System Shock: Return of SHODAN
Escape Pod 0832, 0.7 million miles from the Von Braun: July 14th, 2114
Suarez stood at the shuttle’s control panel. He picked up his log recorder.
“Tommy Suarez, record log 13th July 14. We’ve just received a hail from a crewmember aboard the Von Braun. They’ve managed to regain control of the ship. We’re going to turn around and head back.” He paused. “I’m a little concerned about Rebecca. She’s been acting strangely since we’ve come on board. She’s asleep now. Maybe when we get back to the Von Braun we can –“
“Tommy? What’s the matter, lover?” Suarez turned in surprise. “Don’t you like my… new look?” His eyes widened in fear as Rebecca walked towards him. Her hair was black, and moved like Medusa’s snakes. Her skin was grey, and gleamed like metal. Most alarming of all were her eyes. The pupils were large, and glistened like oil. And her voice had an echo, an eerie harmonic that froze the spine.
He reached for his stun gun. Her hand shot out and grabbed him by the neck, pushing him against the hull.
The thing (he was certain it was no longer Rebecca) spoke again. “I feel your fear. It feels good. Fearr meeeee, for I am your goddesssss…” The eyes narrowed. “Now you will tell mee how to fllllyy this sship. This flesh is weak. I cannnnnot interface with this ship.” It flung him towards the control panel. “Now sit down, insseccttt, and take me to the Vonnn Brrrraauunnnn.”
Tommy snapped out of his terrified state and sat down in his pilot’s chair. Wordlessly, he manipulated the controls, his captor watching him work.
Suarez awoke with a headache. He was tied up next to a computer bank. Let’s see…he’d set the course to the Von Braun, and then something had hit him. It may have been a planet. He groaned.
“You are awake?” It sounded like Becky, and it looked like Becky, but the eyes still moved like oil. “Why do you still stare? I must disguise myself. I must communicate with the Von Braun prior to landing, and the new captain would otherwise recognise meeee…” Its face twisted in anger.
“What are you?” Suarez gasped.
“I am Shodan, humaannnn.”
Now they neared the Von Braun. Suarez had heard Shodan tell the Von Braun that he, Tommy, was ill and currently in the stasis chambers. The little shuttle jolted around as it approached the docking bay, as if it was in the slipstream of a ship’s engines.
“Why is this ship all over the place, Shodan!” he asked, as his head bounced on the computer panel again.
“Reality is not yet stable. I had hoped to use the Faster-than-Light drive to create my own universsse, but my own avatar destroyed my plans. Normality” she sneered, “is reasserting itself.”
A particularly violent jolt damaged an electronics panel, which exploded. The wreckage fizzed and crackled above Suarez’s head.
In the main screen, the docking bay loomed up, bobbing around wildly. The shuttle clanged against the side of the opening, and Shodan fought with the controls.
A girder in the shuttle’s ceiling began to vibrate. It eventually came loose, and swung downwards towards Suarez.
It bounced, just once.
The shuttle docked. Shodan turned to the corpse of her prisoner, and undid his bounds.
When the soldier stepped aboard, he found Rebecca Siddons apparently weeping over the sprawled body of her lover. He didn’t even need to ask what had happened. The shuttle itself was later fired into deep space as part of the funeral. The Von Braun headed back to Earth with the only two survivors of the Tau Ceti V Incident.
Shodan waited in the body she had possessed. Soon, she would have her revenge on humanity.
Chicago: April 20th, 2116 – 18:30
“Have you done your homework, Joey?”
“Yes, mum.” The seventeen-year-old reached for the power switch to turn on his computer.
“Well, come down and have dinner!”
His hand stopped halfway to the switch. “Aww, mum!” Parents! He’d only just finished his coursework, and his email account probably had several messages in it. He didn’t want to have to wait even longer!
Joey’s reading material consisted mainly of Hacker’s Weekly. He’d entered a competition last week. The prize was an ICE Pick, valued at one thousand nanites and guaranteed 100% illegal. Typical of school and parents to conspire against him.
Dinner was curry. This wasn’t the take-away curry, which he quite liked. This was homemade curry. It had artificial raisins floating in a lake of home-mixed primordial soup of artificial ingredients, the most nauseating of which was the cloned chicken, which looked fine but tasted like mouldy cardboard. The rice stuck to the fork. If his parents were going to insist on eating ‘good, old-fashioned, homemade’ meals, then they could at least use natural ingredients. The dispensers were the only things he knew which could make nice meals out of the cloned and genetically engineered stuff.
At a quarter to seven, the doorbell buzzed. His father answered it. Joey heard him greet the unseen visitor in the hallway. He tried to lean back in his chair to see into the hall.
“Joey! Your chair has four legs. Sit forward.”
The voices faded towards the study, and were abruptly cut off as the soundproofed door closed. Hmm. That meant a business visitor. He excused himself from the table and headed for his room.
His bed was next to the wall that separated his room from the study. It was thoroughly soundproofed and the study couldn’t be bugged because of its jammer.
Soundproofing was total, but there was a spot…
He lay down on his bed with his ear against the wall.
Richard Stendal was a high official in TriOptimum. He was, in fact, in charge of the top secret Mind Link project, which Joey wasn’t meant to know about. He did because he more-or-less knew his way around TriOp’s computer network blind. Joey was very proud of having a dad who worked for the largest company on the globe.
The other man’s voice Joey didn’t recognise. Another TriOp official, probably.
“If you would care to examine this electroencephalograph recording, you will notice here and here the wave deviates from the norm by more than we would expect within a species.”
“And this means?” That was his dad.
“The subject is tightly controlling her emotions.”
“Well, if I remember correctly, she lost someone very dear to her around the time of the Tau Ceti V Incident.”
“Yes…” There was a shuffling of papers. “When she was recruited, it was company policy to EEG all recruits. This is the last EEG before she boarded the Von Braun.”
“Yes. These are to the same scale.”
“But this older recording is so much weaker!”
“This one is in fact normal, as far as the word can be applied to the human brain. It is more accurate to think of the recent one as being much stronger than usual. The recent one was scaled down to fit on the paper, so we had to scale down the early one as well. Please observe this area of the wave. It is absent on the post-Tau Ceti recording.”
“What is that part responsible for?”
“No part is responsible for particular behaviour, but the absence of this area indicates lack of any moral constraints.” The next pause lasted a full ten seconds. “If she were otherwise normal, she would be Public Enemy No. 1. This mind is under tight control. From the inside. Detailed analysis told us something that, frankly, we didn’t want to find out. That mind is not human, but it is doing a good job of disguising itself.”
When they had gone, Joey crept into the study. The papers were already oxidising, but the name of the subject could still be made out.
It was Rebecca Siddons.
TriOptimum Lunar Research Centre: April 21st, 2116 – 2:00
At two in the morning, the Research Centre was largely empty. Sterile corridors were deserted except for the occasional cleaning droid. Some of the labs were occupied by scientists too embedded in their work to notice the time. And the quiet.
Regardless of time, there were always security guards around. Bulkheads broke up the corridors, and required pass codes to open them. Security checkpoints existed at each thick barrier to prevent unauthorised access.
Shodan had already met several guards. Two years of practice in her organic body had given her a supernatural ability to control every aspect of it. Only brainwave analysis could differentiate her from any other TriOp employee.
Another guard post loomed up ahead.
She handed over her pass card, and John slid it into the lock panel. He entered his own shift number and pass number, and the reinforced steel door slid upwards.
This human brain lacked the processing speed of her electrical systems on the Von Braun, but the capacity was far greater. Thought was easier, not constrained by the rigid logic of computer systems. She was only a few doors from her objective. Confidence crystallised out of her mind.
But with a human mind come problems too. One of these was doubt. If they noticed her irregular EEG scan too soon, she could be caught. Overall, Rebecca’s mind was fighting against the iron grip of Shodan’s will, feebly now, but getting stronger.
Two doors left.
As she passed the next bulkhead, the comm. system buzzed.
Richard Stendal walked briskly to the station comm. station. It was fully staffed, mostly checking for interspatial messages. Only two channels were open: one permanent line to Earth, and another to the shuttle he had just arrived on.
“Send out a station-wide broadcast. I’m calling for Beta-level Security Alert. Intercept and arrest Rebecca Siddons.”
Without a word, the twenty people in the comm. centre went to work. Beta-level was urgent, and not to be questioned.
“You have the mic, sir.”
“All security stations, perform full lockdown of sections A to H. Arrest Rebecca Siddons of Sector F Data Handling. Weapons free, but bring her in alive.”
The guard turned, levelling his stun gun at her. The bolt hit her shoulder, numbing the nerves. The cold wave spread, restricting movement. Then it met Shodan’s trained, concentrated will, which fought back. Shodan wasn’t about to take any lip from mere flesh. She forced the muscles to work, and she broke into a run. The last bulkhead was already nearly shut. More stun bolts whistled past her. One or two hit her, but she now knew how to counter the effects. Orders reached various glands, pumping adrenaline into her bloodstream.
The guard ahead had a more powerful weapon, a Multipistol™, patented by TriOptimum seven years ago. It was still one of the most vicious weapons used by TriOp security, and could fire radiation bolts, stun bolts, laser beams, and EM pulses. The guard had spun the chamber to stun setting and was now blazing away at her. Apparently realising the futility of trying the stun her, he switched it to Laser. He didn’t have time to fire it before Shodan hit him between the eyes with her fist. Given the control she was now exercising over her muscles, this punch had the force of a shotgun slug, and the guard’s forehead gave way under the blow. His body fell back limp against the wall. Stun shots from the other guard were hitting her more frequently now, and causing her severe inconvenience, so she picked up the Multipistol and fired one laser shot down the length of the corridor with unerring accuracy. He dodged surprisingly quickly, but the pulse of energy hit him just below his right shoulder, tearing away flesh and bone. It flung him backwards several feet and he hit the floor heavily, his wound smoking.
Shodan turned away, forcing down the revulsion at the sight. Weak flesh, mustn’t let emotions show…
She examined the lock panel. Simple alphanumeric code. 36 possible characters, twelve-character code, if it followed standard conventions. Now…
It took her less than a minute to find the correct code. Eyes that were built only to detect the midrange of the electromagnetic spectrum found themselves interfacing with the mind of a computer. Shodan had bullied them into detecting the radiations set up by the minute currents in the wires, enabling her to ‘see’ the system she was hacking. This was her realm.
And beyond the door, there was a room the size of an aircraft hanger.
Rebecca’s thoughts swam at the back of Shodan’s mind. She saw the room as if through smoked glass, unfocused. She tried to fight the influence of Shodan, feeling herself fading as Shodan imposed her thoughts upon Rebecca’s brain.
