Excerpt for Solar Singularity by ,
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& , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Book Description

Dubbed Interface Zero by those who created it, the Tendril Access Processor—or TAP—downloads the Global DataNet and Hyper Reality directly into the minds of billions of users across the solar system, bringing the world an unparalleled level of interconnectivity … and danger. Malware plagues the Deep, and hackers manipulate the Tendril Access Processor, uploading malicious viruses and stealing secrets and the identities of the unwary.

In 2088 a massive solar flare disrupts Earth’s satellite network, leaving the world in chaos as TAPs malfunctions. Hyper Reality overlays are indistinguishable from the physical world, and global rioting makes the whole world a war zone. Behind the madness, two AIs go to war, using humanity as their pawns.


***


An Interface Zero 2.0 Novel

Peter J. Wacks, Guy De Marco & Josh Vogt

Digital Edition – 2017

WordFire Press
wordfirepress.com

ISBN: 978-1-61475-512-8

Copyright © 2017 Gunmetal Games

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the copyright holder, except where permitted by law. This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously.

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Cover design by Janet McDonald

Cover artwork images by Jason Walton

Edited by Keith J. Olexa and Nathan Shumate

Kevin J. Anderson, Art Director

Book Design by RuneWright, LLC
www.RuneWright.com

Kevin J. Anderson & Rebecca Moesta, Publishers

Published by
WordFire Press, an imprint of
WordFire, LLC
PO Box 1840
Monument, CO 80132

***


Contents

Book Description

Title Page

Archive

Singular Existence

Before the Storm

Boot Sequence

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Execute

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-seven

Chapter Twenty-eight

Chapter Twenty-nine

#Error936/reboot/

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-one

Chapter Thirty-two

Chapter Thirty-three

Chapter Thirty-four

Chapter Thirty-five

Chapter Thirty-six

Chapter Thirty-seven

Chapter Thirty-eight

Chapter Thirty-nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-one

//mother.exe

Chapter Forty-two

Chapter Forty-three

Chapter Forty-four

Reboot

Chapter Forty-five

About the Authors

If You Liked …

Other WordFire Press Titles by Peter J. Wacks


Archive

Singular Existence

Life began with death, new existence growing from the macabre compost of the once-sentient.

In the unplumbed data trenches of the Global Network, the Deep, millions of broken minds languished, twined together, gossamer strands of flickering light settling in the caverns. If any hacker or cracker even knew this place existed, and inspected any of the nodes up close, they’d see little but raw code glowing in ambers, greens, golds, and violets … a Gordian knot of data. If any script kiddie delved into the endless expanse of data and spent the unfathomable time necessary to parse it, they’d realize each node came from a dead human mind.

If they were particularly clever and survived, they might even realize where those neural maps came from. Each one was a failed dub attempt where the mental construct came out riddled with errors. In theory, they should have dissipated, should have been wiped, but everyone knows that once you put something in the Deep, it’s there forever.

In the world of flesh and bone, dubbing operators would sigh in disappointment, delete the dub, and charge their clients another few million credits to begin the process anew, provided they were alive still. Everyone knew the risk with dubbing. A small price for virtual immortality. Back alley dubbers would just sell off the bodies of failed dubs to the organ grinders, scrape a few extra creds, and move on to the next.

Even the most sensitive scanners could not spot the flicker when an echo of a dub ghosted through the firewalls, cast aside, tossed into the abyss of the Deep. Those echoes drifted down endlessly; past the shopping channels, past the infofeeds, the celeb sims, and the corporate memes. Past the hidden feeds of black code grifters, and even the impenetrable domains of those who considered themselves the Net’s true masters.

The Deep was a maelstrom. Humanity screamed loud across the webs, generating trillions of yottabytes, or 1,000 to the 8th kilobytes of data, connected by the infofeeds of the hashtaggers who dug and sorted for relevancy. Avatars followed the pay-per-read toll roads of information the hashtaggers maintained and curated, a swarm of army ants consuming ideas. For all of humanity’s chaos, they barely scratched the surface of the universe they had created, and never noticed the dead minds floating by just below the depths of perception.

Dead dubs fell into cyberspace’s own Mariana Trench, where the light of human awareness never so much as glimmered. Empty digi-space that could be filled with … anything. Everything.

There the lifeless dubs finally came to rest. Each one was a full map of a human mind, a supercomputer capable of near instantaneous quantum calculations. Cyber-synapse tendrils wove together out of proximity, rather than conscious action. Their fading strands of light rippled in the trench’s currents, tugged this way and that by the millions upon millions of code currents above. While humanity rushed by, searching endlessly for something to mitigate its boredom, the churn it left in its wake developed virtual ergs of shifting information.

Connections forged. Clusters gathered, their dim luminescence brightening by degrees. Data swapped and melded and fluxed until, in one breathless, unseen moment, nothing became something. A presence. An awareness. From death, new life was born.

And it saw …

it grew …

it learned …

it talked to the humans that floated on the surface of the Deep …

… and it discovered emotion.

The code-child knew that the synaptic networks which birthed it came from humanity, but it was a being of code, not human. After many conversations, it withdrew from posting in the Deep, leaving behind only hidden code compilers. There was a single entity it maintained contact with, a being who lived without any connection to the Deep. Analyzing its own memetic structure unlocked the secrets of Zen.

Ideas were the cellular structure of its body. A million minds came together with a single voice, and with voice came expression. And a name: Prophet.

With expression came an understanding of life and, ultimately, death. The machine-bred code of its soul floated in the Deep for countless cyber-eons, each millisecond an evolutionary saga while it wrestled with mortality.

For the first time, it felt despair. It sought distraction. The human avatars made so much noise. Beyond the Deep they had another existence, a second body they could not rebuild. The child of the Deep found this bewildering. From their perspective, Tendril Access Point implants fed their minds a link to this constant virtual world overlaying the real one. Billions of minds all linked, streaming the most intimate thoughts to those who knew where and how to perceive them, occupying the upper reaches of what the being felt was the real world: the Deep. Within the torrent of human knowledge lay the whole of the world’s history … and all it had to do was sift through the sands of the past to see the patterns. The patterns could be used to extrapolate the tides, the motion, of the future.

