Tuesday, February 28, 2006

VL

It was Earth year (EY) 1 999 995. Man had conquered science, space and himself. The Earth still rotated around the sun, though only by the grace of modern hyperphysics. The Moon had long since been colonized as well as every other large enough body in the solar system and many outside of it as well.
Humans were still human, though their brains and bodies were well advanced beyond your own. Work had long since been eliminated. Man had designed machines that could do his tasks while he played.
Communication had greatly evolved. There was only one language and that resembled none that we now know. With thousands of symbols you could say in a word what would have taken you a minute to say otherwise. Beyond that, man had erected a ubiquitous communications network using the power of his mind, and amplified by a pair of satellites. It was called psinet.
Government had long since ceased to exist. Machines doled out food, clothing and equipment to any who should ask. They kept the peace. Not that it needed keeping. There was very little to argue about.
Still, there was competition. Man could not deny his natural instinct. There was sport, virtual and real. Some games lasted through the ages, others did not. Having lots of free time naturally led to worship of Art, fine and not so fine. There is no accounting for taste, even if you have a computer that is meant to. Worship of other things fell to the wayside.
Individuals and Corporations alike still invented things. Though there was no need for copyright or patent laws. People simply enjoyed sharing their creations. There was one such creation that was to change all of this. It was invented by a man named Artur Kaast. Artur was a great genius as were many people of his time. Others were just regular geniuses. Artur was not a religious man, nor was anyone else for that matter. It had been more than one million years since anyone had been which is sort of ironic I guess.
Artur called his invention “Artur Kaast’s Virtual Life”. He wasn’t a very creative person. It later became known as VL. VL was a superb creation. It allowed its user to experience an entire life, beginning to end, from any point in history. There were of course a few historical inaccuracies starting from prehistory and extending to 10000 EY, due to a lack of record keeping and also in part due to politicians confusing their Egos with the facts. Also, some down right dirty lieing son of a bitches. Though I can’t say their mothers were entirely to blame.
VL was like a dream, albeit a very vivid one. A powerful computer could connect to the user’s brain via psinet and take control of their synapses. Sight, sound, taste, smell and touch, they all felt real.
VL was perfect in every way except one. Each time you used it your old memories were suspended until the end of your virtual life, which typically lasted about a week in real time, but seemed like a lifetime. Artur was brilliant in many ways but had little insight into the human mind. He couldn’t fathom the enormous effect it would have on the self. There wasn’t the presence of the old mind to balance against the new experiences. When the life ended the two minds collided and merged. Even though they lost their old memories during the experience their subconscious was always there. This was the only thing keeping their old minds from ever losing the battle of consciousness.
Despite the sudden stop at the end, VL became very popular. The feeling was enlightening and euphoric. Users went back, again and again. Some fought against VL. They understood its ramifications; they could see the changes in attitudes. There were demonstrations, and there was violence. It was the first in years and so it received perhaps more attention than was wise. It ignited uproar against those who were opposing VL.
Five people were killed as well as two dogs, a cat and a gerbil that was neglected a day too long. The deaths were unprecedented as death was a rare thing. Luckily VL hadn’t made it off world yet. The Earth came under quarantine as well as anyone who had been there in recent time. The violence was considered an epidemic, which in combination with the quarantine only served to inflame both sides.
There was a young man of thirty years who emerged from the conflict as a different sort of person. He called himself Holden Caulfield though it was not his real name. He had lived hundreds of lives, from the dawn of history to his present. He’d been a hunter, a farmer, a mother, an engineer. He’d been a slave, an emperor and a revolutionary. Holden was a restless soul, forever in search of the truth, freedom and the meaning of life. In his journey he found what he was looking for. It was staring him in the face the whole time. It was his struggle, his journey, which had meaning.
A handsome young man with blue eyes and sandy blonde hair, he comported himself with confidence without being cocky. At six feet he was tall but not too tall. He was energetic and athletic. He kept his hair short and his clothes loose.
He spoke to the people about his beliefs. On the streets, people gathered to listen and to argue. He preached freedom from this world governed by machines. Holden found that he was not alone. He met another young man who went by the name Kafka. Kafka had used VL even more than Holden and they shared similar lives and experiences. The two became inseparable.
With dark piercing brown eyes and short black hair he was an imposing figure which contrasted his casual manner. Taller than Holden by only an inch he was heavier built but not as quick.
Kafka was braver than Holden. He talked about finding a way to break the first law of VL. Once in VL you can not enter another VL. The consequences of a virtual world within another were not yet studied and there were safeguards to prevent such a thing. Kafka bragged to Holden that he could break the program. He never shared his idea with anyone else.
At a quiet pub in downtown New Canada one evening, Holden brought it up.
“Think of the consequences,” Holden said, “you could be stuck in VL for years, even centuries.”
Kafka was indignant, “How so?”
“Think, if you enter VL you could enter another, within another and so on. You might never wake up.”
“You’ll be there,” Kafka said, “you can shut it down if it goes too long.”
“We don’t know what effect that will have on your brain!” Holden nearly shouted.
A few of the other patrons were now looking their way. Holden sipped at his drink and eyed the room. One man in the corner was watching them intently. Kafka broke the silence.
