Cruel and Unusual Punishment
I ran with the others back into the Nabopolassar. When we reached the deck, I took one look at the command center and spewed chunky bits of my lunch all over the floor. Drive's mangled corpse lay sprawled on the computer panels; his head was nowhere in sight.
Tera cursed -- half at the carnage, half at my expression of disgust -- and ran into the storeroom. Kelvin's hands were shaking; Hakuin and Ramb eased the body onto the floor as I knelt down and tried to breathe. Tera returned seconds later with a mop and bucket.
After several minutes of cursing and chaos, Drive's body had been removed and Tera was finishing the dirty work. Kelvin was frantically downloading some of the basic operator programs into his brain. (Normally we're not supposed to do this without a trained operator present, but I guess he figured this was a special circumstance.) Outside, we could hear the Antef start up and take off.
Something near Tera clinked. "Here we go," she said, grabbing an object from the floor. Hakuin raced back onto the deck; Ramb was close behind.
"What is it?" he asked. She handed him the object; a tiny sphere with an empty claw on one end and a drill bit on the other. He inspected it against the light.
"I'm guessing it held an explosive," Tera said. "Locates brain waves or something, zeroes in, drills through whatever's in the way, burrows, and detonates."
Hakuin chewed his lip and nodded slowly. "Works for now," he said, and moved to the control deck. "We've got to get out of here. There could be others." Kelvin had finished the downloads and was piloting the ship toward an electrical pipe. As we reached a cruising speed, something on the control panel began to beep. Hakuin flipped a switch and the sensors began their holoscan. He cursed; twice in one day was more than I'd heard from him in two months. "Sentinels," he said. "The brain digger must be a calling card."
"If there were other brain diggers, could we see them?" Ramb asked.
"I don't know," Hakuin said. "It certainly caught Drive off guard."
We sped away for a while; Kelvin was slowly getting the hang of the controls, but we could tell he felt uneasy about flying. I suspected he was still unnerved by his blunder with Ridley. After a long time, we pulled off to the side of the passage, powered down, and waited.
The sentinels came.
We held our breath.
Circles and Cycles
Ramb pounded her fist on the metal surface. "No," she said loudly.
We were seated around the dining table (our colorful name for the decidedly colorless common eating area). Tera gnashed her teeth and looked around the room. "We have to," she said. "There is no other way."
"Violence is never--"
"Here we go again," Tera said, cutting her off.
"Because you won't try to understand what I'm saying," Ramb said. "Once we go over that cliff, we lose the very essence of what we're trying to maintain."
"We're trying to maintain our existence," Tera said, getting louder. "As you can see, that doesn't mean a whole lot to these machines. So why must we pretend like we have something to gain by respecting the life that's fighting on their side?"
"I will not go along with it," Ramb said. "I refuse to accept that murder is our only choice."
Tera rose to her feet. "Maybe that's because you weren't the one cleaning up Drive's brain matter from the control deck."
Ramb rose to face her. "I was carrying his corpse--" She broke off as Hakuin motioned for them to sit down.
"We're not going to get anywhere with accusations," he said. They exchanged a hostile silence and reseated themselves. "Now then," he said. "I'm afraid I agree with Ramb. If we had more time, we might find some alternative. If we had more resources, perhaps." He spread his hands. "You said it yourself -- the data from Ridley's files can't help us, right?"
"Then we have no choice. We have to take one of them out." He waved a hand to cut off another of Ramb's protests. "I'm sorry, Ramb, I really am. You know I'd like to find an alternative. But this is the way it's got to be." He turned to Tera. "Will you do the hit?"
Tera smiled and nodded. "Fine," Hakuin said. "Then Psychle, you and Ramb need to do the perliminary recon. Report back first thing tomorrow."
Ramb refused to look at him. I glanced at her, then at him. "We will," I said. She stormed out, and I followed.
On the Prowl
Ramb slid around the edge of the vent and adjusted the lens over her eye. She wore a slender headpiece combination zoom scope/digital camera which fed into a hard drive on her belt. As she scanned the building across the street, she scribbled furiously on a pad of paper. Meanwhile, I kept watch overhead and in the windows around us. We were on the roof of an office building, seventy-three stories up. I was trying hard not to look at the vestiges of life on the ground that I could see out of various corners of my eye.
"It's just frustrating," she said. "He gets so rigid sometimes."
"He's being a captain," I said. "He can't run the ship by consensus."
She shot me an icy glare. "I'm not saying he should. But for crying out loud, there's got to be a middle ground. It's not like this is my first mission inside."
