Ghost in the Machine Ch. 06byBlind_Justice©
A big 'Thank you' to bikoukumori, who has again done a wonderful job editing out my mistakes, leaving only awesomeness behind.
Sorry for delivering another chapter light on sex. There were so many little things left to wrap up in the behemoth that was #5, I couldn't let them dangle for too long. The hot sex returns in the next chapter, promise.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot. There's only adults in here, and no artificial intelligences were harmed.
#6: Out of the bag
I gingerly removed the plug from my eye jack and exhaled slowly. Damn, that was much too close for comfort. Returning to my own body, I keenly felt the damage the Ceiss security jockey had done to me. My head hurt as if a terrorcore band was using it as their rehearsal room, every heartbeat sending sharp pangs of pain through my skull, my mouth was dry and I was shaking like a leaf. Gingerly I rose off the couch, noting that I was still dripping wet. Did I pee myself while my brain was out of town? I slipped a hand between my thighs and sniffed at my fingers. No, that clearly was the smell of arousal, not urine. Thank God, that would have been a pain to clean up.
Another vicious stab shot through my brain. Staggering, I nearly tripped over the cables linking the combat deck to the power and 'Net lines. I caught the rear of the sofa then wobbled, carefully, over to the bathroom and yanked open the small cabinet that held my stash of meds, well stocked courtesy of Fleischer. I popped two Ibuprofen and made my way into the small bedroom. Flopping down onto the bed, I waited for the painkillers to do their thing.
Eventually, the pain receded and I could think somewhat clearly again. I knew I should've called Fleischer, let him check me up, but I wasn't itching to answer all those annoying questions which would come up, like what I was doing with a fully-loaded combat rig or how I got my brain fried in the first place. No, that was a can of worms I wasn't quite ready to open yet.
No matter how I spun it, everything led back to this Cat person. Without her, I wouldn't be alive. The ease with which she overwhelmed the Ceiss jockey was awe-inspiring and there were so many things I wanted to ask her. I didn't even mind the idea of having virtual sex with her too much. After my brush with the rape chip, everything was better than that. I keenly remembered how soothing her touch felt on my chromed flesh and that every time she touched me, some little hurt vanished. I couldn't remember the last time someone actually hugged me, let alone was gentle to me without paying for it. Fleischer didn't count, he was more like a father to me than anything plus he was adamant in refusing any offer of sex with me.
From out of nowhere, the yawn hit me and I realized how deathly tired I was. Now that the adrenaline was wearing off, I felt my body turn to a leaden, clumsy mess. Cursing and shivering, I sat up and pulled my clothes off me and crawled under the covers. There was no rush to find out what happened to my parents. There... was... no...
I woke around noon. Checking my tiny alarm clock, I nearly fainted. I had been out cold for two days! My stomach was growling and I felt sticky all over, the thick covers much too warm for my liking. Also, I badly needed to shave, my head was already sprouting a noticeable fuzz of brown. So I decided to treat myself to an extended shower before hitting the closest supermarket. The act of making myself presentable felt really good, banishing the last vestiges of unease. When I was done, all bald up top and down below, I felt really good and the sunshine pooling in through the windows of my flat, yes my flat, only added to that. I pulled on one of my favourite panties, dark purple, hopped into a pair of faded jeans, threw a simple black tee over my body, not bothering with a bra and grabbed my silver baseball jacket. Time to tear up the town!
Two hours later I was back with five plastic bags full of supplies, everything I thought I would need for the forseeable future. Food for two weeks, soft drinks, coffee, toiletries and a few other things which might come in handy. I treated myself to a nice meal, ready-made lasagna, and pondered my options. The headaches had disappeared completely and, with a belly full of noodles and sauce, life looked splendid indeed.
My gaze drifted to the combat deck still laying where I'd left it two days ago. There were answers to be had and I really had no reason to dawdle anymore.
I found the book where I left it, on a massive marble book stand in the cathedral's pulpit, Cat's business card directly next to it, meowing softly.
Gingerly, I flipped open the heavy covers and began to read, finally unravelling the mystery of my past.
My parents' death was what the detectives in the StimChips called "a chain of unfortunate circumstances." Fuck all of them.
