shock zero : project neantis

[ a System Shock/Deus Ex hybrid ]
by averroes


(chapters 4-7)


chapter four

Renaissance was divided into three main areas. There was the Mining Center, the Administrative Center, and the "Quarters", where about 98% of the population lived. The docks and spaceport, because of the security regulations, were located in a secured zone between the Quarters and the Admin. A long, open catwalk with a glass roof linked the three together, and a large corridor called the "Ring", one of the rare places where small vehicles were allowed, served as the city's main street, connecting all sectors together.
My car entered the Docking Bay as the station's doors were closing, and a red light started flickering on the dashboard. There were two Priority One emails in the car's inbox. One to say that Renaissance was on Security lockout, and the second to alert everyone that no incoming vehicle was allowed from this moment on. I looked around and saw I had been one of the last two who'd had the chance to make it inside.

Forty-five minutes had passed since I had left Frederika. To my knowledge, they couldn't have repaired the dish yet. So unless they had another dish, it wasn't them. Or perhaps they communicated with the HQ more frequently than I thought. In that case, Earth could have sent a notice to one of their nearest offices (they had a retail outlet here in Renaissance, in one of the Admin Center's malls) and start investigating from there.
I cleaned the Jeep meticulously and left the Bay. I couldn't afford to leave my DNA here, even though they had plenty of samples in Frederika. The way I saw it, they had no idea what had happened so far, and would wait for Frederika to contact them before deciding their course of action.

I downloaded a free map of the station and verified the location of the motel. Checking in would present no foreseeable problem. The PR office was located nearby, in a very touristy section of the Quarters. No, I could walk there and back, ask my questions, sleep, eat, live... The question was, how long would the lockout last? I had to go back to Earth, and quick. My investigation could not afford a delay. The Media Division hack was to take place in two days, and I couldn't arrive at my flat unprepared. Renaissance may be one of the most modern and advanced terran colonies in the system, I couldn't stay indefinitely.

Then I remembered a detail. There were tales in the C-World about some kind of Union among LSS mechanics and engineers. Okay, so most of the guys who had told me that had spent their entire life on Earth, and so had I, but a few of them had been to space, and swore there was this sort of secret alliance between low-grade tech workers. They maintained and repaired the guts of ships and stations, were invisible and discreet. The Tech guys. I said we Enforcers were often considered as Maintenance guys with a perfect shadow job. Nobody ever noticed us. Maintenance is invisible.
It was said that you could ask them anything, if you knew how to approach them properly. An urban legend, surely, but that's all I had. I locked myself in my room and studied the station's maps and blueprints to see what kind of network they used. I could distinguish several units, each with a different purpose. Used water, Recycling Plant, Power... There, I had it. The Cargo Docks. There were on the lower levels of the Admin Center, but there seemed to be no locks or ID check on the way down. I noticed several bars and stores on the same level, smaller units that couldn't be for tourists. So the workers had their own quarters and recreational area. Talk about equality! They worked their ass off for the base, didn't get any recognition, and on top of that they were kept outside of the "normal" station. Anyway, I couldn't go and just say hi!, I needed data.
My watch buzzed. The appointment with the PR Office. From the room's lines, I connected to earthnet and rerouted the signals enough times to make detection nearly impossible, then introduced an encrypted leechware into my personal databank at home, copying all my data from my home to my computer here. The watch buzzed again. I didn't have time to sort it out. I locked the door, and left the motel.

Outside, the lockout was apparent to anyone gifted with a minimum of awareness. People did their business as usual, but there were guards posted at every corridor junction. I could see red lights flickering behind the counters, indications that the alarm systems were live everywhere. Offensive security was not yet visible, but the streets had been cleared out to make way for automated gun turrets.
The guards wore Nara tags and logos and had been dispatched everywhere. I wasn't aware how much power Nara had on this station, and I had clearly underestimated their ability to react. As I entered the PR office, I couldn't help but notice two of them walking in my general direction. Paranoia struck. Did they have anything against me, anything that could tell them I was onboard the Gravidome or on Renaissance? As far as I knew, I had never used my real name since my departure from Earth, except on Frederika. Smart engineers could retrace my actions after Cimic, but I could see no reason to try, as I wasn't officially working on anything important at that time.
Perhaps they maintained a closer control on some of their employees, a control I wasn't aware of. Perhaps they had discovered somehow that I hadn't died in Cimic. If they knew that, then tracking me to Renaissance was relatively easy for a skilled hacker, and in such a case, the connection between an incident on Frederika, Renaissance and me was painfully obvious, especially if I considered the fact Remora knew about this facility and I knew about Remora.
I went in the first elevator I could find and pushed a button without really paying attention. I was concerned. All of a sudden, my whole operation looked really risky, and my chances to make it out of Renaissance intact very, very slim. If Nara knew about me...

I had hoped the Governor's office would help me find out what was going on on Renaissance and perhaps Frederika as well, questions like the importance of traffic in the last months, how supplies were managed, how all the communications between Earth, Nara, Renaissance and Frederika worked, this kind of things. My glance at Nara's security forces was a clear indication the ties were stronger than I imagined, and I'd have to do without more info for the time being.
The elevator door opened with a 'ding'. I looked around. The lobby in front of me was completely empty. I walked behind a pillar and took my PDA. I had to send a mail to the PR office. I couldn't stay on Renaissance any longer, and I had to work out a way to escape to the lower levels. I quickly wrote some embarrassed excuse from my 'secretary' about a mess in the mail server and opened the map to see if I could find an access to the maintenance areas. I finally located an unlocked access door and soon found myself in a dark, unlit hallway that connected this part of the Admin Center with a section of the Ring below. Little by little I went accustomed to the darkness and distinguished vent ducts, electrical cables and conduits. For a second, I thought about trying to find a phone line and read what was being said on the security network, but my PDA was not shielded, and a direct access through a physical connection could attract them here within minutes.
However... I looked at the map again. There was certainly a way from here to my motel in the Quarters. And in my room there I would recover my gear, and also the guard's intercom. I had switched it off as soon as I had left Frederika, and more or less forgotten about it. But the guards here in Renaissance were Nara personnel too. There was a chance they used the same frequency, and even if it was an encrypted com, the receiver had a built-in decoder.

I looked at the walls and searched for signs that would indicate where I was exactly. I managed to roughly estimate my position and walked a few meters to an empty office. Apparently this part of the station was completely deserted.
I grabbed a multitool and unscrewed the panel covering the office's ventilation grate. If I wanted to make it to the Quarters safely and unnoticed, I'd have to crawl all the way there.

From that moment on, I decided not to trust anyone and rely on my instinct. The fact the NSD could be aware of my presence onboard forced me to improvise an exit plan, a situation that reminded me how foolish I had been to fly here and there without an adequate preparation. The Cimic incident had changed the stakes, or so it seemed. I couldn't consider myself safe anywhere, at least until I had deciphered the Frederika puzzle.
The lower levels were the only chance I could think of to leave the station unnoticed. Every day, a cargo left the station to deliver the minerals gathered during the week on Earth. If I managed to make it there I could offer a bribe and board the ship. If only I could remember the passwords!! If the LSS fellowship existed, it would be a lot easier, but I had to find those damn codes first.
The end of the duct put a temporary end to this problem. According to the map I had, I had arrived in what could be considered the "basement" of my motel. The laundry, apparently, given the hot air and steam. I grabbed my multitool and started unscrewing the grate, while listening carefully for any sign that someone was there. Fortunately I had kept my key, I wouldn't have to go all the way to the reception lobby, which would have made my duct-crawling expedition pretty much useless.

I climbed the stairs carefully, holding my breath, and peeked at the public area. The hallways were empty, and so was the lobby. I could see the receptionist watching something on his TV, and two guards outside, not really in front of the motel, but not really looking elsewhere either, if you see what I mean. I closed the door, and climbed the two stories left to my room. I almost entered my card in the door's slot, but at the last moment I remembered the hotel's description and started shaking. I could as well go to the guards outside and surrender. There was a little green star in the station's guide, green for security. All the doors were connected to the reception desk, and it could detect any operation in the building. If you opened a door, the computer recorded it, with the date and the key's serial number. If they were really looking for me, my door could be bugged, and opening it would trigger some kind of signal, an alarm or a call to the nearest police station, anything to alert them. I looked around and could see no visible electronic equipment. Of course. It was a motel, not a plant, everything was hidden somewhere in the walls. I walked along the corridor, looking for a hidden door or panel. I eventually found an old-style fuse box in the stairway. Once again, my multitool opened it for me. The fuse box contained not only fuses for the entire level, but also a tracking box and a miniature receiver for the security cameras outside. I also found a sticker indicating Daniel Falley, from MaintenAce, Inc., Renaissance, had performed the last maintenance inspection two days before. Great.
The main cable disappeared in the ground, apparently to the lobby. There were several smaller cables, but finding the one to my door would prove tricky. As far as I knew, disconnecting the whole thing would be seen as a major system failure (no shit, Sherlock!) and send a signal to both the maintenance company and the lobby. Not recommended. I sorted out the cables and managed to tell the difference between the "door" ones and the "camera" ones. Now the problem was to find the right door.

