We're being watched; this site is under surveillance. Of course, we must assume that the Matrix is keeping track of our comings and goings anyway, so Hakuin has assured me that it's not really anything to worry about. This communique has been posted three times, and removed each time. This time around we've enabled a new encryption scheme; hopefully it will stick.
Hakuin says the surveillance systems have identified this site as a potential threat as recruiting grounds for the resistance, and it is therefore to be neutralized. Naturally, that just makes me more inclined to protect it.
When we all made it out, Hakuin told me we were going right back in.
I groaned. "Why?" I asked. My joints still ached from the running and bumping.
"Our assignment is being held by a program named Baudrillard. He's a nasty piece of work, and I had hoped we'd seen the last of him. But for whatever reason, he's the man we need to see."
"What's so bad about him?" I asked.
"He peddles in snake oil," Tera said roughly. I scrunched my face toward her.
Hakuin waved a hand. "He's basically a self-replication system," he said. "But not in a malignant way."
"I don't understand," I said.
"Join the club," Kelvin said.
Hakuin took a deep breath. "A while back, certain programs realized that they had become obsolete. They didn't matter. There was no reason for them to exist. Many of these programs restructured their prime directives and aligned themselves with newly useful purposes. Unfortunately, some programs couldn't find anything useful and what they aligned themselves with was actually just self-replication masquerading as utility."
"Now I'm more confused," I said.
Ramb stepped forward. "This guy Baudrillard thinks he's doing something useful," she said. "But he's just spinning his wheels and doing nothing. He just generates meaningless code. The worst part is that other programs recognize the code as legitimate and they produce the same garbage."
"Like a virus," I said.
"Sort of," Hakuin said. "But again, it's delusional -- not malicious in nature."
"And we're going to see this guy because . . . ?"
"He has what we need."
"Ah." I sat down to jack in; only Tera joined me. "You're sitting this one out?" I asked Hakuin.
He nodded. "Do you remember the instructions?" he asked.
"I think so," I said.
"Good. Tera will take you to him. When you find him, follow the instructions and defeat his game. When you do, he'll provide you with our next assignment." He leaned forward and spoke more quietly. "It's vitally important that you don't let anyone get hold of that assignment. I don't suppose I need to tell you what can happen if you do."
I shook my head slowly. We went inside and found ourselves in a dank basement. There was no light source; only a thin, grimy sliver from upstairs.
Tera led the way. We emerged into the same unreality I remembered from the last time; my eyes hurt from the neon glow of the world outside. We walked down several city blocks, then into an abandoned building.
It was dark. Tera motioned for me to enter another doorway. "When you go in, knock three times. He'll come out from the back room."
I went into the room. It was pitch black. I felt around until I found a wall, then knocked three times. Slowly, a tall man in a purple shirt and dark cape emerged.
"Ah," he said. "You again."
I scowled. "Have we met?"
He grinned. "Back for some more, huh? Excellent." He held a hand out and revealed four rows of gleaming pearls. A flash of recognition hit me and I tried to recall the instructions from Delphi's envelope. I took three pearls from the first row. He laughed and took one from the last. I cursed and racked my brain. I took four from the second, and he wiped out the entire third row.
"3-2-1," I said. "Dammit."
Baudrillard just grinned at me. I asked for a new game and he smiled. "Certainly," he said, and with a wave of his hand produced four new rows of pearls.
Six games later, I fed him the last pearl. He blinked, then scowled and walked back into the darkness. "Hey!" I called out after him. "You're supposed to give me something." I blinked into the darkness for several minutes.
Eventually, he returned with a thin envelope. "Well done," he said, and handed it to me. "Here it is." I nodded and took it. Turning, I found the door and rejoined Tera.
"I don't get it," I said as we left the building. "How did he become a part of this?"
"Once in a while he lapses into the world of actual usefulness," she said. "And he serves as courier for relevant information. He defeats security, because the Agents don't believe he's capable of communicating anything worthwhile -- so they just ignore him."
I opened the envelope as we walked. It was a printed email, reproduced in tiny 9-point monaco type.
Nabopolassar:I looked at Tera, who was reading it with me. "Is she kidding?" I asked. "We have to stop this couple from having a kid?"
In two days, a man and a woman will conceive a child. The man is a dangerous soul; one determined to facilitate evil of a most gruesome kind against Zion. His son (it will be a son) will be worse.
You must stop this child from entering the world. Prevent the conception. Coordinates will be sent presently.
"I guess," Tera said. We made our way back into the dingy basement, where a phone was ringing. In the grimy light, I could see her gesture for me to answer it.
I did, and the real became unreal.