Cyberpuppets



Deck leaped headlong over the counter into the kitchen area. It was the closest exit available to him, and at first glance it didn't seem to be an entry point for any further enemies. He landed neatly on the grimy kitchen tile and rolled onto his feet without losing speed. A second later he was sprinting. He could hear the dull plodding of metallic footsteps converging on his position from the main dining area.

The rear door of the kitchen slammed open as he broke through. He found himself running down a long steel corridor made of darkened metal, like the inside of the barrel of a gun. It ended as it joined a similar corridor. He paused only an instant to consider his choices. To the left was the aftermath of some skirmish, littered with bodies. It looked as though it dead-ended at a makeshift barricade someone had erected. He went right. The corridor a was long and narrow, and ended with a door that had been jammed open. The long, straight corridors were ideal for running full speed, maximizing the distance he was able to put between himself and his lumbering pursuers.

He darted through the open doorway and found himself in a large, well-lit open area featuring a freight elevator in the center of the room. It was the storage nexus he'd avoided earlier.

A cyborg stepped from behind a crumbling wall of storage containers and advanced on him. It was a large, tank-like beast, far more machine than organism. Everything but the head and upper torso and been replaced with mechanical prosthetics. Its expressionless, dead face was framed in steel and plastic.

His pistol left its holster and found its mark an instant later. A single shot entered the exposed grey flesh of its chest. The shot should have destroyed a lung, but the automated horror gave no indication it had even been affected.

Deck backed away, trying to maintain some distance, and aimed the next shot for the center of its head. He drew in a slow practiced breath and held it. The ineffectual snap of a dry pistol greeted him as he pulled the trigger.

Damn.

He dropped the pistol and drew his metal tube as he retreated back into the corridor, staying beyond the reach of the grasping metal arms.

Deck lunged, striking at the face of his opponent with the point of his weapon. The blow was brushed easily aside by the heavy, brutish arms. He continued to back steadily away as he spun the metal tube, striking in a series of rapid blows. Sparks flew as the metal surfaces connected. His attacks on the flesh were blocked, and his attacks on the machine were futile. Finally, the machine grabbed his weapon and held it. Deck reacted as if he were engaging a human, and kicked at the unguarded chest. The coil of his body released, focusing his energy into a single, brutal movement. There was a crunch as the ribs buckled under his foot, but he stumbled backwards against the unexpected mass.

He lost his grip on the pipe as he fell onto his back. The cyborg grabbed the two ends of the telescoping pole and mangled it like the slender antennae of some cheap portable radio. The sections separated and it clattered to the floor, a broken, bent mess.

He needed to get by this thing, armed or not. Retreating would only send him into the arms of the group he'd left behind in the lunch area. Rolling away, he leaped to his feet with practiced grace. As the cyborg stepped closer, Deck struck with his hands, first a feint with his right, followed by a lightning-quick jab with his left. He aimed the tip of his thumb for a cold, unblinking eye.

His strike met its mark, but brought him within the superior reach of his augmented foe. The second his thumb connected, his throat was clamped in the vice-like grip of a mechanical hand. He spasmed, unable to breathe in. During the punch he had exhaled, and now his lungs were empty and begging for oxygen.

The cold steel wall met him in the back of the head as he was lifted bodily and slammed into its surface. The steel arm constricting his breathing pinned him firmly against the wall. He flailed, blindly striking at the unmoving face of his enemy. The harsh metal joints pinched and bit the flesh in his neck. He attacked the forearm that held him, but it was like assaulting a bulldozer. His tongue rolled out as he fought in vain to draw a breath under the crushing weight. He began to black out. The cyborg stood, holding Deck against the wall at arm's length. It was a statue. It smelled like it was rotting from the inside out.

Deck's hand dove into a pocket and grabbed the EMP grenade, punching the detonator. There was an agonizing flash of light in his head and a spike of pain went down his spine. His mouth opened wider as if to scream, but he had no breath. The metal hand went slack and the cyborg tumbled to the floor like a marionette who's strings had just been cut.

Crouching on the floor, grasping his burning skull, Deck drew in a long, gasping breath. He spat as he sucked in ragged gulps of air. He was breathing again, but something was wrong. Something was missing.

The implant.

He suddenly realized that is HUD was gone. A horrified, girl-like gasp escaped his lips. He went limp.

His mind prodded for the familiar image of the HUD, but it was gone. He was digitally blind. Even though he had only been using the implant for a few hours, it was like loosing a limb.

Lines filled his vision, and then:

Restarting...