My father had been working on a prototype for a new lens system, so tiny it could be used on a molecular level. In itself, it would have many useful applications already, especially for internal medicine or cybertech. Imagine it - miniscule robots able to swim in the bloodstream, with all the tools to surgically remove tumours or unclot blood vessels. Or used as the basis for practical optical computing. The major hindrance in building optical computers has always been the size of the lenses neccessary to focus and direct the light and the stuff my father worked on offered a stepping stone in this direction.
The documents showed ample proof that several companies wooed him, most notably Mindlink, the inventors of the mind/machine interface that has quietly become the standard. There were dozens of pictures showing my father talking to a guy called Richard Squier. Sitting in a conference together or golfing or drinking. Internal Affairs believed Squier was the one who made my father an offer he couldn't resist.
So, eventually, he nabbed Mom and me from Ceiss Tower, we had a nice night out, at the end of which we would have used a Mindlink private jet to flee to America. Too bad Ceiss knew how valuable my father's research would be and kept him under close surveillance. The extraction team picked us up, the security persued, there was the shootout on the autobahn near the airport and the ensuing crash of the limo my parents and I were in.
When the car stopped rolling over, I was alive but unconscious. The surveillance cameras mounted next to the autobahn showed my parents trying their best to drag me from the overturned vehicle before another bullet hit the gas tank and the car exploded. The flash fire took half my face with it and the shrapnel heavily wounded my parents. Instead of calling an ambulance though and having corporate jurisdiction deal with them, the people from SecTeam 6 decided to opt for a "cleaner" solution. They shot my parents on account of them being "as good as dead anyways." Initially, they tried to mask it as an accident but half a year later, while I was still recovering from my eye operation, the truth came to light. SecTeam 6 was disbanded and Internal Affairs faced a serious problem.
My parents were traitors to the corporation but I was not. Ceiss were legally bound to care for me, especially since I was still a minor. Only problem was, as soon as I would turn eighteen, they would have been bound to show me every document related to my parents' death, thereby admitting that they knew about their murder at the hand of SecTeam 6, which would have cost them millions in damages if I ever went to court. And believe me, I would have dragged them up to the European Court of Justice had I known then what I knew now. So instead they chose to throw me out, on charges of collaboration with known traitors, hoping that the urban jungle would make short work of tender young Katarina Fuchs.
Cat looked at me, genuine warmth and sympathy in her eyes. Today, she was wearing bits and pieces of a school uniform and appeared as a playful catgirl, complete with tail, ears and whiskers.
"What are you planning to do with this knowledge, meow," she asked, cuddling against me, her fingers playing with the tip of my plait.
Finding her was as easy as picking up the business card and reading it. I was a bit spooked when my avatar moved of its own accord but I figured there was no reason to distrust her. If Cat wanted me dead, she could have easily left me at DarkSith01's mercy. Now we were sitting in a remarkable imitation of a living room, the huge glass panels opposite the sofa showing a dazzling view of the surrounding 'Net architecture.
"I'm angry, Cat. No, scratch that. I'm fucking furious. If I could, I would wipe Ceiss off the map for what they did. Not only to me, but to my parents as well," I snarled, slapping my thigh in frustration, the chrome ringing loudly. "But you know how my last attempt ended."
"Don't be too hard on yourself, Shinygirl," Cat purred, her hand caressing my neck. "You have almost no experience in cyber combat, yet you handled yourself admirably. Granted, you made mistakes, but-"
I cut her off with an angry swipe of my hand.
"You know, I could've died back there," I snapped.
Cat leaned in, both hands taking mine. Then she smiled and breathed a gentle kiss onto my lips, shutting me up.
"You didn't die. Even a bad experience like that can be beneficial," she said, somberly.
"By going back and analyzing your mistakes. Isn't that how humans learn," Cat inquired, her fingers gently caressing my wrists.
"Well, now that you put it that way... The question is, where did I not fuck up?"
"Let us see the log files then," Cat purred, brushing her hand over my arm. A thin green mist poured from my skin into her hand. A moment later, an old-style laptop appeared on the glass table in front of the sofa. Cat flipped it open.
"What, you want to teach me? Now," I asked, somewhat confused. Only a few moments before, Cat was all over me, teasing, fondling, obviously trying to hit on me.
"Sure, why not? There is ample time to play later," Cat smiled, leaning in and licking my nipple. I gasped in surprise.
