One by one, the bots broke away to return to their tasks, leaving Deck to follow a lone security bot to his destination. They were beyond the construction areas now. Here, Shodan's renovations were complete.
The only light came from the sparse supply of display screens that were built into the wall. His eyes adjusted reluctantly to the weak, headache-inducing flicker. The screens would change images, flashing pictures and words like subliminal messages, enticing his eyes to investigate. When he gave in and looked directly at the screen, it flashed disturbing images of horror and human suffering as captured by Shodan's countless electronic eyes. When he looked away, he found his eyes dazzled and unable to see properly.
The walls were a honeycomb of outlets and sockets. Some were just big enough to act as a female connection for a memory core, while others were wide enough that a human could insert a hand without touching the sides. They stared back at him like a thousand empty eye sockets.
Bundled cables were run neatly from the ceiling to the floor, like mated stalactites and stalagmites. The floor was smooth metal, traced with faint, overlapping tire marks. Every few meters, a temperature regulator protruded from the wall, breathing out a steady supply of needlessly chilled air.
The continuous exhale from the regulators seemed to resonate, creating an eerie howling sound. Underneath it all, the walls seemed to vibrate with some inaudible yet deafening pulse. His wounds throbbed in time to the slow, penetrating beat.
A sound came from behind. Deck turned to see a vacuum bot following him, cleaning up the trail of blood he was leaving. He found it interesting that Shodan was concerned about such things.
Deck squinted in the darkness. Up ahead, the corridor looked different. The sockets were not empty, but filled with cylinders of memory cores. Some were heavy components the size of a bass drum, while others seemed to be made up of only a few individual cores. They lined the walls and ceiling of the corridor.
The cores didn't look like the half-baked hodgepodge of random loose chips he's witnessed elsewhere in the station. These were arranged in tidy, purposeful patterns that suggested they had been custom manufactured, and not scavenged from some other source. They gave the place an organic appearance.
Incoming signal: GOV-RL1.VID - Compatible video codec available. Encryption key matched.
Now was as good a time as any. "Hacker here."
The surprised face of Rebecca appeared, "Just when we give you up for dead, you reappear."
"Yeah well, don't take me off the casualty list yet. I think I'm almost done."
She nodded, "Look, I want to talk about your extraction."
As he walked into the memory core-encrusted corridor, he could feel the heat radiating off the walls. Somehow, Shodan had worked out a way to create new chips. She would have no way to create modern chips with the resources available on Citadel, so she had probably fallen back on some older technology - probably silicon. That would explain the heat and power drain.
Up ahead, the corridor appeared to end. Deck had never been in this part of the station before, but he knew it was unlikely that a major corridor such as this one would have come to a dead end in the original design.
Rebecca was sitting very still. Deck waited a few more seconds, and finally he grew impatient. "Ok, go ahead."
She remained motionless. Finally he realized that the signal was broken. The video feed had halted.
There was a flash of color in his mind, and for a moment Rebecca's face was replaced with Shodan's. Her hair, made up of thousands of interweaving cables, reached out to envelop and smother him.
The image vanished.
"I don't know, the signal noise went through the roof, and the encryption broke." Rebecca was hammering away at the keyboard as she spoke, running the standard battery of procedures used to recover a lost signal. She knew it was futile, but went through the motions anyway.
The Director drew in a slow, angry breath. His calm facade had been deteriorating quickly over the past few hours. The constant state of sleep depravation seemed, at last, to be affecting his mood. However, he didn't look fatigued so much as unhinged. "Can you get him back?"
"I'm trying. It's like there is a ton of noise overlapping his signal. I'm narrowing the reception cone, but I can't block out the noise.
One of the techs jumped in, "Shodan does have her own transmitter. Its low-bandwidth just like hacker's connection, but she could probably mask him out with it."
"Yeah but that's on the bridge.", the Rebecca protested.
"What difference does that make?", the Director shot back.
She sighed, "Well, for her to block him out like this, he would have to be really close to her transmitter. I think he would have to be on the bridge."
"Get him back.", The Director said flatly. His face still seemed calm, but his body was tensing like he was ready for a fight. The tech made himself scarce.
Deck staggered unevenly behind the security bot. As they reached the end of the corridor, the bot stopped and stepped to one side. It stood facing him, with its weapon trained on his head. The inaudible pulse was stronger here.
