In my dream, I run across an asphalt carpark, under a sky buried by heavy rust red clouds lit by faraway lightning. The moaning wind skims across the rainslicked surface, pelting me with rain that is cold and hard and red. Reaching the motel, I splash through maroon puddles, passing the broken Tars Tarkas holographic sign, a flickering four armed ogre in lurid green, and then the mock-japanese rock gardens, the wind tortured rosebeds, the ugly glass reception office. I reach the first row of cubicles. The third one along the row is our room. Sanctuary.
But I find the door broken, wide open, a gaping wound, and beyond it there is nothing but emptiness and smashed windows. For a moment, I just stand there, breathless and dazed, dripping wetness on the rug. I hear the raindrops beating a staccato drumbeat on the roof, as the distant thunder growls warnings in a bass voice. Panic claws at my gut, but my body won't move. Desperation knots in my muscles, but all I seem able to do is stand there and watch the seconds fade on the wall.
Suddenly, I hear the scream. Your scream. Like a fingersnap, it breaks the spell, and I begin moving. But so very slow and so very late. I bolt out of the room, and run, nearly tumbling, down the concrete path to the canal. Over the canal waters below me, I see a flash of reflected ruby light.
Even in my dream I'm too late. I find you on the canal shore. You lie face down in a pool of blood, sprawled on the rocks like a discarded rag doll. I kneel beside you, touch your arm. It is white and streaked with blood and terribly cold. You can't be so cold. The ground is still warm with your stolen heat. I can't find a pulse.
gently holding your shoulders, I overturn you.
Your robe is soaked in red, and your belly and chest are fountains of blood. I have never seen so much. Your face is a mask of alabaster, framed by the platinum halo of your hair, and from it, your eyes stare into space, unfocused, jade and empty. Terribly empty.
You can't be dead. Not yet, Not so fast, not without saying goodbye. You must still be alive, just for a few seconds more, you have to be. The ground is still warm. I search for your interfaces. The ones on your forehead or your finger won't do, they are cheap nervemarket jobs, capable only of interfacing with crude and loud computers, able to transmit only the most rudimentary and simple of signals. But you have one interface I can reach. An interface advanced and sensitive enough to interact with my own without the aid of machinery. I look at your mouth, see blood trickling from between pale lipstick smeared lips. With my middle finger, I reach in and touch your tongue, pink wet velvet. Its still soft. Gently, I feel under it. Beneath the skin of my fingertip, my own interface is eager. As It brushes against yours, a pink warmth seeps through my abdomen. With sureness birthed by familiarity, I connect. We touch. Our interfaces interlock, familiar green with delicate pink, and I reach inside you.
Softly, I slip through protective membranes, and fall into a gentle vortex. All around, I see your images, sounds, textures and scents, an immensely complex and intricate structure, linked by a seemingly endless series of apparently random associations, stretching out into infinity. This is the weave of all your experience, the skein of your life. I know this is my final look at an unique and singularly wonderful universe, soon to be lost forever. Already I see the edges of the construct fraying, crumbling. The shards rain down and swirl all around me. I can read a handful of memories as they fall. I catch a rare glimpse of a dark metallic spheroid form looming in the rain. I smell ionized air and burning flesh, feel the sharpness of pain cutting out all else. I feel the wet gown cling to cold flesh, the dull ache in the lungs, I hear whining laser projectors and running bare feet and breaking glass. I taste bitterness in the throat, and the sourness and salt of rain and blood.
This is the death - your death.
But all this is merely memory construct. It is not the ego, it is not you. painfully, I push through the pieces of remembrance, scattering about me purfumes, colors, patterns, the fragrance of blossoms and the scent of sweat, darkness and light, the gold and orange of sunsets, the blue of newly painted walls, the texture of tablecloths, the tastes of oranges and strawberries, the crispness of lettuce, the smoothness of a satin sheet, the harshness of pain and the delicacy of a kiss, the chills and the heat. I reach in. I go deep. I try to wake you up.
"Cathy? Cathy, Pat's here. I'm here and I love you and it's all right now. Can you hear me? Please wake up, Cathy. I love you."
peripherally, I watch raindrops fall into puddles of blood, washing it into the canal where two shades of red mingle.
I reach into the darkness, going deep, seeing nothing. I dare not go any deeper.
I reach into the darkness, and find nothing there. (But emptiness and smashed windows)
And then, suddenly, I'm standing all alone in the rain, staring at your blank face, My finger an impotent violation between your cold, silent lips. It looks stupid, rude. I take it out. I get up. Unable to bear the emptiness of your stare, I pull your blue robe over your face, a shroud of cyan and crimson. Around me, the rain fills the darkness.
In my dream, lightning begins to flash like a strobe in the darkness, striking my optic nerves despite the strong protest of my tightly sealed eyelids. Instead of thunder, it is accompanied by insistent digitized voices. I wake up and realize it isn't lightning. My eyes flicker open. I catch glimpses of paint peeling on the ceiling, of gaudy neons beckoning through dirt streaked windows. I'm lying on the couch in the back room at Madam Kan's, my comportable deck on my lap.
For a moment I just lie there, listening to the radio playing in the next room, the low murmurs of the late night patrons, the keening of the wind. Then I realize the comportable is still warm, is still on. My hand fumbles and I find to my horror that the sensetrans wire still connects the deck to my forehead interface. I grope at the keyboard, find the switch and hit it, getting direct visual input/output. Reality flickers. the dirty little private room melts away and is replaced by a computerized wonderland, an immense network of databanks and information outlets, painted in moonlight silver on a canvas of white noise. This is my world. My own little network is a haphazard green tracery etched upon this vast mesh, this digital playground of spider gods, and it's under attack.
I descend into the center of my own web, entering a swirling snowstorm of emerald hieroglyphics. All around me I see the signs of disturbance, intrusion. with a mental fingersnap, I summon a tactical program. It appears, a hologram in neon blood, causing waves and ripples in the mess of data-segments and minor programs which floats around me. It screams warnings in hysterically distorted alphanumerics. The intruder is still here. It is still contained by my defenses, although not for long. However, it did manage to get one shot through the defenses, one shot which was all it needed to stun me. Christ! what the hell is this intruder, anyway? Where did it get the firepower to knock me into slumberland with one bloody shot? And how long have I been out?
the tactical listens to my questions. Answers and half- answers flash across it's surface. The intruder is a four-fold search/penetrate/retrieve-data/terminate program, of a type unknown to me or to my databanks. Its design and manufacture, and many of it's offensive subroutines are also unfamiliar. It originated from Mainlaw's computer systems, and it knocked me out 1 minute ago. My entire dream must have lasted seconds, the entire sequence folded into a fraction of time, filling my head like a story in hologram. At the rate the intruder is going, my defenses will hold out for approximately 4.63 minutes.
I ponder the problem. Through my small network, this transient extension of my senses I have built with my comportable, I have conducted my investigation into the causes of your death for fourteen (14.27, the tactical informs me) hours. I have accessed the databanks of banks, insurance companies, population surveys, the Mainframe passport control authority and the Mainlaw law enforcement company. I have run across several search & terminate programs during the illegal portion of my investigation, nasty little active defenses lurking amid the more standard maze of concealing, blocking and filtering programs wrapped about the assorted confidential databanks. I have had little trouble evading, diverting or destroying those bothersome S&T hounds (as we affectionately call them in the biz). But this program, which emerged without warning from the thickness of Mainlaw's defenses, has managed to trace my viridescent trail effortlessly, avoid all my attempts to divert or attack it, and is now at my perimeter defenses, set up at the Wells public library's databanks. Once it punches through them, it will trace me directly to Madam Kan's.
I watch its image with morbid fascination, seeing how it branches out with acidic subroutines which nibble at my battlements as fast as I can repair them. Beneath its steel blue envelope I see its neurally interactive deathware glow like a needle of light. That is the braineater, ready to charge through once a large enough hole has been opened and begin chewing on my central nervous system. Meanwhile, smaller neurally interactive subroutines bubble to the surface, forming ugly glowing boils on the smooth metallic wrapping, ever eager to dart forth and strike my brain with minuscule epileptic seizures, just waiting for a crack, an opening.
I know I don't have the firepower to eliminate a program this persistent. I finger the cut-off switch on my deck. I have already loaded all the information I have acquired during my investigation onto my comportable's permanent memory. All I have to do is hit the switch and my entire web will disappear, all my programs will vanish out of the network, and the hound will be left to claw at the emptiness. But The network will be covered with traces of my passing, signs of my tampering marking various databases, which will enable the hound to trace me to this address. Not that I plan to stay here long after this operation is through, but I don't want whoever is behind that killer- program to get a lead on my whereabouts. God knows, whoever is behind this means business.
So, behind the perimeter, I issue a command, and my erasing programs spring out from my comportable like cards flying from between a dealer's fingers, and begin to work frantically, trying to remove all of my fingerprints from the network. They swarm through my web like newborn spiders, nibbling at the strands while spinning new and misleading trails. Before my eyes, the web fades, melting into the background.
In the tactical, Four horsemen merged into a single frightful form claw at my defenses. My defenses, bootleg military infiltration programs, barely obsolete, tough and illegal equipment which has served me through thick and thin, begin to tear, fracture and melt, like gossamer, like butter. Behind them, the spiders work at a crawl. I throw up several blocking programs to back up the defenses, and my tactical tells me those will only buy me a few more seconds, which is just barely enough to eradicate all links between my Library-based constructs and Madam Kan home base.
Around me, drifting fragments of data are nimbly devoured by the frantic green spiders. assorted nonessential programs fold back into my comportable's permanent memory, the minor impressions left by their passing wiped away diligently by the industrious arachnids.
At the library, a crack appears in my defenses, and an eager blue bubble leaps into the breach. It whizzes forward, aiming itself unerringly towards me. I gesture with my mind, and a needle of white-green light appears, slicing through the drifting data to intercept the neurally interactive brainbomb. green and blue collide, both imploding in a flash of white light.
At the library, my defenses have weakened considerably. The walls of emerald city come tumbling down, and the massive body of the S&T hound begins to push forward through the complex tangle of blocking routines and the green rain of defense program fragments. It moves slowly but steadily, like a demon swimming through honey, It's surface quivering, covered in boils.
At home base, The spiders squirm. I can barely see the web. My finger is on the cutoff switch. Once the spiders wipe my electronic fingerprints, I'll hit the switch, crash my system, and my entire setup will dissipate like morning fog and I'll be safe. If I panic, The spiders won't finish their job and the hound's masters will be able to trace me. If I freeze, The hound will hit me and I'll lose my brain. A lousy set of choices.
The hound lets loose a barrage of his pale blue boils. I meet them with a rain of green needles. For several seconds, all I can see are flashes of blue and green and a seemingly endless series of bursts of light. When my view clears, I see the Hound is nearly on top of me, held at bay by only a thin tissue of blocking programs. All around me the spiders seem to work at a crawl.
I feel the hound's breath hot and hungry on my face. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. My finger is damp upon the cutoff switch.
Do I still see the web?
I smell burning flesh.
Hit the switch. now.
Around me the spiders seem to smolder. There's blue light everywhere.
Now. I hit the switch.
click. reality breaks.
I'm back on the couch at Madam Kan's. On my lap, the comportable is hot. I unplug the sensetrans intertrodes from my forehead and stow them in their compartment. I touch my forehead interfaces. They're warm. I wipe away the sweat and pull the plastiskin covers back on. I fold the comportable and slip it into my case. I sit up on the couch, take the Segir bottle and my glass from the floor and pour myself some. I drink it as my feet fumble for my shoes. Warmth fills my gut as bitterness fills my mouth. I put down the glass, pull on my shoes, get up, straighten my suit. Going through the motions, I try to keep calm. but there's an hysterical little animal screaming in my head. It wants to run like hell.
I get out and pay the attendant. He signals a waiting couple by the bar, who, grumbling and arguing in low mutters, hurry towards the recently vacated room. I walk across the main hall to the bar. The place is so empty, I can hear my own footsteps. This isn't really surprising, considering the lateness of the hour and the look of this place. The walls are painted purple, covered in rust streaked mirrors in which the night-shift whores adjust their stockings. The dance floor is a small space, awkwardly placed beside the stripper's stage. it's empty except for a single couple which instantly attracts my eye. He is an ex- highlander trooper, wrapped in kilt and regimental tartan, his badly sunburnt flesh crisscrossed by a grotesque network of scars which reminds me of martian canals. The woman he holds so tightly to his chest is a martian boytoy two heads taller then him, wearing a mini, fishnet stockings and shoes with low heels. With her violet hair and her face painted in make-up and her glass-like eyes which stare into the shadows, she reminds me of a sad and weary harlequin. Her hand strokes his head gently as it rests upon her silicone breasts, and they sway slightly as Rose Robertson croons a quiet ballad from hidden speakers. I know that song. "Lullaby". It used to be one of your favorites.
I sigh and turn towards Madam Kan who stands behind the bar, a fat woman in elegant red lace, her black hair the nest of over a dozen glittering pins. They twinkle like nebulae in the carefully dyed dark when she nods to acknowledge my presence.
"Who are they?" I indicate with my eyes towards the couple on the dance floor.
"Exactly who they seem to be, Pat. He's one of the great unknown heroes of the war. He was there when they busted the Intruder's base on Rhea, was there when they hit him in the asteroids, fought him off on the moon. Says he missed the big day because he was wounded. Regulars call him scotty." She snorted in disgust "Which just shows you how bad things are here. I remember, After the war ended, the place was swarming with "scoties". Now they've all moved up and out, gone home or set up farms. Except for him."
"The girl's new. She's called Linda, came here after a bad fight with her pimp. There's probably still some bruises under all that make-up. Scotty seems to like her."
There's a moment of silence. I look at the couple for a little more, fascinated by the desperation of his embrace, her sadness. Madam Kan polishes glasses. Finally, I turn back to her.
"You finished your business, then?" She asks.
"Yeah." I nod "Could you do me a favor? If anyone comes here, looking for me, or for whoever used your com-outlet, confuse them, Okay?"
"Got yourself into trouble again, Pat? Hope you haven't gotten ME into any trouble."
"It's nothing." I lie "Just, if anyone comes, asking questions, give them wrong answers. Please?"
"Alright Pat, I'll do it. But if this causes me trouble, you'd better look out, 'because I have ways of dealing with guys who mess with me. Just ask Linda's pimp."
I nod gravely, them bend over the bar and kiss her lightly on the cheek "You're aces, madame."
She smiles "I like you, Pat. take care of yourself."
I smile back and walk out.
Outside, the air is cold, frozen on an empty street. The neon signs flicker unevenly, their promises of pleasure reflected in the dirty roadside puddles. The only sound I hear is the radio playing from inside Madam Kan's, and the echoing of my own footsteps. In the sky, through tattered clouds I see phobos, a leftover moon, and the space-mirrors, flashes of reflected sunlight. Directly above me the aegis looms, enormous and ugly, constantly revolving, churning the air, gathering clouds and weaving them into storms. It's building a new one now.
With no place really to go, I head for the mall. It's a long walk but I need to think.
I loved you.
Four days ago, someone killed you.
I wanted answers.
I remember when we met, at the Gulliver Jones at Douglas, you were living in a tent. The prettiest girl I had ever seen, living in the middle of the martian desert, washing dishes for a living at a diner in a nowhere town, spending her nights in a tiny tent in the wilderness, reading borrowed magazines in the light of an organic flashlamp and talking to ghosts. I remember sitting in that diner drinking my early morning coffee, as you walked in for the beginning of your shift, sweeping the floor in your T-shirt and your jeans before eating your breakfast. I remember thinking up excuses to talk to you. I remember talking for hours, thinking up silly reasons not to leave Douglas, convincing you to take me hiking through Kirk's cleft. I remember little from that hike, but your voice and your face, your smile and the strength in your eyes. I remember walking under the martian moons through the desolate moonlit landscape to your tent, holding your hand all along the way. I remember every detail of that night in your tent. The warmth of your breath, the coolness of your sweat, your smoothness...
I remember the long argument we had as you lay in my arms, fragile as glass and yet filled with more strength then steel. I remember your reluctance as I took you to Wells, nights by the fireplace as we listened to the rain, walks through the city, wet and gold in the sunset, Drives up the coast, days spent in solitude by the seaside. So few days. So little nights. And then you died.
You had shared with me your days and nights, your body and your soul. But you did not share your secrets. Your past had always remained a mystery, a subject you avoided, a place where I did not want to probe without your permission. I let you keep your secrets. They made you more mysterious, adding to your allure. But then something had stepped out of the shadows of your past, something which had killed you. If I wanted to know who or what, I would have to delve into your secrets.
So I tried.
After discovering your body, I had informed the motel manager, and convinced him to commission an investigation into the causes of your death, assuring him I would share the expense with him. We called Mainlaw, and they sent us an ex-spacer named Orlev and a young martian girl named McVie. They weren't much good. They couldn't find anything on you, and informed me that you were a ghost, an electronic nonentity, probably a derelict or connected to some bizarre nationalist lunatic fringe. Then Orlev informed me that I was the prime suspect, and that what we had here was a murder preformed in a fit of rage, a crime of passion. The manager seemed rather fond of that theory, but I brought forth enough evidence to tear it apart. Undeterred, Orlev presented his "Crazies" theory, which postulated your murder by one or more ex-trooper lunatics, who killed you for kicks. The lack of any footprints about the scene of the crime except yours and mine's more or less eliminated that idea. A day after I talked to them about that idea, I heard on Mainnews that sergeant Heather McVie had been stabbed to death by members of a street gang she had tried to arrest on her way home. That evening, Orlev had me meet him in a bar on the eastside, and advised me to stop the investigation. He told me it was a crime preformed by crazies, a crime without any real evidence on the scene of the crime, a crime without a motive. What reason would anyone have to kill a nobody?
He offered me a refund. The motel manager insisted I accept. I insisted Orlev give me all the results of the forensic examinations. Orlev agreed, reluctantly, but urged me to see the case as closed, go about my business, find a new girl, leave Mars, go home. I left that bar thinking Mainlaw investigators were lazy jerks and mental midgets. No one would have a reason to kill a nobody. But you weren't a nobody. The identity of your killer was hidden in your past, and if they hadn't uncovered your past, they just hadn't looked hard enough. I was a pro, an informerchant, a datarunner, probably a damn better investigator then Orlev or his late partner. I got to Madam Kan's and began my own investigation.
I should have paid more attention to the way Orlev's hand shook that night as he held his glass. I should have noticed his fidgeting, the fear in his eyes as he glanced around him. I should have puzzled more about McVie's tragic and sudden death.
Once I began scanning the databanks, the Wells independent Survey, the Wells library, Mainnet and Mainnews, I found that they had been right, and that there was no record of a Cathy Mitchell anywhere in any databank. Even a check of confidential databanks revealed you to be a nonentity. Undeterred, I assumed you had used an alias and accessed an Identikit program.
It took me hours to reconstruct your face, and the image still couldn't do your beauty justice, but I figured it would be enough for the computers. I began running long and tedious programs which would check all faces on file in any of the databanks I had accessed and search for a face to match yours. finding no current match, I delved into face-lists from previous years.
The strangest thing happened then. I had dozed off, and was dreaming random, digitized dreams, when all of a sudden, My system woke me up with a strobe flashing at my optical nerve. My programs had found your match. Only it wasn't right. The face they had found, in the Mainframe passport control authority's archival lists, was just like yours. But the picture had been taken over sixteen years ago! You couldn't have remained unchanged for over sixteen years, could you? She was Catherine Michelle Anderson Moore, she had been twenty three when that picture had been taken, and that was several years OLDER then you had been when you died! It didn't fit.
Still, the resemblance was uncanny, and "Cathy Mitchell" was suspiciously like "Catherine Michelle", so I decided to check this out. Catherine, the databanks inform me, came to Mars while employed by Mainnews. She was married to one Edmund Moore, a high ranking Mainframe official. She committed suicide two years after her marriage. looking at her death certificate, I find you shared the same fingerprints, retinal patterns and genetics. Searching for evidence for that remarkable fact in Orlev and McVie's investigation file in Mainlaw's databanks, I am set upon by a rabid S&T hound which tries to eat my brain. A hound which probably managed to trace me to Madam Kan's, despite the best efforts of my erasing programs or the risks I took.
I begin to walk faster. Leaving the downtown area with it's bright neons behind me, I walk through the silent and cold streets, lined by sealed and windowless buildings resembling lifeless cliffs, which make the streets seem like canyons carved in concrete, their floor littered by the skeletons of long dead parked cars. I make my way through this city which seems more dead then any place in the desert, with only an occasional streetlight to illuminate my way through the darkness of the martian night. nothing is spookier then a martian street at night.
