THE MEANS - END INVERSION

________________

By: Christopher T. Shields

15298 Words

 

I can still remember the danchi where it all began, just on the outskirts of the Tokyo sprawl, near the Yoshiwara undersector. Small, the faded cracking paint on the plastic furniture and the outdated appliances. I remember the way the flat smelled of too much insecticide and not enough disinfectant. The walls were thin but it was cheap, and the owner didn't ask questions.

Just the way that I liked to do business.

Yeah, I remember the flat.

I remember Tokyo and I remember Paris.

Isaac Paris.

We met in the Kansai International. I was just a few hours back into natural gravity and trying to lose a pair of corporate hired eyes. Isaac was trying to boost a newly released feelie from the gift shop, which was gaining for him the attention of the local Omawari-San. We ran into each other, literally, and managed to lose our troubles together.

We've been partners ever since.

Isaac.

Naive and young, hard edged, but at the same time, easy going. Isaac was a soft thief, plundering both the public and private data nets. Mostly he trafficked in stolen software, raw wetware, and proscribed black market programs. His interface deck was run by a custom oriental Buddhist style virtual reality.

I remember that, errie, trans-body like. Everything was shiny and glowing with multi-armed fits of imagination.

Isaac ran with various sarakins and kuromakus, using his keyboard skills and his reputation to get work. He was also missing the tip of the last finger on his left hand, and the tip of the finger next to that. The sarakins and the kuromakus operating on the mainland still practiced the time honored art of yubitsume. The ritual stemmed from ancient feudal Japan, where the shoguns delivered yubitsume as a form of punishment to those who stood against their rule. The shoguns reasoned that a man who didn't have ten fingers couldn't wield a weapon. At least not as proficiently as a man who had ten fingers. And a man who couldn't wield a weapon was of little threat to the shogun or his samurai.

Yubitsume had a different concept today. If you were a keyboarder, and you screwed up enough, pretty soon you wouldn't have enough fingers to make a living. A living with a keyboard, that is, and that was the only kind of living that Isaac knew. Isaac had failed his employers twice before, and each time they had taken off a part of his finger in partial payment for default. Tissue cloning was expensive, more expensive than Isaac or I could ever have afforded. Since I met him, we've stayed away from the darker shadows of the business. Although the sarakins and the kuromakus offer higher rates of returns on the projects, the price of default or failure is one that few can afford to pay often and remain in business.

I also remember that Isaac was good at what he did, even if he didn't have all his fingers.

Competent.

Isaac.

Blond hair and blue eyed, a real charmer when he put on his best face. He drew in the business while I took care of the negotiations and the hard work. Isaac, he did the soft work, ran the public datanet, took what he wanted despite people trying to keep him from doing so and they never even knew that they had been robbed until it was too late.

You see, Isaac was a professional, self taught, and highly experienced. Sometimes he got his perspectives mixed up. Isaac would go out and get into things that only I could get him out of, or he would devote his time to his other interests while I watched our credit evaporate. I remember Issac in the 'face, commanding an army of compilers, overseeing the growth and nurturing of several custom virii databases, as well as orchestrating the interface that would bring all the pieces together in one unified piece of art. Issac was an artist. His medium was digital and his work spoke for itself.

Me?

I was his strong arm.

Quinn.

I handled the muscle, he handled the brains. We got along, and most of the time, we profited. Now, I'm not the kind of guy who was good with other people. Just leave me alone, tell me what had to be done, and it would get done in the manner described.

Discreetly, of course.

And for a price that was consistent with the amount of effort that had been applied to the job.

I was the muscle.

Isaac was different.

He was the brains, a face.

We got along, he kept to himself and his interests, and I kept to mine. When that time came that we needed a job to put a positive balance in our credit, well, we banded together and moved like a team.

Sometimes he tried to explain his interests and toys to me, but I was just the kind of person who could care less. I remember how we talked one night. He was excited about a new program that he had just finished. That's all we needed right then, another softpiece. The sooner he worked the bugs out and sold it, the sooner we didn't have to eat vitamin fortified artificially flavored nutripaste and Soytine dehydrated crackers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

"So, what's this program good for?" I had asked nonchalantly, still staring at the article that I'd been trying to read in DAI.

I can't remember what the article was about now but I remember that I didn't really care what the program accomplished. I just hoped that it would make us some fast credit. Isaac obviously didn't hear my question so I had to ask him again, raising my voice.

"Erasing sentient databases, that kind of thing." Isaac replied casually, as if erasing an entire database was something you did before breakfast every morning.

Food.

"Does it save anything while its erasing the database?" I asked sarcastically.

My stomach rumbled.

"Why would you want to save something if you're taking it down?" He said, the meaning of the question obviously beyond him.

"What good is that then, man?" I asked. "I mean, what's the purpose of erasing someone's database if you don't get anything useful out of it before you knock it flatline? That sounds like waste. Where's the blood?"

Blood and flow. I didn't have to lecture Isaac about that. Isaac plugged his jackdeck into the input just behind his left ear and leaned back. The deck beeped softly and hummed as he accessed the internal ROM.

"Oh, I don't know. Someone ever torques you, then I guess you could use it to settle the argument." He said as he closed his eyes and rubbed them with the palms of his hands.

"Uh, huh." I replied.

Damn.

What a waste of perfectly good programming effort.

And time.

And time was money.

And money was something that we didn't have a lot of.

"Christ ..." He sighed heavily as the deck beeped again.

Issac was deep inside his virtual art studio turned laboratory.

"Come to think of it, you could ruin tee-bees of info with this thing, maybe even topple an artifint." He said.

I looked up, not sure what I had heard. Toppling an artifint was no small feat by any means. I came awake for a second, just out of professional semi- curiosity. If Isaac's program could topple an artifint, then Isaac was smarter than I had thought. That could be an asset which I hadn't considered the possibilities.

"It, the prog, replicates so damn . . . fast ..." He said, emphatically searching for the words, like the program scared him to think of its latent abilities.

"I never thought that I could compile speed like this. I mean speed. Pure speed. This little bastich would give a artifint fits, eat it up from the inside like a cancer. See, the program eats other programs and then reprograms the other programs to work for it. Just like a cancer, it turns the system against itself and just purges as it goes. It uses virtual memory to digitally expand itself exponentially in real time. You can't shut it down, you have to try to contain it, set up firewalls and data breaks and hope that it isn't strong enough to overcome them. That or you have to take your system off-line in real time and you can only do that by pulling the power core. Artifints don't like that. It doesn't give them time to retreat to their survival memory."

He looked over his shoulder, up at me, all happy and smiling.

"It's like ripping their soul out and watching them die. All in real time!"

I sneered. It was out of respect this time.

"Of course, I'm really generalizing the ops codes. It does a lot more, but it's stuff that only a programmer would sit through without crying."

I nodded a thank you to him. We lived in two different worlds. My programming was fifteen years behind Issac's capabilities, but then again, Issac didn't know that most firearms had a safety and he was the kind of hot-shot that would wonder why a weapon stopped making that neat noise, never understanding that it was time to reload or why he hadn't hit anything ...

"Got a name for it yet?" I asked, genuinely interested.

Isaac had gone pensive for a moment, closed his eyes and thought.

"Haven't decided yet. 'Akusei' is a start."

"Malignant. Virulent. Simple"

I mused that over, not sure of his choice of titles.

"A-K-U-S-E-I ..." he said, slowly letting the name out, rolling it on his tongue and enjoying it. "By Issac Paris. Killer of artifints..."

"You should work for a defense zaibatsu ..." I joked.

"I did. Where do you think that I learned this?"

Old news to me, but it was our standing joke.

"Akusei." I said softly, nodding. "Akusei."

"Yeah, maybe." He said finally, quietly, considering this new line of thought carefully as he went back into the wet drive. "Yeah..."

I went and stood over his shoulder.

"Are you going to sell it?" I asked. "Something like that, if it's as good as you say, would be worth a lot of money to someone."

He looked up with a start, turning his head. I saw glassy eyes stare at me, he was in the deck again. Isaac was hearing me, but he wasn't seeing me. He was just looking right at me, at the sound of my voice. His eyes were moving in front of me, reading what I could never see.

"Hell no." he said, staring through me, raising his voice. "Prog like this is what gives a man a name ..."

A name.

Reputation, fame, and misfortune.

Isaac was doing this for a small piece of history in the digital logs of society. Who knew, maybe he would just go over the edge and become the world's first serial artifint killer. Now THAT would be something of note in his life. Tragic, but people would remember his name. He wanted his name to be whispered with awe in some circles and fear in others. Isaac's deck was his gun, his programming was his ammunition. He wanted to be a gunslinger. He had the heart and mind of a warrior, but the body of a poet. Sometimes life just doesn't give you any breaks.

"Where is the program?" I asked.

Isaac pointed to his head, tapped his temple three times and smiled.

His wetdrive.

