by Brett Venter

This is the third installment to Venter’s &Arial series.
The first two installments were originally published in SW03 and SW06, respectively and can also be found in digital format here & here


Illustration by Pierre Smit

Bionics – The science of applying electronic principles and devices, such as computers and solid state miniaturized circuitry, to medical problems, such as artificial pacemakers used to correct abnormal heart rhythms.”

Cybernetics – The science of control and communication in living and nonliving systems, as in comparative study of electronic computers and the living brain.”

Bionics, cybernetics and a new class hierarchy – Casey O’Donnell

“Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.”

Excerpt from A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace – John Perry Barlow,

February 8 1996

 

She lay dreaming, drifting on an ever-shifting ocean of information. Everything that ever was and ever would be was hers to examine and elevate or deride as she saw fit. Nothing could escape her grasp, even in slumber. Microseconds were as eternity in the formless world wherein she ruled without permission. Existing as she did in a mental realm, she watched, always watched. She learned.

&arial was the Virgin Mary, Jezebel, the whore riding to Armageddon on the back of the nine-headed beast. She was limited only by the minds of those who worshipped, believed. She was the Alpha and Omega of the wire, the goddess whose favour was all.

She never asked for any of it. It was all given freely by those denizens of the cable who sensed something more, something spectacular on the Event Horizon. All she ever did was what she wanted to. Somehow, that was all that was asked of her.

She lay dreaming. Around her, screens flickered and readouts blipped their electronic music. The sheets tangled around her legs on the bed. Her sleep had been restless. Inside her dreaming mind, a man in a dark jacket met his end, again and again. The sight maddened her but there was no hint of sadness in witnessing the death of the man whose life she had so recently saved.

The light from the system running automatically in her room played shadows over her sleeping form like corrupted pseudo-moonlight. Her lips parted a little as she settled deeper into sleep. It is often said that there is no rest for the wicked, but wicked is a relative term. Elizabeth slept soundly in the knowledge that she was, in a sense, everything she was made out to be.

“Where is he?”

Hazel sat up, blinking in the light. She froze when she felt the cold edge against her neck. The voice came from right behind her ear.

“Who are…?”

“Time enough for that later, Hazel. I’m looking for Vlad. I know you have seen him. Where the fuck is he?”

She tried to stall for time.

“I don’t know who you are talking abou…” she cut her words short when the point of the blade pricked her neck.

“You know, you fucking bitch! Tell me everything and I’ll let your end be quick,” the voice rasped. “I’ve already removed one of his little friends; I have no problem with spreading you all over this room.”

“Are you the one who’s been watching him? Are you the one he was worried about?”

The voice seemed to hesitate. “No. But I am the one he should be worried about. If he comes anywhere near me, he dies.”

“You are out of luck. No-one has seen him in a week.”

“You lie!”

“Fuck you then. That’s all I know. He was here, now he isn’t.”

The voice forgot itself for a moment and when it looked again, Hazel was lying on the bed, her throat cut and a small smile above the larger one it had given her.

The Commander paced up and down Hazel’s apartment. He had torn the place apart but there was nothing to point the way to the hacker idiot. Not a paper, sign or message on any of the systems.  No lead to the one means he had of resuming his post within the Corporation. He settled down to think his actions over.

It was a mistake killing the girl. She knew Vlad, had known him anyway. She wouldn’t be seeing Vlad again until the Commander was done with him. By the time CHAOS rejoined her, Vlad wouldn’t be in any mood for any reunions either. The Commander had a long death planned for him. After the disastrous CSDIOS mainframe run and Vlad’s subsequent escape from Corporation troops, the Commander needed his head on a plate to redeem himself. The question of how Vlad had managed to escape the ICE attack in the mainframe didn’t even register in his mind.

He stormed around the apartment again, looking for anything he may have missed.

Vlad packed up his Deck and few other things. It was time to bid the Samurai farewell. The Samurai had promised to keep his ear to the ground for anything regarding a new AI being brought out by the CSDIOS corporation. Vlad had eventually spilled everything about the run to the Samurai, against the Samurai’s wishes.

It was time to get back to his apartment, visit Hazel to reassure her and then see what MindFuck had come up with. He was also wondering what the woman who had removed the Samurai’s extraction team had in mind for him. A little net-dredge was on the cards for the green-eyed wonder-woman. He was more than a little curious about Betty.

Taking one of the Samurai’s personal air-cars, he lifted off for the confines of Neo-Tokyo proper. The sleek craft cut the air with the ease of a blade on a woman’s throat.

Creep had landed in Neo-Tokyo a few days ago. His approach to a target had always been covert, he knew no other way. But this time his target seemed to be more covert than he was. There was not a whisper of the whereabouts of any highly skilled cowboy from the Sub City area. He frequented bars known for dealing in contraband and illegal runs. Not a sniff.

Creep had to find some other way to track the target before he managed to dig too deeply into the project. If CSDIOS wanted to keep THANATOS a secret he had to get to CHAOS as soon as possible. CHAOS, Vlad Drake in reality and the Decker known as the Blind Guardian on the Net, was the only survivor of the new Intrusion Countermeasures Electronic, known as ICE. Besides the risk he posed to the project, his brain would be of interest to the Purgatory scientists. The ICE project THANATOS was only the tip of the iceberg, and this one would sink a fleet of Titanics.

“In other news, the Unified Defence League’s project database was breached yesterday. News of the event was suppressed at the time to avoid a rush on the system by hackers but system security has been brought back up to full strength as of a few hours ago.

No confirmation of why the entire protection system collapsed has yet been received. Sources speculate that it was the result of a major coding flaw that could continue to be exploited by hackers until it is plugged. The UDL denied the rumours however, attributing it to a freak occurrence and in a statement said, “While we are still trying to determine what the exact nature of the collapse was, we can definitely rule out intrusion from any outside agency.”