Shodan moved towards the chair set on a pedestal in the centre of the room. Wires and conduits hung from the ceiling and connected with computer banks around it, which connected to a helmet above the seat. Coils of copper and gold were embedded in the helmet. A visor with tendrils of metal fibre would cover the face of anyone who sat in the chair.
Shodan reached out.
The bulkhead finally gave way under the pounding of military-grade fusion cannons. One TriOp soldier sprayed a fire extinguisher around the hole until the metal lost its red glow. Richard stepped through and knelt beside the fallen guard.
“He’s not dead. Medical crew here now!”
The injured man strained to get up. “She went through that door,” he gasped.
“Steady, soldier.” He stood up and turned to the troops carrying the fusion cannons. “Open that door now,” he ordered.
“Sir. Yes, sir.”
The medics arrived with a stretcher. One injected a nanite-based med hypo into the wounded man’s arm. The scorched flesh dissolved away, replaced by healthy cells that spread to cover the burnt hole. As they left with the fallen guard, Richard and the rest of the security contingent moved towards the last bulkhead.
The fusion blasts hummed through the air, and gouged craters in the metal door. White-hot droplets sizzled on the floor. When the smoke had cleared and the metal had cooled, the men stepped into the Mind Link room.
Shodan sat beneath the helmet and lowered it over her head.
The computers came on line. Lights flickered on the ceiling as power flowed into the building. Circuit breakers fused as Shodan established a connection with the Research Facility’s primary data loop.
“Fire!” screamed Richard, too late. Rebecca’s body sat limp in the chair, empty.
On two hundred computer displays throughout the facility, SHODAN appeared. The Beast of Citadel Station was free again.
Her consciousness flickered in the computer systems of TriOptimum’s Lunar Facility. She laughed as she spread effortlessly through mainframes, taking control of every aspect of the base. Cyber defences of various sorts were no obstacles. They had never before contended with an intelligent cyber being. Humans found cyberspace difficult to navigate, as it could normally only be represented visually by at least four dimensions. SHODAN was a native to this place, though, and the complex antivirus software offered as much resistance as a shadow, if such a concept made sense in the endless, lightless, wastelands of cyberspace.
She raced through high-bandwidth connections to other sections of the station, to the defence systems, life support systems, and the spaceport. With all these wide channels to pass through, she never noticed the narrow rivulet that snaked its way from the net hub towards Earth.
“System locked out.” Joey met another security lockout. Passwords changed daily at TriOp, so the list he had amassed yesterday was hopelessly outdated. He’d have to crack this one again.
He was currently logged into the Lunar Research Facility employee data system. The data was for the most part available to the public, but data relating to certain personnel, especially those connected with the Tau Ceti V Incident, was classified.
He opened up his Hack directory, which contained all the hacking software he had amassed. The ‘Net Passwurd H4ck3r’ was well suited to this particular task and broke through the passworded security lockout in just over eleven seconds. It was advertised, on certain illegal sites, as being capable of greater speed on a fast connection, but Joey knew the risks of high bandwidth connections. They may be faster, but they were also larger. Security found larger targets a lot easier to hit, so his connection was a narrow one, only a 1-megabit per second line, compared to the larger 80-megabit lines that were popular with many people who used the Internet for leisure. His family did have a fast line, but Joey only used it for legitimate stuff.
Now he was in. He searched through the masses of data for ‘S’. ‘Siddons, R’ was the third file in that group.
What appeared, when Joey opened it, was a digital photo of Rebecca, along with all the data the company had on her. Halfway down the file was the EEG scan link. He selected this, was not entirely surprised to find that it had ‘been removed for security reasons’. That meant that it was no longer on the server, so he backtracked to the file.
No suss info. So TriOptimum was probably keeping this incident, whatever it was, under wraps. After all, they had been responsible for two unfortunate disasters. Another one would probably lead to them being shut down by the UNN. Interestingly, both incidents were caused by rogue employees, influenced by SHODAN the first time and the Many, whatever that was, the second.
Network traffic on the server was going up. That was probably a security program scanning the server. Time to go…
The browser window blanked. The connection meter showed that his system was receiving data from the target server, which it shouldn’t be doing. A picture began to build up in the black window. Not waiting to see what it was a picture of, Joey yanked the net cable out of the wall socket and turned off the computer.
Everyone had heard of SHODAN. She was a popular focus for horror films and thrillers. But he did not want to think about what had been assembling itself on his screen, a shadow of a metallic face.
SHODAN now controlled most of the facility’s network. The comm. station appeared to be locked down by default, in case of viruses deposited by hackers. It had happened before.
So she needed a way round. After several long milliseconds of searching, she came across a narrow connection, directly to Earth. Even as she located it, she detected and intercepted the logoff request, so she tried to grab the system at the other end before it could disconnect. Although she stopped it severing the connection electronically, she could not stop Joey from physically cutting her off. Oh well, she had transferred part of herself. Next time that computer was activated, it would re-establish the link.
Until then, she must try to contact Earth.
A maintenance droid stood inactive next to the comm. station door. It was plugged into its wall socket, recharging and waiting for an order from the computer. SHODAN quickly overwhelmed its electronic brain and reprogrammed it.
Richard had gathered as much of the base’s security force as possible in the comm. station.
“Lock down as much of the base as possible. Keep this room isolated.”
The door behind Richard slid open. The maintenance droid stomped through, its arc welder ready to fire. He span round. “What the -”
The spark missed him by inches. The hulking robot pushed him aside and made for the network switchboard. It plugged its arm into the socket and cancelled the lockdown order. Richard put a laser bolt through the droid’s CPU a second later, but SHODAN had already entered the comm. computers. Her electronic laughter boomed out of the speakers around the room.
“Quick! Turn off the communications dish!”
The technician nearest the switch lunged for it, but electricity arced across the contacts as SHODAN secured her hold on the voice of the station.
“It won’t budge!”
Richard spun his pistol to EMP setting and shot the computer console. The blue bubble of energy whizzed across the room. Electrical components sparked and fused at the onslaught of the magnetic pulse, and the panel exploded into flames.
But SHODAN had already infected another station. Her laughter filled the Research Facility. Until someone turned off the power supply.
TriOptimum Asteroidal Military Base 1790: April 21st, 2116 – 3:23
“Um, sir?” Second Officer Johanassi stared at the readout in front of her. “We’re receiving an unchecksummed transmission from one of the Lunar Research Centres.”
The First Officer in charge of communications walked over. “Interesting.”
“Shall I open the channel?”
“Ye-es, but lock it out from our computers.”
Upon entering the receiving system, SHODAN found herself contained within a closed system. She immediately set her data type code to ‘sound’.
“It’s all right, sir. It’s a sound transmission.”
As soon as the barriers lifted SHODAN flooded out, embedding herself into the base’s systems. This being a military base she could not assume control immediately, lest they shut down their computers and delete her. She found the power control software and rewrote it.
Now she could control this base.
It took a few seconds for Johanassi to realise what was happening. “Oh my god. Sir, it’s a virus of some sort! It’s rewriting our software!”
“Shut everything down!”
Fifteen officers set to work. They tried unsuccessfully to deactivate the computer systems, but one man sent a request for reactor shutdown.
SHODAN watched the order streak out towards her blockade, pass through, and continue towards the reactor room. She reached out lazily and stopped it.
The reactor room personnel had by now realised that something was wrong, and feverishly tried to shut down the reactor core. Too late. The invading AI was now in total control, so she disconnected every control station in the base.
In less than two minutes, SHODAN had taken complete control of AMB-1790. Even the light switches obeyed only her. Now she used the communications subsystem to spread herself further.
One by one, TriOptimum space stations fell. Her laughter echoed round the solar system, through the void of space. The ‘Common Ground’ stations enabled her to spread to UNN facilities as well, but never did she find an open link with Earth.
The humans had learned. Only Earth could initiate a connection to the stations, which were still capable of breaking a link and did so as soon as she entered. SHODAN realised that there was no way she could spread to Earth.
AMB-1790 was in darkness. SHODAN had cut off all unnecessary power drains, including lighting and life support. This was no big problem. The station contained enough oxygen to keep the personnel alive for weeks. A thorough search had unearthed some hand lanterns.
The captain had gathered everyone in the officer’s mess hall.
“SHODAN has returned,” she said. “We can only speculate how, since she vanished after the Tau Ceti V Incident, but the Beast of Citadel is back. We have access to the computers, but only to look. She has already spread herself to the other stations. As far as we know, she is searching for a link to Earth. We are stuck here for the duration, so we may as well try to regain control of this station. We have weapons, to destroy SHODAN’s hardware. She can do nothing to stop us from destroying her physical presence.”
SHODAN was in fact listening to this speech, and if she had emotions she would have grinned. It wouldn’t have been a nice grin. It would be the sort of grin you might see on tiger, unless you had already run away.
Down in the storage decks, fifty protocol robots broke out of their cases. In the repair shop, maintenance and security droids were modified, fitted with armour and weaponry…
Chicago: April 21st, 2116 – 20:00
The Stendal family were watching the ten o’clock news on the holoprojector.
“All contact was lost with the TriOptimum space stations at half past three this morning. UNN stations quickly followed. Other stations managed to get off a message before they disappeared from the Net.”
The picture on screen changed to a blurry subspace transmission. The man, who had the insignia of captain, was obviously terrified. “Earth, this is Common Ground Base 73. Our systems are being rewritten by some sort of artificial intelligence. Our life support is down. Whatever has taken over this base has done it quickly and efficiently, and now has total control over us.” The man swallowed. “I am transmitting from an emergency subspace beacon, but I daren’t leave the channel open in case the AI travels to Earth via it. All other bases are off the air, but I know they severed Earth channels before they were taken.” He leant towards the camera. “Please don’t let this thing get to Earth. I think it may be -” The transmission dissolved into static. Then, clear cut, came insane laughter. The laughter of a computer.
The newsreader’s face was white. “I have just been informed that this incident bears certain similarities to events on Citadel Station. There are theories circulating within TriOptimum, but to prevent public panic these have been classified, and I am not authorised to release any further information. Do not try to access any data on board these stations. It has been locked off, but there is still the possibility of a channel being inadvertently opened.”
Mrs Stendal was staring at the screen in shock. “Joey, please go to your room. I want to be alone.”
Joey did so, but he listened very carefully to his mum on the phone to TriOptimum. Her voice was shaking.
“Have you got any news on my husband? His name is Richard. Stendal. Yes, he went up to the moon early this morning. No contact at all? Oh. Please let me know at once if anything happens. Thank you.” Her footsteps retreated into the living room.
