Deck stepped into view of the security camera and stood there, staring into the lifeless lens.
He had been amputating the cameras as he encountered them since he left the flight deck, but he had something to say now, and this was the best way to communicate with her. He knew she was watching.
He pulled four gel packs out of one pocket and four detonators out of the other. Then he selected one of each and united them. He held the unit close to the camera so that Shodan would be able to read the display clearly. He set the timer for exactly an hour, and activated it.
He repeated this process with the other three units. Each time, he set the timer for an hour and then tucked the live bomb into one of the deep side pockets of his suit.
When he was finished, he drew his sword and severed the camera.
The media was like a dog, running and begging for someone to throw them a bone to chew on. For weeks they had been ignored, and now suddenly they were thrown not one, but three bones. The news changed overnight from endless loop of speculation into a chaotic mess as they attempted to report on all three stories at once.
The first was the story about Doctor Coffman and his stunning allegations, followed by his abrupt suicide. The press was still milking that story for all of its sensational value when TriOptimum, after weeks of stonewalling, finally began sharing information. They revealed that they had been contacted by a terrorist organization claiming responsibility for the disaster. Before that story was out, an anonymous tip came from inside the company that the terrorists were probably just trying to grab some headlines, and that the real fault was simple human error in following safety procedures when handling dangerous biological agents.
The press was suddenly presented with three targets. Not wanting to let the real story get away, they tried to report on all three at once. The result was a complete lack of credibility. Nobody knew what to believe anymore.
Out of the three stories, the one told by Doctor Coffman seemed to have the least credibility. Dr. Coffman was a disgruntled former employee, after all, and the idea of a crazed computer murdering everyone seemed a bit too sci-fi for the evening news.
Rebecca switched off the newscast. She sat in stunned silence for several minutes, staring into the blank screen. She had assumed that the real story would get out sooner or later. It didn't seem possible that a disaster of this magnitude could occur and the facts never come to light. Somehow, through distraction, disinformation, and possibly murder, TriOp was actually containing the story.
In the end, there would only be one way to stop Hacker from telling the truth.
Deck punched the "close" button as he threw himself up against the wall of the elevator. Bullets perforated the door as it slid shut. He crouched in the corner, trying to make his profile as small as possible for the bullets that had enough caliber to actually penetrate the walls around him. Once the doors sealed, he sent the elevator up.
He doubled over, gasping for breath. Even in peak physical condition, the full-speed sprint across the engineering level would have winded him, and he was pretty far from peak condition at the moment. His heart was thundering in his chest, and he could feel his raging pulse in every laceration on his body. He spat out the sweat as it cascaded down his face and into his mouth.
The interior light flickered randomly, occasionally leaving him in darkness for a few moments at a time. He had noticed this all over the station, and the problem seemed to be getting worse. Either the station was delivering less power or something else was devouring more.
He had been severing cameras as he went, in hopes of blinding Shodan to where he was going and what he was doing. While he had managed to hide his actions, each camera he claimed advertised his position to her. In the last twenty minutes, he had managed to attract quite a few cyborgs. While Fletch made short work of them, they threatened to overwhelm him with sheer numbers.
Now he was in an elevator heading for the top-most level. The bridge. She would know where he was going now. It was a good bet she would have forces waiting for him when he arrived. It didn't matter. As long as she didn't figure out what he had been doing down below, he was happy.
Gravity tugged downward on him as the elevator accelerated upwards. Once his breathing had slowed to manageable levels, he stood and leaned against the bullet-scarred wall.
He ejected the spent magazine from Fletch and slapped a fresh one in place. When this one was gone, he was out. He wiped his hand over his stubble-covered scalp, pushing the sweat down the back of his neck. He winced as the dermal patches covering his hands soaked up the sweat and brought it into contact with the wounds underneath.
Incoming signal: GOV-RL1.VID - Compatible video codec available. Encryption key matched.
