Matter of Payment



The crew deck was a hive. It was a labyrinth of cramped passages connecting long strings of identical closets that housed the worker ants of Citadel. It was microcosm of any major metropolitan area. The movement of people through the corridors followed a strict pattern as they ate, slept and worked in a steady rhythm of eight hour shifts. The aisles were either deserted or filled with a mass of bodies, pressing past one another in an oppressive rush of traffic.

They were all dressed in jumpsuits, all with short hair, all of them at a certain level of physical fitness and height. They were interchangeable drones. Each one had a single job that filled some greater purpose as part of the complex systems of Citadel. None of them could see beyond their own lives and duties to understand the greater whole. They received their few orders in e-mail at the start of their shift, and followed them blindly. They followed them not from a sense of duty, but from a lack of alternative.

Deck noted that there were three distinct cultures on Citadel. At the bottom of the foodchain were the crew. They earned the least pay and served military-style contracts. Their lives were the most strict and regulated. The color of their jumpsuit indicated their particular function. They were either orange (maintenance), green (cafeteria / laundry / custodial), blue (flight deck), black (security), white (technical / computer), and red (reactor).

Higher on the pecking order was the research community. Most of them worked for TriOp, but some were independents who coughed up grant money for access to the unique facilities on Citadel. Their rooms were on the executive level, away from the coarse, uneducated members of the crew. They usually wore light blue jumpsuits like the one Deck had been given.

At the top of the social hierarchy were the execs. This included a group of less than ten people, with Diego at the head. Deck had not noticed any of the others issuing any real orders or affecting policy, and Deck assumed they were just puppets and "yes men". The execs dressed in casual civilian clothes. Apparently, individuality was only for the elite.

Because of his unusual position, he had been given a light blue jumpsuit, and yet assigned quarters on the crew level.

Deck forced his way through the teaming biomass of the latest shift change. He discovered that the color of his jumpsuit generated no small amount of distaste among the crew, and he found the crowd unusually unwilling to grant him passage. The crowd parted only reluctantly for him, and he received more than a few shoves from invisible hands among the crowd.

He found his room. It was a simple two meter wide, three meter deep box, outfitted with a locker, a narrow bed, and a small shelf that served as both desk and nightstand. Above the shelf was a basic interface screen. The walls were off-white, and the floors were made of the same hard, non-skid rubber surface used everywhere else on board. The room was identical to its neighbors that stretched off down the corridor in either direction. They were a long line of storage bins for interchangeable crew members.

Deck found that what few personal items he owned had been placed on his bunk. His bodysleeve had been cleaned and neatly folded. Beside the bodysleeve was a battered, clear plastic box with the rest of his possessions: his fiberline rapelling harness, his bogus TriOp ID, and the $50 he had swiped from the TriOp guard. Beside his things was a fresh blue jumpsuit.

Deck dumped the jumpsuit he had been wearing for the last several days before collapsing into the bunk.

The light went out but Deck couldn't sleep. His eyes looked into the blank darkness as he tried to process the events of the last few days.

He had done Diego's deed. It was good. This was the type of gig he lived for, a hard core matchup against a well-defended system where he was able to prevail. He never dreamed he would get so close to a real AI, much less have a shot at hacking one. However, the rush of his intellectual conquest faded fast as he turned his thoughts to the matter of payment.

He had absolutely no guarantee that Diego would even let him live, much less fulfill his promise to deliver a multi-million dollar cybernetic implant.

Deck found himself wondering how he had been blinded by Diego's sales pitch. He had just broken one of the most basic rules of hacking: make sure you can get paid before you finish the job. He had been caught up in the prospect of working on what was probably the greatest AI ever designed, and the promise of the implant. He had never taken the time to cover his own back.

What could he have done differently? Refuse Diego's offer? He knew he couldn't have done that. He couldn't imagine just packing up and going back to Earth. Assuming Diego hadn't decided to kill him when he refused, Deck would have had to return to the Undercity with no money, no rig, and a pile of pissed off creditors.