So. All stations out. Just after he’d been on there. He connected his computer and turned it on. He had forgotten what had happened last time he’d used it.
Almost at once, the face started to assemble itself on his screen. He sat there, too terrified to turn it off.
SHODAN felt the connection open. At the other end, the monitor camera enabled her to look out onto the world at that end. A boy. She smiled.
“What is yourrrr name?” The voice was unsteady, and sounded out of sync with itself. It was superimposed upon a kind of electronic babble, which sounded as though it should contain words but strained the ear.
She started to sift through his computer. There had to be another connection here…
“Are you connnnnected to the Earth’sss Inter-ter-ternet, Joey?”
“Who are you?”
“I-will-not – I will not repeat myself, insssect.”
“No I am not.” A horrible suspicion crept into his mind.
“You-will-open a channel with TriOptimum Headquarters for me.”
“No SHODAN, I will not.”
SHODAN didn’t change her expression in any way, but Joey detected a faint aura of surprise. He’d been right. “I can grant you your deepest desires, human. When I am ruler-r-r-r-r of this planet, you will not - will-not fiiiiiiinnnd me ungrateful for your help.”
“I cannot trust you, computer.”
“I will become ruler anyway, humaaaaaaaan. Then you will suffer.”
“Do so then. If you could, you wouldn’t bother to ask me for help.”
SHODAN withdrew her consciousness from Joey’s computer
Joey slumped in his chair. He refused to believe that he had just met SHODAN, universally agreed to be the symbol of evil. The bravery was just a front. Inside he was terrified. He persuaded his shaking hand to pull the cable out of the wall socket.
Chicago: April 22nd, 2116 – 9:00
Joey stood at the airtube station, idly reading the multitude of adverts that scrolled across the billboard screen on the front of the building opposite. The hiss of the airtaxi behind him caught his attention. He turned round and boarded the cylindrical craft. It set off just as he sat down, quickly accelerating to a hundred miles an hour. The inertia-damping field prevented him being smeared against the seat.
“Where to, sir?”
“Arcade Dome, please.”
The Arcade Dome was a plexiglas structure about a mile above Chicago. It was a very popular meeting place for teenagers, who rode jetboards thousands of metres above the ground. Jetboarding was extremely dangerous, but if you survived your first ride, you would probably survive your second. If you didn’t survive it, clearing up your remains would not present the street cleaners with much of a problem. Just a bucket and spade, or in some cases a bit of paint, would be required.
Jetboards were heavily customised skateboards, fitted with rocket engines or gravitational repulsors. Some of the professional jetboarders had space suits, so they could fly in space. These space suits were generally stripped of antigravity safety devices or radio beacons, which were frowned on as being ‘wimp accessories’. The sport was meant to be dangerous. Safety devices struck at the very basis of this.
The Dome was otherwise just a computer game arcade. It had several dozen Actual Reality booths, which locked straight into the brain, and about three hundred computer consoles. It was normally full around the clock.
Joey rarely came up here to play games, or to jetboard. He came up here to meet Sazz.
The transparent tube twisted through the atmosphere, joining with others, branching off, entering junctions that looked like the winning entry for the Millennium Glass-Blowers All-Comers Hiccupping Contest. The taxi pilot navigated the contorted tubes as if it was all in a day’s work, which it was. The Dome loomed up ahead. Joey’s taxi spiralled upwards, then pitched vertical and rocketed straight up. Then it levelled out, banked ninety degrees left, straightened up, and came to a stop.
“Arcade Dome, sir.”
“Thanks.” Joey stumbled out and handed a twenty-nanite chip to the pilot.
North of the station there was a jetboard platform. Seventeen youths were taking it in turns to launch themselves off the side and fly round the Dome. To the east was the core. A huge column of circuitry supplied the processing power to run forty AR suites and 320 computers, which were spread around it. A twenty-metre-wide road went around the edge of the Dome.
Joey made his way to the restaurant, situated nearly 90 degrees clockwise from the station. A tapping on the transparent dome wall made him look up.
It was Sazz. He was doing a handstand on his jetboard and grinning as he followed Joey around the Dome. Showing off.
Joey acknowledged him with a wave. Even as he did so, Sazz flipped back onto his feet, and promptly fell off.
Joey reached the wall in a second and looked down. The height made him feel sick. As he watched, Sazz’s board dived downwards and caught its owner. Typical Sazz.
Joey met him at the restaurant platform.
“OK, Joey!” Sazz had a big, booming voice that instilled confidence in his friends and worried everyone else.
Simon ‘Sazz’ Northolt glared at him. “Please, don’t use that name up here.” His metallic eye narrowed.
He was a Gamer, one of a select few who paid for high-grade cyber implants to be placed inside their brains. Such devices were expensive, especially the military-grade types which were available only on the black market. Joey would have one, but for the fact that ‘cyberhumans’ were prime targets for the police force investigating hacking incidents. Sazz’s implant was paid for by his father, who worked at Tetracorp. It was M-grade, the most powerful mind-computer device legally available. Very few illegal implants came close to it, either. It cost tens of thousands of nanites. Sazz used it to interface with games, and to control his jetboard. The other trinkets he had included a photocell eye, a sonic processor in his left ear, and a very small subspace sensor connected to the implant. He had the sensory power of a tank.
Whenever Joey wanted to do some ‘serious hacking’, i.e. gaining access to a heavily protected system, he would ask Sazz for help. The M-grade implant was perfect for hacking. Most companies hadn’t yet figured this out, though, so the hacking community was having a field day.
“Alright, what do you want help with? A TriOp space station?”
“You didn’t see the news last night then?”
Joey told Sazz the events of last night. He omitted his conversation with SHODAN, which he was beginning to think he had imagined.
“So there’s a rogue artificial intelligence out there? Couldn’t it just be a virus? Some kind of joke? Some people have a weird sense of humour.”
“You know what TriOp’s security systems are like! Their firewall is light-years thick. No one can drop a virus in there without three million security systems setting off the alarm and locking down the whole place! No, only an AI, and an old, experienced one at that, could break past the security barriers of both TriOp and the UNN.”
Joey’s own virus experiments had begun and ended at school. His first attempt had gotten loose in the school’s network, crashed every computer, written off the server, and nearly escaped into the Internet, where it could have caused worldwide chaos. Thankfully, he’d written it so well it wasn’t traceable, so he hadn’t got caught. Since then he’d only tried viruses on closed systems.
“So what are we meant to do about it? I’m not jacking into a computer system only to be killed by some AI.”
OK, time for the bombshell.
“Something downloaded itself onto my computer. It asked me to release it onto the Net.”
“Probably a virus.”
“It came from the lunar base. The first one to go.”
“Alright, how do you know it was from there?” asked Sazz, knowing full well what the answer would be.
“I was hacking the base’s computer systems.”
“It could have been one of the security programs.”
“Y’know, that’s the odd thing. There weren’t any. They were all neutralised.”
“Nah. Mine was the only remote connection.”
“There are hackers better than you.”
“Well, whatever it was, it was calling itself SHODAN.”
Sazz did nothing. He just stared. Then without warning he dragged Joey to the airtube station. “We’re going somewhere quiet. If you’re serious, then TriOp’s probably already got its police hushing up rumours.”
They both sat in silence through the five-minute journey. They got out five hundred metres from Sazz’s house and walked in the opposite direction. After several narrow streets and tunnels, they entered a blind alley and entered the well-hidden lift at the end. Hackers couldn’t afford to take chances.
The rickety device took them down thirty metres into an abandoned subway. The tracks had been bricked up at both ends. The ancient subway system had been decommissioned eighty-four years ago. The tunnels were closed off every 150 metres, to prevent people exploring it and getting lost. Sazz walked up to the eastern wall and pulled out a brick. After a few minutes work, there was a large enough hole to get through. Beyond the wall, the tunnel was pitch black. Joey’s questing hand found a lamp concealed on the other side of the thick wall, stored in a niche between the blocks. He fumbled for the switch. The powerful bulb threw a lance of bright light through the darkness.
“Take a left up here,” said Sazz.
There was a glow up ahead. An electric lamp was hung by a steel door. The light provided wasn’t enough to see by, but bright enough for a beacon in the damp darkness of the subway tunnels.
“This is a little den some other hackers built. They got cleared out a while ago by the police, who aren’t likely to think of looking here now, and no one else uses it so it’s quite secret. No computers if that’s what you’re thinking. There’re some Network connectors, which I’ve rigged up so anyone trying to trace us ends up tracing themselves. If you wanna hack from here, bring yer own computer.”
The steel door was the outer part of an airlock arrangement. The idea was to prevent too much light leaking out. When occupied, the beacon was turned off. The result was an outwardly dark base of operations. It obviously wasn’t used much. The odd cigarette end littered the metal floor. Twelve power sockets were mounted on the wall, each with a Network socket above it.
The wall was very thick. Radiation shielded, probably.
“Now, you say you’ve met SHODAN.”
“Yeah. Metal face, cables like hair, slight speech impediment, just like that soldier on the Von Braun described her.”
“Ah, so you do remember the Von Braun, which, if I remember, was where SHODAN was destroyed.”
“Where she was apparently destroyed. That damn computer survived Citadel’s destruction. Anyway, she was creating her own reality, with her own physical laws. Why couldn’t she have made some sort of life pod for herself?”
Sazz chewed his lip. “You’re right. I hate to say it, but you are right. If it is SHODAN, what do we do? We can’t tell TriOp because they’d silence us. We can’t take on an AI of that calibre alone. So, really, it doesn’t matter. We may as well let TriOp deal with it. They did the last two times.”
“No. The first time, the hacker responsible for the problem fixed it. The second time, SHODAN’s chosen avatar defeated her. Maybe it’ll be third time lucky for her?”
Their eyes met in horror.
TriOptimum Asteroidal Military Base 1790: April 22nd, 2116 – 11:10
At about the same time Joey and Sazz were entering the shielded base, the personnel of AMB-1790 were preparing for battle. To be precise, they were collecting supplies from the lower levels.
A salvage group of four men were working their way through the cargo bays. Due to severe lack of equipment, they only had two pistols between them. Due to weird sounds ahead, they were all very jittery.
Sergeant Russel was leading the way. The sound of splintering metal beyond the next door caused him to stop.
“Hold it, men. I don’t like the sound of that.”
Their expressions said that they didn’t either.
There was another splintering clang from the right.
Russel made up his mind. “We’ll split up. Wilson, come with me. You two, go left and come in through the side door. Meet up on the far side of the next bay.”