I should have known. He hadn't burned the prog into physical media yet, but the schematics and the working model of the program structure were there in his head, stored somewhere in thirty mems worth of IBMW manufactured memory plastic, a Busidyne Model twelve microprocessor with an eleven fifteen chip coupled to a Sodi Model thirty-eight wetdrive, all compact nano-designed and situated inside his skull at the base of the spine. I had paid for the hardware and the installation a few years back with the take from one of our early runs.

Isaac had paid me back ten times that much since then.

"Want to see it?" He asked.

"Huh?" I asked, coming out of my own thoughts.

"The prog. Do you want to look?"

"Yeah." I said, folding the page in the DAI down so I could find the article if I ever got interested again.

I slowly got up out of the chair and stretched as he downloaded the program from his wetdrive, jacking into the old Nhun laptop he had on the desk in front of him. It took ten seconds to access. I didn't know that the program was that big.

Ten seconds...

Isaac's program was a memory whore, a good twenty-five mems or more of black area killer software. Compiled it would be even smaller. A compact, streamlined design.

Isaac keyed in the holo and line after line of digitally projected white characters on blue background floated in the air in front of us, illuminating us in a sepulchral light as the lines scrolled by, fading into nothing near the ceiling.

I couldn't read compiler, but to Isaac, it was pure prose. I watched until my head and eyes started to hurt. Lines of command, action, and purpose scrolled past my eyes. Sighing, I patted him on the shoulder and turned back to my chair, trying to get interested in the article that I had been reading. He pointed out several areas, highlighting them in the holo display, and I watched the color coded highlights scroll past, nodding. Some of it I could understand, other stuff was arcane witchwork. I really tried.

"Nice." I told him, and I meant it.

He nodded. Isaac had put time into the program, and he obviously cared what I thought of his latest work. I went into the kitchen, to the little yellow Zenith refrigerator, and took out a squeezer of artificial vitamin C supplement. It was warm and citrus-like, but I was thirsty. I drained the little squeezer dry, dropping the empty crumpled up dispenser in the disposer. I walked back out into the common and saw that Isaac was still out, jacked into the deck, staring at the wall.

He didn't even notice me.

I waited, standing behind him.

He usually didn't stay in the Net very long.

I waited longer.

He was up to something, talking with someone or looking for something.

"You find something?" I asked him, leaning over his shoulder.

"Thought I saw something earlier, but I can't find it now." he said. "Someone else must have gotten it. You would have liked it. Looked big, hush hush corporate."

I sighed and walked away. Missed opportunities and zero credit.

Isaac got up a few minutes later, shut down his deck, and packed it away. He grabbed a nylon jacket and started for the door.

"Where?" I asked, not even looking up.

"Out." he replied.

Then he was gone.

The door locked behind him with a sound of electrically driven deadbolts sliding home. Our credit balance was at an all time low and he knew it better than I did. That little program of his had just used up the last of our credit in supplies, but I wasn't worried. Isaac would spin up some business, find a job. Isaac was good about that, he always came through when faced with a time constraint. He worked best when under pressure.

 

I can see you now, Isaac, sitting there in the bar, casing every person that walked into and out of your field of vision. You were trying to pick out a face, feeling lucky, hoping for a contact. Jacking in and out of the net, scanning this world and the other. The conversations you would have with those around you, at the bar, or across the country via the jack.

You were a person with a need.

So was she.

You never expected to get tangled up in what came down.

You met a woman, Mika was her name and she didn't look like an ordinary curb. French Vietnamese descent, long bronze hair, delicate features that hid an athlete's body. She recognized you as a runner, something that she needed. She pandered to your ego by claiming that others had recommended you, that she had seen your work and was impressed. All stuff anyone with a little bit of power and influence could come up with, but you wouldn't have thought of that then. All you would have thought of was that some very beautiful woman had singled you out because not only did she recognize your name, but also your work and that was the key to your soul, Issac.

She said that she had to get to know you first, to make sure that you were on the line. You put on your best face, charmed her and brought her back to the flat, then you forgot all about her. Your part of the act was over and it was time for me to sell us.

Isaac.

If only you had known then what I know now ...

Most often, though, I remember you, Mika.

I remember how you seemed to take a liking to me almost from the start. You tried to disguise it as simple attraction but I could tell that it was little more than a professional curiosity. Like two tigers in the same cage, pacing each other.

I remember how we spent the night in Dai Chiba, along the pedestrian plazas, frequenting the dives, moving along the slidewalks, jostling from one belt to another. You paid the way and I wondered where Isaac had found you. You didn't act like a watcher, you acted like a player.

Like a player trying to act like a watcher. Little keys in your behavior tipped me off that you were holding back. You were good, one of the best that I've ever been around, but I've been around a lot and I knew that we were two tigers stalking the same slow prey. There was an air of professional curiosity.

I remember buying a bottle of cheap high proof and sharing it with you. I remember you taking me for a ride on the new bike that you had just bought. You had it parked there in the shadows of the pedestrian plaza. It was an '23 Mazda Shinto, custom ordered and delivered. I looked it over, the clean lines, the polymer shell covering most of the body, the big ram air vents, the recessed lights and signals. Yeah, a real work of modern biomechanical art, state of precision, balance and function. The fairing and front fork were self healing. I remember you telling me how you had to have a special wax to use on the bike.

Mika.

You knew your bikes and you knew just what to order when it came to owning a sport bike. The options list for the Mazda was longer than a first generation wetlanguage program. Kinshi active suspension, Malda neuro interface, computer controlled gyrostabilization, anti-lock brakes, four big vented disc brakes mounted two to a wheel, eight speed manual transmission, single-sided floating lever front suspension, digital ride by wire, rear wheel sprocket driven roots type blower, air to air dual stage intercooler, carbon fiber fuel tank, a new hybrid ceramic two rotor engine, Nobai electronic fuel injection, epoxy resin bonded glass fiber one piece wheels and a poly carbon driveshaft. It was a synthetic burner. The frame was biopolymer and it was beautiful.

Black with red and silver striping and lettering built into the material so that it would never fade.

Very light.

Very agile.

Very, very fast.

You had a spare helmet and so I decided to take a chance. I climbed onto the back of the low slung sport bike, wrapping my arms around your waist as you stabbed the electric starter with your gloved finger. The reconfigurable crystal battery powered up. The starter screamed as the engine turned over, falling into a measured, well-tuned mechanical lope.

We cut through the pedestrian plaza, people moving aside at the high pitched whine of the supercharger, and the roar of the filtered exhaust. Then we took the zoomway, riding up and around the outskirts of Dai Chiba at speeds that were illegal and reckless.

Fast was just the way you liked to ride. The way you liked to live. You leaned the Shinto down almost to the ground on the sharper turns, the interface between you and the digital ride by wire system the only thing keeping us from losing it all on those sharp curves. The supercharger whined as you opened the bike wide into its powerband, enough power to make me grab you and lock my feet against the pegs with everything I had. The little needle on the boost gauge would climb into the red and you would shift to a higher gear, the road blurred to a black ribbon beneath the Shinto. I hadn't experienced anything like the Shinto this side of orbital insertion equipment.

I remember your 'plex, in a grove overlooking Dai Chiba. Simple, Spartan, functional. Your nakedness under the glow light, the bronze glow of your skin, your moans and sighs, and the pinging of the cycle engine in the background where you had parked it in the living room. Piped music, filtered air with relaxers and enhancers, subliminal mood lights, subsonics and effervescence. You and I, it was something that we both needed and wanted. There was little affection, it felt like business. Like something done out of professional courtesy rather than biological need.

Two tigers pacing.

A physical release. Mutual admiration with no true feelings. We were pieces of equipment interfacing, testing the other for performance.

Later that night, you took me back to the flat. We went our ways but I knew that you would be back. You were after something, something that I didn't know that we had. You were after something that we could help you get. Something that I couldn't put my finger on, but you knew what it was and you were determined to get it. I could see that much in your eyes.

I wanted to know what you wanted.

I watched your bike disappear down the crowded street. I remember going into the flat, finding Isaac still awake, waiting for me.

While you tried to seduce me, I had Isaac make you. He searched the Net until he found everything that he could get on you. Or he thought that he did.

Isaac had a composite file and was convinced that you were genuine. He said that he felt like you were good luck.

I told him that I really didn't know.

Instinct was telling me other things.

I went to bed, but I didn't sleep much that night.

Too much to think about right then.

I looked over the hardcopy, Isaac's data worried me.

I kept thinking that it was just too complete . . . Everything we would need to know about you was there.

That made me uneasy.

 

The next day, you were outside, early, sitting on your bike, waiting for me. Your smile was practiced, your greeting rehearsed. You were after something and I was determined to play along until I could figure out what. We spent more time together over the next few days. At your plex, working on your bike, walking the downtown slicks.

You almost took my mind off the things at hand.

You said that I helped you forget things worth forgetting also, but you never told me what they were.

Our time together later that night felt more natural.

 

A week later I remember you produced a contact from Lohm Hisad, shadow stuff. That was what Issac had seen and then lost in the Net. It had been you that had snatched the cap before anyone else. The deal was nice, compact, corporate, and high powered.

