy of the logs while I start on mine?” Em asked, standing up and stretching before walking to the his bedroom.

   “Sure.  Just looking for the standard stuff?  IP Location lookups and other clues to where the switch has been?”

   “Yeah, and anything else that catches your eye.  Maybe this wasn't their first job and we could find something else someone wants.  There's always time for a bonus payday.”  Varrow couldn't see him, but she knew Em was grinning and absolutely serious about the possibility of holding another corp's data hostage.

   She closed her eyes and logged in to her internal cyberdeck to take a closer look at the logs.  Em sat crosslegged on his bed, hunched over his laptop doing the same.

World Tag: 
Ex Machina

Chapter 7

   The young Indian man sat in the overstuffed chair skimming through the most recent Tech Digest catalog.  Sadhur sighed wistfully at the new Nakamura cyberlimbs.  He set the magazine down and slowly flexed his left arm, watching it carefully, listening to the familiar soft whirring.  As he stood, he sighed and wished for the hundredth time since the job that he had remembered to pick up the DataFlex swtich.

   “Still pining over that stupid switch?” a grating, nasal voice asked from across the room.

   “Yeah ... I'm gonna go on a walk, clear my head.  Didn't think you'd be up yet...”

   “Yeah, well I am.  And I'm hungry.  When you come back, you better bring some food with you.”

   Sadhur nodded and walked thoughtfully out the door.  No matter how hard he tried to steer them away, his thoughts kept going back to the job.  He'd gotten a call from Paddy No Thumbs, his fixer, saying a Mr. Johnson needed someone to hack in to the shipping computer at a distribution warehouse and nab the shipping logs for the last three months.  Sahur thought it was an odd request, but a job's a job and his pockets had been nearly empty for three weeks.  He agreed to the job and met with the rest of the team the next day.  They turned out to only be two other guys: a net runner named Lindon and a big mook calling himself Freddie.  None of them knew much about the job, but Lindon seemed to know the most, so he was voted the leader.

   Lindon's first order of business was to establish the payscale for the job.  Since he was orchestrating and planning everything, he'd take 50% of the cut.  The rest would be split even between Sadhur and Freddie.  Lindon then called for a list of assets.  Freddie seemed to own a small arsenal of questionable legality.  Sadhur had a van and a MacKenna DataFlex 76 switch.  Armed with this knowledge, Lindon quiclky formed a plan.

   “Sadhur and Freddie, you infiltrate the warehouse as part of the janitorial staff, while I--”

   “Why a janitor?” Sadhur interrupted.

   “Think about it, numb-nuts.  No one will ask why a janitor is going in to the control areas.  Wherever there's people, there's trash cans that need to be emptied and desks that need to be dusted.  Push a trashbin around and you can get anywhere.”  Freddie grunted and Sadhur nodded.  “Right, once you're in, plant the switch behind an operator's console, splicing it in to the network wire.  The switch will initiate an outbound tunnel through the firewall so I can skate in and grab the data.  While I hack in, you two make sure no one touches that switch.  I'll signal you when I've got the data, then you get back in the van and pick me up at the library.”

 

   Things were going well.  They had knocked out two janitors and taken their pass keys.  No one said anything as they walked in and straight to the ops center, until the guards got curious and started asking why the janitors were spending so much time “cleaning” one room.  Sadhur stuttered, trying desperately to think of a response.  Freddie drew his pistol and started firing.

   Everything happened all at once.  Sadhur ducked behind a cubical wall.  The three guards drew their pistols.  The one Freddie hit was on the floor and didn't look to be getting up any time soon.  Sadhur heard the technicians duck under their consoles.  He saw Freddie take a shot in the shoulder and spin with the force of it.  The next shot hit the bruiser in the back and he fell face first to the ground.

   “Freddie!” Sadhur called.  He poked his head around the corner while waiting for an answer from Freddie.  The standing guards had their pistols trained on Freddie's prone body, advancing slowly.  The fourth slowly pulled himself to his feet.  Sadhur could see the bullet hole in the man's shirt: dead center on his chest.  Freddie was a good shot, but there was no blood.  “Shit!” Sadhur cursed under his breath.