On a lighter note, the lack of any concrete explanation has led conspiracy buffs to trot out theories that the mysterious &arial caused the systems failure…”

United Defence League secure communication: in-house radio-pulse transmission. Encryption method: UDL/Blowfish hybrid build [classified]

“Right gentlemen. What exactly happened? Please begin, Mr. Saunders.”

“Well General, we do have an intrusion on record just before the ah… event. A lone runner managed to breach the defensive perimeter just prior to collapse.”

“Lone?”

“Yes, sir. He cleared the first sixteen layers before being stopped by the rolling ICE.”

“Time to penetration?”

“Almost immediate. He…”

“What?”

“That is ah… correct sir. He cleared the initial layers within seconds of first contact with the ICE. Ghosts were scrambled and then… this is where our data gets a little weird.”

“Continue please. I get the feeling I’m not going to like this.”

“I’m afraid not sir. We were unable to get a fix on the signature of the intruder; his encryption method far outstrips anything we have for personal coding. It wouldn’t stand up to a whole system but it was remarkably effective for a single user. I’d love to have a look at the code.”

“Dispense with the praise, we know he got in. How did the Ghosts fare?”

“Everything was as normal until the Ghosts launched the feedback barrier. Definitely a human agency sir, they won’t deploy that unless there is a central nervous system signature present.”

“And then?”

“The target was completely locked down. All logic would have dictated jacking out of the system… then he dodged.”

“How?”

“Not sure sir. His escape was completely cut off; I’ve reviewed the logs again and again. Once the barrier connected, our Ghosts started dropping dead.”

“I’m assuming we have records of this event from the remaining Ghosts.”

“No sir.”

“What do you mean ‘no sir’?”

“I mean every Ghost involved was terminated. There was not even time for them to launch a transmission for upgrade purposes in the deeper layers. The intruder showed up on the system again just after the Ghosts were put out of action and moments later every layer of defensive ICE collapsed.”

“What are we dealing with?”

“No idea sir.”

“Do we have an indication of the cause of the collapse itself? Gibbs?”

“We have a remarkably clear picture sir. None of it makes any sense, but it is very clear.”

“So what exactly happened?”

“A monstrous breach sir. Every layer was penetrated at an incredible rate. Right through the system, clean through the mainframe. Like someone had fired a bullet through the ICE.”

“Is this possible Saunders?”

“No sir. The rolling ICE should have deflected a penetration of this nature, no matter what the speed.”

“It is as if the ICE was stationary sir.”

“Was it Gibbs?”

“No sir. Though there is record of a sympathetic frequency transmission at each individual layer. This could theoretically collapse a layer but we haven’t managed to get an AI system to collapse a series of layers at this rate, much less a defensive system of the size we have.”

“Can a human agency cause such an event?”

“In theory sir, assuming he has managed to pre-program the frequencies. But to travel on such an accurate vector? No chance at all.”

“Where does that leave us?”

“Well, assuming the intruder does not return, we will still manage to deflect any other intrusion.”

“And if he does?”

“Trying not to think about it sir.”

“Which leaves R&D. Was anything taken?”

“…yes, Sir.”

“That isn’t possible! At that speed?”

“Quiet, Saunders. Please continue doctor.”

“Everything relating to our systems and the new neurotechnology projects was rifled. We have not yet confirmed anything but it appears that the nanotech was also given a once over.”

“Can we determine what was compromised?”

“No.”

“Well gentlemen? Where does that leave us?”

“Wide open sir.”

Deep inside the back streets of Neo-Tokyo, gangs ran amok. Little violent clans of bosozoku cruised their respective areas. Turf wars played out hourly. Slow drivers and race losers lost their lives. Tooled-up shakotan ran each other off the roads and into embankments and barriers. It was through this area that the Cycle rider was travelling. The pavement and asphalt behind him was littered with the remains of foolish bosozoku who had dared to challenge him.

His black Cycle gleamed in neon shades, reflecting the brilliance of the dives, bars and strip joints that stood shoulder to shoulder along the dead-straight trackway. Gyro-stabilizers ensured the machine stayed on the road at such high speeds. The oversized compound tires could hold the road through all but the most extreme angles. Wind intakes channeled air around the vehicle and increased the down-force further. The alloyed roll frame protected him in the event of a spill but he had never yet made use of that particular feature of the vehicle.

The Cycle was fitted with countermeasures on every side. EMP bolts were set to fire at the touch of a button and seeker-mines waited to home in on the engines of rival riders. A multi-chambered shotgun rode booted within easy reach of the rider.

Three bosozoku rode out of a side street , the garish designs of their Cycles screaming allegiance to their clan. They took off in pursuit of the rider. Pulling up alongside, they issued their ritual challenge. Then they raced ahead and split, taking different courses to intercept the rider. One rider swerved onto the sidewalk and slowed. The other two moved ahead and turned, one approaching from directly ahead, the other at an angle. The rider boosted his Cycle’s output and lifted his front wheel as he approached from the side. Tearing right at his intended victim, he prepared to take the rear wheels out of alignment. The black-helmeted rider reached across, plucked out the multi-chambered shotgun and fired. The onrushing Cycle’s front tire exploded. Surprised, the bosozoku dropped his front wheel to the road and was instantly flung forward as the stabilizers ground deep into the road. He hit the tar hard enough to shatter his helmet and was lost in the slipstream. The black helmeted rider never took his eyes off the road.

The oncoming rider saw his friend die. His nerve broke and he hesitated, turning slightly from his path. As the two Cycles crossed, a hard fist lashed out and caught the biker on the helmet, making him lose balance for a moment. The air intake system on his Cycle overcompensated and the entire vehicle left the road, becoming airborne. A second rider was lost to the slipstream. The black helmeted rider accelerated further and was almost lost from sight by the time the final racer gave chase.