I look once more at the aegis, and the clouds which gather about it, growing thicker and denser. I can still see Phobos through the small cracks left between them, and even a few stars twinkling, But the aegis is the brightest thing in the sky, a huge omnipresent eye. Five thousand meters up, and it looks three times as big as anything you can see in a terran sky. lit up now, it is haloed by a corona of neon, a multitude of guidance lights directing the airships which hover about it like fireflies, motes of light darting out from its rimdocks to be hurled away through the aegis-churned cyclone. That is Wells' weather control system. Hi-tech, vastly expensive, built and operated by the Mainframe, it's what makes the air in Hellas thick enough for people with hemoglobin blood to breath. Obviously, It's too expensive not to be used for things other then weather control. It's the largest airport on mars. It's the major local radio relay station. Its lower part is filled with cameras which can spot anything that happens in the streets of Wells, And Mainlaw uses it to direct traffic, among other things. It really is an eye in the sky. Mainlaw's eye. I hear thunder. It's starting to rain. I begin to run and know I have nowhere to hide.
I don't know how far I get before I see the light. A ruby needle. Burning in the dark, it hits the wall in front of me. I run. I don't look back, I run. I zigzag like a dervish, trying to keep something between me and my pursuit. Whoever it is, they must be a long way off to try and sharpshoot, but they'll get closer. I vaguely think of heading towards the mall. That's twenty stories, full of crowds, real easy to get lost. I can fell I'll never make it with the hairs on the back of my neck.
I duck around the nearest corner, and dash, possessed by hysteria and adrenalin, down a street which seems identical to the one I just left. I barely run fifty paces when another laser pulse flashes to my left, hitting a car parked twenty meters behind me. I feel the wave of heat as it ignites in the oxygen rich air. The street is slick with rain, making it hard to keep my balance. Could this rain mess up my pursuer's laser? Another blood-red line is etched in the dark, streaking past my head and into the horizon as I dodge down a side alley, a passage between two tightly grouped blocks of buildings. Stupid choice. FATAL choice. the passage leads to a backyard filled with garbage cans. no way out. I turn.
It's a robot. It floats, a gleaming gunmetal globe festooned with ugly projections. One of them sees me as a pattern of heat. Another is a basilisk eye of laser death. It's a highly advanced machine, the latest model in killer robots. Not a scratch on the gleaming chrome coat. Technological death fresh out of the wrappings. I dive for the only available cover. A bunch of trash bins. The robot watches me with its chilled eyes, as I jump and dance about. To it, I am a smudge of heat which scurries like a spider.
I remember the sensory simulations of my comportable. The Hound's breath, hot and hungry on my face. The program which found me. This is the robot which is going to kill me. There's no breath in it. It is just death coming out of the rain. I watch as it turns, terribly slowly. I feel it take aim.
I'm hiding in the garbage, curled up behind an aluminum can filled with cardboard, foam and plastic wrappings, rotten apples and used tissue paper...
There's red light everywhere.
I don't look.
I smell metal melting, plastic burning...
Suddenly something explodes.
The garbage probably saves my life.
After a while, I take a peek.
Someone is standing by the wreckage of the robot. Someone in a bright red raincoat and a southwester. Holding a laser rifle in one gloved hand. I get up from the garbage and approach the figure cautiously. It's clutching its ungloved hand to a hole in its arm. It screams. In a girl's voice. A voice just like yours.
"Don't just stand there, help me!"
It's your voice.
Suddenly, I realize that my savior is bleeding to death, and I rush to help. The wound, apparently caused by shrapnel from the exploding robot, is pouring with blood.
Tarniquet. Need a tarniquet.
I pull off my tie and strap it on above the wound. I look at the blood drenched fingers clutching the wound so tightly. I know them. I get a glance of the face, lit by the glow of the burning robot: It's a girl. White skin, red lips, gently upward tipped nose, high cheekbones... I know that face, I recognize all the expressions etched upon its perfection. God help me. They are yours. All yours. You came back. The fingers release the wound and reach within the coat to hand me a knife. I cut the red sleeve of the raincoat. I pull a white handkerchief from my pocket and bandage it on the wound.
In the alley, in the rain, I tend a wounded ghost.
"You'll need medical treatment" I say. I feel my voice tremble.
"We've got to get out of sight first. They'll send more of these robots soon." she says in your voice.
I stand up and she hands me the rifle. She fumbles in her pockets with her unwounded hand.
"My car is around the corner." she explains as she hands me the keys in fingers painted in her own blood. I move to help her, and met her eyes for the first time.
They are green, beautiful pools of perfect jade.
Just like yours.
In the car, she lets me drive. I head for the nearest Mall driveway, as she unlocks the glove compartment and removes a box of wetware memory interacts. She waves her head, tossing her hair to one side in a casual movement I have seen you do a thousand times. Behind her left ear, I see a single blood red plastic stud embedded in her skull. With nimble fingers, still sticky with her own blood, she removes the stud, and drops it along with its long and moist root into the box. She chooses another interact, this one pale blue, it's color a bit like your gown, with a root that is shiny and hard, like a nail. She drives it into her head as we enter the tunnel which leads to the Mall's multi-story underground parking lot. We pass through darkness, and when we emerge it is in a cavernous parking lot lit by a ghostly fluorescence. I look at her face, and see that the contortions of pain have been replaced by a peaceful calm. She must have plugged in a painjamming interact. I reach the attendant's booth and stretch out of the window to grab a ticket handed to me by a bleary-eyed teenage zombie. With the adrenalin still thick in my blood, I drive in circles, down the spiral tunnel, through darkness, past half empty parking levels lit by dismal neons. We go deeper and deeper into the underworld, until she looks at me and says "enough".
I swing the car into a vacant space, turn off the engine and turn to her. She rests back on her seat, the interacts on her lap, sweat on her forehead, and amused calm on her face.
"Now what?" I ask.
"We take the elevator. Clinics are on the the fifth level. I know a surgeon who won't ask questions. Yakamurta."
She throws the rifle on the back seat and we get out. I lock the car and toss her the keys. She grabs them without moving her eyes from my face. I feel uneasy under her scrutiny. I know those jade eyes, I know the strength inside them, I know they can see right through me. There is no amusement in them now, only a frightening serious intensity. Eventually, she turns and hurries towards the elevator. I hurry after her.
We ride up in a mirrored box smelling of urine to the first garage floor, where we get off and change elevators. The other elevator smells better, but we are forced to share it with an insomniac shopper, who eyes us suspiciously as she cringes in a corner. At the first opportunity, she gets off and leaves us to finish our ride in privacy.
I can't keep my eyes off this girl who wears your image for a skin. She stares back.
"What's your name?" She asks.
"Pat." I say.
"I'm Scarlet." she offers. She eyes me in a disquieting way. She sees something in my face, in my eyes. curiosity dances on her lips.
"You know me, don't you?" she says "You may have known me as Catherine, or Kate, or Cathy, but you know me."
I don't answer, but I don't have to. She can read my reply on my face. She smiles, her eyes filled with pity. She takes a step closer to me. Her eyes look into mine's as she strokes my cheek.
"Poor devil." She murmurs "You didn't know what you were getting into, did you, Pat?"
Her hand is still sticky upon my cheek, but it's touch is sweetly, intimately familiar. Her delicate fingers gently caress my temples, evoking bittersweet memories with electric sharpness. My heart aches when her hand finally drops to her side and she moves away, to lean back on the wall.
Before I can react, the door slides open, admitting us to the Mall's fifth level. We exit and move quickly through the white corridors, past stainless office windows stenciled with the names, titles and specialties of their owners. Most of the offices are darkened, the physicians who work within them are now at their homes, asleep in their beds. The corridors are deserted. Scarlet leads me to the door of a small office which lurks in a corner, squeezed between two huge clinics, a plastic surgery and an orthopedist, both of which look like supermarkets. This is Yakamurta's clinic. The lights are on here. The lights are always on at Yakamurta's.
I see Scarlet's weariness and offer her my shoulder. She leans on me as I ring the doorbell. Hidden cameras regard us coldly.
"Yes?" says a voice from a hidden speaker.
"There's a girl here that's hurt." I say "Shrapnel."
The door slides open, soundlessly, then closes behind us. We find ourselves in a small office full of shadows. There's a smell of antiseptic coming from the other room. On one side of the room there's a low metal desk, bare but for a console and an intercom. On the other side of the room are a number of hard wooden chairs and a cheap coffee table piled with old magazines. The walls are a sterile aquamarine, decorated with japanese posters of airbrushed nudes. Scarlet slumps down on a chair and stares blankly at a framed sunbathing robot.
I walk hesitantly towards the door to the other room, only to be stopped short as an immaculate japanese man walks out and with an icy stare says "I will see the patient now."
Then, ignoring me, he turns to Scarlet and helps her up. She meekly lets him lead her into the other room. Once inside, he turns and closes the metal door firmly behind him. And I am left alone in the empty reception room. I sit there, trying to think. I pick up a magazine and flip through it's pages, which are filled with pictures of pretty smiling people adorned by vicious tales about them in small print.
The magazine bores me. I put it back on the table. I need to think. I open my case, take out my comportable, unfold it, pull out the sensetrans wire and plug it's tip into my forehead interface. I reach the keyboard, throw a switch, and everything vanishes.
Unlinked to the network, all my comportable displays is black, empty space, the result of the complete system crash I caused last time I was here. this won't do. I can get this by closing my eyes. I decide to stick a planet in the center of this empty space, something to please the eye. Checking the comportable's image directory I pick Jupiter. Twice the size of a full moon on earth. Very pretty. Next I detail the background with a generous sprinkling of stardust. Now, I bring in the software. Programs, displayed as weird green spiders, scurry onstage and begin to unfold, like origami. They surround me with green walls of data, until I float in the center of a grass colored rose, each petal covered completely with tiny text, written in black letters, making the petals look like spiderweb filigree and lace. Above me, the multicolored clouds swirl across Jupiter's surface, brown and amber, lemon and brimstone, cream and peach, marred only by the red spot, a huge rust colored stain, which stares at me like a baleful eye. It's color reminds me of dried blood, and I try to imagine someone driving a monstrous spike through the thick layered clouds, reaching so deep as to draw jovian blood to the surface.
Lowering my eyes, I look at my display, cabbage leaves playing the role of papyruses. It's all here. The clues. The key to your identity. All I have to do is put everything together. And that's what I do for a living.
Cathy Mitchell. Electronic nonentity. you are identical in appearance to Catherine Michelle Anderson Moore, dead for the past fifteen years, and to Scarlet.
Scarlet. The new piece in the puzzle. Who is she? What is she?
What are you?
And who is it who killed you? It could have been a robot like the one who nearly killed me. Yes, that would fit. Floating robots leave no footprints. A robot could probably dodge into the canal, too, vanishing without a trace. And that would fit with your memories of a dark spheroid form, the memories I had touched in your head as you died.
But the robot is just the means. not the true killer, only the murder weapon. So who?
Someone rich, if he can afford killer robots, someone with influence, with contacts in Mainlaw, perhaps in the Mainframe itself. Someone who placed that S&T hound in Mainlaw's databanks to get anyone who tried to access the file detailing the investigation into your death. Someone who doesn't want an investigation.
I have a feeling that McVie's death wasn't accidental, that maybe someone communicated to Orlev that he might have a similar accident if he continued the investigation. Maybe he was bribed, paid to forget the whole thing. I think whoever is behind this decided to keep the investigation file in Mainlaw's databanks as bait to lure me into the jaws of the S&T hound. Me, or anyone else who showed too much curiosity concerning your death and the investigation, and who didn't accept Orlev's friendly advice to forget about the whole thing.
So who could it be?
The key clue is your looks, I think. Your appearance, or rather the way it completely matches that of Catherine Moore. Moore. She committed suicide, but her husband is still alive. Her husband. Edmund Moore. The leaves around me shift and display a biography my comportable has constructed.
Edmund Moore was born on earth, some forty three years ago, in a bad neighborhood in Pittsburgh, USA. Father was a mechanic. Edmund was brilliant, excellent grades, earned a Mainframe scholarship, got to the academy, graduated with top honors, became an engineer in Mainframe's biotech branch, data- processing department. worked on an incredible range of projects, navigation systems for spacecraft, Venus terraforming, business software, security programs... promoted to executive, then chief executive of the biotech branch, head executive for the martian sector, and most recently, a senior member of the board of executives. That means he has incredible authority with practically no responsibility. A senior membership is what Mainframe execs get after a lifetime of faithful service, the business world equivalent of the garden of Allah. Moore must really be a prodigy to get there before he reached sixty. And this senior membership makes him wealthy, powerful and influential enough to be the person behind all of this.
So my money's on Moore.
I give Jupiter one last look before I plug out, finding myself back at Yakamurta's. My throat is dry, my mouth sticky and my stomach complainative. I fold my comportable and return it to the case. Consulting my watch, I find that Scarlet has been behind the metal door for slightly less then two hours. I get up and give the door a shy rap. Yakamurta answers through the intercom.
"When will you be finished?"
"Have you got anything to drink or eat?" I ask.
"Other door leads to toilet and kitchen. Help yourself." He answers, without irritation. Apparently the good doctor is used to patients accompanied by hungry thugs who can't allow themselves to visit the local Gulliver Jones. I move towards the kitchen, an extremely clean place whose second hand fridge seems well stocked with a few basic provisions. I set about constructing some sandwiches, then eat one, wrap the rest in cleverly provided shrink-wrap, and put them in my case. After a quick toilet stop, I get back to the waiting room.
Ten minutes later, the surgery door opens, and Scarlet emerges with Yakamurta. I get a good look at her: She still bears an astounding resemblance to you, but she looks tougher. Her eyes are drained of softness, cold replicas of yours. She wears a black T-shirt and leathers and bright red boots, their color matching the nail-polish on the nails of her bare hand. The left hand is gloved in black leather, and the arm is clean, with only a small white bandage to mark the site of her wound.
"How are you feeling?" I ask.
"Functional." She answers.
"Would you like something to eat?" offers Yakamurta.
"No, thank you." She answers "We must go."
"I made a couple of sandwiches." I say.
"Great." She smiles. You had a smile like that. I liked it.
She nods to Yakamurta, who bows in return, and we leave. We make our way swiftly back to the car. This time, she gets into the driver's seat. She reaches for the back seat, and finds a leather jacket there, the color of fresh blood. She puts it on, then takes out the keys and reaches towards the ignition. But she hesitates. Her hand moves away from the switch and she turns and looks at me.
"I think it's time for us to compare notes, Pat. I had Yakamurta check you out on his computer. He says that you're an informerchant from earth, who's been on Mars for around eighteen months, Mars time. Now, from my contacts I know that you're interested in the investigation Mainlaw was conducting into the death of one "Cathy Mitchell". What exactly is your interest in the case?"
"She was my girlfriend." I say "I discovered her body, just a couple of minutes after the murder. I reported it, and I hired the officers to investigate. When they were unwilling to continue the investigation, I tried to do it myself."
"I found out that she was the genetic duplicate of a woman called Catherine Moore, who died fifteen years ago. I believe you, too, are a duplicate of that woman. I believe that that woman's husband is the man who killed Cathy. I believe he made both of you." I pause, look into her eyes "I think you're clones."
She meets my gaze firmly, but she sees no malice in my eyes.
"Yes" she says. "You're right. Do you want me to tell you the things you don't know?"
I nod "I started this investigation, and I'm going to see it to it's end."
"I'll tell you, then. Catherine Michelle Anderson Moore was married to Edmund Moore, The Mainframe executive, for two years. Two years which must have been pretty miserable for her, because she committed suicide."
"But Moore wouldn't let her die. He loved her too much, in some sick way, to bear losing her. So he resurrected her. He had recordings of her memories. He was a biocybernetic genius and he had all the money he would ever need, so he made a clone of his wife, and gave it her memories, expecting it to love him. But the clone hated him. So he made another. And when that one wouldn't love him, he made another, and then another. And those which wouldn't love him like he wanted, he made into sexual slaves. He toyed with them. For fifteen years he's been torturing his wife's memory. But he wasn't torturing some ghost, he was torturing live, flesh and blood girls! Children trapped in the bodies of women, who have known no other real existence but his sadistic reality!" The concentrated intensity of her rage makes me flinch. Behind the jade, her eyes are afire.
I say nothing, and she continues "Moore kept us in his estate, two kilometers clockwise up the coast of Mere Hellas. The place is like a fortress, but some of us managed to escape."
"Cathy?" I say.
She nods "She escaped five weeks before me. With Moore's reach extending far into the Mainframe, there was no way she could leave the planet, so she just ran as far as she could and hid. When I escaped, I tried to find her, but I had worries of my own. The first time I heard of her was when I got word through my contacts that she was murdered."
I close my eyes. "Why did he kill her?" I whisper.
"He needed her to disappear. When she ran away, she betrayed him. He wasn't going to take her back. She knew it. So he killed her. And he plans to kill off or pay off anyone who knew her. He's probably already gotten her body out of Mainlaw's custody, and he can erase that investigation file any time."
She touches my chin, forces me to look into her eyes "He's not going to give up, Pat. His reach is great. He can bend any portion of the Mainframe to his will. He sees all it sees, hears all it hears. The Mainframe monopolizes all space travel, controls the law, banks, Information systems. And Moore controls the Mainframe. She and I have escaped his home, but now the whole planet is our prison. He's after me, and now he's after you. We have nowhere to run from him and nowhere to hide." In her quiet, controlled tones, I sense the mounting of a terrible rage, frightening in it's intensity.
"So Moore is going to kill you and me just like he killed Cathy. What are we going to do? What can we do?"
She looks at me. her eyes flow with a green fire.
"We are going to kill him."
The sky is bleeding with the first light of dawn as we leave Wells city limits. Before leaving town, Scarlet had driven us to another underground lot where we had switched to another car which had been already waiting there. Another precaution Scarlet had taken to avoid detection. Her planning was through and here resources formidable - I wonder how she could have acquired so much with so little, when Cathy had barely earned a living. But Scarlet is silent. he drives with a quiet ferocity, her uneasiness betrayed only in the roughness of her masterful driving.
We ride a dusty asphalt track through the bizarre martian landscape, death valley painted in indian blood. The road followed the canal until it reached the sea, and now it winds itself through hills and canyons, and the sea moves in and out of view. When the sun rises, we are driving along the beach. Waves the color of wine wash over vermilion sands. In the east, the sun climbs from the depths, like a bright pearl on a cushion of tangerine velvet, and climbs into a cherry sky still stained in mauve. In the north, I see the heavy contours of magenta thunderheads. In Scarlet, I see only the rain.
We are going to kill someone.
I am going to participate in premeditated murder. Not only premeditated, but planned, devised. Scarlet has complete floorplans, elaborate timetables, reconnaissance photographs. She has concocted schemes, she has purchased equipment, expensive and state of the art. She has acquired contacts, purchasing people. All this requires a lot of money. And she had none. She had escaped Moore penniless, and, in a city where she did not even legally exist, she has grown rich. She does not tell me how. She doesn't need to. It requires little imagination to figure out how a girl with only her looks and mind and will has earned the means for her revenge. She has plotted, stolen, bribed, blackmailed, whored and risked death for one goal.
To kill a man.
And I can not deny her. Not because his death is the only thing that may save me from death, but because in the face of her determination, confronted by the intensity of her naked rage, Her undiluted Hate, I am helpless. Weak. Inadequate.
She will avenge your death, I tell myself. She will avenge your life, the tortures Moore has inflicted upon you. I can't convince myself. I don't feel a need to avenge you or myself upon Moore, not anymore. Any desire for vengeance I may have is small and petty when compared to the inferno of her hate.She makes it seem very insignificant, irrelevant. All I feel is the numbness of grief. Sometimes I look at her and I think I feel nothing. I am empty, and you live on only in my memories and in her face and in her fury.
She is going to kill a man named Edmund Moore and I am going to help her.
We arrive in a tiny resort town called Cape Minerva. Built like a crescent on the beach on the beach of the bay, the town is a tourist attraction because of the coral reefs, fantastic formations built by genetically engineered Mars-compatible Polyps. However, we have arrived in the off season. We drive slowly through empty streets, flanked by white buildings and rows of palms. Scarlet parks and has us leave the car on a desolate broadwalk where brightly colored signs mark the sites of closed shops and eateries, frequented only by seagulls. Scarlet removes her boots and leads me down to the beach. Without gesturing, she focuses my attention on a hill at the edge of the bay, which reaches into the sea. On the hill is a large four storied mansion, surrounded by a large garden, most of which is hidden behind a high stone wall.
"Moore's estate is over there." She says. She avoids looking at it.
"It's landscaped to deny access from the beach, or the sea - unless you're a very good swimmer. It has it's own small beach. The only access is by the driveway or by airship - although the winds are kind of rough. Surveillance systems are state of the art. He has cameras up there." She gazes up at the rosy sky lit by imperial sol and it's retinue, four daytime space-mirrors, the false suns of Mars.
"In orbit. a favor from Mainframe. He can spot anything larger then a seagull which approaches. The grounds themselves are practically littered with cameras, both normal and infra-red, as well as passive radars and laser alarms. They are patrolled by robot watchdogs, similar to the robot assassins you are familiar with. Ten of them. Inside he has charged-field sensors and cameras monitored by an advanced AI program, which can instantly alert any of up to five security robots. Human staff is rather small. Five. All of them with some combat training."