And my PDA buzzed.

I froze. What the hell?

I looked at the screen, and didn't recognize the number. I disconnected and blamed it on a false number when... Shit! I looked again. The PDA. Damn, I was stupid! The phone chip used sectorial localization. Disconnecting the call had sent a signal through the network telling the operator I wasn't there to answer, and at the same time where the signal had been received and interrupted.
I looked at the opened fuse box and the wires on the floor, trying to assess how fast they could react. Then tried to think of a diversion. I went down to the first level and found the same box in the stairway entrance. I ripped it out of the wall and disconnected all the cables, then ran back to my level, and looked outside. The receptionist appeared in the street, looking worried. My signal. I ran to my door, opened it and grabbed all my stuff the fastest I could. The leechware had not completed the copy, but I zapped the room's phone lines anyway. Another signature. I was leaving traces everywhere, for a moment I wondered why I bothered with fake IDs...
I ran out of the room and slammed the door behind me. Outside, the guy was still waiting. I hurried back down to the laundry and in the duct. I had made sure to leave no fingerprints in this level, so I took the time to screw the grate back on the wall before crawling again. The loss of my PDA was bad, I could only remember more or less where I was going. I had kept the memory chip, but the machine itself was now lying half-burnt on the room's floor, zapped with the motel's phone lines.

After turning around and around, I eventually found a way to a deserted staircase. This part of the building had been abandoned shortly after the base's completion. It connected two secondary maintenance levels, which had been progressively cluttered with debris of machinery and spares, and outdated instruments and equipment. It was seldom used, and only a dozen people knew how to access it.
I found the staircase by chance after trying several dead-end conduits that had led me from a five-star restaurant's lobby to a public toilet. When I arrived at last in a place where I could rest a bit, claustrophobia was kicking in. I breathed heavily and swore never to crawl that long a distance again. Especially in the dark. My micro-flashlight's battery had died thirty minutes before.
I knew where I was, but I didn't know where it was. I tried to find a sign on the dusty walls but there were none. This place looked really abandoned. I guessed those who knew about it didn't need any sign.
The way up was not an option, it would end on some closed door to the public area, with the guards and all. So I went farther down into the depths of Renaissance. I had to be cautious, I didn't wear protections of any kind, while all the machinery was exposed and running. Hot-water conduits, steam, wheels and electronics... Some corridors were so narrow they were almost like deathtraps. I walked carefully in the dirt and grease, and lost my jacket as I tried to protect my head from the sparks generated by a broken junction box.
After the loss of my PDA I had relied on my intercom for localization. It wasn't perfect, but enough to get me to the lower CARGO levels. I had changed the chip to put in a localization software instead, based on the signals emitted all around. The receiver was jammed to block out signals that would help locate me, but I could more or less assess how far I was from my destination.
After a while I didn't need it anymore, and I switched it off. Small panels on the wall, recent maintenance tags on the machines... I was back in an "active" part of the station. Time to be cautious again. There were more corridors and offices, and less heavy machinery, status screens, and computer consoles. In one of the offices, I found a coat left here by some tech and borrowed it to look more like I knew what to do here, in case I met someone. Then I looked around the room and decided to stay and look at the data my computer had gathered while I was away.
I sat at a desk and took my laptop out of my backpack. Fortunately the backpack was waterproof and insulated, and nothing inside had suffered from the hazards of the trip. Because of the wacky transfer path and the hard disconnection, several files had been corrupted or were missing. I had to browse a bit before finding what I was looking for, my conversations with several 'anonymous' crackers in underground chatrooms and networks. Some were corrupted too, but most of them were good enough to work on. I studied the voice patterns and the vocabulary they used when talking to me. I had infiltrated and recorded several convos during my time at NSD, and I could see the difference when they were talking to a stranger. I had to admit that, after a while, after they got to know me, they had started talking more freely, but never to the point I had seen in the chatrooms I had bugged.
Several of them had nonetheless left interesting pieces of info here and there that I gathered to build a 'LSS Guild' file. As I said, a urban legend circulated on Earthnet, according to which the mechanics and low-grade engineers who worked in the space industry, that is, the stations on orbit, those on other planets, and the spaceports on Earth, had created some kind of a secret society, an alliance to help each other and their friends. According to most, it had appeared after the military repression of the great strikes of 2040. In September of 2039, several stations orbiting the Moon had rebelled against Earth authority and asked for more independence. They had cut contact and started working together with the Moon bases, which were half-independent already and didn't mind as long as they sold their minerals to someone. The governments on Earth didn't really take it very well, and after negotiating for a few months, they had sent the UNM to settle the case. They lost a spacecraft, one station was destroyed and two others damaged beyond repair, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides. Both stations' fusion core had irradiated the rest of the craft, and many engineers had died while trying to contain the leaks. Many others were left behind when the evac pods left the stations. It had been the most serious incident of the space age since the ISS crash on Guayaquil in Ecuador, in 2013. Officially, everything had gone back to normal after that, but the truth was that all extraterrestrial installations were under close scrutiny by the UNHOSES, the United Nation High Office for Space Exploitation and Security, a dictatorial agency funded by both the governments and the corporations, that ruled everything from the smallest chip to the shuttles and had complete control. The HOSES even had their own security forces, an elite group commanded by retired UNM officers, and the corporations themselves were allowed to develop their security department, a clause that had led to the creation of the NSD in 2054.
In 2070, the HOSES had little to do with the UN anymore, and that was the reason why the first two letters had been dropped in most occasions. From a small agency dedicated to voting and enforcing space regulations, the organization had progressively taken over all commercial and financial activities, and it had grown bigger than the UN itself. Along with the size came the independence. Their ties with the government were reduced to a public report twice a year, and they didn't even need to consult them before any decision they could make. The corporations themselves had merged with one another, little by little, and only four were left in their original state. They were TetraCorp, a leader for electronic equipment and appliances, Nara Pharmaceuticals, the first provider of medical material and synthetic foods in the Solar System, Campeda Technologies, who built all kinds of vehicles from cars to shuttles, and Alameda United, who had specialized in military technologies, weapons and vehicles.
There were rumors on earthnet about a possible change of status of these megacorporations. According to some, HOSES was losing control as three of the four corps intended to merge and the term teracorp had been coined. Nobody knew who it was, or why, or when, but the rumor was there, and proof had been found here and there that confirmed a future merger.
Today in 2072, all the megacorps had transferred their HQs at New Atlanta as well. The HOSES building was still standing in the middle of the city, like a challenge to all those who wanted to defeat them. In spite of all the rumors, they were still in charge, and the daily reports of abuse and violent repression could prove it.