"Naughty kitty, you!" I playfully admonished her, tousling her hair.
"Meow, guilty as charged," Cat grinned. "But that does not mean I can't be serious too. Now, let's see what you did wrong, okay?"
Watching my attempt to infiltrate Ceiss from a neutral vantage point was even more painful than being there myself. Without the distracting rush of overwhelming, new feelings, it became blatantly obvious how I fucked up. The advert blocker was a bad idea, diverting system resources that could have saved my chromed ass in the later fights. Using the user ID of an avatar that just entered the system in front of me was super-stupid, and despite his haughtiness, DarkSith01 was right. I should have bothered with armor. The third wave of security programs was the beginning of the end, the single, tiny cut disrupting my balance, breaking my flow. And from there on, everything went to hell. Seeing the security jockey fry my avatar from Cat's point of view was just the fucking icing of it all.
Cat turned off the laptop. I was trying to keep my face impassive, but my hands were shaking, softly ringing off my chromed thighs.
"You picked the wrong programs. And instead of blindly charging the cascading security, you should have fled when you had the chance, to return again, better equipped," she said softly. Her arm snaked around my waist and she cuddled against me.
"Well, apart from reminding me how narrowly I escaped death, what does that teach me?" I asked, irritated.
"There's this ancient philosopher, Sun Tzu, who once said 'know thyself, know thine enemy, and nothing shall ever stand in your way'," Cat quoted. "How about this? In the coming days, we will take a look at your system, find out what it's capable of. I can show you how to use what you've got." A playful smile spread across her lips.
Despite myself, I chuckled too. Playfully, I shook my torso, setting my chrome breasts a-jingle. "I know damn well what i've got," I retorted.
Then something Cat said finally registered.
"Wait. What do you mean, 'how humans learn?' Aren't you human yourself, Cat?"
Cat froze and blinked, twice.
That's not how things were planned. Instead of gently seducing Shine into becoming her study subject, Cat just inadvertently hinted at her secret. She needed to act quickly. Consulting her sources, she realized that humanity as a whole didn't react well to artificial lifeforms. Most, if not all her sources showed that humans actively looked for a way to destroy that which they did not understand, be it alien life forms or sentient machines. Could she risk confirming Shine's suspicions about her? The last thing Cat needed was an eager team of scientists, going down her throat and trying to rip apart the foundation she ran on.
Tapping into the brain patterns underlying Shine's avatar, Cat found another surprise. Instead of distrust or panic, she found an entirely different reading, very much akin to arousal but centered on a different region of the brain. Was that... curiosity? Could it be that Shine herself was curious about Cat? Maybe they could approach this partnership as equals. If it turned out that Shine would betray her secret, Cat could terminate her after all. Maybe this was worth a little risk.
"No, I am not," Cat said. She sat up straight and placed her hands into her lap. Her gaze sought mine, obviously looking for something.
"Come on, you're pulling my leg," I snorted. "What are you then, an alien? Or... an artificial intelligence?"
Cat looked at me again, obviously taken aback by my mirth.
"You... don't believe me," she complained, in a small voice. "I am merely confirming what you are suspecting."
"I have seen you fight, Cat. You're way more powerful than even the most over-the-top StimChip super-agent could ever be. You must be running some impressive hardware, I'll give you that. But everybody knows that 'true' AI isn't possible. There's no hardware powerful enough to process the amount of data a single human brain can."
Cat's smile widened.
"That is true. No single computer could hope to achieve the processing power of the human mind," she confirmed. Then her smile turned sneaky. "But seven million, six hundred seventy-six thousand, three hundred fourty-nine computers can."
"What," I gasped.
"I am running on a distributed network, Shine. Much like an actual brain. If one system fails or gets shut down, another can take over the task. So it's highly unlikely I can ever die," Cat explained.
"Who would willingly invite an AI to run on their system," I asked in disbelief.
What Cat was telling me here was scary, almost too scary to wrap my head around.
"No one knows," Cat answered. "To all concerned, my software still looks like clients for the Folding@Home initiative."
"Seriously, Cat, do you want me to believe that? It sounds weirder than any science fiction I've ever watched," I said.
"How much do you know about detecting whether the avatar you're facing is human or a program," Cat inquired, a sudden urgency in her voice.