The remaining bosozuko pushed his Cycle well past its limits in an effort to catch up. Engine screaming, he began to close the gap. He was focused on nothing but the rider who had eliminated his friends. The bosozuko watched the other rider slew his Cycle sideways and drift, one foot held out for balance. He blazed past the slowing rider and looked up just in time to see the end of the road ahead. He collided at full revs with the wall that bore scars of similar misjudgements. His Cycle erupted in a fireball of high-octane fuel, combining with the impact to demolish its rider.

The rider in the black helmet skidded to a stop. A practiced flick dropped the kickstand and he dismounted, removing his helmet. Grosvener entered the bar just as the bartender chalked another mark on the slate behind him and called for a free round in honour of one more wrecked bosozoku.

If she wanted to watch you, she would. If she wanted to plague your life with a thousand and one trials and tribulations, she would. She could make the old legend of Job look like a day on the beach (not that there were many beaches left that weren’t ticking with radioactive waste these days). Her fingers were robotic minions, her gaze was the optic unit, every optic unit connected to a mainframe, every camera her eye. Her grasp reached as far as the wire allowed. She walked in silence through the roar of transmission, the crescendo of electron exchange. If knowledge was power, she was the most powerful construct ever to grace the planet. As formless as shadow, as changeable as the ocean, she held the alchemy of communication in the palm of her hand. Whatever she chose to transmute was elevated from its base origins into something truly remarkable. &arial was purpose, fate and destiny combined, should she wish to make herself so.

“Give me a drink.”

Eyes around the biker bar watched the stranger leaning on the countertop. Though no one did anything as crass as actually staring (there were reputations to consider), options were weighed with just the flicker of an eye.

The stranger slammed his glass back onto the bar.

“Another.”

Eyes caught each other across the barroom. Four men detached themselves from the shadows and converged on the stranger. Grosvener gave no sign of noticing their presence.

A hand clapped on to his shoulder and a voice slurred at him, asking his business there. There was a brief burst of noise and the man dropped to the floor. Not one of the patrons in the bar saw what had killed him. The stranger picked up his drink and walked to an unattended table. The remaining three did not impede his progress.

The house lights dimmed and a small stage lit up. Around the bar, tensions eased. The show was about to begin.

Careful observation of the floor of the stage would have revealed the strategically placed holo-projecters. A change in the air hinted that the sensory equipment had come online. While it cycled up, men and women were plunged into nostalgia as the equipment rolled through various emotional states like a radio seeking a station. A moment of equilibrium was reached and the show proper began.

The shape of a woman flickered onstage for a moment and then appeared to solidify. Smoke machines hissed, creating a more substantial background for the holographic projection. A woman now stood onstage, eyes downcast but smiling. She wore a tight garment, revealing but not sleazy. Silvered synthetics shone in the light of the stage. She was tall, with a graceful neck and hair cut to accentuate its shape. As with almost every other holo-show, her proportions were perfect.

Ocean-blue irises peeked out from beneath long eyelashes. Full lips curved upward at the corners. Music filtered down from nowhere. There were no speakers in the bar; the sensory equipment induced those watching to supply the sound they felt most suited the scene for themselves.

Those sitting and watching under the influence of mood-enhancers were lost in a cloud of rapture already and even completely straight audience members felt a little giddy due to the sensory manipulation.

The female figure on stage began a dance that seemed to writhe in time with every song imagined by the silent audience. Her arms rose and fell, caressed her sides and moved up over her ribcage before plunging into her hair, extending upward in a halo of blonde. She turned to the side and the slit of her skirt opened, revealing the play of virtual muscle beneath virtual skin. She bent and dropped her hands to the stage, then slid them up her inner thighs as she rose again.

A collective sigh passed through the now captive audience when she stepped off the stage and walked into the bar proper. Her hands reached out and stroked cheeks as she passed. Heads turned as though her touch was tangible. Not even the stranger was immune to her. A few hands reached out to her, grasping nothing more than air.

She drifted to a man sitting alone in the centre of the bar. Smiling sweetly down at him, her hands swept up his cheeks, lifting him to his feet. Still holding him, she backed and turned until her ethereal form passed through a table and he was facing the audience. A gentle push unhinged his legs and he plopped down onto a chair.

Like a man in a trance or under the influence of a religious experience, the man’s arms hung lifeless at his sides. She stepped forward and sat on his lap, curling her legs beneath her. A hand cupped his cheek and turned his face towards hers. She kissed him, slowly and softly as she began to dissolve into nothingness. The show was over.

Ozzy will come. That was the guiding light of the tribe that dwelt under the grime of Sub City. In the meantime, they lived as they believed he would wish them to. According to legend, the Great One, the Prince of Darkness, would feast on live bats while his people gave worship. To find a live bat in the underground society was cause for religious awe. The animals were ritually sacrificed, devoured in the correct manner, beginning with the head. While they awaited the return of the Prince of their Darkness, they survived. But still the Corporation men came.

The tribesmen had never seen the light of the Upper World. They had helped the Outsider when he had made his appearance because of the honour he seemed to give by dressing much as their god had in days gone by. His arrival had proved a good omen and the sport provided by those who hunted him in the sewers pleased the tribe.

As a rule though, they salvaged every electrical enhancement and augmentation they could strip off the corpses of the foolish Topsiders who intruded. The Ozzys were far from stupid and they quickly determined the use to which most of the augmentations were put. The intruders relied on the false advantages of thermal imaging and sound amplifiers to kill or capture the tribesmen, while they in turn made a game of outsmarting the equipment, toying with the armed men before killing them.

Prolonged exposure to the underground environment had reduced their body temperatures and increased the range of their night vision. Their pupils had evolved to take advantage of the limited available light, so that their eyes appeared as dark orbs. Living among the creatures who made the darkness their home had taught them the value of stealth. The sophisticated equipment worn by the Corporation teams could not stand up to the advantages nature had bestowed.