I eventually found several indications that there was indeed an unidentified group set against HOSES. Small incidents, cracks and unauthorized transfers, messed up systems, everything pointed at a small community with little influence. They tried to disorganize the system from the inside, little by little, but if they went on like this, the big crash wouldn't happen before a couple of centuries.
I gathered reports of broken shuttles that couldn't dock properly and crashed on landing pads, of security systems that had flooded an entire level of expensive high tech equipment after a fake fire alert... No casualties, never. Apparently they were skilled and patient. They didn't rush and take the risk to be hunted as murderers. The cracks were always extremely complex, and usually exploited a seemingly insignificant little flaw to fire a chain reaction. Basically, works of art.
No name was ever mentioned. This group never left any declaration, any agenda, or anything that could lead to the identification of its members. Recollecting all these incidents and find a common signature in every single one of them had taken an awful lot of time, but I felt it was the only method to find a way to identify myself as one of them. I needed to find a keyword. A code phrase. A password. Anything.
In the meantime, I took the risk to switch on one of the room's consoles, and run a search on current traffic. I set it to search all vehicles headed to Earth with enough oxygen for me in their cargo bays.
I went back to my own computer, and continued my investigation. Had I overlooked a detail? Why were they called LSS, who had coined this symbol? Curiously, my earthnet records showed nothing about a group called or nicknamed LSS. The Life Support Systems. How had I found that? I looked again, but to no avail. Now I wasn't disappointed, I was puzzled. I tried to remember when I had first started using this term, or what had led me to use it.
My last conversation with Ghiran, a record that had been zapped when the plant had gone FUBAR. That's why I didn't have it here. He had told me about Frederika being suspicious and was wondering about the benefits of a direct investigation there. And just before the zap, he had mentioned the LSS.
"Of course, I could still ask the LSS Guild first to see if they kn..."
The LSS Guild.
Not only did Ghiran know about this so-called LSS Guild, he also knew how to contact them. I opened my files on Ghiran and tried to learn more about him. Abraham 'Abe' Ghiran was thirty-three, born in Seattle in 2038. His father was UNM, they had lived in at least seven cities until his mother decided to stay in Cimic to take care of their three children. Ghiran was twelve at that time. His father had retired three years later and come back to Cimic, but by that time, Abe had been awarded a grant and left to study in Europe.
He came back in 2056 when both his parents died in a crash. A malfunctioning beacon had set itself a few thousand feet too low and had sent a dozen vehicles against a mountain before the faulty system was diagnosed and repaired. From that time, Ghiran had literally dived into the digital world, and he had become on of the smartest programmers of his time. He could understand even the oldest systems from the previous century, and he could use this knowledge to develop new techniques, new traps, new scripts... He had created failsafe procedures for Campeda, who had then hired him to replace all their NaviNET OS, the faulty operating system that had caused his parents' death.
How tragically symbolic! The good boy who had lost his parents had become an instrument for the very corporation whose equipment had killed them. But that was only the surface. In the C-zone, the cyber underworld of thieves and crackers, he gave advice, he helped, he even did a few jobs provided it wasn't too obviously illegal. I had met him in 2066, during an investigation, when I was still free-lance, just before joining Nara. I was having trouble with my target, and he had provided me with some hints, which had finally helped me uncover MrGibbons' transmitter cloak trick and catch him.
That he knew about the LSS Guild came as no surprise. However, the fact he apparently knew how to contact them (and so, the conclusion that he had worked with them at least once in the past) was one, and big. Nothing in his background showed any sign of space-related activities, even at Campeda, and I don't want to gloat here, but I had one of the most complete databases in the C-zone. Of course, I was handicapped by the fact it was an incomplete and slightly corrupt copy, but I was pretty sure I had everything about him.
I left my console and walked around the room to think about it; Walking in circles always helped me to focus when I encountered a dead-end. I was alerted by a small beep and noticed the computer console on the wall had completed the search. Weirdly enough, it had ignored my filter. There were four vehicles in Cargo. Two were grounded, one had just arrived, and one was to leave shortly. Its cargo was composed of small generators and 'organic1". I looked closer, asked for more information. The console clicked once or twice, and gave me a more detailed answer: 'Organic1', type 2 cargo, living organisms, pressurized conditioned cargo only. I couldn't believe my luck. I had to hurry. I printed a basic access map, packed my gear and hurried out of the room. I had to find the Cargo Bays quick, the shuttle was scheduled to leave at 5pm this evening.
I arrived at the Bay after wandering for about half an hour in the Recycling Plant's narrow corridors. After crawling and crouching, I suddenly found myself in a huge room filled with crates and cranes of various sizes. On the other side, ten mechanics or so were working on the engine and landing gear of a type 4 shuttle. A few others were loading crates. Some of them were adapted for the transport of living animals. I could recognize them as they were more or less sphere-shaped, to give the animals more comfort.

I was there, okay. But I didn't know how to approach the mechs, however. Everything I had found about Ghiran was nothing as long as I had no code. I decided to go for it anyway, and went to one of the engineers, who was calculating a payload limit on some crate.
He turned to me with a smile and then looked at me. The smile disappeared.
-"I don't know who you are, but you shouldn't be here, sir. This part of the station is off-limit to unauthorized personnel."
-"I know. I only have a question."
He looked cautious.
-"How much to let me board this shuttle there?" I showed the shuttle behind me.
-"Excuse-me? Passengers are not allowed on this kind of spacecraft, sir. And if you don't leave now, I'm afraid I'll have to call the security."
Shit. I smiled and took out my wallet.
-"C'mon, those are animals and they're fine. I can survive in there, and I can pay. No limit. How much?"
-"Follow me." He said. He turned back to the crate and completed the form. Then he waved at one of his coworkers and made a strange hand gesture. The guy nodded and left.
-"This way."
I followed him in the office. I was trying to assess how much a trip like this would cost. As I entered the office though, all these thoughts disappeared. There were two guys in there, waiting. I turned back but the door closed behind a fourth mech who had come in just after me. He had a lead pipe in his hand. The pipe swung and I felt a horrible pain in my knees. I fell on the ground with a yell.
-"What exactly do you think we are, huh? Travel agents?"
The pipe hit my back.
-"Your personal shuttle pilots?"
Again. And again.
-"Stop that, Ron, you gonna kill him. I'm gonna call the security; Must be the guy they're looking for."
A floating red curtain blocked my field of vision. Pain irradiated all around my body. I thought about Ghiran, what the hell had he done to these guys to be accepted? Shit that thing hurt like Hell! Poor Abe Ghiran, Cimic's lost and subversive genius. What was his secret? Ghiran, and his cloak that looked like one of those animal crates. Ghiran and his paranoia. Yo Ghiran, uncloak!

Everything faded to black.


