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Authors: Mr Mike Berry

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BOOK: Xenoform
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‘Yeah, we all need to look. Let’s move.’ Whistler wanted her team out of here before mentioning the cash-flow problem to them, just in case.

Detherin came into the lounge looking embarrassed. He was wringing his hands together – large, gnarled hands like a mechanic’s. ‘Hey guys. Look, I’m sorry, Whistler. I don’t know what’s going on but they tell me the product is dirty and essentially worthless.’ He looked helplessly at the harvesters.

There was a chorus of objection from the team. ‘It’s not your fault, Deth, don’t worry.’ Whistler wanted to say more but knew she couldn’t. ‘I’ll explain on the way home, guys. Come on! I mean fucking
now
!’
Reluctantly, they followed her.

Whistler drove the van out of the HGR building and turned onto a wide concourse of glass and neon that would have been a nightmare for anyone driving a ground-car. The van ran silently across it and away into the city. Behind them another lightpusher was lifting off.
So many lately. Where do they all go?

‘Right,’ said Sofi. ‘So what the hell’s going on, then, Whistler?’ Her triple mohawks swished like knives as her head moved.

‘Tec, show the pictures Smith sent.’

Several pictures lit up on the ceiling of the van: A glistening green object nestled against a human spine, a photo of Leo on the slab, skin pale and wings brilliant, and a picture of Smithson Investment Advisory Services, a glittering hunk of plastic and ceramicarbide.

‘What is this? That’s the guy we harvested last week, right?’ asked Spider.

‘Yeah, he’s called Leo. Was called. There’s a new organ they found in him, and in others, that they’re worried about. Hence they don’t wanna pay us for Leo or Tallen. That’s it, I guess – the green thing there. We have to find out where they’re coming from and stop it. This is between us, okay?’ She looked around the van, catching everyone’s eyes.

‘Not cool,’ said Sofi, echoing everyone’s thoughts. ‘So no pay? Shit!’

‘Smith gave us a hundred gee up front to start doing this. One hundred more if we find the source.’ Roberts grunted. ‘Yes?’

‘It might even be worth it if we can sort it quickly, then,’ he said.

‘Yeah,’ said Whistler, turning off the main road and bearing towards the Undercity again. A police pod passed them on the other side and everyone held their breath – their harassment by Universal had been unusual but not unprecedented. ‘City Police,’ said Whistler, and everyone relaxed. ‘Anyway, we don’t have a choice. If HGR won’t take any product ’til it’s sorted, then we have to do it. Or someone has to. I would imagine that all the bodyshops who use harvesters are aware of the problem. Maybe someone else will take care of it.’

‘I wonder what it is…’ mused Tec staring up at the green orb pictured on the ceiling. ‘Fucking odd. And why don’t HGR know? How are we s’posed to find out if they can’t?’

‘By using our unique talents, of course,’ replied Whistler.

‘Yeah,’ laughed Sofi from the back, hefting Spider’s mag-rifle. It’s skeletal barrel pointed at the sky like an accusing finger.

Even Roberts chuckled at that. The van drove on soundlessly into the depths of the city like a poisonous pill swallowed by a monster of concrete and steel. A mile further on, Whistler put on Blue Screen of Death to drown out her own thoughts.

CHAPTER
SEVEN
 

Debian showered for a long time, scrubbing himself obsessively. He could feel the imprint of the beast burning in his mind still. He had been brain-raped and he wasn’t sure whether the AI had left something, taken something or both. The fear was on him like musk. Frenziedly, he rubbed at his skin with a nail brush and detergent, watching the foam swirling into the drain. The spiralling pattern of the suds was nauseatingly reminiscent of the dizzying way his head was spinning and eventually he had to leave the shower because of it.

He stood before the cracked mirror regarding himself. The peeling flaps of silver paint on the back of the glass made his body appear leprous and full of holes. This vision helped him not at all. The skin around the plastic plate in his head was an angrier red than ever. He put his fingers to it and felt its smooth, intrusive form, aware of the chip buried like a piece of shrapnel beneath it. It certainly felt like a war-wound now. What had happened in there? Clearly, all his layers of defence had failed and the beast had got through somehow.