   He gave up on expecting an answer from Freddie and ran for the door, keeping his head down as best as he could.  He heard two shots ricochet around him.  Sadhur stopped behind a steel pillar and considered his options.  He'd have to run almost three meters in the open to get to the emergency exit door.  Or he could turn himself in and hope the rent-a-cops would go lightly on him.  They might turn him in to the actual police and he'd have a stay in jail for a while.  Or they could kill him and call it self defense.  Either way, Lindon would get all the money.  He decided to take his chances and head for the door.  Steeling his will and focusing his remaining energy into his legs, he bolted.  Shots fired all around him, and Sadhur was glad he sprung for the reflex boost last time he was under the knife. With half a meter to go, he dove for the door, counting on his momentum to carry him into the push bar and swing the door open whether he was injured or not.  He hit the door.  He was safe.  He was going to make it.  As he took his first step into the night air, his weight shifting to his right foot, a lucky shot caught him. The bullet tore through his calf, ten centimeters above his ankle.

   Sadhur stumbled, the pain jolting him instantly from his elated sense of freedom and back to the harsh reality of the world.  He fumbled for a pain blocker stim and slotted it in the chip socket on his neck.  The pain blocker allowed him to forget the agony of each running step and let him focus on weaving through the parking lot.  He made it back to the cleaning van and drove the library to pick up Lindon.

   “Jesus!  Good thing this is your van.  There's blood everywhere!” The hacker had of course been watching through the security cameras.  He grabbed the shipping manifest and set the delete routines running before logging out as quickly as he could.  Lindon was waiting out front of the library and got in to the driver's seat as Sadhur slid over, curling up in the passenger seat.  The pain blocker was wearing off, as Lindon drove back to the safe house.

   “Freddie dead?” Sadhur asked through racking sobs of pain.

   “Seems to be.  At least you made it.” Lindon chuckled.

   Several hours, and two heavy bandages, later, Sadhur's head cleared enough for him to realize he left the switch behind.

 

   “Is there anything else, sir?” a bubbly female voice asked.

   “Huh?”

   “Is this all you're buying?”

   Sadhur looked down at the counter in front of him.  He had apparently walked to the minimart and gone shopping on autopilot while thinking about the job.  He found two sandwiches, two bags of chips and a six pack of beer on the counter.  “Y—yeah, that's all.”

   “That'll be 27.20?”  Somehow, she made this statement a question.  Sadhur turned his attention from the food to the check stand girl.  He half expected her to be smacking bubble gum while bouncing to an unheard rhythm, but instead found a pretty face with a vacant stare, framed by short blond pigtails.

   Sadhur handed her his credstick and bagged up the food.

   “Have a nice day?” she asked while handing the cred stick back.  Sadhur nodded and walked back to the apartment.

   “Bout time you got back!” Lindon greeted him from the overstuffed chair.

   “Yeah ... how long till we hear from Paddy?”  Sadhur was looking forward to getting away from Lindon and back to his life.

   Lindon jumped up, ignoring the question, and started rooting through the brown paper bag before Sadhur had a chance to put it on the table.  “What'd ya get?”

   “Nothin, just some sammiches and beer.”

   Lindon chuckled.  “Good.  I like you, kid.  Might just keep you around.”

   “Gee, thanks.” Sadur spat, taking a beer and flopping into the overstuffed chair, reclaiming it.

   Lindon took a sandwich and a beer and sprawled on the couch.  “You lost your tail before coming back here, right?”

   “What?”

   “Your tail.  Surely they had someone following you after you robbed the place.”

   “Uhh.. “

   Lindon sat up.  “You did rob the store, didn't you?”

   “Why would I do that?  Aren't we keeping a low profile?”

   “Yeah, we are.  But I know for a fact you have no cash, and I thought you'd be smart enough to not use a credstick.  That'd pop up on the grid and give your location to anyone who's lookin' for ya.”

   “Uhh... right ... “

   “You didn't use your credstick, did you?”