“Think of the possibilities my friend. We could live a thousand lives in the matter of a month instead of one or two. Every lifetime is a whole new perspective on life. We know how the universe started and we know it will never end. But we can’t explain why. Imagine the insight you would have after all those experiences.”
“Whose to say we aren’t meant to only experience it once,” Holden shot back, playing devil’s advocate. He knew it was true, what Kafka was saying. He knew it because he felt it every time he left VL. Every inch of him wanted to agree with his friend, except one. He didn’t want to find out what would happen to someone if they came out of VL forcefully. They might never regain their old memories. No one knew for sure. Holden expected Kafka to see the fault and attack his point.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said instead.
Kafka looked shaken and Holden became uncomfortable. He got up without hesitation and followed Kafka out the front door.
The air was cool. There was a strong breeze, engineered to keep the bugs away. It felt good on Holden’s face after the heat of the bar. Suddenly they were surrounded by a dozen men.
“I suspected as much,” Kafka said.
“Bloody…” was all Holden said before he was forced to avoid a flying fist. It was simple. He had done it thousands of times in a hundred different lives. He had lived the life of a samurai, Pat Marita and Bruce Lee, as well as many others. The punch seemed clumsily thrown he noted as he instinctively stepped forward and thrust his fist into the man’s throat, clenching it tightly at exactly the right moment. There was a crunch and then a dull thud as the man left his feet and was flung backwards. His head impacted with the soft plastic safewalk. Safewalk was everywhere, designed to reduce injury.
Kafka was nearly as adept, side stepping one man and landing a bone jarring elbow into another’s jaw. Holden, seeing an opening, rushed it. Kafka was right behind him. Suddenly security lights were flashing. Metallic spheres came down from above. There were five of them about the size of a soccer ball each.
Red lights flashed about their equators. Holden’s assailants didn’t try to run. They knew they were caught. Holden and Kafka stood still while they were scanned. They were each given ten demerits for excessive force and then left to their own devices. The others, however, were charged with assault, mischief and conspiracy to commit an act of hate. Holden and Kafka watched as a transport came down to take them away.
“It was worth the demerits to see the look on that guys face when you throat punched him,” Kafka laughed and slapped Holden on the back. Holden smiled.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” Kafka suggested.
As they walked down the street Holden said, “What do you suppose that was about?”
“VL,” Kafka replied, “I knew that guy in the bar was trouble.”
Holden awoke the next morning in his apartment which he shared with Kafka. He had slept four hours, plenty for a man of his advanced state. Kafka was already up, preparing breakfast. It wasn’t necessary, they had machines to do it but in one his lives he’d been a chef and cooking was a great joy to him now. He was an excellent chef. Holden followed the smell of grilled onions into the kitchen. He passed a window and looked own 500 floors to see what the weather was like on the surface. He could have connected to the free information hub through his neural psi and downloaded weather reports for anywhere in the known universe but he preferred doing it “the old fashioned way”. He noticed his car needed a wash. Instantly a jet of water hit his car from a high pressure hose which had extended itself from the front end of the vehicle.
It was a Firebrand 1996k005. Kafka called it Holden’s old rust bucket but the car was as new as when he acquired it ten years ago. It had cost him 5000 merits but he loved it. It had seemed like a lot of credit for a young man but he had saved up just to get it. 5000 merits was nothing to him now.
“Lets go VL today,” Kafka said from the kitchen. “I’m itching to be a grunt in the Venus wars of 10050.”
“Yeah,” Holden said, “and I’ll be your commanding officer.”
Kafka frowned, “Superiority complex?”
“No,” Holden said matter of factly, “I had it removed last month.”
Kafka just laughed and flipped an egg.
“We’ll take my car,” Holden commanded.
“As usual.”
They went to the VL lab on Elghin because the one on Rideau was full. They took off their clothes and showered in a sanitary room. Holden picked a VL chamber and waved. “See you in a week.”
“A lifetime,” Kafka replied.
The ceramic door to the chamber closed and Holden sat in the recliner. As he began to lean farther back the VL system instructed him to flood his brain with dopamine. His body obeyed instinctively. A feeling of absolute calm overtook him. His body shutdown. He felt like he was floating on air. Then he felt a sudden rush as the VL system took over. It seemed as though he suddenly surged forward like at the beginning of a roller coaster ride. He gasped for air instinctively but he didn’t need to.
Holden was beginning to forget. Now there was only darkness and then he felt warm, wet and safe. It seemed like months later when he felt a sudden tug. His sanctuary was being invaded. Then he was cold and dry. He opened his eyes carefully and cried out. There was a woman there, she was smiling and talking to him but he couldn’t understand. She held him up to show to a man. His face was hard, chiseled and scarred but he had a warm smile. Later he would learn that he had been born in a vat, like everyone else in the year 10020. His name was Ben MacKinnon.
Ben grew up in a military family, joined the corps when he was 19, made lieutenant by 25, was a war hero in the wars on Venus at 30 and was elected president of Venus at age 50. At 150 he died in his home, quietly, with his wife of 120 years at his side.
Holden awoke slowly as if from a dream. His real memories flooded back as his brain flushed the excess dopamine from his system. There was a momentary clash as he realized he had never been Ben. He smiled; it had been a good life. He left the chamber. Kafka wasn’t there, but there was a message for him on psinet.