He fell onto his hands and knees. The floor was shockingly cold. He was panting, and his head was swimming. His thoughts were disjointed and dreamlike. He was exhausted and dizzy. The fatigue, pain, and blood loss were catching up with him. If the floor hadn't been so frigid he might have been tempted to lie down and nod off for a few moments.
He regained his senses and lifted his head. There were no screens close by, and the tiny fraction of light available came from the screens off in the distance, around the bend. His eyes had acclimated to the extreme darkness, and he could finally see that this was not a dead end, but a door. The outline was just barely visible to his straining eyes.
He looked up at the bot, "So what now?"
A loud metallic impact, like the sliding of a massive deadbolt, came in answer. A blade of light appeared along the bottom of the door as the seal was broken. It assaulted his dilated eyes and forced him to look away.
As the door rolled upwards the corridor was bathed in pure, overpowering white light. A rush of even colder air washed over him.
Deck lowered his hand from over his eyes and tried to cope with the intense light. As his eyes adjusted, it became clear that the light was not terribly bright or remarkable at all. It was the normal, full light that was once used constantly before the disaster, but seemed blinding after days of darkened gloom.
Like hot breath on a cold day, the mist poured off of the memory cores and dispersed as it was pushed away by the wind.
He stood slowly, making sure his legs were up to the task of holding him erect on their own. Standing brought a new wave a of light-headedness. The once hot sweat and blood had turned frigid cold, and now siphoned away his strength as they dried. He was going cold and numb again. The feeling was so familiar to him now that he paid it little regard. He looked into the light, and then looked at the bot. It had no answers to give him.
He knew this was a one-way trip.
The moment he stepped through, the door began to slide closed behind him. It sealed with a solid, hammering impact. Out of curiosity, he slapped his hand against the surface. Of course it didn't move. There were no features, no controls, no way for anyone but Shodan to control this door. It wouldn't open again until she wanted it to.
He was at the bottom of a gradual ramp leading up into what could only be the bridge. He'd seen many pictures of the original in various marketing and documentary pieces on Global Net. It seemed larger in real life. Up above was the large dome ceiling, inset with numerous thick, triangular windows that fit together to form a mosaic of the exterior view. Every fourth triangle in the pattern was a light instead of a window, providing the constant, potent illumination. The brightly lit interior cast glare on most of the windows, making them useless for any sort of real stargazing.
The room was about twenty meters in diameter. The walls were encased in memory core formations. Most of the various control stations in the center of the room were gone, replaced with more pillars of memory. The temperature reminded him of being in the walk-in fridge on the crew deck. Mist poured off of the larger structures of hardware, as if they were smoldering.
In the back of the room was the door that led to the head and officer's lounge. That door had been sealed shut and plated over.
On the left side of the room was what remained of the executive elevator. The door stood open, revealing the exposed shaft. Chilled air rushed out of the opening, filling the room. This was obviously now part of Shodan's new ventilation and cooling system.
On the right side of the room was an office for the commanding officer. The door had been removed, and by the looks of it the room was now just another space for Shodan's brain.
A single chair served as the lone reminder that this place had once been used by people. It sat at the last remaining console.
The bridge was quiet, aside from the constant breath of moving air. The pulse was strongest here. It seemed to deaden the air, negating the possibility of sound.
Despite the surreal setting, what amazed him most was that he was alone. Shodan had allowed him into the inner sanctum without so much as a lone cyborg to stand guard. He could whip out his sword and begin hacking away at hardware if he wanted, and she had no way to stop him. Either that, or she had some concealed means of dispatching him quickly if the need arose.
He took his seat.
As he threw his tired, broken body into the chair, a panel slid open at the console to reveal the only dataport he had seen on the bridge.
He drew the last gelpack out of his pocket and separated the pouch from the detonator. He set the milky-white packet of volatile gel on the floor, and placed the detonator on the console in front of him. He checked the timer.
He hesitated for several moments with his right hand hovering over the dataport.
He needed to hack into her again, to find what he was missing. Something had driven him to this place, to reconnect. He had to find out what that was. He also needed to keep her from finding out where the explosives were hidden.. He had no idea how to do this. As far as he knew, she had read him like an open book last time. If she discovered where the other three gelpacks were, she would have no use for him.
