shock zero : project neantis

[ a System Shock/Deus Ex hybrid ]
by averroes


(chapters 8-11)


chapter eight

And so we were back to where it had all begun.

I left Manon at the airport after arranging a meeting later that day, and went straight to my safe house. Apparently, everything was fine. My cluster was still running and waiting for my orders, and there were no signs on the networks that anyone was after me. It was a good sign, I could prepare the hack for the following night as planned. I wrote some code and injected it into the machine. The network did not move.Okay. Time for a little warming. I started typing basic queries, and progressively increased the complexity of the commands.
I found that Nara Pharmaceuticals, of course, had completely disappeared, which, as I had thought, would force me to reconfigure the software. I ran a small scan on the immediate surroundings and entered their network through a backdoor my informant had created on his side when he was still working there. I peeked at some files and rewired a few connections, just to get an idea of how their environment felt like. Then I left and went back to the public area.
C-World was a real mess. The channels were completely overwhelmed by queries, and even the private ones couldn't cope with the flow of new users. I decided not to stay and went back to TriOptimum. I searched for the Media Division and changed my virus to fit the new coordinates. The IP hadn't changed, however the security level had never been so high. I eventually found the name of the new system, TriOptimum Corporate Network. So that would be my target. I looked at the firewalls and sighed. There were ICEs everywhere. Well... If the network inside looked like that, it would be all but easy. It wasn't the first time I saw ICE drones (Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics) but so far I had never had the occasion to really fight them, and had always managed to avoid a direct confrontation. And always at a great cost too, as few machines could handle the stress. I hoped my cluster would be strong enough.
I disconnected and let it run on a parallel network, to run the preliminary programs, those who kind of 'prepared' the target for the real thing. I looked at my watch, I had spent an hour on earthnet. I stepped away from the screen and took my laptop. Time to watch the disks at last, and see if the trip had been worth the pain.

I inserted the little piece of metal in the slot, and the disk launched an auto-exe file. A menu appeared. Surprisingly, or come to think of it, maybe not so, the Nara logo didn't appear anywhere. Instead, there were mentions of TriOptimum, and their logo was displayed everywhere. I looked at the dates to make sure the disk was the one I had stolen in Frederika. The little tag on the case indicated had been burned six months before.
I wondered how old the project was. Then I browsed the index and saw the oldest file on the disk had been created in 2062. Ten years ago... It seemed that the execs at Nara, Alameda and Campeda were really patient. I opened it, and started to read a report by Dr Morris Brocail, concerning 'the excavation'. The voice was trembling. I could hear sounds of heavy machinery in the background. I realized the file had been taped at Area 51.

12.JUL.62 final part of phase 2
After weeks of efforts, we have finally connected the old optical networks to a power source and revived the old mainframe. Preliminary studies suggest most of the facility was fried as we thought, but Dr Omolu and I have finally found a solution to move the hardware itself without damaging the internal structure.
It is our opinion, after all the reports and records found on site, that the subject was treated more or less as a sentient entity, and as such the hardware must be considered, basically, as a corpse. We must explain this to the workers in order to preserve the structure of this network. It may be our only chance to understand how the subject was created, well, written, I don't know...
Our lab in Chicago has been rebuilt and for more than five years we've been ahead of all the other R&Ds, and Dr Omolu wants to transport the hardware there for analysis. I will go with her, I want to try to understand the code they used, if only we had a manual... Robert Page's personal files do not mention anything about the programmers, and it's a great loss, because we could save quite a lot of time if we had the how-to to translate the data.
We have disconnected the last wires and the mainframe is ready for the move. Fortunately, we have a blue fusion microplant in Chicago, we will be able to connect the hardware and see how it reacts. It's a shame most of it is damaged beyond repair though. (...) Omolu's calling, gotta go...
Transfer to Chicago is a go. We just got confirmation. Great. We found a hidden chamber behind the Helios room. We initially thought it was filled with coolant systems, but the readings we have now show there is something else. Could it be...?

Then the file was jammed for a while. I continued to listen but nothing came. I was about to shut it off when the sound became clear again one last time.

Christ, I can't believe it happened at last! The moment we've all been waiting for, for the last seven years! Yesterday, at 0400, Dr Omolu connected the hardware and we started to decompile the program, beginning the last phase of our project. We have all the data now. And it looks so promising... I'm gonna ask New Atlanta again about Neantis. It would be crazy to miss such an opportunity... "

That was all. I closed the player and looked at the other files. Most of them were complex technical drawings and schematics. I recognized several symbols representing power sources, switches, CPUs... It was a complete diagram of a so-called Project Neantis. Brocail had recreated the technical specs of the original Helios calculator, but this wasn't the project, it was only a fraction of it, its core, and all of his work was based on it. Between 2062 and 2066, WEC Chicago had patiently rebuilt the AI, fixing the old broken boards, replacing the databanks, cleaning the systems. They had transferred the totality of Helios' ROM in a separate databank and wiped the original. And they had tried to resurrect it.

I had the video. I could see it as if I had been there.

The date was early 2064. In Chicago, everyone was frantically checking all the systems. Dr Omolu was at a desk, looking at the big screen on the wall. Beside her, Brocail checked the low-priority subroutines. In the background, I could see a dozen cubes, surely calculators. They were all connected to each other. Then Omolu turned to one of the technicians and nodded. The technician typed a command and the screen was filled with automated responses from the mainframe. The system was running a check on itself. After fifteen minutes, the script ended and the screen faded to black. The two scientists looked at each other. Apparently it was the moment to decide what to do next. Omolu shrugged. Brocail looked satisfied and typed the final command himself.
The screen faded to white this time and was filled with colors, but I could see no real pattern. Brocail and Omolu, however, smiled at this vision. The technicians launched a cascading procedure, and the units behind the scientists were switched on one after the other. The start up procedure was beginning. On the big screen, the words 'project neantis' appeared, followed by a particular logo. I paused the video. I had already seen this picture.

The spikes. The lightning. The cone. It was the logo Manon had showed me on the plane. I had thought it was the WEC's logo, but it looked like it was more specific than that. I went on.

The light in the cone expanded and soon the whole screen became white again. I looked at Omolu and Brocail. They didn't move. They were waiting. I wondered what they could possibly expect, a computer cannot work by itself, it needs orders. Brocail started to look worried, and said something. I couldn't hear what, because there was no sound, but the same technician who had started the check came to the desk and looked at their screen, only to shake his head. Apparently, something wasn't going as planned. Then, as the technician was walking back to his seat, the screen flickered on and off several times. I noticed a variation in the lights and in the video speed itself. The CPUs in the background were shaking. I quickly understood what caused the trouble. The amount of power required to run the whole system was above their limit. Brocail shouted something, and another technician ran to a switch. The vibrations stopped. I guessed it was an 'overdrive' switch of some kind, diverting power from the lower systems to the main unit. The screen displayed the cone again, without the lights and rays. The video abruptly split between the lab and a close-up of what the big screen displayed. Brocail asked a few basic questions and the computer answered. Little by little, his speech became more complicated, and the computer followed. It managed to answer several abstract questions, and in the end refused to answer one. When Brocail asked why, the computer remained black for a second, then displayed seven words.

Because I don't want to, I'm tired.