   Sadhur contemplated his beer.

   “You did!?  You stupid --” Lindon threw his beer at Sadhur.  Thanks to his enhanced reflexes, the bottle missed its intended target and hit the wall behind him.  Lindon reached for another bottle.  Sadhur tipped his back and drained half the bottle in one slug.  “Oh well, it's not like they know where we're hidin ... Still, better move on soon.”

   “How long till we hear from Paddy?” Sadhur asked again.

   “Should be soon.  Eat your sandwich.”

   Sadhur slowly drank his beer in silence, nearly finishing it before falling asleep in the chair.  Lindon ate quickly and lay back on the couch, pulling his cyberdeck on to his lap.

World Tag: 
Ex Machina

Chapter 8

   Em had long since gone to sleep, his eyes tired of scanning the lines of data on the computer screen.  Varrow, unencumbered by physical display, stayed awake, pouring through the log files.  It looked like the data went from the warehouse to a library not far away.  Hacking from a public terminal made the hacker at once less traceable and easier to find.  The data path was a dead end, but since she could trace the data to a specific terminal at a specific time, the library's usage records might have something useful.  Unfortunately, they were kept only as physical hard copy, no electronic records.

   Without logging out, she made a call to a friend.  “Sam?  It's Varrow.  I'm calling in that favor you owe me.”

 

   A bell was ringing.  Em woke up slowly, flailing his arm toward the clock on the bedside table.  The bell continued to ring.  Em forced his eyes open, and quickly shut them again as he saw the sunlight streaming through the window. “Augh,” he sighed.  He opened his left eye slowly, having shifted it to thermographic vision.  Most items in the room were close enough to the same temperature as to be indistinguishable from one another.  The sunlight had carved a warm swath on the floor, the area behind where the sun shone was beginning to cool.  A white blob also stood out on the bedside table, roughly rectangular, a distinctly different shape than the alarm clock.  He closed his eye and opened both again a moment later, having shifted his left back to normal vision and put a polarized filter on both eyes.

   The bell continued to sound.

   Em scanned the room now that the sunlight wasn't as bright.  His thoughts had nearly spun up to normal speed before he realized it wasn't a wake up bell, or a warning of danger, but simply an alert.  He had forgotten to deactivate the motion sensors in the living room.  They must have turned on automatically during the night, and were alerting Em to new movement now that Varrow was moving around.  He turned off the mental chiming and hooked his vision into the living room camera to watch her stretching.  She seemed to be favoring the right side of her neck.  Em returned his eyes to normal and got dressed.  

   Now that his thoughts were unclouded by sleep, he noticed another sound, less jarring than the ringing bell.  It was a soft sort of sound, gentle, almost soothing.  The sound of running water permeated his consciousnesses.  “Why's the water running?” Em asked himself, rolling out of bed.  He followed the sound to the bathroom and tried the knob, finding it locked. He tried it again before the realization hit him: Varrow was in the shower.  “That explains the water ... and the chime is probably the motion sensor registering her movements.”  He turned off the alert and went to the kitchen to fix breakfast while waiting for Varrow to finish.

   Varrow walked in to the kitchen to find Em already eating.  He put down his fork long enough to offer her breakfast.  “There's some scrambled eggs for you on the stove.  Help yourself to toast and jam if you'd like any.”  She nodded and started filling a plate.

   “You look tired,” he said as she sat down.  “How late were you up?”

   “Haven't slept yet.”

   “Did you at least find anything?”

   “Yeah.  Got the name, or at least the alias, of Sadhur's hacker friend. Lindley Donaldson.  Had to call in a favor at the library to get access to the user records for the public terminals.”

   “You needed help?” Em asked, incredulous.

   “Only because they don't keep that information electronically.  Following that alias didn't really lead anywhere.  It's been used a dozen other times at that library and other branches in town.”  Varrow paused to pour herself another glass of orange juice.

   “So we're basically right where we were last night.”  Em threw his fork on to his now empty plate.

   “Not quite.  A little after 1AM, your Indian friend used his cred stick at a minimart.  I used the street cameras to follow him home.  He's in an apartment on 12th street.”

