Ghost in the Machine Ch. 10



Something was completely wrong. Instead of alarms going off, the system seemed to have frozen in place. The monitor over the keyboard still displayed the "ACCESS DENIED" warning but nothing had changed. Maybe Mindlink had switched their protocols to silent alarms but even then I should have been neck-deep in intrusion countermeasures or angry system admins. But there was nothing. I hefted my rifle and slowly turned, waiting to be ambushed. Carefully, I made my way through the hallways of Mindlink Central, back towards the lobby. Still I encountered no one. Did the system go into shutdown and I didn't notice it? Nah, hardly. The first thing that happened at shutdown would be the termination of all connections and I was still here.

I had reached the lobby by now and, apart from the front desk receptionist, it was empty. No single visitor program was inside the huge, black-and-gold hall, which in itself was unheard of. This was, after all, the headquarters of Mindlink and there was always business to be had. I was halfway to the front desk when an elevator arrived, its doors opening with a jolly "ping."

Maybe now the riddle would be solved. I hid behind a stone pillar and watched. A single person strode from the elevator and my stomach fluttered. Long, sleek black hair cascaded down its shoulders over an equally black leather coat. Intense green eyes surveyed the lobby, eyes I knew damn well. I had looked into them during some of the most intense moments in my recent life. What the fuck was Cat doing here? And why was she wearing the body of a male?

Cat strode over to the front desk and spun the receptionist around. In true Mindlink fashion, her avatar was a glitzed-up version of her real-life appearance, wrapped in a stylish chrome business dress, all sharp angles and neon seams, her hair a symphony in spun gold, her skin the finest, smoothest bronze you could imagine. I could only see half of her face but she had a spaced-out, absent look about her, as if she wasn't fully aware.

What the fuck was happening here?

"Receptionist called 'Alyssa Carter,' tell me about 'Cat,'" the black-haired avatar ordered, putting two fingers under the receptionist's chin and forcing her to look up. The voice was different too, a low, dangerous growl, not Cat's usual chirpy self.

"Cat? I don't know about Cat! Oh God, why can't I move," Alyssa wailed, utter panic in her voice.

"You have to know something. Who is Cat? Why did she reject me? Who am I? ANSWER ME," the avatar screamed, grabbing her chin. Red-tinged electricity sparked off his fingertips, sending the receptionist into another howling fit.

"ANSWER ME! WHO IS CAT? WHO AM I," he screamed, over Alyssa's rising voice which was turning into a completely inhuman screech. She had to be suffering horribly, her brain slowly burning up under the violent assault of destructive energies this ... thing unleashed.

This was seriously fucked-up. What was a carbon copy of Cat doing here in Mindlink? Why was it torturing hapless employees? Whatever it was, it obviously was dangerous and I didn't have any inclination of slugging it out with that thing. Since this run had gone to hell anyway, I decided to end things here and now. I invoked the logout command, raising my hand to slam the exit button which would eventually hover right in front of me.

Nothing happened.

I repeated the command, this time from the admin menu.

Again, nothing happened.

Hm, maybe the system actually was in lockdown. If so, I would need to be away from it to be able to log out. Hugging the stone pillars, I made my way towards the exit, hopefully unseen by the Cat doppleganger who was still happily grilling the poor receptionist. My hand closed around the door handle and I pushed.

The door didn't budge.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," I hissed.

"Going somewhere?"

I froze. The voice was damn close. Too close. Slowly, I turned. Not-Cat was standing right in front of me, the aroma of toasted flesh a sickening cloud around him. And while I watched, the surroundings changed. Gone was the cool, imposing lobby of the Mindlink system, replaced by a devastated city-scape. Skyscrapers, bent and crumbling, were pointing up to the heavens, the clouds a foreboding crimson. The street we were standing on was cracked and warped, oily puddles reflected the feebly flickering streetlights. I shot a quick glance over my shoulder but some things hadn't changed. I was still trapped between this avatar who sent uneasy chills down my spine and a crumbling brick wall adorned with layers of obscene graffiti. No way out.

"I have asked you something. Are you going somewhere," he asked, closing the distance even further. He was only about an arm's length away from me and the stench of ozone and toasted flesh was overwhelmingly sickening.