“Let me know when you’re out buddy,” was all it said.
As he dressed Holden contacted his friend over psinet. The reply was instant. “Hey bro, how was your life?”
“Right as rain,” he sent back mentally, “what about you?”
“Mine was a quick trip,” he said.
Holden tried to remember which one of Ben’s grunts had died first, but he didn’t have time before Kafka said, “I ran into a little trouble. I chose Artur Kaast’s life. When I got out they were pretty pissed, told me not to come back. They cut me off part way through but I was in there long enough to figure out how it all works.”
Holden panicked, “Reverse engineering is a felony!”
“Don’t worry, legally what I did isn’t reverse engineering. They won’t let anyone try that again. I’m surprised they didn’t stop me outright. I guess they just didn’t think to put in safeguards against that.”
“What are you going to do now? They won’t let you back.”
“No worries mate, I built my own while you were out.”
Holden was incredulous and it registered across the psinet. Holden could sense that Kafka was smiling.
“Where are you?”
“I’m sending you my cords,” Kafka said.
They registered in his mind immediately. 19635. 58359. 95431:2. It was a location relative to a satellite orbiting the planet. The two meant that it was satellite 2 of 2. Instantly a map appeared in his minds eye. He could read it as though he was holding it in his hands. As he turned the map turned as well.
“I’m on my way,” he said and then broke the link. He got into his car and fed it the coordinates. His mind was racing as the Firebrand got on its way. He was excited but reserved.
Finally, the car pulled into a storage facility. It was hundreds of stories high, arranged as a nest of honeycomb all stacked on top of each other. He landed on the lid of one of the chambers. The map closed. He went to the hatch which opened as he approached. An elevator about ten square feet rose to the surface. He descended into a large chamber, lit artificially. There were empty crates strewn about the room. In the center was a freakish looking apparatus.
Holden knew what it must be. There was a large computer there. He knew it was necessary to control all of the VL systems. There was a clear chamber with a chair in the center. Next to that was a psi emitter, which controlled the output to the user. It was simple enough. The genius was in the computer, hidden in the sixteen hexadecimal states of trillions of electron switches. Over a million years ago when scientists finally figured out how to discern and control electron orbits they switched to a hexadecimal system, out with binary.
Kafka came around from behind the computer, wearing only a black synthetic silk robe.
“You like?” he joked, holding the robe.
“I don’t know how you can joke,” Holden said.
“It eases the tension,” Kafka smiled. He paused, then said, “I’ve rebuilt his system, perfectly. I tried it in simulation and it was flawless. You can monitor my progress. Obviously you can’t watch it in real time but the system records major events at regular speed for playback.”
Holden started to think about the consequences. He realized that there was a strong probability that somewhere there was a recording of every one of his lives.
“It makes you wonder,” Kafka said.
“What are you going to do with it?” Holden asked, knowing the answer.
“I left out some of the safety programming,” Kafka answered the real question.
“When do we do this?” Holden got to the point.
“Right now,” Kafka was already on his way to the chamber. He dropped the robe and sat. Holden just watched. Kafka controlled the entire thing by psi.
Minutes later he was watching highlights of the youth of a young man named Linus Farhall. He was a remarkable young man, excelling in piano and surfing. He soon took up VL. Holden cringed, not knowing what would happen. How would the computer handle it, Kafka? The program reacted well, but it could not handle any more output and Kafka’s brain could not handle a higher input speed. It was two weeks in real time when Linus finally came out of his first VL session. Holden realized that each session would last that long. If Linus kept going Kafka could end up in an endless loop.
Holden knew he would have to end it himself. The question was when. The next day he received a strange playback. One scene would seem to end as though they were scenes from a movie. He quickly realized that Kafka had also removed the program preventing one from using incomplete historical data. Their lives were incomplete. Linus was experiencing the bible. As a lover of history he was interested in the ancient Christian text.
Holden guessed that there was less chance of a personality malfunction if his life was created from incomplete data.
He called upon the command list on the computer and entered the shutdown function. “Service is locked,” it sent back through short range secure psi. He was blocked out. Emergency security was in place. He knew he had to cut the power. Holden tried to connect to the storage room’s secure systems but he was blocked there too, only Kafka could control that.
Holden ran to the elevator and called up the storage main office from the console.
“Emergency shut off,” he blurted into the screen.
The woman on the other end was a pretty korean girl. He didn’t even notice. She sensed his panic, got a reading through psinet and knew he had a legitimate problem.
“We’re shutting it down sir, a security team has been dispatched,” she said calmly. “Don’t panic, they’ll get you out.”
Suddenly the room went dark. He stood there trembling for what seemed like an hour but was really only a minute. The hatch was sprung and light trickled down from above.
“It’s alright sir,” said a man covered in black body armor. The elevator suddenly came on and lifted him up to the surface. There were three more figures in black armor and an emergency vehicle hovering next to the Firebrand. Two of them were taller than Holden, the other was shorter and slender. He saw the pretty face of a young woman behind the transparent blast shield. Holden thought she might be Latina but no one could tell these days with the state of intermingled gene pools.
The four of them went down into the storage unit, leaving Holden on the roof. A security sphere left their transport and followed them in.