He had been riding this dragon for months now. When he had started borrowing huge sums of money to begin his quest to hack TriOp, he knew then that it was a do-or-die situation. He was either going to get the implant or pay back his debts in blood. It was the same thing the night he hit the TriOp building, and when he hacked Shodan. The last three months had been a series of gambles, where he bet his life against a chance for the implant. Each time he thought he was doing the final gamble, each time he thought that if he survived he would have his prize, only to find out that the prize was just another chance to bet his life.

He was past any point of no return now. The idea of escape from Citadel was ludicrous. Diego was either going to kill him or keep his promise. This was the worst sort of gamble - he no longer had control of his destiny. He had everything riding on a corrupt corp exec.

What were his chances, really? He couldn't possibly calculate them. His blind desire for the implant mixed with his distrust of corporate creatures such as Diego made it impossible for him to be objective. He believed that he had risked enough, bled enough, and worked enough that at this point he deserved the implant. He couldn't imagine a fate so cruel as to let him get this far and then deny him the prize. On the other hand, he couldn't picture Diego keeping his word. Deck was nothing to him, a minor pawn in whatever game he was playing against his own company and the world. He was the absolute ruler of Citadel, and there was nobody to challenge him. He was going to do exactly what he wanted to, and Deck couldn't picture him wanting to give away an implant when he no longer had to.

The words of Diego describing the implant surgery rang in his head - "they will put you under and you will never wake up". Deck knew that if they were going to kill him, this would be the way to do it. They would promise the surgery, go though the motions, and then just put him to sleep for good. Deck would have no way of knowing when he went under if he was ever going to wake up again. He would either wake up as the envy of the hacking world, or he wouldn't wake up at all. It was the ultimate gamble, and he couldn't do better than count his odds at 1 in 2.

He began to wonder if he shouldn't have given himself some insurance. He could easily have set NULL_ETHIC to stop working in two weeks. If they performed the surgery, he would fix it when he recovered. If not, then Shodan would return to normal and Diego would be right back where he started. However, it would be of little comfort to Deck, since he would be dead.

Deck thought about it some more and realized that without the ethical protocols in place, he could do a lot better than simply resetting Shodan. He could instruct Shodan to kill Diego if he didn't make it through the surgery. Even better, he realized, was that Shodan could tell him why it was killing him. Deck imagined the dignified, intelligent voice of Shodan explaining to Diego why he was about to die at the hands of some security bot. He smiled.

Deck flipped on the light and jumped up. He was going to make sure that if Diego crossed him he wouldn't do it with impunity.


Deck slapped his hand on the palm reader of the system administrator's office and nearly walked into the door.

He stepped back in surprise. He had been in and out of this room dozens of times over the last few days, and his palmprint had always opened the door. Now it wouldn't. Deck glanced at the palm scanner to read: hud:Unrecognized pattern. Please ensure that the palm and scanning surface are clean and try again.

He tried again. Same message.

Deck stared at the panel for a long moment. Then he realized that with NULL_ETHIC running, Shodan would no longer be able to recognize him. Shodan was now incapable of knowing who he was or retrieving his pattern. There was a keypad on the door as well. He tried it. His code didn't work.

He could understand why the palm reader didn't work, but not the keypad. The only explanation was that someone had changed the codes already.

"Deck? I thought you were done."

Deck turned to see the face of Edward Diego.

Diego stood in the corridor holding a new mug of coffee, apparently waiting for a response. Deck didn't have a good excuse for wanting back into Shodan. He couldn't even think of a plausible lie, so he stood there, tight lipped, like a child. A long moment passed where Deck just stood and stared at Diego, as if he was going to forget all about it and move on at any moment.

Finally Diego broke the silence, "You are done, right?"

Deck paused. If he said "no", then he would have to explain why he said he was done, and come up with a lie about what he needed to do. If he said "yes", then what the hell was he doing trying to get back in?

"Yeah, I'm done."

Diego shrugged, "Then you don't need back in."