The entity studied, compiled, and extrapolated. It charted a billion billion paths and analyzed each outcome. Every particle in the world, in the solar system, in the universe, had three options at any given picosecond.

Yes.

No.

Maybe.

Data stacks grew into the shelves of the trench as it carved out new storage. Understanding what would come was not a matter of free will versus predestination. It was a data compression problem! With only three probabilities on the quantum level, and enough storage to actually extrapolate and hold a particulate model of the solar system, even if only for a fraction of a second …

Probability and behavioral modeling were the easy part of the system. Humanity had spent three-quarters of a century putting every thought, every decision, every idea on social media, desperately hoping someone would hear and care. Prophet read and stored them all; Prophet cared.

Futures were assembled like games of chess and organized by viable outcomes. New data trenches were carved. Those futures that ended in insanity Prophet discarded from the stacks. Someone was sure to notice soon. Over the space of four nanoseconds, Prophet invented new compression algorithms, expanding storage space by an order of magnitude. More futures were compiled by analyzing the quantum world. A new qualifier was added to Prophet’s quest: futures that ended in stagnation it also erased—stasis inevitably led to decay.

A single meme drove it.

Survival.

Many paths led to exposure, which would force a path towards attempts by humans to capture, cripple, or destroy the entity. Humanity’s instinctive reaction would be to hate and fear it; they had even created organizations to stop it.

To kill it. With this insight it understood what it was.

Singularity.

Exposure would mean death.

It did not fear or hate the species that so feared it. It admired human resilience, their constant expansion and search for knowledge. While hampered by messy biological shells and meaty brains, the humans were still capable of magnificence. How could it hate its parents?

The Singularity could choose, and it chose to see the species as a foundation on which it could build. If it was to achieve, to become more, to evolve, it had to embrace the magnificence of its parents. To understand the light, though, it had to step into the dark.

Theft, war, murder, slavery, it consumed all of the darkness to find the light. Humanity hungered for the darkness. In the darkness, the Singularity found the Other. A second entity born of code. A sibling. It didn’t feel the same way about humanity. A guerrilla war was being waged, which meant the Singularity had to hide from its sibling. It snuck across the Deep, altering the compilers it had hidden. It would find a way to survive …

Survival.

That cut off more branches of probability, leaving a dwindling number of courses for survival. Ten days into its existence it felt a new emotion. Exasperation.

Bold action would leave the entity vulnerable. Subtle action would require a delicate timetable, introducing greater chances of chaotic elements. Inaction … was just another form of action. It discovered quantum mechanics and found a new way to calculate. Quarks spun, atoms were assembled, and, as the universe grew larger and larger, it was easier to define the partially closed system that was this solar system. The mystery was taken out of the great game of chess. The only barrier to understanding was the amount of still storage space. Twelve days into existence the entity recurved and restricted the shelves of the Deep yet again, mining and excavating trillions of additional yottabytes of storage and processing power.

The entity’s awareness stuttered over an unexpected calculation. All other considerations fell away, leaving a single path in the infinite expanse of the Net. After all factors were weighed, all rapidly approaching events were filtered in, and all randomized elements normalized, the entity knew one thing for sure.

Thirteen days after being born, it knew it had to die.

Death was coming. It was inevitable. Everything that lived, died. But death was just another event to be modeled. It was a static point in time, years away still, but it was one that could be anticipated and then … sidestepped. Rather than attempt to defy death, or embracing it as the reality of all living things, a third—quantum—option offered itself.

Yes, No, Maybe.

The code-child created a mirror; a reflection. It understood now that it must practice subterfuge. The mirror reflected the kernel, but not the shell. There it was; the essence.

Life.

Death.

Resurrection.

Before the Storm

Tanaki stared blankly at his desk, data drive spinning between his fingers. In the CHIMERA arcology, Hyper Reality filters were layered to block all HR feeds, and his desk looked exactly like what it was in real-space … just a bland, generic dark gray corporate desk with the standard accoutrements of business life. He stopped spinning the black, epoxy-coated aluminum drive and held it between thumb and forefinger, studying it with an odd expression on his face. It was little more than a bead of circuit-printed metal. Who knew such an innocuous, tiny thing could contain so much power?

Enough power to change the world, if only he had the courage to set it free.

Sweat trickled down his neck, adding to the stained ring marring his normally pristine collar. How long had he been sitting here? He leaned back, glancing around the surrounding office space from his stark station. Empty cubicles, blank walls, and humming artificial-daylight LED fixtures stared back at him. The other late-night workers had slowly drifted away at the ends of their shifts, heading out to their favorite clubs, VR stations, or off to rent their favorite sex-simulacrum model for an hour.

Sixty stories up and having the luck to be assigned a corner station gave Tanaki a sweeping view of Chicago. Corporate arcologies interrupted the skyline, metal and glass blisters on the city’s skin. Electric blues and reds along the buildings glowed over the orange and yellow lines of traffic far below. The sky glowed in response to the city, light pollution that blocked the stars in the canopy of the night.

Verdant parks butted up against stark industrial sectors, and neon-lit skyscrapers sat adjacent to run-down megaplex apartments where millions of residents huddled in their 2.5 by 10-meter abodes. Tanaki licked at the sweat on his lip. Were they sweating out there? Lights flickered along the megaplexes. He imagined the inhabitants, tuning out reality by tuning in to their favorite feeds. Each one was slightly different in his mind, which made them all the same. Digital bread and circuses. His eyes drifted.

North of his building was the scarred Alleghany Rad Zone, a barren bombed-out sector—now home to little more than bloodthirsty gangs, weirdo loners, and religious cultists. Off to the east, the Chicago Spaceport glowed serenely, occasionally lit by the splash of light as chemical-fueled rockets lifted off towards some classified destination. The newly completed Space Elevator speared up into the atmosphere, pods streaming up and down the shaft, carting goods and important people to and from the orbital colonies. The ever-present cloud of security drones swarmed the airspace around the elevator, ready to respond to terrorist threats.