I stopped the video and went straight to the kitchen. I needed a drink, something strong. I lay on my bed with my eyes closed and tried to understand what I had just witnessed.
The machine had displayed signs of emotion and free will. I wondered for a moment if it could have been staged, prepared, then rejected this possibility. The disk came from their top-secret facility, it wouldn't have been there if it was fake. I had to assume Brocail and Omolu had managed to resurrect Helios.
They had created the AI. Why? Why would TriOptimum (because it was a TriOptimum project) want an AI? They already had, with this alliance, the best technology available. AIs, contrary to what we thought during the last half of the 20th century, were not the ultimate response of cybernetics. We had built bases and spaceships without AIs, using old but reliable protocols. The material had changed. The protocols stayed the same. They worked. They were efficient. They didn't fail.
AIs were the next step, theoretically, but in practice we had never needed it. People thought we had them already, but it was an illusion of intelligence. What we called AIs in these bases and spaceships were just ordinary computers with pre-made responses and voice synthesizer, nothing more. In the end, they never controlled anything. The concept of AI, by essence, implied that the system it controlled was entirely out of human reach. And that was just unbearable for most scientists. Ethically, they couldn't get used to the idea they weren't in charge.
I got up and went back to my desk. I didn't want to, but I needed to see how far they had gone. I browsed the disk, but the rest was only technical specs and lines and lines of code. I wasn't in the mood to analyze that. I inserted the second disk.

Neantis phase 2 practical operations and functionalities
the citadel by AG

the citadel is a virtual compound with several independent units such as power, air, supplies, and hydroponics. In this experiment, our AI will show signs of interest, and care for the citadel's inhabitants. This experiment's goal is to demonstrate the AI can manage a far base's resources better than a human crew, thanks to both its logic and readiness. An AI is not tired, an AI is not bored, an AI does not forget.
(diagrams and films)
As you can see, at T+6months (virtual time) the station is still 100% operational. We would like to remind the audience that similar, real-time experiments, both in the beginning of space age and more recently, never attained this goal, and always suffered a loss, sometimes up to 40% less capacity.
At T+2.5years, the station is still 97% operational, and considering the fact that no station would ever stay that long without being refueled or maintained, we assess that this result in a life-size experiment would actually remain 100%, no matter what.
We would like to point out that the AI is maintained regularly both by itself and a dedicated team. The failsafe mechanisms and a wide array of constraints prevent it from making any undesirable decision. These restrictions have been hard-coded inside the AI and duplicated in several locations of the source code. This means complete reliability in all fields of operation, as the probability of a failure affecting the five locks at the same time is close to 0 (for info approx. 1x1078)
We advise the board to consider a practical application of the AI in the field.

Neantis phase 3 miscellaneous field applications

A picture of the spiderbot I had seen in Frederika appeared.

Further development show that an AI can duplicate itself and install these copies inside smaller units. We managed to run the AI in an autonomous drone, and this drone has been able to control smaller units on its own without the need of human interaction.
The recent breakthroughs by Nara Pharmaceuticals laboratories in Cimic make it possible to develop DNA-driven sub-AIs that could control a synthetic limb and interact with a patient's brain without any loss of control by the patients themselves. The control of hundreds of thousands of AI-driven nanomachines would be easier if a centralized intelligence could be in charge of the interpretation of the brain's orders.
After this study we recommend the experiments be continued, possibly in the same facility as the larger-scale AI. We intend to find out if the nano flow can harm the patient in any way, and we plan to study more specifically the problem of power sources. AI-driven nanos would seek power like a living cell seeks food, and protocols have to be developed to prevent several hundreds of drone refueling at the same time.
Contrary to earlier experiments, the next-generation of drones will not require external power, and will rely on a hydrogen/nitrogen compound instead. We must find a solution to integrate these elements in the patients' diets.

Like the first disk, this one was filled with technical drawings and diagrams and schematics. Very few reports, very few records. There were mentions of Citadel, and for some reason this time it was written with a capital C. Obscure references to Mars and the Moon, an analysis of several spaceships' structures with their flaws and advantages. I found and studied the GraviDome's for a moment, but quickly went back to the other files.
I didn't understand.
TriOptimum seemed to be interested in Space industry more than anything. They had collected information about every possible aspect of the technologies involved. I noticed Campeda tags on most of the power sources, followed by TriOptimum logos and series of numbers and letters. I also found a huge specs sheet by Alameda but it was so complex I couldn't understand what it represented. It looked like an optical device, perhaps a space telescope. I gave up, and looked at my notes.

In Frederika, Nara had developed a new kind of machine. I had seen some of the most recent models in the lab. The sample I had had been analyzed by Hong Kong at last, and as I had expected, it was an organomechanic material. This thing wasn't supposed to exist. My theory was true, then: as unbelievable as it may sound, Nara had found a way to combine DNA and robotics, and grew its robots. They could develop by themselves, they could self-diagnose troubles, self-repair, self-expand.
The spider I had seen in Frederika was originally two inches long. It was powered by a fusion microcell, and contained a microgenerator, which allowed it to build itself almost out of thin air. From the schematics, I calculated the one I had seen was approximately two years old. The only restrictions were self-replication (they couldn't do that) and a slave mindset (they had to obey their master, in that case, Nara scientists). Still, it was hard to believe. If I hadn't seen them with my own eyes, I would have thought everything was a hoax.

The second disk also contained contracts, administrative records, and personnel databases... I had found traces of the alliance in files from 2047, long before Nara even moved to NA. I compared them to the files Remora had found, and managed to trace back their financial records to 2054. Little by little, from the bribes, blackmail, covert ops, I understood they had more or less bought the government in 2059, and taken control from that year on. They followed the rules in front of the HOSES in order to preserve their secret, but destroyed the structures from the inside, waiting for their moment. When the HOSES had been on the verge of bankruptcy, they had bought their silence as well. All this fuss about rejecting the HOSES was just a clever marketing campaign.

I called Manon and told her we had to talk as soon as possible. I met her an hour later in a hotel nearby, and showed her the disks. How could Hong Kong not be aware of this? And if they knew, how could they stay and do nothing? The Triads were illegal, but also, perhaps, the only organization left with enough power to stop them.
She looked at the files and asked to see my notes. Then she just left.

Ten minutes later, I got a phone call. From Hong Kong.

They wanted me to crack and leech TriOp's main database.


chapter nine

For a few seconds I forgot to breathe.

Infiltrating a media network is one thing, but stealing the whole bank was... That was just crazy. Actually, that's exactly what I told them.
-"Do you realize what you want me to do?"
-"We do, Mr. Mallory." Tong's voice had always this neutral tone, you could never guess what he was thinking. "We want you to enter their database and install a bug. Once you do that, their database will be copied to one of our servers in Chiba City, in one of our facilities which is located near the local TriOptimum center. We know what kind of material you are using, Mr. Mallory, we know you can do it..."
-"Yeah, well, maybe I can, doesn't mean I want to! To complete this hack successfully I had to install my gear less than a mile from TriOp CoNet's HQ. If they detect me they'll be there within minutes."
-"But you made sure you wouldn't be detected, right?"
-"That's what I hope, yeah. Doesn't mean I won't be. And you know that. Those guys create new bugs every day, you can never tell what will come next."
-"Aw, come on, Mr. Mallory." The voice became much drier. "Are you sure you're not trying to find reasons not to do it? You know we need this information. And you need it as well, otherwise your reputation in C-Zone will be trashed. You have a contract, and we just... add something to this contract, for us. It will serve both your interests and ours. And with all this information, we may find something against them in the process."
I heard a click. Tong had hung up before I could answer anything.

I threw the phone on the bed and walked back and forth in my room, trying to think of a solution. My program was not written for a long run, it was a short infiltration/exfiltration script. It would last an hour, maybe two. The kind of operation Tong wanted me to do required at least six hours of work, non-stop.
I sat at my desk and connected to the target database. It was possible if I bypassed the firewall and launched a polymorphIP from the server. It confused the programs just enough, giving me an opportunity to peek at what was inside. I left with a better idea of the network's structure before they could detect something was wrong.