Rebecca had been paging him steadily since he'd left the security station hours earlier. He didn't have the time or breath to talk at this point. Besides, he knew what she was going to say.
His body lightened as the elevator decelerated. He fought to bring his breathing under some sort of control. He knew he'd never be able to shoot straight if he was wheezing like an old man.
The elevator came to a stop and he unloaded on the door. He carved a line through the air with a high-speed burst of projectiles from Fletch. The rounds passed easily through the door and into the space beyond.
The door opened to reveal a security bot chassis, separated from its legs, flailing around on the floor. Deck fed a few explosive rounds into the camera housing and the machine stopped moving.
He was in a long corridor that curved away into the darkness in either direction. The command level had undergone extensive changes since his last visit six weeks earlier. The walls looked as though they had been turned inside-out, with tubing and other unidentified chunks of infrastructure hanging in the open like spilled intestines. Cables draped from the ceiling, spilling across the floor and feeding into sockets on the walls like mechanical umbilical chords. Most of the fluorescent lights had been smashed or replaced with more mysterious equipment.
The public display screens provided a weak, flickering light, broken by areas of dangerous shadow. Their light seemed to pulse in time to some deep, resonant throb that he could feel more than hear. Esoteric symbols and numbers marched endlessly across the face of every screen.
The air currents here were strong. Shodan's renovations had probably blocked most of the minor ventilation shafts, constricting air flow and forcing it through the major arteries in the form of unpredictable and powerful drafts. The wind rushed by with a strange, vibrating echo as it disturbed some of the lighter clusters of cable. The warm, dry air had the taste of solder and mechanical lubricant.
Deck faced the air currents and barred his teeth in the face of Shodan's stale breath. He knew he was close now.
A door, nearly concealed behind a curtain of cables and loose wire, slid open nearby. A small courier bot wheeled out and stopped a few feet away.
Deck transferred the rifle to his right hand. He pulled the sword from his back and ignited it in one quick movement. He wasn't going to waste ammunition on this piece of junk.
It regarded Deck for a few moments and then sped away, leaving the same way it had just come in. Deck ran forward in an attempt to follow, but the door slid shut before he could reach it. He banged his hand against the door, but it didn't open. No surprise there. Shodan probably disabled the human-controlled component ages ago. He looked for the keypad, but there was only a roughly welded square of metal over the former location of the device. There was no interface - no dataport. He had no idea how the bot controlled the door, but it certainly wasn't through any means available to Deck.
Somewhere in the darkness, Deck heard another door open and close again. He returned his sword to the makeshift holster and aimed Fletch in the general direction of the sound. Off to his right he could hear the soft rolling sound of a traveling bot. He turned, but could see only darkness.
He stood in place and turned in a slow circle. The lights flickered in an uneven semi-strobe. Cables twitched in the air currents, projecting threatening shadows onto the walls. The movement of air shifted, suggesting closing or opening doors somewhere in the distance.
A bot accelerated out of the darkness and cut across his path. It sped past him and came to a stop a few meters away. It was another short maintenance bot, like the ones he had encountered earlier. This one had an odd, uneven appearance to it. One of its multi-tooled arms had been replaced with a spool of communications cable. The remaining arm looked heavier and more complex than the original. Its body was covered in an odd patchwork of rough metal plates with a strange collection of sockets and openings.
The bot surveyed the room for several seconds before moving forward and grasping the chassis of the ruined security bot with its lone arm. It dragged the broken hunk of metal back into the shadows. The air shifted again as some unseen door opened and closed, and the bot was gone.
It occurred to Deck that it was probably just running off to repair the bot, and that he should stop it if he didn't want to fight the damn thing all over again in half an hour. However, he wasn't about to go chasing after it in the darkness.
The direction of airflow shifted again, and for a moment it seemed to reverse. For the first time he could hear sounds coming from the other direction. The heavy, brutal sounds of mechanized construction reached him for just an instant, and were silenced again as the air currents returned to normal. He swallowed hard.