Negotiating neural pathways...

Starting services...

Deck gasped a sigh of relief. He was shocked that the implant survived the blast, but didn't care to ponder the matter at the moment. Like the sole survivor of some airline crash, he was less interested in why he was still alive, and more interested in escaping the wreckage. The implant was working, and he needed to move.

He examined the fallen cyborg. It had a firearm of some sort mounted on its forearm. Deck wondered why it hadn't been used. Perhaps it was out of ammunition. Perhaps Shodan was serious about capturing and torturing him.

The march of metallic footsteps drew near. He shook his head in disbelief. The situation was too insane for him to even comprehend. Even if he managed to escape, he was still dead when the bio-toxin kicked in. Running was a pointless gesture, but he did it anyway. He took off in the direction of the storage nexus, grabbing the empty pistol as he ran by.


Rebecca's face appeared in his head, illuminated by the stark glow of florescent lights and display screens, "This is Lansing. Glad you finally got back to me. We were wondering if we had lost you there for a while."

"I was wondering the same thing", Deck spoke in a whisper so subtle he could only just barely hear it himself. He had just spent fourty-five minutes working his way around the level while dodging the groups of pursuing cyborgs. They had massed in the storage nexus, then fanned out and began a very methodical search of the level. Deck had managed to evade them so far by retreating into the shadows and moving away as they drew close. The searching teams had slowly pushed him south. He couldn't see it yet, but he knew they were boxing him in. He needed to slip past the search net or find a working elevator, or eventually they would corner him.

He was crawling along the wall in some unfamiliar area, clinging to what shadows he could find. He was heading east, making his way through some of the less-damaged areas. There were no signs of combat here, and no mutants. If it weren't for the dim lights and gibberish - filled display screens everywhere, the place would look almost normal. He could still hear slow, plodding footsteps to the north.

"We have managed to get some people on the phone and we have some experts coming in. I had to get a whole new level of clearance just to talk to you again."

"Good for you", Deck hated the bureaucracy. Why didn't they just get someone on the line who knew what the hell they were talking about?

"We have managed to determine what is going on up there. It turns out the computer system is having some kind of malfunction."

"Yeah, I figured that out for myself about an hour ago when she tried to kill me."

She didn't even flinch. "Right, we were expecting that. You'll need to avoid attracting its attention."

"Too late for that. I came across a new computer node it had built for itself, and I blew it up."

She snapped her fingers off camera, trying to get someone's attention. Deck suddenly wondered how many people where tuned in to his little broadcast. The control room she was in seemed to be a hub of activity. "You blew it up?"

Deck came to yet another junction. The large corridor he had been in now branched off into a smaller side-corridor. He tried to recall the layout of the area, but without a point of reference he was lost. He decided that the smaller branches would be less traveled. He ran, crouching, into the new corridor and into the shadows. As he leaned against the wall he hissed back to Rebecca, "Seemed like a good idea at the time." He paused to reflect on this. Since the insanity began, he hadn't really taken time to question his own motives. Looking back, it did seem like a pretty exreme and dangerous thing to do. "Anyway, when I blasted it... Shodan showed up, and she was pissed."

"Pissed? That seems...", Lansing began.

He realized his mistake, "Well, she was the mathematical / logical equivalent of pissed off, okay? She was artificially pissed. When the node blew up, she threatened me, and then sent a bunch of - ", he floundered, not knowing how to describe his foes in a plausible way.

She shrugged, "A bunch of what?"

"Cyborgs."

"Cyborgs?", she was incredulous.

"Shodan's word, not mine. She outfitted everybody with prosthetics and implants, and turned them into some kind of low-grade, humanoid bots."

"She?"

"You know what I mean." Deck was surprised to hear himself referring to Shodan as a she, although it seemed to fit now.

He thought about his choices. The narrow corridor was safer, but much less likely to take him to an elevator. What he needed was a map. "So how did you guys figure out it was Shodan?

Rebecca glanced at some display screen off-camera, "About twenty minutes ago, there was an attack on the satellites that service Citadel. Something cracked their security and took them over. A few seconds later, all of the satellites connected to them went under attack. There is still a lot of traffic going between the compromised sats. A few of our techs analyzed the traffic and somehow figured out it was Shodan that was doing the hacking. The explanation was too technical for me. " She tapped on whatever screen had her attention, "It looks like we are going to lose another satellite in a few minutes."

"So why is she attacking satellites?"