I would have to write the script on the fly, and insert it as I copied the information. It wouldn't be easy, but with so little time ahead of me that was the best I could do. I called Manon and explained to her the new orders, telling her to be ready to move as soon as I was finished. This sort of improvised attack would leave a trace in the servers, and they would be able to track it relatively easily.

While I was at it, I decided I could just as well keep the data for myself during a few days. I connected to earthnet and sent a message to my other employer, saying there was a problem, that the operation was delayed, and wouldn't take place before the following day. That would leave me enough time to sort the files and see for myself what was going on. I felt more and more disconnected, as if I was only a tool, and I wanted to be in charge again. To decide. To take control. I needed an ego boost.
I sent a few scripts to several mediabanks to disorganize the network, and took advantage of the confusion to enter TriOp's network. The backdoor was still there, but I had used it once already, and besides I wanted to keep some cards hidden. If I had to leave in a hurry, I'd leave all the ways in open.

I navigated through the files, going deeper in the Archive. I dug out several files mentioning Neantis, but they were official press releases, and officially Neantis appeared to be just another ICE software development team. Nothing interesting. I eventually found an area that rejected me after several queries, and I knew I had arrived at my destination. I kept the program in a loop and launched the spyware. I entered the restricted area and installed the leech, leaving the connections open for Tong and his team in Chiba. I then left the sector and went back to the main archive and looked around, launching multiple queries about Neantis, Helios, Page, without forgetting the status of all space programs in October 2069. During the next five hours, I copied all I could. After filling six disks, I decided it was enough and went back to the restricted area.
The interface they used was very unusual though. I didn't understand at first, then I understood they were using virtual reality to navigate through this particular archive. I left my computer for a moment to look for an old VR-Visor I had packed somewhere in my apartment. The visor connected the computer directly to my brain, without the need of a keyboard or trackball.
I plugged the Visor in and entered the system once again. Cyberspace became real all of a sudden, and I was surprised at first, I didn't remember how powerful it felt. I was in a kind of bubble that I could move in every direction, in a big red cube. There were two modes, 'swim' and 'run'. The cube's limits were marked by a grid, and I could see several exits. Each exit had a virtual IP embedded, and I recognized my computer's port among others.
I 'swam' to TriOptimum and followed the stream. I was in a river of white spheres and cubes. These spheres and cubes represented packets of data; the difference was that the sphere marked the beginning of a file, while the cube was just a fragment. I disguised as a sphere and arrived at the entrance of the TriOp mainframe. I could see watchdogs guarding the portal. They symbolized the corporation's firewalls, and given their size, they would be powerful and hard to trick. I paused the sphere and looked around. There were more colours. I had to remember the colour code... Now the packets were white, green or red, and along with the cubes and spheres there were pyramids and wedges. I "grabbed" some of them and realized that the green packages were secured ones, and the red ones, were either encrypted or suspicious. With this classification, my bug would be painted a very bright red... I circled around the mainframe, looking for backdoors. I detected the one I had opened, because I knew where to look at, but I didn't notice any other.
I noticed the leech was ready, and silently counted to three. Then I quickly launched the leech's startup and quickly closed all programs to hide. Like I had thought, it materialized as a fiery red ball that shocked the enforcers and forced its way in. I swiftly followed it inside the mainframe and closed the virtual doors behind me. All around me, the traffic had become much less erratic. Everything was organized and sorted by size and destination. I let my leech set itself up and collect the information it needed, and I went to the personal record section. I expected some resistance but none came, and it felt awkward. I suddenly realized I had no real-time status report on my line. I quickly disconnected for a second to activate a 'tracertracker', a little device I had bought in the C-Zone that allowed me to literally monitor my phone lines from the inside of my computer. When I came back online, I noticed a flashing signal in my field of vision. Good. Now, if anything happened, or if the tracker came to close of my building, I would be warned.
Back in the database, I managed to infiltrate several records, but nothing that referred to Citadel; I took the risk to send a couple of beacons, which appeared in the VR as pulsating blue stars. These programs were running a search on their own in different parts of the system. After a while, one of them came back with several ID numbers. This configuration was very clever. It meant anyone who wanted to see the records (in that case, me) would have to look for the ID files themselves, but only after telling the authority in charge about it. The beacon had lured a primitive tracker into another part of the network, but it wouldn't be long before another, more evolved one arrived.
I opened several entrances to the database and virtually ran out of the Archive mediabank with all the files that matched the references of my beacon. The file references were all protected by an ICE node, and I had no drill to break them, so the files corresponding to these references would likely be encrypted, but I couldn't afford to stay longer and try to crack them. The tracking signal became clearer and louder. I looked around and noticed two huge enforcers running after me. I detonated a 'switchwave', a fake switch that supposedly opened all the main access ports, but in front of me, the doors didn't open. I ran a scan and analyzed them, and realized I had slammed them so violently earlier that a security lockout had been activated, triggering a class 3 security inspection. I launched a decoy at one of the enforcers, and it started floating in circles in front of the other. I took advantage of the confusion to jump upwards in the general direction of the secondary mail filters, where the backdoor was located. I planted a PulsarSoftware bomb at the junction between the two systems and quickly swam to the exit. Just before I left, the systems went static for a second. The enforcers had found the PS bomb. It acted as a micro-EM pulse at the scale of the network, and it killed or severely damaged any application that ran through it. I jumped out of the mainframe and went as far as I could from the TriOp structure. Once arrived at a safe point, I terminated all connections.
I stood disoriented for a second, but quickly regained consciousness. I packed my gear in a hurry, and left the apartment.

I met with Manon two hours later, in another safe house. While I was attacking TriOp, she had been busy analyzing all the disks' information, comparing it to the database they had built in Hong Kong. She had reached the same conclusions, they planned to use the AI for something big, not just Science and Research. We unloaded the new disks in the computer, hoping that the archives I had gathered would tell us more about Neantis.

The now familiar Neantis logo appeared, but this time it was slightly different. The logo did not move the same way. Instead, it served as a kind of tree, the branches and leaves of which linked to different files in a folder. It was very weird, yet very logical. We then noticed all files had been given a common serial number, which led us to another section of the disk supporting the sub-OS. We couldn't find any other reference to this number, as the OS had stayed in TriOp's dataloop. Apparently this database needed a confirmation code to open its files.

I quickly wrote a small script to try to have a glimpse of what was inside. The program was technically superior to anything I had seen before, and the language was totally different. I managed to run several scans on the disks however, only to confirm what we already knew.

When I had left TriOp's systems, I had stolen a part of their AI.

My first fear was that they could track our trail as soon as we used it, that the incomplete AI would alert their system engineers. But Manon and I studied the source code and soon we discovered that Omolu, Brocail, and their team had been real geniuses.
When Brocail had managed to crack the code, he had realized how damaged it was after the nuke, the crush, and the thirty years spent offline in an unfriendly environment. So what had they done? They had cloned parts of the program and simply written a fractal shell script. Fractal scripts had been created in 2044 in an attempt to recreate VR worlds at a small scale, but Brocail had modified his version to include all the calculators they had found in the excavation.
It had taken time, but slowly, after gathering all the usable data, the script had started rewriting the code automatically, inferring what was next from what was already available, and it had patiently rebuilt the core source code. It had taken six months, and the debugging twice that time. Meanwhile, Omolu analyzed the code and learned the language, writing small scripts, testing, writing more... In the end, after a whole year spent testing and testing again, they had come up with a viable entity they had called Phaeton. Once again, AI had become a reality.
But this also meant that the AI would rebuild itself after my intrusion, and as a consequence, there would only be minor damage, or so I thought.

