Story #6 - By: George Shannon

"...the ball's snapped...hand off to Evans...wait! Evans tosses back to Hellerson - he's got three recievers downfield, none covered - what a play! Hellerson's being pressured...he's been hit...wait! He's still up! He manages to loft a high pass...Kuzyk is there, he's got this one...oh no, it's dropped! Incomplete!!"
"Oh my god! How did he drop that?!?"
"He's been dropping passes since that Albuquerque game. They seriously ought to get his implants overhauled."
"A week from the playoffs?!? You're crazy!"
"What, you'd rather have him dropping Hellerson's passes versus Oakland?"
I sighed in frustration. The Tallahasee Pyros, my favorite foochball team, were about to lose their playoff spot, and settle with a secondary wild card slot. That is, assuming they don't lose by more than 49 points.
"I can't believe the score's 129 to 144," said Mike, "This is a low scoring game."
"Well, we've set up a triple touchdualdown, so I hope we can get back in the lead."
"But you're two - for - nineteen this season. Do you really think you'll get it?"
"Feh. That 2-for-19 stat just means we're about due for one."
Mike laughed.
Foochball was now a weekly routine for me. I was glad to finally be able to sit down and enjoy something simple. It had been a whole year and a half since I got back from the whole Citadel mess. I was glad I wasn't getting any more contacts from TriOptimum, bugging me about some little detail from the "incident". That's what they called it, an "incident". That probably got to me the most, even more than SHODAN did. SHODAN. I still get bright flashes of his, er, it's green face leering at me with it's self-declared superiority and, as it called it, "range of being". Eh, fuck it. I tried to forget SHODAN and concentrate on foochball. I had money on this game.
I raised my hand and carefully scratched the top of my head, careful not to bump the myriad of wires exiting my skull. The exit holes for the cables sometimes itched, especially on really foggy or rainy days. I think the moisture got in the seam a little, and irritated the contact areas. The neural implant from my "incident" hadn't screwed up my life too much, although I had developed a particular inclination towards hats.
Mike handed me a bowl of pretzels, unsalted, while still watching the game. They were all we could get, some companies in Canada and Quebec still made them with salt, but the FDA laws tried to crack down what they called "capitalistic health endagerments" that such dangerous products such as salted pretzels were to the public. I took a few and shoved them in my mouth. Bland.
"They should have run with Evans," Mike said around the cruching of his pretzels, "at least they would have gotten a fifth down bi-conversion."
"How do those work exactly?" I said. The rules for foochball changed weekly, and this one was one I hadn't leaned yet.
"Ahh...dunno. I think you need to complete a back conversion then a forward conversion right after fourth down, provided they're both running plays. Or maybe it's a run then a pass. Here's the rule book, just got it off the Net today."
Mike handed me a sheaf of printout about two inches thick, the rule book for foochball, straight from the SportsNet.
"Ack! Just print the updates next time, okay?"
"Hey, the old one was two months old, I had to print a new one sometime."
I flipped throught the pages that governed the rules for the players that participate in foochball. It was never really clear where football became foochball, but people didn't mind. The players could have .1 kilograms of biomechanical implants, then .2, the .3, . . . These days It was almost .5 kilos, I remembered to look that up later. 'Fooch' came from 'foot' and 'tech', resulting in a word close enough to a cuss word that fans snapped up but it ended up diluted years afterword, now most TV shows say 'fuck' regularly. (If it seems like I know a lot about it, I did a paper on it in high school) Cyborgs (fans and commentators never called them cyborgs, they were still human in their eyes, but they were and are cyborgs) almost had a better personality and individuality on the playing field than 'unmodified' humans. I felt the flickers of scene from Citadel Station, a length of smooth duraluminum paneling, nearly black, the moving shadow of a cyborg 'assassin' swinging his smooth rifle for me to look down it's barrel...the name SHODAN echos in my head at the picture. 'Dammit,' I thought, 'Stop it. It's over. Forget.' Involuntary daydreams like this were getting more often. No they weren't I thought suddenly, I'm fine. I forced my eyes and attention back to focusing on the printout before me.
"Wow," I said suddenly, "It says here the standard deviation from point gradients is now 20, not 19. That gives us a better leeway in keeping our playoff spot."