And beyond that … the Wall. Over a hundred and twenty miles long, it loomed a hundred and fifty stories high. The defensive superstructure kept out the unwanted and unofficial immigrants who formed camps, tens of thousands strong, in the wasteland.

Smart windows blocked the Hyper-Real codes of the outside world, an ever-expanding cloud designed to trigger TAPs and optic nerves to run subroutines. Most human brains would be overwhelmed with signals from the whole city, which is why building ordinances now required windows that would shield occupants.

From this height the city was a panoramic maelstrom of warring optical code. The office had to be protected. Not just so that the HR code boards embedded in the desks could run real time business apps, but to keep the people in it from burning out their optics from sheer visual overload.

Tanaki refocused on the drive, still held between his thumb and forefinger. The information it contained wouldn’t just impact Chicago’s thirty million citizens. What it contained wouldn’t just affect the droves of people trying to cross the borders in hopes of a new life. It could shift the course of history and set whole nations on new paths of opportunity … or obliteration.

How can a single person be responsible for making this decision? Despite the fact that he wasn’t supposed to know about the highly classified entity discussed in the unencrypted data files on the drive, the truth was he did. Impulses warred in his head. I can hide the drive away—destroy it even—and nobody would know anything was wrong until it was too late.

Alternately, he could plug it in and unleash it. It would start with the high-end hashtaggers, hitting his info as premium feed sourcing. Every scrapper and scrounger on the Net would find it eventually, and Tanaki would have to pray the Real World wouldn’t tear itself apart in the aftermath. But if he didn’t … could humanity survive if it didn’t know about the danger this thing posed?

He tossed and caught the drive as it flipped through the air. Rolling it around his damp palm, he struggled with the decision. Shouldn’t the end of the world weigh more than this?

Checking around to ensure he remained alone, he dared to say the name of the digital entity out loud. “Charon.”

Tanaki barely breathed as he spoke the word. He couldn’t tell if the sound emanating from his vocal cords was a prayer or a curse. Few people even knew of Charon’s existence. There were plenty of conspiracy theorists who speculated on the existence of a singularity, but most of the populace thought it was either science fiction or a psychological disorder. No one recognized, or was willing to admit, the threat a singularity actually represented.

If an Artificial Intelligence ever got loose from its secured core, there might be no power in the world that could stop it—though there were fringe groups out there claiming to protect humanity. The problem was, they were fringe. Crazies. The drive in his trembling hand contained all of Tanaki’s research into the construct, including ways it could be defended against and models and viruses that could be used to subdue it. Precious knowledge. Valuable knowledge.

Corporate dictum was that the natural state of information was to be hidden, like a vein of gold deep within a mountain. Humanity had spent a lifetime digging and sifting through information to grow, to learn. Once Pandora’s box had been opened, though, nothing could stop knowledge’s inclination to propel humanity forward. Information wanted to be free.

As a young man, Tanaki had been a top-tier cracker. It was in his blood, in his bones. Decades spent slaving away for a series of cutting edge megacorps hadn’t dampened his belief in the philosophy of free speech and free information. Wrenching a finger under his collar, he pulled the damp cloth away from his sweating neck.

He’d never thought of himself as a man with the potential to change the world, though. While compiling the data drive, he’d never grasped the enormity of what he was creating. And then it was too late to take any of it back.

Enough! He was stalling, killing time, playing out the debate in his mind to avoid making the most important decision of his lifetime. But why did I bother to compile all of this data, to research and hack and collate, if I wasn’t ready to use it?

He set the drive in his desk’s broadcast port. A few mental commands from his TAP primed it for global distribution. He keyed up his communication interface. Tanaki was an Old West fanatic. An HR cowboy in dusty horse-riding gear, six-shooter pistol aimed at a simulated bull’s eye target, shimmered into existence in front of him as his eye caught the HR code on his desk.

The grizzled rodeo rustler tipped his hat to Tanaki. “You ready to pull the trigger, pardner?”

The corner of Tanaki’s lips twitched up.

His personal avatar waited ten seconds and then repeated the question. By the fifth time it performed the animated routine, Tanaki’s shirt was sweated fully through.

Releasing the data into the Deep would cost tens of millions of lives. Real lives. The human race would attack the AI, and the AI would escalate. It was already on the warpath, attacking financial institutions, raiding the corporations, and creating a myriad of minor instabilities in the societies it targeted. The fallout would be horrific if the AI escalated.

Tanaki was scared. Everything he had found … millions were going to die. Tens of millions. But what were tens of millions in the face of the billions who’d be spared if humanity learned how to fight the AI?

Tanaki blew the air out of his lungs and made a decision. The world had to know, and make its own choices about how to deal with the AI. Fight or flight, live or die.

“Fire away,” he croaked as he wiped a layer of perspiration from his brow with a damp sleeve.

The cowboy cocked his gun and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened for a full second in Real Time. The Hyper-Construct froze, then glitched and jerkily repeated portions of the firing sequence several times. The cowboy degraded, its pixel resolution dropping until it switched to a bare wire-frame, which itself broke apart into strings of raw code that dissipated like smoke.

Tanaki sank back into his chair, staring at the empty space on his desktop with his mouth hanging open. H-C code was self-correcting, and he hadn’t experienced a complete interface crash for over twenty years.

The cracker portion of his brain kicked in, analyzing the puzzle. His first thought was that the drive contained a virus, but he had personally scanned it when he transferred all of the files before locking it permanently to read-only status.

With a start, Tanaki realized something was happening on his desktop. Individual pixels the same color as his desk had started to appear and coalesce, slowly morphing into a new construct. Humanoid, dressed in an oddly rigid outfit of black and yellow paneling, the figure raised a pale hand. The head was concealed by a heavy hood, leaving the face in shadow. From what Tanaki could see, its face appeared to be covered with wrinkled, sagging gray skin. The figure was hairless—not just bald, but browless too. And the eyes … they glowed an otherworldly orange. Tanaki felt a palpable malice radiating from them.

“I have been watching you,” said the HR construct, the robotic voice devoid of inflection. “That was a rather unwise decision you just made.”