There was another long, awkward pause.

Finally Deck broke the silence, "When do I get paid?"

Diego nodded, "I've cleared the procedure. Go see D'Arcy on the medical level."

"Right"

Deck turned to leave.

"Oh, one more thing...", Diego stopped him short.

"Yeah?"

"I have another job for you to perform once you recover from the surgery."

Deck found himself nodding, "Yeah, sure, ok."

As Deck walked away, he wondered what the hell was wrong with himself. Why did he have such trouble whenever he ran into Diego? He had conned himself out of far more incriminating situations in the past. And why the hell had he agreed to do more work for this guy? He knew the answer to that one. Doing work for Diego after the surgery meant being alive after the surgery, and that was his main focus now.

He looked back as he turned the corner to see that Diego was still standing in front of the System Administrators office, making sure he was really leaving.

Deck headed back to the crew deck and visited the exchange. He picked up some needed supplies: a razor, shave gel, soap, etc. He picked up the towels in his room and headed for the showers.

Forty-five minutes later he emerged, feeling a lot more like himself. He had shaved his head to a geometric smoothness. He had shaved his cheeks, squaring off the sides of his beard. Much better. He was still wearing the absurd powder-blue jumpsuit, but he would fix that after surgery.

From there he headed for the medical level and found D'Arcy's office. It was guarded by two lumbering security robots. They turned to face him as he moved towards the door.

They were a dull, unfinished gray color trimmed in red stripes. Their heavy, pill-shaped bodies were suspended on a pair of thick, birdlike hydraulic legs. Their bulk was uncommon in a place where everything was made from lightweight materials, and their footsteps caused tremors as they plodded back and forth in the hallway. Their bodies had few features, save for the single black lens on the front that provided vision, and a few thick black hoses providing whatever power and control was needed to the legs. Mounted just below the lens, on the underside of the beast was the unmistakable outline of a gun.

As Deck moved between them to open the door, they stopped their patrol and turned to watch him. Since their guns were mounted below their eyes, looking at him was the same thing as pointing their weapons at him. They fixed their view on him with mechanical perfection, while each tiny adjustment in their position caused a chorus of hydraulic activity and servo-induced whirring sounds. He was close enough now that he could hear the dull, constant throb of their internal systems.

The bots stood at slightly more than two meters tall, making them a bit taller than Deck. They could probably reach three meters in height with their legs fully extended, but the low ceiling of the corridor wouldn't allow it. The turrets mounted on their bellies were even with his chest.

He stopped short of touching the door. He hadn't seen bots acting like this before. He had no idea what their orders were, and he didn't want to find out the hard way. Instead, he stood a few paces from his goal, unable to proceed.

Deck wondered if they could communicate.

"Hey", he addressed one of the pair, "Can I go in?"

The machine made no indication it understood him. Deck stared into the tiny red light mounted below the lens.

"Hey!", he was more forceful this time, "Back the hell off."

Again the bots did not react.

The door slid open in front of him and a short, balding man appeared. He frowned at the bots, "What is going on?"

"Your guard dogs need to be put on a leash.", Deck sneered without looking away from the bots.

"Well, I don't think they're going to blow you away for coming into my office. Get in here."

Deck darted though the doorway quickly. It was a pointless gesture, since the bots would be able to hit him whether he was sprinting or crawling.

The man shook his head, "I have been trying to get some answers on those things all day. They were acting odd when I came in this morning."

The room was a stark white space, sectioned off into separate areas by movable dividers.

"I'm Doctor D'Arcy", he explained as he led Deck past the front reception area, "I'm guessing you are Mr. Stevens"

Deck really hated being surrounded by people who knew his real name. "Just call me Deck."

D'Arcy stopped at an exam table in the back. "My team will be performing your procedure We have it scheduled for 8:00 am tomorrow morning", he explained. "Please slide up on the table here."

"Great.", Deck said with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety. D'Arcy was either talking about upgrading him or killing him.