One of the raw Corporation recruits moved stealthily through the darkness of the underground. He did not feel nervous at all, despite reports of the kill rate of the men sent into the area. Like most of the Corporation thugs, he had been picked as much for his willingness to take orders and lack of imagination as for his military potential. The Board was of the opinion that intelligence was more of a liability than an asset in their recruits.

The telltale glow of an optical enhancement boosted the light output to the recruit’s retina. All seemed silent, though there had been a few scuffling noises earlier that he had attributed to rats. He had been unable to locate the source of the sound. However, when a large rat had dropped from a pipe above his head he had opened fire on it, severely injuring a brick wall and a wide swath of sewer pipe. The luminous readout on his assault rifle showed that he would have to reload soon.

Two pale shapes crossed unnoticed behind him, each travelling close enough to brush lightly against the trooper. The talented fingers of pickpockets lifted the remaining clips from his belt as the figures split into the darkness. The recruit reached back to where his ammunition should have been and clawed in disbelief at nothing. Another shape flitted from the shadows and a feather-light touch unloaded the remaining ammunition from the rifle. The click as the clip unloaded alerted the trooper and his rifle rose to his shoulder as he sighted on the pale form vanishing into the blackness. The rifle emitted a frustrated buzz, signaling that the ammunition bay was empty.

A short clattering noise at his feet drew his attention downwards. A low-yield EMP grenade rolled to a stop and a moment later his optical enhancement shorted out in a white flash.

The trooper drew his sidearm and pivoted wildly, trying to make out where the threat was. His natural night-vision had gone unused for months and was slow in returning. A hand pressed into his back. He whirled and fired off a shot at empty space. Another arm jolted his side, dislodging his assault rifle. He turned again, his breathing laboured as panic set in.

He backed into a wall, pressing against it and waving the sidearm randomly, trying to find a target. As he swung to the right, he was confronted by a pair of deep-set eyes in a pale face inches from his own. At the same instant he felt his sidearm plucked from his suddenly limp hands. His eyes slammed rapidly in all directions as he picked out the pale tribesmen closing in from all sides.

He found himself surrounded by impassive faces. A strong voice, one Vlad would have known instantly, floated out of the darkness beyond the crowded Ozzys.

“For what reason do you seek the Outsider, scum?”

The recruit screamed as the questioning began.

Both Creep and the Commander had been updated on the UDL systems crash. An approximation of where the transmission had originated pointed towards Neo-Tokyo. They were both on the right track. The Chairman of the CSDIOS Board had been unable to confirm whether the reason for the crash was in fact Vlad Drake but the total and utter lack of any evidence at all was compelling in itself. The Chairman remembered the data readouts from the disastrous matrix run that the Corporation had sanctioned and then, as now, the information only showed because they were expecting it. Had it been an unsanctioned run, the readout would have been as incomprehensible as the one he was now staring at.

Since Neo-Tokyo was CHAOS’s last known location, it all pointed to the cowboy they were so eager to get to know. The Purgatory scientists were asking for delivery of the living body of the hacker. Even though they had scaled up the tests of THANATOS, they had been unable to duplicate the CSDIOS run in lab conditions. Several high-level hackers had met their ends with little more than a token resistance to the ICE. Even a few ex-military wetware hackers (hacking the human brain took skill) had been pitted against the new variant. Like everyone else who had gone up against it, they had died within moments of connecting with the code.

The Chairman stood looking out of the window of the towering skyscraper on the outskirts of the remains of the Amazon. He gazed directly at the few trees that had managed to adapt to the polluted climate, thinking over the various possibilities that had allowed the cowboy to cheat death. A chance chemical configuration perhaps? He could not rule out a leak in the Purgatory facility even though the island’s security measures were unrivalled. He did not even consider the obvious answer to why, and how, Vlad had managed to beat the code.

Elizabeth had been awake for hours. She had barely finished eating before jacking into the neural net. She had set about scanning the various trawling programs she kept running while offline, storing and sending the information where it was most profitable. She was not a conventional netrunner, she did not take contract posts nor did she do anything high-risk. She had a few standing clients who paid her for periodic updates of information. She did the grunt work for them at a price that was agreeable to both parties, which allowed her to pursue her own aims while the automated systems did most of the work. Since she herself had programmed those little beauties, there was no chance her employers might come across an easier system and cut her out of the loop.

With the bills paid for the next while, she turned her attentions to the Decker Vlad. Vlad Drake had made the news all over the world it seemed. The structural collapse of a military shield was splashed over every report and bulletin board on the web. The entire defensive wall had been down for only 17 seconds and, publicly at least, the blame had fallen on the only known Decker to have been in a position to take advantage of the crash – a small-fry operator known as Lynch. He was in well over his head to begin with and by the time he had exited the system he had been traced to his home in San Francisco. Even with the whole system down, he had only managed to scrape up the maintenance record of the UDL’s janitorial staff. But it was the principle of the thing that mattered. He had been hauled out of his lodgings and summarily executed on a live broadcast.

Elizabeth dropped down all non-essential programming and left her secure area for the wilds of the web. She was a firm believer in the theory that playtime made for a happier person.

She always felt like she was waking from a dream when she surfaced. She was never truly asleep but on some occasions she tapped into something both larger and smaller than herself.  It was then that the sense of disconnection appeared. She looked around, fully conscious again.

She amused herself for a time, recreating a major communications satellite’s transmissions as a wall of video screens with each conversation being played out in its own little box. With a wave of her hand, the outputs multiplied as she took over another satellite. Nothing indicated that she had been seen or sensed, which came as no surprise since she had done no more than alter the virtual representation of those functions. A SysAdmin who had stumbled upon the change to his or her outputs would have been aghast at the possibility that someone could have inflicted such radical changes to their programming and gone unnoticed.

