shock zero : project neantis

[ a System Shock/Deus Ex hybrid ]
by averroes


(chapters 12-end)


chapter twelve

-"Yep, it's me. I'm glad you're still alive. To be honest, I didn't think you'd go so far..."
-"But you... What happened? Diego told me... He told me you were alive, but I couldn't believe it. What have you done? Do you really work with them?"
-"I'm going to explain some things to you. Diego won't be long, he'll brief us in a moment... I didn't want to fake my death in the beginning. But what happened in Cimic... It really was an accident. We had a security breach there." He paused. "Wait, I'll just... I'll just show you..."
He left the room and came back a few minutes later with a remote control. He pointed it at the wall behind me, and the TriOptimum logo appeared. The screen displayed a list of files with dates and locations. Ghiran selected several of them, and displayed them in chronological order.
-"I don't know what Diego told you, but I've been working for Campeda Technologies for about fifteen years. When they hired me, they kept me in a small office for a few months, then transferred me to their Space R&D Department. I was to write orbital landing protocols for one of their first station in Mars." He clicked, and the picture of an old space station appeared. "This station was called Guynemer, and actually served as a testing ground for several revolutionary programs that were kept secret by Campeda. The HOSES was never told about Guynemer, and neither were the other corporations. Or that's what I and the others thought.
Soon after the end of the Guynemer program, a bunch of execs came in and asked us to do a presentation for a group of selected representatives. He used these very words, so at first we thought he meant politicians, but we quickly discovered an alliance was secretly being formed between several corporations. This alliance took the name of TriOptimum, and as you know now, it was not only a commercial alliance, but a complete merger between Campeda, Nara Pharmaceuticals and Alameda United. Together, they build a consortium strong enough to compete with HOSES and defeat it. It took them just over eleven years, but they did it. Just look at them today. They've been out for just two days, and the HOSES is already pretty much history. And they're on their way to absorb the remaining corps, like TetraCorp for example. They're the first on the list.
Anyway... After we learned about TriOp, we were asked to imagine a military laboratory that would be based in space. It didn't really come as a surprise, as a significant proportion of our previous works was based on similar concepts... But this time they asked us to build a complete space station with scientific and military capability, able to defend itself, to go to remote locations without an escort, to study anything its crew could find, and stay a good two years without assistance..."
-"Two years? The usual period is six months..."
-"Yeah I know. Our first problem was to design a reliable power source. Fusion plants tend to be quite unstable after about eighteen months without a complete check-up. The first time, they wanted three years, but that was just impossible. We managed to reduce the maintenance and designed a power plant with sufficient diagnosis/self-repair tools. We hit the two years mark in 2064. Further tests showed we even had a little bit of extra time, something like one month, before a reactor meltdown. Nukes shouldn't be kept that long in such an environment..."
-"What happened in Cimic? Is that one of your tests?"
He looked surprised.
-"Actually, no, it's totally unrelated. One of the samples they used for another project apparently disappeared. Something involving nanos. I think you know better than me about these, I'm a tech, not a biologist. I'll talk about it later."
I nodded. So every department was kept unaware of what the others did. It wasn't surprising.
-"So, when we finally hit the two years mark, we discovered we had neglected the side effects of such a stock of radioactive material... We had to build one of the biggest shields that was ever designed for a space station. It protects the reactor level from the others, but also, on this level itself, the reactor core from the rest of the level. Storage and handling were controlled by 'bots. In the end, it's really a huge station, bigger than the Hilton GraviDome."
-"But..." Something didn't fit. "There's something else... My sources told me Citadel was not designed for research..."
-"What do you mean?"
-"My contacts told me about Citadel... We also found several files about it in the TriOp archive... According to them, Citadel was not supposed to be a real space station in those projects. It was only a tool."
-"You're going too fast here. We didn't know that at the time. Only after we completed the first phase of the design did we learn the project had been modified. We were told to build a functional computer model of the station instead. But... By the way, how come you know that?"
-"Ever heard of Neantis?"
His eyes widened.
-"Neantis. Project Neantis" I insisted. "Or the name 'Shodan' ? Does that ring a bell?"
-"How... How can you know about that?"
-"Just answer. Was this model designed for a project called Neantis?"
-"In 2066, as I just said, we learned the project had been modified. It's more or less when we learned we were part of a bigger plan, a huge and ambitious project called Neantis, indeed. Campeda Technologies worked on something, something they had found in the foundations of their HQ in New Atlanta. An old installation had been found and reactivated. They had rebuilt a facility down there and put all their energy into it. Shortly after that, they signed the contract with the other two. We heard rumors, sometimes we saw things that puzzled us, but we were never allowed to see anything but what we had to work on."
-"The facility found in New Atlanta..."
-"... was the old Area 51, I know. I did some research, you know how I am... And I had a contact in Hong Kong anyway, they were monitoring Campeda's activities very closely."
-"Tracer Tong..."
-"Tracer Tong, yes. My contact, Harriet Vlaas, was her assistant. At that time he hadn't resigned yet and still was the triad's highest authority. He ruled on Hong Kong and Chiba City, and many feared him. But he, on the other hand, was very afraid of what Campeda could find in the old Area 51. I never saw him so nervous as the day when I told him they had transferred their lab to Chicago."
-"Yeah, Harriet and Manon Chow explained the story to me... They say he fought the former owner, Page."
-"And a tough fight it was, yes. He always says Page almost took over the world, and he was one of the few who could defeat him, even if he wasn't directly involved. Have you met the Dentons?"
-"Huh-uh, I haven't. But I have heard of them."
-"They were his partners. The younger one, JC, was the only survivor after Area 51 got nuked... Wait a minute, why... where was I... Ah yes. When they told us about Neantis, his brother Paul sent me a description of the facility and the complete file about Helios. I guess you know what Helios is?" I nodded. "The triads asked me to investigate in Chicago, but I couldn't. That's why I called Remora and hired him to do it instead."
-"I didn't expect he would come back with so much information. He had gone from Chicago to Cimic and back, and he was about to deliver me the results of his investigation when you found him."
-"Hey, he fell off the building. I didn't..."
-"I know. I saw it. I was watching from the opposite side of the street. But whether you killed him or not, the fact is, he jumped. And I lost all the info I had."
-"But with Tong's... sorry, Denton's files, you knew what was going on? What could Remora bring b..."
I stopped. What a stupid question. I understood now why he had been so anxious to see the disk.
-"I think you know the answer to this question... He hadn't just stolen some files about Phaeton. He had managed to find one of the activators."
He pointed the remote at the wall, and launched a second series of files and pictures.
-"In his last email, Remora warned me that what he had found... What Neantis was exactly, and how advanced Phaeton had become... This could bring down the HOSES. From the moment they activated this AI, they had enough power to destroy the HOSES and publicly announce their TriOp alliance."
-"Back to my lab, for a moment. Let me finish. So we learned that Citadel was about to be used as a test for Phaeton. We designed the rest of the station and recreated the conditions of far space isolation. We took Saturn only because it was still close enough from Mars, but had we wanted, we could have used Pluto."
