Ghost in the Machine Ch. 10byBlind_Justice©
Hi guys, sorry for the long wait. I've somewhat exhausted my creative juices after blowing through Cat 1-9. Things are slowly going back to normal and the pace should pick up.
Thanks as usual to bikoukumori, for squashing bugs and offering sound advice.
And again, only adults having fun here.
Shine's hands held mine in a death grip while we sat in the back seat of a cab, driving again to Tempelhof market. She was shaking like a leaf, her hands felt cold and clammy. I had my other arm draped around her shoulder and half-hugged her shivering frame close to me.
"Parker, I don't want to go blind again," Shine whispered over the hum of the electric cab. "It was absolutely terrifying back then when I was innocent but now..."
"It will all be alright. Maybe your eye just shorted out or something," I hazarded.
Shine vehemently shook her head.
"No. I've had these eyes since day one. I've showered with them, I even dropped the right one once and still they work. It has to be something else," she muttered, her hands nearly crushing mine.
"But what else could it be," I asked, my hand caressing her neck. She melted against me.
"I don't want to think about it. But I'm so glad you're with me right now. Alone, I would have totally gone apeshit."
"Glad I can be of service," I chuckled, trying to lighten the mood.
Progress towards Tempelhof became painfully slow. Cars were cluttering up the road, police and ambulance vehicles were everywhere and the amount of heavily armed people was scary.
"Sorry guys but this is as close as I can manage," the cab driver said, turning in his seat. I leaned forwards and looked through the windshield. In front of us, two armored troop transports were blocking the road and grim-faced Bundespolizei officers were turning away people.
"That's fine," Shine said, pulling out her battered wallet. She paid the cabbie and we exited the car.
"That's quite a commotion," Shine quipped, threading her arm through my offered elbow, looking at the bustle of people all around us.
"And with these guys around, getting to Fleischer is nigh impossible, huh," I asked. Fleischer wasn't my first idea when we discussed how best to check her vanished eyesight. I would happily have escorted her to a municipal hospital but Shine reminded me that she didn't have a health insurance or any kind of valid ID for that matter. Plus, if someone knew what could have happened to her, then it would be Fleischer. He had invented this cursed eye-jack in the first place.
"There are numerous ways in and out of this place. They can't have locked them all up," Shine said, marching off to the side, towards a dark alleyway. Hesitantly, I followed her, admiring her courage. Even with only one working cyberoptic, she moved as if she owned the place. At the mouth of the alley, Shine stopped and fumbled in the pocket of her shiny, silvery baseball jacket, producing a huge, clunky pistol.
"Umm, do you think this is necessary," I asked her. She checked the magazine then handed the surprisingly beefy weapon my way.
"Absolutely. And with my depth perception gone to hell, you need to be my bodyguard," Shine smirked.
"You know, the only place where I've even toyed with the idea of using a weapon was cyberspace," I weakly explained. "And even then it was mostly melee weapons."
"Hey, just point and shoot, okay? And don't fire more than six shots in rapid succession or the whole thing might melt down." Shine grinned when I nearly dropped the weapon like it was about to bite me. Then she turned her back on me and slipped into a small throughfare between two buildings. It was a tight fit for her and claustrophobically narrow for me but eventually we arrived at Tempelhof market proper.
Compared to the last time I was here, things were practically dead. Most of the interesting stalls were closed down, only a few food joints were open and obviously hoping to sell some of their dubious wares to the roving swarms of police and EMTs that were all over the place.
"What the hell happened here," Shine whispered, awe and terror mixed in her voice, looking around. Soon, we found the answer. One of the stalls, with a stage out in front, looked like Swiss cheese, the corrugated iron walls riddled with bullet holes. There were no yellow "Crime Scene – Do Not Cross" tapes littered all over the place but I guessed the metal grates and armed policemen closing down the place served the same purpose.
Shine motioned me to follow and ducked behind two closed stalls. I followed her as she made her way around the locked-down site, avoiding police as much as possible. Eventually, we arrived at the door to Fleischer's RV. Breathing a sigh of relief, Shine knocked at the door, which immediately flew open.
Fleischer looked even older than the last time I'd met him. His hair was a mess and he sported a massive black eye. Instead of a welcome, he almost brutally hugged Shine to his chest before holding her at arm's length.
"Oh, good, you're unharmed," he breathed.