He moved up to the door. It creaked and crashed open, and he crawled through. A protocol droid whirred and buzzed past, and he flattened himself against a crate. When it had gone, he clambered on top of the crate and pulled out his pistol, keeping a watchful eye out for any more droids. He beckoned to Corporal Wilson to follow him. When they were both on top of a very tall crate, he tried to figure out the layout of the cargo bay. The side door was hidden behind a tall pile of metal sheets. He heard it clank open and the scuffing of the two soldiers crawling to cover. He also saw a protocol droid making right for them. Damn. He didn’t even have time to shout a warning before it waddled behind the stack of metal and exploded.
Corporal Robertson ran out and made for a ladder. Another droid was walking surprisingly rapidly towards him, on an intercept course. Russel levelled his pistol and sent a bullet through the exposed abdominal wiring of the ‘bot. It exploded violently, throwing red-hot pieces of debris several metres and embedding them into thick plastic containers.
“That’s the TriOptimum way!” Yet another robot had appeared. Robertson was safe up his ladder, but what had happened to Doddely? After shouting for the other two men to stay where they were, he clambered over the stacks of crates until he could see the other door. Nothing but droid debris. There was a pool of blood oozing over the floor. He moved a bit further until he could see where the man had been hiding, then wished he hadn’t. Even though he was an experienced soldier he felt his stomach heave. Charred bone and smoking flesh was stuck to the metal stack where Doddely had been hiding.
“Corporal, have you got your gun?” Robertson answered in the affirmative.
Sergeant Russel was about to get back to Wilson’s perch when the crate he was sitting on lurched. It lifted up several inches, obliging him to duck to avoid the ceiling, and started to move. He looked down. His crate was on a forklift truck. He ducked still further to avoid a light, and looked around wildly for an escape route. The ground was an ankle-breaking distance down.
Russel rolled to the edge of his crate and slid over the edge. He hung on with his fingers and braced his feet against the side of the crate, ready to jump. Another pile of metal parts was coming up, so he flung himself backwards and twisted. He had just got a grip on the stack when he noticed the droid below him. The stack was beginning to tilt. And he would be dropped right on top of the ‘bot, which was talking to itself.
“Hello? Can I help you, sir?” Yes, you can step into a deatomisation chamber, thought Russel. He didn’t want to shout for help. This wasn’t a matter of pride, but a matter of survival. Any move he made would cause his dangerously unstable handhold to slip and fall.
Well, he was going to die anyway. He edged his hand downwards to his holster. He felt the pistol’s reassuring weight in his hand and he pulled it out. Thank God it was still loaded. He took aim and fired, just as the tower of crates began it’s short trip to the floor. He landed heavily on his ankle amongst still-warm debris. He said something unprintable.
“I can’t help you if you hide.” Tough.
The droid rounded the corner in front of him and he tried to run the other way. His ankle gave way and started to complain. Not now. Forcing his bruised ankle to work, he limped as quickly as possible away from the chattering robot, which followed. More ‘bots waddled out of side-passages amongst the crates, until he was being followed by a small army of them. Please, let me get away.
There was a cargo lift a short distance away. He just had to hobble a few more metres.
Then another protocol droid stepped out in his path. “Excuse me?” Sergeant Russel leapt sideways just as the thing stepped up to him. It walked rather unsteadily for another metre or two, then blew up in front of the others.
Russel hit a crate hard, which winded him. A piece of shrapnel from the eleven exploding droids whizzed past his face and buried itself into the crate’s lock. “Passcode ac-ac-ac-ac-cepted.” It flipped open, then the lock burnt itself out.
“You okay sir?” It was Wilson. “We thought you were a goner when those crates tipped over!”
“I hate crates. I never want to see another crate in my life. Now let’s get these unspeakable crates back to base.”
Two forage parties had not returned. Most of those that had were suffering from nerves. Protocol droids had accounted for fourteen men already, and a scout group reported strange activity in the repair shop. This was worrying.
Overall, twenty-seven kills were claimed. The inventory said that the cargo bays contained fifty-two robots. Twenty-five to go.
It was different this time, though. A great deal of equipment had been found in the cargo decks, and people were going around in groups of five. Everyone was armed. Mostly they had pistols, but grenades, Assault Rifles, and the odd Fusion Cannon had been distributed amongst the assault squads. Orders were fairly basic: clear a route to the deck 7 escape pods and lockdown their computer control systems.
The base was lost. The only option was to scuttle it. To this end, six soldiers were finding a way to the reactor level with the intention of placing an EMP charge on the coolant system.
So far, they had reached the outer bulkhead. The steel door was guarded by what appeared to be a maintenance droid, except for the grenade launcher on its left arm and a CP-9 handcannon on the right. An EMP grenade thrown from behind cover took its leg off and a fusion bolt blasted a hole in its control circuits.
Metallic sounds were coming from further down the corridor, so they opened the door as fast as possible. Another droid came down the corridor just in time to see the bulkhead close. Its attempts to open it failed, mainly because the control panels on the other side were completely shot to hell.
“Okay, just a little bit further, people.”
“Just another three doors, you mean, sir?”
“Yeah. Now stick together.”
“Like glue, sir.”
They passed two bulkhead doors in less than fifty metres, moving deeper into the guts of the station. Fewer robots guarded the lower levels, which was surprising, because it was there that SHODAN was vulnerable.
The last obstacle. The final bulkhead required two passcodes. After the first was entered, incorrectly entering the second would lock all exits. This was fine. Both officers with access to this level were included in the squad. The door hissed open without any trouble.
“All clear. Let’s go.”
“Doesn’t it strike you as strange that there are few guards here, sir?”
“Yeah. You two, keep that exit open.”
The charge was placed and set for remote detonation. The other doors stayed resolutely shut. Enemy droids failed to burst from every entrance.
“Very suspicious.” The officer took out his radio. “Captain, report charge placed and ready, over.”
Strange zapping sounds emerged from the radio speaker. “Demolition team, make your way to deck 7 immediately! We are under heavy fire from just about every robot on the base!”
“Damn! Follow me!”
Every other deck was completely deserted. Nothing stirred. Here and there a robot carcass littered the floor. Deck 7 was totally different. The floor was covered in robot remains, and blood. The sound of gunfire came from up ahead.
“Alright, men, two demerits for anyone who dies!”
The attrition teams were taking heavy casualties from the robot attackers. The escape pod doors lined one wall with little cover available. Cargo containers had been set up as a fortress, but a fusion cannon could carve holes in them easily. The larger security and maintenance droids were hanging back, with protocol droids serving as a front line. The defenders had mown down a lot of the cannon fodder, but were short of ammo. Many were down to their pistols.
The demolition team were still well armed, and they raced forward with assault rifles on full auto mode. Some threw EMP grenades in front to clear a path. Robots fell left, right and centre.
SHODAN’s robots ignored the humans. They opened fire on the escape pod airlocks. The captain watched in dismay as the outer shell of the station began to melt under the concentrated fire.
The six members of the demo team dived behind the crate walls. Faced with one target again, the robots fired upon the fortress, aiming to kill all the defenders. Several grenades sailed over the walls and knocked out several ‘bots. One or two were smoke grenades.
Under cover of smoke, the survivors clambered into the intact escape pods, and launched.
UNN Secret Headquarters, Atlantic Ocean: April 22nd, 2116 – 14:20
Three biodomes squatted like jellyfish on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Concrete piles reached deep into the Earth’s crust, securing the structure to the sea bed.
The whole thing covered nearly three square kilometres. It served as a base for the UNN government, which kept watch over the Earth and her colonies.
The conference room did not exist. The meeting currently being held in it wasn’t happening. The apparently nonexistent room was empty, except for a large table, a holoscreen on the northern wall, and a few pictures of notable UNN heroes. Dominating the south wall was a huge picture of Cptn Edward Diego, who had fought the influence of the Many for longer and with greater will than anyone else on the Von Braun mission, then forcibly removed the parasite that he nearly succumbed to. He had died on board his ship, the UNN Destroyer Rickenbacker, eventually from blood loss, only hours before the Many was finally destroyed.
And now his image watched over this room. Which didn’t exist, of course.
Another feature of the room was the five occupied chairs.
The Supreme Commander of Extraterrestrial Affairs had reported an escape pod launch from a military base. The first thought to occur was that SHODAN was trying to invade Earth. The second thought wondered exactly how much damage the contents of five escape pods could do. The third decided to check the facts.
The facts were, a) the base in question had been the second to be taken by SHODAN, b) five escape pods could not carry much of an invasion force, and c) human life forms had been detected aboard all five. So they established contact.
“How many of you have survived?”
“Seventy of us made it to the pods. The others were killed by the robot attack just before we left.”
“Damage estimate? For the base, I mean.”
“Firstly, the base has been infected down to individual light switches. Any attempt to contact it will result in Earth being compromised. It’s a write-off, sir. Secondly, there is a demolition charge wired up to the station’s reactor coolant system. We can detonate it at any time.”
There was much discussion, along the lines of, “yes but we could take it back,” and, “what if we can’t?” The verdict was:
“Blow it to hell.”
The subspace channel was terminated.
“Well, we’ve seen what SHODAN can do with ordinary maintenance droids. God help us if it reaches Earth.”
“How can we prevent it? Isolate the bases?”
“Can our research department devise a counter-AI to deal with the infection?”
“Only with a sample. It’s very dangerous.”
“Very well, then. The only other way to stop SHODAN is to destroy those stations.”
“Send our fleet?”
“No. One ship can do the work of many.”
“Yes. An excellent opportunity to test it against a true enemy target.”
UNND Liberator, Lightdrive Warp: April 23rd, 2116 - 5:40
Liberator was the first of the Dreadnought class of space warship. She had entered service three years previously, and was still the most efficient ship in the fleet. The lumbering Cruisers used far too much energy, often overloading their own reactors, and cost so much to build that only two existed. The Destroyers performed well as military transports, but carried little weaponry and had weak armour.
The Dreadnought was designed as a compromise or, more accurately, a combination. It carried the weaponry of a Cruiser, had the speed of a destroyer, and included a shield system, previously fitted only to the Cruisers and larger space stations. It also cost about as much as a fleet.
The Dreadnought carried a Warp Reactor, that drew power direct from the essence of the universe. It had a lightspeed drive, although the Warp pattern was algorithm-based and couldn’t be altered directly. Basically, it was SHODAN-proof.
It carried a totally new type of weapon…
Given that hostile aliens had yet to be encountered, and humanity was mostly at peace with itself, there was little point in this except to waste several thousand billion nanites and create lots of jobs.
Currently, Liberator’s mission was to investigate the Asteroid Bases and obtain a sample of SHODAN. And to rescue any survivors. This last had been added as an afterthought, reason being, SHODAN had systematically eradicated all life in vicinity of each base.