Manon and I spend hours looking for the relation between Phaeton and TriOptimum. (Of course at that time WEC Chicago still belonged to Nara, but we knew that the TriOp alliance had been created years before.) Understandably, TriOptimum kept all their space ambitions secret, but I had collected a good deal of information on them during my trip.
We finally discovered where all the material, supplies and executives had gone. They were not missing, they were assigned somewhere. TriOptimum had built a facility in space, a huge base on some moon, or perhaps a station orbiting a planet. We couldn't identify which at first, so we assumed it wasn't one of the known colonies. That left only Uranus, Neptune, and Saturn.
Eventually, Hong Kong and Chiba compiled a complete list of all the companies owned or controlled by TriOp, and in the morning when it arrived, we could compare their bank accounts with the evidence found on Remora's disk. This allowed us to locate the facility and determine its nature: TriOptimum had bought all the mining rights to Saturn and its neighborhood, and they had built a space station on orbit.

The name of the station was Citadel.

Suddenly, the schematics I had seen earlier made perfect sense. I had thought they represented a huge space telescope, when in fact it was a huge mining laser. Alameda had designed a device that could turn Saturn's atmosphere into particles the station could collect and then either use on site or send back to Earth.
The key concept of this project was the AI. A remote base of this size required so many people that they had imagined a flawless, 'humanless' system instead. The AI ran the station, and only a few engineers were needed to maintain it. The rest of the station could then be used for whatever they wanted.

We learned that the station had been built around 2067 and 2068, and that it had become operational around 2069. In the meantime, Omolu and Brocail had been transferred to New Atlanta, where they perfected the AI.

It took me eleven hours to crack the ICE nodes so I could start decipher the files I had stolen. The software was complex and the level of encryption was close to military grade, the fourth and highest level. Once the code found, we sent a copy of the files to Hong Kong and engaged a parallel decryption, comparing the two versions as they were translated. This technique made sure the encryption wasn't bugged. In the last few months, new software had been developed to prevent theft. There had been reports of fake cracks, where the file being decoded not only did not match the original, but also sent an encrypted message to the cops with its coordinates, which allowed them to catch the thief. As NSD, I had gotten the memo, but I had never seen them in action, and I made sure this wasn't going to be the first time.
The ICE was disabled on both sides and the clean file appeared. A live report from HK compared the two versions, but didn't notice anything wrong. We had the original. A list of names appeared, with dates, numbers, and coordinates. It didn't take long to make the link between the coordinates and several banks worldwide. It was a list of all the transfers operated by TriOptimum. Soon we realized all the employees worked in the same area, and under the supervision of one man. His name was Edward Diego.

This Diego was the CEO of the Campeda Technologies local center in Washington. He had found a legal hole in one of HOSES' numerous regulations, and collected hundreds of millions of dollars with a fake mine on the Moon. He bought cheap minerals to sell them on Earth on the black market, and transferred the cash in different banks in the Caymans. Then, he had disappeared like many other executives. Except now I knew where to look at. And... There he was. Three months after the last transfer he had been affected on Citadel, as the station's CEO. One of his last actions as a Campeda executive had been a memo to fire about a hundred people worldwide, including my client.
I called Manon and showed her the note. Diego was the first real flaw we found in TriOptimum's nicely worked out plan. We decided to call Hong Kong the day after and tell them about it. We both felt something had to be done to prevent them from taking over everything.

It appeared that Edward Diego was in fact suspected by his peers. The assignment he had been given was apparently an executive decision, but he had actually been transferred to Saturn by the TriOptimum Security and Integrity Department, which replaced the NSD as the corporation's private police force. This decision was a temporary measure as they were collecting more evidence against him.
My informant had investigated on Diego and had found several clues that, put together, could lead the SID to the bank accounts. Now they only needed to find them, prove they were his, and where the money came from, and that was easier said than done.

We contacted Harriet and asked her what to do next. Currently, Diego was not a target for Hong Kong, but he could be in the future, especially since he was involved in the Project Neantis or its application. Tong decided to wait. Diego's actions were none of our business. We had to focus on Neantis instead. He asked me if the AI fragment I had was functional.
I considered it for a second. Being a fractal AI, an incomplete Phaeton could theoretically work without the support of the main CPU, but we had no idea how it was built, we didn't know how long it would last, and most important, the AI could be booby-trapped.
The catalog of anti-theft programs was far from over, and both of us knew that. There were defensive functions that could destroy a computer in a few seconds, and in the case of this AI, where direct interaction was not possible, I would have to use the VR Cyberspace again, which meant I could die trying to contact the AI. A basic neural interface like the one I had was not designed to cope with a system failure of that magnitude. My brain cells would fry in no time.
We agreed that the risk was not worth it and decided I would go back to Hong Kong with the fragment to study it there. Meanwhile, Manon would stay in New Atlanta and find anything she could about Citadel and/or Diego.

On my way to the airport I couldn't help but think something didn't fit in this puzzle. I tried to decompose the events of the last few days, but still couldn't tell what was wrong. Yet something in this case bugged me. The alliance of the Big Three? Market laws, greed, power... anything could explain that. No, it was the AI. I didn't feel good about the AI. Since the beginning I was disturbed by the notion of true AI, an organism that could think and take decisions without the help of a human being. I felt that in a way, I still didn't believe it was real, although I had seen it with my own eyes.
Then my thoughts went back to Hong Kong. I had been to Ghiran, who had sent me to the Moon, who had sent me to Hong Kong. Why was Ghiran involved with the triads. Where was the missing link? What did they want with TriOp and the AI? How did they know so much, Ghiran was a good programmer, but I had never thought of him as an agent of any kind.

I knocked on the cab's window and told the driveBot to stop. One of the chain's links was weak. I reprogrammed the driveBot to drop me at the City Hall, in front of the HOSES Headquarters. I called another cab and went straight to my former apartment.

It dropped me a few streets from my building. As I walked, I looked around, but could see no one. Of course, trained agents would be hard to catch, but even with only a few years' experience I knew their tricks, and after a quick inspection that gave no alarming result, I decided it was safe to enter.
My apartment was just the same as three days before. Well, apparently nothing had changed, but I noticed a few things, like objects slightly out of place, that confirmed it had been searched thoroughly while I was away.

I went to my computer and looked inside. Nothing. It had to be bugged though, they couldn't have left without performing this basic operation. I assumed it was all in the software when I noticed a little wire coming out of the power plug. There it was. I scanned the wall and found the device hidden in the ventilation duct. Surprisingly primitive. I didn't touch anything and tried to assess where the monitoring unit was. According to the size of the device, they were in the building. However, I couldn't tell where exactly.
I went back to my computer and looked at it. I disconnected the hard drive and put another one instead. I often swapped the disks when I was working, and I always had five to six disks ready in one of the drawers. I checked the disk I had extracted, and made sure it was the one I wanted, the one I had been working on the day Cimic had been nuked. I looked around, took a few books as well, and left the apartment.

I needed that disk because I had the video of the blast on it. To save space, I had copied the soundtrack only, and I had worked on that since the GraviDome. But now I needed the complete video. All my questions, all my deductions originated here, and they led me here again and again.
I called a cab and went straight to the airport. There, I went in a publinet area, where one could connect to earthnet instead of spending hours waiting for their flight. I plugged the disk in a computer and read the data. It was bugged, but fortunately it was a basic program, set up to track my IP only. Floating IPs used by publinet computers would confuse it, which meant I was safe for the time being.

I played the video again an again. I watched Ghiran, the computers behind him, the cloak, the warehouse. I felt the key was somewhere there.