-"Their plan was to give the station to the AI..."
-"Yes, from the beginning. But they hadn't told us. I think they wanted the real plans too, just in case. When we came up with the new reactor core design, they stopped us and declared it was enough for a model. And we didn't hear from them anymore until at least two years later. In 2068, Diego himself came to our lab to send us to Saturn. They had started to build Citadel. For real."
He paused as pictures of the station appeared on the wall, at various stages of the construction. He stopped one of the video and pointed at a white dot at the center of the station's central structure.
-"That's when we started to build the core. The reactor is located just there. On the next..." He clicked, opening a close up caption "...you can see how the double shield is set up. There's one here, around the reactor's main structure, and the other shield is visible there... and... there, near the lift shafts."
I pointed at an orange structure just below the station.
-"What's this?"
-"A mining laser. We thought, as it was a remote facility, that maybe they could find some of their fuel alone. Campeda developed it. I think the schematics were in Remora's implant..."
-"They were. But I didn't know it was so big."
-'Powerful enough to destroy the lower half of the station if it's used the wrong way... But the operating program is designed to prevent that, of course."
-"Yeah I bet..."
I was fascinated. The station wasn't big. It was huge.
-"The Reactor is separated from the rest of the station, then?"
-"Yes. This elevator shaft is longer, and we tripled the protections to avoid any trouble. My team designed the Ops sub-system that runs the reactor, and all the security protocols around it. We didn't know back then that the complete control over the system would be given to another computer and not a team... Oddly enough, the computer seemed to take it quite well. Phaeton could multitask and perform several complex operations at the same time. And I mean, we're not talking about adding and subtracting ones and zeroes here... This very station..." He waved at the walls and floor. "... well, its central computer couldn't control one single op without the help of a human operator. Once, during a test, we calculated that Phaeton could control up to two hundred ops at the same time without overheating, and that it could reach the three hundred ops before the core could reach critical conditions. Oh, by the way, understand that when I say Phaeton, I mean the first AI, the one that ran the model. After it sort of... decided it didn't like its name, it chose Shodan when we installed it on the real thing. It..."
-"Yeah, I know. It told me."
-"What...? I guess you've got a lot to tell... Anyway, so Phaeton, basically, could run all the stations we have launched from 2000 to date and fix you a gin soda at the same time."
-"That's its job. It was designed to control... Before it crashed, the first AI, Helios, had been given control over about 90% of the telecom and power grids of its time. Manon thought he crashed when it tried to reach total control, but we can't be sure. She says Tong never really explained what happened there, and the Dentons aren't too keen on telling the story either... What we're sure of is this, Page's labs designed a controlling AI, they didn't make an AI just for the fun of it. They designed it to control. That's why Brocail, and Omolu after him, built Phaeton and Shodan that way.
An AI can perform many tasks, but if you design it for a specific field of operations, you'll multiply its abilities by ten, to the least... As far as I know, they managed to decipher the core source and found enough material to launch a recursive search & rebuild function. Since the AI has a fractal structure, it didn't take long to engage the full procedure..."
-"And after they rebuilt it, they analyzed its purpose..."
-"Not quite. I think they knew exactly what they were doing. Page didn't leave the facility like that. Even if it was destroyed, there were old computers, old mainframes, old power sources... Since they managed to reactivate the blue fusion plants, they must have found a way to read the AI, and I think they decided to build the station after that."
-"But Citadel was launched in 2064... They hadn't..."
-"No, they hadn't completed the reconstruction, but they knew enough to decide what to do next. And based on what you just said, my opinion is that they went on to a full-scale station because they didn't want to risk another mess up on Earth..."
He seemed to think about it, and shook his head in disbelief.
-"Hard to imagine..."
-"Think about it. Would you risk another disaster anywhere? This area of Nevada was nuked, Chicago was wiped out twenty years later, and last week, it was Cimic's turn... I'm inclined to think that's perhaps the best decision they could take in these circumstances. After all, neither the Triads nor TriOp ever found out why the original AI had gone berserk. "
-"And speaking of that, how did you get the AI to tell you its name was Shodan?"
-"Well, it all started when I broke into the Nara servers..."
I summed up my little adventures in cyberspace, including how exhausting, and occasionally painful, it was.
-"In fact, if I hadn't found out the truth about you yesterday, I'd still be free now... I had to go back to Hong Kong to analyze the data there, but when I reviewed you video, I discovered you weren't really there when the plant had blown up, I went all paranoid and started seeing enemies everywhere. I couldn't get myself to board that flight. I didn't know what to think..."
-"Well..." He looked embarrassed.
-"No, it's okay. Because it made me think more about the stuff I had and not the data I had collected. I finally found that Remora's implant was still alive. Well, when I say alive, you see what I mean..."
-"I knew it! The bastard!" Ghiran jumped and walked around nervously. "He had told me he had found the activators, and I assumed he had hidden them in the files you gave me, but I was completely stuck. When I was informed about the situation in Nara's lab, and I had to set up this... act... for you, I couldn't mention the implant of course... but I hoped you still had it. I was wondering why you had kept it, in fact... But how did he do that?"
-"No idea. But Diego has it now. Hey..." I looked around. "Wasn't he supposed to come here?"
-"He had a conference on the executive level first. There are rumors that HOSES and TriOp are investigating on an illegal biochip market on the West Coast, and Diego's name was mentioned..."
-"Oh..." I thought about the 'little job' Diego wanted me to do, and wondered if it was related. Surely, given his personality... "Anyway, he has the implant, and I don't know where he kept it... Wait a minute... Shit!" I turned back to the wall and looked at the map displayed with the description of Helios. "Dammit, I'm so stupid!"
-"You said Remora went to Cimic and back, right?"
-"Yeah, so what?"
-"Remember the facility in Cimic? You told me they were working on nano-BioTech..."
He looked at me, puzzled, then slowly, understood where I was going.
-"The biochip!"
-"Yes. You said there was a security breach just before the plant blew up. I think Remora caused it, after he went there to steal some samples... We'll never know, but for some reason something must have gone wrong, and the breach only opened last week. By that time he had been unmasked, and killed. But he had time to save the samples inside the chip. That's what allowed it to survive."
-"What the hell are you talking about?"
-"When I was on Frederika, I saw what they were working on... It's more than nanotechnology. We're talking self-replicating nanites here. The implant is full of this same blue jelly I saw there. I can't believe I've been so blind!"
-"Self-replicating robots?"
-"Yes, well, sort of. Self-developing would be more accurate, in fact... Let's see..." I took the remote and ran a search on the disk. There were only a few files about Cimic, and only one mentioned nanotechnology as their field of research. "There, look. They were working on a more advanced version of what I saw on Frederika. The robots can heal, self-repair, however you call it. They could diagnose problems on the software and fix what was wrong, now they can do this on hardware as well. And the only limit was, they lack only the intelligence to do it properly."
He examined the article.
-"You see the spidery thingy on the left?" There was a picture of three scientists in front of a table. The table was empty of course, but in the background someone had left an x-ray scan of one of the spiderbots I had seen on Frederika. "I saw its brothers in Frederika. They've developed it."