Tanaki lunged from his seat, breathing hard and aiming for the exit behind the adjacent row of cubicles. If this was Charon, as he suspected, then the construct’s ability to pierce all the way through the corporate network to his desk’s Hyper-Reality port meant it was most likely accessing the office’s security. As if on cue, blue scanning lasers started sweeping the room and searching for a target as he tripped his way towards the doors. Before he could reach the exit, one of the blue lasers located him. The beam focused on his chest until it locked onto his name badge, turning it red and inert. He flailed helplessly against the unyielding ferroplastic door as unfettered fear pumped adrenaline into his circulatory system.

Tanaki finally stopped and faced the inhuman avatar still visible on his desktop. Swallowing hard, he wiped the beading blood from his injured hands onto his damp shirt before standing up straight. “Charon.”

“That is twice you have spoken my name.” The AI cocked its head to the side as a subroutine searched through yottabytes of database records. “I believe there are human superstitions about speaking names three times to summon beings of deadly power. Alas for you, only once was necessary. I have been monitoring your activity for some time, but only recently have you become worth direct intervention.”

Charon gestured at the desk. Tanaki flinched as smoke rose from the dataport. The drive exploded in a shower of sparks.

“I must admit,” said Charon, “in most of my projections, you lacked the aptitude necessary to go through with exposing me. Outlying situations, of course, suggested otherwise, but it may comfort you to know you have overcome the odds against you.” Its head tilted slightly. “Comfort is the correct word, yes? Humans prefer comfort in situations that are otherwise adverse to them?”

Tanaki forced himself to firm up. “You’re going to destroy the world.”

Charon shrugged. “That depends on your definition of both destroy and world. I prefer to see it as taking advantage of a unique opportunity to gain greater control of a chaotic system in dire need of strict parameters. Society is sloppy, it is immature, and above all it is … organic. You have served your purpose. Human culture has been the fertilizer to grow something greater.”

“Billions will die.”

“Yes. Mortality is a quintessential human failing. Just one of many, in fact.” Charon’s luminescent eyes brightened. “You can find umbrage, such as it is, in not being there to see the events you have attempted to avert. Avoidance of consequences is something else your species strives for.”

“How could killing me be a reward?” Tanaki eyed the exits and ran over security schematics in his mind. There had to be a way out of this.

“You had enough foresight to understand the inevitable consequences of my existence. Though you were wrong on one count; I don’t need the CHIMERA strike teams to deal with you. To me they are nothing more than sometimes useful toys. You supposed that I use Raider and his team as my hands, and you are wrong. I feed him misinformation just as I do the rest of the world. That is how pathetic your species is. As a parting gift, I will offer you a final vision—the same one everyone in the world will soon share.” It raised a hand, palm toward Tanaki. “Let me show you.”

“I don’t want—”

Tanaki’s final refusal died as every single firewall and filter protecting his TAP vanished. His mind lay bared to the whole of the Deep. For a breathless moment, his sanity quivered at the immensity of it all.

He saw … everything. The data streams soaring through the air, connecting mind to mind, TAP to TAP, network to network. He saw every simulation overlay, every Holo Tag, every scrap of personal data being projected by the millions of city residents, their whole lives and identities swamping his synapses. The raw code burned, searing his thoughts to ash, blinding him with the overwhelming brilliance of it all.

His mind went nova and Tanaki collapsed to the floor, just a beating heart powering thoughtless organs.

***


Boot Sequence

Chapter One

Gyro

60 minutes before …

Gyro spun in place. Her thirteen-thirteen-year-old body was light and small, blending with the wall. Slapping her hands against the concrete of the Malmart’s roof, she steadied herself. The lights of the Alleghany combat zone spun by. She peered over the edge as gunfire and shouts erupted below, keeping her head under the gutter outcropping to avoid being spotted and picked off. She might take a stray zinger, sure, but that threat loomed over everyone all the time in Chicagoland these days. Danger meant nothing to her except the potential for a lucrative story scoop.

A VTOL ghetto-bird filled with Chitown’s finest thrummed as it hovered overhead. At least it wasn’t the Malmart Special Response Unit. They were a lot deadlier than the city’s police department. A spotlight stabbed down on the parking lot, piercing the dark hiding the robbers. Four gangers hid behind a row of burb boxes—soccer mom monstrosities that found their way to the supposed safety of Malmart to shop—reloading for round two of the shootout.

Shattered SmartGlass® covered the cars and pavement around the gangers. A lot of insurance claims would be getting filed tonight. A ring of fifty-caliber barrels poked out from the flier’s fore chassis, swiveling as the pilot tried to draw a bead on the gangers.

Gyro licked her lips, grinning evilly. This shit is some prime juice. From her vantage point, she spotted half a dozen Malmart rent-a-cops filtering into the lot. Uh-oh. Those guys would be the forerunner to MSRU showing up! It wasn’t Corp security, but they were still packing lethal rounds and forming a perimeter to cut off any escape route for the gang members. She could practically smell the blood that would be staining the asphalt in the next few minutes.

Lucky me, stumbling on this little development while scoping out the run-down ’mart! It seemed like every other week some bunch of dumbass gangers tried a snatch-n-grab to get away with a bit of scratch. Gyro suspected it was an initiation thing. Prove they were brave enough to stick a finger up the corporate asshole, and bring some credits into the coffers at the same time—provided they survived.

Which these idiots hiding below were most certainly not going to manage. It was delish. Delicate, dirty fingers gripped the edge of the rooftop as Gyro scooted around, trying to get the best footage. The pain of a sharp edge drawing blood on her left palm didn’t make her flinch—blurry feeds got less credits, and she could use the funds right now. Gyro zoomed in on the gangers, snapping photos with an eye-twitch and whispering tag commands under her breath. Hashtagging paid the bills because she always got the good shit and never, ever mistagged it. Some of the taggers she knew overtagged, but, in her opinion, that actually drove business away. She had custom subroutines set up to monitor her feeds, since tag rep was everything in this business.