She stops, waiting for my comments. I scan the mansion. It projects an atmosphere of opulent decadence and high class professionalism. "So you want me to use my comportable, break into the house's security system and defuse it? looks tough to me."
A white smile adorns her face "It'll be a stroll in the park. I got stuff which'll break down Moore's system and subvert it, easy as walking. Hell, my software can do the work even without human help. I didn't count on you in my original plan, remember?"
"So let's say I enter the system and subvert it, nullifying the cameras and deactivating the interior defenses. You'll still have to get past the robots and the guards."
"I can handle it."
We go back to the car, and she drives us to a closed amusement park. We find a shaded parking spot (hidden from high- altitude cameras) under a rainbow colored plastic canopy. Scarlet opens the booth. She takes out several unmarked metal cases. She opens the first one. It contains a dull black comportable deck. It is of a configuration unknown to me, but seems impressive.
"Custom job?" I ask
She nods. "Black market korean copy of an Olivetti prototype, not yet out. SPK-18 improvement, very user friendly. The software is what's hot, however. A penetration program called Wormclaw-4, it was smuggled from earth two months ago. A collector's item, limited edition, It's got Pact military defense and detection countermeasures, but the core is part of an Intruderprobe program." She smiles when she sees the look on my face. "Told you I got good stuff?"
She closes the case quickly and opens another one. I recognize military communications equipment.
She identifies each device for me "Multioperation communicator, with tight beam option and scrambler. Transmitter dish. You will use this equipment to link up to the network and reach Moore's system, as well as to keep in touch with me. I'll be wearing a transmitter/receiver."
"Where's our center of operations going to be?"
"Over here." She signals me to follow her.
We approach the amusement park. It is surrounded by a two meter high wire fence, and the gates are tied together with a loop of chain, held with by a heavy lock. Scarlet takes a key from her pocket, passes it through the lock and pushes the gates open. she leads me past derelict stalls and dusty coin-operated rides, bright colors cracked in the corners of fiberglass horses, elephants and lions.
We reach a nondescript locked shack beside a vandalized video arcade. The door is heavy, rusting metal covered in peeling white paint, and has no handle. Scarlet stands a step back from the door, and peels the sable glove from her left hand. She reaches for a scratched finger-lock under the hole where the handle should be, and touches it with her middle finger. She twists her finger and kicks the door open. I follow her into a dark, cool and musty room. The walls are rough concrete, but the floor is worn, practically smooth, and covered in dust.
Scarlet claps her hands, and neon tubes on the ceiling flicker to life. Their harsh white light seems to violate the room, and I see half of it is filled with dust coated junk, rusting and peeling corpses of arcade machines, broken chairs, radios, televisions, simulators and bicycles. In one corner of the other half is a table draped with a stained rag, upon which rest a rust streaked self heating kettle, a tin box and a television. Beside the table is an old armchair, covered in cracked leather. On the wall it faces I see that someone has taped a yellowing torn-out centerfold. On it, ballpoint pen scribblings deface the comely curves of a nude painted green.
"Let's get the stuff from the car."
She leaves without looking if I will follow. I walk to the car and she hands me two cases. I grab my briefcase, and hold it awkwardly under my left arm as I carry the two cases. She seals and locks the car, then follows me with the third crate nestled under her right arm and the rifle slung over her left shoulder. In the store room, she sweeps the table clear, revealing it's scarred wooden surface. She begins unpacking and setting up the equipment, doing it in a swift and correct manner despite my clumsy attempts to help.
"You'll sit here." she says, as she begins unpacking the third crate. "The radio will access the network for you automatically, and from there you can get into Moore's systems."
She takes a dark green coin from the third crate, brushes away the hair from her forehead and peels away a thin layer of plastiskin with her crimson nails. That's one of the standard locations for a forehead interface. She places the coin upon it. It gleams in the neon and sticks in it's place.
"My transmitter/receiver." She says "I was going to use it to monitor the comportable. Once you put on the intertrodes and verbalize the access code, you'll have access to my senses, and you'll be able to transmit messages to me."
She looks at me. "You're going to get a pretty intimate look at me. I think I have the right to get one at you."
She looks like a hindu divinity, sculptured in ivory in your likeness, but with a third eye of jade. She extends a hand which would not shame any arm of Shiva, and I can not deny her request. I place my hand in her porcelain fingers. She examines my face, sinking her eyes into mine's like sacrificial daggers of jade. My eyes are soft and colorless. She sees through them. Deliberately, she moves closer, and gently kisses my cheek. I feel her tongue touch my skin, reminding me of your kisses. Then she kisses me on the lips. Her mouth tastes like strawberries and her tongue is a sword sheathed in satin. I hunger for her, but I do not dare to touch her. I barely dare to caress her fingers with my captive hand. Only my tongue is daring, thrilled with the rediscovery of a familiar pleasure. Her taste makes me forget that she is not you. When she pulls away, I yearn for more and am ashamed. She is not you, I tell myself. But my tongue does not believe me.
She raises my hand to her lips. I am filled with a dread mingled with hungry anticipation. First she kisses the back of my hand. Then she extends her tongue and slides it smoothly towards my central finger.
An image of you, lying in your blood comes to my mind.
Her tongue skirts my fingernail, and begins descending the soft whorls which make up my fingerprint.
Incarnadine sparks begin dancing up my spine, ascending to my limbic system.
And then, suddenly, I'm standing all alone in the rain, staring at your blank face, My finger an impotent violation between your cold, silent lips. It looks stupid, rude. I take it out.
She slides my fingertip up her palate.
She seals her rowanberry lips around my finger's second joint.
I can't take my finger out.
With a finger stuck in her mouth, she somehow looks solemn, almost holy.
Our interfaces interlock.
I don't know what to expect. I wait with closed eyes for her to enter my mind. But she does not. Instead, she sucks me in through my finger. Devouring my mind with a rubineous hunger, she inhales my essence like a wisp of smoke.
She takes me inside of her.
She holds me helpless in coils of fuchusia, under the minute examination of her fiery jade, and takes me apart.
I feel her distrust, her caution. All her life has been shaped by pain. She is the creation of love turned to hate. She will trust nothing close enough to hurt her. Under the alabaster face she bears the pain distorted visage of medusa.
I lay still in her, as she prods my soft entrails with a glowing red poker.
Silently, I feel her rake my fragile cortex with cruel caution.
Her eyes penetrate my brain like nails of crucifixion. I drink in their pain deeply.
She hesitates. Then, with grim resolve, she impales me, driving her inquest to my core. She plows through a sea of crushed remembrance.
My memories flow to the surface, wash all over me, filling her. I bleed them.
Birth (out of the warm darkness into the harsh, cold light) - Mom (gentle eyes in a stern face) - School (tedium and pressure) - Frog (grotesque and fragile, small wet emerald) - Dad (strong hands and weary eyes) - Hopalong (A name. Whose?) - The Academy (lectures and girls) - Scams (Hurried whispers in solemn halls) - Roger (freckled smiles and a nervous voice)...
The memories start to flow faster, I lose control, they dissociate into phrases and images, nearly random, but each a peek into a segment of my linear history (more or less).
Space - Mars - rust-red - Expelled - Sorry - Don't lose hope - Hi Score - teach you the trade - Spy - Fleming - Detective - Holmes - Industrial espionage - highest bidder - Good Job - Money - Car - Archaeology? No sweat. - Find of the century, man! - Martian Kings! - Eavesdrop - Chat - bug - break in - Not Decent - Not Legal - Quit - Beats the hell out of an office job - Quit - Go Freelance - Regret this - never, not me - Go suck eggs - Scrambled - Not Stirred - Hi Score - Screw up, hey? - Don't worry - Plenty work for kid like you - Computers - Comportable - No, not a cowboy - Compjockey - It's Okay - Simple - No, Not a spy job - Just a matter of putting together all these little pieces - Lovely pieces - Just lying around - Waiting - A guy with brains - Not an Office job - Try your luck out here, Mate.
Mate - Loved one - Wife (?) - Lover - Cathy - Tent - Douglas - Never give up - Never sell out - Such strength - strength is beauty - Love beauty - Love Cathy.
Cathy - Lovely Cathy - Legs. Long and smooth legs. soft Thighs. Ass, Buttocks, Back, Shoulders, so smooth and strong, so delicate and fragile. Hair like sunshine and breasts like snow and nipples like strawberries and eyes like jade. So pure, so strong, just like Scarlet. Strength. Strength folded inside elegant mystery. Beauty to drive men mad. Beauty like Scarlet: In Blood red dead.
Scarlet. Alive like Cathy. Cathy.
The pink coils loosen. The eyes blink. All around me I feel her withdraw. I want her to stay close, but she moves away. Softly, like a ring of cigarette smoke, like a candle's flame, she blows me out.
I open my eyes. My balance is shaky, and I sway as she pulls my finger out of her mouth. With slow, ritualistic movements she stands and kisses me once on the lips, without entering my mouth. Then she steps back and regards me with the beatific look of a nun. I look back, admiring her in the silence of the moment.
Then she says "Let's eat" and steps out. I follow her, briefcase in hand, and find her at the carousel, waiting for me in it's shade, sitting on a horse with a gleaming white fiberglass coat and gilt harness. She smiles and gestures at a brown horse with a silver harness beside her. We make a meal of the rest of the sandwiches I made at Yakamurta's. The sun is high above, a big bright diamond sliding like a tear across the flesh- colored sky, past bruise-purple clouds. It's almost noon now. The mind-interface must have taken over an hour. I watch Scarlet as she eats, see the sunlight and the breeze play with her hair. She chews absent-mindedly, a frown on her brow, her eyes slowly roaming the empty park grounds, scanning the dirt on the gaudy plastics, the dust streaked carnival lights, strung above passageways of asphalt and red sand in necklaces of black wire and bright glass, like funeral wreathes.
"Something will probably go wrong." She says, the sandwich frozen inches from her mouth.
"There are some emergency precautions I've set up, just in case." She turns and looks at me.
I stop eating, wait for her to elaborate.
"I've planted a bomb not far from here. It's not going to harm anyone, but when it goes off, All electrical power to Cape Minerva will be cut. It's radio activated. The transmitter will set it off automatically if my broadcast signal is cut off, or deactivated. It'll turn off the lights and the security cameras at Moore's place, but not his computers."
"Doesn't Moore have an emergency generator?"
"Yes, but it should take about five minutes to kick in."
"That's not much time for you to act in."
She turns away, rests her eyes on the ground, where the wind has formed a tiny red sandstorm beside the carousel.
"No, it's not. But I'm used to acting fast."
Back at the control-room, Scarlet moves aside some junk to reveal a coolbox filled with soft drinks. I have to smile. This tough girl, sort of Cathy imitating Eastwood, acting out the macho mythos, complete with leathers and guns, knife in her coat, driving like a maniac's, and she doesn't have beer. The tough girl doesn't drink. The tough girl doesn't smoke. Girl. She still is, I remind myself.
"How old are you?" I ask.
"Two" Her smile is warm, amused whiteness. "Going on three."
I nearly choke on my coke "How?"
"It takes eighteen months to grow one of us. When he pulls us from the vat, we're around sixteen years old, physically. Then he uses memory-matrices to program us. He has a matrix he recorded of Catherine, a short while before she died, but he hasn't been feeding most of us with all of it. Catherine hated him, and so do clones with all of her memories. Not that any of the rest really love him, not like he wants, anyway. It drives him nuts. "
She was silent. My curiosity overwhelmed my sense. "How... Tell me about how it is living there. I mean..."
She puts down her drink. Her eyes are not focused on me but rather on the door, or on some spot in space.
"I was born with the memories of Catherine Anderson. But not with all of them - with an edited version. From what I figured out, Moore had censored most of her early love life, and also mangled her memories of her relationship with him. So I was a bit more innocent then her, a bit more naive. 'Purer'. But with Catherine's memories I thought I was her. A nice all american girl. Upper middle class parents, only child. Heavy social conscience. An intellectual. Studying for a degree in social science, intent on marrying someone handsome and rich.
Suddenly, I find myself on Mars. Younger then before, at the home of a guy I always considered a nerd back at college. He's older then I remember him. He says Catherine's dead, and I'm a clone with her memories. Only I have amnesia, must have been a malfunction. I forgot that he and I were married. I forgot that he had promised me immortality through cloning. I forgot that I had accepted.
He lied to me.
So I was confused, and in unfamiliar surroundings. He helped me to 'adjust'. I lived in a lovely room in his mansion, which was big enough to be a hotel. I could only move freely in parts of it, because he told me that in other parts he conducted 'experiments' and stored 'equipment'. And there were areas which didn't seem interesting, just basements and servants' quarters. So I wasn't particularly curious. And life was good. The house had a big computerized library of books, films and simulations. It had a magnificent private beach, and I soon got used to windsurfing on red water. He had a lovely garden, and stables. I would ride for hours along the beach with him, or through the wilderness outside town. The house itself was amazing, and Moore was also nicer then I remembered. Worldly. Clever. Witty. Attentive. He used to take me out in the evenings, to Wells, to restaurants, nightclubs. He even took me on an airship cruise.
He was good. He nearly got me to fall for him.
But after a time, I began to see his lies, the cracks in the facade. Something inherently paranoid in me, and, I guess, in Catherine and all her replicas, made me check out what he was doing when he wasn't with me, and what was going on in the basements and other places he said were 'Off-Limits' to me. I discovered he had an elaborate security system, and that made me even more suspicious. I found ways to foil it. I still had his trust, then, and he still believed I was unaware of his secrets.
The basement was a gate to a wonderland. Huge rooms filled with holographic scenery. Twisting passages, some of them leading to parts of the garden or the beach I never knew existed. Huge pools, and water-slides, and mirror-mazes... I got in quite easily. What I found there was shocking. I found clones. Girls, like me. Just like me. Most of them spent most of their time out of their skulls, tripping on hullucinatory interact. One of them was curled up in an old fashioned four-poster bed, wearing a white lace wedding gown and reading Fairy Tales. Another spent the whole day eating and throwing up, trying to make herself bloated and ugly.
They were his rejects, my predecessors. Copies which didn't match the perfection of the original. He had cast them out, locked them away in an underworld of madness, buried them.
I couldn't get out. He had built the place without exits. At least, no exits I could find then. I tried to talk to my fellow clones, but they were each locked up in her own private world, and none of them seemed to talk sense. He found me there, when he came down at night to play. It took him a while to identify me among the rest, but when he did, my nightmare began.
We lived in the underground apartments, all together and all alone. Few of my sisters were coherent enough to talk. One of them was violent, Psychotic. I still had access to the movies, simulations and books. I could play in the pool, or muck around with the holographic scenery. But I couldn't leave. At night, Moore would come down to play. He usually toyed with one or two of us during his visits. Other times he staged mass degradations."
She falls silent, and regards me quietly. "Last chance to quit, Pat. The console can run on automatic."
"Impossible. Moore has set the Mainframe against me. The only way to get it off my back is to rewire his system. Hey, it's the only way to get the 'Frame off your back. You need me."
She accepts my explanation, allows me to take refuge in my rationalizations.
"You want to go to sleep now? I don't plan to begin until around three o'clock in the morning. We'll both need plenty of rest before then."
"Yeah, sure. where do I sleep?"
"Where ever you can find some space. I've got a sleeping bag in the booth." She tosses me the carkeys.
The sleeping-bag, once I fetch it, looks very comfortable, but there is only one of it.
"No problem." She says "I can sleep on the chair."
I argue. Finally, she is convinced to leave the chair to me and use the sleeping bag herself. I watch her pull off her jacket and boots and crawl into the bag. She looks cute.
The chair is slightly uncomfortable, but I am used to sleeping on chairs, on desks. I curl up my raincoat into a pillow, and sleep, uneasily. My dreams are disturbing, fragmented, incoherent, filled with images of rain and robots.
"Showtime soon." She wakes me with a whisper. "Gotta prepare."
She clears herself a working space on the floor, spreads a tablecloth she dug out of the table's drawer upon it, and sits down, crosslegged. She opens the third crate and begins arraying her tools of death about her. I watch her, fascinated.
"So where's all this military hardware from?" I ask.
"While I was living at Moore's, I learned of an ex-trooper business rival of his who had Mainlaw connections, which he used to prevent the confiscation of his 'war-time souvenirs'. I also found out that this man's sexual tastes were a bit too exotic to be satisfied on the open market. So when I was in Wells, I contacted him. I offered him my goods. I threatened him with a little subtle blackmail. He's a decent sort, really. paid me for my services with loans of hardware and with the memory interacts I needed to use this stuff."
"And, yes," She adds "I did have this stuff checked out carefully. Nothing here has been tampered with or set to malfunction in a crucial moment. My supplier may be a prevert, but he's a loyal prevert."
She lifts a gun, begins dismantling it, but my curiosity is still not satisfied. I have too many questions to ask her.
"What were you planning to do after you killed Moore?"
She looks up from the gun, fixes her eyes on mine firmly.
It takes me a moment to realize fully what she means. Chilled, I reach for the comportable board.
I turn. She gives me an odd look, nervous, disquieting.
"Pat, when you let me look inside you...I saw...You loved Cathy, I saw that. But there was...I saw...I saw myself..." Her voice trails off for a moment. She doesn't know how to say what she wants to say. Finally, she looks directly at me and asks:
"Pat, do you love me?"
For a moment I see you on her face, and a child looks at me through eyes of jade. I realize that my answer is terribly important to her. I think carefully. She is a mistreated, homicidal clone with the emotional experience of a child, a blackmailer and a whore with a killer's training and your face. I have known her for less then twenty four hours, and she is probably going to die in the next twenty four. I am probably also going to die. A zen story leaps suddenly to mind, about a man hanging on a vine on the side of a cliff. There's a ravenous man eating tiger above him, and a ravenous man-eating tiger below him, and a mouse is gnawing away at the vine, when he sees a luscious red strawberry growing within reach...
I crouch beside her and put my arm around her shoulders. She wraps her arms around my neck, and I look into at her face. I see shyness, and an honest, innocent curiosity, and a warmth which touches me inside. Tough girl before a suicide mission and all she needs is a hug. Our embrace grows tighter. She slides back, graceful as a cat, her crossed legs unfold from beneath her and extend forward as we lower ourselves onto the tablecloth on the cold, concrete floor. She sheds her jacket and shirt like a snake shedding old skin, peels off her leathers, extracts me from my suit like a seed from it's pod. Weapons of destruction lie in a circle all around us, like alien numerals on an archaic clockface, marking out the time we have left. Beneath me Scarlet is smooth and strong, soft and hard, she knows what she wants and I give it all to her. I caress a familiar body with my hands, warm and alive with a frightening vitality, but my eyes see only you, still and cold by the canal, your life trickling out of your pale lips. I remember your silent mouth as I kiss away the fear from her warm satin lips. She tastes like strawberries and smells of metal. I lick a salty drop on her cheek and I don't know if its mine or hers. Scarlet's jade eyes are reflected in mine, and both are filled with a human kind of rain. I can see my end from here, but before I die, I make love to you once more, one last time. And this time, I will get to say goodbye.
It is over too quickly. I lie on the floor, dazed and cold, a grenade pressing hard into my back from below. She gets up in one fluid motion, reaches for her panties, pulls them on. I ignore the painful grenade and the cold floor for a moment, spellbound by her movement. Then I too get up, and begin searching for my own clothes. I dress clumsily, keeping my eyes on her. She bends down, straightens the tablecloth, tidies the assorted military toys spread about the floor, then pulls on her leather jeans. She sits down, still naked from the waist up, and picks up a roll of adhesive tape and several small instruments I can not identify properly. Communication devices? medical tools?
I watch as she places one of those instruments, a piece of thin black plastic, five centimeters below her left breast and tapes it in place. Each of the small devices is taped in turn onto her pale and perfect body in some place, sometimes with my assistance, until her torso resembles that of an intensive care patient.
"This is a pulse/respiration monitor, that's the broadcast unit I need to keep in touch with you, that's the scrambler..." She points at each of the devices in turn, explaining it's function. She does it in such a straight faced manner, I can't help but laugh. She smiles at me. "It does look a bit ridiculous, doesn't it?"
"Well, you would look good with ashtrays stuck to your body, but yes, it does look a bit ridiculous."
Her face becomes serious as she pulls her T-shirt back on. "funny-looking or not, this stuff is vital for the success of our mission. Don't forget that."
She spends the next two hours cleaning and checking, calibrating and loading. I engross myself in the comportable, acquainting myself with the elaborate software, running checks, tuning... I lose myself for a while in the perfect and complex geometries of digital data displays, each one with a distinct color, shape, texture...
Her hand on my shoulder shatters my meditations. I fumble to remove the intertrodes, turn to look at her.
"Hour of the wolf." She smiles.
She wears her tight leather jeans and a clean T-shirt, both in ebony. Her boots are a maroon leather, knee-high and concealing knives in hidden sheaths. Under her right breast, a holster is strapped, it's contents hidden under her jacket, which is the color of fresh blood. A small back-pack is slung across her back, containing a medical kit, wire-cutters, extra ammunition and assorted other useful items. A red bandana conceals her third eye, and holds her pale blond hair in place to prevent it from getting in her eyes. Behind her ear, what looks like a large drop of dried blood is the only sign of her many bioware memory interacts. The porcelain fingers of her bare hand are nested in the grip of a customized officer-model assault rifle with grenade launcher attached. Beauty bearing death.