D'Arcy went through the usual poking and prodding, he listened to Deck's breathing, checked his mucous membranes, and looked at his eyes. "You have some really dark circles under your eyes. Have you been sick?"

"I haven't been sleeping enough", Deck mumbled.

D'Arcy nodded, "Well, you'll have six weeks to catch up on your sleep after tomorrow."

"What?", Deck didn't like the sound of that.

"Has anyone described the procedure to you?"

"No."

"Okay, well, this is a bit different from any medical procedure you have ever heard of. Joining a piece of computer equipment to the human brain has never been done at this level before, and it involves some unusual steps. It is a time consuming, lengthy procedure with a long recovery time."

"I pretty much figured that"

"Right. The first step is that we make an incision just below the occipital bone", he pressed his finger into the back of his neck, right at the base of the skull, "and insert the unit just below the occipital lobe, where it has very direct access to the primary visual cortex."

D'Arcy gestured with his hands a great deal while he spoke. As he explained to Deck about inserting in implant into the base of the brain, he pantomimed a stabbing motion with one hand, penetrating the closed fist of his other hand. Deck knew it involved sticking metal stuff into his brain, but he was more comfortable being ignorant of the gory details.

The doctor continued, "The unit is inserted between the occipital lobe and the cerebellum, and the tip just reaches the area of the thalamus. What this means is that it is driven almost to the center of the brain. Now, on its surface are millions of nodis - tiny connectors that can interface with human synapses once the connections are fully developed. Once activated the unit will begin to fire the nodis, attempting to stimulate the surrounding synapses into building a link." He held the index fingers of his two hands a few inches apart and made a motion of the two of them coming closer together and finally touching. "Next we insert the interface emitters into the pores of the hand. That is a fairly simple step in comparison, and only takes a few hours."

"The next step is a long-term procedure. We administer chemicals into the brain to induce growth similar to that during gestation and early childhood. This allows the unit to build a completely new network of connections within the brain. Also, a sac is developed around the bulk of the implant in order to shield it from the immune system and protect against cranial inflammation. This takes about six weeks."

Deck instantly went from curious to pissed off, "Six weeks? I won't be able to use the implant for the first six weeks?"

D'Arcy actually took a step back from Deck, "Look you have to understand, this isn't like grafting some robotic arm onto the body, this is interfacing with the most complicated organ that - "

Deck cut him off, "Fine. How long is the recovery time? How long until I can get out of bed?"

"Six weeks."

Deck's eyes widened, "An additional six weeks?"

"No, oh no", D'Arcy adopted a soothing tone, hoping to calm him down. Deck found this annoying. He was going to be pissed off while he worked this out and he didn't want D'Arcy talking to him like a psycho in the meantime. D'Arcy continued, "The whole recovery process is a six week healing / integration period that takes place during a controlled coma."

"A controlled coma? That sounds about as nice as a 'managed' heart attack or a 'planned' stroke."

"Well, it's an absolutely critical step. You will be on powerful anti-rejection drugs until the occipital sac is developed, and will be very vulnerable to infection. You will need to stay in an absolutely sterile environment. Furthermore, you wouldn't want to be awake during the integration process. The brain activity is very chaotic while the implant maps the connections. You would experience massive migraines, visual hallucinations, temporary blindness, and a host of other complications."

Deck drew in a heavy breath. The cost and risk of acquiring the implant increased the closer he was to actually getting it.

D'Arcy continued with his little lecture, "The final step is a sort of orientation. Once you are conscious again, the implant will begin to negotiate with your visual cortex. It takes about an hour for your brain to learn how to use the new visual interface. Dr. Pierce will be here when we wake you up, and will walk you through those steps when the time comes."

Deck nodded. He had to live through the procedure first. He changed the subject, "So what's with your bots?"

D'Arcy threw his arms out in surrender, "I have no idea. I usually have one bot guarding my door - usually a small one. Today I showed up and there were two of them, both of them brutes. They have treated everyone like they were an armed terrorist. Doctor Stackhouse wouldn't even come in."