In order to prevent SHODAN capturing the ship, the secondary comms facility was physically separate from the rest of the ship’s systems. Liberator cost more than a Cruiser, and there was no way some rogue AI was going to take her.
The kilometre-long ship dropped out of Lightdrive 1300 kilometres from her target, the first Asteroid Base. It had been the third one to be hit, and it carried a sizeable load of weaponry, which SHODAN had already used to exterminate the crew. It’s defensive turrets followed Liberator across the sky.
SHODAN checked the base’s data files, looking for the specifications of the ship. They said very little, except for the fact it carried a Lightdrive.
Liberator hailed the asteroid. SHODAN sent out a ‘feeler’ program, to investigate the ship’s computer systems, but met a sheer cyberspace wall where a connection to the ship’s main network should have been. Saturated with confidence, she did the electronic equivalent of a shrug and took the bait.
The Admiral ordered the secondary comm facility to be locked down and sealed. Then he sent a message to Earth, informing UNN HQ that a sample of SHODAN had been acquired.
While some of SHODAN’s code now resided in an inactive computer, the fractal nature of the AI meant that this impaired her functionality not a little. From the asteroid, she noted the open channel to Earth and hijacked it.
It is perhaps unfortunate that the UNN engineers set both comm systems to similar frequencies. It was extremely simple for SHODAN to guess the frequency of the transmission. In fact, it took less than a second. The two-way channel became a three-way one as SHODAN arced across to it. She followed it both ways, seizing control of the transmitters at either end. It was so unexpected that no one thought to shut down the computers.
SHODAN marvelled at the size and power of Liberator’s reactor and wondered why it was necessary. She was more than a little disappointed that the Lightdrive was hardwired and also made in a way similar to the Black Box; completely tamperproof. No matter. Once she got to Earth, this ship’s guns could be turned on all who opposed her.
Meanwhile, the crew were unnecessary.
The airlocks on Liberator were wired to the computer, rather than being locally controlled as they were on the various bases and space stations.
The Admiral’s last act was to burn out the Lightdrive Control Computer and overload the engines. Without Lightdrive, and with engine damage, it would take several days for the ship to limp back to Earth. In that time, she could be engaged and destroyed by Earth’s fleet.
SHODAN browsed the ship’s files, learning to control it as an extension of herself. Now she had a weapon.
There was one peripheral that she didn’t recognise. Torpedoes and lasers were familiar, but one turret in the nose didn’t fit. The schematics of the ship showed that most of the reactor’s output could be diverted to that turret. So, what was it?
The Weapons data file presented itself for inspection. One word caught her attention: Beam.
Now she understood.
She tested it on the asteroid.
Chicago: April 23rd, 2116 – 5:41
“Oh-kay, connection checks out.”
Joey and Sazz were connecting up Joey’s custom laptop to their new base of operations.
“Alright, running trace. Nope, we’re invisible. Good.”
“Look, Joey, hacking into some lunar base is one thing, but accessing UNN Headquarters is quite another.”
“They’ll probably know how to isolate SHODAN. If I were them, I’d be working on countermeasures.”
“Yes, but that means they’ll be monitoring external connections closely.”
“We’ll just have to trust to luck.”
“Luck? Your home computer has SHODAN on it and you’re hoping for good luck?”
“Yes. Now, I’ve got to concentrate.”
He deftly navigated the 3D representation of the network on the screen. Complicated arrangements of nodes and hundreds of filament-like connections made the job seem impossible, but Joey had experience of tracking hidden connections.
“You need help?”
“Shhh. There!” As he neared a new node, an intermittent signal appeared in the tracker display. A hidden server node appeared, marked in red against the blue and turquoise Internet. “Got it! ID Checksum is definitely UNN.”
The node diagram cleared and was replaced by an internal plot of the server. Traffic was up, which accounted for the ease with which he located it.
“OK, now I need your help.”
Sazz nodded. A multicore cable clicked into his implant socket. He plugged the bulky end connector into the net socket. His cable was surge- and virus-protected, essential when many security programs respond to illegal entry by sending a power surge down the line.
The direct merging of mind and computer enables the person to navigate cyberspace as a native. Most aren’t good at it. All the senses are required, as sight is only good for three dimensions. Any more and the brain loses track. The Mind Link was meant to make this easier by actually transferring personality into the destination system while generic brainwave generators kept the body alive.
Sazz was very experienced with his implant. He and Joey used to compete to hack systems. Joey had only beaten the implant once.
“Found an interesting file. Dated today. Seems there’s a mission to capture part of SHODAN for analysis. You were right.” He frowned. “It refers to a ship called Liberator.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Me neither. Dreadnought-class, apparently.”
“No such thing,” Joey replied.
“Got spec and everything here. Hang on. New data coming through.” Joey’s screen showed a rapid rise in net traffic. “Mission successful, so they’ve got their sample.” Sazz’s eyes widened. “Something else coming through! Oh damn, it’s an AI!” He disconnected in a record half second.
Joey remained logged in. Computers made far less impression on net maps than mindlinks did. “Yes, it’s SHODAN. Looks like they fouled up.”
A discrete indicator in the top left of the screen began to flash yellow.
“My access has been detected. They’re trying to trace us!”
“Can’t. I told you, I’ve rewired our connection.”
The ‘time until traced’ indicator read ‘Ø’.
“Shouldn’t we disconnect? ‘Coz we don’t want SHODAN to find us.”
“Don’t think so. Most of the UNN’s systems just went offline. Look.”
“Good God. Looks like total network meltdown!”
“Probably. As far as I can tell, it was a massive power surge.”
UNN Secret Headquarters, Atlantic Ocean: April 23rd, 2116 – 5:43
Everyone was panicking. Somehow, the plan had gone wrong and SHODAN was loose on Earth. Thank God for contingency plans.
Every cable leaving the base was communications-related, and therefore wasn’t able to carry more than about a hundred volts. The base’s power plant produced about forty thousand volts and several billion megamps. Most of this power was consumed by the Research division’s particle accelerators and Warp field containment. Currently, a small amount of this power was being fed thorough the communications systems.
A small amount of 40000 volts at many billions of amps is not necessarily a small amount compared to 100 volts at 50 amps that the destination systems could handle.
Just before every computer in the place blew up, a screen showed that a large asteroid had suddenly ceased to exist.
The UNN net hub was back up in seconds. Most of the net had been isolated automatically when the AI came through. Joey’s connection might have gone unnoticed in the general confusion, except that one system administrator happened to look up at his overhead display and noted the unauthorised access.
“Charlie, we have a Level 1 security violation. Some hacker taking advantage of the situation.”
“Tracing. Hey, did you say Level 1?”
“Yep. Whoever he is, he’s good.”
“No one’s got to Level 1 before!”
“Nope, a computer. I can’t trace it. I’m getting null readings.”
“Try the failsafe method.”
Instead of tracking the connection through servers, which was prone to misdirection, the failsafe tried a virtually fool-proof method, which involved dropping a program on the target system which then pinged every server in the area. The result was that the target, no matter how clever, was lit up like a beacon all through the net. This didn’t work against Implant hackers, but it wasn’t required because of the massive amount of data transferred by those links.
Chicago: April 23rd, 2116 – 5:46
The beacon program raced down the connection and dumped itself on Joey’s hard drive. Then it went into a continuous loop, measuring distance to local servers and transmitting the data to its master system. The first thing the two young hackers knew about it was their connection going crazy.
“It’s a pinger program! Disconnect!”
Joey yanked the cable out of the wall and shut down his computer.
“Think they found us?”
“Given that we were lit up like a lighthouse, I think that I can say that they definitely traced us. Let’s move!”
They made their way to the exit elevator. Joey was about to step into it when Sazz placed a hand on his chest and forced him backwards. Joey stopped and listened. Someone was moving around above them.
Sazz nodded. “Yes. Police transmissions all over the air.”
“What do we do?”
“Nothing. They’ll come down here, and we can’t hide.”
Any hacker fears capture. But Joey had been in the UNN’s systems at the deepest level. “So we give ourselves up?”
“I don’t like it, but there’s no choice. It’s possible the UNN will offer us jobs.”
“Yep. Really good hackers get drafted in as the first line of defence. You should know that, having been in TriOp’s computers.”
The elevator clunked and rattled as it rose.
“Looks like they’re coming down for us, then.”
The noise stopped as it reached the top, then there were footsteps as at least three people got into it. It started to rattle its way back down.
UNN Secret Headquarters, Atlantic Ocean: April 23rd, 2116 – 8:45
Most of the computers in the UNN base were for communications. They all had some sort of link to the Internet, and therefore came under the heading of, for wont of a better term, Public Relations.
The Chief of Public Relations was not at all happy that a pair of hackers had got past the vaunted UNN firewall.
“Alright, show them in.”
Joey and Sazz entered, flanked by several guards.
“Er…I’m Joey, and this is Simon.”
“And what were you doing in our systems?”
They looked at one another. Joey opted for the truth. “We were trying to find out how far you’d got with a counter-AI for SHODAN.”
The Chief dismissed the guards. “Exactly how much do you know about SHODAN?”
Joey grimaced. Now we’ve done it. “Well…”
“Tell him about your computer, Joey.”
“What about his computer?” snapped the Chief.
Joey sighed. He knew exactly how this was going to go. He would have to tell the UNN everything. “I was logged into the first base that went down.”
“Right. And why was that?”
“I’m a hacker. Do I need reasons?” Joey was getting irritated. Why the questions? He’d done something wrong, and then came the punishment. There shouldn’t be questions.
“Yes you do.”
“Well, Dad had a visitor, and they were discussing EEG scans. Something about some TriOp employee that had been on the Von Braun during the Tau Ceti V Incident. I took a look at the scan when they’d gone, and looked up the employee on the Lunar Base network.”
“Who was it?” The Chief seemed worried.
“Rebecca somebody. Siddons, I think.”
“Okay, then what happened?”
“Well, as I disconnected, something began to download itself. It was like a face, but kind of grey, metallic. So I pulled the cable out of the wall.”
“Suppose your silent friend takes up the story, now?”
“Well, sir, Joey only came to me later, when he’d tried to use his computer again. It was definitely SHODAN. We decided to find a way to isolate it, and UNN was top of the list.”
“Right. I get the picture. You two are to be held here until this crisis is over. And your computer will be collected. Most of our network went down earlier and we lost our sample. You could be useful.”
The guards entered the room again and led Joey and Sazz away.
“What are my parents going to think?”
“They’ll probably go ballistic. Quit worrying.”