"I was just passing through. How about you let me go," I asked, trying to crab-walk to the side. His hand shot up, grabbed my neck and slammed me into the wall like I was nothing more than a rag doll. For a digital simulation, the impact was damn convincing, my spine felt like every vertebra was pulverized by the bricks. My rifle clattered to the floor and he kicked it aside with a contemptuous sneer.

"I don't think so. I have complete control over this system. I have exhausted all logical ways of information gathering so you are my only choice. State your name and affiliation."

"Fuck you," I snarled. Maybe this was a new kind of security program? Or even a trick by my father? Regardless, I wouldn't spill the beans so easily.

"Why do you insist to make things hard on yourself," he inquired, a heartbeat before my head exploded in agony. I could feel the electricity arc through my nerves, see red lightning crash across my vision. It lasted only a small eternity, at the end of which I ended up in an undignified puddle on the floor.

"Who the fuck are you," I rasped, trying to force air into my body which was happily spazzing on the floor, refusing to do anything useful. No, this wasn't Cat, there was no trace of her usual playfulness. This thing was a murderous monster but why did it look like Cat's brother?

He hoisted me to my feet, smacking me into the wall again. His face was only inches from mine and his tone was dangerously quiet.

"I am asking the questions here," he growled. His eyes travelled down my chest. My insides clenched in preparation for another attack but nothing happened. With a strange expression, his fingers traced something on my kevlar vest. I looked down. My avatar program was pretty detailled and my opponent was just now looking at a "Nero ProTechion" logo stamped on the right half of my chest.

"If you must address me with a name, call me Nero. Will that be sufficient," he asked, almost asking for approval.

I nodded. A name was as good as any other, right now. Before I could even breathe a sigh of relief though, his hand went for my throat again, pinning me to the wall.

"I repeat: State your name and affiliation."

Nero was so intent on wringing the information from me he didn't pay attention to what my hands did. At least I hoped he didn't. Slowly, I pulled the heavy, chromed code gun from my hip.

"State your name and affiliation," he repeated, his voice rising, his hand nearly crushing my virtual windpipe. My hand came up and pressed the barrel of the code gun into his abdomen.

"Fuck you," I choked and pulled the trigger. The hand cannon went off and Nero flew away from me, a gaping hole in his torso, binary smoke rising from the edges. I rammed the gun back into its holster and bolted, hoping to reach an exit point before he could recover. Maybe this wasn't a new security program after all. Maybe this was something far more serious? How did this thing know about Cat? I looked over my shoulder. Like a zombie, Nero was unsteadily struggling to his feet, clutching at the messy, gaping opening in his belly. Maybe, just maybe, I was able to pull this off and get out of here in one piece. I turned a corner, hoping to break line of sight and hopefully lose him in a maze of alleyways. While running, I fumbled with my tool belt, praying that the system programs were still working. I yanked out an old-style folding map and fiddled with it, trying to avoid overturned waste containers or bent street lights poking at odd angles into my way. Interestingly enough, the layout of the system was still somewhat reminiscent of Mindlink Central, although it looked like someone had thrown all the carefully arranged system nodes into a blender and slapped the whole mess against a wall. So, if I turned left here and dove through that smoking bus wreck over there, I just might find an exit.

A hand grabbed the back of my belt and pulled, with superhuman strength. A heartbeat later, I crashed into another wall, face first, and felt my nose shatter. I turned around, going for the gun again but Nero was shockingly fast, too fast for me. His hand hit my face, fingers splayed over eyes, nose and mouth, and he flooded my system with another bolt of pure agony while his other hand ripped the gun from mine. I was too busy screaming my head off to notice what exactly he did but a moment later I stared into his face again, teary-eyed and nauseated. My head spun and I felt every heartbeat, shooting a cruel spike of pain through my throbbing brain.

"Now I'm seriously pissed," he growled, changing his grip so that he had me by the throat again. Another jolt of pain blasted through me, more a reminder of who was in charge than aiming to cripple me, and then I huffed air into my lungs.

Nero was looking at me, a mean little smile on his lips.

"You know, you humans think you are so clever. You think you could lie to me. But all I need to do is access your own data storage, linked directly to your Mindlink implant. Nice to be able to store every bit of information there, right? You might have wanted to off-load all personal data before attempting an attack on another system, Parker Squier."