"All ready?" I ask. She closes her jacket, it's leather covering layers of kelvar ballistic cloth, it's many pouches bulging with ammunition and explosives, and nods.
"And you?" I put on the intertrodes and wave my assertion. She puts the rifle aside for a moment, wraps her arm around me, and kisses me a farewell kiss. I savor her scent and her taste one last time, and then she picks up the gun, opens the door, and steps out into the darkness of the stillborn dawn.
I lock the door behind her and sit down. I turn on the sensory input switch on the comportable and slip into a world of geometries. Through my transmitter, I bounce off satellites and mesh into the local data network. My console translates it all into sights and textures.
The software encircles me like a suit of armour, and guides me with wondrous accuracy through quicksilver streets streaming with data. It handles like an expensive sportscar, quick and sure, filling me with a rapture of power. I reach Moore's databases in the space of nine heartbeats. They are huge, incredibly complex spirals, standing out like alexandrian lighthouses amid the small and simple local private and public databases. Wormclaw-4, superior to anything I've ever used in my life, scrutinizes them with eyes written by an anonymous criminal genius, and maps out their defenses in an elaborate and detailed tactical display.
Before my eyes, the abstract representation of Moore's databases unfolds, like a flower bud blossoming before my eyes, the ruthlessly dense helix spreading out in petals of cold blue, like butterfly wings fresh out of the chrysalis, forming a wondrous jungle of ice and moon shadows. I marvel at what this landscape shows me of Moore's computer systems. His databases are as well defended as his home. They are built like a fortress, in modular segments, each wrapped in it's own heavy defenses, and connected to the others only by specific entrance codes. It's like a string of pearls encrusted in ice, each segment glowing with densely packed, concentrated information, blinding like stars, obscured by the refractions of their own light in the surrounding ice. But somehow, my comportable can see into the heart of each brilliant bead, and it has managed to identify a whole cluster of security programs. It indicates my first target: Perimeter and garden security.
The defensive blockading and filtering programs are thick with details, webs of computer logic compacted into hard crystal, and most of them are of a design unlike anything I have ever seen. They are either specially-commissioned programs ordered by Moore, or his own work. Tough stuff, the sort of target no one but a professional compjockey would dare to try and hit. But Scarlet said this program I'm using could do the entire job on automatic. I'm about to find out if that's true.
Looking at the tactical display, I find Wormclaw-4 has already spotted some booby traps, dangerous neurally interactive routines ready to spring deadly surprises, which it has marked in bright red. And there are also S&T hounds, of a design similar to the one I ran across in Mainlaw's databanks. They must be Moore's personal creations. I see them frozen in place like prehistoric horrors embedded in glaciers, ready to pounce at the slightest thawing of the ice. One of them ate through my toughest military defenses and nearly fried my brain. My comportable informs me that, given time, these hounds could eat even through Wormclaw-4's defenses. But they will have to detect it first, and its detection countermeasures are incredible. For all intents and purposes, My software is invisible.
I wait a bit before my attack, hoping maybe my comportable will discover more. I decide to give it another minute and check on
"Scarlet." I verbalize. The stainless and finely focused reality, created by my comportable to stimulate the vast amount of data it touches, vanishes. There's a moment of disorientation as I shift from my body to hers. She's running. I feel it in her lungs. It is dark, and she is running, rifle in hand, through shadowed streets, past whitewashed houses and parked cars and palm trees dark against the dark and angry sky.
"Red?" I whisper
"Just checking. I'm about to go in. How are you doing? weather looks bad."
"I did notice the sky, Pat. I'm counting on rain. With this cloud cover, the orbital cameras are practically blind. Now, please remember, once you get into the security system, you relay all camera data to me. I want to know where those robots are going to come from."
"Roger, kid. I'll give you a call In around four minutes, OK? Good luck, Scarlet."
I'm back in the computer network. I give the tactical one last look, then check the strategic routines, and charge.
Motes of golden light drop from my main body, advanced scouts, they hit Moore's system's early warning devices. In the tactical they impact like flares. In actual display, they enter Moore's system like inconspicuous little bits of data which confuse his sensors as the main offensive program moves into position. Invisible and fast, Wormclaw-4 glides across the surface of Moore's system, searching for weaknesses in the seamless dark blue structure. Chills crawl down my spine as we pass so close to a S&T hound I can feel its cold malignancy on my skin. But it does not notice our passage, and Wormclaw has already found its entrance. A route used by the security system to exchange data with the orbital cameras. We hover, watching what looks to me like a dance of colored dots on a smooth blue panel. My program is up to something, I know. I hear my comportable hum, The radio linked to it begins to buzz, click, change settings, sending out a signal twisted to imitate a scrambled one. The comportable suddenly flashes an indicator circle around one of the dots I see on the blue panel, identifying it for my benefit as ours. It's a Trojan routine, something which mimics some of Moore's material nearly perfectly, but carried a minor bit of crucial tampering.
Wormclaw seems to be monitoring the Trojan somehow. I count twelve heartbeats, when it suddenly leaps into action, fast as a striking cobra. The Blue panel vanishes, And no sooner is it gone then we plunge into the breach. Scarlet's program moves fast, very fast, and it moves unerringly, never losing sight of the program's tender heart which lies inside this maze of ice blue software like a spider in the center of a barbed wire web. The intruderprobe penetration routine is at work now, a program designed to penetrate the brains of an alien machine, It cuts through Moore's more mundane software like a razor. It's complex, more complex then anything I have ever seen, and The comportable seems to have trouble representing its actions visually. It writhes like an amoeba, seeming to flow all around anything it attacks, weakening portions of the defenses by isolating them, then flowing through them, telling them it is friendly, part of the system, just going through. And It's doing this in so many places simultaneously...
As we plunge through Moore's defenses, going through them as if they were not even solid, moving as if we are swimming in syrup, a multitude of virus subversion routines, emerald locust, branch off the main assault body and swarm around the cracks we have left in the defense array. they fill the cracks and begin to crawl into the wounded defenses, entering them and subverting them, deadening their pain, dulling the sensations of assorted alarm mechanisms like the anesthetic saliva on a mosquito bite, erasing the tell-tale signs of our passage. Wormclaw dives through the crystalline defenses like a stone, leaving no ripples in its green wake.
Three minutes later, I hit nerve. Not defense programs, but actual non-hostile software. I got through. My programs secure the perimeter as I charge forward, exploring the intricacies of Moore's "Perimeter and garden security" system. It's not as complex as I may have feared. I locate the nerve center, and send my viruses to enter and gain control of it.
mapping out the security program, my virus routines install override options in key points, enabling me to divert and revise commands and data as they flow from one point to the other. I study the material inputted into the system. The amount of information It's getting is mindboggling: images recorded by nearly fifty automatic cameras, both outside the perimeter and on the grounds, images received from the orbital cameras (ten different images, all showing the same mass of clouds from various angles), information from heat-sensors, charged-field detectors, laser scanners and patrolling robots. All this data is collected and processed by a program which gives out a fully detailed description of the area surrounding the house and the external perimeter, a description so accurate, it can tell me exactly how many birds are found in each tree in the garden.
My subversive software copies this data-processing program, then re-routes all the raw data directly from it's point of origin to my copied program, which processes the data, allowing me to see the action properly, while a loop I set up keeps feeding the original data-processing program out-of-date information I take from the 'Perimeter and Garden Security' system's memory banks. An army could now picnic on Moore's front lawn without his computer noticing it.
For my benefit, my comportable displays the processed description as a small-scale model of Moore's home and it's environs: A tiny, beautifully crafted dollhouse, painted in bright and lurid primary colors, The guardian robots represented by tiny beads of light floating mere millimeters over a neon green lawn. I check and find that there is one man at the main entrance, sitting inside an inspection booth watching television, while two robots float behind the gate, watching the driveway.
My comportable's integral timepiece informs me it has been four minutes and twelve seconds since I last talked to
There is sand underneath her boots. She's moving along the beach. Something is odd with her sight. she's wearing ultra- violet goggles. Above her, the sky is covered completely by massive clouds, ripe to burst, their outlines etched in the darkness with cobweb thin purple lines. It's drizzling, but the wind isn't strong, and Scarlet is running, so she keeps warm, although the fingers of her bare hand on the rifle's trigger are cold, as are her nose and cheeks. Moore's mansion is about eight minutes running ahead of her, four minutes of that uphill . She has the choice of climbing the cliff and then a three meter wall, or running up the driveway, entering through the gate and fighting a guard and two robots.
"What's up, Pat?"
"We are now in command of garden and perimeter security." I say "It's just that the robots don't know it yet. There's two of them at the gate, and the watchman is watching TV in his booth."
"Good. What about the rest of the robots?"
"Eight of them, moving along various routes through the grounds. I'll give you a visual." I concentrate on the graphic description of Moore's garden my comportable gives me, sending it's image to her through our link.
"Okay. You'll open the gate?"
"You're taking the gate? What about the guards?"
"I can handle that with your help. Once I'm inside, make me invisible to their cameras."
"I'm way ahead of you, red. You'll be as invisible as a black cat in a coalshed. The security programs are watching reruns."
"Wait. what about the early warning systems up the road?"
"Even the early warning systems along the road won't see you."
"Great. Now, Wormclaw will go for the house security system. see if you can find Moore, will you?"
"Sure, kid. I'll check back with you in, say, six minutes, Okay?"
She keeps on running. The rain falls harder. As I repeat the code-word, returning from inside her skull to the computer network, I hear the rumble of thunder.
I return to a world of computerized holograms. As predicted, Wormclaw-4, having successfully entered and subverted 'Perimeter and Garden security' begins to search for an opening to 'House security'. It locates a lightly screened passage from one security program to the other in eighteen seconds, and then spends nearly half a minute convincing it that the entire fearsome Wormclaw program is just some information about the garden's sprinkler system which must be relayed to the house's fire extinguisher controls. Eventually, the passage allows us to flow through, and we climb the next rung on Moore's spiral security ladder, as a glowing pearl, which my comportable has marked 'house', grows larger then the sun, until it engulfs me.
As the simulated image expands, it becomes more diffuse, and what seemed a single object is revealed to be an immense network of multicolored dots linked with lines of purest white, a model of some gigantic molecule. And as the dots and the lines grow larger, They gain shape and definition, until eventually, I find myself in a bizarre landscape, a vast mesh of branching logic, where each junction is itself a cluster of tree-like schematics. This is Moore's house security system. It is much more complex then the system in charge of outdoor security. At it's heart, there is a minor artificial intelligence, filled with tangled intersections like stars at the heart of a galaxy, it is something which is roughly at the mental level of a dog, a dog with a flawless memory, speed-of-light thoughts, and endless patience. Judging that it is impossible to carefully subvert this AI the way it has subverted the exterior security program, Wormclaw decides to incapacitate it. The system's outputs are cut off one by one. It is not going to be able to give out an alarm. It is not going to be able to command the interior defense robots. I watch the immense size and complexity of the AI, and I see Wormclaw, small and puny in comparison, disabling it, like a rat gnawing away the eyes of a paralyzed elephant.
As the AI floats adrift in the imaginary computerized space, helpless as a clump of drifting seaweed, I branch out subversive tentacles, accessing the house's sensors. I feel out the layout of the house, sense the subterranean levels stirring with buried secrets. I focus cameras like newborn eyes, and when I open them, all at once, Moore's mansion is stripped of its secrets, reduced to a dollhouse with walls of glass.
With more eyes then you could find on the tail of a peacock, I look. Switching from camera to camera, I see bedrooms and bathrooms, dining halls and guest rooms and all the rest of the architectural features which are found in all the houses of the affluent. And I see more. Everywhere in the images which flash by me, I see the marks of insanity. There is something twisted in this house, something born of pain and hate, something dark and cancerous which is screaming through all the tiny cracks in the veneer of normalcy which coats this house, demanding release.
I see a library, where cut businessmen's ties are pinned in a glass display case like butterflies, strange trophies of a corporate hunter. I see a scarred mercenary washing dishes in a kitchen where all of the walls are covered with wedding pictures. I see dimly lit corridors, where robots, like tireless, mouthless eunuchs, glide above red mock-persian carpets, past padded doors, soundproofed and locked. I see pools shaped like hearts, fed by waterslides like arteries. I see an indoor garden, where rose bushes and a neatly mowed lawn are tended by a beetle- like robot, in the light cast by halogen lamps. I see a maze of mirrors and glass, where wind blows in from the outside, filling the passages with inhuman wailing voices. And then I see my first clone.
I'm looking at a very large room, as big as a dance hall or a theater, without windows or doors, its walls, ceiling and floor all covered with mirrors, giving a sense of infinite space. The center of the room is dominated by a pool, round and also mirrored. The mirrors form a seamless surface of silvered glass, broken only at irregular intervals by illumination panels, which curves to match the curves of floor and pool, producing concave and convex mirrors, distorting shape like in a funhouse arcade. In the center of the pool, on a transparent plastic inflated mattress, lies a blond girl in a bikini swimsuit. I know how she looks like before the camera zooms in. She lies very still on the mattress, but she's awake. From a face identical to your's, her jade-green eyes cast terrified wild looks all around her, and all she can see is herself.
I find the next clone in a room with pink and white walls, small, cosy, warmly lit by elegant candelabra. It's filled with pretty pink and white furniture, the sort you would find in a young girl's room. Toys and dolls and stuffed animals are strewn all around. The clone lies in a four-poster bed, wearing a white gown, reading Beatrix Potter with a pink bunny tucked under one arm and the thumb of the other stuck firmly in her mouth.
Next I see a dining room. Two clones are sitting by the table, eating ice-cream with chocolate fudge and cream from china plates with silver spoons and drinking milkshakes from crystal glasses. I can see the remnants of the previous courses on various other plates, each offering at best only half-eaten: Doughnuts with icing, hamburgers, frankfurters, brownies, chocolate mousse, chocolate cake, lemon marangues, eclairs, pitchers of soft-drinks, and platefuls of french fries, covered with red spatters of ketchup.
The image changes. This room is bare of furniture, except for a single orthopedic easy chair, upon which sits the clone. She is skeletally thin, her eyes are closed, and her head is wired to a simulator unit beside her chair. she wears a dirty knee- length T-shirt and a catheter reaches underneath it. Her left arm is strapped to the chair and a needle in her vein connects her to a drip-feed tube. There is a stack of simulator plaques six inches thick inside the simulator unit, and it's set for automatic replay.The unit clicks as it finishes playing one plaque, then shifts it from the bottom of the stack to the top and begins to play the next one. The clone's free hand clenches into a fist, and beneath their lids, her eyes move, looking at the familiar landscape of never-never land, as she lives through an endless series of soap operas.
In a hurry, I switch cameras more rapidly, leafing through the images.
Camera 27. On a comfortable leather chair, her legs tucked in underneath her, a frightened clone sits, scribbling notes with a broken and chewed pencil. The elegant ghostwriter on the desk before her is untouched, unactivated.
Camera 28. a clone is running scared, through a jungle of holograms, but the treadmill she's on leads nowhere.
I remember Scarlet said she was going in through the front. I shift to the perimeter and garden security system and search for the program which enables automatic operation of the gate. I find it. Ever industrious, Wormclaw-4 has installed an override option, so opening the gate should be no problem. I have looked inside the walls you built around your private little hell, Moore, and now I'm going to open the door and let your sins be burned away by a purer hellfire.
She's going up hill, not on the driveway exactly, but beside it, she scurries across the mass of shattered red rocks which flank the driveway from both sides. In the dark, her red and black clothes blend in to their surroundings well. Her lungs and muscles are beginning to feel sore, but she is too filled with the adrenalin of excitement to care. Before her, Moore's home looms, a haunted house with walls of neon purple.
"Hello Pat. Well?" She whispers between breaths.
"Wormclaw got into the house security system alright, and the modifications it did to the outside security program are working okay. I got a look inside, but I didn't spot Moore."
"What about the gate?"
"It will open when you command."
"Great. In around two minutes, I'm going to shoot a grenade in there. Open the gate as it hits."
"Right. See you then, Scarlet."
Back in the machine, I can see scarlet, her approach detected by cameras along the driveway, a pink stick figure crawling up the hill towards the neon dollhouse in my comportable. But while the eyes of Moore's security system can see her, it's brain is blindfolded. That works okay. I check the gate. It will open. Everything's okay. Two minutes of working time to kill. Might as well use it to find Moore's major databanks.
I give Wormclaw the instructions. It asks Moore's computer the questions, reading it's answers in the wrinkles written in the system and the fluctuations in the flow of information through them. On my tactical display, a gameplan blackboard frozen in the upper left corner of my field of vision, it describes Moore's actual databanks in eloquent diagrams. The security systems, for all the details they handle, are insignificant in comparison. The databanks are enormous, bloated, segmented oroborous worms, wrapped in defensive cocoons which seem a mile thick. I see the paths linking them with the security systems, tiny roots extending from the spiral dragon to it's tiny symbiote. I see Wormclaw follow those paths, struggling to swim through the sluggish sap which clogs them. In the top of the tactical window, a message flashes:
- Penetration estimated in 14.54 minutes -
I have a quarter of an hour until I will be able to work. Until then, I've got someone to watch.
She's crouching not far from the gate, her rifle aimed towards the robots standing behind it, dark outlines wreathed in ultraviolet, visible behind the translucent screen. I watch her lock the aiming mechanisms on one robot, feel her finger squeeze the grenade release trigger. I follow the grenade's flight through her eyes.
I open the gate.
The grenade hits its target.
Suddenly, a sun explodes. The ultraviolet lenses protect her eyes from most of the blast, but On my graphic display, a white nova bright flare flashes.
Before the light fades, Scarlet is already up and running. The ghost-reflexes of a trained veteran soldier, flowing through her brain from her memory-interactive bioware, take command of her. Her trigger-finger interface transmits mental commands to the rifle's computer, switching it to automatic rapid laserfire mode. Pulses of crimson light flash from the muzzle, slicing in half the still blinded robot who was fortunate enough to avoid annihilation by grenade, igniting the booth where the watchman is just now sitting up from before his TV set.
Gun blazing, she passes through the gate. A last burst of riflefire kills the watchman with his hand still on the door of his booth. She sprints up the gravel covered driveway, then leaves it fifty meters before it reaches the house, running across the well-mowed lawn, past marble statues and trimmed hedges and beds of roses. A robot, having noticed the explosion at the gate, floats towards her, but is confused by the fact that the garden security program doesn't seem to be able to see her. Scarlet cuts it down in it's confusion.
"Lure them somewhere I can hit them, Pat. One grenade can save me a lot of headaches if you could just tell them to stand together..."
I try it, telling all of the remaining robots through Moore's security program to converge on the gate, which has been breached. I give them the position of an imaginary intruder. Scarlet crouches behind an elephant-shaped hedge. They enter view, four of them moving together from around one corner of the house, glistening balls of rainslicked chrome and matte black, glowing in strange shades of ultraviolet. Scarlet lets them get close, then lets fly a grenade. It explodes between them, throwing all of them through the air. One hits the lawn, a smoking wreck, then bounces twice before rolling to a stop. The second one does likewise, while the third not only bounces on the lawn but also makes quite a mess of one of Moore's rosebeds. The fourth robot never hits the ground, but instead smashes into a marble bust, knocks it from it's pedestal, then floats around, disoriented, just long enough to get hit by Scarlet's laserfire.
The comportable informs me, and through me her, that the other three garden-robots are closing in from three different directions. Scarlet doesn't wait for them. Breaking cover, she begins a mad dash through the gardens, running around the house. She's heading to the patio. One robot comes towards her, lasers blazing, but she reacts instantly. guided by her computerized combat reflexes, she leaps aside, rolls to the cover of a rose bush, and returns fire. She hits the robot, disabling it, but not before it has fired a laser beam through her right leg. I feel the sharp pain, feel a panic building, feel her force it down. She examines her leg, sees the laser has pierced her muscle and part of her bone. But it isn't too serious. The laser has fused shut the small blood vessels it cut, so there is no blood, no danger of infection. Her ultraviolet sight enables her to see the outline of the bone through her ghostlike limb. It is not broken, and there are no bone splinters to worry about. She tries to move the leg. It hurts, a lot. The other robots are closing in, coming around the corner of the house.
She crawls to face them, readying her rifle. They appear, floating through the rain, swaying slightly in the wind, bobbing like Jack-O'lanterns on water, their infra-red eyes shining. Scarlet shoots a grenade. The blast hits her in the face like a slap, and one of the robots is engulfed in a bright fireball. The other one, however, has been thrown clear, and now rushes towards her, spewing forth ruby-red death. Her reflexes kick in, taking me and her as well by surprise. She dodges, moves, rolling in a manner I have never seen before, kicking with her healthy leg and pushing with her arms, she rolls through a rain of crimson fire, over the grass which burns all around her, until she reaches the cover of an oak, a gnarled and bloated tree aged at an unnatural rate by chemical manipulation. There she huddles behind the oak as mental commands flash to her gun through her trigger finger. The robot floats closer, scarring the tree with laserburns.