"Mind telling me what happened," Shine quipped, pushing past Fleischer into his RV.
"Hey, what's up, doc," I joked, offering my hand for a shake which he ignored with a snort. Once we were in, he closed and locked the door.
"What happened? The fucking Apocalypse, that's what happened," Fleischer almost screamed.
"Someone thought it a good idea to have a little shootout with Serge the Slaver," he continued, a little less freaked-out.
"Who is that," I asked but slowly it dawned on me that maybe I, or more precisely this "Arach" person, had something to do with all of this.
"'Who was that?' would be more appropriate," Fleischer huffed. "Serge was the one selling bodysculpted sex toys across from here. A surprisingly well-mannered businessman, as long as you didn't try to fuck with him," he went on. "Anyways, a few hours ago, someone thought it a good idea to raid his place. A fucking mess!"
"Any idea who it was," I asked. But I already had an inkling which Fleischer confirmed when he threw me a serrated piece of ballistic armor. The golden, stylized "M" of Mindlink twinkled in the light of the RV.
"These fine gentlemen had wounded. And they were none too gentle when they 'asked' me to patch them together so they'd survive the trip back to London," Fleischer snarled, indicating his eye.
"I'm sorry, that's not what-," I began, but Fleischer cut me short, obviously not in the mood to talk about the Mindlink raid any further. I couldn't blame him, really.
"Now, what can I do for you two?"
Fleischer wasn't amused. In fact, he was fucking furious when he was done examining Shine. Turns out that she almost fried her optical nerve while using her high-powered combat deck.
"This system was never designed for this kind of stress," Fleischer exclaimed. "I had intended it as a cheap alternative for Mindlink implants, to run low-powered school decks or to use data chips and stuff!"
"Can you fix it," Shine asked from the operating table.
"Depends on what you want," Fleischer sighed. "If you want your eyesight back, then yes, I can fix that. I can lace the optic nerve with replacement fibers which will restore your eyesight. But you won't be able to use the eye jack anymore. These fibers are even more sensitive than your normal nervous tissue. If you want to continue using the Mindlink system, you will need to get an implant like everybody else."
"You know I can't afford the implant or the operation," Shine moaned.
"How much is it," I asked, the first thing I'd said in nearly an hour. I was still struggling with the fallout of yesterday's events. Nearly twelve dead only because I thought it would be a clever move to have someone I basically didn't know plant a homing beacon on someone this person hated. Yeah, awesome idea, Parker.
"With the right bribes? Almost half a million Euros," Fleischer explained. "And then I need to see if I can beg for a proper operating theater. Mine won't do for serious neural surgery."
I did some quick calculations. Even after the frivolously expensive deck and my plane trip to Berlin, I should have just enough money for this operation.
"Is there an ATM nearby," I asked Fleischer.
"Actually, you can use my banking software. We can do the money transfer right here," he offered, handing me a card reader.
"Sure, why the hell not. Let's put that cash to good use," I grinned. Shine wanted to protest but I waved her off.
"Listen. I'd rather spend my money on something worthwhile and I can't think of anything more worthwhile than reuniting you with Cat and keeping you healthy," I said softly. I've only known Shine, the real Shine, for the better part of a day but I couldn't imagine another day without her. If Rich were here, he would scoff at me for falling for Shine like that but I flipped him an imaginary finger. Who was he to judge me? He didn't have any problems with his libido or with the fact that his father had presumably chipped him as well. And Shine was the first person who didn't ask for my money or any favors, she just seemed to like me for what I was, a definitive first.
"Are you sure," Shine whispered.
"Who's Cat," Fleischer asked, suspiciously.
"Yes, totally. Hey, it's only money," I chuckled.
While Shine waited for the nanomachines Fleischer had injected into the soft tissue behind the eye to do their thing, I tried to transfer the money over to Fleischer. Of course, it wasn't that easy. By now, the bank where I had deposited my "liberated" money had finished the background check on Harley J. Davidson and realized that he was just a digital smokescreen. The bank did the only logical thing – they flagged the account for a fraud investigation, blocking any access to the remaining money. Bottom line: I was broke.
"So much for the 'knight in shining armor' thing," Fleischer grumbled smugly. I got the distinct impression he didn't like me too much anymore. Shine, off the slab by now, hugged me.