   “Nicely done!  What are we waiting around here for?”  They cleared the plates and Em grabbed his jacket.  Varrow put hers on as Em locked the door behind them. “Whose car should we take?” he asked as they walked down the stairs to the parking lot.

   “I don't think we can both fit very well on my vespa...”

   “Right. So ... mine then.”  Em fished in his pocket for his keys.

   “I meant to ask last night... Your Cavalier still runs?”

   “Of course it does!  You can't kill a Chevy Cavalier.  Least ways not without a lot of effort or neglect.”  He unlocked and opened the passenger door for her.

   Varrow chuckled softly as she climbed in.  “Some things never change, do they...”

   “And they never will,” Em added with a wink, closing her door.

   “I'm surprised at you, Em,” Varrow said as Em sat in the driver's seat.

   “Surprised I'm still such a gentleman?”

   “Not really.”  Varrow rolled her eyes in mock annoyance.  “Surprised your car looks so ... normal.”

   Em chuckled, backing out of the parking space.  “Why wouldn't it?”

   “Last time I saw it, the inside of the car had switches and dials and levers everywhere.  Totally tricked out.  Now there's nothing ... looks like any other car fresh off the assembly line.”

   Em grinned as he said “You see this little red button just below the steering wheel?”

   “Yeah ...”

   “Okay.  Now, sit still and keep your hands in your lap.”

   “Em.. why--”  Varrow was cut off as Em pressed the button and the dashboard seemed to explode in front of her.  It split into three horizontal sections, six centimeters apart, each nearly the full width of the dashboard, but only six centimeters tall.  Each panel lifted two centimeters off the dashboard, then rotated 180 degrees before retracting the two centimeters again, flipping themselves over to expose rows of buttons.  Before she had time to read any of the labels, the two still blank strips between the rows of buttons ejected themselves four centimeters and rotated to reveal two rows of switches.  Varrow felt something move on her right and looked at the passenger door to see it undergoing a similar metamorphosis.  She checked her left and saw that the center console between the two front seats had been replaced by a large lever, at least two centimeters in diameter, and nearly a meter long.  She opened her mouth to ask Em a question, but when she looked over he was looking ahead and pointing up.  Varrow followed Em's finger to the ceiling of the car, hardly surprised to note the cloth covering had been retracted to reveal still more buttons and lights.

   “Still surprised?” Em asked as he pushed the small red button again to revert everything to normal.  The whole process took less than thirty seconds.

   “Not anymore...”

 

   “How do you remember what all those little buttons do?” Varrow finally asked ten minutes into their trip.

   “Well, I put 'em there in the first place, so I put the most useful ones close, or where it made sense to me to put them.  Passenger Eject, for instance, is on my left, where the passenger can't accidentally hit it.”

   “And the big lever in the middle?”

   “That's there out of necessity, mostly. Where else am I gonna put a frickin big lever?”

   “No, I meant, what's it do?”

   “Oh, right.  That's the Emergency Lever.  Like a typical emergency break on steroids.  It hits the breaks on all four wheels, kills the engine and activates the armor plating as well as sealing the interior air tight.  There are, of course, buttons for each of those functions on their own, but the Emergency Lever does them all at once.”

   Varrow paused, considering her next question carefully.  “Why--” she started, then stopped herself as the phrasing of the question changed in her mind.  “What-- No.  Have you ever used it?”

   “Haven't yet, except when testing it.”

   “So, why have it?”

   “I sometimes ask myself the same question, but when I think about it, I can't think of a situation where I'm not glad I have it, so I've left it.”

   “I guess that makes sense.  Turn left up here.”

   “The address you gave me is on the right...”

   “Do you really want to park right out front?  Turn left and we'll walk half a block.”

   Em muttered something under his breath and turned left, finding street parking near the corner.

   “Do you have a plan to get confront them?”  Varrow asked as she closed the passenger door.

   “Er.. d'you think we need one?  I figured we'd go in and talk to them like reasonable people and they'd just hand the data back to us.”