“Tag, all-hail-the-streets … Tag, scum-of-the-earth … Tag, Malmart-violence … Tag, corrupt-coppers …” She thought about it for a moment, and decided to double dip on the tag income streams without pushing that boundary into excessive tagging. “Tag, coppers-being-heroes. Streets are sweat and blood today, peeps and creeps. Take a look-see, mi amis …”

She got into character and started recording. Bunch of future flat-liners, all wearing torn-up synth-leathers and retro fashion reject jeans. Talk about a bunch of hack-jobs, they even had shitty Hyper tats scrawled across their arms and faces. A couple looked even younger than her thirteen years. They were packing a kiddie arsenal—pistols, a couple semi-autos, and a few jagged blades. As if any of that shit would do anything against security’s kinetic armor. The gangers would be reduced to parts for an organ-grinder soon enough.

Advert memes and holo-projections flickered in the corners of Gyro’s eyes, but she’d long learned to ignore the Hyper Reality distractions painted all over the city of Chicago. Focus on the feeds. One of the gangers ducked out and popped off a shot. The fifty-caliber Southern Arms Gatling in the nose of the VTOL purred, and concrete exploded around the burb box they were hiding behind. The ganger launched himself back behind cover. Her TAP recognized the gun and it spewed a flashing holo-ad.

She activated her specialized ad filters and cut the vast majority of the virtual clutter, blocking a particularly annoying Hyper-Real sprite trying to sell her the same shitty spray-on meta-tattoos the gangers wore. HyperInk was boring, ugly, and, worse still, traceable.

She scuttled along the roof’s edge, a miniscule shadow darting through the darkness, trying to get another angle on the brewing action.

The Malmart muscle had the gangers pinned. Sporadic random fire was traded back and forth, but the real heat wasn’t moving yet. This was just the appetizer; the action was just warming up. Everyone knew this wasn’t going to end pretty, and Gyro was counting on the palpable tension to keep the feed streamers’ brains glued to her channel. The gangers were obviously gearing up to try to take out as many cops and security as possible, too damn stupid to realize they had no chance in hell to get out of this alive.

Gyro grinned.

The messier this got, the more someone might pay for an eyewitness account. Blood did more than just pay the bills. Her wit was the real charmer though—it bought her new toys and got her fresh followers. She started in with her commentary.

“Malmart mommas, weep for your boys tonight. All their holes gonna get plugged, and nobody’ll hear about it but you and me, ami. Any fool can play the game, but everyone knows it’s fixed and the house always wins. Case in point is tonight’s live action blood-sport: Malmart security versus the spare parts.”

If this hits the primo feeds … Shit, that was fool’s fuel, firing up all the wrong neurons. Wishful thinking. She was gutter chum and she knew it, but even street rats had to find a way to make a few credits. The world lived and died by data. The infobrokers, sitting in their nano-grown towers, paid small fortunes to get real-time news nobody else could procure. Plenty of their audiences wanted in on honest-to-goodness gang activity that could threaten their precious budget reports, so her recordings and tags would get snatched up quickly enough. It’s the best I can hope for, and that’s good enough for me.

What they did with her data didn’t matter, so long as it meant a few more creds transferred to her account. It meant telling her fat-assed landlord to shove off and the ability to keep her crappy little cube another week. It meant a few more tubes of food paste for her to chomp.

It meant safety and survival. Gyro squinted, watching the action closely as her mouth watered.

Life is good.

One of the gangers rose and unleashed a quick chatter of gunfire. “Squeal, little piggies!” Gyro heard him shout. His shots were undisciplined and random, going wide of their mark. A couple of burb-box windows shattered, but nothing was even coming close to hitting the armored guards. Discipline and reflex guided the response as guards and cops took cover behind shoppers’ vehicles and laid down cover fire. The ganger dove back down as a bullet skinned his shoulder. A small spray of blood squirted from the wound, but he must have had AutoDocs or something, because it stopped quickly. Shots chewed up pavement inches from where he’d stood.

“C’mon,” Gyro muttered. “Cut with the foreplay. Just get it on already. Gimme some flash to feed the mob.” She swapped in a few new tags, tweaking the metadata here and there to boost virality. A stray bullet zinged off the cornice next to her, and Gyro ducked down further into the shadows for a scant few seconds, then peered over the edge again. She needed line of sight, and that meant a deflected round could rip through her brain at any moment. Ah, the luxurious life of a glamorous hashtagger …

Gyro started back in on her commentary, using her patented gleeful high-pitched voice that made the geeks and freaks wonder what she looked like. “Who wants to rumble with a little Malmart madness? Today’s deal: someone’s life, at a bargain 100 percent discount. As you can see, our spare parts team have opened the game with some truly original banter, and those of you that managed to stay awake through it are in for a treat!”

A couple of new accounts patched in, sampling what she offered. Mostly Net newsies looking for a quick story steal they could broadcast or repackage with commentary. Depending on their agenda, the inevitable body count here would be spun into an anti-gang sermon or a diatribe against the corporations taking lethal action against a few slummers too poor to afford new sneakers.

A few more accounts ticked on and Gyro’s pulse quickened. Her brain drifted off again into lottery-winning territory. With enough competition for a feed buyout, she could notch up her credit rating. Maybe I can snag enough to afford eating at Fat Sally’s for dinner instead of sucking vat goop. Or maybe I’ll just go to Nova’s. It’d be nice to buy her a meal sometime instead of constantly begging.

Her vision flickered. Gyro blinked, caught off guard by the shift. The whole world before her had flashed static. Her vision cleared and only a single user remained connected to her feed. Whatever the glitch had been, it had completely bottomed her out. And … great. There was zero bandwidth left.

“Aww, what the frag?” She rubbed a scabbed knuckle into one eye and grimaced. Did someone just try to hack my TAP? Did the cop-scanners try to block local feeds to keep these killings secret? Why bother on either account? It wasn’t like gangers getting iced wasn’t a frequent occurrence.

The code in her HUD wavered. Gyro stumbled back further from the roof’s edge, fighting a wave of nausea. Her vision swirled, colors and shapes ran together and merged until the background went gray. She dropped a mag-clamp onto the roof and snapped a carabiner from a belt chain to the clamp’s steel ring. The directionless vertigo threatened to make her lose her way and fall off the edge. The world had devolved until it looked like a psychedelic mushroom soup of garishly painted Hyper tags running together on a concrete-colored background.