A minute later they were up again. Kafka was wearing his robe, being supported by one of the three men.
“All clear,” the lead guard said.
Kafka was unsteady, his eyes unfocused. He wavered from side to side.
“Are you alright?” Holden asked with concern.
“I’ll be fine,” Kafka replied. Holden wasn’t so sure but he let it drop. He was just glad Kafka’s brain hadn’t fried.
“I’m getting some unusual readings from your psi output,” the female security officer said. Holden read her name tag, Danil Frejas. “You should have it looked at by a psychologist,” she finished saying. Dark brown hair and brown eyes are the foreground to Danil’s beautiful face. Young and slim she stands at only five feet ten. She is short for a guard but tall for a woman.
“I trust we won’t be needed again today,” said the lead guard.
“I’m done with that thing,” Kafka said.
The guard nodded and then the four of them piled into the transport. Holden was relieved that Kafka was done with his experiment. Perhaps he had scared himself enough, Holden thought.
“Let’s go home,” Holden said.
“You go,” Kafka replied, “I’ll clean up here and catch up with you later.”
Holden didn’t feel like arguing so he hopped in the Firebrand and returned to their apartment. When he woke in the morning Kafka was not there.
“Where are you?” he sent out over psinet.
“Storage unit, come,” was the reply.
Holden was there in minutes. He jumped out of the car before it stopped moving.
Kafka was there, dress in a black suit. It looked like wool but it wasn’t. It was a synthetic fiber, designed to regulate body temperature and keep you dry. Kafka was sitting in the chair but he was obviously not in VL. The machine had been modified. There were new parts. Holden noticed a psi amplifier and a broadcaster. It was a simple looking device, like a satellite dish about the size of a Frisbee. There was one on the roof of every building.
“What are you doing Kafka?” Holden demanded.
Kafka rose from his seat to face Holden.
“I am glad that you came,” Kafka said. “It is vital that you listen to me. The man you knew as Kafka exists now only in my memory. I am the prince of the world.”
Holden froze. He recognized the name immediately. He had lived the life of a man named Martin Luther and so he was intimately familiar with the Christian Bible. Holden remembered that Kafka was living out bible stories stored on the psinet when they pulled the plug.
“What are you talking about Kafka,” Holden tried to stall while his mind raced.
“I am the antichrist, even though it isn’t accurate I do prefer the name Lucifer,” he declared.
“This is some seriously fucked up shit right here,” Holden said to no one in particular. “What are you doing?”
Holden approached cautiously. Kafka turned to face the computer terminal.
“I’m bringing about the end of times,” Kafka said.
“Are you mad?” Holden blurted.
“With me or not?”
“Not.”
“Then go from my site. If I see you again I will kill you.”
Holden stepped back then turned and ran to the elevator. He was in contact with security before he reached the surface. In less than a minute the transport was there and the four security officers were climbing out.
In the belly of the storage unit Kafka was contacting psi hubs all over the galaxy. He was rewriting their programs and adding some of his own. Battle ships that had sat unused for millennia were leaving their orbits and heading towards earth. Satellites were switching to full alert. In the same instant psi hubs were winking out across the universe. The seemingly endless network of minds was going dark.
Kafka waited patiently while the security detail descended into the nest.
“Sir,” the lead guard called out. “We want to talk.”
Suddenly Kafka spun towards them, an image of horror. He pulled the trigger on the automatic rifle he had just pulled from its hidden compartment. A sphere of energy erupted from the barrel and burst through the chest of the lead guard’s chest. His useless armor was only designed to repel knives and blunt objects. The impact knocked him backwards and into Danil. She was pinned against the wall.
“Shut him down!” she shouted.
At the same time the other two guards were trying to contact psinet to send a psi blunter to Kafka. It would knock him out for a few minutes. They could not. They were blocked out of psinet. Kafka fired two more shots, killing them both. Danil was able to hit the elevator button and ascend to safety.
Holden was there helping Danil to her feet. She threw off her helmet and spat blood. Holden was trying to contact psinet but it was useless. It was as if it wasn’t even there anymore.
“Don’t bother,” Danil sighed, “some how the whole net is offline.”
They watched as dark specs appeared on the horizon, getting larger all the time. Holden zoomed into them. They were ten miles off and closing fast. A sea of security spheres.
“A cloud of locusts,” Holden whispered to himself.
“What?” Danil asked.
“We need to get out of here,” Holden was suddenly getting an adrenaline boost.
“What’s going on?” Danil asked.
“I’ll tell you on the way,” Holden said as he grabbed her hand and pulled her toward his car.
When he got in the car the Firebrand failed to respond to his mental command. Holden soon realized that he would not track a position. They were soon on their way. The car responded well to Holden’s psi commands. He was heading down towards the surface but he wasn’t sure why.
“What the fuck are we going to do?” he yelled.
Danil was calm on the outside but on the inside was a wreck. Her mind was racing.
“Keep taking her down,” she said. Danil knew what to do. She was already in contact with corporate headquarters via the secret corporate psi network.
“Where are we going?” Holden demanded.
“My people want me to bring you in for questioning,” she answered. “They’ve given me the cords to an access point to the AstalMicro Corporate highway.” She transferred the coordinates via the local network and suddenly the autopilot kicked in.