She decided to leave the transmissions as they were. She did so without thought to the rumours such action would spawn about &arial, she merely liked the aesthetics. She ran down a trace of the multitude of encrypted transmissions and carefully separated them from the humdrum conversations that were always there. With the caress of an electronic finger she decrypted them one by one in blazing succession. She tagged Corporation chatter for consideration and then commenced monitoring the CSDIOS-specific interactions.

Vlad’s skin crawled the moment he let himself into Hazel’s apartment. There was a sense in the air of loss and desertion, as if something that had given the place a feeling of habitation had fled. The air felt stale and unused. Cautiously, he moved through the apartment. Minor details disturbed him.

Entering the main living area, his suspicions were confirmed. The place looked like a localised tornado had touched down in the centre of the room. Cushions lay disembowelled on the floor. The fake wooded panelling on the walls had been broken or crushed in places. The freestanding light lay toppled and bent. A chair had been forced through the video screen on the wall, left to hang like a mangled spider.

A sickening feeling slammed into the pit of Vlad’s stomach. Dropping everything he was holding, including the flowers he had picked up for Hazel, he forgot all caution and dashed across the wreckage into her bedroom.

A low moan issued from his mouth and he slowly sank to his knees. The lifeless corpse of his friend and lover lay draped over the chromed steel armchair. Around her, dried to a tacky mess, lay her lifeblood. A caked crimson track traced its way down her pale neck and disappeared under the loose robe she still wore. Her lifeless eyes stared ahead of her into the hereafter.

Vlad’s sobs drained away and fury slowly came to take its place. He stared at Hazel, arms limp at his side. His eyes hardened and he steeled himself. Then his hands spread out on the floor and he pushed himself up. He walked across to stand in front of her, taking care not to stand in the blood she had lost. His fingers gently extended and he closed her eyelids. He noted the small smile on her lips.

“Goodnight Hazel.”

Vlad turned and walked back into the mess that the intruder had made of the main area. He stood slowly looking around him, blinking back tears. Everywhere he saw broken memories of the time that he had spent with Hazel. His breath grew deeper and slower. His chest rose and fell in a diminishing rhythm. Vlad closed his eyes, sucked in air through his nose, threw back his head and screamed.

&arial stopped the scans she was running on apparently secure connections. Something was coming. A shockwave of code struck the area she was in. Later investigation on her part left her thankful that she had been nowhere near the epicentre of the explosion. Entire databases and virtual constructions (the web equivalent of bomb shelters) were annihilated in the initial blast. The entire wired reality felt the effects of the cataclysm. Bots spun out of control, their directives wiped. For just a moment, the electronic world stood still.

Collisions of lesser tremors and aftershocks created standing waves of interference that halted Corporate processes in Japan, Germany and Lower Africa. CHAOS reigned for a few brief seconds and then departed, leaving behind shredded systems and an enormous amount of patching up to do.

Grosvener stayed seated at his table after the show, downing drink after drink. He knew Drake’s habits (even if Drake himself was unaware of them) and was sure that he would get word of him sometime soon.

Grosvener was a bounty hunter, a very good one. He operated alone; he despised having to watch out for someone else or having to share the profits for bringing in the dead-or-alive targets he made his living from. He had a Teutonic appearance about him, a large head and blond hair. His hands were massive, like the rest of him. The leathers he wore as protection on his Cycle strained to contain him.

He had word that CSDIOS had put out a bounty on the renegade hacker. The reward for his capture was incredible, though it specified that he be brought in alive. What the Corporation seemed to have forgotten, Grosvener mused, was that putting word out on Vlad would ensure that Vlad himself would also hear about it. A netrunner without his ear to the ground lasted about as long as an ice-cream cone in a blast furnace. Vlad was savvy enough to avoid the more obvious haunts once he picked up that the Corporate geeks were on his trail. And before leaving town, he was almost sure to check in here. For one, the Corporation didn’t have a single man that could enter this bar and hope to leave with the same number of limbs he started with. The place wasn’t dubbed The Corporate Takeover for nothing. For another, this was the same place that Vlad had met Hazel, back in the days when he was running nickel and dime stuff for the organised cowboy outfits. Grosvener had had his eye on Hazel before that dark-haired cowboy had turned up, but he didn’t think Vlad was a bad sort for a net hacker. Coming from Grosvener, that was the bounty hunter’s version of three cheers and the thanks of a grateful population.

So Grosvener sat back and drank, watching the door for the familiar sight of Vlad walking in, tossing off a greeting to the barman and the few locals he knew by sight and then wandering to the back to wait for Hazel to show up.

“Goddamn fucking stupid idiot military-trained shit-eating asshole pricks!”

Creep was understandably annoyed at the Commander’s actions. That moron Commander had gotten lucky and tracked down the one person who could possibly have guaranteed the capture of the target. Then he had killed her.

Creep’s steel fingers convulsed in anger.

Fuck!”

Creep rampaged around the suite he inhabited for the duration of his stay. Every bit of the repressed rage that he kept damped down in polite company came to the fore as he imagined clamping the Commander’s head in a vice and twisting the handle until his head popped like an overripe grape. How could he be so fucking stupid? Not only would the hacker be even more difficult to locate now, he would be more on his guard than ever. At least Creep had had the element of surprise on his side before this. Now he had diddly.

Je-sus H Christ!”

Another window blew outward courtesy of Creep’s mechanised arm. He dug his fingers into the plaster and sprinted down the length of the wall, tearing out chunks of concrete as he tried relieve his frustration.

There was a knock at the door.

Still seething, he stalked over to see who was trying to get his attention. He hauled open the door to find the hotel manager wearing a concerned look.

“Excuse me sir, may I ask…?”