I fingered the safety latch on my sniper rifle. Ironic words, those. I hefted it into position and scanned the windows of the west-side office building again. People were finishing up and heading home.
"The council is the same way," she said.
"The council at Zion?" I asked.
"Six, nineteen, thirty-eight," she said suddenly. "Remember those."
"Write 'em down," I said.
"I did," she said. "But paper isn't permanent."
"Neither is my memory."
"Just remember them." I tried to come up with mnemonics for each; I couldn't get anything for nineteen, so I shuffled it away as prime. "We think of the council as being benevolent and always working for our best interests."
She sighed. "It's an organization," she said. "It controls vast resources and makes decisions about things that affect all of us. The councilors are human, given to the same weaknesses as any of us. Problem is they've enshrined obstacles to the kind of democracy we really need."
"Because we're at war. So long as we have the machines to contend with, we can't have any discussions about equality in our own ranks."
"Well, don't you think the machine war is a little more urgent?"
She looked down quickly, then at me, then back at her target. "It's not an either/or situation," she said. "If we can't develop democracy as we proceed, then what kind of world will we have once we beat the machines? We'll be back in the dark ages." She creeped across the roof and hid behind another vent. She motioned for me to stay where I was. After a few seconds, she crawled back. "I'll be right back," she said, and with a sudden lurch, she raced across the surface of the roof and launched herself over to the opposite building. She took a device off her belt, fiddled with it several different ways, and replaced it. Seconds later, she was back.
"What was that about?" I asked.
She smiled. "Measurements," she said.
I gave her a look. "We've got blueprints," I said.
"Not dimensions," she said, and headed toward the door. "We're done. Let's go."
"Good," I said, glancing over my shoulder. "There's a weird--" Before I could finish, a bullet whipped past my head and struck her in the leg. She collapsed and screamed. I called to her and spun around to see a hooded figure drop behind a window ledge to the east. I ran behind a vent and brought up the scope. A head appeared, found me, and disappeared. I could hear Ramb moving to my left. The door leading back into the building opened. I looked away to see her go inside, then returned my gaze to the scope.
Several minutes passed; the head was gone. I was ready to let it go, when I saw it one floor up from its previous location. A bullet hit the ground in front of me and I fired off three rounds. The window he was in shattered, but he dove to the side. He ducked out again and I fired again. Then everything fell silent.
"C'mon," Ramb called from the doorway.
"Hang on," i said. "I want to see if I got him."
"We don't have time," she said urgently. "We have to go."
I dropped the gun and ran for the doorway. Another shot glanced my footprint and I tried to go more quickly. I made it to the doorway and we started down the stairs. "Are you okay?" I asked.
"I'll make it," she said. The wound didn't appear to impede her movement. She chuckled.
"What's so funny?" I asked. I couldn't believe she was laughing. We had thirty flights to go; for all I knew, squads of cops were on their way up to meet us.
"I'm still thinking about Hakuin," she said. "How stupid is it for me to be dwelling on that when I've just been shot?"
"Yeah, I'd say we've got bigger fish to fry right now."
"I can't help it," she said. "It eats me up. I feel like he doesn't listen to--" and then she stopped; speaking as well as moving.
"What?" I asked in a hoarse panic.
She glanced around, then looked up at me. She smiled.
"I've got it," she said.
Ridley on the Diginome
With a rush of sound -- loud enough to make me cringe -- our ship pulled up alongside the Antef. Drive's headpiece buzzed with chatter; the screens rolled with code. "Roger that," he said finally.
We made our way to the exit. Drive stayed behind to monitor the screens. We clambered out of the door and right along into that of the Antef. The captain, a short grizzled man with a wicked scowl, approached Hakuin. Two other crew members -- one male, one female, stood behind him.
"Captain," the man said, extending his hand. Hakuin took it with both of his.
"Ushakov," Hakuin said. "Good to see you again."
"It's a dark day in the world," the other captain said, glancing at us. "Your crew looks tired."
"You see with tired eyes," Hakuin said with a slight grin. Our captain was always composed and relaxed; standing beside this withered old man, Hakuin looked positively regal.
"Come in," Ushakov said to us, waving us inside with a gruff swing of his arm. We walked hesitantly into the Antef. The other male crew member eyed me suspiciously; the woman didn't make eye contact.
We were far enough behind to whisper without being heard. "Is that Ridley?" I asked Kelvin. He shook his head.
On the bridge, we found a pair of women lounging near the control panels. As we entered, they rose to their feet. "Ladies and gentlemen of the Nabopolassar, meet the Antef." He jerked a thumb toward each of the crew in turn, starting with the other male. "Bertrand. Ayala. Hooks. Ridley."