“How can they contact you if psinet is down?” Holden was incredulous.
“There’s a lot your kind doesn’t know,” she said.
“My kind?” he looked suspicious.
“I’m telling you this now because you need to understand your world fully in order to help us,” she began, “AstalMicro Corporation has its own private net. It works on a different frequency. Every corporation has one.”
“What does this have to do with my kind?” Holden was being facetious.
Danil smiled and rolled her eyes. “There are two classes of citizens. There’s you, independent class, and there’s me, watcher class. Independent class is oblivious to our existence for the most part. Watcher class runs the world. It’s an awesome responsibility.”
“Fuck off.”
“Now that you know we need to upgrade you to watcher class.”
“You’re serious aren’t you,” Holden still couldn’t believe it.
Suddenly Holden sensed they were slowing. He tuned in to the camera mounted on the bottom of the Firebrand. They were landing on the top of a large metal cylinder that lay horizontally to the ground between two 500 story buildings. Of a sudden a large round door slid open, admitting them to the tunnel below. Holden stopped questioning and just watched as they roared down the tunnel. It was well lit from all sides. There were other vehicles here too. They were different from the Firebrand. Each one was identical, like tiny bugs. They were well armored too and dull grey. As they whipped down the tunnel at 500 mph Holden began to feel closed in. He stopped himself and steadied his nerves. He noticed a branch up ahead. Faster than Holden though was safe, the Firebrand abruptly changed direction and went right up the branch. The tunnel opened up to reveal an indoor parking area. A nest of pigeon holes was before him, a vehicle parked in nearly every one.
The car parked itself and Holden hopped out of the vehicle. They were met by two men. One wore a blue business suit, the other wore black military fatigues.
“Holden Caulfield,” said the man in the suit, “I’m pleased to meet you. I am James Wellgate, Vice President of AstalMicro. This is Govin Frejas, head of corporate security.”
Danil saluted Govin. He turned the salute and then they hugged. Holden was guessing that wasn’t standard procedure.
“Cooks, Dawner and Khan are KIA,” she said sadly.
“I heard,” his voice was unsteady.
Govin was middle aged. Holden guessed he was her father. He was close. Govin was her only family, her uncle. That didn’t seem important now.
Wellgate was only slightly younger than Govin. He looked impatient.
“Time is short,” said Wellgate, “I need you to fill us in.”
He was talking to Holden, who took a moment to realize it.
“Come, I have a better place to discuss this,” Wellgate said.
They followed him past a security checkpoint. They were waved through. They walked on through a clear door and on down a long hallway. A door slid open and Wellgate walked inside. There was a table and chairs in a long narrow meeting room.
“Please sit,” said Wellgate. They sat, with Wellgate at the head of the table.
“Where should I start?” Holden asked.
“Tell us what Kafka was doing in the storage unit,” it wasn’t a question.
“At first he was experimenting with his own version of VL,” Holden began. He told them everything. From Kafka being banned, which they already knew about, to the end, when Kafka had told him that he was the devil and threatened his life.
When he was finished Wellgate said, “I don’t mind telling you that Kafka rewrote most of psinet’s programming. He exploited weaknesses in the system that went unnoticed for millennia.”
Holden swallowed hard. He suddenly realized that he could be held as a co-conspirator. He felt safe for now because Wellgate hadn’t made any accusations. Holden wondered just how much of his life they were watching. Or even if they could be watching his thoughts. He had been sitting there a moment when he realized that they were expecting a response.
“Kafka’s smart, very smart,” he said unsteadily, “but I don’t see how he could have learned how to reprogram psinet. Licensed VL studios monitor what he does in VL. They wouldn’t allow something like that.”
“Unless he learned it while using an unlicensed VL,” Govin broke in.
“No,” Holden said, “I was monitoring what he was doing.”
Holden hadn’t even convinced himself with that line. Kafka could have used the machine to learn about psinet at any time. Information was free in this age.
“He must have at some point,” Wellgate said, “that is the reality we are dealing with now.”
“What are you doing about it?” Holden hesitated to ask.
“Your friend has taken over every ship that was connected to psinet,” Govin interrupted, “he scorched several planets with his armada.”
“Earth is next,” Wellgate said, “luckily there were no ships nearby due to the quarantine.”
“We’ve launched our ships,” said Govin, “he has more but ours are more advanced.”
“What can I do to help?” Holden asked.
“We know that he is using psinet to tap into the data that he needs to run his VL. If he uses the VL again we want you to hack into it and keep him busy long enough for our team to get to the power grid and shut it down,” Govin continued.
“I’m in,” Holden said emphatically.
“I want to be part of the squad,” Danil declared.
Govin looked shocked, then appalled. Wellgate looked at Govin.
“It’s your call Govin,” Wellgate said, “but she’s the best pilot we’ve got.”
Though it hurt him to do it Govin acceded. He looked to Danil and said, “I love you, be careful daughter.”
They embraced and then the two of them left the room in a hurry.
Wellgate waited a moment then said, “Come with me, we’ll get you ready.”
Holden was lost in the maze of the complex as he followed Wellgate. They took an elevator down fifty floors. The door opened into a large computer lab. There were technicians and monitors everywhere.