We cut a deal. You wanted in for a fair share, said that was your take for producing the contact but you couldn't pull it off without Issac and I. A discreet meeting was arranged. Lohm Hisad was desperate but did a good job of not letting on. I've learned to read between the lines. There were questions being asked then, but you didn't ask many questions or seem too surprised, Mika.

I kept wondering what a big multi-nat like Lohm Hisad would want with Isaac and I.

Or with you, Mika.

We found out soon enough.

Lohm Hisad wanted a top level wetware designer that SuyRu Biological had. The corporate extraction would put Lohm Hisad years ahead of SuyRu Biological, its immediate rival, and the whole industry in general. That meant an unthinkable amount of potential money in potential revenues. It was potential energy, with a huge ambition to become pure kinetic.

So why didn't this guy just tell Lohm Hisad that he wanted to defect and let the Lohm Hisad people worry about the extraction? Simple. The guy didn't want to defect and why should he, short of living at the top of the beanstalk, this guy was surrounded by the closest thing to a man-made nirvana on earth. Every whim and wish was given to him without question as long as he met the deadlines. Images of a rat with the pleasure centers of its brain hardwired to a button, the rat pushing the button over and over, eventually starving to death ... Lohm Hisad wanted us to kidnap him and once they had him, then Lohm Hisad would persuade him to stay and work for them.

Lohm Hisad and SuyRu Biological were familiar names. I needed more than that though. I managed to use the public data net to find some background on SuyRu Biological and Lohm Hisad. Public access stuff, low level PR and news reports. SuyRu Biological was a small, budding corp that was aggressively building its research staff from the best there was and it wasn't afraid to step on some larger corporations toes. Sometimes the larger corporations didn't like having their toes stepped on and the news had several reports on unexpected setbacks at SuyRu Bio that were publicly claimed to be the sabotage work of other corps. Nothing was ever proven. Sure, they were going in the right direction, but against mass like Lohm Hisad, a huge Hindian backed multi-national pharmaceutical and research corporation, they didn't have a chance. They were just increasing the buy out price that would have to be paid for them.

SuyRu Biological would eventually be absorbed by a giant multi-nat conglomerate. One of the many that were battling it out with each other every hour for shares of the market. That would happen long before SuyRu Biological had a chance to grow large enough to be a threat to the conglomerates. Miracle drugs, new medical breakthroughs, you name it and Lohm Hisad or one of it's rivals had invented it, stuff that made SuyRu Biological's miracle 'ceuticals look like alley aspirin in comparison.

Lohm Hisad and SuyRu Biological were engaged in intense corporate espionage and counter commercial warfare. None of this data ever hit the main stream, but it was there if you knew where to look in the net. Corporate espionage and spying were the trademarks of the struggle between the largest pharmaceutical corporations in the world and it looked like we were about to enter into all that.

So, here was Lohm Hisad, asking us to sneak into SuyRu Biological and kidnap one of their best designers and give him over to them. For a price. I was good at pinning down a price. I made a mental calculation of what we were going up against, what time was required, materials, and the risk. I took this figure, automatically doubled it, and was prepared to present it to our negotiator when he told us how much we would be compensated for our trouble.

The payoff was five times what I was going to demand. I've been in the game long enough not to let sudden surprise change my facial expression.

Why us?

Lohm Hisad said that SuyRu Biological knew their field operatives and if any of them made a move toward a hostile extraction, then SuyRu Biological would see it coming hours before the actual event. Isaac and I were unknown to SuyRu Biological. Independents, small time, but the plan and the equipment that Lohm Hisad proposed was designed for just a handful of operators, no large troop movements. Nothing that was easy to monitor or detect.

Three people.

Two go in, the third monitors the net and runs interference for the first two. Three people moving as one unit against a system designed to respond to large scale intrusions. We would be the thorn in the lion's paw.

Mika.

Our time together ended.

It was time for business.

 

You and Isaac were excited. Isaac said we could get rich in the process. Never have to worry about anything the rest of our lives. With the kind of money that we were looking at, we could buy new bodies, buy extra life, even private land in Tokyo. The money was right, so was the motivation. Instincts were telling me that it was wrong, but my instincts were outnumbered two to one.

Isaac said Buddha was smiling on us.

I began to have doubts.

I've learned to trust my instincts, instead of the good graces of someone else's deity.

Mika.

Poor Isaac, he never realized that he was mistaking your ambition for his good luck.

 

We worked out a plan. Naturally Isaac and I cut you in for part; you were the one who brought us the contact and that made you a partner. Lohm Hisad sent in their best experts. Good covers. SuyRu Biological didn't know a thing, their monitors never saw even a ripple.

Isaac pulled all the markers in that he could with what information and data he could accumulate. That and what data Lohm Hisad supplied to us and we pretty much knew what we were going to need. It took a few long nights, but I drew out a plan.

I spent more time at the flat, up later hours than usual, and less time with you. I cased the situation out, made hardcopies of the time tables, schematics, and all the information, compared it and recompiled the info. Isaac translated the data into wetlanguage on his assembly compiler and burned the transfer into new, fresh physical media.

The data was surprisingly complete. We knew that the designer was living at a private conapt tower owned by SuyRu Biological on the western edge of the Pacific Rim.

The city of Lost Angels.

In the heart of the city, very private, very exclusive. Security was tight, only the important people were kept in the SuyRu Biological Sudoc tower. We got the download, schematics, floor plans, and everything else that I needed. Lohm Hisad even supplied us with new gear, anything we needed.

Isaac was wired, kept saying that Buddha was really smiling on us now, kept saying that after this was all over that we could write our own ticket.

No more small stuff.

He could get new finger tips grown.

I really didn't know.

My instincts were telling me that this was too easy, though Isaac said that he had never seen anything as hard to tap into as SuyRu Biological's core, even with the help of Lohm Hisad's core specialists and all the soft that they supplied.

Mika.

You were too confident.

You took it all without blinking, like you were following a script.

I didn't like that.

It was all happening . . . It was all coming down together too precisely. All coming down too fast to be good luck. I've come to learn that luck can happen, but it doesn't flow like clockwork, and you were just too sure of yourself.

That's when I began to make other plans.

That's when I began to take my precautions.

Just in case my instincts were right.

 

I remember how the Mitsui teach suit fit your body, interlaced with simulators and direct neural feed, we piped the scenario into the suit and it recreated the environment perfectly. You were clumsy at first, but then you started to show grace, moving like a cat. I could tell the clumsiness was rehearsed, you were holding back, making it look like you were getting used to your environment but the fact was that you were too good. You moved too naturally, each movement had been preceded by an unconscious rationalization and a decision based on instinct that moved your body in the direction. You reacted automatically to stimulus, meeting threat with equally applied and decisive force, security with stealth, questions with answers, and problems with solutions.

Very impressive.

We trained with hypno sleep teachers, holographics, digital projectors, and memory reinforcing drugs, until we knew the layout of the target with our eyes closed. All top of the line, cutting edge military hardware that made Isaac's mouth water. He didn't have anything like this when he had been in the private sector. Hell, some of the stuff we were using wasn't even a foggy dream on someone's drawing board.

Mika.

We told you the basics, wired you up and gave you new wetware that Isaac had designed, updated your hardware. Isaac called in a few basement doctors for the harder work. Good doctors, with long lists of references and none of them asked any questions.

We had money in you.

You were an investment now, not just a partner.

You took it all without ever complaining. Nice work on you, too. No scars on the surface.

Isaac, he's very good.

You were a quick learner. We finished our drills and training.

Lohm Hisad smuggled us into Canadamerica. Not something that I ever want to repeat again, but I have to admit, it was truly humbling seeing what kind of covert ops you could stage if you had access to a near infinite amount of credit, and when you had a zaibatsu behind you.

 

The Towers.

Each was a two thousand story testament to the ingenuity and the greed of man. Reinforced with field generators and anchored into the ground halfway as far as they stretched into the sky, the Tower had been born of the same technology that had built the 'Stalk. Special braces connected the seven towers and carried walkways and roadways between the metal monoliths. No corp could field the money to purchase a tower, towers had been built long ago by corporations that were no longer separate entities, having been long ago absorbed and redivested among a thousand other companies. Now the towers were leased by an corporation who, in rumor circles, held a very large chunk of the 'stalk as well.

Some said it was Amway.

I doubted that.

Amway had become a subsidiary of the Greater Mormon Church over a century ago. It ceased to be anything other than a tool to use to get Mormon witnesses into your home. If you didn't want to listen to their philosophy, then maybe you would want to buy some of their fine products. One way or the other, you would be supporting their cult. It was a win-win situation for them.

Went a long way to proving my philosophy that the bigger and flashier a thing was, the harder it was to keep and the more people were attracted to it. The zaibatsus were a fluid race of super sentient creatures composed of assets and people and fed by information. The zaibatsu was the ultimate lifeform on the planet, and occasionally, it resorted to cannibalism or it practiced abortion, or incest, or even just simply absorbed its competition, becoming stronger in the process.