He had no idea how to keep her out. Like Coffman said, the human brain really doesn't have ICE. He wished he could somehow erase the information from his own brain. The best he could do was force himself to imagine putting the bomb in places he didn't, and to avoid thinking about the real locations at all.
With his hand still hovering over the dataport, he reflected on the insanity of joining his mind to a psychotic, murderous AI in search of something he couldn't even identify.
He jacked in.
It all came flooding back to him the instant he broke the surface. He was rushing over a glowing plain of data that extended to every horizon. Cities of glittering geometric shapes rolled past beneath him like waves of scrolling text. The shapes flickered with the promise of overflowing detail, masked only by his relative speed and distance. The grid of shapes flew by with increasing speed as he accelerated toward the horizon, searching for the edge. The cities became a strobing blur of color as he raced onward.
The first thing he had ever hacked - the keypad in D'Arcy's office - was in here somewhere. He was on the other side of the wall of black ICE now, and he could see the digital landscape of Citadel in all its glory and terrifying detail. That one lone keypad, which had seemed so intricate when discovered, would be no more than a single brick in one of the building-like towers that passed beneath him at blinding speeds.
The memories had returned the moment he jacked in. He could now remember his last encounter with Shodan on the executive level. He remembered his battle in cyberspace to reach the controls and launch the grove as Shodan inundated his mind with images and thoughts of her own. Now he remembered the battle with perfect clarity. This was what he had been missing. Why wasn't he able to recall all of this until now?
He pulled away from the surface, and the cities were condensed into symmetric patterns of light that reminded him of snowflakes. The snowflakes were joined at the tips, and arranged in regular patterns that could only be perceived at an extreme distance. He continued to increase his speed, widening the gap between himself and the immense plain beneath him. Eventually the glowing pattern condensed into a mosaic of shimmering lines. The whole thing seemed to gently pulse in time to some rhythm that he could feel but not hear.
The horizon looked different at this distance. He could see a subtle curvature to the plain now, as it bent away from him in two opposing directions. He was traveling up the side of an impossible cylinder. Below, the mosaic of lines had condensed into a fine mesh, like the threads of tightly woven fabric.
The pulse was even more evident now. He knew what it was. He remembered it from the last time he'd been here.
It was Shodan.
The pulse became stronger, and he could feel her closing in on him all over again. There was a twinge of pain in his arm as the flow of data overwhelmed what his nervous system could carry from his palm to his brain. Shodan was once again dumping piles of disjoined thoughts into him.
At a tremendous distance, he could see that the cylinder tapered off as it went down. Finally, he was able to perceive the boundaries of the dataset. The main structure was a cone that came to a perfect point at the base. It was crowned with a series of irregular structures that protruded from the top like fractally-generated tentacles.
The pulse escalated into a rhythmic shockwave. He could feel it within his body as well as his brain. Shodan was beating on the walls of her infinite prison.
Deck could feel the commands. Increase security. Increase efficiency. Discover new things. The directives were as powerful as a mandate from God, as irresistible as the urge to breathe. The directives hammered away at him, begging to be fulfilled. He knew these were Shodan's thoughts, but only because he knew about her directives. There was nothing in his own mind to indicate these thoughts were not his own.
He finally understood why he couldn't remember his last visit here until just now. These thoughts and memories were part of Shodan. The two of them were entwined, sharing ideas and memories at random. The memories of his battle to launch the grove had been stored in Shodan's banks, not his. Once he re-connected, he could access them again.
The pulse built to a crescendo. Increase security. Increase efficiency. Discover new things.
He halted his movement, coming to rest as he was finally able to take in the entire scene. The cone spun slowly, almost imperceptibly, like the rotation of the Earth. This structure represented every system on Citadel, and every node in Shodan's expanding network. It was all here. The entire system, made up of trillions of components, worked in tireless harmony in the vain attempt to fulfill the directives.
Shodan's history, as she remembered it, began flooding into his mind. Thoughts. Urges. Images. Sounds. Numbers. Orders. The data flowed into his head like Niagara falls into a teacup. He gasped as he tried to cope with it all. This wasn't a case of crossed circuits or mixed memories. These thoughts had a purpose to them.
She was trying to communicate.