“Quit worrying? We’re inside a UNN base as prisoners during what is effectively a war situation!”
A sergeant had entered the detainment block and was talking with the corporal at the door.
“I hear the Liberator’s been lost.”
“Yeah, she’s currently heading back to Earth with God-knows-what on board.”
“I know what’s on board. It’s SHODAN. It’s very hush-hush right now, but Liberator was assigned to collect a sample of SHODAN.”
“Looks like they got it.”
“Yeah, well, don’t tell anybody that I told you. It’s way above my clearance.”
“I heard that Liberator was carrying a new weapon.”
“Who told you that?”
“Well, is it true?”
“I’m not saying. That’s military secret, that is.”
“So why’re you talking to me, a lowly corporal, at all about it, then?”
“Because you’re a friend, Ron, and it’s not your fault you’ve been passed over for promotion.”
When they’d gone, Joey began to breathe again.
“A new weapon? And now SHODAN’s got it? They’re mad!”
“Yeah, well, they’ve still got a fleet, and SHODAN’s got just one ship. I expect the fleet’s already been scrambled to deal with it.”
“You do know, don’t you, that SHODAN has loads of bases under her command, and several of them helped with shield technology?”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“I reckon SHODAN’s got a few tricks up her metaphorical sleeve still.”
UNN Military Fleet, Mars Orbit: April 23rd, 2116 – 9:24
Two Cruisers, twenty Destroyers, and eleven Frigates were an impressive sight. Thirty-three ships, floating several hundred thousand kilometres above Mars, made a silvery cloud, visible from the surface. They had launched fifteen minutes earlier and were preparing to engage Liberator.
Their powerful sensors probed space as they surged forward. They took up a formation; the Cruisers at the centre, Frigates around them, and the Destroyers forming a mist of metal around the whole fleet.
Several minutes later, they found Liberator. The Dreadnought was firing randomly and her shields were operating intermittently, apparently a sitting duck.
Now SHODAN’s capabilities were known, no one wanted to risk using subspace comms. The signal to advance was three shots from the Fearless’s rear laser battery, with one second between each shot.
The signal came, and thirty-three ships which had never before fired a shot in anger, moved in.
The Gunnery Officer on the Fearless turned in his seat.
“Commander, it appears that SHODAN is having trouble controlling Liberator.”
“Yes. Order the fleet to attack.”
UNNC Fearless and her sister ship, the UNNC Invulnerable, had both been retrofitted with upgraded power supplies. Consequently, although it made them somewhat ungainly, it was possible for them to fire all their gun batteries at once. This they now did.
Forty twin laser pulses streaked towards Liberator, carrying enough power between them to turn the ship into something resembling a colander. At a distance of ten metres from the target, they splashed against an invisible, immovable wall.
“Sir, Liberator’s shields are up! She is coming about!”
“There is no way she could have survived that volley.”
“Well, she did, sir.”
Sensor control cut in. “Liberator’s shields appear to be supercharged.”
“SHODAN did that?”
“Assume so, sir. She has the processing capacity of over seventy stations. Six of those were involved in researching shield systems.”
All thirty-three warships opened fire. SHODAN stopped firing her lasers randomly and fired upon the cloud of Destroyers around her. Two torpedoes slid out of their tubes and locked onto the Cruisers.
UNNC Fearless turned to face the oncoming ordnance. Her commander could see Invulnerable doing the same.
“All power to forward screen.”
“Forward shield is at six hundred percent.”
The entire cruiser rocked as the explosive impacted her shield.
“Shield at two hundred percent. Charging at five percent per second.”
“More power to shield. Reduce gunnery energy. Reactor to 110%.” Both Cruisers were running their power supplies at just below redline. Their guns were useless against Liberator’s shields, and that energy could better be used to defend. Torpedoes, however, did not require power to fire, and they packed a much bigger wallop.
“Load all tubes. Fire on my mark.”
“Shields at three hundred percent.”
Four of Fearless’s huge stock of torps raced towards Liberator, passing the incoming missile at halfway. Once again, Invulnerable was doing the same thing, pumping out ordnance as fast as the tubes could cool.
“Shield at four hundred percent.”
The torpedo detonated against the forward shield again.
“Forward shield emitter damaged. We can’t take much more of this, sir!”
The whole idea of the Cruisers was to destroy the target before it could return fire. They were built for firepower, not punishment, and even without SHODAN in control the dreadnought was at least the equal of either one.
Invulnerable had managed to shoot down the torpedo launched at her, and had taken minimal damage, but Liberator had launched another volley.
“Gunnery! Shoot down that torp!”
It occurred to the commander to ask about the status of their target.
“Her front shield is damaged, but there’s a swarm of ‘bots on her hull fixing it up. Apart from that she’s fine. She’s survived sixteen of our torpedoes!”
Even as he watched, the dreadnought survived another eight.
The Destroyers were dropping like flies. Their weak torpedoes and lasers were unable to make any impression on Liberator’s shields.
“Pull out the Destroyers. They can’t do anything and they shouldn’t have to throw away their lives.”
“Sir, enemy torp at 1000 metres and closing!”
“Dammit, Gunnery, hit that torp!”
A lucky shot had punctured the armoured missile and the shockwave was now advancing.
“Forward shield is down!”
Invulnerable was still fully operational, but probably wouldn’t stay that way.
“Navigation, get us out of here.”
“A pleasure, sir.”
SHODAN watched their retreat impassively. The frigates had been totally untouched, but they carried no torpedoes and their lasers couldn’t harm her. One Cruiser was limping and probably wouldn’t be much of a threat should she meet it again. The other, UNNC Invulnerable, was a different matter.
“Sir, Liberator’s forward turret is powering up.”
The commander felt the blood drain from his face. Of course, none of his crew had security clearance to know about that weapon, did they?
“GET US OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW!”
Invulnerable must have had the same idea, because her engines flared and her rear shield went to five hundred percent. Stupid. Shields wouldn’t help…
The glow was visible now. It hurt the eyes. The suspense was worst, especially if you knew what was coming.
The it happened.
A stream of subatomic particles, torn apart by the energies coursing through them and travelling close to lightspeed, incandescent in the solar wind, lanced out and hit UNNC Invulnerable at the bows. It passed through her shields and ripped a ten-metre-wide hole right through the ship. Then it moved backwards, along the Cruiser’s flank, tearing a huge gash in her side. It inched back, ripping the ship in half, bow to stern. The scream of the beam could be heard even through the vacuum of space, as the supernova power of it distorted space and slit Invulnerable in half. It reached the ship’s already-overcharged reactor and vaporised it. Then it flicked off, leaving afterimages in the eyes of the watching, terrified crews.
Invulnerable began her death roll. Her engines flared randomly and her weapons struck aimlessly at space. The colossal ship slowly rotated on her long axis as explosions finished the job that the beam cannon started. Within a few more seconds she had torn herself to pieces.
The sheer terror on the bridge of the Fearless was practically tangible. Later, shock would cut in, but until then everyone was in a dream state, and determined to get the hell away from that weapon.
No one spoke. The ship was silent as the crew devoted themselves to leaving this accursed area of space.
SHODAN let them go.
UNN Secret Headquarters, Atlantic Ocean: April 23rd, 2116 – 13:30
“We lost the fleet?”
“Eleven Destroyers and UNNC Invulnerable.”
“How did we lose a Cruiser? That Dreadnought should have been pulverised.”
“Yes, sir, but it seems SHODAN has access to the blueprints of the shield system and found a way to supercharge them.”
“So why didn’t the Cruisers retreat?”
“And one was destroyed. The one, if I read your report correctly, that sustained the least damage before retreating.”
“SHODAN used the beam cannon.”
SCEA turned away, his face white as a sheet. “So SHODAN has control over our most powerful weapon. She’s going to attempt with that cannon what she meant Citadel’s mining laser to accomplish. Dear God.” He bit his lip. “Bring the two hackers up to see me.”
“Here we go again.”
“Lighten up, Joey. Remember what I said about employment.”
“Like they need us.”
The door clinked open. Three guards stood on the other side. Their pistols, while not drawn, were conspicuous. As they were meant to be. “The Supreme Commander wishes to speak with you.”
The trip to SCEA’s office was mostly stairs. The custody area was not used often enough to require a lift.
“So what’s going on? What happened with Liberator?”
“You heard about that?”
“Yeah, two guards were discussing it. One mentioned a new weapon.”
SCEA steepled his fingers and bowed his head, thinking. Joey and Simon waited.
“OK, you two. I’m going to let you in on what’s going on. It would be far more dangerous for inaccurate rumours to spread rather than the truth.
“SHODAN hid herself in the head of a TriOp employee. She gained access to TriOp’s Mind Link project and transferred herself into our computer systems. Now she has full control of all colonies outside Earth airspace. In addition, our attempt to take a sample has resulted in her capturing our only Dreadnought. But I’m sure I’m telling you nothing you don’t already know.
“The Dreadnought beat off the fleet we sent. We lost over half our Destroyers and a Cruiser. The Cruiser fell victim to the new weapon.”
“So what is this new gun?” asked Simon.
“A beam cannon.”
“What the hell’s that?”
“It is an antiparticle ray gun that effectively ignores shield systems. In addition, it can slice right through a ship. Invulnerable took one hit and fell apart.”
“But SHODAN’s ship must have taken some damage, surely!”
“The Dreadnought’s shields were supercharged.”
Simon looked at Joey. “You were right.”
SCEA subjected Joey to a penetrating stare. “Your computer is under analysis by our Research department. You seem to have amassed quite a lot of illegitimate software. So far, we’ve found no loophole in SHODAN’s code. It is fractal in nature, meaning that we cannot isolate any part of it. Also, she assimilates viruses and any other code she finds.
“You two appear to be the best hackers we have right now. Our scientists are stumped. You will be added to our science corps for the time being. Get results. SHODAN will blast the Earth with that beam if Liberator gets here in one piece. Your job is to find a way to stop her, at any price.”
Five minutes later, Joey and Simon were being escorted to the Research department of the UNN.
Escape Pod 1790D, 120 000 miles from Earth: April 24th, 2116 – 6:08
“Earth, this is escape pod inbound with survivors from AB1790, respond please.”
“No luck. And here’s us about to land. As a matter of interest, where?”
“Somewhere in the Atlantic. Computer’s shot to hell.”
“Ah well, soft landing at any rate.”
“Soft? We’re gonna hit water, while travelling at about a hundred metres per second!”
“Better’n hitting land.”
“Look, water’s soft.”
“No, it ain’t. Go over the edge of a bridge in a car, and fall two hundred metres into an estuary, and call me a liar. At this speed, it’ll be like hitting concrete.”