SuyRu and Lohm Hisad both leased floors in the towers, a fact that showed readily on the yearly profit reports as a noticeable dip in profits. Security was expensive. Lohm Hisad managed to set us up in an adjacent Tower with identities so tight no one would question them. We were three new employees working in a business office of a company that was controlled by Lohm Hisad through so many double blinds and fronts that no one was really sure who paid the check. The company had been around long before SuyRu Bio had ever made it public of the genius that they harbored behind their walls. The business office of this company had been leased from the Towers a few months before SuyRu had ever moved their patent genius into the near Tower thanks to a bit of data skimmed from SuyRu by a Lohm Hissad infiltrator during a high profile low impact digital recon. Lohm Hissad had used the data to set a plan into motion then.

Business as usual, we had customers, contracts, deliveries. SuyRu Bio watched us very closely for a while. Their monitors ran the net and posed as customers when they came into our offices. We never flinched and they never discovered anything. We waited. After a while, SuyRu stopped sniffing, lowered its massive head, and went back to sleep.

Every day we could see our target go through his daily ritual. The hired muscle never noticed us, though the distance between the business tower and the Sudoc tower was less than a kilometer.

Quality equipment.

Liquid filtered optics, microprocessor enhanced.

Expensive, but we weren't paying the bills.

We were ready, Lohm Hisad never called.

Days passed.

A week.

Then two weeks.

We started to get worried. There we were, hair trigger and sitting on state- of-the-art combat equipment and nothing. We almost gave up hope, almost cashed it in and went our way, just abandoned the operation. Hindsight now is that would have been the smartest thing either one of us had ever done. Nothing was going down. Isaac and I almost convinced ourselves of that. A few hours before we cashed out Lohm Hisad called.

A secure line, modulated pulse compressed transmission.

New information, our plans and databases were updated.

We waited until dark, closed the office, and geared up.

The operation went like clockwork.

Luck had nothing to do with it.

 

Isaac broke into the Sudoc Tower, sending a sliver into the net, probing past the security of SuyRu Biological's systems. Slow, surgical precision. It was easy for him to infiltrate the down-links to the Sudoc tower and cancel the security, especially since Lohm Hisad had given him the codes to the security system and the mainframe.

Information was power.

I kept wondering.

Where had they gotten all of that soft?

Mika.

You and I, we were the muscle. We would do the actual extraction. I remember how tight the dull, super-non-reflective black colored dead suit fit. It was insulated with padded feet and gloves. The foot pads evenly distributed the body weight, leaving an unidentifiable footprint, cutting down the residual thermal signature to zero while masking any chemical trace of the wearer's passage. The gloves were padded, insulated, and would leave no fingerprints or traces of contact, including heat.

A hood and mask reduced the infra-red signature from the head and breath to zero while special inserts in the nostrils masked the sound of breathing and filtered the air.

The whole suit was constructed out of Kevlar and laminated epoxide fabrics, insulated across the electromagnetic spectrum, thermally, and generously padded in acoustic absorbing and dampening material that would mask even the sound of the heartbeat. The material of the suit also stopped bullets and fragments.

A special pheromone masking unit was tailored into the suit, it removed any scent that the wearer would leave behind that could be detectable by pheromone sensors. A chemical temp pack kept the wearer from dehydrating and suffering heat exhaustion.

The non-reflective black surface was composed of a photocell activated chameleon coating that automatically adjusted to the surrounding environment, tailoring the colors and shades to match for near perfect camouflage.

A nice toy.

Cutting edge military hardware.

Lohm Hisad had managed to find two of them for our use.

I wasn't about to ask them where they had found them.

A heavy, full spectrum range shielded pack was slung across my shoulders and a satchel constructed of similar material was slung on my hip. I wasn't worried about being detected.

I was only worried about how deep in we were.

The cold wind whipped at and tried to tear me off the face of the tower where we waited. I looked down at the dirty, refuse strewn streets three hundred stories below. The city looked rusty, seemingly on the verge of instant and total collapse from impending metal fatigue. Poverty, garbage, pollution, human trash; it was all down there and I was up here, where the rich and powerful lived.

So far above the poor.

The city all looked the same to me from up here.

A grey fog or mist whipped around the lower levels, or maybe it was clouds or smog. I couldn't be sure. We waited, you and I.

I could tell that you weren't used to heights. Me? Heights don't bother me. Comes from hanging upside down doing a job over a four hundred meter drop in zero gravity in a L-1 colony for four years. You get used to heights when you work around them everyday. It only becomes a occupational hazard when you mix artificial heights with natural gravity.

The cold wind came again, stronger and faster. I held tight as the huge building swayed, ever so slightly, creaking as it moved on its active suspension and torsion stabilizers, the very devices that allowed this architectural nightmare to exist in the first place. We moved quickly, but cautiously, in small, sure moves. A bit at a time and always perfectly timed to coincide with the movement of the building.

We moved like a team, moved like one person.

The SuyRu Biological and Tower defense systems were geared toward large scale intrusions, commando teams with ten to twenty members coming in from obvious directions and routes. I could guess the scenarios that were being played out by the artifint, but no one in their right mind would use just three people to break into a corporate fortress and steal their best right out from under them.

That's why I believed that the plan would work.

Motion sensors could track us when we moved but if we moved when the building moved then we were, for all practical purposes, one with the building. The sensors failed to recognize our presence as anything other than natural structural flex. The plan hinged on the factor that you and I had to move in the same direction as the building did when it swayed on its intricate computer controlled foundation. Each of our suits had a telltale that would indicate tower movement and direction. We adjusted our pace accordingly.

Stupid system, I thought.

Any fully automatic system could be out thought or out maneuvered given time and information.

I worked the climbing harness and removed the bonding edged pad on my glove, moving up a few more centimeters before activating the electrochemical process of the pad, holding me solid to the face of the building. Twice more, the wind whipped at me and I gritted my teeth. A nearly invisible gossamer of wire thin ultrahigh test monofilament line was attached to the carballoy D-ring of my web harness. It snaked down fifteen stories below to the line that ran from the self anchoring bolt in the Sudoc tower and over, trailing across a good kilometer to the office building where we had set up shop.

I looked down five stories to where the safety line would snag me if I were to be ripped from the surface. I slowly made my way across the surface of the building, keeping in the shadows and using the darkness of the night as cover whenever the building design would allow. The building swayed on its foundation, imperceptible movement to those inside, but the sensors had to take it into account.

The dead suit had masked all my thermal emissions completely, including UV and electrostatic. To most forms of detection equipment and sensors, I simply didn't exist unless they could find me when I moved, and I had already taken care of that contingency.

I would have to start bleeding the stored heat soon. Already, the suit was getting hot on the inside, the chem pack rapidly becoming depleted. I began to sweat despite the cold and the HUD flashed warnings in yellow, telling me that it could conceal my heat signature for another half hour. After that time it would start bleeding the stored heat in a random, unrecognizable pattern. I would show up on sensors then, and although they wouldn't know what I was, that wouldn't really make a difference.

I didn't worry.

We were close then.

My lip curled up slightly in what amounted to my best professional smile.

SuyRu Biological had gotten careless.

Or had I gotten better?

Or was this just an elaborate trap?

The floor above me was dimly lit. I called up a hardwired database from a wetware chip that Isaac had compiled. The blueprints of the tower, downloaded from the net and SuyRu Biological 's schematics and plans.

I searched the floor, judged my position. I searched the schematics in my mind, accessed new files and data. There. Six meters ahead of me, two meters up and imbedded three centimeters into the ferrocrete was a shielded down-link to the floor above and the floor below. I managed to make my way slowly over to the area of wall and carefully opened a shielded pocket of my suit, removing two vials taped together, with a piece of velcro glued to the tape.

Plastiquid.

I opened the first vial, spreading its contents against the building wall when the building groaned. I liberally applied the contents of the first vial, a semi-clear gelatin, to the surface of the Tower. Next, I held the second tube, shielding it with my gloved hand, and snapped open the cap. A fine high pressure spray of gray mist contacted with the plastiquid and I crushed the two fragile vials in my padded gloved hand. I let the unrecognizable shards of the two containers fall away from me, captured by the wind and blown to the far corners of the city.

I turned back, admiring my handiwork.

Where the plastiquid met the activator there appeared bubbles in the ferrocrete, which began to slowly dissolve. I waited thirty seconds and scooped out a handful of the gelatinous material that previously had been harder than stone. The material was still warm, even with the gloves on, but the plastiquid was running down, its chemicals losing their strength. The gelatinous ferrocrete began to harden again but I had already made a hole large enough for me to reach a hand inside and work.

I felt around, carefully, taking my time. I didn't want to disturb anything or activate a deadman's trip.

There.

I gently touched it, slid my fingers around it: the down-link cable.

I carefully withdrew my hand, smiled and cracked my gloved knuckles. I reached down and removed the small black and silver military progjacker unit from the shielded pouch on my thigh. I unzipped and unpacked it from the bubble wrap, carefully storing the bubble wrap back in my thigh pocket. The progjacker was dull black with a hinged cover on one side and a plastic strip warning of the penalties for unauthorized use. I pressed it against the wall when the building moved again and the slickpatch on the back of the unit instantly bonded with the wall on a molecular level.