The crew of the Antef nodded slightly in greeting. Hakuin introduced us to them, then turned to Ushakov.
"So what's this all about that you couldn't tell us over the voiceline?" the old man asked.
"A mission we've been sent to," Hakuin said. "There's a child that we need to . . . prevent."
Ushakov scowled afresh. "And you won't kill the parents because . . . ?"
Tera grinned. "Thank you," she said. She turned to us and beamed.
"We can't do that," Hakuin said plainly. "It's not an option."
Ushakov rolled his eyes. Ramb turned toward Ridley. "What's this we hear about you working on a diginome?"
Ridley -- who had looked rather bored to this point -- blinked quickly and glanced at each of us in turn. "Me?" she asked. "What have you heard?"
"Some rather unseemly stuff," Ramb said. "Rumors fly that you're trying to tinker with the code."
Ridley began to nod slightly, then tilted her head. "Wait a minute," she said slowly. "Do you mean you think you can use the diginome to kill this kid before it's born?"
"Not kill," Ramb said. "Alter."
Ridley's eyes became slits. "Alter how?"
"The child poses some serious threats," Ramb said. "If we can find some code that inflicts this danger, we're hoping we can hack it."
"Who fed you that load of horsecrap?" Ridley shot back.
As one, the crew turned to face Kelvin.
He blushed. "Well, I said it was a theory," he said. "I've read some of your posts on the possibilities for the diginome, and I thought --"
"You thought wrong," Ridley said quickly. She scratched her forehead and let out a deep breath. "Look," she said. "Let me make this clear once and for all, since you obviously missed it in my writing." Her eyebrows clung to the bridge of her nose. "The diginome influences some parts of the subject's development -- like the genome does in real people. But no more than that. Parts of it control parts of us -- but not personality. Hair color, yes. Predisposition to alcoholism, maybe. But good and evil? Give me a break!"
Kelvin was staring past her. A tense silence came and went.
"Sorry," he said finally. "I guess I just wanted to believe it."
Ridley sighed and glanced around -- clearly uncomfortable with being the center of attention. "Look," she said. "It's tempting to make those kinds of wild connections -- it would be great if we could tinker with people like we tinker with actionscripts. But it just doesn't happen. Inside the Matrix, these programs are just as context-dependent as their real-life equivalents. Maybe more so."
"More so?" Ramb asked.
Ridley waved a hand. "Let's not go into it. Point is, that's not going to be the way."
"That certainly dashes our most promising hope," Hakuin said.
"Well, there may be something else I can offer," Ridley said, moving toward the console. She donned the headset, sat down, and punched a series of buttons. "Drive," she said. We could hear the echoes of his response. "I'm sending you a series of abstracts for something called the MentaHack. It's a gnu-style collaborative project, still in its infancy. Maybe you can figure out some way to use it." The file went through and she slipped off the headset, then turned to us. "I don't know if it will be any help," she said. "But it's worth a try."
"Hacking minds?" I asked.
"Sort of," Ridley said, stretching her legs out before her. "Someone called it a Matrix hallucinogen."
"This can't just be a short-term interference," Hakuin said. "We need to neutralize this threat."
"Well, that all depends on the dosage and the nature of the hack," Ridley said, shrugging.
Ramb looked at Hakuin. "It's worth a try," she said.
"Okay," he said. "We'll look into it." He looked at Ridley. "In your opinion, does this have the power to alter minds? Actually change them?"
"Everything has the power to change minds," she said. "The question is how changed? And with what result? The software can do what hardware can do -- it can be nurturing, or it can be deadly."
Hakuin nodded slowly. "That may be true," he said. "I guess it's all we've got for now."
The signal went off for an incoming call. Ridley slapped on the headset. "Operator," she said. She slipped it off and passed it to Hakuin. "For you," she said.
Hakuin put it on. "Yes?" he asked. Ramb stepped beside Ridley.
"I get the software part," she said. "But how can the hardware be nurturing? Isn't it just a means? Neutral, I would think."
"There are ways," Ridley said, watching Hakuin's face grow more serious. "Why do you think they call it the motherboard?"
"Sentinels?" Hakuin asked, and everything else fell silent. Hooks leaped to the controls and started up the engines of the ship. Ushakov started spitting orders to the others. We tightened around Hakuin, who stood off to the side out of Hooks' way. "Well, if they're not sentinels, what are they?" He paused. "How far away are they?" Another pause. "Okay, we'll be -- Drive!" We could hear a scream from the headset. Hakuin ripped it off and we all raced for the exit.