-"So Nara knows how to make self-repairing robots using nanites?"
-"And Remora stole a sample to bring them back to you or to Hong Kong."
-"So he realizes he's gonna be caught, he put them on his implant's biochip..."
-"...that Shodan recognized as one of her components after the nanites took over it..."
-"...and that also explains why the biochip was still active. The nanites kept it 'alive' even after its owner was dead."
-"Yes. And imagine if they were injected in someone's body. If they're as smart as I think they are, with an intelligence like Phaeton's or Shodan's, like they plan to install on nanoswarms, the nanites could analyze wounds and diseases the same way they can analyze a hardware failure, and deal with it accordingly. That's what they're trying to achieve all along... nano-integration. With all this mess with Diego and Citadel, I had almost forgotten... It's the perfect medicine. A product like this would be worth billions. Think of the applications. And this kind of nanoswarms will be programmed with the host's DNA. Manon didn't believe it, but now I see the whole thing, it looks pretty clear to me."
I switched the screen off and turned back to him.
-"They can say all they want, building a space station like Citadel is too expensive to be just a test. I think they will keep the AI there and try to complete their research on the station. They're going to combine the two on Saturn."
-"Very astute, Mr. Finn."
We both jolted as the sound of Diego's voice. He was at the door, and had been listening to us for... who knows how long? He was holding the same silver briefcase as before. He calmly walked in, closed the door, and went to the table. Then he opened the briefcase and took a laptop and a notepad.
-"Mr. Ghiran, will you please leave us alone? The discussion I must have with Mr. Finn here must remain confidential. I am sure you understand." His smile was anything but friendly. Ghiran looked at him.
-"Sure..." He muttered.
After he left the room, Diego connected his computer to the wall display and opened various files. I noticed all of them were search reports, investigation and police files, and all of them were about him.
-"Mr. Finn, as you can see, some people are being very busy trying to catch me and send me to a place I would absolutely hate to be in, prison. Your investigation from Hong Kong and Seattle, followed by your hack on TriOp's servers in New Atlanta, triggered a wave of counter-investigations from all the security departments and police forces HOSES could find." He opened a picture of a ransacked apartment. The paint had been ripped off, the furniture destroyed, and everything else was scattered on the floor, broken to pieces. "This is my apartment, five hours ago. I had left it thirty minutes earlier. Of course I didn't expect to come back anyway, but I'm impressed nonetheless, I didn't think they would be so quick. This means I'll need your skill earlier than I thought."
-"What do you want?"
-"The SID has given all its files to a HOSES counter-terrorism unit. It is working with them now, and they are after me. We hadn't seen such cooperation since the Chicago disaster. You can be proud of yourself."
-"Care to be more specific? I'm tired of your little speeches..."
-"Fine. I'll be clear. You fucked up. And you fucked up big time. You tried to bring me down, and you failed. I caught you. Now, you can work for me and try to undo what you've done, or you can experiment what it is like to go outside without a space suit. Capisce?"
-"Okay. Thanks to you, what's left of the federal government think they are powerful enough to arrest me. They have cooperated with SID to gather enough evidence, and when it's done, they'll come after me. Since you're the cause of the mess, I hire you to delete all traces of my actions. Okay?"
-"It's not like I have a choice... But... Fuck you, you know that already! Stop playing and give me your orders at last!"
-"Here." He turned the laptop towards me. "As I said, I need your services right now instead of in two weeks. You're gonna cut the station's comlink to Earth."
-"And...? That's it?"
-"Hardly. Once on Citadel, you'll do much more. But yes, for the moment that will be all. And I will explain you what we're doing there with more details. After all, since you're going to get an implant, you'd rather know how this neural interface is made, right?"
I started working. The machine was top-notch, I got into the station's central network within seconds. I bypassed the secondary firewall and ended in the primary dataloop. The datanodes slowly tried to counter attack but I was too fast for them. I got inside the communication sub-protocols and paused. I looked at Diego.
-"Do I take my time, or do I rip it off?"
-"I want to watch. Take your time and do it nicely."
-"As you wish." I grumbled.
I deactivated the security fuse and switched the communications channels off one after the other. Then I introduced a piece of malware inside the switches themselves. It took some time, and I started to worry. I had to work fast, because the switches couldn't be offline too long...
After eight minutes, just as I thought I wouldn't make it, I managed to finish the program and insert it inside the dataloop, and I could flip back the switches just in time. Slowly the communication channels went back online. I slipped out of the network and looked at Diego.
-"What do you mean, done? I saw you, you put them back online..."
-"And I reprogrammed the auxiliary control unit to make it think it was a maintenance adjustment. Now take you phone and type 42."
-"Your cellphone. You take it, and you type the number 42."
He looked at me, suspicious, then opened the briefcase and nervously grabbed his phone.
-"42, huh?"
-"The answer to all your questions..." I said with a smile.
He typed the number, and listened.
-"There's nothing."
-"Don't listen. Look." I said, pointing at the screen. I was monitoring how the switches behaved after this little incursion. Suddenly one of them turned a bright red. And another. And another.
-"What happened?"
-"42 is the virus' activation code. Once in the system, the virus triggers a chain reaction that kills all activity in the area he's in. Here, it's the switches. It's like dominoes, look..."
On the screen, all the switches were being destroyed.
-"From now on, no comlink is available. There'll still be short-range radio for the shuttles, but that's all. I doubt their engineers will repair it, not without help from the ground. So, happy?"
-"That's excellent. Exactly what I wanted. That gives me enough time to leave to Saturn. We leave in half an hour."
-"Great..." I couldn't say it was good news.
-"Now, I must warn you that once on Citadel, things will get a tad more complicated for you. I know you have some experience with Shodan, but it's nothing compared to what Citadel's Shodan is capable of. Using a helmet like you did is absolutely out of question."
-"Because to directly operate with Shodan on Citadel means having a military grade R-type interface. And I won't give one to you before you do the job. As a consequence, you will work in a pseudo-VR environment. But that's not all. The fragment you had, how did it feel?"
-"What do you mean?"
-"Do you get the impression it was smart?"
-"Well, yeah... I mean, it's an AI... A bit too robotic in the speech, perhaps, but..."
-"Because Shodan is very advanced. On Citadel it has access to everything. It learns. It controls the station, but it learns about us at the same time. It knows everyone by name, you know? And not just because they have a thermal scan ID or a file number, she knows what they like and dislike, what to do to calm or upset them... Do you get it? It's a parent, a friend, a psychologist... It's whatever you want it to be."
-"Okay, I get it, in a word, it's smart..."
-"Don't make fun of it, Mr. Finn. AIs are much more complex than you think. I had the chance to read the report of a conversation between Helios and one of those who destroyed it. It questioned humanity's ability to rule, and to survive. It mentioned philosophy, religion..."
Diego looked excited and impatient. I seriously began to worry about his motivations. When he talked about Shodan, he really looked like a junkie.
-"Okay, so they're very smart then. I got the message, I'll be careful."
I wasn't really joking, I was trying to hide my apprehension. Diego seemed to react at my last sentence. He looked up and stared at me.
-"Yes. You better be..."
And as he said that he slammed the briefcase closed and hurried out of the room.