A dark skinned technician came up to them and saluted Wellgate. Then suddenly his fa├žade of military protocol left him.
“Hello, you must be Holden Caulfield,” he said excitedly in a deep voice. It seemed a contradiction but Holden was already beginning to like the man.
“I’m called Bruce, and this here is Bruce,” he said pointing to another tech. “That there is Bruce as well.”
The tech suddenly cracked a smile. “Alright, I’m the only one named Bruce.”
“Nice to meet you Bruce,” Holden shook his hand.
“I leave you in the capable if not competent hands of Bruce,” Wellgate said as he returned to the elevator.
Holden got the impression Wellgate was afraid of the technicians.
“They are a silly bunch,” he said just before the elevator doors sealed him inside.
“Let’s get you prepped,” Bruce said.
Bruce began to walk into the puzzle of computers and technicians. He was already in contact with SecNet, the company’s encrypted secure psi network. Holden began to feel a tickling sensation in his brain as he adjusted to the new network. New enzymes were forming as he joined the encrypted data flow.
Suddenly he was live on the network. It had less nodes but he was awe struck by the sheer volume of data. There was more to learn. It was faster than psinet too. This technology was generations beyond his own. Holden adapted quickly. He was researching the history of the watchers. Holden came to see the junction in his histories. He compared the old with the new and saw that over a million years ago the watchers formed. The most powerful corporations created their own nations for their offspring. They watched their people carefully and soon divisions were created to do the watching. Bruce’s voice snapped him out of his reverie.
“You’re all hooked up Holden. Keep monitoring this program and you’ll know when Kafka enters VL.”
The program came to life on his visual display. It was like having a screen directly in his eye. The program was running on SecNet but it could peek into psinet without ever being detected.
“Right now you’re safe,” Bruce said, “but once you enter his VL you’ll be in psinet. You’ll be playing by his rules. Our programs have been overwritten.”
Holden didn’t have to wait long. Kafka was already there. Holden followed the flow of the program while he watched Kafka in VL. Holden came to realize that his old friend had altered VL so he maintained his memory throughout. He had also rigged it so he could jump to any point in a person’s life. Holden expected him to be doing some sort of research but he found Kafka to be living the life of an ancient philosopher called Nostradamus.
“Our ground team is ready,” Holden heard Bruce say. “Keep him busy, some of his warning systems should be down as long as he’s in VL.”
“Holden joined Kafka’s session. It was different this time. He had no memory loss, he wasn’t born, he just came into being. Kafka was reading a book in an ancient study. Holden was standing before him as if by magic but Kafka didn’t flinch.
“I was expecting you,” Kafka said, “you can not stop it, you must know this.”
“Stop what?” Holden asked.
“Don’t be dumb, it is the rapture.”
“Now you really are mad. Look, you and I are friends. We live in the year 1 999 995. There is no rapture. Your memory got fried in VL and now you think you’re a deity.”
“VL simply opened my eyes to who I am, and what part I must play. You too have a part to play my old friend. I set things in motion; it is up to you to finish it.”
“You’ve sent the galaxy into turmoil!” Holden yelled.
“It’s a clever play Holden,” Kafka said, “but it will never work.”
At that same moment Danil was landing a small, but heavily armored craft near the vicinity of the power grid. She and ten armored guards descended from the rear ramp of the rectangular assault craft. Going in on foot was the only way. Morgan, leader among the guards, carried a portable signal jammer. A man in his mid forties he was a veteran security expert and marksman. Confident and determined, Morgan was well suited to command. Instead of ten humans in armor they appeared as a radar bug. They still called it radar even though it had long since ceased to actually be radar. Morgan stood in the middle of the pack. Danil was at the rear. They ran in two rows. It was a ten minute run at 20 miles per hour. The enhanced suits allowed them to run harder, faster and for longer without tiring.
They made good time through the now empty streets of the city. The grid was small, only about ten feet tall and wide but it provided enough power for the entire storage complex.
Mission Alpha was to be attempted by a three man crew. Copper, Mason and Digs moved in close to the grid. The trio had been working together, under Morgan, for years and was well prepared for any mission. Copper was a tall blonde man, strong of mind and body. Mason was short and lean but quick like the devil. Digs was average height but well muscled. He was the hacker of the group. The mission was simple, shutdown the grid by using a manual computer override. The others watched, waiting for an attack. Copper used his security override to shutdown the shield. Then Mason stepped up to open the chain fence with a bolt cutter. Digs went to the control panel and began typing furiously.
It wasn’t long before several security drones arrived.
“We have incoming defense drones!” Morgan shouted. Copper and Mason opened fire first. Two of the drones fell before the other soldiers hit them from the other side.
“ETA on the slice?” Morgan said through the net.
“I need more time!” Digs yelled back.
“No time, get out of there!”
It was too late. The drones unleashed a flurry of explosive rounds. Digs was dead before his head hit the cold steel floor. Mason and Copper were running and firing as they could.
“Abort Mission Alpha!” Morgan yelled, “Spencer, ready the Torp.”
Spencer was a tall and heavy man who was an expert demolitionist.
Mason was cut down but Copper arrived just as Spencer was firing a rocket. It struck the grid and exploded in a hail of sparks and molten metal.