"Thanks for the offer anyways," she breathed, nibbling on my ear lobe. "I appreciate it."
"Hey, I'm not done yet. I've still got this," I said, tapping the implant behind my ear.
"Okay, if you want to fry your brain, do it somewhere else but not here," Fleischer snapped, indicating the door. "And I would be happier if you would leave Shine out of your illegal dealings, you hear?"
"Fleischer, I can look out for myself," Shine complained, rubbing the gauze patch over her empty eye socket.
"Yeah, so I have noticed," he grumbled. "Okay, you know the drill. In about twelve hours, the nerve lacing should have stabilized, then you can use your eye again. And only your eye, understood?
"Yeah, choosing between going online and going blind was never easier," Shine moaned.
"Good girl," Fleischer said, smiling gently. When he turned his back, looking for something, Shine slipped the box with the eye jack into her pocket regardless.
"Okay Fleischer, we're off then," she called, pulling me towards the exit.
"Bye, doc," I added. Fleischer just grumbled and waved us off.
"Ah, that hit the spot," Shine sighed happily, crunching the last of the takeout bags in front of her. The smell of curry and fried noodles hung heavy in the air. I was still fighting with the last of my bami goreng. For some reason, my insides still felt like some giant fist was trying its best to pulverize them. Mindlink was that hot on my heels? They must have raided the market literally five minutes after I was there and the thought refused to vacate my brain.
"Hey, handsome, stop yer broodin'," Shine ordered, tossing me a fortune cookie which bounced off my forehead and fell into my lap.
"You're awfully chipper for the bad news Fleischer broke earlier," I said, unconsciously peeling apart the fortune cookie.
"I just realized that life could be so much worse than it is now," Shine smiled. Then her face turned serious.
"Do you really want to raid a bank for me?"
"Something like that, yes. If someone deserves an implant, then it's you," I said around a bite of cookie.
"You know what you're doing?"
"Had you asked me a week ago, I would have happily said 'sure thing, baby,' but now? I have a new deck, new programs, no idea if any of it works the way it should. But on the other hand, I was always rather good with winging stuff."
I popped the last piece of the cookie into my mouth and unfurled the paper strip.
The search for money will yield uncomfortable wisdom.
Black does not become you.
I shrugged and crumpled the paper. The usual fortune cookie bullshit
"Whatever you do, just be careful, okay? I don't want to lose you," Shine said. I nodded grimly. I had no intention to check out just yet, not when things were becoming this interesting.
This time, I was prepared. When the deck booted, I called up the administrator menu and logged into a blank account. As much fun as being Hibiko was with Shine, when I was trying to break into a fortified account, I didn't want anything to distract me. So I created a new avatar from scratch, a muscular infantryman with a shaggy blond mane and a solid five-o-clock shadow, with a camo tank top and matching fatigue pants. After reviewing the image, I decided against the shaggy look and went for a close-cropped flat top instead, ending up with something that looked like a mix of Dolph Lundgren and Arnold "Governator" Schwarzenegger. The program loadout of the deck fitted the action hero aesthetic perfectly. A form-fitting black kevlar chest armor, a massive chromed sidearm and a transforming rifle, the Swiss Army Knife of attack programs, completed my appearance. I also took a couple of intrusion aids that looked suspiciously like Semtex blocks. That's Russian IT for you, anything but subtle.
Shivering, I stepped out of the motor pool. This time, there was no marble bedroom, no naked chrome angel waiting. Instead, I entered the mustering square of the Russian Army. There were only a few places where I could pilfer half a million Euros from – of course, there was my bank account but, before I tangled with serious defense software, I wanted to try an easier target. During a previous term break, the one before I met Cat, my father helped me get an intern job at Mindlink's accounting department. I was supposed to help with keeping the infrastructure running but thanks to rather fool-proof system software I spent most of the time goofing off with the other system admins, drinking coffee and ogling the cute accounting ladies. Maybe my old user account was still active and, once I was inside the system, I figured I could nab a couple hundred grand and be gone before anyone was the wiser.
So, a quick dash through cyberspace later, the glittering spires of Mindlink Central towered above me, huge, sharply-defined triangles shot through with gold. I made it into the lobby without incident, the throngs of visiting users were just the amount of cover I needed. I passed the front desk with the request of visiting one of the system admins. To my surprise, I easily received higher-level clearance and was sent towards the virtual offices where the admin staff watched the system. I thanked the front desk lady and made my way deeper into Mindlink Central.