He began to run diags on the DNI chips and the firewalls they contained as standard. Then he let the scan run onto the new chip. Nothing. He wasn’t sure if he was gladdened or worried further by this. What did he hope to find? Had the AI left something in there? Some sort of sub-verter installed directly into his brain? He should have done more tests on his new system, should have taken more care, should have seen this coming somehow. What would have been wrong with using fire-and-forget avatars, like everyone else did? Answer: because of his stupid pride, because of his need to be the best, to be at the cutting edge, doing something unique.

Debian let out a wordless cry of fear and frustration and slammed his palm against the mirror. It cracked down the middle and almost a full half of the glass leaned out of its frame and fell into the room. It shattered around his bare feet and then Debian began to cry. He crumpled to the floor where he curled into a ball, cradling his legs, which bled from several deep glass-cuts. His despair was almost total. If he had a sub in his head then it was game over – it was the end of his career, which in turn would mean the end of his life. What would his employer say? What would his employer
do
? Would he be safe? Maybe they would send assassins to plug the possible data leak now in his head.

He did not know how long he sat this way amongst the broken glass on the bathroom floor but when he finally lurched to his feet and made himself dress it was getting light outside. He didn’t feel calm but he felt as if he could do what must be done, now. The first thing was to run a deeper series of diagnostics, using the additional computing power of his main system. He had to know one way or the other whether there was something there. Then he would have to call Hex. How much should he tell Hex? Just give him the stolen data and say no more? Let him make his own conclusions from the logs? Fake or exclude the logs? What if Hex found out about the clash with the AI somehow? What if Debian did have a sub? It might do anything. Cyberlife could find out about Debian’s attack, find out who had commissioned it.
Shit
! Debian could certainly understand Hex’s interest in Cyberlife now. Whatever they had hit on, it was very big.

He went to his desk and reached out to physically detach the router from his system but his hand was shaking too much. He breathed deeply for a moment, arm extended, and tried again. His treacherous fingers obeyed this time. Really, this should have been the first thing he had done following his brain-rape, but all he had wanted was to somehow wash the stink of the invasive AI off himself. He had commanded his DNI wireless to disconnect him from the net, however – he had managed that much. It showed no activity on his HUD but he trusted nothing now. He set up a scrambler on his desk, rapidly dialling settings into it with the large plastic knobs to ensure that there was no hidden connection in operation.

He plugged in and sat grinding his teeth as his powerful computer pored through his head checking everything it could. He made it repeat the procedure, changing scan parameters, knowing that if it had found nothing the first time then it would find nothing again. He was not surprised by the result. Then he let the avatars, regenerated now, loose into his main system again. They scoured every disk sector, every storage chip. Nothing. He let them into his head, wincing as he did so, even though he had trusted them impeccably in the past. He held his breath as they roved around his skull searching for the spore of the enemy. They found nothing. Maybe there was nothing to find. At any rate, he had exhausted his means of looking, unless he was to remove the adaptive control and DNI chips from his head and physically examine their matrices. The adaptive control he could do – he had fitted it here in his flat – but the DNI chips would need to be removed by a surgeon.

Debian put his face in his hands, blocking out the physical world. He felt terrible in some vague and indefinable way. Maybe he was coming down with an illness. Or was there something at work inside his brain? Perhaps it was just a psychosomatic response to his fear. He was in serious trouble either way.

He told the avatars to sleep, turned the readout off and sat that way in the gathering light for a minute or two trying to breathe slowly. The data storage unit was nestled warmly against his leg like a faithful dog. He must call Hex. Just give him the data? Or give him the truth?
Damn it! How do I get out of this? What will Hex’s people do if they find out? Who, really, are Hex’s people? And who the hell are Cyberlife Research and Development, to be playing with toys like that?

Debian knew that he would never be ready to make this call but decided that if never was the time-scale he was looking at, then he might as well do it now. He turned everything back on, looking warily at the screens as if something might jump out of one and bore into his head again. Reluctantly, like a man forced to walk the plank, he edged back into the net. Data flowed into him, white and cold, but normal. He began to relax a little as nothing bad continued to happen. He simply drifted there in the net for a while, feeling the eddies and currents around him like the contours of a familiar landscape. He called Hex’s unlisted address. There was a wait of several seconds and then Hex answered over DNI. The two men communicated silently through stealthed data-channels, thinking words into being.