chapter five

Thousands of bells ringing at the same time wouldn't make so much noise. What a torture.
-"Hey, Mallory... Yo, wake up."
Grumble. Cotton balls in my mouth. Could I speak? Who had stuck that burning needle in my brains? I tried to open my eyes and could only see a bright white fog that burned right through my eyes to the deepest part of my head.
-"Calm down, calm down. It's just the drug, calm down. It'll pass in a sec."
I felt hands on my shoulders, someone was trying to help me sit on the floor.
I stayed there with my mouth and eyes wide open. I felt like a stupid retard. What did I look like?
-"You okay?"
-"Urgh! No, I'm not, you idiot!" I sighed and shook my head. And there, little by little, I started to recover. And I remembered. The mechs. The... LSS thing. I looked around. I was in the same little office, in the Cargo sector. I noticed a noise, someone was operating a crane outside in the main loading area.
-"What am I doing here?"
-"We, huh... You were knocked out. Are you Jeremiah Mallory? Mallory, from NSD?"
-"Ye... Yes." I looked up. I recognized the face, it was the guy who had tricked me into believing the bribe would be easy.
-"What the fuck did you do to me? Why?"
-"Sorry. We didn't know who you were, we thought you were one of those damn tourists again. Every once in a while a moron comes here after losing all he's got at the casinos on level 12, and he tries to board a flight to come back to Earth unnoticed, leaving the debts behind."
-"Yeah, well I'm not one of them... OUCH!" The pain came back. "And what am I doing here? I seem to recall someone was to call the security."
-"Are you Jeremiah Mallory from NSD?"
Was the guy dumb or what? I looked at him.
-"I already answered that question. You think I'm retarded or something?"
-"Didn't get in..." He showed me a strange machine that looked like an mp7 player. "We got this from Ghiran a few days ago. He sent it with a message asking us to give it to a certain J. Mallory from NSD in case anything happened to him. And..." He looked at me very attentively. "And what exactly happened to him?"
-"He... He's dead. Two... Three days ago, he died in the Cimic blast. I was... I was talking to him when it happened" I looked up. "Happy now?"
-"For the moment. Well he gave us that and it's coded. Only your voice can open it."
-"Wait a... Wait a minute... Ho... How do you know who I am?"
-"Well, for a start, we found your ID card in your wallet. But right before going down you whispered Ghiran's name..." He paused. "Er... 'Yo, Ghiran, uncloak', if I'm not mistaken. And that's why you're not in one of Renaissance's lovely detention cells"
-"Yeah. I... I said that aloud?"
Damn. So I talked in my sleep. Not good news.
-"How do you know Ghiran? Are you the LSS Guild?"
To my surprise, he laughed.
-"The LSS Guild? Yeah, sorta... Hehe... Let me show you something." He got up and walked to his desk, searched in one of the drawers and came back with a sheet of paper.
-"Here's the LSS Guild." He said. It was a picture of five young men, in front of a trophy representing an old-style laptop computer and an assault-rifle. Below, someone had written "LSS Guild, winner of the 2068 Unreal9 Tournament - Tokyo, July 2069" I recognized Ghiran on the left, and the guy I was talking to in the middle. I didn't know his name.
-"What's your name?"
-"Ryerson. Tony Ryerson."
-"Ryerson. Okay. Sooo... the Guild is just a game, that's what you mean, right?"
-"Why, yeah." He looked surprised. "What do you think it is? If he told you about it, Ghiran must have told you what it was, right? I'm surprised, mind you, 'cause we weren't supposed to mention it. Anyway..."
-"He didn't tell me about it. He was thinking about it." I explained him how I heard of the Guild and how I had connected that to my research. Ryerson looked at the picture, and shook his head.
-"Well I'll be damned... No, we're not what you think at all. Although, yeah, we can help you with the shuttle, but... I'm afraid we're not this group of terrorists you're describing. Ghiran was the hacker. We had him in the team to crack the doors open and jam the other teams' comlink, but the rest of us, me, Jack Gershon there, and Frank and Terence Henry, we were the commando. Ghiran guided us with his skills, and we went and did the job." He started to sound vaguely nostalgic. "Yeah, those were the days. We stopped when... when Frank and... and Terry killed themselves in a hoverboard accident on Lake Erie... last year. None of us played again after that."
-"I see." I didn't see anything, I was back to my starting point and I didn't get to collect the two grand. "So you help me because Ghiran asked you to. Do you know anything about me?"
-"Not really. He gave us a short description, but we expected to see you as a NSD officer, not as one of those retards who live upstairs."
-"Thanks. Geez, I'm sorry."
He laughed again.
-"No problem. Now get up I'm gonna show you how it works." He waved the thing under my nose as if it was some piece of candy. "I must say, I tried to have you open it so I could see what's inside, but you woke up too fast."
I grabbed the thing. It looked like a regular 50Gigs portable storage device, but there was a microphone on it, and it was heavier than usual. Ryerson went on, reading on his screen.
-"Here are the instructions. Don't plug it in before you unlock the system, or it could explode. It's loaded."
I read the letter. There was a tiny dose of C5 explosive in a cartridge inside the PSD. No more than three tries in an hour. Plug it in after unlocking the safety, or else the drive and everything in a radius of fifty feet would go byebye. Right. Piece of cake. Thanks Ghiran.
-"You said I could use the shuttle?"
-"Yeah. TO in ten minutes, you'd better pack your stuff and board now. It's a direct flight to Hong Kong. You'll be there in..." He looked at the clock. "I'd say fifteen to seventeen hours. I'll show you the way."
We went out of the office and as we walked towards the loading bay, a tall guy came to me, wiping his greasy hands in a towel. I recognized the guy with the pipe. He looked embarrassed.
-"I wanted to... Well, huh, sorry. Nothing personal, ya know?"
-"It's okay, it's forgotten. I didn't even feel anything, 'twas just an act..." I smiled, and immediately felt the pain on the back of my head. But really, the last thing I wanted was to offend him.
-"Haha, yeah, sure!" We shook hands. "If ya're back, ya got a problem ya call me, 'kay? Y'call Ronnie. Ronnie Bateman, that's my name!"
-"Sure, sure. Cheers mate!"
Great. I sighed and followed Ryerson and looked at the shuttle. They were preparing a BioCrate for me.
-"You go in there when the pilot tells you to, alright?"
-"For most of the trip, you can walk around, but don't mess with anything, 'kay? It's a cargo, we must keep the balance. If you move something, the trip can end... well, prematurely, get it?"
-"Yes. Yes, I get it. I get it. Now, can we move on?"
-"Sure 'nough. 'kay, load it!" The crate disappeared, and I followed it inside the shuttle.
Ryerson checked the crates and jumped out of the shuttle's cargo bay to check the doors from the outside. While working, he finished his briefing.
-"The pilot knows you're here, of course. But keep in mind you're cargo. You're not there, you don't exist. Don't talk, don't make noise, they could detect it on the flight record. We damaged the camera here, so it won't take any image, but be careful anyway. Now, once in Hong Kong, go to the Maggie's on Tonnochi Road, and ask for Harriet. She'll help you find a way back to the US, the password is "dragon tooth". The Maggie's, on Tonnochi Road. You'll remember?"
-"Alright. Thanks."
-"You're welcome. Ghiran was a friend. I hope you'll find out what happened."
-"Yeah, I bet. Not as much as I do." I pushed the button to close the door. The massive doors silently sealed the bay and I went forward to sit on a bench near the cockpit's door.

Seconds after I heard the pilot complete his checklist and the shuttle took off. I felt the vibrations when we passed Renaissance's magnetic field, felt the increasing speed, and knew we were on our way to Earth.
I looked at the PSD. I couldn't use it here, it would be too noisy to operate. Harriet, in Hong Kong. The Maggie's... The vibrations of the shuttle became less noticeable and I fell asleep.


chapter six

Hong Kong.

I woke up and felt someone at my side. Confused, I opened my mouth to protest and saw him point at the camera and beckon me to remain silent. I remembered where I was and nodded to show I understood. He gave me a small note and went back to the cockpit.
"ETA forty-five minutes. You should hide now, re-entry will be shaky. Wait until you hear the three knocks on the crate, name of your contact is Dennis Heager. Good luck."
I put the paper in my pocket and looked at the BioCrate. The interior was padded with some kind of foam to protect the "passengers". I took my backpack and went inside, trying not to make too much noise. I noticed the crate could be closed and opened from the inside. The switch was worn. Apparently I wasn't this thing's first passenger. In the dark, I felt the shuttle shake as we entered the earth's atmosphere. Soon after, the engine's noise became much louder. Air. We were flying now, descending towards Hong Kong's spaceport, one of the world's most developed terminals. We turned and slowed down. I heard the landing gear and the brakes, the engines' overdrive, then a huge vibration shook the whole shuttle, and the engines stopped working. Then, silence.
We had landed.

I rubbed my forehead and winced. I wanted to hear what was going on outside and had almost knocked myself out on the crate's wall. With that and the pain in my legs and back, I was going to be a damn fine hunter! I calmed down when people entered the bay and started unloading the crates. I grabbed a handle and remained silent. When would this guy Heager come? A rattling noise over my head. Someone was placing a hook on the crate. It started moving and I wondered where the heck I was going. The crate suddenly dropped and violently touched the ground. My backpack moved and fell on my back, right where Ron had hit me. I almost yelled and had to bite my shirt's collar to support the pain. Shit, it was awful! I had to see a doc. I heard a voice shout "Hey easy on these things, you don't know how expensive it is!", to which another voice shouted back a connoisseur's selection of obscenities. There was laughter, and everything became silent again.
In the meantime, the crate stayed there. Apparently it had arrived at its final destination. I moved my backpack and crossed my legs, and waited.

An hour passed. I was starting to feel dizzy. I realized I hadn't eaten anything since a light breakfast at the GraviDome. That was... I counted... twenty-five hours ago. Well, everything had happened so fast! I tried to recap what I knew. Remora, and then Ghiran, had discovered Nara was up to no good, in Frederika as well as in other places, and they both had been eliminated. I had no doubt the Cimic blast was intentional. Now, I had only had a glimpse of their work on the Moon, but the technology they were using was apparently very advanced. Since the beginning of the nano-age in the thirties, there had been no real breakthrough of any kind in advanced technologies. It appeared that Nara was developing something though, and they didn't want anyone to know about it. Biomech had always been seen like a Grail, the next step in evolution. Mecamods had been in use from 2020 to 2035, but intrusive surgery and bad adaptation had rendered this technique obsolete. Besides, the public had seen most of the agents as freaks, which had precipitated the program to a premature end. There were rumors about nanomodifications, but nothing had ever been proved. And the big crush of 2032 made any research extremely difficult.
In 2031, there had been a worldwide plague, and millions of people had died of what was then known as the "grey death". A few protest groups and militias had risen up to protest and pretended it was all government-funded. There had been battles. In New York, a small group of terrorists had destroyed the Statue of Liberty, which had led to the creation of a special counter-terrorism unit inside the UN. After then-President Mead and the UN declared a state of martial law in the US, the press had been taken over by the military. Then, a few months later, in 2032, a nuke had destroyed a military base in the middle of Nevada, and the global communication networks had collapsed, to reappear later as we know them today, as a decentralized organization called earthnet. Oddly, the plague had disappeared shortly afterwards.
After the crush, it had become extremely difficult to find anything from before 2030. The UN Office in Geneva had a specialized building dedicated to R&D, but they had always denied nanotech existed.
Twenty years later, nanotech made it back to the headlines. In 2052, Chicago was wiped out by a nanovirus attack. The entire population was killed, all the buildings destroyed. Within minutes, the entire city became a pile of dust. And this time, there were several reports about an armed response to this attack, and they explicitly mentioned nanomodified soldiers. Nanotech integration was a reality. The next step would be to integrate it directly into the DNA.