"Uh - huh," Mike said, intent on the game.
Mike "Red" Kellman was my business partner, more or less. His nickname was Red because of his scruffy beard that was a several shades redder than the hair on his head. It made people do a double take when they saw him, the kind of attention he enjoyed. We ran a little shop (I use the term loosely, in fact, most stuff in the place was loose) that fixed computers and related stuff, pretty well since my neural jacks allowed some wide compatibility and interface. We even kept up with some of the bigger repair corporations in the area, I even caught an arsonist they hired to trash the place. Chased him out with our Browning automatic, with Teflon bullets that would have popped a nice hole in his leg without him feeling it for a couple seconds. It was a pitiful attempt, and the corps either thought us too small to bother with or too much trouble to bother with. Anyways, the biz kept money in our pockets, food on our table, and a few bucks extra to go to a certain foochball bookie that would keep them if a certain Pyros foochball team lost today. And Mike was a decent friend, worked hard (relatively) and always knew where to get decent wine. So, my life was shaping up, after giving up hacking for a living. Not totally, mind you.
I felt myself jump up and give a loud yell; the Pyros made the triple-touchdualdown, and were now closing in on Anahiem. I looked at Mike with a proud grin, but he was intent on the slow-motion replay, obviously impressed. The score was an automatic signal to the television people to go to commercial. A typical little fanfare accompanied the fade-out as a Christian minister loomed into being on the screen, talking about salvation and the Bible and sending him large amounts of money. The denominational church he represented must have paid a lot to get him for the air time; it lasted almost 10 seconds.
A luxury car commercial followed, and was far too typical to pay any attention to. I reached my hand out to get some more pretzels from the bowl on the fragile wooden coffee table to my left.
The muscles in my hand rotated of their own accord, spinning on axes I thought were reserved for machinery assembly arms. My fingers snaked into the pretzel twists; they felt like a mass of enlarged hair strands agaist the skin of my fingers. My arm lifted a tangled cloud of pretzel loops from the bowl, almost emptying it, and raised it in front of my eyes, on the same mechanical axes. I could see the list of web sites for info for the luxury car through broken loops of the chaotic mess of pretzel. My muscles contracted, splintering and cracking the pretzels into crumbs and chunks that burst like an exploding glass sculpture. My fist ground and squeezed the remaining chunks into powder that fell like flour from cracks in my hand.
"What the hell are you doin', man?" Mike's voice sounded strangely alien.
I felt - and mean felt, control return to my left hand and arm, like a flood of life into a limb I just realized I had. My first impulse was to wipe it off, like it was covered in acid. It shook rapidly, as I squeezed it and massaged it in my right hand, as if fearing it would leap up again of it's own accord and . . . and . . .
"Dar - what's up with you? You look like you just met SHODAN."
I spun to look at him with crazy eyes. "What did you say?!?" I gasped. Mike knew enough not to talk or joke about the AI. This shouldn't have been any different.
Mike looked startled. "I said . . . said . . . you look like you just met Satan."
"No," I said, shaking my head quickly, "You said 'just met SHODAN'. I heard you."
"What, that looney AI? No, I said 'Satan'. You know, big red dude with horns, master of evil and that shit?" He seemed concerned. "You looked messed up. 'Nother daymare?"
"I . . . I . . . dunno. My arm felt like it did that by itself."
"Yeah, well, clean up the mess. Ants'll get into it." He turned back to the game, which had just come back on.
Something was wrong. Nothing like that ever happened before, ever. And I was hearing things. I could have sworn Mike said SHODAN, but . . . I tried to remember when he said it: just barely on the edge of remembering and forgetting, I could see, almost out of my range of vision, his lips did not match what I heard. I noticed it just because it . . . well, never happened to me before.
Something was really wrong.

* * *

My fingers slid over the protrusions and silicon of a PC mainboard and I sighed in either exhaustion or frustration. The father of a well-off family had come to the shop a couple days ago with the board saying it wasn't working. I slotted it with a couple of the biz's PCs and sure enough, no startup info, no nothin. I had put it off for a while, and had promised to have it back by Monday. Today was Sunday. I had always hated it when I procrastinated, but never got around to stop doing it. I had racked my brains all evening after the game to figure out what was wrong, but it didn't get me anywhere. It was still shot. Well, maybe I could check the processor IO skematics with the factory standards, see if they were consistent; it would eliminate a lot of possible probs....