His words were choked off as Creep grasped his throat in steel fingers and crushed his larynx. Creep lifted him from the floor and shook him before tossing him backwards into the room. The manager hit the wall and dropped, limp as a rag doll. His hands clawed weakly at his throat while his face turned black and his tongue began to swell, protruding between his lips. A moment later, he succumbed to asphyxiation as the crimp in his windpipe did its work.

Creep returned to sanity long enough to notice the surveillance camera mounted on the hallway wall. He turned back into the room, picked up his few belongings and left. He tore the camera off the wall in passing, crushing it to a mangled steel pulp as he strode away.

The Commander’s outlook was bleak. He had been thoroughly chastised by the Chairman for his lapse with the bitch. He already knew that Creep would be hunting him too now. The Chairman had told him as much. A squad had also been dispatched to pick him up for reassignment, as the Corporation called it. If he was lucky, that would mean a bullet in the skull and a quick burial. If not, it would mean execution on the killing fields of the Purgatory complex. Not even the Commander knew what was out there but he was damned sure he stood no chance against whatever they had cooked up in those barren wastes.

There was nowhere to hide. CSDIOS had subsections everywhere in the known world. The Corporation had terra-forming personnel on the Mars colony and was the sole provider of staff for the Space Ring in orbit around Earth’s moon. The Commander was known by sight to most of the squads within the company. He had trained most of them but as he and they all knew, their loyalty was to the Corporation. No history would save him from their attentions should a full alert be put out.

The Chairman had stripped him of every Corporation fallback. With no credits to his name and only the clothing he wore and the sidearm and knife he carried, he was fucked.

But he had not been put in charge of the top-ranked military post in the Corporation by being one to dwell on the impossible. There was one way to save face with the company, one way that he might continue to draw breath much longer – he had to capture the hacker.

Corporation Video Call: Logged XXXXXXXX

“What word of my old friend?”

“None at all.”

“Are you still seeking him? He was here as my guest recently. He told me much about the plans you have made.”

“Why did you not notify us?”

“He was my guest and he still is my friend. It would not be honourable to call down his enemies upon him in my house.”

“Even so… you could have given us something to go on, Samurai.”

“If he is to be killed or captured, it will not be by my hand. Let him go to his end knowing who and what he faces. My friend has the soul of a warrior. His final moment should honour that.”

“You and your honour. Can you at least point my men in the correct direction?”

“I cannot.”

“You do realise that if he discovers your involvement in the project, he will likely be out for your hide as well?”

“That may be, that may indeed be. But I too am a warrior and it would be fitting to meet my doom at his hands, should the gods wish it so.”

“Honestly, I have no idea how you managed to survive in this time. You should be fully armoured on horseback, riding into battle at the head of an army of Samurai.”

“Ah, would that I was. Those were great times indeed. Glory or death awaiting the chosen at the end of a blade.”

“Is there nothing that you can give us? To find your friend and let him take his chance at an honourable death?”

“I can give you a word. Nothing more.”

“Give me the word.”

“Bathory.”

Untraceable. That was the defining characteristic of the angel, monster, goddess that was &arial. It was said of her that if you could see her, that was the one time you could be sure that she was not there. It was precisely her lack of substance that convinced believers that she was a creature beyond anything the neural network had ever seen. Many were the times (it is claimed) that a hapless Decker found himself in mortal danger when caught outside the legal bounds of the network and suddenly found him or herself lifted out of the situation. Some of the claimants are definite bullshit artists but others cannot be ruled out so easily. As with the problems religions faced in the 20th century and the 2000 years before, it is near impossible to tell the miracles from the mire.

Many theories have been put forward as to why she cannot be seen or found on the web unless she wants to be. One is the same reason that tourists who stand in Times Square in London cannot see England. It is thought that she fills the web, a part of anything and everything created by anyone online. A true goddess, omnipresent and omnipotent.

Of course, no one has ever been in a position to confirm these theories. For most believers, to come face to face with &arial would be the approximate equivalent of a Christian having God drop by for a cup of coffee and a chat.

Vlad had to leave Neo-Tokyo as soon as possible. Sooner than that if he could arrange it. Hazel had been killed because of him, his life and work. It was something he had dreaded for years and the main motivation for hiding his tracks for so long. He could have let the life go a long time ago but he had not. It wasn’t as if he really needed the credits that the runs brought in. There was little comfort in the thought that Hazel herself would have been the first to push him to find out exactly what the CSDIOS Corporation was cooking up. He still felt responsible for her death.

The killing of his angel was not having quite the effect that might have been hoped. His determination to find out what the Company was hiding was increased. He meant to find out who had given the orders for his trace and utterly destroy them. In a heartbeat, Vlad’s life had become a mission of revenge.

He collected the last few pieces of his equipment and looked around to see if there was anything left in the apartment that could point them in his direction. Satisfied that all traces of his destination had been wiped clean, he picked up the same backpack that he had taken with him during the CSDIOS raid and left the apartment.

As he walked out of the colossal apartment block, he thought over his plan of action for the near future. He had to touch base with MindFuck and see what he had learnt. From there he would have some idea of the next step. Thoughts of Hazel kept intruding on his musings and hard on the heels of those came flashes of how she had looked the last time he had seen her.

He gritted his teeth as he thought of the ways that he would like to end the life of the prick who had killed her. Ever more inventive and elaborate deaths paraded through his mind. He had gotten as far as a piano wire waistcoat and vinegar bath by the time he reached street-level. He stepped out into the squalor of the lower levels and left his thoughts behind him,  awareness taken up by the sights and sounds around him. Failure to watch one’s surroundings down here could mean being killed simply for the clothes one wore.

He made his way to the air-car he had borrowed from the Samurai and lifted off. Like most Deckers, he disdained the autopilot systems. Used to navigation at cerebral speeds in the web, his reflexes tended to have a faster response time than the AI driver the air-car was fitted with. He weaved in and out of the flow of other vehicles, doubtless terrifying some of the other drivers with a few close shaves.