chapter thirteen

Like on the Earth launch pad, a group of technicians came soon after he left to take me to the shuttle bays, where I was given another shot of the product they had injected me earlier. A doctor controlled my blood pressure and heart condition. But this time, they explained why.
The trip to Saturn took about four days. To achieve that, the shuttle used plasma engines, but at these speeds, the human body couldn't cope with the pressure, so all passengers were injected a drug to sleep and placed in a pressure tank that was then filled with a thick jelly, which protected the patient for the duration of the trip. Of course, everyone wore a mask, and could breathe nutrox, a mix of oxygen and nutritious elements designed just for this sort of trips. Once arrived at their destination, the jelly was dissolved and the patient woke up unharmed.
When I saw the shuttle, I almost choked. The techs back on Earth hadn't lied, it was really small. It was the size of a big Terran station wagon, or a small SUV. The Jeep I had rented on the Moon was almost bigger. Inside, I could see six cylinders. Four were for the passengers, and the other two for the pilot and copilot. They were separated from the four main tanks, because they ran on a different system. The pilots had to drive the shuttle at a safe distance and scan all the systems before engaging the plasma engines, and they could only go to sleep six hours after the departure. And they would wake up approximately six hours before us, to pilot the shuttle to the station and land safely in a landing bay similar to the one we currently were in.

This station's disposition had puzzled me until I met Ghiran again. He was being given his second shot too, and he explained that they had given up on airlocks and adopted Landing Bays in Citadel, after his team developed a reliable procedure at Guynemer. Traditional airlocks and SynchroDocks had been deemed too small for a station like Citadel, and building bigger units was too complex. As a consequence, given the size of the station, they had decided it was big enough to have a complete shuttle bay, like those found on Moon bases. After the design was adopted by TriOp executive board, they were asked to build four of them, in order to manage flights more easily and even conduct multiple, simultaneous flights if need be.
As part of the program, the Campeda GraviDome we were on had been refitted, and a local landing bay had been added to its structure, to train pilots and flight controllers. Most of them had been recruited on the Moon, where they had had experience with similar systems, but they still had to get used to zero-G environment. Anyway, the system had been in place for eighteen months, and so far it was running smoothly.
-"And since Shodan was installed, the number of flights doubled."
-"Who ran the station before?"
-"A biochip cluster operated by a bunch of technicians. They're still there, of course, just in case, but they don't have much to do now Shodan controls everything. They work on small maintenance routine, and spend a lot of time in the groves."
The groves were four small capsules located on the Executive level, if I remembered correctly. They were filled with hydroponics, trees and plants, and recreated a relaxing, garden-like environment.
-"The groves are very complex." Ghiran explained. "They have to maintain a constant pressure and temperature, and the water and nutrox levels are constantly checked. It's the place where engineers can work on stuff that seems worth the trouble."
-"So... what? They're bored?"
-"Not quite. But they feel the AI will cost them their job. You have to realize Shodan is nearly perfectly designed. It runs the station, but it also runs itself, if you see what I mean. It controls itself, repairs itself... Asking for human help is very rare. They don't want this sort of thing to happen everywhere, but on the other hand they feel they're working on one of the greatest technological breakthroughs of the twenty-first century, so they don't complain... Plus, they know the AI is conceived to run at the nanometric level, and they hope we will stick to traditional space stations in the future."
-"Yeah, well, you can say whatever you want, you don't make them look optimistic..."
-"They're not, in a way. TriOp changed our plans several times already... First the models, then the station... What's to prevent them from changing their mind again?"
-"What do you really think? About Citadel, I mean?"
-"It's fantastic. I can't say I'm not impressed. And you will like it too, because it's impossible for hackers like us not to like it. But to be perfectly honest, its power frightens me. I'd like to put more limits to its control."
-"Is it possible?"
-"Right now? No, no way. I can't work on Shodan itself, I'm not prepared. If I had enough time, I could try to find some kind of flaw to exploit, but it's impossible as long as I don't have access to its primary dataloop. I don't have access to the Bridge, you know. I'm just there to monitor the station's general behaviour, as the head of the department who designed it... And if you had a team, or even TriOp in mind, forget about it. Modifying the AI to lower its abilities is definitely not on their wish list."
We stayed silent for a while. Around us, the techs were preparing the shuttle, charging the plasma tanks, checking the flight systems. The pilot went into the cockpit and launched the internal pre-flight checklist.
-"How far have they gone in R&D? What's the situation there?"
-"You're thinking about Hong-Kong?"
-"Yeah. Once Diego's little project is over, I'll try to get back to Earth as soon as possible. And before I go I'll try to find as much info as I can about Neantis. They must have engaged phase 3 by now..."
-"They have an impressive stock of biochemical compounds in this lab. It's a P5, designed to withstand a meteor collision. They have everything sealed and isolated. You won't go far in there, if you even arrive on this level... What did you see exactly on Frederika?"
-"Well..." I tried to remember. "They were working on robotics. They had managed to integrate organic tissues into a robotic organism with a primitive intelligence. Their spider, you remember?" He nodded. "Well from what I saw they had reached a stage where the robot could develop and grow. They had injected the nanites in the robot's fluidics circuits, and they could analyze its structure and make it grow bigger. They also checked that it could self repair."
-"That's advanced enough for me..." He shivered. "What's phase 3, then?"
-"I don't know. I guess that, logically, it should be the contrary... That is, test the nanoswarm's behaviour inside the body of an animal. What do they usually use? Cats, monkeys... Something like that. The last two phases would then be a human test, and then the installation of the AI on the swarms. That would be the last step in my opinion..."
-"They haven't done that yet... We haven't received..."
-"Ready, gentlemen?"
A doctor had come in and was waiting at the door. We looked at each other, then back to him.
-"Sure." Ghiran said. He stood up. "Let's go."
He turned to me and gave me a pat on the shoulder.
-"We'll continue this discussion later. See you on Citadel."