I released the progjacker and opened the cover, tugging at the two input feeds within. I fed one to the input jack behind my left ear, through the special slit in the suit, and the other one directly into connection with the down-link. There was a small keypad on the progjacker and I tapped in a coded number drawn from personal memory. I sighed, maybe for the last time, and looked down to where Mika should have been. I couldn't see her, even with the enhanced optics.

Good.

I tapped the [ENTER] key and it took only seconds to jack into the system. A few more seconds and I found what I was looking for; a path. I cursed softly, as I typed out the codes on the progjacker, feeding them into the system.

It had been a long time since I had done anything like this, let alone with a jet stream and a full G working against me.

 

I slowly worked my way up to a tinted window that had been shrouded in darkness, hidden in a corner of the building shadow. I hung there for a moment, perfectly still as I searched the room beyond the thick plastiglass for any sign of movement. Nothing showed up on high res infra-red so I carefully slid the window open, the locking mechanism already defeated by use of the progjacker and my infiltration program. I set myself down gently on the floor, the mono-wire whispered in the carballoy rings as it supported my weight. I caught my breath, letting the line go slack behind me. I peeled back my wrist cover and glanced at my Rolimex.

It had taken us four hours to climb twenty stories.

Anyone else would have given up long ago, but I was a patient man.

Everything was going according to plan.

If you had a plan and you followed it, time meant nothing if you didn't overstep your time frames.

We were still ahead of our time frame.

It had been easy to search the floor for a vacant conapt, and to key in the codes that would unlock the heavy shuttered windows, the doors, and deactivate the sensors and entry system. I had isolated the entire floor with a feedback loop that would keep security and the tenants from knowing that anything was going on. I jacked out of the system, sealing the hole in the wall with a ferrocrete slap patch that hardened instantly on contact with air.

For all practical purposes, the floor we were on now didn't exist any longer to the mainframe. I substituted in a ghost floor drawn from the Lohm Hisad artifint, perfect in every detail, exactly mimicking the existing floor. I downloaded the virtual reality image from my progjacker to the link where it had entered the computer at the same time that I isolated the floor from the mainframe. I took out the progjacker again and linked up to the internal and the mainframe by way of direct connection, using the conapt input socket.

The mainframe computer had taken the virtual reality for granted and no one knew.

I controlled the entire floor of the Sudoc tower.

I loosened the fasteners and buckles on the harness, letting it fall gently to the floor. I heard the whisper of monofilament and turned in time to see Mika coming through the window. She had waited until the moon had gone behind a cloud before moving out of shadow and into the conapt. She likewise ducked out of her harness before she shut the window behind her, locking it from the inside. I had taken up the slack and left the line anchored in a dark corner of the room, hidden in shadow.

I would be needing it again, if all went according to plan.

"Full tint." I whispered.

I had already temp programmed the main to recognize my voice as full security clearance. The internal picked up the subvocalized command and the window began to grow dark as the electronic tinting polarized to near black. I stood there in darkness, breathing cool air.

The easy part was over.

Next, I loosened the harness enough to undo the front of the dead suit. I stood in the shadows, away from the window, feeling the sweat start to grow cold on my bare chest. I watched the meter on the suit monitor badge drop as the suit vented the stored heat. Mika did likewise, unzipping down to her waist and peeling her suit back. She removed her mask and cap as she began to unpack and assemble her equipment.

A small infra-red sensor embedded in the far wall never even knew that we were there. I had used the progjacker deck to deactivate all the sensors in this conapt. I had also downloaded a chronological sequenced program that allowed a 'window' to exist in the security system, a timed blind spot that would allow us to keep ahead of the security system if we kept a strict schedule. The window would open in front of us, stay open for a few seconds, and then close behind us without any interference from the security system. We had ten minutes before the clock began to run down.

I squatted down and removed the shielded pack from my back, setting it gently on the floor. Inside, among other things, was a slightly used twelve gauge FNAN-12, now disassembled. It's been with me a long time, like an old friend. Frabrique Nationale design, dating back to the brush wars. Coated in non- reflective black, with isotope coated sights for night work, folding injection molded industrial plastic skeleton stock, variable twist choke, and a black nylon sling with plastic clip rings. It's designed for close-in fighting and house clearing operations.

I remember caressing the weapon gently, feeling the cool polymer and alloy finish. It had been a long time since I had used one of these, but it's like riding a bike.

Once you learned, you never forgot . . .

I quickly assembled the weapon, reached into the satchel and removed a ten round, flat black coated cylindrical plastic magazine, two kilos of ammunition. Double ought buck twelve gauge magnum loads seated in plastic jacketed casings. I quickly, automatically, screwed the magazine home at the base of the action, under the vented ribbed barrel. I adjusted the choke to modified before I flipped the safety to [LIVE].

The action snicked back with a metallic ringing. Ten in the mag and one up the pipe made for eleven rounds. I had twenty-two spare rounds of magnum high power load loose in the shielded pockets of my suit. I spun the choke to full setting and laid the FNAN down on the floor gently as I refastened the front of my suit, checking the tell-tales to make sure that the suit was shielding my signature again.

Now, the real hardware. I reached into the pack and withdrew the Ibara MS-4 needler. A short, stubby dull black weapon built on the same frame as the durable AL-3, designed for counter-terrorist work and clandestine operations. The weapon used a series of stepped electromagnets to energize a small magnetic field that propelled one millimeter needles to velocities in excess of fifteen hundred meters per second. There is no muzzle flash, but once the needles exceed the speed of sound, there is a noticeable report. Hard to tell what direction the sound or fire is coming from, though. The MS-4 has a special dampening switch which allows you to use the weapon on a lower power setting that reduced range and penetrating power, but the needles never exceeded subsonic velocities. On low setting, the MS-4 made less than a whisper when it fired.

Even on full automatic.

There was no recoil.

The spread of the needles under full automatic fire was less than the diameter of the bore, and an experienced user could get most of a full burst into the target, even at range. The needles were highly unstable and tumbled when they hit, usually fragmenting inside the target. The needles were so thin and sharp that normal body armor offered little protection. The one millimeter needles were designed to spin viciously upon penetration. The needles will slash through skin, muscle, sinew, and even bone, which would be bad enough if they weren't coated in a deadly neurotoxin, Sabine. Sabine would convert the acetylcholine of the neural sheathes into something that was not at all compatible with the body chemistry, flashing from synapse to synapse. The person would be dead before they hit the floor.

The lightweight weapon was energized by a powerpack in each magazine, good enough for the full load of one millimeter needles that came two hundred to a magazine. The Ibara fed from two magazines so you could mix your ammunition and even select ammunition mix while firing. I was comfortable using toxin tips, but tonight the first tenth of my second magazine was loaded with fast tranquilizer tips.

We couldn't harm the merchandise.

I felt the coolness of the weapon's construction as I slapped home each magazine in turn, keyed up the power to the weapon and the aligned the magnetic grids and conductors. A small tell-tale near the pistol grip blinked silently. The weapon was ready. I flicked the safety on and laid the weapon out near the pack on the floor. There were two more magazines of toxin tips in my harness. Each magazine was plastaped together butt to port, quick change style.

I closed the pack, making sure that the velcro tabs were fastened. I checked the FNAN again and inserted it into a special holster over my shoulder, smoothing down the flap on the long insulated sheath.

I slung the satchel back over my shoulder and looked over to Mika. She was already back in her suit, mask and cap in place, holding her Ibara MS-4 ready. I picked up my needler. We moved ahead cautiously through what was an upper echelon managerial conapt suite. The conapt was slightly dusty and had apparently been vacant for a few weeks now. In this day and age, upper echelon had a high turnover. We moved to the bedroom, and then to the common room where I slid up to the front door, Mika covering me with her needler. I put my ear against the door and listened for several seconds, long enough to filter out any background noise.

Quiet.

I squatted, and gently, quietly, carefully, unlocked the front door. Electronic bolts whispered back from both transom and threshold. I eased the front door open a few centimeters, just a crack, swinging it slowly back inside the room. Rich tapestries were draped along the hallway beyond, illuminated by overhead chemo glow strips dimmed now by the action of some automatic timer.

I removed a small covert ops mirror from my shielded lower leg pocket. The mirror was mounted on a non-reflective black plastic wand, and I carefully edged it out into the hall at floor level. I gazed at the reflection of the hallway in the mirror, slowly turning it both ways to see if anyone was waiting for me.

The hall was vacant, dimly lit by a sequence of night and day lighting executed by a program buried deep in the mainframe.

We made our way down the hall, padding quietly along like tigers.

Mika.

Our suits were equipped with close channel line of sight infra-red laser com links with subvocalized marquee capabilities, but you didn't say much. I remember the firefight. How cool and under control you seemed. We were the last thing that they didn't see.