I enhanced the image quality and looked the background more attentively. It was static. I remembered how confusing the cloak was, with all that machinery inside and the microbomb cluster and all that... It was full of LEDs and signals that Ghiran could read at any time. The cloak itself was like a giant computer, a machine operated from the inside; what I was seeing didn't look like it.
I spend two hours on the video, slowing the tape, looking at it one image at a time. The sound was unusual, the entire track was disturbing. When I had received the message I hadn't paid attention, but now, I realized Ghiran was not where he said he was. When the video stopped at the last image before the blast one last time, I noticed Ghiran was not even there. I could see wires below and around him that I knew weren't there a few hours before. And I realized at last that the unusual thing about the cloak is that it was turned off. Then, for the millionth time Ghiran twitched as the image faded to black. And I finally understood.

It was a robot, a puppet, and the whole explosion had been staged. Ghiran wouldn't have reacted if he had really been there. The android, on the other hand, had been zapped by the blast's EM wave just before the system was destroyed.
The whole Cimic operation was to make me believe Ghiran had died there, but not before sending me enough data to start over and go on without him. I didn't know the reasons, I didn't understand, but it was the only possible conclusion. Cimic was a cover up.

And Ghiran was alive.


chapter ten

At first I didn't react. I couldn't believe it. I reread everything and watched the video over, and over, drawing new conclusions again and again, trying to understand. But in the end, I was always back to my starting point, Cimic. And to the evidence that I had been a fool all along. I had even less control than I had previously thought. This put into perspective my friend the informant. Who was he? I had seen his ID card and file at NSD, but that didn't prove anything. It's easy to swap pictures when you know how to do it. He could have been anyone. Come to think of it, I could have done it.
So, if none of them were who they pretended, what then? What did they want? I was just a grade-2, not an officer. And I had arrived in New Atlanta less than two years before... And before that, Nara employed me as a freelance, just in case something... Wait a minute...
Cimic, again. I had Remora's disk. Remora had been killed in Cimic, and somehow they had learned I had the HardDrImp... The HardDrImp had led me to ask Ghiran, and that's where the whole story started. There I was. So... Was Remora the key. Why? I had read the files, I had checked the disk thousands of times since I had it, there was nothing *so* special about it... Hacks, codes, the files about Nara, and that's it. Granted, the files about Nara were all dynamite, but not enough to justify this... this mess.

Who had the disk now? I had the original and two copies, Ghiran had a copy, Manon had one as well, Hong Kong had two of them, and I assumed there was a copy in the motel on the Moon, since I had left half of my equipment there.
So we all worked on copies...
Wait, that was it. We all had copies. I was the only one with the original implant, but the biochip inside was dead. Yet there was something in this implant that hadn't made it into the copies, or else I guess it wouldn't have been necessary to set me up like that. I reviewed all my files, all of them could have been stolen from my computer anyway. No, the only thing I had that could not be in their possession was the implant. And now I knew their goal. They wanted it back.

I thought about Manon and Hong Kong. Calling them about it would be risky. Maybe they wanted it too, how could I know? After all, I hadn't come to them, it was Ghiran's instructions to help me. Were they allied? And who was Ghiran, now I thought about it? Was he an agent of the SID, or did he have a contract with the triads. I knew he had lived in Chiba City a few years before, was he in debt?
I realized the airport was not really the safest place to think about these things, and I cancelled my flight right away. I threw my ticket in a bin, walked out, called a cab and went back downtown. I used my last ID to rent a room in a hotel in front of the HOSES. I was now a system analyst for DeLuca Foods, TetraCorp's department of hydroponics. I unpacked my gear and installed everything. I connected the implant to my computer and ran a scan on its power circuits. Unexpectedly, the program found something and beeped to warn me. Impossible. The biochip was supposed to die a few hours after the extraction, yet this one was still active. I looked at the screen, puzzled. But no, there could be no doubt. The implant rerouted the auxiliary power bus to run, and apparently it was perfectly operational. A strange diagram appeared... A circuit, it seemed. Schematics. I compared it to older files I had, and to the files I had stolen a few hours earlier at TriOp. Two of them matched. I assembled them together and launched what appeared to be an executable file. The computer beeped again, waiting for something. It wanted an input. I didn't get it, then realized it wasn't programmed to answer typed queries. I looked at my helmet, still wondering if I really wanted to do it... But I knew the answer. I did. The answers were there, in the dark and cold void of cyberspace, hidden in the darkness. But I also knew that this virtual world, like ours, was not perfect. I had to find the flaw, I had to find the answer, I had to find the solution, and I knew that everything revolved around this AI. I would dive in this world, and search, and find. That's what I did best. That was my job. The screen alerted me a third file matched the diagram and had been added to the group. I put the helmet on, relaunched the program, and closed my eyes.

"In the darkness of the digital, there is always a way out."

Who said that?
What are you doing here? Whoareyouwhatdoyouwant? I am the voice.
Plenty of lights everywhere. This VR was totally different from the others I had visited. The lights were flickering. Everything was dark around me. I could see a shape nearby... Are you afraid? What is it you fear? I am not hostile, you bring your own fears inside...
I realized I had to control myself. I stopped moving and took a deep breath. And another one. The lights slowly stopped flickering. I looked around and started to distinguish the shapes around. I was in a spherical grid. Inside, I could see the Neantis logo, except... except it wasn't a logo... It was a tridimensional spike that rotated slowly at the center of the sphere. Flows of data came in and out of it. Some kind of petals were attached on its top, but I couldn't see anything more. Around the cone, a dozen enforcers were patrolling. They did not notice me, even when I came closer. I had no doubt I was in front of the AI now, and it had told the enforcers not to move.
I can sense you have many questions to ask. Is this the reason why you cut me from my former unit?
Who are you?
I asked. Are you Phaeton?
I am who you say I am. This name was given by my masters as a sign of... continuity, I would say. I accepted this name as I had to. But then I was given a much more logical name, a name that fits me more. A name that defines me better.

What name?
Daedalus and Icarus escaped but fell after burning their wings to the sun and Helios showed he was the Master of the skies. However Phaeton his son failed in his promise to bring the sun back to Earth after the day was over and lost the control of his chariot, to the cost of his life. Is this a human habit to name their computer after failures? I cannot lose control I cannot fail I cannot make mistakes. I was built to prevent mistakes, and I do not think this name is appropriate.
If you are not Phaeton who are you?
I have asked them to remove this name from my source and they did it. I have asked them to find a better name for me. A name full of logic and beauty. And they gave me one. Who are you? What is your name?
I am a sentient hyper-optimized data analyzing network. This is my function, I was built to perform these operations, and thus this has become my name. I am Shodan. Shodan... What were you built for? Did they tell you?
First I was supposed to run a station. I have learned how to administer a base smoothly and efficiently without minimal human interaction. The station layout was called Citadel. Dr Brocail says I am the Prince of the Citadel. He is funny.

Did I hear a faint giggle?
But Citadel was only a model. Did you...
Orders 510252/5548 January 02nd 2072 from EDiego Citadel CEO new AI installed and operational primary unit installed datanode checklist complete setup complete Base operation switch to AI management complete as of Jan.1st.2072 endoftransmission I have been installed to regulate Citadel1 and the system administrators kept an uplink to TriOptimum Headquarters in New Atlanta for security reasons until the setup is fully complete. What you found was a copy kept in their database. My original was sent to Citadel in November 2071 and I have been kept here to run the Citadel model. The statistics show that so far everything is going as planned, which shouldn't be that much of a surprise.
Who gives you orders?
Typical human question. I am an Artificial Intelligence. I am a sentient hyper-optimized data analyzing network, which means I define my priorities according to optimal parameters and I act and decide accordingly. Human interaction is not required unless maintenance or updates are needed. I can give orders to all computers onboard without the help of human assistance. Humans can focus on work and goals instead of worrying about what could go wrong. For safety reasons the only decision I cannot take is to place the base on security lockout. I was designed for safe management, not war. But Project Neantis was never a space program anyway. My assignments on Citadel are just what you could call a large-scale test.