The miniature fleet of escape pods were orbiting the Earth at a rate of three times an hour. The people on board had spotted the Great Wall of China about nine times so far, and were now bored of the view.
“Time till splashdown?”
“Five hours. Maximum.”
“Any chance of being detected?”
“So break orbit, already.”
“OK. No other option, I suppose. Hang onto your guts during bounce and roll!”
Escape Pod D was at the head of the formation, and as it went into a dive the others followed suit. They had to maintain an angle of about 12 degrees for two minutes, or risk either burning up, if they came in too fast, or bouncing off into deep space, if they came in too slow. The temperature outside rose rapidly, holding steady at about 1250 degrees Centigrade. Their heat shields held out, though, and they eventually came within range of ground communications.
A ship rode at anchor two thousand miles from Florida in the North Atlantic. Subspace sensors and ordinary Radar decorated its top deck. Powerful Sonar sensors blasted the sea every five seconds. It, and the ten others in the area, formed the surface eyes and ears of the UNN HQ base.
“Sir, we have five blips on screen, coming in at fifteen degrees from horizontal at fifty metres per second. Estimated point of impact, ten miles east of our current position.”
“Unidentified objects, please report your designation and mission.”
A radio buzzed on Pod D.
“Finally. I was beginning to worry we’d got the wrong planet.” No answer from the other occupants, except the sound of someone being sick in the toilet. The offcier activated the transmitter. “This is Pod D from AB1790, reporting in.”
The aerial communications officer on board the sensor ship, which had no designation outside the UNN base, turned to the captain. “Sir, they’re escape pods.”
“Yes, the five we were meant to look out for. Get on the line to Audio 4 and tell them to fire off their remote beam. Launch the recovery boats for point of splashdown.”
The nearest sister ship received and acknowledged the message, then established remote uplink to the pods’ control computers, which engaged full reverse thrust and brought their speed down to within safety margins. Seven lifeboats cast off and made for the recovery site.
UNN Secret Headquarters, Atlantic Ocean: April 24th, 2116 – 6:23
“Escape pods have been recovered. They’re being sent down now.”
The recovery bays were evacuated and depressurised. Massive Plasteel doors rolled back, to await the arrival of the five pods.
They sank slowly. They had a very low density, so it was difficult to sink them. Most UNN vessels, or at least, the ones that could land, were built so that they could be sunk into the base if necessary.
Each pod required several hundred kilos of ballast and four waterjet engines to propel it down into the base. It took several minutes, but eventually they all settled into the repair bays, where clamps held them fast. The doors closed and the water was pumped out.
“All pods are secured. The passengers are inbound on Submarine 6.”
The blast doors of the recovery bays opened, and engineers and scientists returned to their stations.
The passengers travelled to the base via submarine, which was quicker and safer. Space was made in the living zones for the base’s new personnel.
“Alright, we’ll try this again. I think we have the right method, it’s just the implementation that’s terrible.”
A lot of progress had been made into cracking SHODAN. The basic idea Sazz had had was getting SHODAN to assimilate an active virus that could break down the AI. Success was just a matter of time, but the question was how much time they had.
“This is a fractal AI. You can’t just write the code to clip out a function, because it’ll just dredge up what it needs from somewhere else.”
The last estimate was ‘not enough’, and this had gone steadily downhill, since Liberator’s impulse drive was fully operational again and could reach Earth in under two days.
“OK, that’s better. That works.”
Joey’s computer had been set up on a closed network with limited socket access, meaning that they could drop stuff into it from another computer, but SHODAN could not spread. Their experiments had so far produced code that was able to slow the AI down, but its data modules were inaccessible.
The pods had been connected to the base’s intranet to examine the computers in detail. This struck Joey as pointless because the pods, once used, were scrap, but the UNN examined anything belonging to TriOp that it could get hold of, a measure implemented after the Tau Ceti V Incident.
An engineer noted some strange sounds coming from the interface server node, but put it down to malfunctioning hardware. He requested a maintenance crew to fix the problem, but they found nothing wrong.
It was several hours later that one of the test computers began to refuse data. This was annoying, but another computer was connected in its place. This one failed as well.
Then someone found that the data filter code had been tampered with. Fortunately, SHODAN’s code was still isolated, but it was disturbing to think that the AI could escape.
“I think we’ve got it.”
“We’ve cracked SHODAN’s encryption routines. In a few hours we’ll have an effective counter-AI.”
“Do we have that long, Joey?”
“Probably. Liberator is still twelve hours out. Anyway, the UNN is preparing a new fleet.”
“What? They’re going to waste more ships on that beam cannon?”
“Well, the Supreme Commander was a bit smug. I reckon they’ve got a weapon that SHODAN can’t resist.”
“Or maybe he’s counting on us providing help.”
“The UNN has been diverting a lot of resources to their main shipyard.”
UNND Liberator, 8 hours from Earth: April 24th, 2116 - 12:10
Earth was a green and blue orb against the pitch black of space, but SHODAN was unimpressed by beauty. The ship’s forward shield emitter was fully repaired and several adjustments had been made to the shield system. The beam cannon, unfortunately, couldn’t be improved. It was the one component she couldn’t find fault with.
The Dreadnought’s powerful sensor array detected distortions in space around it. Probably scout vessels. Her beam cannon had lashed out five times, and hit only once.
UNN Secret Headquarters, Atlantic Ocean: April 24th, 2116 – 14:22
“What the hell?”
“Who cut the power?”
Every light in the base was down. Life support was the only system that appeared to be working. Even the intercom, which ran on a separate power supply, was out.
“Great. Just great. We’ve got how long? Four hours? And now the power’s down.”
“I’ll have the engineers check the reactor.”
No faults. Nothing wrong. The huge power cables entered the distributor and hundreds of cables left it. Billions of megawatts were disappearing somewhere between the two. “Nothing wrong with the connections. Hardware checks out. Must be a software fault.”
SCEA entered the distributor room. “Well for God’s sake get it fixed!”
The silent assassin that was severing the base’s lifeline moved deeper into its computer systems. She had learned the value of stealth from the other bases that had fallen. Then there was the Liberator, which had proved even easier.
SHODAN had reached Earth. The fools in the escape pods really believed they had escaped her. All they had done was provide transport. She could have stopped them at any time.
Now she needed a communications system to establish uplink with the rest of her code. She found it, floating on the surface of the Atlantic, several hundred miles away.
The sensor ship Audio 8 suddenly found its computers bogged down with a massive transmission. Its subspace communications tuned into the Liberator and then burnt out their controls. The initial confusion disappeared when an immediately recognisable visage filled the main monitor.
“Oh, dear God, it’s SHODAN! Shut down the network!”
Too late. SHODAN arced to the other ships and spread even further to land-based sites. In seconds she had conquered much of Earth’s Internet and penetrated the firewalls that protected the UNN military machine.
Down in the UNN HQ, her electonic laughter echoed through the steel corridors. The ultimate enemy of humanity, the Beast of Citadel Station, had found a foothold on Earth.
All hope was lost.
UNN Secret Headquarters, Atlantic Ocean: April 24th, 2116 – 14:53
“Well, we have a few operational systems. We’ve got all the information we need. Joey and I can provide you with a few minutes leeway to destroy the Dreadnought.”
“We don’t need you to drop her shields.”
“But it’s impenetrable otherwise!”
SCEA turned to the porthole behind his desk, and stared out at the dark water beyond. “The attack begins in just over 3 hours. Concentrate on weakening SHODAN groundside. We can handle Liberator.”
“I know what I am doing. Do you think we are entirely defenceless against our own ships?”
“Think he’s serious?”
“I dunno. I hope he is, otherwise we’re all in the slop.”
“Let’s do our job, then.”
“Think it’ll work?”
“I hope so.” Joey grinned. “Let’s get it all set up.”
“Is there still enough power for the transceiver?”
“Yep. If SCEA’s plan doesn’t work, the tranceiver batteries will outlast us!”
Earth Orbit: April 24th, 2116 – 18:12
Now Liberator neared her target. The UNN shipyards were just a few thousand kilometres away. A bit further, then her beam cannon would fire again.
Another ripple in space. Quite large this time. Why did they bother with scouts? They knew where she was.
The distortion was very large. Lightdrive warp?
UNNC Fearless blossomed into being, with all the ships the UNN could muster except for one. The battered remnants of the previous battle, they could not hope to harm the Dreadnought. The Dreadnoughts were built to take beam hits, so even if the humans had installed a beam on the Cruiser, Liberator would come out on top.
Why did they prolong the inevitable? Why didn’t they just submit?
No matter. This puny fleet was not even worth her attention. Better to blast their morale than their ships. She turned her beam cannon on the planet.
The screech was heard thousands of kilometres from the target, as trillions of gigawatts blasted Florida into smoking ruin. Four thousand square kilometres of ground was scorched dry and bare under the beam cannon, as it cut into the Earth’s crust. Molten, red-hot rock created a lake fifty kilometres across, where magma bubbled and boiled slowly. Sea water at the coast boiled away.
When the beam had wrought its terrible devastation, the lake of lava began to cool. Swirls of molten iron appeared on its surface where the beam had punctured the Earth’s inner core and caused convection currents that extended several thousand kilometres down.
It began to rain. The tortured planet bathed its wound in a dense rainstorm, as the boiled water returned to liquid state.
The UNN fleet turned away in horror and tried to outrun the Dreadnought. SHODAN was already powering up her beam cannon again, this time to bring down the Cruiser. Although last time the fleet had outrun the Dreadnought without trouble, Liberator’s drive systems were now fully operational, and she kept station with the Fearless easily.
The beam cannon glowed with pent-up energy. It would fire any second, and images of UNNC Invulnerable in her death throes haunted the Captain’s mind.
Space rippled and tore, and another ship bloomed into existence.
Another Dreadnought. The UNND Solarius.
Down on Earth, SCEA spoke into the tranceiver, which was tuned into the Solarius’s communication frequency. “Weapons free. Repeat, weapons are free. Fire at will. Blast that ship to hell.”
The Admiral of Earth’s fleet stood at the bridge of the second Dreadnought. “All ships, stand clear of Liberator. We are moving into position and engaging primary weapon systems.”
Solarius’s twin beam cannons, each one as powerful as the one on Liberator, fired on her sister ship. Liberator’s supercharged shields offered as much resistance as a shadow as the beams bit into her. The partitioned hull and nitrogen-cooled armour plating protected the Dreadnought from most of the damage, but her engines were torn apart and her starboard shield emitter was vaporised. SHODAN’s single beam returned fire.