Had Nara Pharmaceuticals succeeded in doing this? The spider I had seen did not look like a robot, yet spiders this big didn't exist in reality. And this arm I had seen, it managed to move and control itself. Organic robots. Perfect integration. Perfect transplants. Perfect biotech hybrids.
If Nara made it, they would earn millions. A discovery like this made classic transplants obsolete, and robotic transplants had always been too intrusive for the public's taste. Biotech could be tuned to match the patients' DNA, which meant no risk of rejection, and the level of robotics involved implied a reliability rate close to 99.9%.
But Frederika was too small to develop this technology. I suspected it was only a test center. I wondered where Nara could work on this scale without being noticed. The Cimic center would have been a good candidate, but it had been destroyed. What else?
New Atlanta?
Maybe. But... wait a second, what was I thinking? New Atlanta was a new city. It had been built in 2034. In the middle of what had been Nevada. The connection was so obvious I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of it sooner. The federal system that had been the US had been dissolved in 2065 by the UN globalization bill. The US had become a mere region among other countries, under the sole jurisdiction of the UN, to counterbalance the effects of the space race and the increasing level of independence from the colonies. Well, to make it short, the USA as they existed before had disappeared along with the EU and Russia, to become global regions of the same country, called Earth and governed by the UN. That's the reason why I hadn't remembered the old borders, but Nevada was still Nevada, even without the name. I was stupid. Now the puzzle was taking form, everything pointed at New Atlanta.
I took my laptop and searched for a map of the old States, then compared it to a current map. I even managed to dig out an old article about the blast. It described the military base as a secret facility called "Area 51". Never heard of it. But New Atlanta was right there, at the same location. I blinked. Suddenly everything made sense. I closed the laptop and meditated on my discovery.

Someone knocked on the crate. And again. And again. I waited, but nothing else happened. I flipped the switch, and the door opened. A man was waiting, he looked nervous.
-"What's your name?"
-"Who do you think I am?" I replied.
-"I've been told someone was going down. My name's Heager. Now answer or I call the security. Who are you?"
-"I'm Jeremiah Mallory. So you're Dennis Heager." I showed him my ID card. He nodded. "Okay, lead the way."
-"Put this on first." He handed me something. A protection suit. He explained. "It's for the guards. If you wear it you look like you work here."
-"You're the boss." I put the suit, took the backpack and followed him. This Storage Hall dwarfed the Cargo Bay I had seen in Renaissance. It was huge, with piles and piles of crates sometimes reaching to about 80ft. Outside the Bay, the air was fresh and the sky was overcast.
-"The fog" Heager said. "Hong Kong is still polluted by all this shit they made in the twentieth. We're lucky, today we can still see the moon."
I looked up. Behind the clouds, the familiar shape was visible, floating in the middle of the sky. To think I was on it the day before...
-"Who called you?" I asked.
He smiled.
-"Frank Henry?"
-"Can't be. Unless he did before he died last year."
-"Alright, fair enough. It was Tony Ryerson, from the Guild. They kicked our sorry ass several times at U9T. And I hear they kicked yours up there, too..." He briefly pointed at the Moon and added. "Owned, counter-test."
I smiled. The guy was clever. We went on to his office in silence. Once inside, he closed the door and prepared coffee for two.
-"What's the way to Tonnochi Road?" I asked after sipping mine. I really needed it. The warmth felt good, and the pain disappeared for a moment.
-"Take the Red Line to Wang Chai, then leave the station at exit twelve. On your left, you'll see a way to the canals. Once there, just follow the signs. Y'go to Maggie's?"
I nodded.
-"It's an old bar. The triads owned it before. Can't miss it."
He got up and went to a safe hidden behind a small board full of old memos. He took a roll of credits and an ID card and threw them on the table.
-"This should get you there without trouble. The ID here is a temporary pass made for tourists. Beware the cops at Wang Chai though, they're not easy."
-"No problem. Follow me."
We left the office and passed the control booth leading outside. The MP didn't notice us. Heager stopped, looked around, and turned to me.
-"Now you're on your own. Subway's right there. I hope Harriet can help you. Good luck."
-"Thanks a bunch."
He gave me a pat on the shoulder and left.

Hong Kong. A free market. A platform. The place anyone could go to and buy anything they wanted. And when I say anything, I mean it: if you had the money, Hong Kong was the place to go. After the Brits gave the island back to the Chinese in 1997, a golden age had begun for the triads, and even though their power had faded after 2045, they were still strong enough to control most of the black market. On earthnet, people said they even were behind the disappearance of the grey death after the second depression, but had been left behind by their allies. They were specialized in nanotech science and there were labs on the main land and Vietnam where they built their own brand of implants. Of course, the quality standards were slightly lower than legal stuff, but the price dropped as well. There were two cities in the world where you could find their stuff, Hong Kong, and Chiba in Japan.
The triads had developed their own underground plants, their own labs, their own scientists even. Chiba was more like a neutral place, a kind of banking center where negotiations took place and deals were made. Hong Kong, it was the store, the place where you grabbed the stuff and disappeared. The Red Line took me to the other side of the city, in what had been the heart of the city thirty or forty years before. The market of Wang Chai Square was just a name now, and all the stores had been deserted. A hole in the ground marked the location of a building that had been the headquarters of a big company. I recalled something about an attack, another one. The company, a nanotech of course, had survived, but had been absorbed by Nara in 2060.

I walked around without a goal, looking at the old buildings. An abandoned hotel over Canal Road, deserted streets, empty malls and restaurants. I eventually found Tonnochi Road and the Maggie's. A picture on the walls and a notice indicated that this historical part of the city was dedicated to a famous actress who had lived there. I shrugged. The name didn't ring any bell.
There was a booth outside but nobody at the cash register. I threw some credits anyway and went inside the bar. The once shining dance floor was littered with dirt and old papers. Faint music came out of the speakers, old standards from the 30s. As far as I could see the place looked old and worn and decaying. I went upstairs and looked around the lobby. The place was desperately empty, save for a couple at a table, and the bartender.