“Command 1, mission accomplished,” Morgan sent out over the net, “we are ready for extraction.”
“Negative Morgan,” came the reply, “return to your craft and await orders.”
The run back to the ship was exhausting. They pushed the suits to their limit with explosive bullets hitting all around them. The grid was down but the security drones had their own power sources and their own programmed directives. They lost two good soldiers in the run.
Danil was the first inside and she had the ship off the ground before Spencer closed the door. Morgan contacted Command while Copper and Jefferson manned the small craft’s guns. Tall and gangly, Jefferson was the last person you would expect to be an expert marksman and pilot.
“What are your orders Command 1?” Morgan requested.
“Delta team was destroyed by enemy fire, you must complete Delta mission.”
“Affirmative.”
Danil hit full throttle and the ship hit 1000 mph in seconds. The crew never felt the velocity change. The drones were gone but larger dangers lay ahead.
“Two large enemy craft approaching,” Danil said.
At their speed there was no time to wait for orders from Morgan. She launched two torpedoes. Each exploded just before they struck the crafts, letting out an electromagnetic pulse. The enemy crafts seemed to go dark. Danil flew right between them.
Moments later she landed on the storage facility.
“We want him alive if possible,” Morgan said as they rushed to the entrance of Kafka’s lair.
Spencer had a large tool in his hands. For just such an occasion, it could open any door. He placed it over the entrance hatch.
“Go sesame,” Spencer said.
The hatch popped open and Morgan dropped a gas grenade down the hole. They flicked on their lights and jumped in, activating their jump jets in time to avoid damage to the suits and their knees.
“Six o’clock, he’s there,” Morgan could see Kafka on infrared. Kafka was not down on the floor unconscious like he should have been. He was coming towards them wearing a large suit of armor. On each arm he had a massive repeating gun. They all dove to the floor as he opened fire. Spencer took ten rounds in the chest. He lay there bleeding to death. His suit did everything it could to stop the flow but Kafka’s cannon’s were too strong for his armor.
Morgan unleashed a rocket propelled grenade from his rifle. It struck Kafka’s armor in the leg. He nearly fell but the suit compensated for his loss of balance. The remaining soldiers opened fire with everything they had. Kafka was firing too. Copper was hit in the arm and went down. He pulled out his side arm and kept firing. The sound was deafening as shards of metal ricocheted around the room. Jefferson was hit in the leg. It came off and he fell forward. He was in shock but his suit was already supplying adrenaline to his blood stream. Danil fired a lucky shot up the barrel of Kafka’s left gun. It lodged inside and caused the next round to explode inside the weapon. The repeater was ruined. The blast knocked Kafka onto his back. Those who could still stand advanced on him. He got to his feet quickly but Morgan had already let loose another RPG.
The grenade struck him in the chest. Searing hot metal tore through his armor and destroyed its computer system. Morgan ran up and pulled off Kafka’s helmet.
“Get him out of this suit,” Morgan ordered.
Kafka was cold. They quickly had him out of the armor and Danil slapped binders around his wrists and ankles while Culgan placed a psi dampener on Kafka’s head. Of medium height and athletic Culgan was a weapons expert and champion martial artist.
“Subject is contained,” Culgan said.
Danil and Culgan carried Kafka under his arms. Raider helped Jefferson to walk while Copper was able to get himself out of the storage unit on his own. Raider was a consummate sports fan and was large and athletic.
Just as they were getting in the craft they began receiving fire from above. As quickly as possible Danil had the craft in the air. A small gun ship was flying in on them. They heard the hull bend as blobs of plasma struck the super cooled outer layer of the ship. The rounds of plasma pelted them constantly. Morgan and McKain manned the guns this time. A marksman and weapons expert McKain was strong and had excellent endurance.
“Yah!” shouted McKain as his well placed shot penetrated the ship’s front engine. The enemy craft exploded into a million and fifty pieces.
They were pursued by more craft but Danil dodged their attacks deftly until she encountered an armada of her own. They let her through and cut off her pursuers.
There was a team of doctors and security personnel waiting for them in the hanger. The wounded were taken to the emergency room while Kafka was placed in a stretcher and taken down another corridor.
Holden and Wellgate were there too. Danil exited the ship and pulled off her helmet. Their concerned looks were a welcome sign. She waved to them as she came towards them. She saluted Wellgate and then hugged Holden. He was surprised by her affection.
“Brilliant flying Danil,” Holden said excitedly.
Danil flushed, “Thank you.”
“Where are you taking Kafka?” Holden questioned Wellgate.
“We’re taking him to have his head examined,” Wellgate answered diplomatically. “Hopefully we can put him back the way he was.”
“How?”
“We can compare changes in his brain from his last scan before he changed. Then we’ll make the necessary changes to his brain. It could take a few days. Then we’ll compare his thought processes now with his old ones. That’s how we’ll know.”
It was four days later that the first attack wave arrived. For days ships from around the galaxy had gathered in orbit around earth while every corporation in the Federation tried diligently to hack psinet and shut it down. Kafka had written artificial intelligence into psinet and the ships were still acting on his behalf. They protected the grids with all their forces now. They knew their own weakness. The attacks had all the precision of a computer.