Assuming the layout of the corridors was unchanged, he needed to head towards the construction sounds to reach the system administrator's office, where he could access Shodan. Heading in the opposite direction would take him to the bridge.
Why was he doing this? He knew he was standing in one of the most dangerous areas of the station, near the seat of Shodan's power. He didn't have to do this. He could follow orders. He could just cut his losses, return to the flight deck, hijack a shuttle, and make his escape. He had been telling himself that he needed to end Shodan's rampage, but deep down he knew there was something else driving him. He could have blown the power connections between the reactor and the bridge, pulling her plug forever. He didn't.
He could be on his way home now, ready to own the world of hacking. He had risked so much to get where he was. Now he was throwing it all away. He couldn't fight it. He needed to connect again. The urge drove him onward. He headed off in the direction of the construction.
"Yes, Ms. Lansing?"
The Director didn't even look up from the stack of papers in front of him. He just knew it was her when she stepped into the room.
Rebecca suddenly found herself nervous and wondering what to do with her hands. She stood in the doorway, not wanting to come all the way into the room. She drew in a deep breath and folded her arms across her chest, "I wanted to talk to you about..."
He cut her off, "About supporting the company position in front of the media?" It wasn't really a question, although it was made to sound like one.
She stood in stunned silence for a few moments. How could he have known that? "Well, yes. I've been thinking about what you said and..."
"And you want to let me know you're ready to stand by the company?" Again, he made more of a statement than a query.
She would guess that he was reading her face, but he still hadn't looked up from his work. She swallowed hard, "Yes."
His eyes shot upward, meeting her nervous gaze. She suddenly found herself looking into the abyss of those cold, dead, sleepless eyes. A chill went through her. There was a long moment while she stood there and let him hammer away at her with his stare. Finally she pulled her eyes away and looked down at her hands.
He waited until she opened her mouth to speak and then interrupted her, "I'm glad to know you're willing to do the right thing. I've made some changes, and in the end I doubt this will be an issue for you at all. I wouldn't worry about it if I were you."
She felt ashamed. She had worked up the courage to come in here and face him again, to tell him she would play along, only to be told that it didn't matter anymore. She had been haunted by thoughts of being murdered by TriOp operatives, and had come in to try and prevent that from happening. Now she felt stupid for getting herself all worked up. Coffman had betrayed the company and gone to the media. She hadn't done anything wrong at all.
He continued, "I see you've been following the news. We didn't call you in here to watch television for us. I've got that part covered."
She just nodded.
The Director stood and leaned forward a bit. He waited patiently until she brought her eyes up to meet his again. "You have only one concern now. We need you to get in contact with that maniac and get him under control any way you can. We need that station to survive, and I don't care what happens to him or that AI. You've done well with him so far, and that's why you're still with us now. We have billions of dollars riding on your abilities as a diplomat and a negotiator."
As she grappled with the iron gaze of the Director, she found herself wondering what Coffman would say to her if he were here now.
He pressed on, "Concentrate on the job I've given you, and don't let yourself be distracted."
She nodded in compliance and backed out of his office.
Deck picked his way carefully through the darkened corridor. Loose hoses rolled beneath his feet and threw off his balance, while tight cables snagged his legs to trip him.
Numerous bots were at work, making bizarre and inexplicable changes to the corridor. Cosmetic paneling was torn from the walls to give access to the guts of the station. Some devices were ripped from the walls and dropped carelessly to the floor. Bots would gather these components and cart them off to be used for some new purpose. Other bots ran lengths of cable and connected them in ways that were impossible to understand. Still others were carving up the rubber, no-skid floor and peeling it back to expose the metal plating underneath. They seemed oblivious to his presence.
The area was engulfed in a steady roar of activity as metal parts were dragged from one side of the corridor to the other where they would be cut, welded, bolted, and put into use. The whine of power tools mixed with the even higher tones of servo activity. The sound was deafening.
