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Reality Bytes

By Wayne Austin

Where am I? How did I get here? I looked down at the gun in my hand and frowned. It was a type that I don’t normally use. It fired antique bullets — an ancient Smith and Wesson by the look of it. I couldn’t say why, but it felt odd, disturbing, heavy in a way that didn’t seem real. It lacked credibility.

And the room had the same disturbing qualities. Some obsessive had put too much effort into detailing the tattered wallpaper that stained the walls in a green and white floral pattern, and I could just make out faint, reddish swirls imprinted on the brown carpet, possibly roses. A dirty window, wooden-framed with white, peeling paint, let in a depressing pall of gloom. And the smell — musty? That’s the closest I could describe it.

This wasn’t my reality.

An amateur must have designed this scenario. Even the body, lying beneath the window and slumped against the wall, lacked any flair. Flat, greasy hair hung down over a pallid skull-face, shading what would no doubt be dull, sunken eyes. But vivid red stained his dull white shirt, all the way to the floor where it still seeped into the carpet. The stain grew before my eyes. Who would have thought there could be so much blood in such a skinny frame?

Maybe a sick hacker had hijacked me. A terrorist perhaps? It happens, so I’ve heard. But I’ve never really followed the news reports.

No, that didn’t make sense. As far as I could tell, I had killed someone, but whether I had done so willingly or under sufferance, I couldn’t say. I didn’t know this man.

My arm began to ache from holding the gun. How odd!

Never, in all the gung-ho scenarios I’ve played out, have my arms ever ached like this, and I’ve hefted some pretty mean pieces, heavy in the max — laser cannons, rifles with armor-piercing shells, ground-to-air multiple-warhead missiles — and carried them long distances. I got tired, but this was different. This pain penetrated to my bones.

While I thought about what to do with the gun — dump it out the window or let loose a few shots — the door behind me burst open. Instead of spinning around and nailing whoever was there between the eyes, my body turned in slow motion. Two men crashed into me. The gun spilled from my hand, but that didn’t stop them getting in a few cheap blows.

And when they hit me, it hurt, it really hurt. Now I’ve been bruised from head to foot, had my guts ripped open, been blown up and crunched, but none of that felt like this. I wanted to throw up.

After a couple of extra blows for good measure, they hauled me to my feet. The guy with the bull neck, piggy eyes and mono-brow held me up by my jacket lapels and his partner cuffed my hands behind me. So, I was the fall guy in an old-fashion crime, mystery-thriller.

It wasn’t my favorite genre and I would rather be the main guy doing all the beating up ... it still didn’t click. A system glitch perhaps? Maybe I had been inadvertently switched to someone else’s scenario. That could explain it. Time to stop.

“Open sesame.” Nothing. Weird. “Open sesame,” I said again. This was my personal out, my “get out of jail” card. The scenario should pause and my personal interface appear. Only SysAdmin interrupts had a higher priority.

“Open sesame?” My hirsute friend smirked over my right shoulder at his partner. “What d’ya think, Mikey? He thinks he’s still connected.”

Mikey grunted. “Dunno, Al. Sound’s a croc to me.”

Al’s words didn’t make sense. He smiled at my frown and pulled me up until I was forced to stand on tiptoe, my forehead to his chin. “Paul Edward Hudson, you are under arrest for the murder of Jarred Preston.” He continued with an old-fashioned spiel about my rights, but I stopped listening.

That name — Paul Edward Hudson — it rang a bell. I hadn’t been called that in a long, long time, not since I left ... oh no!

Al must have read my expression. His face lit up with a grin. “Yes, Mr Hudson ... welcome to the real world.”

I felt naked, vulnerable, lost. “But ... but that’s not possible.” I wheezed the words. My lungs still had trouble working.

“Let’s go.”

Al released my jacket and, before I could sink to the floor, they each grabbed an arm and hauled me out into a corridor with just as much charm as the room. We entered an ancient elevator and Mikey jabbed a sorry excuse for a button. The elevator creaked and lurched, then began to descend. At last, my lungs felt like working again and I sucked in precious air just in time to breathe a sigh of relief as the elevator jerked to a stop and bounced twice before the door shuddered open.

An odd thought occurred to me.

Where were the cops — the uniformed variety? Why weren’t they swarming all around the place and doing what cops normally do, like accidentally destroying vital evidence? And for that matter, where were forensics, and the yellow tape to isolate the crime scene? Didn’t they do those things in the real world any more? Al and Mikey dragged me out through the building entrance and down some chipped steps to the cracked sidewalk, where two cars were parked. The one to the left was at an angle with one wheel up on the sidewalk and a door thrown open. The car behind sat neatly parallel to the curb. They dragged me over to the neat car.

A cold breeze cut through my jacket’s defenses and I shivered. At that moment the sun took the opportunity to pop out from behind a dark cloud and dazzle me. I squinted and sneezed violently, a staccato volley that lasted a minute or so and left me with watery eyes and a runny nose, and nowhere and no way to wipe it.

Everything about the experience only made me despise reality all the more. It was so unnatural.

Al gave me a dirty look as I wiped my nose on my sleeve and snuck a peek each way. The street was empty and the only things in plentiful supply were the dilapidated buildings that ran along either side of the street. There were no cars; no rubbish blowing in the wind or trapped in the small alcoves in the building facades; no graffiti; no curious onlookers leaning out of windows — just a well-kept, decaying ghost town.