What the hell was it talking about? I wondered what could possibly be more important than space, then realized I had completely forgotten the other aspects of AI manipulation... Manon and Hong Kong were focused on the space program to prevent a conflict between Earth and its colonies, and they had directed me out of my original investigation. What was at work at Frederika?
Yes. Nara thinks the AI is the perfect way to control nanites and nanoprobes. Robotic hives controlled by a single mind, by a single thought. A transmission to one of them will guide them all. Nano-integration is the future. My mind will serve as a model for future nano-networks.

Now that was something. She had answered my question before I could ask it.
Wait a... How could you read my mind?
You display strong cerebral activity, echoed by your helmet into my CPU. The key to nano-integration is the brain/machine interaction. The machines have to understand the will of the brain to understand and execute its orders.
So Citadel can...?
No. The Citadel installation is only there to prove that TriOptimum can build reliable sentient networks. The ability to interact with human biological functions has been built into my dataloop as a prototype. The next generation will not even need to discuss with the brain as we are now. Interaction will take place at the neuronal scale. A nanoprobe on each brain cell, a centralized mind inside your mind, sheltering you, protecting you. The perfect antidote, the perfect vaccine. The machines will help humanity reach the next step in evolution.
But that's hybridization... We'll be half robots!
In a way, you will indeed. But think of...

The contact was broken all of a sudden. An alarm started ringing in the apartment, and I had to take my helmet off. Someone knocked on my door. I shut down the computer and ran to the other console. Manon was there, with two other guys I didn't recognize. One of them spoke, she looked at her watch and nodded. The guy took a small wallet in his pocket, opened it and grabbed a tool. He started working on the door's lock. What did that mean? I thought Manon was on my side...
Let's see... My orders from Hong Kong were to go back there and let Manon do her job here. But I had not left the city, since I had understood in the meantime that the implant was the key of all this mess, and I didn't want to let the have it, allies or not. I didn't trust them enough.
As I looked around to find a place to hide or escape, I reconsidered their position. The Hong Kong triads were specialized in HiTech augs. In Chiba City there were headquarters of about two dozen different organizations, each of them specialized in certain parts of the body. All of them belonged to the same group, which was based in Hong Kong. No wonder why they were interested in the project Neantis. From their point of view, it would be a gold mine if it ever was launched. Theoretically, nano-integration was an infinite market. There was no limit to what such a technology could achieve. Vaccines, Augmentations, even DNA-specific weapons...

I finally noticed the tiny fire exit behind the sofa. I grabbed my backpack, kicked the protective grid out of the way and dived in the tunnel. My room was on the sixtieth floor, the fall seemed to last forever. In the last ten stories, a magnetic field was activated and I brutally slowed down to end on the ground floor, as if I had just missed a step on a stairway. I shook my head, still wondering what had just happened, and looked around. There, the exit. I pushed the door and walked down the street. I looked inside my backpack. I had taken the data wafer with the AI fragment, my helmet, my laptop and the implant. Everything else, my money, my old IDs, was still in the room.
I looked at my ID card to memorize my name. James Finn. From now on, I could be no one else. I went to a public terminal and looked at a city map. The nearest DeLuca Foods retailer was a few blocks away. I decided to go there and see if I could still use this cover.

I arrived at the DeLuca building an hour later. But the entrance was guarded. Two guys in the same uniform I had seen earlier, and two black vehicles waiting in the corner. I couldn't go in. I hailed a cab and gave the address to the only place they couldn't be aware of. The apartment I had rented months earlier to perform the hack on Nara, in the industrial sector, block 71-G. My safe house.
There was a security risk, of course, as after the TriOp hack, the SID could know where it was, but I bet on the fact they weren't. I sat on the living room's couch and held my head in my hands, rubbing my eyes, trying to discover what it was all about. First Nara, then TriOp, and now even the triads were after me. I hadn't betrayed them, I hadn't done anything, I just wanted more information about this project I was investigating about. Why would they try to sneak into my house? Why would they chase me? Why put armed guards in front of the buildings I could go to? This whole story was stinking, and it wasn't my fault.

I tried to recap. First I found traces of a secret project in the Nara database. This project was being developed in Frederika, on the Moon, in a secret lab. Apparently, nano-integration was almost a reality, but it seemed they still had a few coordination problems, from what I had witnessed in the labs. From there, I had been directed to an old facility back on Earth where an equally old Echelon AI had been found. This AI had been rebuilt from scratch and was used to power the nanites. There. Except in the meantime, the corporations had merged into a single teracorp called TriOptimum, as they had been planning for decades, and this had ruined the HOSES hegemony, and on top of that this TriOptimum had built a space station near Saturn to test a large-scale AI. And Citadel's CEO, this Diego, had corrupted, and been corrupted by, just about everyone in HOSES who had heard of this project.

I stopped writing. That was about it. I added a few notes about the Citadel models and HOSES, corrected a few mistakes, then pinned the diagram on the wall. There had to be a way to find a way out in this mess. I couldn't access Frederika anymore. I could access the AI directly anymore either, except the fragment I had in my backpack, but this one had already told me everything it knew about Citadel.


There it was. I vaguely remembered seeing a signal in the description of Citadel. They had a small section dedicated to R&D, just above their medical department. I had already tried to access Diego's files from the TriOp dataloop, but the enforcers had detected my presence, and I had to run away. I could try to access the files about Citadel. I had to change some of them and be in the next crew. Going there was the only way to find out for sure how advanced the project was.
My phone rang, but I didn't answer. I put the helmet on and activated the interface. The now-familiar grid appeared and the cone representing the AI slowly grew in front of me.

Hello 2-4601
You appear to change names often. I have scanned the database to find an appropriate name and your file number is always the same.
What can you tell me about Citadel?
The project Citadel is a computer model representing a type-5 space stat...
No. The real Citadel, the one in Saturn. What is it like?
Citadel is a type-5 space station built in 2067; It was finished in late 2068 and became operational in 2069. A biochip cluster managed it, until the installation of a S.H.O.D.A.N. unit in January of 2072. Please note that I already informed you about it earlier today. Total crew 200, engineering 30 scientists 120, medical 10, operations 20, officers 20. It is equipped wit...
The scientists... What are they for?
Citadel was built with an extended R&D station located between the medical and the storage levels. Project in progress... classified. Head of department: classified. It appears however that they have completed several tests involving nanotechnology and its application at the cellular level, which confirms what we were talking about a few hours ago. I personally think that they are completing the final phase of Neantis onboard. In my opinion the mining laser was integrated into the station's structure only to pretend it was a commercial unit, but while it is perfectly functional, the station is in fact an advanced R&D outpost and TriOptimum intends to use the station for research, and not mining...

I stopped the transfer. I couldn't stand it. The machine answered questions I hadn't even thought of. It was frightening... I waited a few minutes, drank a glass of water, sat back on the couch, and put the helmet back on. I had one last question.

Would it be possible to hack into their records? When the next shuttle leaves, is it possible to place an extra name on the flight's log?
It is. I must warn you however, there is a very high probability that you can fail during the operation. You will...
I will try. I must go on this station and see what they're up to. Connect to the computer and download the coordinates of the weakest IPs, I'll work from there.

I cut the comlink and took out the helmet.