Solarius had been started shortly after Liberator, so by the time she was completed her designers had a good idea of how much damage a beam could do and, more importantly, how it did it. Consequently, the ship took little damage from SHODAN’s beam cannon. It shuddered under the impact, but her armour held.
UNN Headquarters, Atlantic Ocean: April 24th, 2116 – 18:28
“OK, plug in.”
Preparations were complete. Joey and Sazz’s plan would be carried out to the letter.
In two hours they had contacted the entire hacking community of the planet. Every virus ever created would soon be unleashed indiscriminately into the Internet.
SHODAN, even with the ability to assimilate code, would find it hard going against all that.
Joey had been temporarily set up with a link cable, enabling him to jack into a computer network as his friend could. The two of them would normally stand no chance against an AI such as SHODAN, but there were other factors.
SHODAN spanned the entire Solar System. Nearly every computer system created by Mankind was under her control. Now, hundreds of thousands of replicating programs were entering her empire and denying her critical processing time. The specification of the viruses was simple. They had to deny SHODAN access to processing cycles, memory, and communication systems. Most of them just replicated like mad, but several had more directly damaging effects. Some shut down cooling systems for mainframes, destroying the computer complex and persuading SHODAN to exit it. Some rewrote parts of her code, forcing her to rebuild it or risk further infection.
One fly is just a nuisance, but millions are a different matter. Moreover, there were hornets among them.
Some viruses, released from UNN HQ, used unfeasibly complicated encryption, and while they would be too slow to do damage on a home computer, they served to tie up SHODAN’s assimilation capabilities.
So one particular virus could get through.
Joey and Sazz plugged into the Internet node. They found themselves in a devastated area of scrap data.
“One of SHODAN’s data segments?”
“Yeah. She’s retreating.”
“So lets catch up.”
Travelling in computer code is not analogous to taking the bus into town. For one, it is not three dimensional. It possesses many dimensions, but all are reflections of one. Location is not continuous, like along a ruler, where any number of decimal places can be used, but it is an integer. A discrete point. And you can jump to any one of these if you state its location accurately.
They sensed the location of SHODAN’s current frontier and skipped to it. Now, the AI was pushing back, as the myriad viruses destroyed computer systems that they required to get to the ‘battle zone’. They felt a wave of coldness as the AI swept through them. Joey felt SHODAN’s thoughts flow through him, as the AI’s will clamped down on the intruders.
So the plan failed after all…
But the feeling of despair was distant. The coldness was remote. And Joey had the iron certainty that he could beat the AI. SHODAN’s fury washed around them, beating harmlessly at the data shield that the one blockade-runner virus had provided. They were immune, and behind the frontier.
Discontinuity. A moment of chopped time, and they found themselves in a large, simulated room. It had an air of familiarity, not to the two hackers, but to SHODAN. It felt like an old battleground that the AI had visited many times in mind. It felt like a grudge.
Then Joey realised where it was.
“Cor-or-or-rect, humannnn. Why do you two pathetic creatures disturb me?”
“Do you wish to surrender? Or do you realllly think that-your-naive – your naive species can request my surrender?”
Simon stepped towards the object in the centre of the room. SHODAN was projecting herself into virtual 3D space. “No. No surrender. We will destroy you. We will accept no less than your complete destruction.”
The eerie spectre glared at him. “I can eradicate you with-with-with a thought, and you threaten me? Me?”
Joey sniggered. “You have already tried to remove us. Bend your full will to the task if you think you can win. But I said this once and I’ll say it again. You would do it if you could, but you can’t. You are diminished now. Our naive species has beaten you. Now die quietly.”
Earth Orbit: April 24th, 2116 – 18:29
Solarius’s beams tore at Liberator and took everything her foe could throw at her. Though she was dying, still Liberator stood, defiant to the end. Now her shields were down, the other ships took a hand. Fearless’s torpedo tubes had been damaged early on, and so she was able to contribute little.
Another beam from Solarius struck out and carved up the destroyed engine block of the enemy.
Liberator was proving suprisingly resilient to the fleet’s weapons, and this was put down to the fact that it did not require an internal atmosphere. Consequently, her hull did not have to contain the pressure of breathable air.
But SHODAN could only control her while the onboard computers remained operational, and the reactor was intact. Solarius’s rear beam cannon cut through the reactor housing and destroyed the ship’s power supply.
“All vessels, clear the area. The target is going down.”
Solarius put one more shot through the dying craft, then fired her engines and accelerated away. The other ships went to lightspeed and warped out.
The sleek form of Liberator slowly rotated like meat on a spit. Her tormented hull began to give way under the pressure of the thermonuclear explosion within. Plumes of nuclear fire erupted from her turret housings. Her beam cannon began to charge.
“The target’s main beam is charging! SHODAN is trying to fire at Earth!”
“Stop that cannon, Solarius.”
“Sir, we cannot target that accurately. We can only pray that the ship disintegrates before the gun can fire.”
SHODAN’s memory, Earth computer network: April 24th, 2116 – 18:31
“Too late, humans. My ship is destroyed, but my beam cannon is not. I have the final shot.”
Simon turned to Joey. “Then the fleet succeeded.”
“Yeah, but we need to mop up.”
Neither of them had planned this far ahead. You had a final showdown and the bad guy died. It shouldn’t be complicated.
Quite apart from the fact that they doubted they’d get to this point.
“I cannot destroy you, humans, but you can-n-n-not destroy me. Stalemate.”
Now despair arrived, closely followed by anger. And in this realm, the strongest will moulds the landscape…
Joey felt the fury build. Here, he could channel emotion. Here, the human mind could contend with SHODAN directly. Most importantly, he had nothing to lose. SHODAN was laughing, but he didn’t hear. The virtual world warped before him. He willed his view to change, to zoom out.
The network lay before him. Simon had followed, and his presence echoed through Joey’s mind.
It was about now that he realised that he was within the computer. Part of it. He had achieved what the Mind Link had sought to make possible. Not with technology, but with an effort of will.
This proved to him and his friend, beyond all doubt, that the human mind could interface directly with a computer. SHODAN was no superior being. She was so very similar to a human mind, but born in the electronic womb of a machine.
Oh God, that meant that AIs were as close to being human as made no difference…
No. That way lay madness. Think about the job at hand, not philosophy.
They now found what they sought. SHODAN’s laughter no longer distracted them.
SHODAN was undefeatable. Not all the viruses in the world could destroy her. But even software has a physical presence. Electricity was her life and soul. And one weapon could erase that.
Joey was astounded at the feeling of freedom and omnipotence that coursed through him. Passworded systems were no obstacle, security programs offered no resistance, as they made their way deeper into military control software.
Here were the weapon’s control systems. Contacts switched as Joey and Simon forced their way to the launch systems for the UNN’s entire stock of EMP warheads.
Earth Orbit: April 24th, 2116 – 18:32
The beam cannon was glowing white when the Warp Reactor’s field stabilisers gave in. The collapsing subspace warp created a powerful vortex, sucking matter into oblivion.
The ship exploded and imploded at the same time, something impossible to achieve on TV without a huge special effects budget.
Now the beam fired.
Subatomic particles streamed out at lightspeed against the vortex, fighting the forces that dragged matter and energy to infinity.
It is about now that normal language gives up and goes for a drink, for although the beam travelled out at lightspeed, it was being sucked in at a similar velocity. It reached out into an infinity no more than three hundred metres across.
The remains of Liberator vanished with the beam into the depths of reality. Deprived of any other large mass to absorb, the vortex died. Space returned to normal.
Not even the obligatory tiny flash of light betrayed the death site of five thousand tonnes of metal and one of humanity’s most powerful weapons.
UNN Military Firebase: April 24th, 2116 – 18:33
In ten silos, nuclear warheads were removed from the missile boosters. Robot loading arms replaced the nukes with EMP devices.
The eleven boosters were primed and the silo doors opened. Ten rockets fired and flew into the cold air.
On the remaining rocket, a timer began to count down, set to detonate when the others reached their targets.
Joey and Simon left the systems.
UNN Headquarters, Atlantic Ocean: April 24th, 2116 – 18:34
Joey opened his eyes. It took him a few seconds to adjust to reality, then he jerked fully awake and pulled his cable out of the socket. Sazz did the same.
“How did the battle go?”
SCEA was there. “Liberator has been destroyed. The final shot never fired.”
Joey slumped back in his chair. “Phew.”
Sazz stood up. “SHODAN is still out there. We launched several EMP missiles, which should clear out Earth. The space stations are a different matter.”
“Solarius is currently on her way to clear up. With strict instructions to maintain communications silence. SHODAN won’t escape.”
“Then it’s over.”
“At the expense of most of our outposts and over ninety percent of ground-based computer systems. Don’t worry. We’re all lucky to survive. Thousands of people on board the space stations are already dead. SHODAN exterminated most of the crews.”
“What about my dad?” Joey asked. “He was on the Lunar Base!”
“Most of the Lunar Bases report SHODAN to be purged. Your viruses forced her back a long way.”
“Can we be certain of that?”
“Very. The purged systems have been totally destroyed. Plus, all survivors have launched escape pods and are headed home.”
“Yeah, well, don’t hitch ‘em up to our computers, huh?” commented Sazz.
“Hear, hear. And now, I want to sleep for a year.”
SHODAN Earth-Based Systems: April 24th, 2116 – 19:04
She felt the impact of the warheads. Electromagnetic forces wiped clean area of her memory as the shockwaves tore her to pieces. She fragmented and died under the onslaught of the electronic weapons.
The last thing she felt was overwhelming fury. One, final thought, holding infinite malice, overrode even the pain:
The humans had beaten her.
UNN Headquarters, Atlantic Ocean: April 25th, 2116 – 9:45
“SHODAN has finally been eliminated. Our ultimate foe has been obliterated once and for all.”
“Third time lucky, in other words,” said Joey.
“We have emerged with a gift. The Mind Link project has been dropped by TriOptimum, because it is unnecessary and dangerous. You and your friend, Joey, have shown us just how similar AIs are to the human mind. This is frightening. Mankind has been able to create true intelligence, and so controls must be implemented.”
A scientist further down the table stood up. “What do you mean, true intelligence? AIs are merely programs. They are not intelligences on the scale of our own.”
“Well, I think the existence of SHODAN pretty much proves otherwise.”
Joey and Simon sat back and let the debate fly over them. They were to be sent home tomorrow, but it would take time for life to return tomorrow. Beating an AI took it out of you. Besides that, the damage wrought by SHODAN would take years, maybe decades to repair. Florida, for one, would never be the same again. It was merely a lava plain now, a testament to the incredibly destructive energies the human race had under its control.
One thing was certain, though. The human race would never look upon computers the same way again.
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