   Varrow paused mid step to shoot Em and look of annoyance that also managed to carry the message “You have got to be kidding me.  Are you really that out of it that you think they'll talk reasonably with us instead of killing us to keep the data they rightfully stole?  You're a bigger idiot than I thought.”  It was a strong look to have carried the full weight of the message.

   Even though he was walking toward the back of the car, facing away from her, Varrow's look was difficult for Em to miss as it hung in the palpable silence between them.  “A joke!  You remember jokes, don't you?”  Em stopped walking when he was behind the car and turned to face Varrow, finding her tamping her foot impatiently with her arms folded across her chest.  “We'll approach cautiously.  I'll scan the apartment with thermo and x-ray, if it's not shielded.  That should tell us where they are, and how many they are.”  The trunk popped open with a soft *click-Thunk* and Em pushed it open the rest of the way.

   Varrow's curiosity piqued, she walked around the car to join Em.  She stood in stunned silence, her mind refusing to take it all in.

   Em chuckled.  “Up here,” he gestured to what looked like blanket rolled in to the underside of the lid, “is a weapons roll.  Mostly small arms and blades.”  It was held in place by two straps and looked like it would unfurl to reveal its contents to someone standing where they were now.  “Below that is the ammo box,” he pointed at a metal box six centimeters deep covering most of the inside of the trunk lid.  “The big gadget taking up most of the space here is a cryo pod.  Keeps things cold, mostly.  Its main purpose was to refrigerate and transport organs between hospitals.  That was when it was a wee bit smaller though.  I've upgraded and improved it a bit.”  He opened the lid of the silver and blue box that seemed to have been custom fit to the inside of the trunk.  “It's big enough to hold a full grown man, in case of medical emergencies or some such.  If someone's taken a serious wound and we can't get to a hospital fast enough, someone put in here should keep well enough to be patched up hours or possibly days later.  I haven't put that to the test though...” He paused after closing the lid before continuing.  “Makes a dandy holding cell, in a pinch.  Tucked in to the side here is a basic first aid kit.  And on the other side is a slightly-more-than-basic mechanic's tool kit.”

   Varrow blinked a few times as Em unrolled the weapons roll and picked up a pistol.  “Take your pick” he said.  She scanned the available armaments for a moment.  He seemed to have a little of everything, two rifles with four different scopes, half a dozen pistols in various calibers, a machete, two slightly smaller knives with blades between 12 and 16 centimeters long, five small throwing knives, two throwing axes, a fire ax and, just to round it out, a sword.  Em saw her eying the latter.  “It's mostly there for the weight and because it makes it easier to roll up...”  She picked up a pistol of her own and Em rolled everything back up before opening the ammo box and handing her two magazines for her pistol.  “Better safe than sorry.”

   Varrow nodded, loading her weapon.  “Em... where did you get all that?”

   He slammed the trunk closed before answering.  “A couple months ago, Tizercorps had a job that needed doing.  They paid in weapons and ammo.”

   “Okay .. but .. the cryo-pod?”

   “Would you believe medial surplus?  No, I suppose I wouldn't either.  I call it a gift from Tizercorps.  Off the books.  Like I said, it was originally a much smaller gadget.”

   Varrow nodded and decided to leave it at that as they walked to the apartment.

World Tag: 
Ex Machina

Chapter 9

   “It looks clear,” Em whispered, staring through the wall in the hallway, in to the apartment.

   Varrow nodded and held up her fingers, counting down silently from three before kicking the door in.  As the door fell inward, she fell back into the hallway as Em ducked and walked in.

   Varrow heard it first, but em felt it.  A soft click as Em's foot came down a meter in to the apartment, and a slight tension on his back foot.  His toe had caught on a wire in the doorway.  They froze.

   “Varrow?  Be a dear and see if you can find what I just triggered.”

   “And go in there?  You butter just come back out here.  But try to keep tension on that wire.”

   “How about you kneel down and hold the wire while I step back.  Sound good?”

   Varrow nodded as the plan was put in to action.  When Em was back in the hallway, he took over holding the wire with his right arm.  “I'm going to let it go in a moment ... you should be farther away.”