Rebecca shrugged, "Why would it make cyborgs? I think the thing is acting randomly. The satellites it has co-opted are not of any particular value to it as far as we can tell. Right now nobody in Australia can get American television, and nobody in the Pacific Ocean has any mobile phone service. Not a big deal, yet."

Deck had no sympathy for the mobile-phone deprived peoples of the Pacific Ocean, "Whatever."

He wondered if she even believed him. "So what is it Shodan seems to be doing? Why would it make... cyborgs?"

"I'm just guessing, but I think she needed them to construct the new computer node."

"But, cyborgs?"

"Stop thinking science fiction", Deck hissed back. "These aren't super - soldiers or anything, they're just bots. Who used to be people. Better yet, puppets. None of the standard bots are able to perform complex tasks like building new nodes. Most of them don't even have opposable thumbs. If Shodan wanted to build something, or perform any complex tasks that required a lot of fine motor skills, she would need access to people she could control. I'm guessing these people didn't volunteer to help, so she lobotomized them and hijacked their bodies."

"That doesn't even make sense. There isn't any technology that can control a human body like that.", Lansing protested.

"Sure there is. This implant I've got is sophisticated enough to present detailed images to my visual cortex. It's already controlling part of my brain." Deck paused as the words came out of his mouth. He hadn't thought about it this way before, "Just expand on that same idea. Instead of sending nerve signals into the brain to creature pictures, send them down the spine to create movement. Actually, I bet creating movement is easiser, from an engineering standpoint."

"So, the people - the cyborgs - whatever, they are not participating?"

"Right, this isn't mind-control. From what I've seen, I think they're dead."

"Puppets."

"Yeah. Either they have some bot hardware lodged in their heads that guides their movements, or Shodan controls them remotely."

Rebecca closed her eyes, thinking, "No, I think they must have bot hardware. We would be seeing a lot more wireless traffic coming from the station if they were controlled via remote. Besides, to stop them, all you would have to do is jam the transmission and they would be useless. I'm told the AI had an IQ in excess of two-hundred, so I doubt it would make a tactical blunder like that."

"Two-hundred? It could be even higher than that now - the more nodes she has, the smarter she gets.", Deck observed.

"I think it's more than that, I think she... uh it... is trying to diversify - spread itself out. With more nodes, there is greater safety, since there is no longer a single point of failure."

"So you think there are more nodes?"

She shrugged, "I'd be willing to bet there are, yeah. One of its main functions was to be an intelligent security system, so it should have a firm understanding of tactical situations. It probably has them spaced evenly throughout the station, so that nothing short of total destruction of the station could kill it."

Deck held his breath as a lumbering cyborg passed by in the main corridor. It moved in a steady, deliberate pattern. Every fifteen steps or so it would pause and examine the surrounding area carefully. He wondered if they could see in the dark. He crouched ever so slightly, keeping his body tense and ready for a leap if he was discovered. He had no way to even slow this beast down, much less kill it, so his only option would be running. It occurred to him that his narrow corridor could easily dead-end on him, leaving him trapped.

Rebecca had covered her headset microphone with her hand and was engaged in an animated conversation with someone off-camera. She became more visibly irritated as the conversation progressed. The polite, businesslike voice she used seemed to be reserved for Deck.

The cyborg shuffled past, ignoring the dark corner where he was crouched. He let out a slow breath. This was actually a lucky break, since he was probably behind the search net for now. This would give him some breathing room.

"Hacker, we need you to head for the engineering level.", Rebecca had finished her side conversation and turned her attention back to him.

"Halt that.", he hissed. "I still need food, I need a drink, I need some medical treatment, I need weapons, and I need a way off this damn floor before they round me up."

"I realize you're in a difficult position, but there is a lot at stake here. We need you to work with..."

"Forget it.", he spat. "I don't work for you pukes. I never agreed to help you clean up this mess. I'm not about to get killed so your board of directors can cover their asses."

Her diplomatic voice never wavered. "I never said you were working for us. But if we are going to proceed we need to be able to talk to each other, and if these sattelites are compromised then that won't be possible. If you want us to get you out of there, you have to work with us." At first her even, calm voice had been somewhat comforting to him, but now he saw it for what it was - an act.

"Keep in mind I am dying because of a bio-toxin manufactured by your company and released by your computer system. I've never done charity work before, and I'm not about to start doing it for the guys who killed me. You keep me alive, and I'll tell you what I see. That's as far as it goes for now."

She sharp glance to someone off screen before turning her attention back to him. "Right. Well, where are you now?"