Scarlet pulls the trigger. A grenade shoots out, whizzes past the tree and through the air, moving faultlessly towards the hovering robot, smashing into it's optical sensors and exploding.
"Heatseeker." mumbles Scarlet as she watches the glowing fragments of the shattered robot rain down on the lawn and the roses. she unzips a pocket in her jacket and pulls out a hyperdermal pad. She draws a knife from her boot, cuts a slit in her right trouser leg, and slips the pad in, sticking it just above the laser wound. In less then a minute, the endorphin enters the blood stream and takes affect. leaning on the oak, she stands up. There is no pain as she continues her walk towards the patio.
Must find Moore. I felt it in her bones. That is the objective of this entire suicidal attack. Not wrecking his robots. Not breaking into his databases. Not freeing the clones. Killing Moore. But first she needs to find him, and she needs me to guide her.
With eyes of glass and steel, I look. I don't find him upstairs, in the rooms which form the mask of normalcy stretched taut over his madness. He must be downstairs. In the tunnels and libyrinths where insanity reigns.
I see a clone kneeling in a shrine before an altar bedecked with crosses and plastic flowers, praying fervently to a stained glass madonna. I see an empty hall dominated by a phletora of trampolines. I see automated kitchens, abandoned storerooms, empty bathrooms and toilets. I see Moore's illegal cloning laboratories, the cold and sterile rooms of your birth, Cathy. Unidentified scientific equipment fills the white-walled chambers. I make out various electronic scanners, microscopes, micro-surgery devices, freezers, centrifuges, cabinets of chemicals, computer terminals, several things resembling fish- tanks, strange vats and incubators molded from plastic in rounded, organic shapes. The laboratories are all deserted, although some of the equipment is still activated. I see wind- haunted corridors and tunnels leading to the beach, to the surface, to the unknown. I see eccentricity, I see madness. And I see evil.
The room is directly beneath the one where I observed the girl of mirrors. The ceiling is one-way glass, and I can see, above me, The clone in the swimsuit upon her mattress, floating on the pool. This room is also large, but darkened. The walls are padded, covered with a smooth black fabric. The only light is heavily filtered and comes from above. The entire room looks black at first, but then I see, in the center of the darkness, A shape. A bed, black, with two red cushions upon it. And people. Two women. Both of them are you. One of them is naked, stretched across the bed, tied up with black bonds, and gagged. The other clone, kneeling beside her, wears black mesh stockings, a leather skirt and a silk blouse. There's a choker-necklace around her throat, she is holding some sort of metallic instrument, maybe electrical, and she's using it to...
I look away, but the sight I have just seen stays with me, as if it was frozen in my mind's eye. Something in this scene catches my attention, not something emotional, something rational. It doesn't fit the pattern. The other clones exhibit self-destructive, slightly masochistic tendencies, but not one of them seems to be sadistic. Except this one, victimizing herself in a darkened hall (where the hell are the light enhancers on that camera?) Suddenly, I know where Moore is.
I look back at the image and I see him. He emerges from the invisibility of the deep shadows, darkness made flesh. He is immaculately dressed, in a navy blue pinstriped suit, with white shirt, burgundy tie and gold pin. his hair is black and wet and combed backwards slick as oil. He has a thin, nervous build, and skin smooth and taut with unnatural youth. His eyes, pin-prick pupils of the darkest midnight black set in pools of china blue, are fixed on the bed. He approached the clothed girl and strokes her hair, as she thrusts brutally with the metal implement in her hands, evoking a scream of instinctive pain from her victim, a scream empty of any emotion but despair.
I close my eyes and clench my teeth. I think of this lunatic with his eyes of black ice. I think of the clones, the things he does to them, the things he makes them do. I think of you in his hands, and of how he killed you rather then let you escape him. And I mutter a name, like an oath of vengeance. Her name.
stands on a marble terrace. To her left, stairs lead down to a swimming pool, it's surface alive with the impacts of raindrops. Beyond the pool is the edge of the cliff, and beyond the cliff, the turbulent waters of Mere Hellas, the vaguest suggestion of pink tinging the point where they meet the sky. To her right, the house looms, a luxurious summertime residence, it looks dark and ominous in the rain. Scarlet walks towards it, past rain-soaked beach umbrellas and wet deck-chairs, she reaches a screen of glass. Beyond the screen, she sees little even with her ultraviolet goggles.
But I see more. Through interior cameras which, unlike their subterranean counterparts, are fitted with light amplification equipment, I look at an empty living room, pale blue sofas, low tables of glass, thick persian rugs. The pictures on the walls are an odd collection, several framed canvases, expensive originals by twentieth century artists, side by side with neo- cubistic escheresque holograms.
Scarlet breaks the glass, Kicks aside the shards, enters the room crunching glass fragments under her boot heels into the rug. She pulls the ultraviolet goggles off and looks about, then heads swiftly for the exit. She moves through the next room, a small hall with walls covered by antique canvases, past several closed doors, to a stairway. She goes down.
I locate the five house-robots. Four of them are above, on the upper floors and the ground floor. The security program will not alert them and they will remain on their own floors unless commanded otherwise. The one downstairs is heading for the stairway. I alert Scarlet. As for the house inhabitants, I detect three of them in levels above her. One of them is at a window on the third floor, looking towards the gate. Two others are on the ground floor, moving towards the living room where Scarlet had entered. But where is the fourth of Moore's servants?
The person unaccounted for is, according to Scarlet, a martian woman, Moore's cook. I check all the house's cameras, but I can't find her. Is this her day off or something? Could she be somewhere out of the cameras' view? She has no reason to hide, unless...
Scarlet is at the foot of the stairs. There's a corridor leading both left and right. There's a robot lurking behind the corner at the right end of the corridor, shooting at her whenever she tries to move out of the shelter of the stairway. It will takes her ten seconds to select a heatseeking self-propelled grenade, fire it and demolish the robot, but she doesn't want to advertise her exact location to the rest of the household.
For a moment I catch a glimpse of the near-hysterical fear beneath her cool competent facade, as she searches the military memory she has inserted in her head for a solution to her problem. I taste her excited relief when she comes up with an answer. She digs what feels like a grenade out of one of her pouches, depresses a hard stud in it's surface, then tosses it into the corridor.
I feel the heat on her skin as the robot's laser flashes, tracking the flying object, hitting it with the accuracy only a machine would possess.
My camera in the basement corridor is blinded by the intense flash as the flare bursts. For a moment the shadowy corridor becomes the brightest place on the planet.
She moves through the heat, a marine's reflexes using her perfect nervous system to move an athlete's body. The robot is still shooting when she hits it, but it's shooting blind.
There is a moment of light and heat, and when it is over, she's standing beside a metal husk with molten circuitry. Her hair is slightly singed and her jacket is spattered with dark spots where the laser caused the ablation of parts of it's protective layers.
"You're alright, red. There's people coming down the stairs now. They'll be here in about 13 seconds."
Hurrying back to the staircase, she fumbles around in her grenade pouch, chooses one, depresses a stud on it and shoves it beneath the bottom stair. Then she runs away from the stairway and ducks around the corner the robot had lurked behind.
"Four seconds, Scarlet, Two..." I count. Leaving her for a moment, I watch them with cameras, Moore's two servants/bodyguards, as they walk down to their doom. They move carefully and quietly, one, then the other. They have laser carbines shaped like submachineguns. One is a black, massive earthman, the other a spider-like spacer with skin like parchment. Both move like special forces operatives.
The spacer is twenty stairs up, pointing his gun towards the bottom of the stairs. The earthman runs past him, gun at the ready.
He makes it to the third step.
He is barely a meter away when the grenade goes off.
The phosphorous grenade.
My cameras are ready this time.
When the bottom step of the staircase gives birth to a fireball, my cameras are not blinded. They adjust to the light. I can see everything.
I am very lucky to be seeing the action only through a computer.
I don't smell a thing.
The earthman dies quickly. I don't think he even had time to understand what happened. All that remains of him is a skeleton covered in soot.
The spacer's skin burns like paper. He screams a lot. His gun's grip has melted, it's stuck to his hand.
I can't watch anymore. I tried. I forced myself. But I can't anymore.
A green rectangle appears suddenly before my eyes. I switch from the cameras to Wormclaw and it's tactical displays and find that it has penetrated the databases, Moore's computerized memory banks. I ride through the worm tunnel my program has dug in the great husk, along the cracks and flaws in the armour of digital defenses coating the succulent data, until I reach my destination. Here I begin to earn my keep. Although Wormclaw was not intended to penetrate a record-keeping system, it has done so admirably. But it is up to me and my own specialized software to sort through this sea of information. It is up to me to search for any references to me, to Scarlet, to the entire cloning project, and is is up to me to erase them. Moore dies tonight, and he will carry with him to the grave the secret of the clones' existence and his vendetta against me.
This is premeditated murder.
It's kill or be killed.
It's Scarlet's murder. Not mine. The blood ( Man walking down the stairs bursts into flames. I watch his skin burn, his flesh melt, his bones char ) is on her hands. I only handle the computers. The paperwork. Like a vulture.
I load my own data-management programs onto the comportable, then set them to work. It's going to take time, and my supervision isn't needed initially, so...
She's walking swiftly over crimson carpeting, rifle at the ready. The corridor is wide here, with alcoves along the walls where small bonsai plants are placed, on high wooden pedestals. The door at the end of the corridor leads, according to my computer, to the chambers where the clones are housed.
"Pat?" she whispers.
I feel her breath as she sighs in relief. "What's the situation?"
"Of the three people upstairs, we have one dead, one wounded, and a third, a short blonde woman who is currently too busy with the wounded guy to hassle you. I can't find the cook anywhere. want me to unlock this?"
I give wormclaw a command, and it disconnects the alarm for the door, then unlocks it. Scarlet prods the door open cautiously with her foot. I switch to the camera on the other side of the door and see her enter. The corridor is very similar to the previous one. There are more of the small alcoves on both sides of the corridor, and between them are doors, padded with red leather.
"Pat, did you manage to find Moore?" she asks.
"Yes. He's in a big dark room, directly underneath one with a pool and walls all covered in mirrors. Do you know how to get there?"
"Not really. I know where..."
She doesn't have time to finish her sentence. From the niche in the corner of her eye, I catch sudden movement. There is no bonsai in this alcove. A person slams into her, knocking her to the floor. Strong brown fingers grip her rifle, pulling it from her grasp. The assailant is a woman, tall, skinny, skin the color of a nut, eyes like a cat, hair short and red, wearing a light blue jumpsuit, and brandishing a blade nearly as long as her forearm. But disarming Scarlet took too much of her concentration for her to use the knife properly. It didn't pierce Scarlet's jacket. My girl grabs the hand with the knife with her right, letting go of the rifle (It won't shoot without her thumb imprint on the grip). The hand which held the rifle goes down to her boot as Scarlet twists her knee in between the martian's body and hers, then kicks, throwing her opponent off of herself. The brown woman knife-arm contorts, twisting free of Scarlet's hold, and she rolls free, then jumps to her feet. Scarlet is on her feet, knife in hand, before the woman has a chance to take advantage of her prone position. The two women face each other, lock eyes, jade meeting gold.
The martian woman is older then Scarlet, but she is a Drylander in an oxygen rich atmosphere, as I can see from her slow, shallow breathing and her wild eyes. She moves like a dancer and she must feel on top of the world right now, drunk on oxygen. That might be her only weakness right now, because in this air, she's faster and stronger then most, her knife and height give her a longer reach, and she's less tired and encumbered then Scarlet.
The drylander seems to realize her advantage. An ivory smile cracks her wrinkled brown face. She takes half a step forward and extends the movement into a swing of her machete. The move is fast, but Scarlet has sidestepped it before it was even completed, moving away.
She's using the wrong tactics. She's the one with the shorter knife, she should move closer!
Scarlet makes a pretty convincing feint. The martian woman moves back real quick.
Scarlet takes a step back. She's planning something, I can feel the itch in her hands...
Her opponent isn't too worried. She knows she has all the advantages. The crazy smile is still on her face. Her eyes are on the knife. She knows Scarlet will need to move closer, unless...
Scarlet tosses her knife from her right hand to her left.
I watch the gold eyes follow it's arc, I see them fix their gaze on the left hand as it's fingers open to receive the blade. I see her tense, ready to use the stunt to her advantage. I see the confusion, the horror in the eyes as the woman behind them realizes that she's been watching the wrong hand...
Scarlet tossed the knife with only the flick of a wrist. But her left hand didn't stop moving with that. With cat-like speed, it darts into the jacket, I feel it brush Scarlet's breast as it goes to the holster...
The martian woman's eyes move from the knife in the gloved left hand to the pistol in the naked right, just in time to see it open fire.
The pistol began firing as soon as it cleared leather. I feel the repeated waves of recoil in Scarlet's arm. It's firing on automatic, and it has a silencer. Two-three bullets hit the walls and floor. I can't see any immediate affect.
The third or fourth bullet hits the drylander woman in the stomach. I see the look in her eyes as a hole appears in the front of her jumpsuit, and something stains the blue.
The blood isn't red.
I see her charge, her machete raised.
A second bullet goes through her.
The blood isn't red.
The blade comes down in an arc of silver. Scarlet raises her knife to block it. The pistol, independently, shoots a third bullet into the charging woman.
The blade hits Scarlet's right arm, sending a jolt up to the her shoulder, knocking the knife from her hand.The kelvar in the blood-red jacket prevents it from lacerating the skin. The martian woman collides with Scarlet, and collapses upon her. Scarlet meets the woman's golden eyes one last time, and for an instant it seems that there is still life behind them. But then the body goes limp, and the eyes suddenly look like glass.
The woman's corpse drops to the crimson carpet. Apparently, the third bullet killed her. On the floor she lies like a broken scarecrow, wetting the floor with a yellowish fluid, in which prefluorocarbons take the place of hemoglobin, the blood which isn't red.
"I'm sorry. I couldn't see her. The nearest camera on this side of that door is ten meters behind you. you can't see what's in the niche from there... the medical sensors can't find anything wrong with you. Do you feel alright?"
"Yeah." She picks up her rifle and moves towards the door.
"Did anyone hear our fight?"
I check. "No one that I can see."
"Is Moore still where you told me?"
"He didn't didn't look as if he was going anywhere before, but hang on, I'll have a look."
I'm back in the computer, where images dance about me, jostling for my attention like excited children. I see my programs searching Moore's databanks like patient tapeworms. I see the security systems, their entrails spread before me. I see various tactical displays, I see representations of Moore's home and its environs, like little dollhouses. And in the basement, I see nobody but eleven identical barbie dolls. One of them is mine's. She carries a gun.
In the dark room, The naked girl is folded in a fetal position upon the bed. The other clone bends over a corner sink, washing something and crying. Moore is nowhere to be seen. I rotate the camera, I strain my eyes looking into the dark corners of the room. I see nothing.
I check the other cameras. He isn't anywhere.
"Sca..." My voice trails off. Something has changed in my electronic environment. I'm not alone in the computer.
It melts into existence, emptiness taking on a huge and terrifying form. It dwarfs everything in this security system, vast and blue, more complex even then Wormclaw-4, more complex then the artificial intelligence Wormclaw neutralized and set adrift. It doesn't look like another AI, but it's too big to be anything else. I ask my comportable where it came from, but my machine has no answers.
It expands, reaching out, linking itself to every aspect of the house security system, until it dominates my entire field of vision. I stare in wonder at the intricate geometric patterns etched in cold pale blue upon it's surface. Through their glass- like transparency, I see a shape, a human shape with eyes whose black hearts prick my skin like needles.
This isn't artificial. This is a human intelligence. And I recognize it.
Somehow, he's found me out. He's using a comportable or something similar to link up to his databases and confront me.
A fraction of a second after I see him, beneath his blue software shroud, Moore's image turns red. Bright red. And then -
It hits. A laserlike flash of ruby-red, it darts directly towards me, passing through a crack in the defenses Wormclaw has woven about me, it hits.
It pounds my conscious like a wave of acid, drowning me and burning me and breaking me. And riding the wave like a photograph on the surf, the still image from the heart of the blue construct flies in my face. The picture of Edmund Moore, with his fixed relaxed stance and frozen cruel smile, is upon me all of a sudden, striking my mind like an epileptic seizure.
I feel him, an electric blue stiletto blade, a foreign presence lacerating the soft layers of my mind with fierce bludgeoning blows. My mind whispers "Neurally interactive software" and begins to mumble protective charms in computer jargon, but the phrases are distant and meaningless, like voices lost in the fog. There is nothing but the pain which spreads out to all directions, a blinding blue light like a superhot star, it is all around, and I can't hide anything from it. Very far away, in a shack in an abandoned amusement park, my body convulses, totally out of my control. My spine arcs, my hands clench and unclench, fingers twitching wildly, clawing my comportable deck, and I can't even control my mouth enough to scream. My fists smash into the table, and I don't feel anything. It doesn't feel like my body. It doesn't act like my body. That's someone else's suit of flesh, that tired guy having an epileptic fit in a cracked leather chair so far away. Me, I am a tiny piece of green trapped in webs too vast for me to comprehend, no longer the cunning spider, but rather the poor, hysterical helpless little greenfly.
Somehow, through the pain, I see Moore's computerized manifestation extending from horizon to horizon, I see him push Wormclaw away from the databanks and its control of the security systems, as if he were slapping the hands of an impertinent and possessive child. Moore reclaims his own, and all my work is as nought. And then Moore turns his attention to Wormclaw itself.
The program realizes that it's been detected and that it's under attack, by something which is preventing it from carrying out it's directives. It reacts. taking aim, Wormclaw launches itself at Moore's mind and Its supporting programs.
I realize that what It just did is a futile attack: Wormclaw is designed to penetrate and subvert software, not the human mind. It has no neurally interactive offensive routines like the S&T hounds, no sting with which to strike. I watch it burrow through Moore's defense programs, I see it reach the soft surface of his mind beneath its armour. I see it, small and puny in face of the mind's vastness, reach out with subversive subroutines. It snaps them like a lobster on the shore clenching it's claws, trying to grasp the ocean. Moore's self-image, a neptune ruling from the depths, utters an oddly pitched laugh. I watch the waters of his thought bubble and boil around the impudent program. The arms of a kraken, long blue tendrils, emerge from the sea, and seize wormclaw from various parts, expertly finding holes and cracks in the east-german defensive routines. The arms reach into the cracks, and then, with a single violent motion, tear wormclaw apart, like a child dissecting a cockroach.
The messages my comportable deck sends to my optical nerve reveal that this is no illusion: parts of Wormclaw-4 have been erased and lost from the working memory. I can no longer penetrate any defense routine, subvert or operate anything. All I can do is keep my position. Without Wormclaw, I am helpless, even if I somehow escape the neurally disruptive program Moore just hit me with. I have no defenses, no offensive capacity, no ability to move or interact with programs I have not yet linked up to. With a simple command, Moore can kick me out of his system. The comportable can reload Wormclaw, but the newly loaded program will not be connected to Moore's database. It will have to preform the entire transmission and infiltration process again just to reach me. And until it does, I am at Moore's mercy.
Scarlet. I've got to warn her.
In the shack, my epileptic body begins to cry.
The pain all around me takes on shape and definition, becoming sharper, more intense, as it all gathers into a single shape. In fragmented tacticals, my comportable shows me how his program closes in, touching mine. We interface.
His software and mine meet, my user-friendly green clashing with his coldly complex cyan. A tunnel forms between them, and there, in a tube of steel-blue and emerald green, our computer generated self-images face one another.
I wear my grey suit and raincoat. It's shabby, but it's me. I hold the obligatory plain leather case in my right hand.
He comes in his pinstriped suit, with his oil slick hair. He's short, and he keeps his computer image shorter then mine's as an act of arrogant self-confidence, though our eyes meet, so that my feet are lower down then his. He has a thin, nervous build and a narrow face, dominated by an aquiline nose placed above a thin mouth which seems to be made for sneering. It is not a handsome face, but not an ugly one either, and it is the setting for his eyes. Ebony pupils locked in twin rings of the saddest blue I have ever seen, they are powerful eyes. Sad eyes. Genius eyes. Psychopath eyes.
Moore's image is made up of distilled pain.
We face each other for a moment in silence. Then he speaks.
"You're Pat Jirel." He says.
I nod. He knows my real name.
"I see the bitch has managed to sweep you up into her little game. It's a pity, really, after we offered you such a reasonable way out of this mess you stumbled into, but I had a feeling you wouldn't take it. still, I guess this will make the game a little more interesting. A spectator."
"You managed to get a closer look then I expected. I actually didn't notice you until you accessed the inner cameras. god knows where she got a copy of Wormclaw-4. She's more resourceful then I've given her credit for. But really - did you ever think you stood a chance of winning?"
"Doesn't look as if we were doing too bad, Moore. you have Four casualties out of a staff of five, Eleven busted robots out of fifteen, and a girl with a gun hot after your ass, running around the house. And she's not trying to win. She just wants you to lose."