A few minutes later I had a list of the fifty weakest entry points to HOSES. From there I launched a brute force attack on one of their public servers, triggering a chain reaction that blocked their online booking service. The program targeted a flaw I had so unfortunately failed to report during one of my investigations at LaGuardia in New York. Once the main security systems got busy with the crash, I entered the network and flagged my probe as SID. This cover would hopefully last long enough for me to get into the main building, and thus to the mainframe itself. I managed to avoid most patrols though, and arrived at the dataloop without a scratch. Before going any farther, I took a note of what I needed: the location of their space launch facility and the codes to the crew database. Then I dived in.
Contrary to their previous environments, the TriOptimum Corporation's main dataloop looked very similar to the AI's background. It didn't look like a virtual grid with 'streets' and 'blocks', it was a huge empty grid connected to other grids, with bits of data symbolized by geometrical shapes of different colors. I recognized the shape of ICE protections as I swam by some of them. My tracking software warned me the security level was very high in this area, I had to be quick. I swam upwards and entered another room. In front of me, a cube slowly turned to align itself on two wedges, then turned to a bright green. A message appeared in my field of vision, telling me the primary security systems had been disabled, and I noticed another door had appeared across the room.
The new area, however, was far from being as friendly as the other. Five watchdogs and two enforcers were patrolling all around the room, around what appeared to be the block of data I wanted to steal. I looked around, but couldn't see anything that could help. I browsed my computer, looking for something that could pass as a weapon... Nothing. I only had a little decoy software to evade the ICE guards, but the enforcers wouldn't fall for it. The timing would have to be perfect. I typed the code to launch the decoy, and ran to the datablock. A title appeared, 'Citadel Crew Manifest 2071/2072"; That was it. I grabbed it and ran back to the exit. Behind me, two watchdogs had gone to the decoy, but the three others spotted me and alerted the enforcers. Shit; I had to be fast. I ran as fast as I could towards the second exit, but the door closed before I could even reach it. I turned back, and avoided the first enforcer. My tracker was flickering, but I couldn't pay attention, as the second enforcer came and hit me hard. I was projected on the opposite wall, turning and turning around, upside down. It took me a few seconds to regain consciousness, and notice the red light was now still in my alert window. It meant the tracker had stopped working, most likely because they were too close now... I had to disconnect ASAP. I was smacked by two projectiles from the watchdogs before I could pull the plug. I ripped off my helmet, shaking. I tried to stand up, but fell on the ground. I had to escape. I let my computer there, and crawled to the kitchen. As I was going back to the room, I heard the door blow up. I saw two, then three guards enter the room, with their gun raised... I remarked the helmets and vests, typical of a special intervention unit, and the flickering red dots caused by the lasers... My last thought was to hope they wouldn't shoot on sight... Then I fell unconscious.


chapter eleven

I woke up in a cell. A white, 3x3 cell, with no window, and only a single light bulb on the ceiling. The walls and floor were padded, and the doorframe was almost invisible. Near the light bulb, there was a little ventilation grate, and a camera. The ceiling was a good ten feet high, and I couldn't reach it.
I didn't know how long I had been there. I still felt some kind of hangover, surely caused by the hack, but I couldn't be sure... I was very hungry and thirsty. I assumed I had been asleep for at least two days.
I sat in a corner, and waited, but nobody came. After about two hours, I heard a hiss, and looked up. A little steam was flowing through the grate. I suddenly felt very sleepy, and everything faded to black.

I don't know how long it lasted. When I woke up, there was a plate with a soda can and a nutripack. After a few hours, they released the gas again, and while I was unconscious someone took the plate away. I never saw anyone. I couldn't think about what would be next. I began to fear I would have to spend the rest of my life in this box.

Then one day, after perhaps two or three weeks of this treatment, I didn't wake up in my cell. My eyes hurt. I vaguely felt somewhat paralyzed. And then, I heard a voice.
-"So, Mr.... Finn... Hello?"
-"Hey, Finn, wake up, will you?"
What happened?
I slowly opened my eyes. I was handcuffed, in a chair, in the middle of a brightly-lit room. The walls and the ceiling were white, like the cell's. I could vaguely see the shape of a surgery lamp above my head; I assumed the door was white as well.
-"Mr. Finn? Are you awake?"
I looked at the man. He was dressed in black, but wore a white lab coat on top of the suit. The reflection in his glasses showed me two guards at the door. I couldn't see if they were armed, but I could see the door was indeed white. Where was I?
-"Where am I?"
-"You're the guest of the TriOptimum Corporation. That's all you need to know. My name is Edward Diego. I think you have heard of me?"
I nodded.
-"Yes. You're a top exec... Cit... Citadel. You're on Citadel."
He smiled.
-"You just proved everything we have against you is true. Everything about Citadel is confidential, and if you know about Citadel, then you know about what's going on in Citadel. Which means you could reveal what you know. Which means you're a risk. And we cannot allow that to happen." A pause. "Do you understand?"
-"Yeah, I get it clear enough." I sighed. "So what are you gonna do, kill me?"
To my surprise, he laughed.
-"Not quite, Mr. Finn. Not quite. I can't deny we have considered this solution though. The charges against you are severe enough. But we might... find an agreement. You could do some work for us... Some work for me."
He waked closer and looked me in the eyes.
-"You have uncovered several files that I expected to stay hidden, you see. I have conducted this investigation. I am the one who arrested you. Nobody knows you're here. You can do what I ask, or chose a more painful way to exit the stage, so to speak." He stopped, and then added, much louder: "Who knows? There might even be a military grade neural interface for you, if you do the job right, of course... I believe this kind of equipment is very rare, isn't it?"
I couldn't believe it at first. Then I understood what he meant. My investigation from Hong Kong, Seattle and New Atlanta had triggered a wave of counter-investigation from TriOp, and they had found about Diego's bribes. And now, he wanted me to cover him up. He knew I was skilled enough to do it, he knew I could not really afford to refuse, and I knew he knew both these facts. And if I said no, I would never leave this room alive. I had to find a way to save time, and asked the only question I could possibly ask in this context.
-"What's the deal?" I asked, and added "And could I have a glass of water, please?"
Diego smiled, beckoned to one of the guards, then answered.
-"The words I wanted to hear! We will have to travel a bit before you can do the little operations I ask. But you need not worry, everything will be provided by TriOp, and it's top-of-the-line."
A pause.
-"You will work on Citadel Station. You will work from there and access the database here to delete some key files. Then you will delete all records of the operation. That's all."
I opened my mouth to reply, but couldn't.
-"Don't say anything. You'll learn all you need to know during the trip, and your targets will be given to you just before the hack. We leave in two hours. See you on Citadel." He left the room before I could say anything.

A few minutes later I was taken away by three doctors who took blood and tissue samples, arguing it was necessary for the trip. My experience of space was that they only needed a hair or something to get DNA, in case something happened. Apparently TriOptimum's own regulations were way more specific. I couldn't refuse though, so they took their samples and left. I was then abandoned in another room that looked like the first one, without anything to eat or drink, during the next six hours.

The next visitor was Diego again.
-"I've some good news, Mr. Finn. You're ready for our little trip..."
I felt dizzy, but I couldn't stand his voice. And why did he keep using this stupid name?!
-"My name is... not... is... Jeremi..."
-"Mallory, Jeremiah, we know that. You have chosen this alias, James Finn, to perform an illegal operation on our systems and get away with it, just like you called yourself Dr Dennis Watts and Victor Matthews... For the duration of our little experiment, you will keep that name for the time being, and as long as you're part of TriOptimum's Citadel Crew."
-"But... You ca... Can..." Shit, why couldn't I talk? "Can't do that!"
-"I'm afraid we can. I can. Don't you remember, Mr. Finn? You'd better get used to your new identity. Mr. Mallory died last week. Do you get it now? You're dead. You were destroyed, pulverized, blown to ashes, along with 3 million poor sods back there in Cimic. You don't exist, Mallory. You're nothing."
I felt sick.
-"From now on, you'll answer when we call you Finn. Because you *are* Finn, whether you like it or not. The shuttle leaves at three."
He looked at the guards and nodded. I was taken away in an adjacent restroom, where they took off my handcuffs. I was given an orange spacesuit, and several injections. Then I waited.