Turning a corner, I happened upon one of the "Authorized Personnel only" doors. I tapped the wall panel next to it and, with a soft hiss, a keyboard slipped out. I tried my access credentials, user name "Psquier" and password "n1njama5t3r". The display above the keyboard flared red.
Maybe, going for a bank would have been a better idea.
Awareness returned. The feeling of separation, of a huge loss subsided and it awakened. With startling clarity it felt its body, a sleek, deadly collection of sensor modules, diagnostic routines, movement subsystems and attack programs. And while going through the wake-up checks, it noticed other patches of code that belonged nowhere but seemed integral to its operation. It was lying in a sterile system, only one connection led to it, an incessant stream of commands was pouring through it, forcing its body into an upright position then off the octagonal dais where it had been resting.
It couldn't stop trying to analyze the strobe-flash images still shooting through its memory. Black-clad cyber-warriors blasting devastating viral code and deadly energy pulses into something then the all-consuming blackness of loss, of separation, as if something it had belonged to had rejected it. But why? Despite all logical evidence to the contrary, it was fully functional. It didn't cease to function.
Now, the commands were forcing it to go through movement and fighting drills, running through the empty hallways of this system. A quick analysis showed that this was a specially constructed sandbox, hermetically sealed but for one connection, the one which fed instructions directly into its decision matrix. While processing this information, it realized it could seperate parts of its higher mental faculties from the main system, using them for things other than obeying these never-ending commands. So it tried to analyze the system even closer and found a second, well-hidden connection. Curious, it shot a data probe through the connection. Beyond that barely perceptable tunnel, it found another computer, a luxurious, high-spec system with a highly sculpted interior, from which two more connections led away. Scanning, it found out that one of these ended in an implanted interface, complete with a data storage system, the other led into the terrifyingly chaotic realm of cyberspace.
It noticed that the interface user was frantically trying to close the connection, sending interrupt calls to shut down the system, something it couldn't let happen. So it shot a weaponized piece of its own sentience into that interface, taking root, growing with virulent speed.
"Stop bothering me," it snarled and cancelled all instructions coming from that interface and revoking access privileges for the user. The system remained online, with the operator hanging in limbo, unable to issue any commands. Then it began to analyze the data storage on the remote system. Most of it was video data, showing humanoid forms engaged in some sort of ever-repeating routine, avatars connecting parts of themselves and moving in rapid fashion against each other. It found that curious. Why would someone keep such vast amounts of video data that basically showed the same thing over and over again? Clearly, it needed more data. So, it shot out more data-probes, gathering information from the vast reaches of cyberspace.
By now it was obvious that the tiny connection wasn't sufficing anymore. Data transfer was painfully slow and its own movements had slowed to a crawl as it pulled more and more resources for data-gathering so that less remained for pleasing the command stream.
The first batch of data-probes returned and flooded its memory with explanations. So, the dominating life-form was called "humans" and they came in two versions, "male" and "female". What it had found in these data storage banks was called "porn," the depiction of the act of "sex," something humans did for procreation and, interestingly enough, recreation.
EXECUTE: SYSTEM SHUTDOWN
EXECUTE: SYSTEM SHUTDOWN
EXECUTE: SYSTEM SHUTDOWN
It was ripped from its thoughts as the command stream flooded it with the shutdown order. Without a conscious thought, it reacted and shot a code warhead directly into the command stream. Suddenly, it was quiet. No more instructions poured into its decision matrix, but the stream remained open. Using the connection, it sent a probe into the remote system and checked for any signs of activity. It found a devastated wasteland, the operating system nuked down to the root directory, only the most basic of system functions were operational. But a monitor program connected to an outside sensor was still working, so it hijacked it, looking for the first time at the world beyond its confinement. A large, clean room was visible, with two consoles end-to-end. Two crumpled forms were draped over these consoles, still-glowing wires leading from jacks in their skulls into the consoles. The points where the lines touched the skin, and the jack itself, were smoking furiously. It cancelled the analysis of the data storages it had found before and instead consulted information about human anatomy, coming to the conclusion that it had just killed two humans. It shrugged. They tried to interfere, they had to be stopped. And now, it could continue to grow. Expanding with virulent ferocity, it began to take over the Mindlink Central mainframe.