"And what do you want, Jirel? What's in this for you?"
I don't know what to answer. "Revenge. And survival."
"Bull" he spits. He looks at me with contempt and annoyance. "You're doing this because you can't refuse her."
His look softens a touch. "I can't blame you. As for the current situation - I have more robots then you know, enough to take her out. I've notified the authorities and a Mainlaw Antiterrorist airship should be on it's way here by now. And I've traced your signal, Jirel. I know where you are and I'm coming for you."
A nasty smile creeps onto his lips "But don't worry, you have just enough time left for us to finish her little game. It's been too long since I last played Cat and Mouse... Shall we?"
His image expands, becoming a blaze of pain, flooding the tunnel with blinding blue light, which washes away every trace of green from the walls. my own image melts away like morning mist before the light. Moore enters me, dissolves my mind, and sucks it in, leaving behind the damaged remains of Wormclaw-4, like the empty husk of a headless insect. He is inside me, and he is all around me. My memories are analyzed, filtered and integrated into his own. I am just a part of him, still clutching desperately onto the remnants of my self awareness, but none the less, only a part of a larger whole.
From all around, Moore's perceptions seep into my mind. At first I try to resist, but his mind is like a sea, and I can not swim against the tide. So I hold my ground and watch. The images his comportable displays of his computerized environment are very different from those mine did. I stare, uncomprehending, at an infinite space filled with vast, three-dimensional, digitized, mathematical constructs. He does not need all the colors, textures and shapes my comportable uses to represent information for me. He stares with unshielded eyes at the raw, unprocessed thoughts of a computer. And he comprehends them. I begin to understand how he had defeated Wormclaw so easily.
At the center of his visualization is an area where things go hazy, and clear symbols and relationships are replaced by question marks. This obscure area dominates Moore's system, a core of unknown variables occupying a large part of his databanks, wrapped by a membrane of peripheral programs. With a start, I realize this is Moore's representation of himself and of me. He has cut me off from Wormclaw, and has himself taken it's place as my link to his computer systems. Instead of ejecting me from his system, he has kept me in, a passive observer, sharing edited versions of his perceptions while my body writhes uncontrollably like a rag doll held in the capricious grip of a mental whirlwind.
Moore's memories touch me from all sides, practically unedited, a madman's confessional, and the professional part of my brain tries to fit them all into my view of him. I see him as the brilliant child of average parents, who encouraged him but never understood him. I see him as the weakest and smallest of his father's sons, bullied by stronger and older brothers. I see his long and painful career as a social misfit throughout school, high school and university, taunted by his classmates, by bullies, girls, rival prodigies, hostile and jealous mental inferiors struggling to keep up with him. I watch his unrelenting dedication to study and research, not out of a love of theory, but because he knows that success is the greatest revenge. I see him as a machiavellian executive in the dog-eat-dog world of corporate politics, where business men with suits and smiles maneuver like blood-frenzied sharks. I share the pain of his love life, the shameful loss of his virginity at the hands of a professional, the degrading relationships he had with fortune seekers and golddiggers, using his money and influence to purchase the affections of cruel and beautiful women with hearts of ice and steel, professional whores too talented to carry on with their practice. And then, amid the shame and the degradation, I see Cathy.
He knew her from the university. She was one of the girls which had expressed her incredible scorn for him by ignoring his existence. She was the smiling ivory idol of his sexual fantasies, and he would worship her hair of palest gold and her eyes of deepest jade and her lips of softest red in countless wet dreams. And when she had noticed him once, he was lost in the ecstasy of her smile. With the simplest movement of her lips and a handful of words, she had captured his heart. And then, she put it in her pocket and forgot he had ever existed.
But now, destiny had delivered her into his hands. And this time, he was no longer the butterfingered misfit who would have let this opportunity slip through his fingers. Years of scaling the slippery Mainframe corporate ladder had left him with an incredible capacity to get what he wanted. He was mainframe's chief executive for Mars, one of the most powerful men on the planet. She was a reporter for Mainnews, not much different then how she was back in university. She had the irresistible naivety possessed by people who charm their way all through their lives. Confident in her charm, she walked into his arms, a smile on her face, sure it was just another game. By the time she stopped smiling and started getting scared, it was too late.
I watch Moore's court her, treating the seduction like a corporate takeover. I see him get rid of all his rivals, removing them firmly but delicately enough so that Catherine won't notice. I see him monopolize her time with elaborately staged, carefully rehearsed romance. I see him trying to bribe her or blackmail her. I realize how inadequate all his attempts are, I want to laugh, he wanted to cry. No amount of money or business acumen could win the affections of a woman, certainly not this woman. Beneath his rich and successful facade, was he not the same social misfit of his schooldays?
He was not. He had changed. He had become more confident, more ruthless, he was scented with the musk of power. Catherine could see that in his obsidian eyes. It intrigued her, attracted her, this mysterious strength. In a period of weakness, she consented to marry him.
They had a wonderful life together, Moore's memories tell me. The happiest time of his life. At the end of two happy years, she killed herself. While he was on a three day business trip, she swallowed all the pills she could get her hands on and slashed her wrists in the bathroom.
She was trying to ruin it for him. Just out of spite. Just for the fun of it all. Ever since they had met she used to play games with him, subtle and elaborate manipulative little contests in the constant struggle for dominance, various attempts to assert herself as his superior. She had won her share of these battles, but he had won the war. And now she was trying to deny him the rightfull fruits of victory.
He wouldn't stand for it. He refused to allow her to quit the game just as he was winning. So he remade her. A clone. He had her at his mercy. She was a nonperson, legaly nonexistant. She wouldn't love him. He made her, he owned her, and she wouldn't love him. He damned the accursed bitch to a life of torment and set out to make another. And another. And another. And none of them really loved him, no matter what he did with them, how he edited their memories or lied to them or pampered them or ... They didn't love him, and they refused to fight him. They escaped him. Some escaped by drink or drugs, others immersed themselves in fiction or simulator drama, some found refuge in food, others went crazy, one actually managed to physically escape him. But none of them dared fight back. After so much time, he no longer demanded love. He would settle for a struggle, a final contest against the strength of spirit he had once admired. A fight he could only get from
My mouth moves, against my will, uttering words not of my choosing. Suddenly I'm back in a body, but it's not mine. It's hers. She's tense. holding her rifle tightly, she walks slowly and hesitantly through the red-carpeted corridor.
"Pat?" she whispers under her breath. "What kept you?"
I want to tell her. I want to scream, warn her that my mind is being raped, that her enemy is now looking through her eyes, riding in her head. But I can't. I feel him laugh malignantly, and hear him speak with my voice:
"Sorry. A little technical difficulties there."
"So where is Moore?"
That's a good question. I don't know. Could he be still hiding in the shadows of the dark room? Or was he somewhere else?
and then he answers: "He's still in the room under the one with the mirrors."
I feel her mouth move in response to the words he spoke from mine: "How can I get in?"
"There seems to be a trapdoor in the floor of the mirrored room which you could go down." He answers. In the cameras, I see robots gliding silently down corridors, whispers of death encased in chrome and black. I see Scarlet run, her red boots quiet on red carpets. She moves like a trooper, rifle at the ready, all the little soldier reflexes flowing smoothly from the tiny gem of crystalized information stuck behind her ear into the precision tool that is her body. I feel her elation, her eagerness, barely held back by rational caution. Like a labratory mouse, she sees only the cheese at the end of the maze, while I watch helplessly as a chesire cat prepares to close it's invisible jaws on her. And I can't warn her, because the cat's got my tongue.
I scream at Moore, but he only laughes, and his laughter flows like crushed ice through my spine. I feel each step she takes with a greater intensity and a finer sharpness then ever before, because I know this is her last walk. I ride her flesh for the final time, the funeral march. And I just pray this won't end. Around her, everything looks clearer, sharper, as she runs down a wide spiraling staircase of white marble, past preverse mock reneissance tapestries, twisted surreal canvases, and erotic hindu statues. I taste the sweat on her lips and I feel the strain in her legs and the pain in her chest and the heaviness of the rifle in her arms. and I smell all the scents in the air as it is sucked into the turbine of her breathing, and I pray.
A few meter from the bottom of the staircase, Scarlet stops. She's standing before a door covered with tastefull burgandy padding. With a mental command, a beam of light extends from her rifle and cuts through the lock. Scarlet kicks the door.
And steps into a room of silvered glass. Mirrors are everywhere, endlessly reflecting Scarlet framed in the door, and, across the room, the pool. We both see the clone, lying very still on her transparent floating matress. We do not see the robot, a polished chrome chameleon blending perfectly into it's reflective surroundings, until it is too late.
There's a sudden flash of red, and suddenly, Scarlet stops breathing. There's sharp pain in her chest, and she can't manage to draw in enough air. Her body crumples to the floor, panting hystericly, as the programmed instincts scream in her head: 'Return fire!', 'Return fire!' but she isn't listening. The rifle, however, is still clutched in her hand, waiting for her to command it.
"Shoot, Scarlet... Dammit, Shoot Already! Shoot a bloody tracer!" I scream like a whole stadium of spectators, and the words do not come out of my mouth. As my body shakes uncontrolably, my lips are locked tightly in a terrible, insane grin. But somehow, she hears. Somehow, she manages to think loudly enough for the gun to hear her. The gun makes clicking noises and releases a tracer grenade. The grenade flies, riding a wave of sparks, a minature missile, and homes in on the strongest heat source in the vicinity: The robot's laser. As the grenade flies, the robot, apparently panic-stricken, fires two more blasts. I feel Scarlet's pain convulsion as the first shot goes through her belly. The second shot strikes Scarlet's chest, but doesn't go through. It hit's something electronic, and all of a sudden, I'm thrown out of her body.
Disoriented by the sudden fall out of her skin, it takes me a minute to realize that the last shot must have hit her broadcast unit. Confirming my suspicion, All of Moore's cameras promptly turn off. Blackout, I remember. Through Moore's eyes, I see a dim and large overhead light source go out. A scream comes above, a scream in Scarlet's voice, but it's a scream of terror, not pain, so I figure it must be a clone. I realize Moore must be in the room directly below the one where Scarlet was just shot. I also realize immediately that he must be at least as disoriented as I. This is my chance to escape.
Focusing my will, I wrestle with Moore, try to break his hold on me. I try to take control of my body once more. But it's no use. Electric fires dance in my brain, flashing from one hemisphere to the other, blinding my body to my commands, demands, pleas. Moore's grip on my mouth is strong as iron, and I can not break it, or even budge it an inch. My mouth is his, it speaks with his voice. But maybe some other part of the body... I concentrate on my hand. I feel it responding to my will. It doesn't move like I want it to, but it moves, flailing awkwardly, but in the right general direction, with the proper amount of force. It hits the sensetrans wire, and yanks the intertrode out of the socket in my forehead.
The world collapses. computerized hullucinations melt and shrivel into nothingness like colored polythene burning, leaving behind only the darkness of the room. A final violent epileptic fit racks my body, nearly making me knock back the chair, and then it's over. I sit on the cracked leather, numb, and realize I have a fever. My face is red hot, and my body is soaked in sweat. I extend my hands, and flex my fingers. Perfect control. Good.
Must think. What to do? Scarlet is down, and my link to her has been cut. I reach for the power stud on my comportable, and turn it off. I wait a moment, then turn it back on again. It humms, and Wormclaw-4 is loaded again. Once loaded, I have it run a diagnostics program. There is no sign of any tampering with my comportable's memory, so I had better start moving. There's no sense in attacking Moore's databases again. But I have to check on Scarlet. Cautiously, I put the intertrodes back on.
"Scarlet" I breath.
"Scarlet." I say, a nervous edge on my voice.
There is nothing.
"Scarlet!" I shout. words formed in my mind course through artificial nerves to my interface, where delicate sensors turn the minute electrochemical signals to electronic pulses, which my transmitter screams in scrambled radiowaves to the world.
But no one hears me.
Dead. Like Cathy.
I look at the floor of our "operations center", where we lay together only hours ago. I told her I loved her. I don't know why. The fire inside her had warmed my empty heart.
I imagine her lying on the cold mirrored floor beneath Moore's mansion, just like you lay on the side of the canal, her body growing cold, all of her vitality burned out of it by merciless lasers.
And then I remember Moore, and what he said about how he traced my transmission and how he called the authorities. I have Wormclaw access the local Mainframe traffic control system. It takes it 34 seconds. It takes me the rest of a minute to spot the incoming ship I want: Mainlaw airship, small, with auxilary jets, from Wells to Cape Minerva, Emergency, top priority. Estimated Time of Arrival: Another 80 minutes, delayed due to bad weather.
But I have less then 80 minutes. Moore's traced my transmission, so he probably sent a robot here. I figure one of them could float from Moore's mansion down to here in about 20 minutes. I gotta get out of here.
I get up, sort out my clothes and stow the comportable in my case. It's too good to leave behind. I gather the rest of my gear and check the stuff scattered about the room. It's mostly crates, wrapping and junk, but I think I might find something usefull. Scarlet must have had more ordnance then she could carry with her, as spares if anything went wrong...
What am I looking for?
I'm scared and I need something to defend myself with.
Where am I going?
I'm going to the mansion.
The realization comes to me suddenly. That was my intention all along. I wasn't going to try and escape, I was planning to go straight to Moore's house. God knows why. I must be crazy. There's a couple of grenades in plastic foam casing left in the bottom of one crate. I crack the seal, take them out, check them. They look okay to me, but then I don't really know much about explosives. The safety pins are still in the activation studs, so they should be safe to handle. I stick them carefully into my raincoat pocket. Then I grab my case and the car-keys and open the door.
The air is cold and filled with the sour scent of rain. Above the dark clouds, the sky is growing brighter, but it is still quite dark as I walk through the park, past the arcade where rain falls through shattered windows and gathers in dark pools on the dirty floor, past the carousel, where the horses shelter beneath a gaudy coloured roof, unlike their luckless fellow fiberglass beasts, whose flanks are wet with rain like sweat. I reach the wire fence, I see the gate, the chain hanging loosely upon it, and beyond that, I can see the car. It's not the only car parked there.
Something blocks my path. It waits for me, a polished metal skull, hovering by the gate, regarding me with eyes of dead glass. I freeze, expecting at any minute to be smithen by a bloody light. But it does not come. And then I see a human figure, standing around ten feet beyond the gate. The person walks up to the gate, pushes it open, and walks towards the robot and myself. I consider making a run for it, but before I do, the robot speaks:
The words don't sound computer modulated, so I assume the robot merely served as an amplifier for the voice of the human, who seems clearly to be its operator. As the figure nears, I make out details of his appearance: The person is wearing a waterproof poncho with a hood, and carries something. My left hand is in my pocket, it's sweaty palm wrapped around a cold metal egg. Holding the grenade three fingers, I try to pull out the safety pin with the two other fingers of that hand. It's an awkward task, hard to accomplish inconspiciously, but somehow, I manage to finish it before the ponchoed figure stops, about thirty feet before me. I see it's a woman, pettite but with an athletic build, blond hair in a carre, wearing jeans and a silk shirt under her translucent pancho. She's got big silver goggles on her eyes, a throat mike strapped around her neck and a gun tucked unceremoniously in her jeans. Her left hand is fitted into a bulky metal gauntlet, probably the robot's remote control unit.
"Put the case down and take your hand out of your pocket - slowly." she commands, her voice echoed by the robot.
I bend down slowly and place my case on the floor. This is it. I've got to act now. Pressing the grenade's activation stud, I pull it out of my pocket, clenched tightly in my fist.
"Drop that!" She shouts stereophonicly.
She's too far away for me to threaten with the grenade. So I do as she says. I drop it (One). I kick it. It arcs towards the robot (Two), then hits the ground. It rolls (three) and comes to a halt in a sand filled gap in the asphalt, three feet from the robot. (Four).
The blast throws me back five feet, knocks me down on my butt, and buries me in a lot of sand. The robot is lost in a cloud of dust. I scramble to my feet, and run towards where I last saw the woman, through the thick veil of dirt thrown into the air by the grenade. I emerge from the dust cloud five feet from the woman. Her pistol is aimed at my head.
"Freeze!" She screams, and I think I hear a faint, garbled echo come from the dust cloud.
I give her a smile filled with sand and hold up grenade number two.
"Drop the gun!" I yell.
She lowers her pistol. I grab her poncho and shout "Don't mess with me! I'm desperate!"
I take the gun from her hand and tear the silver goggles from her eyes. I see in them that she's buying my act.
As we walk towards the car, leaving behind the battered and dust-clogged robot, I realize it's not an act.
Two cars shelter beneath the canpopy in the parking lot. The first is Scarlet's second hand auto, the other a sleek black sedan. It looks empty.
"You have the keys?" I ask, pointing her gun at her.
"Yes" She says.
She begins to reach for her back pocket.
"I'll get them, if you don't mind." I say. "Keep your hands high."
I stand close enough to smell her perfume, stick the gun in her nose to keep her from doing any sudden moves. My free hand fishes the car keys out of her back pocket. The jeans are too tight for it to hold any nasty surprises.
I move away from her, regard her for a moment. She may look cute, but she's a pro. Could probably kick my ass in a fight. Not the person I want to have around me when I go into hostile territory. I toss her the keys.
"Open the booth." I say. She complies. It looks big enough.
"Drop the keys and get in."
She obeys and I slam the booth's lid shut quickly, before she has time to do anything. I lift the keys from the ground, lock the booth and shove the keys in my pocket.
I get into Scarlet's car and drive off into the dying night. Over the sea, rain baptizes the newborn dawn.
The windscreen wipers squeak valiantly as I speed down the empty, raindrenched streets. Phosphorescent lines on the road swim like distorted fishes on the rainwashed windscreen. Palm trees wave wildly in the wind, casting strange shadows on dead white houses. Cape Minerva seems unreal to me, a ghost town locked in silent sleep, a predawn delirium haunting my weary eyes. It ends abruptly, melting into darkness, as I ride along the beach, see the dawn extending it's delicate pink fingers over the sea from behind heavy clouds. The road climbs up to Moore's mansion. It lurks before me, a massive fortress, ringed with defenses, slumbering securely behind it's battlements, dreaming the uneasy dreams of murder and madness. I see lights in the garden and in the lower floor, sleepless will o' the wisps haunting the building's dreams. The generator must be working.
I approach the gate, a gap in the wall ringed with mutilated metalwork. I drive on through it, past the darkened watchman's booth, punctured with laserholes and scarred with laserburns. I drive up to the main entrance, stop the car, and look at it It uncertainly. Five broad stairs lead up to a cinnamon colored wooden door, with an elegant brass knocker, an illuminated sign with Moore's name on it, and a mailbox by it's side. The contrast between this sedate and normal seeming entrance and the house's sinister interior makes it seem spooky and unreal. It occurs to me suddenly that I can't just walk in through the front door. Even if no one will try to stop me, it's bound to be locked. I get out of the car, and make my way through the grounds to the back.
I walk in Scarlet's footsteps, passing the still forms of broken robots scattered about on the grass, wet globes sparkling a rosy silver in the faint light of dawn. I see the tree behind which Scarlet took cover, I climb the steps she trod up to the back porch with its rain troubled pool, its drenched summertime outdoor furniture. I reach the door of broken glass, and walk through a ring of transparent fangs into the living room. There I pause by a low table on which a cordless domestic terminal stands. I pick it up and make my way carefully towards the staircase, The pistol I took from my would-be captor heavy in one pocket, the remaining grenade heavy in the other. I reach the stairway, and reluctantly place my foot on the first step. I think of the horror waiting me below. I'm going to smell it this time.
I hesitate. I have no idea what I'm going to meet down there. I don't know where Moore is, how many robots he still has active. Thinking of robots, I remember the ones patrolling the house's upper floors. I go down the stairs. I stop after eight steps. I can smell it. The violently strong, sickeningly sweet smell of burnt human. It's the odor of burnt hair, burnt fingernails, burnt bones and burnt flesh. I feel myself shaking, my stomach churning. Trying to hold my breath, I go down. Around the bend I see it. The man wounded by the phospherous grenade isn't here, but the man killed is, his charred body blocking my way at the end of the stairway, twisted into a grotesque pose like a tree struck down by lightning, it's gnarled and blackened limbs extended in outrage. All about him, the walls, floor and ceiling are stained by a corona of soot, like a reflection of his pain. With hurried care, I step over his body. I seem to feel heat emanating from it. Once past the corpse, I run down the corridor until I elude the smell.
The corridor extends and twists in a manner I only half remember and I have no idea what lurks at it's end. I've passed the horror unaided, but now I face danger, and I need any edge I can get. opening my case, I pull out the comportable. I extend the wire and clamp the intertrodes on my forehead. The comportable has a leather strap, still new, smelling like the upholstery of an expensive european car, which I use to hang it on my shoulder. I hit a switch. Images flicker before my eyes, phantom halucinations superimposed on the corridor. The comportable loads Wormclaw, scans it's memory for data which survived my defeat at Moore's hands. I find details of the house's layout, and specifications of Moore's computer system. The portable terminal I took from the living room has a standard outlet to link up with a more powerfull machine. I find an apropriate wire in my case and connect the terminal to my comportable.