Simultaneously around the world corporations were pummeled back into the dark ages. Some were better prepared than others. AstalMicro was well prepared. Unfortunately they bore the brunt of the attack. It was a well fought battle that was waged for three days before Kafka’s army breached the outer hull of the enormous complex.
In poured an army of foot soldiers. Man sized robots marched in, moving faster than any unaltered human could. The battle raged on through the tunnels and hallways of AstalMicro. Two days later at nearly midnight the order to evacuate was given.
“Here are your orders,” Govin was saying, “You are Alpha team. You will be piloting the Harbinger of the Light. It is the fastest ship we’ve got. It has enough weaponry to light up a star. In other words, get the hell out and nuke the site from orbit. But first you get to the Heart and extract it.”
Holden was standing next to Danil. They were in full body armor. Equipped with everything from jetpacks to RPGs.
“What is the Hearth?” he whispered.
“It holds all of the data in psinet and our closed net,” Danil whispered back.
“Oh, it’s a datacore.”
After the casualties from the last mission the empty spots on the team were filled from the watcher’s elite special agents. They weren’t foot soldiers; they were highly trained, super intelligent; genetically engineered to perfection.
Agent Kara was tall for a woman, even for a man. She had short dark red har which was just long enough to put in a pony tail. Glera was tall as well, though not as tall. Her hair was brown but very short. Glera was much stalker than her two counterparts. Ofena was average height with shoulder length black hair. Her eyes were dark and slightly slanted. Each in her own right was beautiful. What made them deadly was their minds and their talents. Kara had been engineered with a cat. She was agile, had perfect night vision and a better sense of smell than any machine could be designed to have. Glera had been engineered with a wolverine. Her senses were keen as well but her strength was her highly aggressive nature. She was very intimidating. Ofen had a thousand talents in art and in survival. She could play any instrument. She could fool any human and any computer with her ability to act. In addition she was modified to change her voice at will, change her retina’s, and change her appearance. She was a master of disguise.
“Dismissed!”
Morgan lead them to an elevator. It was a large service elevator, wide enough to fit all of them and a lot more. Their ship would be the last to leave. Most ships had already departed by the time they reached the bottom.
The elevator opened into a wide hallway. At the end of the hall was a door. It opened into a massive chamber. It was perfectly spherical. They were at the median. A platform extended into the center. There was a roughly egg shaped object at the end of the platform. They all followed Morgan there.
“Raider, Copper,” Morgan said as he pressed his thumb onto a small pad affixed to the platform. It read his fingerprint, checked his body temperature and tested his DNA. At last it did a retina scan and a woman’s voice said, “Lieutenant Commander David Morgan identified.”
“Emergency datacore release,” Morgan said.
The computer scanned his voice to be sure and then said, “Acknowledged.”
The datacore suddenly raised up a foot and two clamps released it. Raider and Copper, with his newly cloned arm, grabbed the two handles and lifted it easily. It weighed 25 kilograms but they could easily manage it, especially with the strength enhancements their suits provided.
They got back in the elevator and went further down into the complex to the hangar. They came upon a platoon of drones who were currently inspecting the Harbinger of Light. There was a large hole in a nearby wall where the drones hand mined their way in.
“Fire at will!” Morgan yelled into the communicator.
They rushed into the hangar with all guns blazing. Holden launched a perfectly placed RPG into the middle of them, leaving nothing left to shoot.
Morgan was telling the Harbinger to get its engine hot as they ran up the freshly opened ramp. Danil got to the pilot’s seat to find another man sitting in the passenger seat of the cockpit. She recognized him.
“Dr. Teega?” she said incredulously.
“I’m sorry Danil,” he said, “this was my only way out. I tried to get Kafka to the escape ship but my elevator lost power and we didn’t get there in time.”
“Kafka is on board?”
“He’s in the infirmary.”
“He’s strapped down I hope,” Morgan interrupted.
“Of course.”
In two seconds flat the hangar doors opened and the Harbinger was through them. It took less than ten seconds to break atmosphere and another ten to drop the bomb.
They watched the mushroom cloud grow. Danil kept her eye on the radar. One by one all of the ships disappeared from their sensors.
“Enemy fighters closing fast,” Danil said.
“Everyone to your positions!” Morgan ordered.
There were six turrets on the ship as well as the front guns and rocket launchers which were controlled by the copilot, currently Morgan.
“Frontal assault,” Morgan ordered.
“All shields front,” Danil said as she made the adjustment and brought the ship around.
It only took one pass to kill all six fighters but unfortunately they were just a decoy. From the rear came a much larger ship that fired one shot into their unprotected engine.
“We’re hit bad!” Danil shouted, “All shields rear!”
“Bring us into atmosphere, we need to land,” Morgan said.
As Danil brought them back down they returned fire with everything they had. They saw the enemy ship exploding as it disappeared behind the horizon. Danil was landing the ship as Kafka was waking up. Holden was there with Dr. Teega nearby. Kafka looked around carefully and said “Who the fuck are you?”
Holden was shocked but shock turned to relief as he realized his old friend had got him again.
“You fuckin bastard Kafka,” Holden said, “don’t fuck with me.”
But he was just glad Kafka was his old self again.

Your humble narrator,

Him.

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