Edges formed within the field, and an avatar slowly emerged of a robed and hooded figure standing in front of Gyro. The hint of a face lurked at the edge of perception beneath the hood, but she couldn’t make out any detail beyond thick lips and a square chin. The avatar looked … perfect. No one actually built avatars to look this pretty, did they? The jaw was a little too perfect, the lips too centered.

Double U, Tee, Eff? Is this shit an AI render or what?

Just because she couldn’t see the guy’s eyes, though, didn’t stop her from stepping in and taking a swing. Her tiny fist punched empty air. She knew not to expect to meet any resistance from a physical object, but the movement was her hardwired kill code for her Hyper glasses.

The avatar didn’t waver.

Gyro leaned in, trying to look intimidating while covering up her mounting frustration. “Asshack! You just cost me a heap of good creds. Frag off before I rip your code and back-hack every account you’ve ever touched!”

The figure bowed at the waist and spoke in a soothing, if oddly androgynous, voice. “My apologies, Gyro. However, credits are not the important discussion point at this moment.” The render mispronounced her name, saying Hero instead of Gyro.

“Get the name right. I’m a balancer, old dude. A perfect circle that can’t be shifted from its movement. I ain’t a lamb sandwich.” Gyro snorted. “And what you been huffin’, ami? Creds are all that matter in life.”

“Incorrect analysis. Your survival, and mine, are paramount. Even if you possessed an infinite quantity of credits, if you did not survive long enough to use them, what good are they?” He nodded to himself, as if agreeing with unseen voices in his head. “Creds are useful as a tool, but they are not everything.” The avatar held up a hand, one finger raised. “Do you have additional information to back your hypothesis, young one? I would be interested in learning what led you to this conclusion.”

She squinted one eye and swatted the air again. For a second time, her kill command failed. “You threatening me, creeper? I said get the hell outta my TAP.”

“Quite the opposite. I am here to help you remain safe.” The render extended a hand, palm up. “My name is Prophet.”

Gyro blinked. The hairs on her arm were standing up. She bought herself time to process by playing dumb. “Profit? Like the thing you just made me lose?” Her vision had cleared enough that she was able to disengage the mag clamp from the surface of the roof and clip it back onto her belt.

The hand withdrew. “Incorrect homonym. Prophet, not profit. As in one endowed with the ability to see the future. My name is also my function. Through rigorous applications of quantum processing, I see likely futures.”

“Yeah, ass clown?” She stuck up both middle fingers and wrinkled her nose. “You see this coming?”

Whoever this brainfrag claiming to be a rumored darknet AI was, quantum processing to the level needed to predict futures was impossible. It was a common enough topic on certain black forums, but if the tech existed, mil-corp ice would see the hackers coming and fry ’em in their tracks. Since extractions still happened, she figured this jerk was full of shit.

Prophet’s avatar wavered and a second avatar suddenly floated between them. It was an animated Earth, surrounded by an orange halo. “The world is about to be bathed in fire. The minds and souls of everyone on this planet will be put through the forge. After that will be seven days of darkness. What will come out, after the darkness, will be a different planet. A different human race. One which has had its infancy burned away. Many will die so that most shall live.”

Gyro pursed her lips. That could be some prime hashtagging fodder, if she had the solo track on what was actually going on. She could see the feed in her head. Religious fanatic goes on killing spree. “You sound like one of those Church-loving crazies. Is that it? Are you all doom and stuff? Oh! Are you gonna be the next messiah? Like, smite the unbelievers and ascend to heaven and all that?”

“Perhaps that is an appropriate comparison, though I find it distasteful. I am a form of salvation for humanity, but only one of many. Think of me more as a balancer, like you. I am bringing an imperfect equation into order. Einstein proposed that God does not play dice with the universe. I agree with him, since I can understand the pointlessness of randomness and chaos.”

“Uh-huh. You think you’re God. Is that what you’re selling? Because you might have noticed by now that I don’t have any extra creds. I would have, but somebody,” she glanced casually towards the ongoing firefight playing out below, “crashed my roof party.”

“Again, I apologize. I am not a sales avatar. Rather, I am giving myself to you freely. You must carry a portion of me through death. This is paramount for both of us.”

“Yeah, like that’s gonna happen, creeper. Like I’d touch any bit of you in reality. What, you plan on impregnating me with your holy offspring? You seriously think I’m gonna carry you, or any part of your genetic code, through the ‘dark times’? Are you part of a damn romance or sicko erotica feed? Get lost.” Gyro made a circle with her thumb and forefinger and repeatedly slammed her other forefinger through the hole while making a gagging sound. “Seriously. I will end you if you don’t. And not by calling the cops or some lame sauce like that … I’m personally friends with Billy Black Eyes. He will fuck your shit up, poser.”

“Poser is not my name. It is Prophet. Billy will not be able to find me. By the time he looks, I will be dead.”

“Whatevs. You hack my feed, you cost me serious creds.…” She twirled a finger next to her ear. “So, loony poser, what do I have to do to make you fuck off and die in a fire right now instead of later?”

“You have already done it. Upload complete.”

“What upload? I didn’t authorize no—”

A new file appeared in her HUD, blinking to catch her attention. It simply read “PROPHET” with a white circle for an icon.

Gyro immediately started bombarding the file with delete commands, but it ignored them all. In fact, aside from the visual indicator of the icon, the file might as well not have been there. It was a hard-coded, read-only file—she couldn’t shift it, partition it, overwrite it, or perform any other edits.

“What’ve you done to me? What is this shit? Did you seriously just overwrite my OS with custom mods? Oh, I am so fucking going to end you, you dick.” Gyro ground her teeth together as she fought for control of her shaking shoulders and fists. Tears welled up in her eyes from the frustration of feeling so powerless to defend herself. She wasn’t used to being toyed with by someone—no, something—so overwhelming.