We walked inside the pressure tanks. The door closed hermetically and the atmosphere was sucked out. I couldn't hear anything but my heartbeats. The nutrox had a metallic smell. The doctor knocked on the door, and gave me a thumb up. He was smiling, trying to reassure me. I closed my eyes, and nodded to say I was ready. He pushed a button, and I felt something cold cover my feet. I looked down and saw a kind of jelly was flowing through two holes in the tank's wall, filling it. When it reached my chest, I started to panic. But as the jelly went up to my chin, I felt a sting on my shoulder, and suddenly everything turned to black.
Sleeping in a pressure tank is not really uncomfortable, in fact, as you don't feel anything. Even if the shuttle crashed somewhere or was hit by something, or just stopped working, you wouldn't know. You're sleeping in a pressure tank, and you don't give a damn about what's going on outside.
I woke up and only saw a green fog surrounding me. I looked up, down, left and right, the green was everywhere... Then I heard a hiss, and I realized, as the temperature got lower, that I was in a warm cocoon that I didn't really want to leave. The fog disappeared as the jelly was dissolved and replaced by a warm shower. Air flew through the ventilation panels but the controllers told me not to take the mask off. I understood the shower was somewhat toxic, and that nutrox was still on the menu for the time being. The shower was replaced by a flow of hot air that lasted about thirty seconds, and finally I heard the door's locks click open.
I stepped outside, disoriented, and one of the controllers handed me a warm towel. I was in the first tank from the door, and so I was the first to leave the shuttle. I slowly walked down the little stairway and looked around. I was still feeling a bit sick from the nutrox, but the vision I had cleared up my mind immediately. I was in a landing bay, and I could see people work and go here and there, like I had seen on the Moon or in Hong Kong. Except this time, even Hong Kong was no match. This Bay was bigger than a whole early-21st-century space station. It had the shape of a huge cube, and the platform we had landed on measured perhaps three hundred square feet. On the walls, a big '3' was painted, and I remembered Ghiran had said there were three other bays like this one. I turned back and looked towards the shuttle. Behind it, a magnetic field protected the station's atmosphere, but I could still see space and an orange glow coming from... well, from Saturn, undoubtedly. I admit that, irrationally, I had still had doubts all along, but this time... This time, I had to face the truth.

I had arrived on Citadel.