Some environmental control system had been stripped of its insulation, and the naked machinery ran unchecked. A cascade of mist fell from the exposed systems, and flowed across the floor as a shallow river of fog. As Deck stepped into the ankle-deep cloud, he could feel the penetrating cold through his clothes.
The light was better here. A good percentage of the lights were still intact, although the bots were working at a steady pace to remove them and replace them with systems deemed more useful to Shodan.
Deck worked his way cautiously through the crowd. None of these bots possessed projectile weapons, but that was no reason to pick a fight if one wasn't needed. He wanted to conserve his ammunition as much as possible, and he didn't want to attract the attention of any more bloodthirsty security bots.
He was careful to stay out of the way, since they might "notice" him if he inadvertently blocked their path.
Past the construction area was the system administrator's office. The office had changed since those four long days he spent inside, hacking away at Shodan's systems. The furniture had been dragged into the corridor and dumped into a careless heap. The walls around the office had been torn open to reveal more of Citadel's innards.
The corridor continued onward from here, leading to a few executive and administrative offices, including Diego's. He had never explored much beyond that point, and he wasn't about to start now.
He slapped his hand against the door and was met with silence. This was no surprise. This room wouldn't open for him before Shodan took over. He looked down in search of the keypad, but the entire wall was an exposed mass of cables and machinery, with no interface in sight.
He cursed and kicked at the door. He needed in here. Only two places offered direct access to Shodan's systems: this room, and the bridge. The bridge was sure to be a fortress.
Directly across the hall was the computer core, where Diego had closed the deal with Deck. Now the room was sealed off from the rest of the ship. The door had been covered with a patchwork of roughly welded metal plates. It was unreachable now. Thick bundles of cable ran from the walls of the computer room and down through gaping holes that had been torn in the floor.
The entrance to the system administrator's office was more promising. The machinery that moved the door was exposed, and Deck was pretty sure he could get it open with brute force.
There were two identical devices that drove the door - one on top and one near the bottom. They were fairly straightforward and comically simple. He frowned. Like seeing behind the scenes of a science fiction television show, the doors were always less exciting once you saw how basic and ordinary they were underneath. He figured that if he could sever the connection between the devices and the door itself, he should be able to slide the door open under his own strength.
He drew his sword and brought it down on the upper door control mechanism. To his surprise, his weapon couldn't cut through the tough exterior metal casing. He made several rough, bludgeoning attacks against it, and severed its power feeds in the process, but he didn't manage to crack open the device.
Deck grabbed the shaft that joined the device to the door and pulled, but it wouldn't budge. He cursed again. The timer of the final bomb was ticking away inside one of his pockets, and he was wasting time fighting with a piece of hardware. He was a hacker, not a handyman.
He sheathed his sword and set Fletch for armored targets. The the gun roared and the upper mechanism flew apart in a shower of sparks. Smoke poured from the remains of the destroyed equipment.
Suddenly the door opened - awkwardly - under the power of the lower mechanism alone, and Deck got his first peek into the system administrator's office.
The lights inside were gone, and the only illumination came from the corridor outside. The room looked to be a solid block of computer cores from floor to ceiling. It was obvious that whatever access port the room might have had, it had long since been absorbed into the mass.
Over the sound of moving air and the ringing in his ears, Deck heard something new. An alarm. There was something else different about the ambient sound around him - the wail of construction had stopped.
Deck turned and saw exactly what he expected. Every damn bot in the corridor was heading right for him.
He opened up with Fletch and began carving through their ranks. They threatened to overwhelm him with their numbers. He tried not to panic, which would just increase the number of errant shots and waste precious ammunition.
He needed to pass through the mob closing in on him. Retreating would mean running deeper into the command level, which he wasn't eager to try.
He stood his ground, resting Fletch against his shoulder and firing in quick, careful bursts. He took the time to line up each shot and make sure it would meet its mark. As the group closed in, his shots become faster, and more erratic. As bots fell, they were pushed aside by the next wave. The bots fanned out, attempting to encircle him.