But that would take a couple hours, at least. I sighed again, more sure it was one of exhaustion. I looked around at the workroom, cluttered and scattered with manuals, boards, CDs, even some old floppies...But I could tell where everything was. One man's clutter was another man's ingenious system of organization, I suppose.
The windows were black against the night, wind pushed chaotically against it. Storms were probably coming, at least that's what WeathNet said. Weather fascinated me after Citadel, with it's enclosed climate system and stale air...
I stood from the wheeled desk chair and quickly found the processor checker, a flat box with dozens of leads. I sat back down with the device and popped the main processor from the board. It was a pretty good looking one, with a liquid boron cooling loop, and a tiny voltage regulator, among other things. I slotted the chip into the tester.
My neural interface could make this job a lot faster, I thought. It could catch probs a lot faster, and could probably catch things the tester would miss due to outdated code. Hmm, this might not take long at all. I reached back and blindly searched through the tangle of leads and wires, and found a proper lead that would connect to the tester. I pulled it from the bundle and hooked it up.
I flicked the tester on and it blipped a few times, doing a self-diagnostic. I selected some options from the tiny LCD screen and set it loop through my implant first. With a final tone of confirmation, it went to work.
Thanks to the genius of Citadel techs and meds, I could see a small screen below my central vision that detailed the analysis of the test. I concentrated on the square, and it leapt into a larger view, showing me streaking assembly code behind the present test and prong numbers it was testing. It gave a light, repeated tone like a stutter and then a low, irate tone that meant that the test was negative; the processor was fine with that process. It began to spin through tests, and I watched the show in the smaller vision window. Minutes passed as I concentrated more and more on it. So far, all up to specs...
My vision exploded, flooded with a green web of tangled purple viens and arteries, streaming from a leering face of immense intelligence, eyes glowing like two drop of liquid emerald. The face was a genetic manipulation of feline and dragon, the smile was one of a human sociopath with the knowledge that he could never get caught or even be proved guilty...
It's tangled web of vessels of data stretched around my vision; I felt my back arch as my mind strained to see the streams of color racing through my reality...
Somehow my hand ripped the lead from the tester and the cluttered room appeared, it's planes and angles sharply defined, like a painting that was almost real, but still a painting. My breathing started again (I hadn't known I stopped), in ragged gasps of defiance. I gripped my temples as I felt a headache roar on in full force. I squeezed hard, trying to force the intrusions from my mind. But it didn't work. It never did.
I felt intensely heavy in my chair, the dirty carpet was like a plane of disease beneath my shoes. I had to get rid of way or another, somehow I had to forget...
"Say man, you goin to bed soon?" Mike yawned from the doorway.
I forced myself back into speaking mode and took my hands from my head.
"Yeah. Just a minute. I wanna set up this tester to run through the night."
"Okay. Lotsa work tomorrow." Mike turned from the doorway and down the hall to his room. "Sorry about the Pyros." His voice had a weak echo effect made by the walls of the hall. It made his voice sound tinny and cheap.
"Yeah." I said quietly, more to myself than anyone in the world.
I set up the chip tester to run overnight, forcing my hands not shake. Hopefully it'll be done in the morning, with a printout of the simple error I could fix in five minutes. Somehow I doubted that would happen.
As I stood and walked from the room, I touched the light plate and left the room to join the darkness that owned the space outside the window of the room.
The tester beeped stutteringly, then gave a low tone of denial. Failed another test. I walked to my room, the only sound was the tester and the scrape of my shoes on cheap carpet.

* * *

Metal claws, pointed at me.
I reeled, a swath of blue metal and plastic washing through my visual space. The claws were instruments from the neural-implant hibernation incubator, I felt my chest contract involuntary jerk in a bad approximation of a chuckle that I didn't remember initiating. I was seeing them as I woke up from my long nap, then realized they weren't real. The smear of blue was a long, twisting hall with flickering lights, cracked plates, and . . . mutilated bodies. I was back on Citadel, trying to fight my way to the bridge and stop a crazy AI. I found an arsenal of weapons in the corners of the hall as I ran down it, dozens of magpulses, Skorpions, rail guns, and more... like the owner of the station, or the station itself, was tossing weapons, knowing in full realization that none of them would do me any good...