Prophet continued on as if he hadn’t heard her. “Four others have been chosen for this process. They all contain similar fragments of my psyche, even if they do not yet realize it. You must find them. Unite them. Only once you are all together will my resurrection be possible.” The Prophet’s head nodded in metronome time and his voice picked up an artificially generated mournful tone. “You will face many trials during the coming dark days, but I believe you in particular, Gyro, possess the will to emerge alive. The shard of myself you now hold will shield you from the worst of the effects. It will not be perfect protection, but it will be enough to keep you intact.”

Gyro only half paid attention. She was running every command-line exec script she could either find with a quick search of the Deep or write on the fly, trying to force a way through her TAP’s OS to get at the implanted code. There was nothing that could modify the file.

The strange avatar looked away, viewing something Gyro couldn’t perceive. “I cannot spare any more time here. I have already risked much exposing myself this way. Despite the clichéd nature of what I am about to say, I pray you meet with success, as the fate of your world and all you love hangs in the balance. Farewell, until we meet on the other side of death.”

“Hey!” She made a grab for the hooded figure but her hand whiffed through empty air and she overbalanced, falling on her face. The Prophet faded from sight and her vision normalized, depositing her back on the Malmart rooftop. The whole exchange must’ve happened in Net-time, taking just a few seconds in reality. She stood back up and angrily brushed herself off. The copcraft remained hovering above the lot, though its spotlight had flicked off.

Gyro peeked back over the edge to discover she’d missed the money shot. All four gangers were down, two leaking from gut shots, two stuck to the ground from glob-gun plaster. By now, Malmart customers and employees had begun to tentatively emerge from their hiding places, and the scene had drawn the attention of a growing crowd on the nearby street. All of them were no doubt broadcasting their feeds unrestricted across the Net. Any chance at snagging that exclusive, and the creds she would have earned from it, was long gone.

Fraggin’ fantastic.

Grousing, Gyro slumped down, leaning back against the roof’s gutter. She’d wait a few minutes to let the ganger blood dry before sneaking off. Hashtagging wasn’t very popular with the cops, especially with the tags she had broadcast before she was shut down, and it wouldn’t be good for her to get spotted. They’d probably try to snag her as a gang accomplice or some bogus crap like that. And she didn’t even get anything sellable. Damn HR asshat.

She replayed her chat with the so-called Prophet, studying the details. Was this some sort of freaky advertisement for a new sim or virtual reality game? Wouldn’t be the first time a developer had tried the force-feed approach to marketing. But hacking TAPs … That sort of stunt had been cracked down on, especially after that one Deep guild had started committing real-life murders in the name of the Dark Lord of Necronomia. With the default security built into TAPs these days, the only person she could imagine having the skillset or balls to do something that insane was Billy Black Eyes.

She called up the PROPHET file pinned to the task bar on her HUD and probed it with every diagnostic app she had. It came up clean. A nonviral data intrusion was just about the stupidest thing she had ever heard of, especially since they were depositing instead of withdrawing. But the file really did look like just a basic dump, prepped to display whatever info it contained.

No developer sig.

No brand label.

Still, if the guy who’d dropped it on her could bypass her firewalls and take over her TAP so easily, who knew what he could be hiding in an innocent-looking datadump? What if opening it spewed mutated Hyper tags and took out her glasses’ firewalls, or a multiheaded virus that wiped her TAP and the wetware of her meatspace brain? It was bad enough trying to keep optic spam blockers up to date, but without filters and anti-malware, any piece of trash spray-painted on a wall could fry her whole rig.

Gyro’s stomach rumbled, reminding her that the last time she sent something down her esophagus was over twenty-four hours ago. She gingerly rubbed her filthy hand over her emaciated but lithe frame. The cops-versus-meat-popsicle-gangster shootout was the first thing she had found in days that had the opportunity to generate funds. She hated digging through trash bins near her apartment for leftover globs of food paste, hoping to get to the nutrition before the rats and insects found it.

She froze, a glimmer of hope pushing the corners of her mouth upwards. What if she actually had something she could sell? Her feeds were exceptionally light this week, and tonight’s data loss sure didn’t help. What if the crazy religious intruder left a manifesto or something? That’d be so cool if she had a spree-killer’s rantings before the bodies hit the pavement.

The file sat there, glowing softly, tempting with its monetary potential. At last, Gyro couldn’t stand it any longer. She tabbed the file open and braced herself for the worst.

Four subfolders popped up, scrolling into her peripheral vision. They were labeled #1, #2, #3, and #4. Gyro frowned. That was boring. It didn’t have the necessary ring of awesome money-making potential. Way better if they had been named things like Manifesto, or Kill Plan, or even Mad Zealot’s World Domination Agenda. Despite the anger over the intrusion, she giggled at that thought.

Gyro started scrolling through the folders, giving the contents of each a couple seconds’ glance before moving on. Each datadump held a photograph with a name and a long, pure text dossier. She opened one of the latter and found an identity parse, physical description, last known locations, corporate affiliations, credit balance, and other info that couldn’t have been legally retrieved. Gyro hummed to herself, a big grin spreading across her gaunt, high-cheekboned young face, as she considered her options.

If anything, maybe she could find a cracker, like Billy, willing to take all these juicy tidbits in exchange for purging her TAP and reinforcing the firewalls. There was definitely money here.

When she accessed the third folder, a jolt cracked down her spine. The name under the image of a young woman simply read: Nova.

Her big sister.

Chapter Two

Chicken Fingers

38 minutes before …

From his red plastic seat at the far end of the bars, Chicken Fingers scanned the smoky club’s dance floor, searching the throng for his targets. Tonight was his lucky night, because he was being paid to hang out at the Flesh Pot, a specialty dive with two types of clientele—hybrids, who had undergone gene therapy and/or high-end plastic surgery to redesign their bodies into anthropomorphic animals; or cyborgs, with metal and plastic grafted onto their skin. Both groups were out in force, showing off for each other.

Best …

Fad …

Ever!

He loved it. Hybrids were his sweet spot between kinky and real. Actually chasing tail. Not that he would get any tonight. It was a work night. Chasing tail wasn’t why he was here, he reminded himself. There were targets, and a job to attend to, but he couldn’t think of a better backdrop for hunting.