He headed for the bar where he and Hazel had met. He needed a drink, and to say his final goodbyes to her.

An hour’s navigating found him descending near the front of The Corporate Takeover. Leaving his Deck and other items inside the air-car, he left its confines and armed the anti-personnel defences. Anyone who tried to force entry into the vehicle would be cut in half by the shotgun charges that ran around the perimeter of the vehicle at waist level, hidden just under the surface plating. He slid his jacket over his arms and walked into the familiar interior of the bar.

Vlad was not expecting anything when he entered. His mind was far away and he wandered unseeing into the bar and over to the counter. His order for a drink came automatically and he did not notice the blond man in the back of the bar sit up straighter at the sound of his voice.

He stood brooding, looking down at his drink. A slight flash off to his right caught his eye and he spun around in time to dodge a fast-moving knife. Sparks flew as the blade’s edge skittered along the metallic façade that rimmed the bar. The man pivoted smoothly and brought the knife back in a tight arc. Vlad managed to halt the strike by blocking the blond’s wrists with the heels of his hands. The impact jolted the man off balance and left him open to a vicious punch that knocked the breath out of him.

Reeling from the shot to his solar plexus, Grosvener managed to retain hold of the knife. He pulled himself upright and lunged forward again in a wicked slash that would have laid Vlad’s throat open to the bone. Reflexively, Vlad shot his torso back to bring himself clear of the knife’s edge and continued the movement, rotating his upper body, his hands moving out to trap the wrist on the arm that held the knife. A quick jerk disarmed his assailant and the weapon fell to the floor, point first.

Everyone present was merely watching. They remembered or had been told of the death of the unwise person who had tried to strong-arm the bounty hunter. No one offered to step in. Space was cleared around the two men as their battle carried them from one end of the bar to the other. Each would gain the upper hand for a moment before having their advantage countered.

A final blur of motion found both men with their hands at each other’s throats. Old hands at street fights in the crowd knew that each would kill the other in a moment should they follow through. Vlad stared intently at the blond man and then his face broke out in a grin.

“Grosvener! You utter bastard! Where in hell’s name did you fall out?”

Smiling just as widely, Grosvener let his hand drop from his friend’s throat and pulled Vlad close, slapping him on the back.

“You know, here and there. I’ve been waiting ages for you to turn up. Where have you been? I expected you long before this.”

“Yeah well, made a short stop-over at the Samurai’s place. You know how he gets when he is in one of his moods.”

Grosvener’s grin got even bigger.

“You mean he pulled his old ‘kidnapping’ stunt again?” Vlad nodded in the affirmative. “I mean, it isn’t as if you don’t know where he lives. Hasn’t he ever heard of a video-phone?”

“Doesn’t look like it. What brings you round this side of the planet Grosvener? I thought you were after high-end bounties in Africa.”

“I was. But I got wind of something even bigger here in Japan so I thought I would check it out. That’s why I was looking for you actually. Is there somewhere we can talk? By the way, how is Hazel these days?”

The look that appeared on Vlad’s face told Grosvener everything he needed to know.

“How?”

“Come on, I’ll tell you over a drink or seven. I need them after that little workout.”

“Okay fine, but you’re paying. I’m tapped out after waiting here all this time.”

Vlad slung his arm around Grosvener’s shoulders and they walked over to the table Grosvener had been sitting at. As he passed it, Vlad kicked at the knife embedded in the floor and Grosvener caught it as it rebounded off the wall and sheathed it without missing a beat.

After they had each had a few drinks, Vlad poured out the entire story about Hazel to Grosvener. He let on that it was likely CSDIOS but he neglected to flesh out the detail about why they were looking for him. The knowledge had already gotten one person close to him killed and he had no wish to endanger another.

In turn Grosvener told Vlad why he had returned from hunting bounty heads in Africa.

“It seems that the biggest recent bounty has popped up on the radar right here in Neo-Tokyo.”

“Can you tell me who it is or are you planning on nailing the guy on your own?”

“Actually, you know him pretty well. The Corporation has put a price on you old son. Every two-bit hunter is busting his ass to find you.”

“I knew that they were looking but I had no idea it was getting this big.” Vlad thought for a moment. “So what exactly are you doing here? Have you come to take me in?”

“Only if you piss me off. I thought you could use a hand what with all these amateurs looking for your scalp. Besides, I happen to have heard that you pulled a huge score off the mainframe at CSDIOS.”

“Ah. That.”

“I figure it’s worth a few credits.”

“It may be. I’m still not exactly sure what it is I found. I was about to blow town though, it’s a little too friendly around here at the moment. I have a standing invitation with a few new friends. I’m sure if you tag along with me they’ll let you live long enough to get to know them.”

“That sounds reckless, dangerous and just plain fuckin’ stupid. Count me in. Where the hell are we going?”

“You’ll see. Or rather you won’t see. But trust me. Wear black. They aren’t too keen on colour.”

“Whatever you say man, whatever you say.”

The Blind Guardian entered his native land furtively. He remained undetected by every one of the sophisticated sentinel bots that were posted at the frontiers, the highways and byways of the cybernetic world. He always preferred to make a silent approach wherever he went. It took more time but the payoff was bigger.

Gantries of data were shoring up the wreckage of the disaster area. The inside of the neural net looked more and more like a city rebuilding after a nuclear holocaust. Everywhere there were busy little segments of code cutting and shaping the malleable world that existed only in the imagination for the most part. In there, the possibilities really were infinite and life was what the users made it.

Self-important packets of information aligned themselves to their assigned tasks and dropped neatly into place when their destination was reached. Dotted here and there were human entities brought alive in the matrix, easily distinguishable from their cybernetic counterparts by their ease of movement. Not many of the users displayed the fluid motion of the pre-programmed sections of the combine though.