"Hardly anything, really. Usually, human avatars tend to display individual quirks or a personal style, while programs look all alike," I explained, drawing on my admittedly limited knowledge of 'Net lore.
Cat clapped her hands. A moment later, two people entered the room, both naked.
One was a male, a lean, well-trained Asian dude who looked like a Bruce Lee wannabe; the other a slender, girlish female with a stunning mane of black hair and intense eyes, not unlike Cat's. Both stood in front of the couch and bowed deeply. Their movements were fluid, like Cat's, and they seemed much more real than my chromed angel avatar.
"Shine, meet Forrest and Hibiko," Cat said by way of introduction. Each of them bowed as their name was mentioned and I felt a vague hint of unease as their eyes travelled up and down my naked body, taking in my glittering curves.
"Ni hao, Shine," Forrest said, his voice high, reedy, a stark contrast to his kung-fu-fighter build. His hand brushed my arm.
"Ohayo gozaimas, Shine-san," Hibiko piped up, also bowing deeply. She righted herself and, completely contrary to her obvious Japanese behaviour so far, she openly ogled me, her hand playing with one of her breasts.
"Friends of yours, Cat," I asked, a bit confused. "What are we going to do? Have us a little orgy?"
"Would you like that, Shine," Cat grinned, nudging my side with her elbow.
Forrest and Hibiko were by now kissing, their hands roaming over their bodies.
"Try not to distract me, Cat. You asked me what I knew about the distinction between programs and human avatars. What do these two," I gestured at Forrest and Hibiko, who was now kissing her way down Forrest's toned stomach, obviously aiming for his raging hard-on, "have to do with it?"
"What do you think are they," Cat asked, languidly writhing against me.
Seeing Hibiko pleasure Forrest was mildly distracting and severely arousing, the sights and sounds astonishingly real. I had to remind myself to keep my hands still, they inadvertently had travelled along my body, zeroing in on my breasts and pussy.
"Going by the look of things, I'd say they're human avatars. They exhibit too many unique characteristics and their movements and actions lack that over-perfect quality one associates with programs. But-" I gently snatched one of Cat's hands which was caressing my thigh, distracting me even more, "since you're obviously trying to prove a point here, I'd say they're not. Right?"
"Exactly. They are semi-autonomous programs, puppets, if you will. As long as they're performing a certain function, which in this case means 'hot, steamy sex,' they're indistinguishable from the real thing. Now, watch," Cat purred, sitting up straight again.
"Forrest," she called. He stopped fucking Hibiko's throat and looked at Cat, blinking.
"Yes," he asked. Hibiko let his glistening member slide from her mouth and looked at us as well, disappointment on her face.
Cat flicked her wrist and threw a soccer ball at him. Forrest dodged it nimbly and looked at it in wonder.
"Come on, do a juggling routine with it," Cat encouraged him. Forrest bent down and picked up the ball, bouncing it off the floor a couple of times. Then he began to juggle the ball with his feet. Even untrained me could easily see that he was running a pre-set animation routine, the ball travelling from his foot to his forehead, he balanced it there for a moment, then it bounced off his elbow, to the floor, where he kicked it up with his foot again, only for it to end up on his forehead.
"Okay, enough, honey, before you embarrass yourself even further. As you were, darlings," Cat purred. Forrest dropped the ball, literally, and pulled Hibiko to the floor, sighing noisily as he kissed down her body.
"Fine, they're your playthings. But that doesn't answer my question. What are you, Cat?"
"I have told you before. I'm an artificial intelligence. Or, if you want to munch semantics, I'm a fully autonomous, self-aware program. I know that I'm a program but I also know that I'm more than just a bunch of code," Cat explained. Then her eyes turned gentle. "Does that thought scare you?"
I closed my eyes, trying my best to blot out Hibiko's moaning as Forrest licked her between her thighs, trying to blot out Cat's intense stare, and mulled things over.
For all I knew, and that wasn't much, she was telling me one heck of a lie. But the signs were there. I only needed to remind myself of what she did at Ceiss Tower, easily taking over the whole login node, manipulating a cascading security protocol and overwhelming a security hacker at the same time without even breaking a sweat. Or the way she so casually pulled the file on my parents from thin air. Only two ways she could have done that so easily. Either she was in league with Ceiss, which I doubted, going by the way she messed up DarkSith01, or she really was as powerful as she claimed.