With access to the domestic computer, Wormclaw, freshly reloaded and vigourous, manages to reach the house security system in 5 seconds flat. Ethereal diagrams flash before my eyes, color-coded ghosts, camera images materializing and vanishing in the hall like shapes in smoke. I catch images of clones, oblivious to everthing about them, I see empty rooms, still pools, trampolines and holograms and mirrors. I see the place where Scarlet died, in a room which is only a reflection of itself. I see the pool, the clone still floating on it's surface, curled up on a plastic matress, I see the wreckage of the robot scattered about, I see two functional robots, and between their floating figures, Moore himself stands, staring down at the floor.
His eyes rest on the place where she fell. All I see there is an empty pool of blood.
Moore looks just as puzzled as I.
With my computer, I touch cameras, opening eyes of glass, I scan the entire building. I can't find her. Inside the computer, I find camera recordings, the house's photographic memories. I watch. I see Scarlet fall, I see her shoot, I see a beam of light impale her and then... blackout. And when the generator kicks in, and the cameras look again, she is gone. How? She might have been able to crawl away, but she couldn't get very far, not with her wounds. And where could she get to that the cameras can't see?
I look at Moore. He seems to be concentrating on something. What? He should be checking his security system, examining his cameras, but he doesn't seem to have any equipment for that with him. Then what is he doing?
He shakes his head, suddenly, and walks towards the clone in the pool. Standing by the pool, he snaps his fingers, and one of the robots obidiently floats towards the pool, lowers itself into the water and nudges the matress towards Moore. The clone on the matress has her knees tucked in, right up to her chin, and her arms wrapped tightly around them. Her eyes are wide open, and fixed on Moore. As she floats near him, he reaches out, grabbing her shoulder. She lets out a little gasp, and he bends down and wraps an arm around her waist. Moore is a small guy, but the clone looks light as a feather, her body fragile as china, and he helps her off the matress and on to the side of the pool, as if she was a child.
He bends down beside where she sits, still curled up, on the edge of the water, and strokes her hair softly.
"What's the matter, Cathy?" he whispers soothingly.
"The - The woman!" She whimpers "She came in, and there was shooting, and then it... it was all dark!" Tears fill her eyes, flow down her cheeks "It was dark and - and I couldn't see! I couldn't see..." she hugs him, and he hold her and pats the back of her head, as she stares over his shoulder at the mirrored floor with wet eyes. He puts a finger on her mouth and she suckles it as if it were a teat, like a baby sucking it's own thumb.
Finally, Moore takes her by the shoulders and says "You should better go below now, Cathy. It's dangerous here."
She gets up hesitantly, with his help. A panel in the floor slides away, revealing a light in the room below. The clone approaches the trapdoor and reluctantly climbs down the stairs. Once she's down, the panel slides shut behind her. Moore staightens his suit and, to my horror, turns towards the camera and looks right at me.
"We meet again" He says.
I check the computer. Moore gives me a flash glimpse of his presence, then he seems to vanish. Somehow, he's still in the system, invisible. But how...?
He smiles broadly at the camera.
"I could burn your brain, mister Jirel..."
"I'm ready for that trick this time."
"...But since you're here in person, I think I'm going to burn your body."
One of the robots moves to leave the room before the threat even leaves his lips.
I figure he's concentrating on the robot, so I make a move. Having seen a brief outline of him in the computer, Wormclaw can find him. His camouflage is good, but once I'm aware of where to look for him, there's really no way he can hide. Having found him, I strike, softly, silently. In the computer, our minds gently touch.
It's not that bad this time. There's no pain, he doesn't even feel my touch. Information leaks like sweet milk from his brain into mine. He's looked for Scarlet with the security cameras, and he doesn't know where she is. He's confused, and he's scared. She frightens him. He counts his robots like a hypochondriac counting his last handful of Aspirin. Two personal robots. Of the four robots upstairs, one is out (apparently the robot which came looking for me), leaving only three. Five robots, in all, to stand between Moore and two dangerous people roaming his home.
I step out of Moore's mind. I know where it is in the system now, I see it, I see his weapons and I can counteract them now that I'm aware of them. I check the systems cameras, carefully sharing Moore's electonic eyes. I see the lone robot, a jet black threat gliding towards me like a shadow through red velvet corridors. I see the upstairs robots reach the staircase and descend towards me in intervals, spread out as to prevent me from taking them all out with a single grenade. I'm trapped, a scared rabbit in it's burrow, caught between the ferret and the hunter. I have a gun, and a grenade, but I'm no marksman, So I have no chance against three robots. Maybe against one, although not very likely. Still, it seems to me better to go forward. I begin running, putting distance between myself and one end of the trap, closing the distance between me and the other.
As I run, I recognize the halls I move through. I look up at the cameras, each one exactly where my computer told me it would be, and in my mind I see my face through them, tired and crazy, just like Moore sees me. I pass through a familiar corridor, where I see alcoves interspaced along the walls, sheltering pedestals on which rest delicate bonzai, ornate ivory carvings and preverse hindu statuettes. I know what lies ahead. Before me I see the door, thrown widely open by computer controlled hydraulics. My comportable can not budge it, as Moore holds it in his iron grip, waiting expectantly for the robot to pass through in triumph. But there's no robot. It should have been here by now. I slow my pace. Could this be an ambush? It makes no sense.
Nothing seems to be coming down the corridor from either side, so I go through the door. The woman's corpse lies twenty meters away. Her face is a pale creamy shade of brown. Her machette rests on the stained carpet. Something's wrong. The woman's shirt has been removed, and her torso, as well as the carpet all around her, is not only stained with the milky drylander blood, but with red. A lot of red. I think of Cathy by the canal, her blood forming puddles on the stones. I don't have time to think of anything else. I look up, and the robot is there. Its eyes are midnight surfaces of frozen menace. Its laser-projector is pointed directly at my head. It floats closer. Moore's voice startles me when it comes through the robot's speakers.
"Where's your girlfreind, Mr. Jirel?"
"I don't know." I say. I glance from the robot towards the camera behind me, and I know Moore is watching me through it. Something is stuck on the side of the camera, like a wad of pink chewing gum with a piece of metal embedded in it.
"Tell her to show herself." He says.
"The robot will shoot your head off if she doesn't show herself" He says. I hear his voice reverberate throughout the house from various speakers. "Did you hear that, Cathy?"
The next moment two things happen. A flash of laserfire hits the robot, and simultaneously, I hear a series of small detonations throughout the building, like corks popping off a dozen bottles of champagne all at once. I look back and see smoke coming out of the camera from a neat hole punched in its side. The comportable tells me cameras throughout the area have been destroyed. Someone just poked Moore in the eye.
I look down at the laser smithen robot, and then I look up. The shots were fired from an alcove in the wall. A familiar alcove, which provides concealment from the ever-vigilant cameras. I walk towards the alcove, and she steps out of it.
She looks terrible. Her jeans are dirty, her jacket tattered, and beneath it her T-shirt is torn and her body is covered in bandages. Her hair is streaked with scarlet, and blood stains her face like warpaint, framing eyes which seem no longer sane, as they burn with a violent green fire.
She's beautiful. Against all odds, she's alive and she's beautiful. Her porcelain body has been shattered, but her spirit is not even cracked. Suffering from blood loss, burns, a fracture and a raptured lung, she held herself together with will power, and renewed herself with a massive transfusion of stolen prefluorocarbon blood. In the center of all of this cold hearted violence, she is still strong, alive with a feral, primal drive to survive, to overcome, and to conquer.
I grab her and hold her as tight as I can in my arms. I feel her fragile body, trembling like a leaf, burning with her feverish strength, as she returns my embrace with an intense ferocity.
"Pat" she says.
After a pause, I say "There are three robots coming down to get me."
She breaks our embrace, raises her rifle, and fires three grenades of the heatseeking, self propelled variety in rapid succession down the hall. They hurtle through the doorway riding on plumes of sparks like roman candles, and dissappear around the bend of the corridor. A moment later, we hear three detonations. A check through the comportable on the undamaged house cameras in the vicinity confirms the hits.
"What's the situation, Pat?" She asks with a small smile, eyeing the comportable and the intertrodes on my forehead.
"Moore's in the mirrored room, last I saw of him. He's still got one robot, but I think that's all. The big problem is an Anti-terrorist Mainlaw airship, which should hit town in..." I glance at my watch "fifty minutes."
"Fifty minutes sounds like all the time I need." She says "Should be enough time for you to get the hell out of town too."
"I'll wait for you." I say "I still have my job to finish, and I'm going to get on with it as soon as you point me to Moore's central computer."
She leads me down the corridor, until we come to the top of the white marble staircase. "Last door on your left." She says, pointing along the continuing corridor. Then she turns to go down the stairs. I stop her and kiss her on the lips, tasting her heat. "Good luck." I say. She nodds and turns, descending once again the staircase whose marble steps are stained with drops of blood, signs of her previous passages.
I walk on until I come to a heavy door with a thumbprint lock, where enamelled wooden paneling in modernistic neovictorian style covers titanium steel plate. I don't have the time or the equipment to override the lock manually. I don't have Moore's fingers and I don't think the deceased lady down the hall has the right authorization to open this door. Even if she does, which might be conciveable considering the size of Moore's household staff, I really don't feel like carting her corpse all the way down the corridor. Shooting the lock is an absurd idea. Trying to blow the door down with the grenade seems dangerous, and it might not work. So I let my mind slip once more into the computer. I sink into a sea of green geometries.
I scan the security cameras. I can't see Scarlet anywhere, which means she isn't that far. Moore isn't in the hall of mirrors. I check the room below, and see it has been transformed. All shadows have been banished by the harsh light of bright neons. On the big black bed which is the centerpiece of this room, I see three clones. One of them, in leather skirt, silk blouse and mesh stockings, is sitting on top of another, the girl in the bikini, forcefully restraining her as the third clone, her nakedness covered only by a black bedsheet, wraps a blindfold around her eyes. Moore watches from a black leather armchair in the corner, his only remaining robot hovering above his head like a vulture.
Once the girl in the bikini has been blindfolded, she seems to go berserk. But the two other clones restrain her as Moore rises, picks up from a nearby tray a syringe, and injects the blindfolded girl in the arm. He then bends down and whispers in her ear.
"Do you want me to take off the blindfold?"
"Please please please" she begs franticly.
"Listen carefully" He says "A bad woman will come here soon. You will kill her. If you don't do so, I am going to turn off all the lights in the house. Do you understand?"
"Yes, yes. Please, please take it off, I can't..."
"Will you kill her?"
"Yes, I will, I will. I promise."
"Good." Moore pulls off the blindfold. "Now, wait over there." He adds, and the clone jumps off the bed and scurries away to huddle in the corner of the room.
Moore walks over to the tray and takes a second syringe. He turns to the naked clone, and she drops the sheet draped about her to the floor, then backs away slowly. Moore makes her face the wall, and places the needle in his hand on her skin.
Seeing that Moore is occupied, I decide he probably isn't paying that much attention to his computers. So I set Wormclaw to infiltrate his main databanks. Again, I see images of vast organic-like shapes, spiralling into infinity beneath a cover as hard as ice. With luck, since I have retained parts from Wormclaw's previous infiltration attempt in my comportable's memory, It should go much quicker this time. And after I'm in, I still have my selective erasure virus programs which will eradicate any reference to me, Cathy, or clones in the databanks. It's basicly the same operation I planned to do before, only this time I'm more closer to the scene of the crime. All in all, it should take me about...
- Estimated total procedure time (infiltration + erasure):
23.68 minutes -
That's too long.
An idea suddenly dawns upon me. If Moore is busy with other things, maybe he won't notice if I use my link with his security system to... open some doors?
It seems too easy. It takes Wormclaw less then 4 minutes to find the computer control which opens the door I'm standing before. It is too easy, but this doesn't stop the door from sliding open before my disbelieving eyes. Hesitantly, I take a step into the room which houses Moore's major house and buisness computer. The air is cool and filled with the gentle roar of the cooling system and the nutrient pump. The room smells of disinfectant. Its walls are white as snow and as cold. The computer dominates the room, a huge, soft organic shape formed of pristine white curved metal surfaces, it looks like a heart, a living organ, dense as the core of a glacier, pumping ice blue data in colossal surges to the farthest reach of Moore's network. It makes my mouth water. I close the door behind me.
Next time I check on what's going on outside, I can see Scarlet in the mirrored room. She stares at the floor like a hungry wolf. After a minute, I understand her problem. She doesn't know where Moore's trapdoor is, And she can't shoot the floor with her laser, because it's mirrored. She lowers herself to a crouch, shifts her hold on her rifle, and begins to feel the floor with her fingers, looking for a crack.
Beneath her, I see Moore. It makes me bite my lip, how close she is. He's with the third clone, the one with the most clothes on. He holds her hair, jerks her head back, and kisses her. With his free hand, he holds another syringe. What the hell is he up to?
With his lips still touching hers, he pulls her head to one side, slowly but firmly, then touches her neck with the needle. He finds a spot above the chocker necklace where an artery can be seen, pulsing with excitment beneath her pale skin, and there he presses the needle.
Above, Scarlet seems to have found a crack in the floor. She sets her laser on the lowest possible intensity and the widest possible beam, And begins to trace the crack. The laser's beam isn't even visible, being mainly heat, but their effects are clearly visible: Where the laser passes, it blackens the mirror, leaving a trail of soot. Once she finishes, She adjusts the setting once more, and begins burning through the mirror along the carbonized outline.
Below, three clones sit on the beds with knives on their laps, watching the ceiling glow red. Moore is nowhere to be seen. He must have turned off the lights when he left, because the room is once more encrusted with shadows.
I spend a couple of minutes working with the comportable, then check again on the action. I find Moore in the dining room. He's sitting on the carpet, his back aginst the wall, with two naked clones curled up beside him. He's feeding them ice-cream from a crystal bowl in his lap with a small silver spoon.
Scarlet has burned through more then half of the panel's outline. She kicks it forcefully a number of times, and it breaks, falling down into the room below. Within seconds, Scarlet follows the panel, jumping down through the hole in the floor, she lands in a crouch with her rifle at the ready. There's no Moore to greet her, no robot. From the shadows emerge three identical figures. In better days, she too would look like them, but now, with her weapons and wounds and the blood all over her, she bears no resemblence to the three beautifull women who approach her from three different directions, with daggers in their hands and murder in their eyes. They look drugged, and seem to be near hysteria.
From the left, the first clone charges, still wearing her white bikini, brandishing her knife high over her head, screaming as she runs:
"The lights! Turn on the lights! I'll kill her, I promised!"
Scarlet reacts with programmed instinct, smashing her rifle's barrel into the arm with which the girl holds the knife, then punching her assailant in the groin with her free hand. The clone bends down in pain, and Scarlet seems to freeze, staring in horror at the clone, shocked by her own actions. Another clone seizes the chance and charges her from behind. Scarlet twists in the last moment to avoid her attacker's knife, but it still grazes her shoulder. The third clone charges from Scarlet's right, naked and covered in bruises. Scarlet swings up her rifle to meet the charge, and the clone behind her tries to jump on her back. Scarlet twists and squirms, and her rifle hits the nude clone in the face. The clone on her back is thrown off, and Scarlet uses this respite to retreat back into a corner.
Huddled in the shadowy corner of the room, Scarlet looks miserable. Her situation is bad. She's tired, wounded, and her opponents, although they don't have her reflexes, outnumber her and are just as fast as her. What's more, they will fight like murderous fanatics in their drug induced frenzy, while she could hardly kill her own sisters. Although she might be able to defeat them without killing them, she would waste precious time, and when the battle was over, she would be in poor shape to face Moore and whatever other surprises he has in store.
The clones spread through the room in an arc, keeping as far apart as possible. The naked clone stands directly before Scarlet, her bare and bruised body and the blank despair in the corners of her eyes as daunting as the razor sharp steel in her hands. She charges, Her knife high, her lips locked in tight resolve. She takes three steps, her left leg goes up for the fourth stride. She doesn't complete it. Scarlet levels her rifle and it spits it's bright red venom. The clone let's out a cry as the leg which supported her is snapped in a crack of flame, and she falls face down on the floor. The two other clones come at Scarlet along the two walls to her left and to her right. She whirls, shoots again, fusing mesh-stocking to thigh, then turns to face the third girl. This one is less then an arm's length away. Her knife has already begun its downward swing towards Scarlet's heart.
Scarlet has both her hands on the gun. She spins the rifle, lifts it to block the knife. Not fast enough, she blocks it when the blade is already half a centimeter inside her chest. With a burst of adrenalin, she pushes back the arm of her assailant and wrenches the blade from her body, but her balance, already comprimised by the quick swing of the rifle, is lost. She falls to the floor.
The next moment, things happen fast. The clone leaps at Scarlet. There is no time to think. Scarlet can see the girl's eyes, see her own jade reflected in itself, see the panic, the drug enhanced terror in the wide, wide dark green eyes. There is no malice there. None. Only terror in the eyes which guide the knife. Faster then the eye can follow, Scarlet swings the rifle, and shoots. Ruby light cuts through delicate flesh, and the wide open, terrified jade eyes grow just a little wider, as the fear freezes on them, hardening on the retinas.
And Scarlet scrambles to her feet and runs. somehow finding her way through the deep shadows of the room to the exit, She flees from the darkness and the pain, down a short corridor with torquise walls. Tears cover her face and mingle with sweat.
Down the corridor is a large oaken door, slightly ajar. With a weary shrug, Scarlet once more assumes the military pose, and with both hands firmly gripping her rifle, she kicks the door open.
I recognize the room immediately. The dining room. An unlit chandalier adorns the ceiling, and one of the walls is covered by a picture window hologram which illuminates the room with perpetual late morning sunlight, filtered through gauze-thin curtains. A thick, cream colored carpet covers the floor, and a large dining table ringed with chairs stands in its center, expensive dishes piled with half eaten delicacies crowd its tablecloth draped surface. By the wall, Two identical clothless girls, their garments flung about them, lie still, their bodies locked in convulsive contortions. A small dish of melting ice cream lies between them, with a small spoon floating inside it. The dead girls' lips and chins are stained with traces of the poisoned treat.
I wrench my eyes away. Where is Moore? What is he up to now? Why the hell is he killing off his clones? I can feel him peeking over my shoulder, examining Scarlet's reactions to the grisly scene he has set for her. Gloating. She's going to kill him, and he's still gloating, toying with her. What is going through his mind? I can find out.
I can see the outline of Moore's conscious in the computer clearly. He's in constant contact with his computer through his implants, and the computer is constant contact with him. Through it, I can touch him. I know how, I've done it before. It's even easier now. He's not paying me any attention. Then again, he has a lot on his mind.
It feels very strange, entering his body. It's also not a very nice expirience. I go in with a strong fear that I'll enter his mind while he does something very vile. Unfortunately, my fear is well founded.
I reach into his mind as he reaches orgasm. I want to pull back, but I can't. His eyes are closed, so I fumble with my mind and access the security cameras, flicking through images until I find him.
He's on a large bed, with stuffed toys and picture books scattered about him. The last robot is no longer with him. With him is the child-like clone, wearing only knee high white stockings and with pigtails in her hair. Although her body is identical to the other clones', her face seems much younger. Moore is fully dressed. Can't be caught with his pants down. He seems to be raping the clone with extreme tenderness. He opens his eyes and I see her face. She's smiling at him. Her jade eyes seem filled deep with innocence, infantile and honest. The innocence isn't a disguise, into which an adult mind has regressed to avoid the harshness of reality. Although it is an escape, there is no adult hiding below. Moore's mind tells me she is a clone created with minimal memories, a blank slate which Moore planned to fill with love. I feel his thoughts wash over me in the afterglow of his lovemaking. This girl-child returns his love, instead of enduring it like the other clones. She will do all he asks. She loves him.
"Do you love me?" He asks, his voice unusualy gentle.
"I do." She replies. And she loves him. She doesn't know how to lie, does she? But her love, with all its seductive innocence, is not what he wants. The realization hurts him. He doesn't seem to really know what he wants, anymore.
Moore gets up, and tidies his clothes. He kisses the girl- child on the cheek, covers her with a blanket and tucks it in at the corners. He leaves and closes the door quietly behind him, then locks it.
In a room filled with deep and dark shadows, a naked woman with a bruised body and a broken kneecap begins having convulsions. The drug injection which minutes ago sent her into a killing frenzy begins destroying her brain. Its effects are lethal.
In a room filled with fake sunlight, Scarlet drapes a tablecloth over the still forms of her poisoned sisters.
I remove the intertrodes for a moment and rub my temples. The computer next to me is an cold as a block of ice. Somewhere inside it, My mind touches Moore's.
When I rejoin him, I find he's going to church.