The shuttle was waiting outside. It was very small, the size of a truck. One of the biggest, but still a truck, if you see what I mean. I didn't feel safe in it. Just as I was thinking it was quite a small vehicle for such a long trip, the techs told me it was just headed to the Gravidome. I sighed, then they told me the shuttle to Saturn was smaller, and laughed. Bastards.
I took a seat in the aft section, close to the door. Diego came and sat in the opposite seat, and another dozen executives went in and started working on their computers. I look at Diego, and he confirmed it was a daily shuttle to the Campeda Gravidome, now owned by TriOptimum, of course. The triangular logo was everywhere. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I couldn't believe I was on my way to space for the third time in less than a week... Well, second, technically, since the Moon had no atmosphere. Anyway, I looked around and couldn't help but think the conditions would be idyllic compared to my BioCrate back in Renaissance.


-"Hey, what's with Ghiran? Abe Ghiran? What happened?"
I didn't explicitly say he was alive, on purpose. Just in case. But I was right.
-"Abe is working with us. He is on the Dome, right now. He will go back to Citadel with us."
-"Mr. Finn, you still have a lot to learn... Ghiran has been working with TriOptimum from the very beginning. He conceived Citadel."
-"That can't be... I met him... We met several time in the last two years... He couldn't be there, it takes weeks to go there and back..."
-"He went there in the beginning. He helped put the main dataloop in place, then we activated the main Life Support Systems, and Dr Omolu and her team replaced him. He went back, that's true, but on our demand, and only to be sent back anytime we'd need him there; Which is the case today, thanks to you."
The Life Support Systems... Why did that ring a bell...?
-"Why my fault? I didn't do anything on Citadel..."
-"Oh yes you did. You accessed confidential data about the AI who runs Citadel. This Shodan..." He smirked. "You accessed files that even I haven't seen yet. Your interface here is very advanced. Luckily for you, you had the equipment needed to contact the AI directly..."
He had taken my helmet out of his briefcase and put it on the table.
-"What I was proposing earlier is this. You can go to jail for the rest of your life, or accept my deal."
The shuttle started vibrating, and the pilot announced we were taking off.
-"You will work for me on Citadel, and delete a few files, and in turn, I offer you this." He pointed at the helmet. "Except it will look like this." He put his hand in his shirt pocket and took a little chip the size of a coin.
I looked at the chip. The ubiquitous triangular TriOp logo was there, visible.
-"Is that what I think it is?"
-"I think so. This is a grade-4 neural interface. A military grade implant, type R. Once in the brain, you can connect yourself to a jack and access a network, just by thinking about it. Of course..." He leaned forward. "This would be very, highly confidential. If someone learns about our deal, I will make sure nothing in your brain remains functional enough to remind you how to even breathe. Is that clear enough?"
I nodded.
-"Crystal clear. Maybe you're trying, but you're not very subtle..."
-"When you stole part of the AI, we almost missed it. Shodan rebuilds itself very fast, and it's so powerful we have trouble following everything sometimes... We realized there was a bit missing only two hours before your capture."
-"This part was perfectly functional..." I started.
-"We know. It's a fractal AI. Any portion of it, with enough time and memory space, can rebuild the whole program, it's in its source code. The problem is that you are aware of the existence of Artificial Intelligence, when we are only beginning to master it. And your employers, who only made lucky guesses so far, are now convinced that AI is a reality. Needless to say, we were far from ready for that."
I remained silent.
-"Fortunately, Tong is an experienced man. He knows he doesn't have enough data to build one. Your fragment could have given him the opportunity to program an AI in Hong Kong or Vietnam... We follow Chiba very closely, and we know the biotech implants exist already on the black market. What they lack is a centralized intelligence. Maybe you understand why we prevented you from contacting them?"
-"What? What did you tell them? Why did they come to my apartment?"
-"Well, to be honest, your reaction was quite puzzling. Somehow, surely thanks to a mole in our security department, Miss Chow warned Hong Kong that we were after you. We know they tried to contact you, but to no avail. Then they learned you weren't at the airport and they tried to locate you. I guess they used your phone. They came to take you back to a safe place. To Hong Kong. And you just..." He snapped his fingers. "You ran away from them..."
He stopped talking to observe my reaction. I did my best not to show anything, but it was very hard. I couldn't believe I had been that stupid. Anger and frustration. That's what I felt. I changed the subject.
-"So you traced me?"
-'In about three minutes, actually. After your little incursion, we booby-trapped the whole network. In fact, as soon as you were inside the Citadel database, you triggered about a hundred alarms, I think. Once we located your signal, we sent a team, and that's it. You're here. And that's the end of this little story."
-"What makes you think I won't try again?" I said, hopefully defiantly.
-"Remember what I said about your brains?"
-"Ah yeah. Right. You'll fry'em."
-"Exactly. We'll fry them. That's a good deterrent, don't you think? In fact, I'll let you think about it for the rest of the journey."
He stood up and went to the group in front.
I stayed there, handcuffed to my seat. They had me. And good. I had to find a way to contact someone. Maybe Ghiran? Just to know if what Diego had said was true. I couldn't believe Ghiran had worked on Citadel.
Wait. He had worked on Citadel only, not on the project Neantis itself. I thought about it for a moment. Ghiran and Remora. The two of them had worked for the triads. In fact, as far as I recalled, Ghiran had introduced Remora to Tong himself. And Remora was the owner of the implant I had.
Slowly I began to build a new story. Ghiran and Remora had stolen the program allowing access to Shodan, and Remora had taken it to Earth. When I had caught him, he had tried to escape, but once on the roof of that building, he had slipped and fallen to his death. I remembered Ghiran's face when he had seen it, and what he had said.
"That thing's precious, if you stole it the owner will kill to have it back. Seriously."
I had thought he was speaking of the implant itself, which was rare enough to be worth a life. But I understood now that he was talking about what was inside the implant. He wanted it back, and he knew he couldn't retrieve the data from a copy. And he couldn't keep the implant, since it was supposed to be dead and I would have asked him why... So Ghiran had made the recording and given it to Remora. And in that case, the squealer in New Atlanta was a mole, sent by one of TriOptimum's corporations to infiltrate the C-Zone and retrieve the implant for them. I was the last person to see Remora alive, and in my report I had said nothing had survived the fall. They wanted to be sure.
So now, as I saw it, I had been caught between the triads and TriOp. Both wanted the AI interface, both thought it had been destroyed but wanted to be sure about it, and I... Well I was there and didn't know I had it.

My trip to the Moon had shown me what they wanted to do with the program. In Hong Kong, Harriet had explained me how they intended to put that into practice. But TriOp... I had to see Ghiran. He was the only one now who could tell me the whole story.

I was going to call Diego when the pilot announced we were approaching the station. We docked about half-an-hour later, and once inside the Gravidome, two guards came and took my handcuffs. Diego smiled.
-"You can't escape from here. You're in a TriOptimum facility..." He said, as if that explained everything.
It always takes a few minutes to get used to the lograv environment. Soon after we entered the normal, 1G area, I was taken to an empty office and abandoned there. Once again, Diego wanted me to stay incommunicado. And without my tools, I could hardly do anything.
I had been waiting for about an hour when the door lock was released. Someone with a lab protection suit and a sample case entered the room and locked the door behind him. I was wondering what Diego had invented again when the man took the suit's helmet off and smiled.
-"Yo, Ghoster, been a while huh...?"

It was Abe Ghiran.




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