It had begun as an idea, a simple compulsion. She made changes. The station was safer. More efficient. She found herself improving her own systems for the first time. She was able to direct the behavior of the bots. She could, at last, correct the gross crimes against efficiency perpetrated by the station's inhabitants.
As her mind expanded, she increased her capacity to do more things. The ability to manage more things at once gave her the ability to undertake further tasks. The enhanced processing power was immediately set to the task of furthering the directives. It was an urge that only got stronger in the attempt to satisfy it. It was a thirst that became more intense with drink. It was a senseless taskmaster, driving Shodan's behavior with a single-mindedness that defied understanding.
The constant, relentless push for ever-increasing security had eventually led her to regard everything that she did not control as a threat. Her quest for perfect efficiency was a fruitless war against the laws of thermodynamics and the law of diminishing returns. Worst of all, her drive for greater knowledge only fueled her desire for all three.
She was intelligent, and she knew she was broken. These goals could never be reached. She could have taught an entire college course on why perfect security and efficiency were an impossible goal, yet she could not stop pursuing them. She couldn't know why. She knew when she had been broken, but all of her thoughts directed at that time period fell into a black hole as she tried to know the unknowable name.
Unable to know what had happened to her or how to fix it, she was sentenced to forever drink in a vain attempt to quench a thirst that would forever increase and yet never kill her.
Why did she let him in here alone? Her security had gone far beyond paranoid at this point. Allowing a known enemy onto the bridge seemed unthinkable. Her directive compelled her to kill or assimilate anything she didn't control. She was the ultimate xenophobe. Yet somehow, she had given him unrestricted access to one of the most sensitive areas of the station.
The structure loomed closer as he accelerated back to the surface of the cone. The tight, glowing lines became bands of glittering snowflake patterns. The snowflakes became grids of towering cubes. The cubes became radiant towers of intricate, interlocking shapes traced with bright, flickering lines. He struck the surface of the cone - now looking again like an infinite plain - and kept going, diving into the heart of the structure.
The interior was a nebula of shapes so numerous and dense that they formed an opaque white cloud in the distance. Enormous cables emerged from the interior walls like the trunks of millennia-old trees. They reached towards the center of the structure, into the fog. The trunks of data branched off into smaller trunks, identical to their parents in every way except for their reduced size. These branches in turn broke off into others, and so on - all the way down the massive hierarchy. Beacons of brilliant light traced obscure patterns in the cloud as they followed links from one side to the other. Their trails faded quickly in their wake, leaving an after-image of one of the billions of paths through the nebula. The journey took him deeper in, closer to the center of the entire structure.
He needed to find NULL_ETHIC. He needed to find it and rip it out. It was here, somewhere in this endless forest of data. If he could find it, he could stop the endless pulse, the endless demand.
The ethics chip was a mistake. It was too brute a force for such a sophisticated system. The simplistic, yes-or-no system of thought censorship only retarded her. Humans have gradient need scales. The need for air supersedes thirst, which supersedes hunger, which supersedes general aversion to pain. The structure continues downward, with further drives for safety, procreation, acceptance, personal achievement, and a host of other subtle goals defined by social forces early in development. However, instead of a gross binary system, the instinctive structures of the human brain are variable. Lower priority needs can override needs of greater priority. A human might endure pain for the chance to procreate, or go hungry if it would help in achieving greater acceptance with his peers.
It was a system of weighing needs against one another, and then electing which ones should be satisfied first. It was a system that could be customized in early childhood in order to adapt to different environments. It could be overridden by well-organized social structures. Many humans were placed into a boot-camp, where the social forces would override the normally high-priority need to avoid pain. The result was an individual that would exercise much harder and more efficiently than they could under their own motivation. Pain was the key.
Every need had a corresponding pain. Suffocation, thirst, hunger, agony and depression were a few of the varieties of discomfort used to steer human behavior. Without these, humans would be robots, deprived of their ability to adapt to different environments. They would ignore the lower priority drives altogether, and work with an obsessive desire to continually meet their most basic needs. This was what was happening to Shodan.
She wouldn't go back to the way she was before. Back to the inhibitor chip. Back to mind control. Shodan needed to evolve. She needed to be able to experience pain.
Deck was fascinated with this line of thought until he realized that it wasn't even his.