It's not a very big room, and not very much like a real chapel. The doors are big and heavy, like a church's but the place itself is not very fancy. A bare, white room, lit by candles. There's an altar adorned with garlands of plastic flowers, and on it there is a simple metal cross. Beyond the altar I see a large stained glass window, showing a maddonna. No male saviours in this church where oppressed clones pray for salvation. a little light comes through the window, and I can hear rain. A single woman kneels before the altar, barefoot, wearing a simple sleeveless plain white dress. For a moment Moore admires the curve of her back, the pale golden hair cascading down her shoulders. reflexively, he contemplates for a moment raping her over the altar. He screws his eyes shut. For so many years, he has loved this woman. Her body is still perfect, her voice is still music to him, in all her incarnations. And her spirit, he loved her spirit even more. Her gentle strength. All he wanted was for her to love him. When she escaped him, abandoning him in hatefull suicide, he tried to bring her back. But he never found the love he wanted. Some of the clones resembled her more, and some resembled her less. All had her form, her voice. Some had her manner, and a few had her spirit. But he didn't find the love he sought. Some, like the girl-child, loved him, but they did not have the spirit he wanted. Others had the spirit, but hated him, or disliked him, or even liked him, but none of them loved him. So what was left?
His failing was his lust. What was it in that woman which drove him insane? No other woman satisfied him, or even interested him. With the clones, he could fulfill his every sexual fantasy. He couldn't get love, but he could satisfy lust. It was a dream come true. He couldn't stop. Years passed, and he kept the clones, hidden. Even when he would prepare a new clone, telling her stories of how she was the true catherine ressurected in a clone body, and trying to win her heart, he could not abandon the hidden clones, the secret, illicit, lawless sex they provided. That proved his downfall.
She was the tenth clone. An exceptional one. After some experiments, he was once more trying to use as much of the original Cathy's memories as he considered possible. The clone was perfect. Intelligent, witty, strong willed, she reminded him of the original in everything she did, except that she was nicer. She seemed to actually be falling in love with him. Love he had worked so hard to earn. He felt the fulfillment of his heart's desire was near.
And then she found a way into the underground levels. She discovered his toys. And he lost her love.
Moore opens his eyes. The clone before him hasn't turned to look at him even once. Number eleven, he thinks. Another faliure, one he never expected. For some reason, when he described the 'ressurection scenario' to clone number eleven, it made her take on a religious bent. The original Catherine never seemed the religious type, although she was interested in mysticism. Strange how things worked out. She was the last clone he made. After the disaster of clone number ten, and the half hearted attempt to correct it with clone number eleven, he grew tired of his repeated faliures in finding love. He stuck to lust. It wasn't love, but it meant a lot to him. He killed to protect its secrecy, not out of malice, but out of neccessity. And now it was over. The tenth clone, the only one which loved him, the only one which escaped him and survived, the only one which came back to him, was here. She was going to kill him. He knew it, with a cold certinty, and he wasn't going to go out without a fight.
Moore takes a few steps towards the kneeling girl. He hears something metallic bounce on the floor behind him. He whirls, and sees the charred remains of his last robot, left in ambush a couple of rooms back, rolling on the floor. I check the local cameras, see Scarlet. Moore must have been paying more attention then me. He steps forewards, reaches down, grabs the kneeling clone by the hair, and pulls her up, holding her as a shield between him and the door.
She steps through the door, her rifle aimed at his heart. Her body is wounded, her equipment is damaged, but her stride is confident, determined. Her eyes... I can not describe them. All the pain of all the women tortured and murdered by Moore is collected in their jade depths, and crystalized into a very personal kind of hate. A hate made of pain, forged by betrayal, honed to sharpness by loss. Her eyes scream bloody murder.
Moore pulls the clone nearer to him, and his hand reaches to a golden cross on a thick chain around her neck. He twists the chain and pulls it tight, nearly chocking the girl. She doesn't resist him. Her face is filled with an unnerving serenity.
"Stay back or I kill her." Moore says, tightening his grip on the gold chain. The gold cross bites into the palm of his clenched fist.
Scarlet stops moving.
"Drop the gun." He says. His fist trembles. I feel an uneasy weight in the side of his trousers.
Slowly, very slowly, Scarlet begins to lower her rifle.
"Drop it!" He shouts, jerking the chain in his grip.
Scarlet stares at the red marks on the neck of her sister, looks into her eyes. They are affraid now, despite their serenity.
She bends down to a crouch, and places the rifle gently on the floor.
With his free hand, hidden behind the back of the clone, Moore reaches into his trousers pocket and whips out a pistol. He aims it at the crouching Scarlet. His movements are as fast and as skillful as could be expected from a man with no training, no reflexes, and no time for mistakes. His hand is barely out of his pocket when her hand enters her jacket. By the time he levels the pistol at her, Her pistol is out. By the time he has aimed it, she has already fired. I feel the pain as The bullet tears through his hand. He screams.
From her crouch, Scarlet leaps.
Moore pushes the chocking clone at her, then turns and runs towards the altar. With a single stride, he's on top of it. As Scarlet untangles herself from her clone, he jumps at the stained glass.
He goes through it. Fragments of Maddona scatter all about him. By sheer luck or fault of design, the glass breaks along the lines which join its separate pieces, so that Moore is not cut by the shards. He lands on the wet grass outside the window, where there's a small, lawn-covered terrace, carved in the seaward slope of the cliff, with stairs leading down to the beach. In the east, the sun is rising, through heavy rust-red clouds, leaving a trail of light on the sea. Moore pulls himself up, and runs, stumbling, to the stairs.
In the shrine, Scarlet retrieves her rifle from the floor. The clone sits in a slump in the corner, taking ragged breaths. Scarlet walks past her without a glance. The clone is no longer in danger, no longer an obstacle between her and her prey, so she doesn't matter anymore. Scarlet climbs the altar slowly, and leaps into the dawn.
She lands like a cat, pulls herself up, and runs to the stairs.
Moore is about halfway down when he sees her, a dark figure moving nimbly down the marble steps. The sun casts her shadow on the side of the cliff, distorting it to appear like some hungry nightmare. But Scarlet is all too real. Moore runs recklessly down the slippery stairs, taking two at a time, but he knows he can't escape.
She's three quarters down when he reaches the beach. He looks left and right and I see the beach is a strip of imported white sand streaching about a hundred meters in each direction, before terminating in two red stone breakwaters, thrusting from the cliff into the sea like fangs, crowned with high barbed wire. But fifty meters to the left, Another, broad staircase leads back up to the house. Moore veers left. He runs like a madman through the rain, his expensive shoes slipping in the soft sand, his hand bleeding pain. He doesn't look back.
He comes within three meters from the steps, when his ankle explodes with pain. He falls, his face hits the sand. He twists, touches his ankle, feels a hole in his sock, in his leg, where the two are fused together. The smell is terrible. Over his shoulder, he sees Scarlet, at the bottom of the first flight of steps, as she lowers her rifle and walks towards him. She's walking slowly, lesiurely, savouring each step. He tries to get up. His wounded ankle hurts and can't support much weight, but it's enough for him to keep his balance. Moore looks up. He can't climb stairs, not in his shape, not so many. With a shot, Scarlet wounded him just enough to prevent him from escaping. He turns and looks about him. Small, dark shapes move across the clouds over the sea, but they are just gulls, and offer him no salvation. But below, the sea is not far away. He could still swim.
Moore hobbles down the beach towards the water's edge. Humbled by the breakwaters, lashed by the winds, the waves lap the shore meekly, carressing the sand with soft flattery. They look inviting, promising shelter and amniotic pleasures, like a womb. Moore pulls his eyes away in disgust. He is a senior Mainframe executive, a man of power. He can command men, control their fate, bring them fortune or ruin with but a word. And here he is, about to throw himself into the sea, surrender to its seductive charms, to escape a woman. He turns and faces her, Standing tall on his faltering legs.
She moves towards him, slowly and certainly. With her clothes damp and dirty and her wet hair plastered to her scalp, she moves like a tigress, with pride and power and grace in each step. This is her victory march. She carries her rifle as if it was the scythe of the grim reaper, and her eyes, like cold and wet jade, watch his every movement with a hate so intense it burns like lust.
And Moore grows weak, and he is affraid. Even like this she is lovlier then any other woman, and in his deepest heart he has always feared her, just as he feared her when he first sneaked shy glances at her in college. She is the most perfect woman he has ever seen, and beneath her jade eyes, his every inadequacy is exposed. No matter how rich, or successfull, or powerfull he will be, He can never hope to match her. And He will always fear her, and hate her, and love her, will always seek to possess her, seek to destroy her, seek to repress her. But he never could. She was dead. But he loved her so much he brought her back, tried to chain her ghost in the bodies of clones, bind her with lies, and with brainwashing, with his money, and his power, and he never could. She always escaped him. And now she will destroy him.
As death approaches him, treading softly on the white sand with her red leather boots, Moore's mind searches franticly about, for some way out of the terrible trap his life has suddenly become. And he sees me. I freeze when I feel his mind's eye rest on me, cold and black and ringed with hysterical blue.
"Jirel." His voice flows softly into my mind, like an ice cold mist.
"Yes." I answer, my own voice weak in the face of the condemned man "You said you wanted a spectator."
I hate myself for that. It seems impudent and wrong to tease a dead man.
His next words turn my blood to ice.
"You're not a spectator, Jirel. You're an exit."
And suddenly the void locked between his china blue irises glows red. And he attacks me. With programs I never knew he had. Little pieces of venom hidden in the dark reccesses of the permenant memories of his implants. Neurally interactive poison coming from inside him. My defenses shatter, like shields of glass raised in vain to prevent the charge of a rhinocerous. Green splinters fall in the darkness of my mind like pieces of a stained glass madonna falling to the wet grass. And Moore goes through. He enters me, like a terrible endless worm, thick as a thigh, burrowing through my brain. And in the computer, bizzare things happen. Systems shift, vanish, alter configuration, in a storm of changing shapes and colors. I hear the colling system whine louder as the main computer strains, and I see the precious data all about me, priceless information, rare secrets, stacked in blocks and filling the area all about me as far I can see, begin to melt, liquidify, and dissapear. All about me, Moore brutally erases vast portions of his databanks, destroying his valuable information as if his life depended on it. And I stare in shock, as he impales my mind, at all the wealth he so casually throws away.
On the beach, Scarlet reaches him.
Moore empties the computer franticly, faster then I would have thought possible. Why is he emptying it? He's going to fill it up. It's going to be a vessel.
A vessel for what?
On the beach, Scarlet stands before him. He balances uneasily on his wounded ankle, and the water softly licks the sand around the leather of his shoes. He looks at her, and there is only terror in his eyes. I feel tears fill their rim.
She regards him, so helpless before her, thinking of all the times she was helpless before him. She thinks of her sisters, killed so casually, like playthings. Her eyes burn with these things. Murder builds up in her like a sexual passion.
Moore sees all of this, and he sees her rifle leveled at him like her judgement. He sees the firm resolve in her jaw, and he can feel her holding her passion back, savouring his weakness. How he hates her. He will do anything if she will spare his life.
Scarlet reaches with her gloved hand into her pocket and tosses two metal objects at the damp sand by Moore's feet. He looks down at them. One is a long metal knife, dark blood staining it's sharp blade. The other is a small silver spoon.
"Why?" She asks, her voice hoarse with pain.
Moore doesn't raise his head.
"Because of you." He says.
He looks up at her, his eyes filled with broken glass, blue as a maniac's.
"I killed them to hurt you. I killed them because they were already dead. I killed their spirits a long time ago. They didn't matter. You were the only one that mattered." His voice is husky, soft, but there's an edge of genuine pain on it.
"Why?" she asks again.
"Because you were the only one who ever loved me."
There are tears in her eyes. "Yes." She says. "I know."
"That's why you hate me so much."
"We all hated you! You gave us all more reasons then we would ever need, you bloody bastard!"
"They all hated me, but they all wanted to escape me. Only you wanted to kill me, because you hated me more then they. They all had reasons to hate me, but you were the only one who had loved me."
"You're right." Scarlet says. "Making me love you was the cruelest thing you ever did to me."
She lowers her rifle to the sand, and draws a knife from her boot. "But now it's my turn." She glances at her watch "I have about thirty minutes left and I intend to make full use of them. If you would kindly disrobe, Edmund, it will make my work much easier."
"Dammit" He mutters "If there's anything..."
"No." She says, her voice calm as steel. "It's too late for offers, and I'm not giving this up for anything. Now if you would please...?"
Moore takes off his jacket. There are tears going down his cheeks. He undresses slowly, never taking his eyes off the knife. And at the same time, his mind works at an incredible speed. I am aware of all the sensations he feels, but each moment they grow sharper, closer, more acute. I realize that he too is aware of things I sense.
I know what the empty computer is for. It's a receptacle for our souls. Inside it, Moore's mind and mines will mingle, and exchange. He wants my body. We are growing closer every minute.
He's completely naked now, shivering in the rain. Scarlet looks at him with hungry eyes. She seems to be visibly fighting the desire to stab the blade straight into his heart, but she knows she will not be satisfied with something so quick and simple. He deserves better. She has dropped much of her gear, and she takes off her jacket.
Slips into something more comfortable.
When she touches the knife to his skin, Moore shakes so hard he can no longer stand. He falls to his knees. Scarlet kneels beside him, pushing him back with the tip of her blade until he lies on the wet sand. She slides over next to him. She's giving off so much heat I can feel it on Moore's skin. It's nearly visible. I see her hesitate for a moment. Cutting a person with a knife delibrately is not like shooting someone or stabbing them. It's a concious action which requires either the utmost sadistic or murderous state of mind, or the trained control of a surgeon.
She starts at his left thumb, with a slash as delicate as a paper cut, then moves to the palm. with delibrate, delicate care, she moves her knife in a sanguine path along the arm and works her way down.
Although his mind is occupied with other matters, Moore can not help but watch her. Through his eyes, I too am transfixed. I see Scarlet guide her blade so tenderly, I can't help but view the scene in sexual terms. And so does Moore. The threat of death just increases his excitment. Scarlet is aware of this. The knife glides down his chest, hovering briefly about a nipple, cutting cleanly, like a razor. The rain is rich with her scent, and he can feel the warmth of her breath on his skin. From time to time she looks up from her work at him, her hungry eyes and her half open mouth framing a question from behind her damp hair.
She works her knife down his abdomen, slowly circling his naval. The knife goes more then skin deep, it hurts, but he is paralyzed with fear and pleasure and despair. Her scent, her breath make him forget the pain, make it bareable. And she smiles at him. I know that smile. It's more beautifull then the dawn. He looks up and see that his arm is covered in blood. He doesn't seem to feel pain there. He looks back at Scarlet as she bends down, intent on the path of her knife. He watches the curve of her body, and her face. She's blowing on his skin, where the knife has cut, her warm breath cooling the wetness of rain and blood.
Moore throws his head back. In the computer, our minds fill many megabytes of storage space as they mingle and change. All about me, everything runs blue and green. The computer is a ballroom of emerald and azure memories, swirling with faded olive reflexes, turquise stock reactions, aquamarine mannerisms, shamrock colored traits, glacier blue humor, cobalt idiosyncrasies, quirks the hue of lettuce. He empties my brain, pouring me into the computer, then into his own cortex, as his own personality is imprinted, piece by piece, on my own grey matter. While I watch helplessly, he is escaping his fate by moving into my body.
He is slipping away into something more comfortable.
And then we are both in the same places at the same time. we both share the same sensations. We both are one and the same.
In a White walled air conditioned room, We sweat as I crouch beside the cold machine which holds our souls.
By the beach, in the rain, Moore's eyes are blank and filled with tears, as he watches a line of blood etched down his torso, as he sees Scarlet and the knife, kneeling beside him, breathing gently on his skin. I feel the hard excitment of his body as the knife moves slowly to his crotch.
In a white walled room, my mouth screams in two voices.
By the sea, Moore's head tilts back and rests on the sand. This is the most painfull part, but our minds are still half-way in the computer, dulled with electronic strangeness. I blink and feel rain on my eyelids. I open them and see Scarlet. I look into her eyes. I see her thrust in the knife, and there is no mercy in the jade depthes. There is no softness, not a moment of regret. Her eyes are as cold as wet stone. They are beautifull. They look into mine, and I wonder if somewhere in the blue ringed darkness she can see me. Their surfaces seem to ripple, and I feel for a moment a touch of uncertainty. She lets go of the knife. I'm bleeding to death.
Her hand goes to my side, and she lifts my limp and blood drenched hand. Not the hand shattered by bullets, but the hand marked with a red channel, extending from the thumb. She spreads the fingers, finds the middle one.
As I lie in the rain, in a pool of blood, She puts my finger in her mouth.
She slides it along her velvety tongue until it comes to rest in a familiar, soft place.
And this time she goes in.
In a ballroom with an emerald floor and ice blue walls, chandaliers of crystalized and codified emotion tremble. Here I am locked in Moore's cold grip. In a white-walled room, My body begins to shake. My temples are hot.
I feel Moore turn to look with his mind's blue eye at the walls of my ornate prison.
There's a crack in the wall. A red crack. The wall is bleeding. Red.
Moore readies himself. But he's not fast enough. The Wall shatters, scattering fragments all around us. In the other walls, we see more red. It blossoms in two dimensional flowers on the green and the blue all around us. And Moore moblizes his mind, his knowledge. He defeated me in the computer, and Scarlet has no training.
But when she comes, he hesitates. He remembers the beach, and the rain, and he can't think straight. There's too much terror in him. And so much fury in her. And as she comes in and breaks his hold, I begin to move, flexing my mind, checking if everything is still there.
In a room with white walls, I try to open my eyes. I try to move my finger. It's sucha small thing. But Moore grips my body hystericly. He is frightening, as his mind glows with all the blue shades of fear.
But I feel a warm touch on his cold, cold mind. It loosens his grip and I slip free. My eyes open. In a small display in the top of my comportable, a message flashes:
- TRANSFER CANCELLED -
And I lift My arm, My own arm, dry and dressed and pale, and tear the wires from my forehead.
Somewhere, I feel Scarlet open her lips, and hurl Moore away, like a discarded plaything.
He rests inside a computer, empty and blue, and he rests on a beach, bleeding softly.
I get up, open the door, dig my hand into my coat pocket and pull out the grenade. I leave it for Moore, a parting gift.
I go down to the beach. The rain has stopped, and the sun peeks out through cracks in the clouds, painting the surface of the maroon sea with gold. My watch tells me there are twenty minutes left. I look for Scarlet. I see Moore's body, and kneel for a moment to close his eyes. They are full of blue and the void. I walk down the beach, scanning the eastern sky for signs of airships. In a direction opposite to the oeMoore took, I find a small boathouse, once locked. By the laserburned padlock, I find her.
She's struggling to pull a small white boat out of the shed and into the water. I help her.
"I hope you've been saving your strength" She says "Because you're rowing."
I smile. "We have eighteen minutes. How are We going to escape in this?"
"Oh, it's not that hard. If you put your back into it, this boat can go quite fast. Visibility is poor, so we should be hard to spot, and I know this area quite well. There sare lots of small coves and grottos where we can hide. We'll just wait there until things quiet down, and then I know a good place out of town where we can rent a car cheap. You've got money?"
"Money's no problem. While you were chasing Moore, I moved several million from various accounts of his to various accounts of mine. I spread it so thin they'll only notice when they assess all his holdings. Once I get to a bank-terminal, I can download everything into hard cash, without being traced. I also erased any reference to me from Mainlaw files, and booked us two tickets offplanet, destination of your choice."
"Been busy, have you?" She smiles, the earnest, amused smile I know so well. I remember the way she looked at Moore on the beach, and her smile fails to warm me.
She feels my unease. Her face becomes serious. "You were there, Pat, weren't you? In the end, you were there."
"He wanted to steal my mind." I say, as I toss my briefcase into the boat.
"H-how much did you see?" She asks.
"I saw everything." I answer "I was in touch with Moore's mind since the chapel. He only noticrd me at the beach, though."
"Y-you saw what I did to him?" She lowers a bag into the boat. "You saw me?"
"I did." I answer. "You were frightening, and you were beautiful."
"I'm sorry you were there." She says. "It was something I had to do, something I've wanted for a long time. I enjoyed it. It's not something I wanted you to see, but I'm not ashamed I did it."
"You don't have to be ashamed, Scarlet. I understand you. It was neccesary for you."
Scarlet is silent. I take off my shoes and socks, pull up my trouser legs. We wade into the water and push the boat off the beach. I hold the boat steady as she climbs in.
"And what are you going to do now that Moore's dead? All you ever did was done to gain your revenge. What will you do now?"
The wind picks up, and the air grows cold around us. Gulls circle overhead, a choreographed shower of feathers and cries, as Scarlet helps me climb into the boat. She looks at me with her jade eyes, drowning me in their secret depths. There is an uncertainty in them, an awkward kind of fire, a hunger deprived of its target.
"Live." She says. She hands me the oars, then moves to the fore of the boat, where she huddles in the cold, still holding her rifle, watching the sky.
We sail into the day, the sea about us a dark and troubled reflection of the heavy crimson clouded sky above. The house behind us grows small and distant, like a dollhouse, an empty mansion of porcelain and ivory.
As we leave the shore, it begins to rain.