The stairway continued up to another level, but I didn't go. I had seen enough. The place was all about past glory. The triads were not public business anymore, everything was hidden, and what was once a shining example of their success was now nothing but an empty carcass in a rotten district. I shrugged and went to the bartender. This guy sure looked his age. At least 80, from what I saw. Blue lines coloured his cheeks and hands, and though his eyes were hidden behind a pair of dark glasses, I needed no more to identify this new medicine against old age, called Poulsen therapy. So old, yet alert. Good. I sat at a stool and waved.
-"Whatcha want? We got beer, soda... or something stronger perhaps?"
I glanced at the menu behind him.
-"What's a 'Dirty Harriet'?"
He smiled and tilted his head.
-"Ah, you're a gentleman who knows his stuff. Vodka, Gin, Lemon and Pepper, with a secret additive of my own. Specialty of the Maggie's."
-"Sure. One please."
He left to prepare the drink. Actually while I was at it, why not eat something. A candy bar in the subway had been my only meal. When the bartender came back, I ordered a few more things, and left to a table. As I was eating, I studied the place, and noticed the bartender was looking at me attentively too. Like a guard. I pretended not to notice and finished the meal. When I came back, he gave me a coffee, and stayed there, still looking.
-"Anything wrong?" I asked innocently.
-"Nope, sir."
-"Nice paintings", I said, showing the walls and columns. "What does it represent?"
-"Nothing in particular. The former owners did not want any decorator and decided to do all the work themselves. It was inspired by the fifth dynasty, if I recall correctly, but I daresay the reproductions are not very good."
-"Huhuh..." I looked again and pointed at a particular column behind him, that supported the bar's big mirror.
-"Is that a dragon?"
He looked.
-"Yes." Suddenly he sounded more cautious now.
-"How come the head is not visible? It's all been done the wrong way, it's hidden behind the bottles... Can I see it? The mouth? I've... never seen a... dragon's tooth." I looked at him.
He visibly jolted. His voice was now as slow and neutral as he could. He went closer.
-"Dragon teeth are sacred, they are not for everyone to see..."
-"Maybe I could ask the owner... I heard... Harriet... has a very precious collection..." I looked at him in the eyes and made a slight nod. He nodded back.
-"She has one indeed, of incredible value. Maybe I can talk to her and ask if she accepts to meet with you, yes... Will you please wait here?"
He left. My calm disappeared, and I became extremely nervous. What if it was the wrong person? I started building doom stories in my head and didn't stop until he came back. -"Follow me, Mr....?"
-"Mallory. Jeremiah Mallory."
-"Yes, of course... Mr. Mallory. This way please."
I follow him behind the bar and down to the lower level. Behind the ballroom's mirror, a conference room allowed to watch the customers without being seen. The bartender indicated a door and nodded. I walked in and saw a big office furnished in traditional Chinese fashion. In the middle, a pond with a wooden bridge led to a desk. A woman stood up as I entered. I opened my mouth to say something, and felt a cold contact on the back of my head.
-"Hands up, and don't move, Mr.... Mallory." The bartender's voice was no longer low and neutral.
-"What the fuck?" I said. "Are you Harriet?"
The woman slowly walked towards us. She looked into my eyes.
-"I am. The question is, are you who you say you are?"
A hand felt and grabbed my wallet. Another took the backpack and searched inside it. I protested.
-"Hey, that's personal!"
-"Jeremiah Mallory, NSD, ID #2-4601. I knew it, he's a cop!"
-"Wait a sec... I'm not a cop, I don't work for them anymore!!" I heard a click, the bartender had cocked the gun.
-"Who sent you?" The woman asked.
-"It's... It's Tony Ryerson, from Renaissance... on the Moon." I added "I need help to go back to the US and he told me to go here. I can pay. I'm not a cop."
-"Why don't you just go to the airport and book a flight, then?"
-"Can I explain? Without a gun on my head?"
She made a sign and the gun disappeared. I briefly explained the whole story. In the end, Harriet nodded and told the bartender to leave us alone. Then we went to the desk and sat.
-"You story is accurate and matches the one we got. Now what do you want from us exactly?"
-"Wait a minute, you mean you knew all this already?"
-"Not with all the details of course." She smiled. "We've been running our own investigation for much longer than you, but you managed to reach places where we can only dream to go. We know that Nara is developing a new technology and we suspected it had to do with nanotech integration. But we couldn't access their facilities up there. Ghiran had told us it was impossible."
-"You knew Ghiran?"
-"Yes. He worked for us on several occasions. The news of his... demise... was a hard blow." She looked lost for a few seconds, then went on. "Anyway, when he learned about you and the disk you had, it changed everything. We hadn't heard from Remora for a while, since he had told us he was onto something at Nara's Cimic facility. He had managed to infiltrate their internal networks, and had stolen several files, including reports and diagrams. Ghiran didn't know you had them until last week, when you contacted him. He sent us a message the following night and I assume he sent several others, otherwise you wouldn't be here now. He told us he would try to persuade you to go to the Moon and investigate for us. Unfortunately, he didn't have time for that, even if you went there anyway."
-"I see. That would explain why there were so many guards up there."
-"Indeed. Two days ago, just after the Cimic blast, we managed to intercept communications between New Atlanta and Cimic, about Nara. They had found traces of the calls. Ghiran could not erase the tracks now he was dead. That's how they found about you, although we think they don't know who you are exactly. I think they imagine you're another Remora. Otherwise, you would've been killed in Frederika, they got the message twelve hours before your arrival. Luckily for you, unscheduled inspections are taking place in just about every Nara Pharmaceuticals facility or plant. Yours went unnoticed."
-"Not really. I knocked a guard out and engaged a brute force attack on their mainframe. Trust me, now, they know..."
She turned and looked at the pond, thinking. I looked around, trying to find a way to go back to the US.
Planes were my best bet, given my situation. A ship was technically safer than a plane, but it would take ages to come back, and I had to come back to New Atlanta as soon as possible for the hack at Nara HQ. I really wanted to do it, as I had prepared everything meticulously, and couldn't afford a delay. That would force me to do it all over again.
-"We will give you a companion, if you don't mind."
-"For your investigation. A companion. We have someone who wants to go with you. This person knows everything we know, and has been studying Nara for months, over and over again. She will help you with your investigation."
-"I always work alone." I protested. But I felt it was useless.
-"Not this time, Mr. Mallory. We want to know what kind of technology Nara is developing, and we want it to be witnessed by one of our agents. It is our condition."
-"Or nothing. I don't think I have to threaten you of anything, Mr. Mallory. You know as well as I do the loss that any delay can cause in our business. We both want this affair to end quickly, and reaching an agreement should not really be that difficult, should it?" She smiled.
-"I guess not." What else could I say?
-"Good." She pressed a button and said something in Chinese. "You will board a plane in two hours. It's owned by a friend of ours, Gregory Lebedev. This plane transports supplies and material for a firm based in Seattle. You will arrive there approximately five hours later. As a proof of our good will, the trip is free."
-"Wait, and the Moon?"
-"What do you mean?"
-"I wasn't there just for sightseeing, you know..."
She looked puzzled.
-"Well, you know I was in Frederika. But you don't seem to realize I brought back samples."
I waved my bag in front of her. Her eyes widened.
-"This is way better than we expected from you, Mr. Mallory..."
-"Yeah, I bet."
-"I will... ah...
The door opened and the bartender walked in. They spoke Chinese for a moment, he looked at me, seemed to admit something, and left.
-"Where did you find his Poulsen? That stuff is expensive. I even thought it was illegal 'round here."
-"It's our own. Our nanotech plants. The Poulsen is allowed here, as long as it's made by our people, and we know how to... persuade the authorities not to look our way." As we spoke, we got up and walked towards the door.
-"But isn't Poulsen dangerous? I read there were severe reactions when it was first used..."
-"Yes. In the first years, several people even died. But we managed to make nanos smaller, and it's relatively well adapted to human physiology now. I agree these traces left by nanites are not pretty, but when you're 96 like Tracer, you don't really mind."
-"Tracer?" I froze. "Not Tracer..."
-"... Tong. Yes, it's him." She smiled and sighed. "I'm afraid he's not quite the man he once was, but he's still strong and helps us a lot. He's one of the rare who survived the second depression."
Dr Tracer Tong. I could hardly believe it. This man was a legend. It was said that he was one of the leaders of the Resistance in the 30s and 40s, when the UN had taken control. The triads had hired him to protect them against nanowarfare, and you could find several stories on earthnet describing how he had dealt with the Plague and UNATCO, the UN's Counter-Terrorism unit. His motives changed in every story, however he seemed like he was afraid of technology, of the power it could give. For some, he was behind the creation of earthnet's network restrictions, safeguards that prevented any centralized management of the information.
Yes, a legend.
We passed the door and I saw a woman sitting on one of the conference room's chairs. She got up as we walked in, and Harriet introduced her.
-"Mr. Mallory, Manon Chow. Manon Chow, Jeremiah Mallory. Manon is one of our agents, she'll go with you to Seattle, and then to any place your investigation will lead you to."
-"Okay. Nice to meet you."
-"Glad to meet you too." She answered with a smile. She looked happy to go. Well, maybe it wouldn't be as hard as it seemed. Perhaps a little too enthusiastic, but well...
-"Are you ready?" I asked.
She nodded and took her backpack.
-"In the plane I'd like to see your files, if you don't mind."
-"Not at all. I want to see yours myself. I'm curious to see what I have missed." I looked at Harriet. "How long do you say you've been working on that?"
-"Our first serious reports were made about a year ago. We started to detect unusual activity, and peaks in the power consumption, in the southern part of the City. We found out the power was taken by a little building owned by a Nara subsidiary... But that's not all, you'll see all that when you're in the plane. It's time to go. And we'll take care of your samples, don't worry about it."
Tong was waiting for us at the service door. Another man was with him, holding a sealed container with the symbol of biochemical hazard printed on it. I gave him my bag, and Tong and Harriet stayed behind to talk to him while Manon and I went to the boat.
-"What are they doing?" I asked.
-"The samples you collected in Frederika will go in one of our labs here, in Hong-Kong. Once we decide they're not dangerous, we'll ship them to a larger lab, in Chiba. Tong will go with us at the airport and take a flight to Chiba to prepare the lab. Nanotech was his favourite field of research, you know..."
Yes I knew. I wondered what the samples would tell us... I looked around at the empty buildings and realized how perfect the place was for underground activities. The canals were a very silent and discrete way to go to the industrial district nearby, and no police force could patrol it without being detected immediately.
We arrived at the airport twenty minutes later. I was a bit disoriented, after the thrill of my space trip. I missed the hacks, I missed how it felt to crack locks open and enter a forbidden area. Since I had landed three hours ago, I had been led, directed, manipulated, and I wasn't used to it at all. Three hours only, but in my mind they had lasted three weeks.
As I expected, the airport was deserted. We arrived in a parking lot filled with old, rusty planes without wings or engines. The tarmac was broken in places, and grass grew and invaded the cabins. Nearby, black shapes obstructed our field of vision, huge areas like the one my crate had been stored in. A few big planes were waiting outside, this time in perfect flying condition. One of them was being prepared.
Tong told us to wait and slowly ran to the office. He talked with one of the guys and showed the plane, then waved in our general direction. The guy nodded and went back to his desk. Meanwhile, Tong came back and told us to go to the plane and wait.
Soon afterwards, the guy Tong had talked to left the office and went towards us. Manon whispered he was Lebedev, the owner. He looked at us and at the plane, then went inside to talk to the pilot. After a few minutes, he called us. Tong hug Manon Chow, patted my shoulder, and left without a word. We climbed the stairs and entered the plane. Lebedev was waiting. He pointed at seats behind him.
-"You guys can sit here. Here's the fridge, you can eat or drink if you want. The flight's short, about five hours, but the pilot'll be busy so don't speak to him, okay? Now, TO's in thirty minutes and I have to see some people 'cause of you, any question?"
We looked at each other.
-"No.", I said.
He went to the cockpit and said something in Russian to the pilot, who answered in the same language. Great, after the Chinese at the Maggie's, I really felt like I was losing all control. I felt a hand on my shoulder. Manon. She was smiling. Apparently she had guessed what I was thinking.
-"Don't worry, we'll get there." She said, before taking a seat. She took my backpack, silently asked for my permission, and started working on my files. I went to sit in front of her, and looked outside. I didn't feel like working at the moment. I felt tired. I wanted to sleep.