Cooling bodies littered the hallways as we left the Tower. We had the designer and that was all that mattered. Isaac punched out of the net as soon as we were clear of the security systems.

We faded away.

No traces.

 

I remember now what had bothered me when we busted the bedroom door down. It was the way that you had sprayed the naked woman in the bed with a spread of needles. The spray of blood as the needles broke under her delicate skin, tearing and ripping as they shattered deep, stitching her from groin to forehead. I couldn't see your face for the mask of the suit, but I could almost swear now that you were smiling. I remember the look of fear on the designer's face, and something else.

Something like recognition.

I'm good with faces, with body language, and what I read from his expression wasn't just fear. It was recognition. He somehow knew who it was under that mask.

Instincts.

I noticed how quickly you rendered him unconscious, two quick, well placed tranquilizer needles to his chest and a third to his neck. A near dangerous dosage designed to put your target out almost instantaneously.

We hauled him out of there, secured him, wrapped him in a shielded cocoon, slung him from the monofilament and dangled him from the face of the tower. It took us just as long to get down as it did to get up, but we were familiar with the procedure. Everything went like clock work. They didn't even know we had him till the next morning when the ghost floor erased itself from the system. Six hours after we had left. That gave us plenty of time to reach a safe area back in Greenland.

I remember walking into the bedroom and seeing you with the hypo against his neck. I was curious. You told me not to worry, that it was just additional sedative to keep him out. You told me it was a suppressant, that he'd be much less trouble if he wasn't conscious. You told me that it was easier to move an unconscious person than a conscious one. Besides, conditioning him would be Lohm Hisad's problem, not ours. Let them convince him of their good intentions and how they related to having him shot up with tranqs and removed from SuyRu Biological.

My instincts told me different, but I didn't argue.

Issac monitored the net. SuyRu Biological knew what had happened and were out to retrieve what was legally theirs. It was going to be close. Five hours early we delivered the designer to Lohm Hisad. I remember how you drove a hard bargain, how you held out for more credit and wanted the time tables updated. You wanted delivery now. Lohm Hisad seemed taken back by your forwardness and the sudden change of plans, felt that we were somehow trying to back them into a corner. The plan was dynamic, but you were pushing the envelope of flexibility with your sudden changes. You were breaking the surface tension.

I didn't like it.

Neither did Isaac.

Playing with multi-nats was a quick way to get erased. Even Isaac couldn't believe how hard you were driving Lohm Hisad. He said so, but you said to trust you. Lohm Hisad said to wait. They had to think about the new deal. There we were, holding hostage the greatest wetware designer in a decade and they said wait.

We didn't have to wait long.

Lohm Hisad didn't have many options to play this scenario. They knew it, and they weren't happy about it. We eventually got our credit, lots of it. More than I had ever seen in my entire life, delivered to our untraceable accounts just the way that I like to see ill-gained money delivered.

Discreetly. It took hours to route the exchanges and I watched my account trickle higher and higher. I really began to have doubts whether my instincts were right. I mean, hard, cold credit has a way of making you rethink your position on matters. Especially if the credit is in your name and is more than a normal man would make in one lifetime. We were rich.

Rich.

Buddha really was smiling.

Mika.

I was feeling good and I needed to get out, to think and to download.

While I went out, you and Isaac stayed at a rented 'plex. A nicer place than we had before. Better security. The door shut behind me.

I was gone for three days.

That's when you made your move.

 

I had been living well, within my parameters, because I didn't want to attract attention, but well enough to know that I had done something positive. I remember heading back to the flat, working off a slight hangover, walking the streets of the Yoshiwara district. A bazaar of light, smell, and sound. People everywhere, sweat, perfume, different languages, a sensory collage mixing with the aftertaste from the almost empty half liter squeezer in my pocket.

I kept sipping from the velvet smooth cherry petal saki as I admired the women gathered behind the plastic windows, their kimonos worn back to front to indicate their profession. I let the slidewalk carry me on past the commercial sentos and the recreational drug lounges, carry me out of the Yoshiwara.

I remember the slidewalk carrying me past the front of an electronics store and I stepped off the fast belt, losing my footing and almost falling in my stupor. I looked up, trying to figure out where I was. How far had the slidewalk carried me? How long had I been riding? I turned and stared at the neon and video displays crowning every window and alley way. Peddlers and vendors, buyers and sellers, all waiting to get the newest electronics months before the rest of the world got delivery. I knew where I was now.

Akihabara, Japan's discount electronics district. I eased into the crowd, eyed a few items of interest, and moved on. I remember walking past a digital boutique, stopping to look in the plastic window.

Watchman, about fifteen of them in neon and basic colors. Sony Watchman, the little wrist mounted high resolution VGA hundred channel TV with satellite up linkage, displayed among neon colored styrofoam packing peanuts and velvet. Next year's models. An elder gentleman stepped up beside me and stared at the news broadcast that was being picked up by the units on display. I remember leaning on the glass out in front of the store, looking at the little picture, the heat from my face and hands causing ghost images on the window.

That's when I managed to see the big picture.

I've never sobered up faster in my life.

There was some sort of newscast showing on the little Watchman, some kind of data blackout over Lohm Hisad's core complex. There was a intense corporate take-over in process. Lohm-Hisad stock was falling, investors were selling for what they could get.

And SuyRu Biological was buying every share it could get of Lohm-Hisad stock. I got a real bad feeling then. Instinct. Something wasn't going right. It wasn't supposed to happen like this.

Damn.

I had to think, but thinking is something that's hard to do when your brain is trying to remember everyone who owes you a favor and those who are likely to repay the favor on short notice, that and things like looking for any kind of tail, or any place to catch your breath where someone won't blow a hole in your back when you're looking the other way.

Lohm Hisad would have done that, they would have thought that we had double crossed them, especially after the way that we drove them in the bargaining and delivery. Someone had, but it wasn't us. My mind spun as I tried to put the pieces together.

Who?

Yeah.

Mika.

Another thought struck me.

Isaac!

 

I headed back as fast as I could to the 'plex, careful not to take a straight line, and always watching my back. Going back was stupid. SuyRu would think of that and be prepared, but I couldn't leave you Issac. I should have trusted my instincts. I should never have left you alone with Isaac. I found the 'plex dark and the front door unlocked, barely open. I carried a Baret ten millimeter with me when I went out. The Baret, a dull black, wicked looking polymer high power smoothbore automatic. I drew the automatic from a custom shoulder rig, worked the slide to chamber a ten mike mike plus pee plus pill, leaving eighteen others in the staggered plastic cassette.

I kneeled beside the door frame, and pushed the door gently open.

Nothing moved; quiet.

I waited, listened, then entered the flat, cautiously. Nothing but darkness. The only comfort was the automatic in my hand. I found Isaac at his terminal, dead. The deck was trashed, but I could tell tampering when I saw it. I'd worked on Isaac's deck too often not to know what it looked like on the inside.

Mika.

I traced the modifications that you had made to the deck, professional, not many traces, but enough. When did you do it? How did you get Isaac to leave you alone with the deck? You rigged Isaac's deck so that on command, the deck refused to jack out. Isaac would be trapped in his virtual reality, at the mercy of any black ice you left behind to home in on his jack signal.

Isaac.

What was it like, the black ice that she left behind for you when you went and checked her files for resource spikes? What did you feel when you found out that her files had been forged? What was it like to learn the truth? Did you see her accounts, and all her travel plans? Did you get that far? I know you had to have done it, and you probably were cautious when you did, but you learned to be cautious too late. You learned to trust your instincts too late. The black ice ate you alive, it had the command that froze your deck, and you couldn't run away and you couldn't hide this time and SuyRu's black ice ate your mind.

Mika was trying to buy time, and time was one thing that I didn't have.

Time was very expensive.

Lohm Hisad and SuyRu Biological would be closing in on the flat right now. Mika would have supplied the location. SuyRu Biological to remove any loose ends and Lohm Hisad to keep track of what SuyRu Biological was doing. I was sweating, beads of perspiration, like jewels on a flesh canvas, cool in the humid night.

Buddha wasn't smiling at us.

No, I think he was laughing at us. He just watched you, Isaac, sitting there at your deck, trapped, watching the black ice coming for you . . . You were praying, but Buddha wasn't answering the phone. I sat there in the dark, looking at the dead body in front of me.

So, all the pieces fit together now.

I saw the whole thing as plain as a hardcopy.

Mika.

You were working for SuyRu Biological all along. Lohm Hisad thought they had bought you, but they never knew how much you would really cost them. You gave the designer a suppressant that night, and something else. My guess would be a virus, tucked inside a microencapsulated shell, time delay release into the host system and then rapid development into a highly infectious, very lethal bug.

That's why you drove the bargain so hard, Mika. You were on a time limit. Even in suspension, the virus had a half-life of only a couple of days. If the virus became active while we still had the designer then we all would have died and you would have lost everything. On the other hand, if the virus became active while Lohm Hisad had the designer, then Lohm Hisad would have lost it all and the designer would have still died.

So, in one bold move, SuyRu Biological cut the head off the giant Lohm Hisad.