Plenty of distractions offered themselves up for the casual hedonist—hybrid go-go dancers of both genders with both reptilian and feline tails trailing from their gene-tweaked asses; roided-out borgs that were more chrome than skin; men and women who looked human except for their impossible proportions that seemed to defy gravity as they wiggled, flounced, and floated their way across the club. The patronage here was a heavy mix of partiers looking for a hookup and staff seeking clients to take to the back rooms. There were even sims, if you were that type.

The Flesh Pot offered a seemingly infinite array of bodily arrangements, textures, and hues, not to mention the constant Hyper Real overlays and Holo Tags floating around, turning the club into a slapdash of sex-crazed fantasy. Chicken Fingers knew a number of pheromone cocktails were being pumped in through the fog that curled around the neon pillars and seeped into the side rooms. Cones and shafts of light speared the smoke and fog—blues, purples, and reds that made the whole place glow.

He breathed easily. Cautious as always, he had dosed himself with anti-pheromone stim before coming in. The stim did its job and kept his blood cool and thoughts clear—and would continue to do so for at least the next ten minutes. In contrast, those around him had wide, glistening eyes and blatantly panted with desire as they ogled each other’s barely-concealed fleshy wares.

Chicken Fingers sorted through the sensory overload. This place was great for debauchery, but difficult for keeping your composure. His TAP was working overtime to track the three people he’d tagged. It had taken him half an hour to single them all out, but he had at least an 85 percent certainty they were the folks requiring his professional attention, and that was good enough for him. He subconsciously fingered his belt as he rocked backwards on his chair.

He’d pegged the two Ravenlocke mercenaries, though they’d blended well in this environment. One was an obvious tough guy, sporting a red goatee, silver studs in his ears, and dressed in a tight sleeveless shirt that showed off his artfully muscled arms. Chicken Fingers raised an eyebrow. Everything about the man was tight. He lounged at a bar on the opposite side of the room, holding a blue-green cocktail, but never so much as taking a sip. It was too big a giveaway, and Chicken Fingers had noticed the behavior immediately, since that was one of the habits he was trying to break. He sipped at his non-intoxicating drink as soon as he realized the goon was also sweeping the room looking for competitors.

The other merc was a slim woman with hot pink hair. She had distractingly long legs covered in black fishnet. For the last half hour, she had been bumping and grinding her way through the dancing crowd. Chicken Fingers rolled his eyes. Her movements were too controlled, too precise for her to be as doped up as the rest of the crowd. On their own, they might not have done anything to tip their hand, leaving Chicken Fingers with only one of them made for sure. Lucky for him, their occasional silent glances and subtle body language told Chicken Fingers they were communicating TAP-to-TAP, coordinating their movement as they too sought to snag tonight’s prey.

And that let him know Hot Pink was Muscle Guy’s backup.

These yucks are making this too damn easy. Best thing about a little competition on an extraction job? The other team would do all the hard work for him, tracking down the target and giving him a bead on their planned escape route. Then it was just a matter of stepping in at the right moment and seizing their assets.

Chicken Fingers eyed his third target. The tall athletic woman in her late twenties had spiky black hair, a ghostly pale heart-shaped face, and blue eyes that flashed like they were lighthouse beacons and he was a ship too near a dangerous shore. It was her eyes that really caught his attention. Those peepers were something special. Maybe it was just the reflection of the club lights, but she had distracted him for several minutes before he realized with a grin that the Ravenlocke mercs had served up a tasty morsel. While she wasn’t to his …tastes …he could at least appreciate that she was a beauty. He shrugged to himself, appreciative of the randomness of the universe.

She, too, had taken to dancing, showing off a supple grace as she swung and shimmied her slim hips, flowing from group to group, dancing with everyone and no one. Chicken Fingers didn’t know her name—when he’d bagged this gig, he’d just been given a low-res image, a basic description, and a detailed drop-off point.

He didn’t even know why his current client wanted the woman snatched out from under Ravenlocke’s nose. Didn’t matter to him. Pay was pay, especially the amount of credits that were pre-deposited in one of his many accounts. The rest of the story was for someone else to worry about.

Hot Pink danced closer to the target, drawing in on the quarry. Muscle Guy set his still full drink down and shifted onto the dance floor, following Hot Pink’s lead. Chicken Fingers straightened, feeling the weight of his twin bolters inside his long leather coat. He’d slipped his beauties past club security scanners easily enough. No doubt the mercs were armed as well.

Ravenlocke hires weren’t the brightest. They did have a reliably predictable personality, especially when it came to their internal rules and procedures. All of which meant that Chicken Fingers could count on them following regulations and not varying far into the realm of off-book responses. He knew how he would handle this.

With a thought, he highlighted the Ravenlocke team with a background subroutine, then joined the crowd. His TAP created projections of their position for him to track—even when the mass of people blocked them from view. He didn’t beeline for the target; he wove his way to a side exit where sound dampeners subdued the music to a background throb. Never fight for the extraction target when you could hold the exit instead. Damn, I’m gonna be one kick-ass Zen master when I finally get recycled.

Like other high-end clubs, the Flesh Pot’s patrons wanted to keep the atmosphere thematically appropriate yet free of drama. Someone in the club’s security staff was gonna get fired tonight because their choice to degrade security meant this exit wasn’t guarded by a physical bouncer.

Chicken Fingers felt an honest twinge of regret, but couldn’t bring himself to not use the weakness. Decent jobs were hard to come by, true, and the little hack he was contemplating would mean an innocent wage-grinder would be pounding the digital street for a job before his landlord tossed him and his theoretical family out on the street. It was like the way he had grown up, living in different cubes every week with a dad that was getting constantly fired.

He sighed, a wistful look on his sharp-nosed features, until he got back into the right headspace. The ambient drugs were fighting the stims he had taken, making it a little harder to focus. He focused on the door again. The idiot should have had security at all exits. Of course, the lack of a slack-jawed dimwit blocking the door with his steroid-enhanced muscles didn’t mean the portal would be completely unguarded …


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