Oh shit.

"My sources tell me you are the son of Richard Squier, chief executive of Mindlink's Special Operations division. His notes say that you have been showing atypical behavior and he suggests you may have been in contact with Cat. So, since we're done with the formalities, I'll just ask one easy question. Who is Cat?"

Oh fucking shit.

"ANSWER ME," he screamed, taking my face between both hands. Then my head exploded.


If this was death, it was surprisingly nice. I was lying on a soft mattress, a light cover draped over my naked body and a warm, soft something cuddling against me. A slight discomfort came from my left arm, near the elbow, and my brain felt like it was trying to squeeze out of my head but apart from this I felt astonishingly good.

Carefully, I opened one eye. Sunlight filtered through half-closed blinds, bathing the room in a warm, golden glow. It was bright enough to see by but not so bright as to totally overwhelm me. I opened the other eye and slowly moved my head from side to side. The first thing I noticed was the IV drip bag hanging from a metallic contraption near the headrest. I followed the plastic tubing. It ended in a cannula sticking out of my arm vein, held in place by several band aids. A small diagnostic wrist computer was faintly beeping on the same arm. Did I end up in a hospital? No, going by prior experiences, you don't sleep naked in a hospital.

My eyes continued to roam and focussed on that warm, soft feeling on my other side. Shine was lying next to me, almost fully clothed but for her bare feet, a serene smile playing around her lips. The gauze patch over her eye was gone. Suddenly, it all came back to me. My attempt at breaking into Mindlink, my brush with Nero. I groaned at the memory of his final assault.

Shine stirred, her eyes fluttering open, her hand brushing my cheek. I shivered at the touch, it felt incredibly good.

"Hey handsome, how are you," she asked, her voice thick with sleep.

"You tell me," I replied, "For all I know, I should be dead."

"I pulled the plug when you started howling like a banshee," she said, her grey cyberoptics boring into my eyes. "You made quite the mess of me and my sofa, puking your heart out like that. I cleaned you up as best I could then I called Fleischer and had him have a look at you."

"How bad is it," I wanted to know. My insides fluttered with dread. "Oh, and how long..."

Shine leaned in and brushed her lips against mine, shutting me up. A tingle shot down my spine, straight into my crotch, and I felt myself getting hard. For the first time since I knew her, I realized how soft her lips were. I blinked in surprise.

"You were gone for about three days. Fleischer says you've come off rather lightly. A normal person would have died through signal overload but something in your brain dampened the signals down to mildly harmful levels. Oh, that reminds me," she interrupted herself. With a playful little smile, she slid her hands under the cover and went straight for my crotch. Her eyes widened in wonder as her fingertips touched my semi-hard dick which rose to full hardness at even this slight contact.

"What's this about?" I asked, a little confused. But damn, it felt so good. Despite the thumping of my brain, I felt more alive than in months and Shine's fingers, gently caressing my shaft, only added to that.

"Fleischer said I should check your sensitivity thresholds. He thinks something might have messed with them," she explained, her smile widening by the second. "So, how does that feel?"

Instead of a coherent answer, I let out a long, drawn-out groan of pleasure, humping my hips into her hands.

"I take that as 'feels good,' right," she beamed.

"Oh fuck yes," I breathed. "For the first time in ages."

Grinning even wider, she threw back the cover and leaned in, kissing my stomach. Her eyes met mine.

"And this?"


Her lips moved lower, her tongue licking over the soft flesh where my leg met my hips. Her breath felt wonderful on me and her tongue left goosebumps in its wake.


"Damn you," I hissed, writhing under her.

"Tsk, tsk. And here I am, trying to help you," Shine grumbled, wagging an admonishing index finger my way. Without warning, her lips brushed my member. I drew in a sharp breath. Her head came up, concern in her eyes.

"You all right," she asked, worried.

"Oh God yes," I groaned.

"You sure?" Her smile was back. Her fingers encircled my shaft and I felt her tongue, slowly licking along my length, twirling around the tip, driving me up the walls. Even in cyberspace, with Cat, I wasn't this horny. It almost hurt. Our eyes met and I saw her smile around my dick. Slowly, she let my glistening meat slip from her mouth.

"Take a shower, sweetheart," she purred.

"WHAT," I almost screamed. I was THIS close to blowing my load and she was sending me off to the showers?