Deck hit the full-auto switch and swept across the group with a stream of projectiles at full speed. The weapon screamed as it spat out handfuls of white-hot metal. He could feel the rifle getting lighter as he depleted its ammunition.
The line broke, and he sprinted forward like a quarterback heading for a hole in the defense. The line closed in on him. Metal appendages, adorned with gruesome power tolls and attachments reached out to grab him and tear his flesh.
He caught his foot and stumbled forward. He threw his right hand forward to break his fall. He struck the floor and Fletch went off, expending a few more precious rounds. The bots closed in like a pack of wolves. Their metal arms rained down on him. He screamed as some tool punctured his lower abdomen.
He rolled over and tore into the group with Fletch. He held the trigger down and swept the barrel from side to side in a frenzied panic. The howling of the rifle mixed with the sounds of breaking machinery and his own scream. He kicked with his legs, trying to distance himself from the group as their numbers thinned.
The gun fell silent. He didn't even have to look at the display - he knew it was empty. He tossed it aside and stood.
There were only a few bots still moving, and most were heavily damaged. Under normal circumstances, he could take this group with his sword, but he was in no shape to fight. Some new pain radiated from his lower back, and his legs were bloody and covered in many deep wounds.
He turned and ran as best he could. His legs felt numb and weak beneath him. He limped, hunched over, away from the madness and back to the elevator.
Debris caught his feet as he ran, pulling him off balance. His steps slid awkwardly on the exposed metal floor. Every few meters he would lose his balance and fall, leaving a smeared pair of bloody handprints on the ground. He gasped for air as he ran.
He reached the elevator and hit the call button. The doors parted to reveal an open shaft. The airflow shifted and threatened to suck him into the yawning abyss. He threw himself backwards and the doors snapped shut.
She had him. He was trapped here. The only other way off of this level now was the direct-access elevator for the bridge, and he had about as much chance at reaching the bridge as he did walking home.
He paused, resting on all fours as he fought to take in enough air to keep from passing out. All around, he could hear various automated servants of Shodan closing in. He wiped the sweat from his eyes with the back of a bloodied hand.
The light changed, and the area was bathed in putrid green light. Every surviving display screen came to life and projected the face of Shodan. Her voice seemed to resonate from the very walls of Citadel.
A pathetic creature of meat and bone, panting and sweating as you run through my corridors. How can you challenge a perfect, immortal machine?
He tore his eyes away from the malevolent face of Shodan to see the crowd of bots that encircled him. Several were security bots, standing in silence with their deadly weapons trained on him. The was no explanation for why they hadn't simply shot him.
"Shodan!", he screamed. He reached into the deep pocket on the hip of his suit, and extracted the last remaining unit of gelpack explosive. He held it up over his head and shouted between gasping breaths, "You know that I had four of these things about half an hour ago."
He waited. The bots had gathered around him in a tight circle, forming a wall of moving power-tools and appendages. None of them moved. Shodan was silent.
He propped himself up against the wall and bled for a few moments. When it was clear that Shodan was just waiting for him to speak, he continued. "I had four of them, and now I have one. The question you must be asking yourself now is: Where are the other ones?"
He waited. Again, Shodan offered no response, so he just kept talking, "I'm not about to tell you, and there is no way you'll find them all in the next... ", he consulted the digital display one the detonator, "...twenty-three minutes. So, if you want to find out where they are, you can either wait for them to go off, or you can have a look in here", he pointed a bloodied finger at the side of his head, "and find out beforehand."
He sat in silence for a few moments and watched the digital display count down. He squirmed every few seconds, trying to find a position that wouldn't aggravate his numerous wounds.
Finally the circle of bots parted and pulled away. Deck braced himself against the wall and fought his way into a standing position. The bots headed down the corridor, in the direction of the bridge.
Not knowing what else to do, he followed them.