Just like David facing Goliath.

Lohm Hisad at the mercy of SuyRu Biological which would dictate their own terms in the merger. We had paved the way for SuyRu Biological into the realm of the multi-nats, using Lohm Hisad as a stepping stone. SuyRu Biological hadn't been waiting to be bought out, they had been waiting to buy in.

The hunted had become the hunter.

Bold.

Dangerous.

Very risky.

A touch and go plan, but it flowed like liquid and we were just there to be used by you as you saw fit.

I moved Isaac around on the floor. He was dead, no pulse, stiff and cold. I could still access his wetdrive, the black ice wouldn't have touched the unit and Mika didn't know about it. I brought the drive up on the terminal and downloaded the data there in the dark. It was an eerie feeling, reading soft from a drive in a corpse's head.

I saw the files he had recently added. One had your name on it, one had the title [READ.ME.FIRST], then [READ.ME], and one had [USE.ME] as the title. I took them all, downloading everything that looked useful or valuable. I encoded the data onto high density physical media with the little mem burner that Isaac had always used.

I grabbed an empty travel bag, stuffing items that I would need inside; the high density physical media, the Nhun laptop, and a small tool kit. I grabbed a different jacket and left, cleaning up any trace as I went. I had to get away, hide low until I could cut a deal. Everything I needed was on the high density physical media. I couldn't leave the city, they would already have had that route blocked for sure. No, I had to wear a low profile now.

I headed toward Shibuya station, up the Shinkansen platform, and found a renovated capsule stack. I used a forged credit card. It worked, no hassle.

I charged the cubicle for seven hours but I would leave in four. I would have to move then, maybe sooner. The corporates would check on any cubicle that was rented out for more than a single period, but this was the last place that they would check. They would have all the mass transport stations and terminals covered pretty thick but they would never expect me to hide so close to so many of them that were looking for me. They would have had the lev stations and the airports, the bus terminals, everything smoking would have been covered.

I remember laying there in the cubicle, light from a flickering dim chemoglow strip that ran the length of the cubicle. The air filter needed replacing, and the air was musty and stale, but that was what you got for five credits per four hours. Old stains, the smell of urine, alcohol, sweaty bodies, and cheap cigarettes. I could imagine what the roar of the Shinkansen would sound like from inside the capsule, how the racks holding the capsules would shake in the Shinkansen's passing.

I felt like I was in a coffin, and really I was. If they ever found me, they could bury me in this thing. I plugged the high density physical media into the computer unit of the cubicle, connecting the down-link of the laptop, joining in the extending web of millions of others. Sarariman who had missed the Shinkansen and were waiting till morning to go home. There, plugged into the net, I was just another sarariman checking on business in the stock market, or patching through to home to let the family know that I would be there in the morning.

Untraceable.

I took out a small tool kit and repaired Isaac's deck. The job took me half an hour and the air soon began to smell of polymer, solder and adhesive paste. The air grew warm as I began to sweat again. I wiped my forearm across my brow and punched the ventilator up to the next highest notch. Time was one thing that I didn't have an excess of right then, but I had made up my mind.

If I was going down, then SuyRu Biological was going down too. If I was going to take down SuyRu Biological, then I wanted to watch it happen. I finished the deck, slipped the case back together, and set it down beside me. The air in the cubicle was getting thick and I began to sweat more as I turned the ventilator up another notch.

The fan mounted in the cubicle wall started to whine, shaking and rattling. It would give up the ghost soon and then a sign would be hung on the cubicle proclaiming OUT OF ORDER until someone replaced it. Or maybe the cubicle would rent for less with the fan not working.

I ignored it.

I called up [READ.ME.FIRST], watching the text scroll across the little holographic field, floating there in front of me, illuminating my features and casting long shadows across the interior of the cubicle.

Isaac had transferred everything that he could find on Mika and SuyRu Biological. It was more than enough.

I called up the [READ.ME] text file and it replaced the previous text that floated in the air in front of me. I scrolled through it rapidly, feeling angry, scared, and sorry at the same time. It's not a pleasant feeling. The program was a text file and contained detailed instructions on the program that Isaac had been working on.

He had finally decided upon a name for it; he had called it Rakshasa. The Hindian vampire of lore. I read the text and when I felt that I was ready, I keyed in the laptop and brought up [USE.ME]. I jacked into the deck, jacking into the NET and the systems on line. I could see how the cubicles were linked to the manager and the realtor company by down-link, connected to a larger chain office and then to a corporate headquarters in another part of the country. Lines, down-links, up-links, interfaces. I could see many things now, all translated into icons, virtual reality. I didn't bother to load Isaac's Buddha fantasy, I preferred the clear iconic structure and . . .

And I couldn't bring myself to do that right then.

I specified the parameters of the iconic interface, and of the default virtual reality. The little green light came on as the drive whirred. A contact energized and I was plunging headlong into the net, a disembodied manifestation of humanity digitally rendered. With all the chaos, it was easy to pillage the top level news and data broadcasts that were being silenced by the corporation. I checked the masked data.

Rumors and insider information said that Lohm Hisad's top level people and scientists were dying like flies, some new kind of virus, short lived, very deadly. The top levels of R&D in Lohm Hisad were gone, wiped out in the space of hours.

Lohm Hisad had it contained now, but it was obviously some form of covert corporate sabotage. Lohm Hisad stock was falling and SuyRu Biological was among the fast buyers, so far leading with a fifteen percent buy of all outstanding Lohm Hisad stock. Things were getting ugly at the exchanges but I was about to even the odds.

I released the Rakshasa into the public data net, following its progress on the deck. My body lay in the cubicle, but my mind was riding piggyback to Isaac's killer program.

 

The Rakshasa maneuvered by itself out in the net for a while, attaching itself to messages and data packs, riding until it was sure that no one had noticed it enter. I watched for an hour as the prog meandered about, then it bounced itself off three comsats and a orbital relay before re-entering the gravity well and rode along a forged incoming scrambler call through the network, connecting with SuyRu Biological's incoming dedicated information trunks. The Rakshasa slipped past the first lines of internal defense as they rose to verify the incoming data pulse. The Rakshasa was detected by the system defenses, nothing Isaac could have done about that in the program. The proper sequences were missing, but Isaac had fabricated enough to crack the system.

The instant the Rakshasa had been detected, all the valuable data had been pulled from the system, shielded behind core command walls of security. Walls that rose in front of walls. The main database was mobile, retreating, throwing up barriers to stop the intrusion. Automatics triggered and data started to be dumped to high density physical media in an attempt to backup all current data.

The intrusion had been noted. A warning message was transmitted to subsidiary firms and corporate holding enforcement agencies that someone had infiltrated the system illegally, but it was too late. The various programs had already taken command of everything that the Rakshasa had already passed in the it's trespassing. The Rakshasa program was a digital spike skewering memory unit upon memory unit, rendering it unusable in its wake.

SuyRu Biological hadn't been lax lately on NET or system security.

Behind the Rakshasa, highly specialized hunter killer anti-viral programs rose from the grid, dedicated constructions searching for the intruding program. Great black shapes of silicon were trying to catch up to the Rakshasa but it was riding a huge wave now, free falling into the center of the most valuable data that SuyRu Biological possessed.

The Rakshasa program was an electrical tsunami, flooding the whole system with its presence. The Rakshasa swerved several times along the way, diverting its path and data pulse to path and data pulse. The HKs were catching up to the Rakshasa now, slowly, but they were gaining.

Black, looking like shapeless blobs of silicon, they gained momentum, restructuring to deal with the intruding program. The deeper the Rakshasa went, the more complex the defenses were getting and the easier it was becoming for the HKs to cut the program off. Towers and twisted spires of coded information unfolded before the Rakshasa, complex labyrinths of interlocking multiplex digital codes, binary data storage, and a constricting net of hunter killer programs.

Machine language and compilers enveloped the Rakshasa. Rapid access programs evaded it, confusing the internals. The Rakshasa dodged through labyrinths of ever changing security codes and defenses. The system defenses were good but Isaac's program was better. I was impressed. As soon as it would crack one code and move to another sector, two more would try to shut the program out but the Rakshasa was unstoppable.

Isaac's program diverted around, over, under, bypassed, infiltrated, erased, reprogrammed, loaded, dumped, accessed, filed, and sorted its way through the SuyRu Biological system. The Rakshasa felt the draw of five thousand terminals and workstations worldwide linked into the net, more than five times that with access at any given time. It fragmented itself, replicating faster than the terminals could shut down or log off. A perfect copy of the Rakshasa went down each on-line terminal, down all the up-links, spreading out along ground lines, through the communication channels, relaying off satellites, over fiber optics, through hard wires.

Anyone on line with SuyRu Biological would get a surprise.

The Rakshasa continued to drive for the core!

Behind the Rakshasa, glitch programs began to spring up in its wake. Self replicating Rakshasas that devoured and absorbed the unneeded programs in the system, keeping them tied up and off the real Rakshasa. Isaac's program continued on. The core was just ahead and the Rakshasa blossomed, ready to embrace the core as a wall of black ebony rose up in front of the program.