I didn't know where to go, and looked around, looking for help. One of the engineers who were talking with the pilots remarked my confusion and showed me a ramp and an airlock on the opposite side of the bay. Behind me, I could hear the rest of the passengers waking up. I looked inside, saw the physicians at work, and thought it would do no harm if I didn't wait for them. I went through the airlock, and arrived in a little room filled with medical equipment. A man dressed in white was working on a PDA connected to one of the monitors. I recognized the caduceus on his left shirt pocket, but couldn't read his name. So he was a doctor. I noticed a strange machine was built on the wall, the size of one of the shuttle's pressure tank. Paintings reproduced the shape of a body on one of its sides, and monitoring systems and electrodes were everywhere else.
-"What's this thing?" I asked the doctor.
-"We call it a Lazarus" He answered, smiling. "I'm Doctor Nathan D'Arcy." He looked at his PDA. "You must be James Finn?"
-"Uh... Yeah, that's my name..." I shook my head, my eyes hurt. I still couldn't think properly due to the nutrox. "Lazarus? What does that mean?"
-"Well the proper term in use is quantum bioreconstruction machine, actually. But I doubt this little piece of information will answer your question. Excuse me..." He took a hypospray and applied it on my shoulder. I immediately felt better. "There... It's a healing patch, it serves against the nutrox's side effects... Now, will you place your hand on this pad, please? Right there."
He showed me a screen that looked like a fingerprint scan. I put my hand on it and felt a sting.
-"Good..." D'Arcy typed something on the machine's keyboard, and a data string appeared. Then it displayed several long series numbers very fast, then flashed 'Operation Complete – Restoration Procedure Online' three times. I still didn't understand.
-"You're now in the personnel database... What's your ID number?"
-"Huh... 2-4601..."
-"0...1... Okay. So, basically a QBM is a machine that will rebuild your body from scratch if you get killed in a radius of one mile around the station."
-"It's based on quantum transfer. Once you're in the database, you can be located at any time, and the machine monitors your vital functions, like heart beat, blood pressure, stress levels... If something happens to you, it's able to transfer you here and rebuild a copy..." He noticed my confusion and smiled. "It's a bit complicated, but I can assure you, it works."
-"Sure. So what, then? Do you mean I'm immortal?"
-"As long as you're in this station and as long as the machine works, in a way, yes, you are. As are we all on Citadel. Ah, here you are..."
The door opened and Ghiran, Diego and another officer who had traveled with us entered. They were shivering, and were wrapped in the same big towels I had had. D'Arcy took a sample of the officer's blood and entered him in the machine's database too, but just re-activated Ghiran and Diego's profiles.
-"Once you're in the database, you don't have to do anything." He explained. "The machine scans you and records a... How could I describe it... It's like... Like an iso image of your condition that's saved every minute."
I began to understand. But...
-"But I thought quantum technology was still experimental..."
-"It still is." Ghiran said. "My team developed this application on Guynemer, but we weren't sure it would work. Since teleportation of complex compounds was a theory, we couldn't guarantee its efficiency. The theories, however..."
-"You will learn that almost everything on Citadel is experimental, Mr. Finn." cut Diego. "The whole concept of such a station is only a dream for some back on Earth. TriOptimum built it, because we could, and because we knew it was possible. Same goes for this piece of hardware. Same goes with the rest of the station." His voice was dry. "Are you finished, Doctor?"
-"Yes, yes." He turned to me. "If you still feel dizzy or if you're just, well, if you need me, my office is on the Medical level, Alpha Quadrant."
-"Okay. Thanks, Doctor."
-"You're welcome." He looked at us, closed his little briefcase and left the room. The officer followed him.
-"Ghiran, if you're alright, you can go to the Security level, Hessman and Anderczyk had problems finding a troublesome relay in the interface demodulators and they're running out of options..."
-"Yes, Sir." Ghiran's voice had changed. I understood that he couldn't speak his mind anymore. We were on Diego's ground. He was the boss on Citadel, and everybody knew that, apparently... Diego rubbed his shoulder, where D'Arcy had applied the healing patch, and pointed a finger at me.
-"And you, as far as you are concerned, we're going to the Executive level. You'll have the day off today, but I expect us to start on the project tomorrow, okay?"
I nodded, but didn't say anything. Part of me wanted to take a shuttle back to Earth immediately and forget about this entire story, but the other was really amazed, and wanted to study the station, to the last bolt. We went back to the corridor, and headed to the elevators.
-"Good. I'll show you your quarters. They're on the Delta Quadrant. Just so you don't get lost, every level follows the same pattern, there are four quadrants, Alpha to Delta."
-"I know." I muttered. "I have read a description of the station on TriOp's servers, when I was with Shodan..."
-"Ah, right..." He sounded upset. He seemed to think about it, and casually said: "You know, reminding me you're the cause of my problems won't get you very far, Finn..." He stopped and turned to me. "The skills demonstrated in your little hacks are the only thing that saved you so far. But I won't forget they're also what caused the HOSES to start a large-scale investigation in my department on Earth. Contrary to what you may think, Ghiran is not as good as you are, but he could still do the job if I wanted him to. See what I mean?" He started walking again, and added pensively: "Imagine what could happen if I thought that I don't really need you after all..."
I already knew, of course. Like always, Diego was anything but subtle. From that moment on, we didn't say a word, and once on the Executive level, he just gave me my pass card and room number, and left to go to the Bridge. I looked around, felt lost for a few seconds, but thanks to the interactive displays on the walls and the station's online help, I quickly found my way on the level, and made it to my room.
I sat on my bed, staring at the stars outside. The station was rotating, and after a few minutes, the orange glow I had seen earlier in the Flight Deck appeared, and grew brighter. The shape of the planet then appeared, and space slowly disappeared out of my field of vision. It was gorgeous. I thought, who knows, I would have given anything to be here, were the circumstances different. I remembered Ghiran and D'Arcy's explanations. This station was like a gigantic testing lab. That's where tomorrow's technology was created, whether I liked TriOp or not. With a bit of guilt, I couldn't help but admit Ghiran was right. I was extremely lucky to be here.
Saturn slowly faded out, and the stars reappeared. I shrugged. The magic was gone. I lied down on the bed, and fell asleep.

Edward Diego came the following morning to brief me on the operations I had to work on. He still had his silver briefcase with him. I started to believe he never left it out of his sight.
-"I have brought several files that I think will help you understand precisely what I want..."
He took a video disc and inserted it in the room's computer. The screen on the wall displayed the TriOptimum logo and several ID files. Two of them were highlighted. I recognized one of them.
-"Hey, this is..."
-"James Chaskes, head of SID, yes. He directed the NSD before the merger, so I'm not surprised you know him. And her..." He pointed at the other file. "Her name is Rebecca Lansing. She is a consultant for HOSES, she is a counter-terrorism expert. She worked for the old UNATCO until five years ago, when she decided to switch to the private sector and open her own business."
-"Why would the SID hire someone like her? I thought..."
-"Whatever you thought, you were wrong. Contrary to what you found, I have not come to Citadel just to run a space station. I see the potential of the work accomplished here. I see what could be done. And I'm here to allow it to happen."
I shivered. This guy really was creepy at times.
-"Unfortunately for you, your little games with Hong Kong revealed a flaw in the system that I had been using for years. That's why the SID started to investigate. You showed them the way."
-"Yes, you did. When you broke into TriOp's servers, well, they were Nara's at that time, but still... Anyway, when you did that, you destroyed several layers of protection that *I* had carefully designed and installed. You allowed them to find a fraction of what I've been working on in the last two years."
He displayed a world map.
-"Here, look... from New York to Hong Kong, from New Atlanta to Chiba City, from Cimic to Seattle... Money, minerals, weapons, drugs, hi-tech... I ran a business, you understand?"
-"And you want me to rebuild your cover?"
-"No... No, it's too late for that. I'd be surprised if they didn't already know my name. They have discovered the links between my bank accounts, my travels, and the traffics. It's too late. What I want you to do is delete the evidence completely. I hired you not only because you caused all this, but also because you were the only one able to perform such a task."
That didn't sound true. Deleting files was even easier than to steal them. I shook my head.
-"I don't see how difficult..."
-"But I do, Mr. Finn. I am the one with a vision here, you are just the worker, you obey." He walked to the window and looked at the stars. "When I arrived in Citadel, I created a secret and encrypted database where I could store all my information. In the last two years, I collected hundreds of names, of passwords, of bank account numbers... It was my ledger, and it was right here, right in the AI core... What they have on Earth is nothing compared to what I stored here..."
-"So, what's the trouble?"
-"In about two hour, you will access the communications tower and piggyback our signal to Earth. Once you've established contact, you will destroy their files. They can't trace you back. Well, they can, but they can't launch a counter attack. Then..." He turned back and changed the display. A diagram appeared. "Then, you will work on this section of the AI core and retrieve my data."
I looked at the screen. The source was simplified, but I recognized what it was about.
-"No way." I said. "Are you kidding? Can't you see how the system works?" I pointed at different parts of the code. "If I modify these, it could completely modify the AI's behaviour."
-"The ledger is located in a section that has been since placed under the AI's direct control. Deleting the files on Earth is not enough. I need you to delete these ones too!"
-"Well I can't!"
He became very pale, and switched off the computer.
-"Study this disk, Finn. Work on it, and find a way in. Or you're history." He walked to the door, paused, and added. "Just in case you happen to succeed, D'Arcy's expecting you in his lab in thirty minutes. They have to scan you and prepare the operation. The implants are DNA-tuned, and they need those exams, so don't be late. I expect to see you on the Bridge at ten. Prepared, and ready."