I didn't feel the plane taking off.


chapter seven

I woke up dizzy and looked at my watch. Two hours before Seattle. I shook my head and looked around. Manon was still working on my computer, taking notes with a little silver pen. I looked behind me, but couldn't see the pilot, the cockpit door was closed. Manon stopped writing and glanced at me.
-"You all right?"
-"I'm okay. Gonna work a bit, time to catch up... Where's your gear?"
-"Just a moment." She finished her note, fumbled in her bag and gave me a PDA. "Everything's there, don't worry about the size" She went on, seeing my face. "It's a special unit with a biochip, there are several hundreds Gigs of data on this thing."
-"Hey, whatever you say..." I said unconvincingly.
I took the PDA's cover off and plugged the unit on the plane's wider screen.
-"What's on this exactly? I mean, what should I expect?"
-"Well, there's this thing about Nara Pharmaceuticals that you're investigating of course, but there's a lot more data on the corporation itself and several others, like on Remora's disk. I think you neglected to study the data about these, too. Nara's not all, there's something going on at a higher level. What I'm seeing here confirms that, and... Wait, let me explain briefly..."
She connected my computer to the screen too. She pointed at a diagram.
-"Three years ago, we got signs that something wrong was going on at several corporations' executive level. Several board directors were fired and replaced, some others just... disappeared. Six months later, HOSES lost half of their shareholders to the corporations themselves, especially those three, Nara Pharmaceuticals, Alameda United, and Campeda Technologies. For some reason, they seem to forge an alliance of some kind, against TetraCorp." She clicked and another window appeared. Schematics.
-"In April of last year, Yatsumora Cyberchannels Corporation, a corporation based at Chiba City, developed a program called Pulsar Software, that they say is able to crack a grade-5 encryption. Now, technically, they don't need to develop that, because they are supposed to build home appliances, TVs, media centers, this kind of thing. A military grade tool is definitely not their cup of tea. We decided to send a team at Chiba to investigate, and we discovered..." click, another table "... that Yatsumora Cyberchannels Corporation is actually owned by a board of directors who are all based at New Atlanta, home of Alameda United."
-"They work for them?" I was confused. This flow of information would take a while to analyze.
-"Not exactly. They do their work when they want to be discreet. The thing is, we discovered that in fact, not only the big three in NA own most of the multicorps of the ex-USA, they also own most of the corps worldwide."
-"So when we found that out, we decided to look closer. Have you heard of Area 51?"
I remembered my investigation during the flight back to Earth.
-"Yeah. A secret... military base or something, supposedly in the middle of the desert..."
-"Not supposedly. It existed and was wiped out in a nuke blast in 2032. At that time it was privately owned by a man named Robert Page, CEO of Page Industries."
I nodded; I remembered the name had surfaced in a couple of articles.
-"This guy really was a genius." She went on, a picture appeared, newspaper articles... "He had managed to take control of both the UN and the US, through the FEMA. Incredibly clever. We don't know what he wanted exactly, but for some reason, his plans did not work out. But he had a whole installation buried underground, complete with power plant and hydroponics. This section was not destroyed; And just a few years later, who came and claimed the land? Campeda Technologies. They were the first to build their Headquarters there, right at the top of the crater."
I was losing track.
-"Wait wait wait... What does that have to do with Nara?"
-"Here." She displayed an article describing a machine called Echelon. "Page had centralized the global network, called 'Internet', at Area 51, under the control of a machine, Echelon. It was inspired by early experiments by NATO and the UN from 1960 to 2010, when we wanted to spy on everything that moved and could use a phone."
-"Centralized? How is that possible?"
-"Well for one Page had the money, so he could build a top-of-the-line optical network, but most of all a company he owned, called VersaLife, developed an entirely new technology for him, called Blue Fusion. Everybody has it nowadays, but he was the first. And during the Depression, that made him a God."
-"So Nara, Campeda and Alameda found this network and use it? It must be old by now, it's been what, 35, 40 years? How come it's still operational?"
The screen faded to black and she took the PDA. She typed a few commands, and a picture appeared on the screen. A cone, with the base up and the spike down. Light was flowing through the base and lightning bolts appeared on the sides. The whole thing rotated. It looked like a logo.
-"What's that?"
-"In 2065, the WEC Cybernetics Cartel, one of the few development labs left in Chicago, started working under the direction of Dr Omolu, Titiana Omolu. This doctor Omolu graduated at MIT in 2047, and she is specialized in advanced cybernetics and artificial intelligence."
-"So what?"
-"This kind of research is a field that interests us. Who knows what could be created? The triads have always monitored cybernetics very closely, especially since nano-age started. So, what did we do, we check the good doctor's records, to see if she could be trusted. We always do that, as we like to know who can be with us, and who cannot." I nodded. I understood, I did the same, at my level. "To our surprise, these records didn't exist. Like later for Chiba, we sent a team to investigate. They managed to find a bank account, but disappeared before discovering the access codes. We don't know what happened, but it's likely they were found and killed."
-"We cracked the bank account, but not before it was wiped out. However, Remora, whom we had heard of from Ghiran, managed to trace back several large sums of money from a bank in Switzerland to Chicago, and eventually to Omolu. He then reversed the track and after several months, finally ended at the Denizen's Bank, a bogus credit center established in the Caymans by Frederik Callaghan, a Nara Pharmaceuticals top executive."
She shut up. I felt my head was going to explode. All this was... All this was too much, too much at the same time. How was that possible? I had discovered dirty secrets in my life, but this... this was...
-"Well, shit." That was all I could say.
I got up and walked back and forth. I needed to clear it up in my mind. See how things went, how they were connected. I looked at the screen, at the diagrams...
-"This investigation of yours... It's been going on since..."
-"They started about seven years ago, yes. I've been working on Nara specifically since last year, that's why I was assigned here."
-"Well, shit." I repeated. "Wait a minute... So the connection between Omolu and Nara..."
-"What's going on? What are they working on?
-"We think it's a joint venture between Nara, Campeda and Alameda. You see, we think they work on artificial intelligence. More, we think they made it."

The reactors didn't stop working when she said that. The plane went on its course to Seattle. The sun was rising. The world still existed. In fact, everything was normal. Except for this little thing... I was literally stunned.

-"That's the connection? AI? That's what Omolu is working on?"
Manon nodded.
-"Echelon was run by a prototype of AI, called Daedalus. We managed to dig a great deal of information about it, most of it thanks to Tracer and others, who got to deal directly with it. The creation of AI was a quantum leap in cybernetics, but Page kept it secret, and nobody ever learned about it. We think he went insane because of this creation, and that's why the base was nuked. See, it didn't go without problems. At an early stage of development, Daedalus' personality split, and another AI appeared, called Icarus. Or the contrary. Anyway, the two sub-AIs showed different traits of personality, and Tracer and his team found out the two were not autonomous, they were still two halves of the same AI. In the end, just before the blast, Page managed to merge the two sub-AIs together, and the complete AI took over the base, calling itself Helios. It broke the safety locks, overcharged the fusion plant, and fried. But the concept, the code, was still there; That's what they found in 2065. That's what they've been working on since. Omolu and her team. They wanted to resurrect Helios."