The Rakshasa gathered speed and tried to skirt the wall but the core defense was faster than the Rakshasa. The wall replicated itself faster than the Rakshasa could dart in. The Rakshasa programs made holes in the wall but the wall just replicated, layer upon layer, building and enclosing the original Rakshasa program. Spikes of erasure and surges of data whipped out at the program, trying to impale the Rakshasa, absorb the renegade program into the specified containment areas of the system where automatics could cope with the intruding program.

Halt it.

The ebony wall rose when the Rakshasa tried to go over it and it reared back as if to strike when the Rakshasa managed to find access through the small crack just between it and the main system. A small discharge, but it made a way open to the core.

The Rakshasa program dove.

The wall of black ebony followed, gaining momentum, erasing and devouring all in it's path, filtering out known programs and restructuring them, erasing unknown programming.

It came falling toward the Rakshasa.

The Rakshasa cleared the crack under the black wall just barely as the wall crashed in upon itself in a magnificent splendor of black ebony turning to emerald sparks. Isaac's program was running out of tricks fast.

Already, the system was overloading with the Rakshasa controlled programs but some highly specialized anti-viral programs were loose down there, trying to find the Rakshasa and initiate full shut down. The Rakshasa was moving level to level, lower and lower.

The system was slowing.

The memory of the artifint and the system was rapidly dwindling, being filled with mirror images of the Rakshasa. Important files, programs, and other assorted system utilities were being unlocked, erased from the system to make space for the new programs.

Find the core!

Time.

 

I jacked out then, catching my breath and wiping sweat from my forehead. The ventilator fan in the cubicle wasn't helping, even set on high. I could hear the rattle of the fan and not much else. I looked at my Rolimex. About ten seconds had passed since I had put Isaac's program into the SuyRu Biological system. The Rakshasa had been in the system for an eternity.

Time was running out.

I jacked back in, instantly catching up to the Rakshasa.

Things had changed considerably in the five seconds that I had been in the real world.

 

Ahead of the Rakshasa, there was the core. The Rakshasa approached, riding a crest of incoming information, data, and security clearance codes guarded by a wall of host virals and Rakshasa controlled programs.

The core!

A huge swirling nimbus of numbers and wisps of data. Towers of data surrounded it as incoming and outgoing pulses left from the heart of the core.

The Rakshasa was plunging head first into the core. There was a flash of light. The iconic structured reality around the Rakshasa grew pale and started to decay. The core changed to a livid bruise color and data pulses stopped, reversed, and began to rise out of the core, each cancerous.

Satellite linkage took the infected pulses away. The system broke. A dead man's prog loaded, accessed available data, commenced a run, and started to kill the system. The Rakshasas were devouring the systems and internals. Data was being destroyed, megabytes of information was wrecked beyond repair each microsecond. Phone line controls, access codes, inventory reports, stock information, shipping orders, and a host of other essential corporate data.

The core dissolved into a glowing sphere of light that collapsed for a second and then expanded, consuming everything it touched. Total catastrophic system crash was now inevitable.

The towers of data cracked, buckled, and collapsed, plummeting into the iconic landscape.

Forced system crash.

Someone pulled the plug on the system, a hard boot of the artifint.

A last chance play by SuyRu Biological to save what they could.

They almost succeeded.

The artifint flagged a warning to several higher agencies that it could no longer operate under efficient governed parameters.

The artifint automatically went off line.

SuyRu Biological flagged higher agencies that they were crippled.

I jacked out then, disconnecting the deck and powering down.

The smell of sweat was stronger in the cubicle now, the deck was very warm in my hands. I switched the unit off as its hum died into silence. Now, there was just the sound of the ventilator, and my labored breathing.

 

I heard later, from reliable sources, that their artifint was crippled, that they had lost more than their share of data. The amount of data that had been lost would put SuyRu Biological years behind Lohm Hisad in the market. Lohm Hisad seemed to notice what was happening, and I was glad to see that the management and Board of Directors had sense enough to know that somewhere, out there, that there was someone who didn't like being used. That was good news to me and it meant that Lohm Hisad would be looking for me for a different reason now.

Over the next few hours, I watched as the stocks stabilized, and actually reversed directions. It took two long hours for SuyRu Biological to die. Lohm Hisad savagely devoured the smaller company, share for share, asset for asset. I watched on the net as the two icons slowly merged, the Lohm Hisad icon becoming larger and brighter.

That gave me time to read up on you, Mika.

I watched as data and text flowed across the screen of the little Nhun laptop.

Mika . . .

Now that I review the data I know now why the designer acted so surprised when we retrieved him, why he seemed to recognize you in that split second before you tranqed him. How could he not recognize you, even under all the gear? You were the only one who would have had the knowledge of where he was, how to hit him, the data, the security codes, and the contacts to pull it off. The poor bastard was just like Isaac, trusting to the very end. It all looked like a corporate sponsored contract instead of an inside job.

You played everyone for the fool, even SuyRu Biological.

It was your idea, and their words. You were the one who conveniently leaked the data to the net, where you knew that Lohm Hissad was planning their recons. You made sure that the recon teams found the data about the designer and his accommodations. It was all a ruse from the start.

I know who the designer was now.

He was your brother.

And you sacrificed him just to move ahead in the corporation. No wonder you had kept him sedated. He would have talked to keep from ending up as a stepping stone in your career. You used your brother to fuel your ambition. I have no doubt that your brother, the designer, was an invaluable asset in and of himself, but to hand the whole of Lohm Hisad to the Board of SuyRu Biological was an even bigger asset and you were perfectly willing to take the gamble, to trade off one asset for another, much greater asset.

I wonder if SuyRu Biological approved of the chances that you were taking? Probably not.

I wonder why you did it? Maybe you got tired of seeing your brother outperforming you in the eyes of the Board. What better way to give Lohm Hisad to SuyRu Biological than to use your brother as bait. Sure your brother and his skills were worth untold amounts, but Lohm Hisad was an even bigger prize. Very risky. There were no guarantees in this deal. No way to recount the sunk costs if you failed.

If you failed, the cost of your error could have been incalculable.

But, if you managed to succeed . . .

SuyRu Biological would have probably thrown in a nice, comfortable position high up in the corporate strata for you if the deal went through. Life time employment, continued existence contract, a summer and winter office, servants, an expense account whose yearly interest was an amount that you couldn't exhaust in three lifetimes . . .

I made sure that things didn't work out like you intended.

I don't like getting used.

Nobody plays me for a fool.

Not you.

Not SuyRu Biological.

Nobody.

 

 

Epilogue . . .

That night was long ago.

Years.

But one memory remains clear after all this time.

Mika.

We were so much alike, you and I. We were both hard drivers and ambitious, but your ambition was the kind that blinded. I remembered you and your new Mazda.

I smile.

You were always so sure of yourself.

Thought that you would live forever.

You were wrong.

Take the special wax that you told me you had to use on that self healing bioplas fairing. Well, some things don't react well with bioplas. I made sure that some of those things found their way into your body. It was a virus, used to weaken bioplas so that it can be reshaped.

It's ironic that SuyRu Biological manufactures the virus.

It was cheap insurance on my part.

You never knew the difference, until it was too late.

I took precautions. You were too sure of yourself and of us. You were older than you seemed, and that wasn't hard to do with cosmetic surgery these days. I thought that I had you figured out.

If things had turned out different, if my instincts had been wrong, if you had turned out different, well, then no one would have known. The antidote could have been mixed with just about anything and remain undetectable. A solution dissolved in high proof cherry petal wine would have been nice. I would have liked to share that drink with you if things had turned out different. Without the virus being constantly applied, the fairing would have healed in a manner of days.

But I was right.

In this business, you learn to trust your instincts.

I never saw your name again.

But I know that you're long dead.

It was probably the accident . . .

 

I can imagine how the virus that was waiting dormant in your body ate away at your fairing. You never knew that you were the instrument of your destruction. How it must have felt to drive that fast and to have had your fairing suddenly disintegrate on you, to have lost control on the verge of the performance envelope of that machine.

You didn't die right away.

No, you suffered.

Just like Isaac did.

They might or might not have tried to put you back together, after the fiasco, but even if they had tried, they wouldn't have been able to.

All the king's horses and all the king's men ...

What was it like?

What did it feel like when the neurojack to your bike didn't disconnect and you fell from the disintegrating cycle? You and most of the Shinto would have stayed together as the rest came apart, cartwheeling, sliding and tumbling.

Not only would you feel your death, but also the cycle being destroyed as well.

You died twice; metal snapping, bones breaking, sparks and fire, fuel and blood, bonded glass fiber shards and bone splinters.

It didn't feel like revenge. There was no emotion, no personal feelings involved, Mika.

It was just business.

We were so much alike.

Two tigers.

 

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The Means-End Inversion

By: Christopher T. Shields

15298 Words

Awarded Best Novelette

Adult Category

Robert Adams Memorial Writing Contest

CoastCon XV

Saturday, March 28, 1992