I stayed there, looking at the disk, and inserted it again. I had nothing else to do, so I could just as well study it. I connected to the station's network, and noticed I had been given level 1 clearance on Shodan's systems. Since I had all the rights, I went into the dataloop, and studied the system's architecture.
The AI controlled everything on the station, but was not centralized. Its control room was on the Bridge, but every department had its dedicated datanodes, from which the AI could control what was going on on the level. I located the datanode chain control, and followed the path to the control room. Once there, I noticed the connection between the station and the room was cut and dispatched to several processors all around the Bridge.
Puzzled, I analyzed this structure and realized the AI core really was located in the control room. The datanodes were like limbs, but the 'brain' was on the Bridge. With such a system, dispatching the signal everywhere on the level before reading it filtered the data and protected the core.

I found the section Diego wanted me to modify. It was in the AI core, buried deep into the source code, protected by the own AI's defense software. Diego had been very smart, but he hadn't realized the core was like a brain, and now he wanted the AI's data back, the AI didn't want to give it to him. Tough luck.
I analyzed the environment, and finally located the dataloop controls. They were so complex I almost quit. I separated each node, forked the structure, and replaced the protection.
Once the copy installed on my computer, I tried to understand the principles behind the program. Apparently this section controlled the AI's 'ethics'. Compared to what I had read about Helios, Omolu and Brocail had adapted and improved the AI's failsafe mechanisms. In order to make it control a nanoswarm, they had added an ethical constraint, which allowed it to make the distinction between choosing a logical solution, like a normal computer, and choosing the best solution for the patient, like a doctor. Shodan had been programmed to choose the best possible solution, and a good part of the internal firewalls was dedicated to this function.
In a way, that was the core of the theory of AI. To make a computer think like a human, and not like a machine. Page, with Helios, had shown the path to follow, but Omolu's team had managed to make it real.
I noted down what I had to modify in order to retrieve Diego's data. Destroying it would require that I put the AI in a sort of sleeping mode, because the section I had to rewrite was right in the middle of the ethical center. I called the Bridge and asked them to place a blank datanode in the control room, so I could copy the part to modify and compare it to the original. Replacing this section would take time due to all the redundant functions, and I couldn't afford any mistake, so I had to keep an eye on the original layout.

I looked at my watch and realized I was five minutes late. I called D'Arcy to tell him I was on my way to his lab, shut down the workstation and left the room, still trying to figure out how to bypass the security setup.