Things started to emerge from side corridors I didn't see, warped mutants with their humanity ripped from them like water poured from a bucket, cyborgs with one side of their face screaming, the side that still remembered who they were before they were 'converted', and dozens of security robots, with a thin slit for an eye, spinning their complicated arms on axes reserved for machines only, raising internal weapons to fire...
I fired weapon after weapon at the oncoming horde, hundreds falling, but three more took their place, and the wall still approached, arching over me, like they were taking an order to feed...
They were right in front of my eyes, a twisted mass of flesh, plastic and steel...
They reached out...
Metal claws, pointed at me...
There was a blur of blue metal and plastic and I saw the same stretch of corridor, the same mutilated bodies, the same instruments of neurosurgery...something made me give the same fake chuckle.
I started to run down it again, grabbing the same weapons, with the same nuber of shots in each clip, and the same things started to emerge from the same hidden corridors for me to battle...
Then a small pinging came from a panel beside as I rushed by, like an intercom. My head spun to look at it, and as the blue spun, somehow it lost coherency, breaking apart and ending in blackness.
Not blackness, exactly. It was a startlingly ugly shade of brown, then I noticed it was my blanket for my bed. The pinging came from a small console in the cheap formica headboard of my bed. It was the alarm console, signalling there was an intruder in the house, with specifc alpha waves that woke me up silently. I shut it off quickly.
I tried to push the loop dream from my head as I tried to focus. I carefully eased out of bed, I noticed I still had the same clothes on I had worn yesterday. Or earlier today. What time was it, anyway?
The digital clock offered a 2 and a 2 and 6, and I made the connection that it was Monday. I had remembered to take my shoes off before falling asleep, but that was alright, I would be a little quieter that way. I reached under the bed, and felt around for the smooth curve of the Browning. I pulled it out and gripped it tightly, watching the yellow slit of the partially open door. Whoever was in the place, thief or corp merc or whatever, was gonna learn the thoery of private property the hard way.
I padded toward the door as quietly as I could. Mike's snoring was loud and rough in the bedroom across the hall, I hoped it would give me some cover. We only had one alarm console, and we had decided I should have keep it. If Mike's snoring stopped by the alpha waver waking him up, whoever was in the house would know somebody was awake. Since I had the console, I also had the Browning near me.
I had to open the door further to get out. I pressed the actual door only, knowing the knob would give off a give off a metal clicking. I opened silently for a foot or two, then the hinges gave a slight whine. Damn! I hoped Mike's snoring would overpower it.
I crouched down and tried to see down the hall. The hall light was a dim yellow bulb, and I would be exposed no matter what. The right end of the hall was a single bathroom; I had to assume the intruder wasn't in there. There wasn't anything valuble in it, and there was no entrance into it. The other end went to the workroom, which was on my side of the hall. The other side of hall had a doorway (no door) leading to the main room, with the TV, couch, kitchen, and an anteroom that was separated only by a change from our cheap carpet to cheap linoleum. I decided to move into the hall, move down it, get behind some safe cover in the main room. That way I had a veiw of the whole place, find this jerk and run him out.
I rushed out, swinging the pistol first, gripped tightly. I moved down the hall, in a crouched position, past the workroom door that I had just remembered I had closed when I left, then swiveling right as I turned into the main room.
Moonlight, or whatever was getting through the smog of the New Atlanta, was the only light source of the room. The row of small barred windows were feeble, but still did their job. It gave everything a blue tint, not very helpful since everything was black to begin with. I moved along the wall to crouch beside the TV, a 30 incher (Mike had wanted a 42, but we just weren't in a financial position to glutton ourselves). Everything was silent, except for the dull, muffled growl from Mike, and a faint stuttering beep from somewhere. Nothing. No one.
I moved forward, trying to spot a figure in the large room, in corners, shadows, anything that would give a hint to the location of the intruder. I felt a memory of a large room on Citadel Station, pitch black, the only light from the weak head lantern I had with me, fading rapidly, since my battery power was twindling. It was on the maintenance level, and I was trying to spot the Sec1 bot that had got me in the arm.