I felt sick. AI... I mentioned the Grail with nano-integration, but AI was exactly the contrary. The world was filled with computer, chips, electronics, and an AI was the last thing mankind wanted. At least, that's what I had thought. AI was a concept, something we played with to build models, to imagine new ways of programming, to circumvent mental barriers... It wasn't something practical. It wasn't something real.
I looked at Manon.
-"Now you know most of it." She said, unplugging the PDA. " Once in Seattle, our primary objective will be to find information about the old underground plant. We have friends in the City. Then, we go to New Atlanta and you proceed to the HQ hack as planned. We have to find what applications are being developed for their AI, and what they want to do exactly afterwards."
The speakers went static, then we heard the pilot's voice.
-"Please sit and fasten your seatbelts, ETA's about fifteen minutes. Thanks for choosing Lebed'Air..."
We sat and considered our options.

The plane landed safely and we got out of the airport in no time. A cab drove us downtown, where we booked a room in a small hotel. Once installed, we opened both computers and checked the news. There was something weird. All earthnet channels were blocked. I tried several other sites, all were DOSed. I moaned and looked at Manon. She was as surprised as I was.
-"I can't access anything." She said. "What's going on...?"
I took the remote and switched on the TV on the wall. TVs were never offline. I put NewsChannel. The words "Special Report" were flickering on and off on the bottom of the screen.
"... of the century; Wall Street was forced to close due to an overwhelming number of connections following the announcement, and there are reports of several hundreds of people running to their banks in Manhattan to check their stock-options. We haven't heard about anything happening in New Atlanta yet, but according to our experts, the situation could change shortly. The announcement was made yesterday afternoon at the HOSES conference in Richmond, Virginia. The departure of the Big Three from the Coalition will certainly divide the world more than ever before, and the creation of this new, unique entity will force everyone to reconsider their strategy. This is Cathy Oldfield, speaking from the newly opened TriOptimum Corporation Headquarters in New Atlan..."
I didn't need more. I switched off the screen and looked at Manon. She was in shock. And I began to see the consequences of this merger. We looked at each other.
-"That's no coincidence." She said.
-"Sure isn't." I went back to my computer and watched the diagrams. Read the right way, from 2063 on, the pattern was visible, but I understood the Triads hadn't thought the secession would take place so quick. They had believed they could do something, but that was nearly impossible now. So, the rumors were true, then. A teracorp was born. And a coalition of this kind between Nara Pharmaceuticals, Campeda Technologies and Alameda United constituted a power few people could fight. I started to worry about myself. I was wondering if my hack was still possible, but most of all, what would happen to my job. A little late, I know.

After a moment, little by little, we managed to find a way into earthnet. Most bulletin boards were filled with comments about the merger. We found the address of the official website and made it there. A triangular shape appeared on the screen and flashed three times. Military. Science. Consumer. Then the words TriOptimum Corporation. A short description of the corporation followed, along with their "goals and commitments to the future". In fact, classic corporate bullshit. Nothing interesting.
We discussed a bit and agreed to go directly to New Atlanta the day after. We had to find what this new TriOptimum Corporation was up to.

-"So, what's this Dr Omolu working on exactly?" I asked while preparing the coffee. We needed a heavy dose of caffeine now. We hadn't slept much the night before, we were too busy collecting data on the merger.
-"Let's see..." She took a notebook and searched. "Here. As far as we know, after Helios was fried, Tong and his companions sealed off the base, and left. Apparently, when Campeda arrived and bought the site a few years later, everyone in Hong Kong believed Area 51 was history. Tong and the Denton brothers, two ex-UN operatives, assured there was no risk. However, Campeda grew bigger and bigger, and we started to suspect they had found something. When they *supposedly* developed, and then launched, the Blue Fusion technology in the middle of the 40s, Tong realized he had been mistaken."
-"That's one hell of an error of judgment..." I remarked. "So this Helios was still there, and if they found Blue Fusion, they must have found the AI as well, right? How?"
-"In fact, we hired several hackers to infiltrate their HQ. One of them, his codename was RazorFinger, managed to be hired by their R&D department and spied on them between 2055 and 2062. He got to work with several brilliant scientists, including Omolu and Morris Brocail, who currently works with her in Chicago. He designated Brocail as the one who had cracked the old base's encryption codes, and thanks to him, they gained access to the old Internet database."
-"And Helios."
-"And Helios." Manon nodded. "The problem was, Helios was fried. The AI was dead. It took them years of study of the mainframe infrastructure before they could even begin to understand how it worked. Page's scientists had developed many revolutionary techniques, and an entirely new language to go with it. After the code was cracked, they decompiled all the data and this alone took them between two and three years. We know this phase ended only in 2064, and they've been working on the practical aspects ever since."
-"So that's what they are doing in Chicago? They try to resurrect Helios?"
-"Not exactly. Helios was unstable, and it was practically destroyed anyway. In fact, Omolu, and to a lesser extent Brocail, are rewriting a new code. They are creating a new AI from scratch."

We stood silent for a moment, then I remembered I had the coffeepot in my hand and poured it in two mugs. I went back to the kitchen and looked at the clock on the wall.
-"Okay, so let's recap. We go to the airport ASAP, and we catch a plane to NA. Once there, you investigate while I check my safe house. I guess you just have to make a call to know it, but I won't tell you where it is, okay? Alright. What should I look at? The guy who hired me, he sure looked desperate. He wanted me to look at their media division, files from..." I checked "...Files from October 2069, concerning Space and the HOSES. Any idea what it could be?"
-"Well, we've been suspecting HOSES of fraud for a while, we think they built a facility somewhere, likely on Mars, but we never proved it. Huge sums of money have disappeared, material, supplies, several hundreds tons total, took off from various places, including Hong Kong even, but never arrived anywhere. We don't know where it is."
-"If everything goes as planned, which I doubt, to be honest, but.. well... Anyway, I'll gain access to several personal accounts in the company. Any idea who in particular could know what the fuck they're on?"
-"Not yet. I have to ask Hong Kong, and research by myself in NA."
-"Okay. Have you managed to decipher the data on the disks I found in Frederika?"
-"Oh, yes..." She went to her computer and typed a command. "I got them this morning. I needed to download the codes, HK sent them in a flash email, two hours ago. There, they're on your comp now. But I don't think we have enough time, I'd say we better wait 'til we arrive in NA."
I thought about it. Yes, we needed to take our time. Hurrying, taking the risk to forget something was the last thing to do. I nodded.
-"Okay, we pack and go. The sooner we get there, the sooner we finish this thing."

We finished our coffees and left the room half an hour later. On the way to the airport we noticed all the boards and panels that displayed the new company's logo and motto. "TriOptimum Corporation, Military, Science, Consumer!" It was everywhere. The alliance was close to perfect. Nara Pharmaceuticals could produce supplies, Campeda engines and structures, and Alameda weapons. The three together formed a perfect, autonomous entity, and they had already begun to say it loud and clear to the world. In a new advertising campaign, they were completely destroying TetraCorp's reputation to promote Campeda's new line of appliances, while Nara Pharmaceuticals bashed the HOSES and blamed it for the last years' poor economy and bad profit margins. No need to be subtle: TriOptimum had arrived, and they were the boss. Those who didn't follow would be crushed to death. End of story.
The announcement the day before had come as a complete surprise for everyone, but everything went so fast. At the airport, all the selling machines wore the brand new TriOp tag. Overnight, legions of employees had switched to the new corp, and all the old names and designations had gone. Ask for a Campeda suitcase, they told you they didn't have any and gave you a TriOp one instead. Flu Pills by Nara? Sorry, but we have this TriOp product... A taser, the model by Alameda? Nope, but there was this topnotch TriOp stungun, if you preferred?
Manon and I felt like on another planet. And everyone felt the same way. Yet, strangely, nobody reacted. They bought the new product and didn't protest, they looked upset for a minute, then drank their TriOp liquid caffeine without a second thought. I suddenly realized how zombified we were all after all these announcements on earthnet and TV. We were already used to the new order. The speakers repeated the names, again and again, and the images were flashing, and the salesmen looked happy... What else did we need? If there was a new product that was exactly the same or better, why ask for the old model?

We walked to the desk and bought the last two seats on the morning flight to New Atlanta.




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