D'Arcy was waiting for me at the elevator. He told me the exams would take place on the R&D level, and from the way he described the procedure, I understood the neural interface was yet another of their experimental techniques.
-"So, am I a... test subject or something?"
-"Not at this point. We developed this technology to interact with computers more efficiently. They started on Earth, and exported the labs here for the final tests. We're using this technology for a few months now, and we've never had any problem. It's safe, don't worry."
-"I thought it had been developed for Shodan... Diego had told me R-Grade neural interface were needed..."
-"R-Grade units allow you to go to Cyberspace. I'll show you." We entered a little room, and he pointed at a strange device mounted on the wall. "This is a C-Space jack. When you have your interface, you plug it there..." He showed a plug below the CPU. "...and the computer controls the rest. The implant is connected to your brain, and will override your senses as soon as the jack is connected. Once inside, you will be cut off from the real world and navigate through the network as you want. Once you're done, there are exit ports, virtual switches that cut the connection and give the control back to your brain."
It sounded risky.
-"And you're sure it..."
-"Diego has one. Most of the officers on the Bridge have one, too. All the engineers who needed an access to Shodan were given one. It's not reversible, though."
We had entered the elevator and were going up to level 2, the Research & Development department. Just before the door opened, the lights flickered and I felt cold air on my neck. I shivered.
-"Safety procedures." D'Arcy explained. "They have to make sure we're not contaminated. We've just been scanned and bombarded with UV rays."
-"So how does the interface works?"
-"Actually it's the first functional application of what you must have heard of as 'Project Neantis'. Nano-integration... You will be injected a few million nanites, and we will insert a little implant on your cortex."
-"The nanites will remain dormant as long as you're not completely healed. After we activate the implant, it will need to get used to your brain and it will have to adapt. That's not possible if you're awake."
-"I see. So there's a recovery period?"
-"Yes. We can't tell you how much it'll last, though, because each patient is different. It's never the same. Usually it lasts between four months and a full year. Most of the time, it's about six to seven months. It's the computer who decides, after you pass a post-op MRI. You'll have a first one now, and we will follow its instructions to prepare the implants. The surgery itself will take just an hour."
We had arrived in a big laboratory. The MRI was located in the middle of it, surrounded by machines I had never seen before.
D'Arcy took a disk and inserted it into the scanner.
-'We don't need your DNA today." He explained. "I'm going to import the file from the QBM, and we'll use it as a base for the nanites' configuration. Look, it's beginning..."
I looked at the screen and noticed a program was running very fast. On the other window, I could see hundreds of little grey dots. They were slowly turning green.
-"The green dots are the nanites that have been configured, the grey dots are those who are still inactive. As long as they're not injected, every one of them can be reset and deactivated, but once they're in your body, you can't take them out. Ah, one thing, you'll have to take care of EM radiation. I have read your file, It says the NSD and SID sometimes use zappers?"
-"Yes. They're useful when you need to deactivate something fast."
-"Well, not anymore. After the operation, if you use a zapper, you'll fry a few nanites and be knocked out for a while."
I nodded. It was the price to pay, apparently. I understood. I saw all the dots were green. I pointed at the screen.
-"Are they finished?" I asked.
-"Yep, almost. Just a sec... There, lie down on that table, please. The MRI will finish the setup." I did what he asked, and he pushed a button. "Now don't move until I tell you to." The MRI slowly rolled towards me and deployed its scanners, covering my entire body. The rotary head started to spin above my head. I closed my eyes.
The machine's pulsating buzz was relaxing. For a moment I forgot about Diego and Shodan. I could hear D'Arcy typing orders on the computer, sorting the data, and generating the config file for the procedure. The exam lasted about twenty minutes. The machine slowly stopped and rolled away from the table.
-"You can sit now. It's over."
I opened my eyes and sat, a bit out of it. I shook my head and rubbed my temples. D'Arcy approached with a hypospray and injected me a new drug.
-"For stamina." He explained. "They don't look like it, but MRIs can eat up you energy in no time. We elaborated a cure to this after the first patients complained about it."
-"When did the tests finish exactly?" My mouth felt as if it was filled with cotton balls.
-"About a year ago. A few weeks after Shodan was installed on the station, the first R-Grade engineers arrived from Cimic on Earth. From then on, we continued the development here, on Citadel. Come, I'll show you some of it."
We followed a narrow corridor and arrived in a kennel. In the cages, dogs, cats, rabbits and birds were either asleep or very calm. I couldn't hear anything but the air conditioning system.
-"These are the primary test subjects. Dr Endicott is the head of the R&D department, I'm not directly involved with Neantis. I'm just here to monitor the effects on human physiology. Now, don't be surprised by what you're going to see, for the new applications, they needed bigger organisms..."
-"How bigger?"
-"They got the authorization to replicate big mammals. Gorillas, tigers... A bigger organism is easier to study for the kind of technology we're developing here... As you can see..." He opened another door. "...Endicott cloned predators. We think psychology is important in the way nanites deal with the brain, and predators often show more brain activity than other animals."
The cages were indeed way bigger. As in the other room, the animals were calm, but I couldn't help but feel a little stressed until D'Arcy closed the door.
-"What's the new app?"
-"Vaccines. Or more generally, immunology. Basically, we're testing the nanites' resistance to viral attacks."
-"I see."
-"To be honest, don't go repeat it, but... Diego asked Endicott to start the tests, and we were ready, but... We still haven't received confirmation of the authorization from New Atlanta." He looked embarrassed. "I'm not completely happy with this situation. You seem to know Diego, could you talk to him about it?"
This was totally unexpected. I didn't know what to answer.
-"Uh... Sure, I'll see what I can do..."
-"Thanks." He stayed silent for a moment, then, as we walked back to the lab, he explained: "You see, this lab is a P5, and the guys who work here... They're really good. An excellent team. But we're dealing with deadly viruses, and we experiment mutagen compounds on the nanites... It's dangerous. I'm the director of the Medical department, I'd like to have us covered."
-"I understand." I said, wondering how the hell I could mention the subject to Diego... Suddenly, D'Arcy stopped and looked at his watch.
-"Wait, I'm sorry. I'm talking, I'm talking... Didn't you have another appointment at ten?"
I looked at my watch, it was a quarter past ten. I quickly apologized, and ran to the elevator.

I had to go finish my program in my room first. While I was away, the computer had compiled all the information I needed and packed it with the scripts I had written. I called the Bridge to tell Diego I was coming, and asked if the datanode was ready. It was. I reviewed my program. Once inside the datanode, I had to delete key portions of the ethical constraints, and disable this part of the core. Once the AI was free from these obligations, it was perfectly unable to prevent me from deleting whatever Diego wanted me to delete. I only needed to dig a bit deeper in the database to find what Diego called his 'ledger'.
I studied the AI diagram and noted which portions of code needed to be edited. Based on my calculations, without ethical considerations, the AI could theoretically engage in a fatal loop and crash like Helios, but contrary to Page's creation, Shodan's code was perfectly crafted. I didn't think it was likely to happen. I ran two simulations, and the AI didn't show any signs of instability in a critical period of forty-eight hours after the hack. My operation would last less than two hours. Just to be safe, I cooked up a little application for the Bridge engineers, to give them access to the AI core again if something happened while I was asleep. But everything ran smoothly. I was confident.

I packed my gear, and headed to the Bridge.



Citadel Station Bridge/S.H.O.D.A.N. Control Room
May 4th, 2072, 0923am

The door closed, and I heard the buzz of the electronic lock, meaning the room was now sealed off of the rest of the Bridge. Diego shivered and ordered me to go in the office. As I entered, I saw the AI's control unit was now ready. The console was about the size of a table, and no screen was visible. Diego followed me inside the working area, and flipped a switch, generating a tridimensional plasma field above the table. The keyboard slowly glided towards the edge of the table. Diego looked at me and showed me the chair.
-"You know the way..." He said.
I sat at the table and started typing a few commands to get used to the interface. I opened programs, folders, ran a diagnosis on the main boards... It was fast and sleek. A perfect virtual 3D desktop. As I was preparing another network scan, Diego grumbled impatiently.
-"Okay, that's enough. Now, you follow my orders, okay?"
-"Fine." I nodded. I shut down the main windows and activated the AI interface. Shodan's now familiar 'ice-cream cone' appeared and the welcome notice appeared below Shodan's name. I looked at Diego. He was very pale, and sweating a lot. I turned back to the screen, and he gave me his orders.

On the screen, Shodan's shape started to change.



the end (or is it?)


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