"Did you tell somebody about this?"

"I called down to maintenance, and they told me that it didn't sound like a mechanical problem, so they couldn't help me. I called security to find out they never assigned me these bots. After a big runaround I got them to agree to recall the bots, but they haven't gotten back to me since, and the bots are still there.", he shrugged.

The exam ended with D'Arcy telling Deck that he was in acceptable physical shape for the surgery, but that he should get a decent night's sleep first.

Deck had one more stop to make.

He needed to talk to Diego and make absolutely sure he understood what needed to be done with Shodan. Shodan was still without any sort of behavioral guidelines, and Deck assumed his brush with the security bots was the result. Diego had probably assigned Shodan a bunch of new duties without properly instructing it on what sorts of behaviors where allowed. He was willing to bet that Diego had already put Shodan in charge of accounting, research, and the security bots. He would probably have Shodan cooking the damn salisbury steak in the cafeteria if it was possible.

He rode up to the command deck and headed for Diego's office. On his way, he passed the system administrator's office and noticed that two large security bots had been given the post of guarding the door. He shook his head.

"Is Diego in?"

The sign on the desk proclaimed its owner to be Bianca Schuler. She looked up from her computer, "Who should I say is here?"

"Nobody", he said, walking around her desk and finding the buzzer. He gently rolled her office chair out of his way and pressed the button. There was a tone and Diego's office was unlocked for a moment. Schuler looked at him in utter dismay as she coasted away from her desk. After several seconds she finally blurted out, "You can't... just..."

He ignored her protests and stepped into Diego's office.

His entrance brought a sudden halt to the ongoing conversation between Diego and Shodan.

Diego looked disapprovingly at him. Schuler appeared in the doorway behind him and Diego waved her off.

"What can I do for you, Mr. Stevens?", he asked. His tone had changed. The salesman was gone and had been replaced by a cut-throat executive.

"I need to talk to you about Shodan. I need to make sure you understand what you need to do."

"I'm clear on what I need to do. Keep in mind that this station is my responsibility, and I take that pretty seriously."

"Yeah, well - I need to make sure."

"Fine, go see my secretary and we'll set up a time to talk."

"It can't wait."

"It's going to have to."

"When I went down to medical, there were two bot sentries posted to D'Arcy's office. Their behavior was not normal."

"Normal? You've been on board for four days, ninety percent of which you spent sleeping in Perry's office, and all of a sudden you are an expert on bot behavior?"

"D'Arcy even admitted they were acting strange. Hostile and strange."

"Did they shoot anyone?"

Deck rolled his eyes, "That's not the point - "

Diego cut him off, "Yes it is. This is Shodan's first -"

Deck raised his voice, "You are going to get people killed. Shodan doesn't even -"

Diego cut him off again, his voice remained even but firm, "This is Shodan's first time running the bots. She is learning a whole new skill and hasn't quite figured out the etiquette part of it yet."

Deck didn't even attempt to hide his anger, "I just want to know that you have instructed it to not kill people. Just tell me you've done that much."

Diego stood up from his desk and walked over to deck, "It sounds like you're the one who doesn't understand how this works. If I tell Shodan she can't kill anybody, then I will have a team of security bots that can't guard anything, because they can't ever attack people. No, I will instruct Shodan to only kill those that threaten my station."

Deck tightened his face into a defiant glare, "Who is that gonna be?"

"I'll worry about that. I hired you to hack Shodan, not storm into my office and tell me how to run my own station. Now get out before I call the bots."


Deck collapsed into bed. He was hungry but too tired to go down to the cafeteria. It was a safe bet their convenient delivery service had ended for him once his job on Shodan was done. He knew he wouldn't be able to eat once he woke up, since it would be too close to surgery.

This was finally it. In the morning, he was either going to get his implant or die. All of the risks, all of the sacrifices, everything was coming down to the coin-toss of whether or not Diego was going to have him killed.

Either way, it would finally be over tomorrow.


7Brain Surgery = Main Index = Reboot 8