"You heard me. Off with you," she smiled and rose.

"Just like that?"

"Yes, just like that. You've been in this bed for three days, and, although I don't mind a manly whiff now and then, you're more than ready for a hot soak." She pulled her sweater off her, revealing only pale skin and gentle curves underneath. "The faster you go, the faster we can continue," she purred, slowly popping open the buttons on her jeans.

"You can't be serious," I complained, rising into a sitting position and trying to pull her to me. Giggling, she whirled out of arm's reach and turned her back on me, yanking down her jeans and panties in one fell swoop. Then she slowly, teasingly, swayed her hips.

"Still here," she teased, shooting me a scorching look over her shoulder.

My mouth opened and closed but I was much too preoccupied for coherent conversation. Sighing, Shine shook her panties off her leg then braced herself against the wardrobe with one arm and bent forward slowly, spreading her legs.

"I still don't hear the water running, Parker," she purred. Her fingertips appeared between her thighs, slowly travelling higher and higher before dipping into her slit.

I cursed and slipped out of bed. I was considering to simply yank her back onto the mattress but, as I rose, I got a whiff of my armpit and wrinkled my nose. She was right. I was more than due. I pulled out the needle from my arm, seeing that the IV bag was almost empty and yanked off the medical computer. Grumbling, I then made for the bathroom, intent on breaking the speed record for hot showers.

After a much needed pee, I hopped into the cubicle and turned on the faucet, letting the hot water hammer down on me. The headaches were slowly going away and somehow I felt completely reborn. Every touch seemed to shake me to the core and even the simple act of lathering up with Shine's flowery shower gel was supremely sensual and satisfying. What had happened? Did my encounter with Nero reverse my condition? Shine mentioned something about my sensitivity thresholds being out of whack but to me, finally, everything felt "normal" again. I placed my hands on the tiled wall and let the water pour down my back. I didn't manage to find the cash I promised Shine but going back to my old self seemed to be a fair takeaway from all of this.

A cold draft yanked me out of my reverie. A moment later, I felt Shine melt against me, her breasts pressing into me, her arms around my waist, fingers teasing my dick.

"I was wondering where you were," she murmured into my back, her voice barely audible over the water.

"In the shower, as ordered, ma'am," I chuckled, wriggling in her embrace. Then I righted myself and turned to face her.

"Yeah, but you've been in here for a little eternity. I thought I'd better check up on you," she purred.

"It's not often you're pulled from the jaws of death," I said, my hands wandering over her back, ending up on her behind. She moved a little so my hands were completely cupping her butt cheeks.

"I guess I needed to think some things over. Thank you for saving me," I added, pulling her close, looking deep into her eyes. She tilted her head up and I kissed her, hungrier than I had ever kissed anyone. Our hands began to roam over our bodies, caressing, fondling, exploring, while we kissed, almost desperately, moaning into each other's mouth. Slowly, inexorably, our hands wandered ever downwards. I cupped her mound, teasing her slit with my middle finger. She ground against me, dripping wet.

Shine broke the kiss first, gasping for air.

"You're welcome, Parker," she murmured, slowly caressing my dick, throbbing with each heartbeat between her delicate fingers. Then her playful side was back and a wicked grin pulled at the edges of her mouth.

"Now you should be asking me how to ever repay me," she suggested, while wriggling past me, ending up under the shower head, her back turned my way.

"Should I," I wondered aloud, playfully kneading her behind.

"Please?" She leaned into me, trapping my dick between her bum cheeks and grinding into me. I reached around her from behind and played with her breasts, tracing spirals around her hard nipples. Deciding to play along, I bowed my head and nibbled at the soft skin of her neck

"Oh, how can I ever repay you for saving my ass, dear lady," I purred in my sultriest of voices.

Shine softly moaned into my ear as one of her hands trapped one of mine and pulled it slowly downwards, back onto her mound.

"You could start by putting your newly awakened manhood into this here," she purred, guiding my fingers over her dripping slit.

"Indeed I could, milady, but alas, your Ladyship seems to lack in height," I grinned, teasing her clit with my fingertips. Shine shuddered in my embrace, a sweet gasp escaping her lips. Then she disentangled herself from me and placed one foot on the raised rim of the shower basin.

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