   “Agreed.”  Her voice seemed faint, farther away then he expected.  Em looked up from the wire to see Varrow nearly at the end of the hallway.

   “Don't protest or anything ... Just leave me to probably be blown up...”

   “Quit whining.  You'll probably be fine, and most of the damage will be done to that fake arm anyway.”

   “That's not the point!  A little compassion is all I'm askin for here...” Em continued to grumble, his voice growing softer and less distinct as his attention returned to the wire.  He readied himself to run, or at least roll down the hallway.  He decided his best bet would be to start rolling and let his momentum take his finger off the wire.  The plan seemed to have worked.  As soon as tension was released, they heard three loud pops and thick clouds of pink smoke billowed into the hallway.

   “Smoke bombs?” Varrow called, walking slowly back to Lindon's door, keeping her right hand on the wall.

   Em coughed. “Seems that way...”

   “I can't see a thing!”

   “Me neith--” Em was cut off by the sound of a gun shot, quickly followed by two more.

   “You said it was clear!”

   “It was!”  Em switched his eyes to thermographic while he shouted a reply and looked in to the apartment again, scanning for human sized heat sources.  “It still is!”  Despite the apparent gun fire, he saw no one.  Another shot and pieces of the door frame rained down on Em as he crouched.

   “Em!”  Varrow could barely see the crater in the door frame.  The smoke obscured the lower half of the doorway.

   “See!  That's what I wanted earlier.  Some compassion, some caring.  Concern for my well being.”

   “Now is not the time!” Varrow shouted angrily.

   “Stay out here.  I”m going in.”  Without waiting for an answer, he dove in to the smoke, coughing as he got a better look at the room.  He moved slowly, keeping his back to the wall until he stumbled in to the kitchen.  He turned on the stove vent to help the smoke dissipate.  His vision no longer obscured, he was able to appreciate the trap that had been laid.  The wire he tripped was rigged to the pins of several smoke grenades just inside the door.  On the table in the middle of the room were two pistols pointing in opposite directions set on a spindle and connected to a smoke detector.  When the smoke hit the sensor, one gun fired, probably toward the door, spinning the apparatus.  The second would then fire in a random direction, followed shortly by the first and so on until the clips were empty or there was no more smoke.  “It's okay, you can come in now,” he called to Varrow, watching the pistols slowly spin to a stop.

   “You're sure this time?”

   “Yeah.  Sadhur's better than I gave him credit for.  I wouldn't have thought of this Rube Goldberg setup...”

   “Makes me wonder what other surprises we have in store...”

   A single, loud beep was immediately subsumed by the report from one of the pistols on the table.

   “What the hell?” Em said, dropping to the floor.  Varrow was still standing. “Get down!” he shouted to her.  She stumbled backward a step, her shoulders connecting with the door as a bright red patch grew from just above her left hip. “Varrow!”  Now it was Em's turn to show concern.  He scrambled to her, keeping low. She had slumped to the floor by the time the second shot rang out, this time shattering a planter by the window.  “Speak to me.  Varrow?  Stay with me.”

   “Em?”  She looked down at her hands, clutching her side, hidden under Em's, keeping pressure on the wound.  “You said it was safe...”

   “I know, dear.  I screwed up.  I'm sorry.”  He pulled her hands away to get a look at the wound.  “It looks alright.  Can you stand?”  She nodded and they crept into the hallway, keeping low until they were near the elevator.  “Wait here.  I'll run to the car and get the med kit and be back before you know it.  Keep pressure on it.”

   She nodded and watched him disappear into the stairwell next to the elevator. She tried to distract herself by thinking of the past again.  Her first day at Dix's place.  Her first hack with Em.  The long nights on Dix's rig with Em watching them.  Every time she tried to remember specific details, what the first lesson was, what they hacked, what she saw on waking from those long dives, her mind's eye could only see blackness.  She had general knowledge of what went on, but couldn't recall any emotional or physical detail.

   She felt someone pulling her hand away again and opened her eyes.  “That was quick...”