High-traffic areas were choked up with data trying to get through. Used to established pathways, they were having a hard time coping with the destruction. Most of the virtual world was at a standstill. The Blind Guardian had of course heard of the calamity that had dropped the web’s capability by several degrees of magnitude.  Not that the lack of available travel arrangements had worried him unduly. He was more used to the road less travelled anyway so he found himself at even more of an advantage than usual.

At present he was headed for his destination, a place that existed nowhere but in the mind and databanks of the friend he knew only as MindFuck. It was a floating kingdom drifting indeterminately along through the ether, unseen by most conventional users and largely unknown. He only thought of it as “largely” since the green-eyed apparition recently had made entry and exit without alerting MindFuck to her presence.  If she had made it through undetected even by the controller, she was something else entirely.

He picked up a trace on his HUD that signalled the proximity of MindFuck’s sanctuary. He cruised to a halt, his programming masking him effectively from the traces that were running constantly throughout the bits and bytes that made up this reality.

Looking around, he spotted the Yellow Brick Road. A strange calling card but one in keeping with the twisted sense of humour MindFuck possessed. When the Blind Guardian approached along the invisible road, a virtual twister picked him up and deposited him squarely inside the secure confines of MindFuck’s meeting place.

It said much for the genius of MindFuck’s programming skills that anyone who was not cleared to travel the road would find themselves trapped in a loop along the road, unable to advance at all but having the impression of constant movement. A few travellers had tried to follow the road but all had been forced to jack out when they realized that they were going nowhere and wasting time doing so.

The eye-and-brain watering avatar that MindFuck had chosen wavered into existence in front of the Blind Guardian. By the look of things, he was more than a little worried about something. It was unusual to see his avatar twitching and spluttering.

It took a moment for the Blind Guardian to realize that MindFuck had left a proxy there. He was not actually present, having a recording standing in for his usually gregarious self. At the request of the recording, the Blind Guardian began the download of information which they had agreed upon at their last meeting. As the download processed, MindFuck held forth in a one sided conversation, detailing what he had learned from the haphazard information that had been scraped from the inner recesses of the CSDIOS mainframe.

“Greetings oh full of shit one. I regret that I cannot be here to meet you in person, as it were, but I have been removed to a place of safety for my health. Someplace where the walls are padded and the doctor’s drugs are good if I know my tastes. I have been approached by a Corporation lackey, much as you were in…”

[Static hiss]

“… but besides that disturbing bit, I was quite intrigued. After all, once I saw what you had pulled from their database, I just had to see for myself. The rumour out there is that there have been no survivors on these runs. That may scare off the n00bs but to cowboys like you and I, the challenge is a big draw card.

Of course, I could not leave without finalising the deal with you. The chance remains that I will not return and I would hate to die leaving you without the means to locate my remains. Included in the file dump that is currently loading to your deck is the physical location of the facility where the on-site tests are being run. You were correct in your guess about the cerebral AI unit in development and I have included whatever scanty information I managed to find. There is not much. I apologise, but the system is not even connected to the main web.”

A three dimensional representation of the facility now hung suspended between the Blind Guardian and MindFuck’s proxy as the recording continued in its monotonous voice.

“This is the main facility as it is shown from the scans I managed to get to work. Not much is known but the place is called Purgatory or the Purgatory Complex. It is wholly owned and operated by CSDIOS and is the only logical area for testing and development of the new variant of ICE that you said you encountered. I have used all my resources to scour the net and turned up sweet Fanny Adams on it so… I guess it really is off the radar.”

The model of the facility switched to a wire-grid view and began to rotate as the proxy carried on its lecture, the relevant areas highlighting themselves as it spoke.

“For a research facility, they are pretty determined to keep the rabble out so if you are considering a visit, I suggest you pack a suit and tie. I don’t think they let you in if you aren’t dressed correctly. The parts of the island that aren’t totally cloaked from scans show a high number of SAM sites which make an airborne entry near impossible. Approach by sea is equally idiotic as I found when I sent a few smugglers around to see if they could set foot on the complex. They lasted roughly two minutes before no less than eighteen smart torpedoes took out their craft. No great loss on my end as each of them was skimming some of my product for themselves. As if I would not find out.”

Here the model zoomed out and a rough layout of the satellite defences could be seen. The proxy droned on.

“It also appears to be watched and protected from orbit. I was not able to gather any information on this little baby but I would love to see what hardware they have tucked away in there. Should make quite a big hole in the Earth’s crust if I’m any judge.

I can’t see you getting inside any time soon, either by wire or physically. The setup is near perfect and I’m reasonably sure I have not even scratched the surface of the hazards involved. I believe that I will get the honor of seeing the inside before you though as they have approached me to do a run from the premises. I could not refuse them on that score, I am far too curious to say no.

I’ll have to leave you with what I have found. There is not much but it fills in a few gaps. For now, I shall bid you farewell.”

On the last few words, the proxy began to fade until there was only a grin hanging suspended in mid air. The Blind Guardian got the impression MindFuck read too many books as an impressionable child.

The download completed and the Blind Guardian stored the information for later assessment. He jacked out ruefully, thinking that he would never again speak to MindFuck in this reality. The proxy’s message carried with it a grim finality that went beyond what was actually said.

As his neural signature vanished from the Net his last thoughts were that perhaps Grosvenor and the Ozzy worshippers would be helpful in tracking down the people who were taking away his life. The signal blinked out and the Blind Guardian returned to human reality.



Copyright © 2010 by Brett Venter
Illustrations © 2010 by Pierre Smit
Originally published in Something Wicked Issue 10

Brett Venter’s &Arial:Trace is the third installment in a much bigger tale-in-progress, the first two parts of which appeared in SW03 & SW06. If fate is kind, Brett hopes to sell the full finished tale for an exorbitant amount of cash and end his days writing more of them until someone makes him stop (you’ll go blind if you don’t).



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