‘Hex, it’s Debian. Can we talk?’

‘Yes, that’s fine. But I’d rather speak in person, of course. Just in case.’

Debian reacted guiltily at that and replied, ‘Yeah, er, just in case. You never know who’s listening, right?’

‘Right. Hey, are you okay? You don’t look so good.’

Debian realised that he had left the video-link on and snapped it off with a mental impulse, embarrassed, sure that he was losing it. ‘I’m fine. Just had a late one, you know. Busy, busy.’

‘Good, it’s good to hear that you have been productive. Listen, I’m nearby at the moment. I’ll come over to yours.’

Debian felt a lump in his throat. He swallowed around it sickly. ‘How do you know where I live?’ he asked.

Hex actually laughed – a genuine-sounding display of humour, which Debian didn’t believe was genuine at all. ‘We keep an eye on all of our little helpers, Debian. You’re important to us.’

‘Right,’ replied Debian slowly. ‘Listen, man, don’t come here. We’ll meet out again, same place as last time.’ He was aware that he was not coming across with the authority he had hoped. ‘Don’t come here, Hex.’

‘Don’t be daft, man,’ said Hex, and he actually sounded insulted now. ‘It’s fine. I’m nearby – I’ll only be ten minutes. Get the goods, off I go, okay?’

‘Don’t come here!’ Debian mentally shouted, but he realised that the line was dead. This was not good. He wished he had a weapon.

Debian unplugged from the net and began to pace the room, stopping occasionally to stamp a foot in frustration and shout, ‘
Shit!’
before resuming. Hex was coming to his damned flat, man! Should he just go? Phrases scrolled across the surface of his mind:
We keep an eye on all of our little helpers. We think their backer might be a government. I’ll only be ten minutes.
Debian checked the time on his HUD. How long had it been? Only three minutes.

It’s probably okay. Hex just wants to get the data, sure he does. He would be keen, this was clearly a big job to them. Who? Well, whoever he works for.
Suddenly Debian wished that he knew as much about Hex as Hex clearly knew about him. He looked for a knife, anything that could serve as a weapon but his brain, unused to being posed such problems, couldn’t identify a single item of use. He didn’t even own a sharp knife – everything he ate came out of plastic containers, ready-made.

What am I doing? Looking for something to stab or bludgeon a man with? I really have gone insane. It won’t be necessary. Hex is just coming for the Cyberlife data. If he wanted me gone, he wouldn’t give me any warning of his arrival, would he? Someone would just do it, no messing around.

Debian became aware of a sudden sound-vacuum. The buzzing of the spyflies outside the window had ceased, just cut off. Fear crackled up his spine like electricity.
What the hell?
He went to the window, careful not to cast his shadow across the curtain, parted a corner of the fabric and looked out. There was something there. He craned his head to the left and saw a grapefruit-sized metal ball floating on a suspensor cushion, bobbing slightly. He ducked down, heart thumping in his chest and panic suddenly made him freeze. The object outside was a scrambler-bait. Someone had posted it up there to kill the spyflies. Why would anyone do that? Because they were about to commit a crime, of course. Something that the spyflies would detect from outside the window – something like murdering a problematic hacker in his flat. In that moment he knew it was for real and his life hung in the balance.

There was a knock on the door. Debian saw the monitor picture on his HUD. It was Hex, apparently alone, and in that instant Debian had an idea. He was not a fighter, not in the physical sense, at least. So he would play to his strengths. If he was right, it was the only chance he had. He was suddenly sure that he could do it. He felt a grim resolve and a new confidence in his abilities. It had never been done before but he knew he could do it. He would have to do it and he was, after all, the best in his field. The takeover of a human body through their DNI should not be possible, but at that moment he knew that it was, that he could do it. Half of him was terrified – half of him had never felt so strong.

BOOK: Xenoform
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