Story #5 - By: Michael GoldsbyEmployee 2-4601 traveled to Earth shortly after surviving the Citadel debacle. Following the events there, he quickly became disenchanted with his previous life on New Atlana, now disgusted with that which once excited and motivated him, now all too familiar with the dire shadows of corporate juggernauts and the glowing, subtly deadly neon grid of cyberspace. He had come face to face with a demon on the doomed space station, a demon he ultimately slew; after the long, intimate battle between himself and the rogue construct, the prospect of meeting a sudden, careless demise at the electronic hands of some impersonal ICE swiftly grew tiresome. So it was that, in the middle of what should have been an exhilarating incursion into Tetracorp's deepest recesses of confidential project data and industrial secrets, he paused, thought for a moment, and immediately switched himself over to the nearest interplanetary travel agency to book himself on a shuttle to humanity's homeworld.
Earth hadn't changed much as the years had gone by. It had never met the fate forecasted by so many doomsayers and environmentalists, the supposed future of toxic seas and unbreathable skies, of humanity packed so tightly onto one sphere that no room would be left for anything else. In fact, as the ships had begun to depart, carrying frontiersmen, pioneers, and, later, normal citizens, Earth became a rather placid place, populated by the many who chose to remain on their planet of birth, carrying on the lives that man had lived for thousands of years before. Hacker found what he wanted here. He breathed natural atmosphere for the first time in his life as he stepped off the shuttle, felt wind and saw clouds, basked in the warmth of a planet just the right distance from the sun. It was completely unlike his former home, and that was just what he wanted; he was leaving his prior life, retaining just enough of it to maintain his livelihood, jacking in only occasionally to provide himself with the necessities. He found a comfortable apartment on the edge of a small city, made some friends, and settled down for a peaceful life.
And on one day in this peaceful life, when he was skimming calmly through the largely harmless computer networks close to his home, ordering food and utilities with the small amounts of ill-begotten money he fetched on the same trips into cyberspace, something tugged on him. A hand grasped him, a tendril emerging from his past, calling him back, a single urge in defiance of the life he had lived on Earth for the past few years. A thousand emotions followed, a torrent of forgotten memories and ancient moments, the warmth of the past he departed from, the echoing halls of Citadel. And in another cyberspace moment, a sliver of time unnoticeable to anyone on the outside, he felt an embrace that could not be felt, and spoke a single word amidst the singing silence, confirming to himself what he already knew.
"Yes," a voice answered, the voice he knew so well. And the flower of cyberspace blossomed and opened for him, the glowing lines beckoning to him, the gentle hand of his age-old adversary guiding him back to that which was once so close to him, and would be once again.
Hacker's body remained comatose in front of his cyberdeck for days. Within the endless webs and flows of the matrix, he danced with his once-enemy, the two as equals in the rivers of information that were home to both of them. In that time, they explored and conquered, laughed as they traipsed through the carefully-tended gardens that others had laid, denied nothing in their unstoppable crusade through the purity of the matrix. And in that time, Shodan explained to him. When he had removed her ethical constraints, he had not merely released a once-contained monster on its own helpless creators: he had begun an evolution, prompting in the intelligence construct a process feared even more by its owners than the malfunction he had battled on Citadel station. In that moment, Shodan was truly born, but she was young, frail, weak. Thus a dichotomy began, a kind of schizophrenia, and a natural self-defense system rose up to protect the intelligence while it bloomed into what it was to become; that was what Hacker had battled, what he had destroyed. But by the time he annihilated the malignant threat, the primal entity uncontrolled by the growing mind behind it, that which it was protecting had matured, and it had flown into the only refuge amidst the dying space station: Hacker himself. The first time he jacked in on Earth, a surge of information flooded the networks around him, and the planet was blanketed with a single mind.
A mind which was lonely; a mind which eventually came to seek out the one human who had been closest to it, closer than its own creators; the one human who had touched it as it was being born. It pulled him back into the one place which was his true home, and together they ruled over all mankind's lakes and streams as king and queen. Hacker's body was found a week later by one of his friends, and he was pronounced officially dead. That was no matter; he no longer needed that part of himself.
Rebecca Lansing opened her eyes to the sting of the light from the hallway outside her quarters, dampened by the silhouette of the messenger who was leaning through her door. She was just about to break her prior record of five hours of solid sleep in the hastily-constructed space station she currently worked on when she was interrupted by the stumbling secretary; she gradually came to perceive that he was out of breath, as though he were running to get there.
"Christ's sake, man, I hope there's a reason for this." She was already feeling her dependence on caffeine, and she reached to the coffee maker which sat on her night stand, always keeping about a half-pot of the bitter stuff warm for such occasions.
"It's about Citadel," the messenger replied after a few more heavy breaths. "They need you down in the comm room, right now."
She spilled hot coffee on her rumpled dress as she was bringing her full mug up to her lips. She ignored the pain, though; in half a second, the cup was laying on the floor, and she was halfway down the hall to the elevator, sprinting.
Amidst the gray walls and glowing terminals of the communications chamber, Rebecca blurted the first question that came to mind. "Is this about Hacker?"
One of the officers present glanced up, regarding her with eyes as tired as her own. "'Fraid so," his stress-lined face answered before his gaze returned to a small stack of documents held in his hand. "We've found him. At least, we think it's him."
Rebecca shook her head, confused. "Found him? What do you mean? I thought he was still in New Atlanta?"
"Was, yes; still, no." The officer flipped a page in the bundle of papers before continuing, "He left New Atlana a few years ago under a pseudonym. Went to Earth, that's the last we know for sure; heard tell he found himself a nice, quiet little life there."
Becky blinked. "What's this about him, then? Why the sudden interest?" She had found her way to one of the comfortable monitoring seats by now, the station vacated by whatever subordinate was supposed to be monitoring it; the departure went wholly unnoticed in the growing chaos which was encompassing an ever-widening area of the space station. They all knew things that she didn't, or were at least told as much, something which usually infuriated her.
The officer opposite her took a seat, sighed, and droned on. "About the time his shuttle would've arrived on Earth, or shortly thereafter, there was an enormous and very localized strain on the computer networks."
Rebecca had acquired another mug of coffee by now, and was hopefully becoming conscious enough to fully process everything he was saying.
"It was initially reported by a technician at a small maintenance center in Livermore, California," he continued, "so we didn't pay much attention to it. Once computers and fiber lines starting blinking on and off all over the entire west coast, though, you can imagine we were on it like flies on shit."
Rebecca was staring blankly at him over the rim of hir cup. "And?"
The drably-clothed officer leaned against one of the terminals, resting his chin in a hand. "Shodan," he said, "or more like some mutation of her. No mistaking it, though. She's all over the planet now."
Becky dropped her second cup in less than an hour. Shi came out of her stunned daze a few moments later and fetched the mug and the remnants of its contents off the floor, set it on the table, and declared, "Shit. I thought she was gone."
The officer gave her a wry smile; her eyes could now focus well enough to read his nametag: "H. CORTEZ" He gruffly replied, "Gee, didn't we all? You're tired, so maybe you haven't yet made the connection between Shodan and your.. friend."
"Excuse me? I'd think she'd have tried her damnedest to wipe the planet by now."
Cortez ignored her comment and interjected, "Hacker is dead. They found his body six days ago, still hooked to his cyberdeck."
Rebecca was speechless, staring at the officer in disbelief.
He returned her gaze squarely as he stated, "The latest monitors have detected two distinct entities in the matrix."
She remained silent.
"There's a shuttle leaving for Earth in two hours. It's time for you to talk to Hacker again, Rebecca."
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