"Beats me. Somewhere 'south-east', I guess. I just entered a corridor labeled 'radiology'. What I really want is an elevator."

She frowned, looking at a screen above the camera. "Radiology seems to cover several small, adjacent areas. I can't tell which one you might be in." She paused for a moment, staring at the screen that probably displayed a map. "You could see images with this implant of yours, right? If I sent an image, could you view it?"

"Send it."

A moment later a new image was floating among the objects in his head. As he brought it closer to examine it, it obscured his view of Rebecca's video feed. It was a detailed map of the floor he was on.

"This is perfect. I'll get back to you."

"No, just leave the channel op-", her face vanished as he closed the connection.

He was able to reconcile his surroundings with the map in his head. There was an elevator just east of his position, and he could reach it by going through radiology, as opposed to risking travel in the main passage. He slid away from the wall, moving quickly from one set of shadows to another. He was careful to pace himself, not letting his hunger and thirst drive him.

He arrived at a keypad-protected door that blocked his access to the labs beyond. He put his hand up to the keypad and the layers of simple polygons rushed by him in a blur of color and light. He found the code and entered it faster than he would have been able to speak it. Two seconds after his hand went up, the door yielded to him.

Before pulling his hand away, he scrambled the code. He wasn't sure if that could stop Shodan from opening the door, but it was worth a try.

He was in a small, darkened lab of some sort. The south wall was made entirely out of floor-to-ceiling windows that offered a view of the main corridor. The window frames cast thin, finger-like shadows across the room. The north wall was a kitchen-style counter with cabinets overhead. The room was furnished with lightweight plastic tables and various portable medical equipment he couldn't identify.

There was a large sink built into the countertop. Deck put his head under the faucet and took a long drink, nearly gagging on the cold water as he gulped it down. He paused to devour a candy bar that he had stashed in one of his pockets. He crouched in the shadows of a table as he ate, looking intently at the doors.

A search of the cabinets turned up a small handful of dermal patches. His arms and neck were covered in cuts and bruises from his fight earlier, but he decided to save them for an emergency.

There were two doors on the east wall. From his map, he could see that one led out into a corridor that ended with an elevator, and the other door led into a small office. He decided to search the office before leaving. Wary of the windows, he crawled to the door between the tables, trying to stay in the shadows and out of sight.

The office was a small box that featured a simple desk and a wheeled chair. It had a small, stingy display screen built into the back of the desk. Deck slapped his hand down and dove into the local database of logs and messages. As before, there was a wall of black ICE blocking his access to the rest of the system.

The video logs didn't offer much of interest. The first few dozen were dull, routine logs recording various radiological procedures. At some point there was an investigation over the missing bio-toxin and the radiology lab was ordered closed.

Deck let go of the connection and leaned back in the chair. Something had been nagging him since he left the lunch room. Why did the cyborgs need to hunt for him at all? The level was covered with security cameras - why didn't Shodan use them? Where were all the portable consoles? Every office he visited had a display screen, but no rig.

What was the deal with the satellites?

He knew these were somehow related. What was Shodan after?


"So he's telling us stories about cyborgs now?", Buchanan mused from behind her.

Rebecca spun her swivel chair around to face him. "I know, I know." She shrugged, "I don't know what else to say to him at this point. Does the company have an official position on this yet? A little guidance would really help me to know what I should be saying to this guy."

He scoffed, "Not likely. I'm not inclined to buy into this yet and nobody upstairs has given me any reason to want to." Buchanan was using the term "upstairs" as a bit of sarcasm. They both knew that the company higher-ups were all suddenly very busy with "other things" and were not available to do things like answer questions, take official positions, or do things that might imply responsibility. Their offices were, however, upstairs.

Rebecca sighed, "What do the tech guys say? The stuff Hacker is claiming is going on... is it even possible?"

Buchanan shrugged, "They're engineers. They will always tell you anything is possible. Until you ask them to do it, of course. Then nothing is possible. I'll give him one thing though... he's a very imaginative individual."

"So we officially disbelieve him?"

"Oh no, no. Our skepticism is strictly off-the-record. We'll keep humoring him for now. No matter what he says when he calls, we believe him. Aliens. Giant robots. Dinosaurs. Whatever he comes up with." Buchanan moved on, muttering to himself as he went.

"Understood", Rebecca nodded as she turned back to her console. She found that she really did believe what Hacker was saying. This put her in an interesting position. In order to keep everyone happy, she had to give Buchanan the impression that she did not believe him, while at the same time convincing Hacker that she did.


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