Then, the same thing happened.
I had been stupid. Totally forgetting to even check the workroom. The blur in my vision was the only hint as someone burst from within, jumping straight across the hall, and moved a perfect distance to their right, crouched slightly to preserve their balance, and snapped their right leg out. I contacted with my wrist holding the pistol, and it flew from my hand.
My head turned to see my assailant, but somehow they kept their balance and continued through with the kick with their left foot, knocking me down.
I fell into a pool of weak moonlight that had come through the window, and I twisted enough to be able to see my attacker.
There was enough moonlight to barely see the person. She (that was obvious now) was clothed in a matte-black material that reflected hardly any white light, and made it near impossible to see her. She was extrordinarily thin, but obviously strong, the rays of moonlight outlining her frame like a trace of chalk on black paper, lightly swirling in the areas of her pale white skin. She wore a jacket over the tight nylon, or whatever it was, that was black too. I recognized it as a tool jacket; it had dozens of pockets and velcro loops for tools on the inside. A pair of tech-lenses (I've seen enough of them to recognize them when I see them) obscured her eyes like twin pools of black mirror. But her hair was what caught my attention.
The thick, black, glistening curls streamed down like a kind of vapor surrounding her head, but a fixed and beautiful vapor. In the second that I looked at it, it seemed to vibrate or shimmer, as if it had a life of it's own. As I watched it hypnotic wonder, the woman reached in to her jacket with one hand, and pulled out a gun.
"The time has come," she said in a thin monotone voice. "I must take your mind."
My mind reeled with her statement, but the first thing I realized the weapon she held. An air taser, one of the new ones, that fired the sodium pellet that released ions along it's trail, then 200,000 volts followed the ion train like a bloodhound to it's target, me.
But fortunately she hadn't fired yet.
"What do you want?" I asked incredulously.
"Your mind. The Society of the Id is taking action to release their chains by first rescuing their savior. Now shut your mouth. I don't want the voltage to trip you voicebox and make you shout."
I figured she'd fire anyway.
So, I decided to try something.
I could feel the sharp knob of the end of a cord plugged into the floor beside me. I had been a stupid place for an outlet, but the walls of the place were made for re-modelling for each new user, and outlets had to be in the floor. I wretched out the plug that was connected to our personal PC, one we kept for game and net browsing. The woman's hand convulsed and a tiny pellet of sodium shot out of the gun and I felt it smack against my chest, like a thrown peanut. As fast as I could, I turned the plug to face the gun, wishing the sodium had been more diffusive so I could see the line the pellet made.
But it worked.
The arc of electricity blazed out along the trail an instant later, and intercepted the prongs of the cord - one positive, one for negative, and thank god, one ground.
I could feel some of the voltage affect my body, numbing the nerves in a way that one never got used to. The base of the wires in my headjack felt like they were humming. The voltage roaded down the line, and then I remembered I had installed a ground line for the PC connected to it a few weeks ago. Unfortunately the voltage was too much for the thin ground to handle. The computer gave a loud crackling internal pow and the monitor screen flashed blilliantly for a second, the glass then cracking in a spiderweb. But at least the arc was dissipated.
The woman apparently did not know how to take this situation, and stood for a moment to look at PC. I took the opportunity offered and moved closer enough to her, still on the ground, and swept with my leg to try and knock her off balance. I leapt to me feet to try and find the Browning.
But the woman kept her balance in the most incredible act of dexterity I've ever seen. She reached out her foot and hooked my ankle as I tried to look behind the leather armchair. I crashed onto my face, knocking the wind from my lungs. But I was far enough forward to see behind the chair. There was the Browning, moonlight covering it like cheap gloss. I could hear the woman approach behind me. I reached out, grabbed the Browning, and rolled onto my back, swinging the pistol towards the woman. A move SWAT team members would be proud of.
It startled her, and she reeled back from the muzzle. I didn't wait a moment; I felt like was back on Citadel, fighting relentless Sec1 bots who never faltered in their programming. I struggled to my feet, all the while keeping the thin line of metal of the sight trained on the space between her mirror lenses. She moved back quickly, knowing I wasn't kidding with the weapon in my hand.
Her mouth curled in a thin sneer of disgust, like it was just extremely distastful to be on the other end of a gun.


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