   “Car wasn't very far away.  Lucky for you, it looks like that was just a flesh wound.  Didn't hit anything besides skin and a bit of muscle.”  Em spoke as he applied disinfectant and wrapped the bandage around her midsection.

   “Thanks,” she said, bracing herself against the wall as she stood.

   “Stay here.  I'll take care of the last surprise.”  Em ran back to the doorway, then crawled to the table.  He held the spindle in place, the pistols pointing to either side, and ejected both clips, then the chambered rounds.  He nearly dropped the device when it beeped again.  “It's clear!”

   “You're sure this time?”

   “Absatively!”

   Varrow cautiously made her way in to the room.  “Looks like they bugged out.”

   “Not very quickly, if Sadhur had time to rig this thing...”

   “But still pretty quickly.  Look, they left some of Donaldson's rig.”  Varrow pointed to an older CRT monitor on a desk in the corner with a desktop computer next to it.  “Might be able to find something useful in there...”  She sat down and pulled an interface cable from her neck.  Em turned away.  He always hated watching her do that.

   “Be careful.  There's no telling what might be waiting in there.”  He scanned the room again, ignoring the dismissive “pfft” from Varrow.  The bedroom door was closed, and while the room looked empty, the knob looked to be wired to the nearest electrical outlet.  “Looks like they want to keep us out of here...”  He approached slowly, then kicked with as much force as he could muster.  The door stubbornly refused to budge.  Em thought through some solutions.  “I could short it, kill the power to the aparment, but that'd interrupt Varrow.  She's never in a good mood when she's dumped out of a hack.  Wait!  The breakers!  I could cut the power to just that room.”  He traced the power lines from the door knob to the circuit breakers and found they were in the bedroom.  “Well that's a stupid place to put the breaker box.”  He paused for a moment, then called out “Varrow, I'll be right back,” as he walked out the door and into the hallway.

   Varrow barely heard Em.  She was busy fending off three virus attacks and a cracker trying to break through her firewall.  “Mess with the best...” she said, launching three counter attck routines.  “Burn like a sucker!” she finished as the invaders fizzled to their component bits.

   She didn't find anything useful on the hard drive, but she hadn't really expected to find anything anyway.  She was able to use the terminal as a proxy to access the city's street cameras again.  The proxy connection provided her with another level of anonymity.  She rewound the footage until she saw something interesting.  The time stamp said it was filmed an hour ago.  Two men climbed out of the window to what Varrow guessed was the bedroom of this apartment.  They clambered down the fire escape and into a van.  She saved stills of the license plate and the faces of the two men to her internal drive then logged out.

   She stood and turned to find Em swinging at the bedroom door with the fire ax from his trunk.  “What the crap?”

   “Oh, you're done.  Good.  The, uh, doorknob's wired to power.  Have to get in there to disarm it...”

   “And you didn't use the fire escape why?  The window can't be locked.  Our guys left though it an hour ago.”

   “That may have been the easy and sane course of action, but this was more fun.  Besides, I'm almost through anyway.”  With a final swing, Em had created a hole large enough to crawl through, provided one didn't mind being coated in splinters.

   Varrow sauntered across the room to Em.  He pushed through the hole and began to dismantle the trap.  “Don't you want to know how I know they only left an hour ago?”

   “Hmm?”  Em asked, distracted.  Before Varrow could answer, a loud pop was heard, the lights flickered and the scent of ozone hung heavy in the air.  “Meant to do that.  Ow.”

   “Right.  I hacked in to the traffic cams.  They recorded our guys leaving. At least, I think it was our guys.  If you're done electrocuting yourself, can you come over here and give me a positive ID?”

   “Sure.  Em opened the door and stepped through, holding his left arm gingerly as he followed Varrow back to the computer.

   She sat to the side of the monitor, allowing Em to sit in front of it for optimal viewing.  She closed her eyes to log in as Em turned the monitor on.  As soon as it had powered on, the monitor exploded in a shower of glass, smoke, noise and light.

World Tag: 
Ex Machina

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