A jerk interrupted my reverie.

Al shoved me into the back seat, next to Mikey, and climbed into the front. “Downtown,” he ordered. The car pulled out from behind the first and out of the corner of my eye I caught movement in the other as it jounced off the curve to follow us.

They certainly didn’t act like cops. A bit late than never I asked, “Can I see some identification?” Mikey looked out the window and smirked. Al barked a laugh. “You’re not cops,” I decided. “What about the body? And ... and how did you know who I was? And the other guy? If you knew I was going to kill him, why didn’t you stop me? This is all wrong. How did I get here? I can’t remember anything. I ... I want a lawyer — I demand a lawyer! You can’t—”

“Shut up,” said Mikey. He didn’t say it loud and he didn’t look at me, but the authority in his tone stopped me dead in my tracks. I was scum on the soles of his shoes. I stared ahead, at where the street bisected the horizon, fighting back tears. The buildings were mostly one or two stories now, interspersed with vacant lots.

“Technically,” said Al, “we’re members of WebPol, but in name only. We’re actually SysOp agents — Anti Terrorist Unit.”

“Never heard of them.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Al, “we try to keep a low profile. We hunt terrorists who drop out to escape being captured.”

“I’m not a terrorist!”

“Aren’t you?” Mikey asked. “How about murderer?”

“I ... I was set up.”

“Not according to our video surveillance,” said Al. “We tracked you from your pod into the ruins—”

“Where you retrieved the gun,” added Mikey.

“And we followed you to that building—”

“Where you shot Jarred Preston.”

“It’s all recorded. We had bugs following you.”

I felt a chill despite the warm air circulating.

The buildings petered out. We crested a hill and a great swathe of temperate forest, peppered with tall redwoods, greeted us. Off to the left, it merged into manicured parkland dominated by a crystal dome — a giant diamond embedded in green, and its facets glittered in the morning light as the scudding clouds fractured the sun’s rays. The car veered onto a connector, which merged with a raised highway that straddled the forest and led straight to the dome.

Al sighed. “Ah! Home sweet home.” Our little convoy accelerated until the tangle of green below became a blur, and after a few minutes, we reached the parkland and the highway dropped down to ground level. We shot through grassland, spotted with groves of low bushes amidst stands of elegant elms and firs. The dome towered above us and we arrowed toward it like the winning sperm about to meet its lucky ovum. A black dot appeared where the highway intercepted the dome and grew rapidly to become a semicircular, black maw.

It swallowed us and we plunged into darkness.

A diffuse, white glow appeared, dim at first, and grew to a gentle aura that emanated from the tunnel walls and the road — a cocoon against the blackness as we drove deeper inside.

The hairs on the back of my neck bristled. What had been such a joy to behold outside revealed itself to have a black heart. I wanted to scream. I wanted to shout, “Let me out! Let me go!” But the blackness sucked away all sound, all life. Even Al and Mikey were affected. Maybe I was dead. And Al — no, Mikey — was Charon and we were crossing the modern Styx.

We slowed to a stop and the following car slipped past to continue on into the darkness. For the first time, I saw a feature in the tunnel wall — a yellow door. Mikey hauled me out. Al joined him and I barely had time to stretch and relieve the cramp in my legs before they dragged me over to the door. It split down the middle and slid apart. Light and noise spilled out and hit me like one of Mikey’s punches.

Here was life.

In the corridor running past glass-walled offices, bigger-than-life men and women strode back and forth, all purposeful and businesslike. I managed a glance in one office, where a woman lay in a semi-prone position on a chair. A man lay on a couch opposite her and both wore interface helmets. We pulled up at the open door and Al listened in as a disembodied female voice spoke out loud.

“—launched a tracker. She’s scanning scenarios in Terraform Disaster Alien Mars.”

I had joined one of those. They were expensive, but popular. I had created my own rather than join a cheaper, predefined scenario. They all revolved around being on a terraforming expedition to Mars where something goes wrong — either an accident or sabotage. Sabotage was best because there was someone to chase and fight — and a disaster happens, which reveals the presence of an ancient alien civilization that is brought back to life, and they aren’t happy. I spent years in mine. Met a woman, got married and lost her all in the one scenario.

“I’ve got a positive trace,” said a male voice. “She’s paralleling with fakes.”

“Typical,” Al muttered.

“Hmmm,” Mikey agreed, and then he jerked me up just to let me know he hadn’t forgotten about me.

“Don’t let her dis you,” said the woman.

“Fifty thousand nodes, still positive,” said the man.

“C’mon,” said Al, “get the bitch.” I squirmed. Mikey’s grip had just tightened on my arm.

“Two more positive traces,” said the man, “we’re getting close ... shit!”

“She’s — it’s a he — he’s dissed you!”

“He’s out,” said the man, “Warsaw by the look of it. Scanning—”

“Virus! Look out. Shut down!”

The man and woman opened their eyes in unison.

She pulled off her helmet and looked at her partner. “That was close. Nearly got in my head. Where do they get stuff like that?”

Her partner shrugged back at her. “He’s blown the scanners. It’ll take them ten minutes to get back online. I’ve released bugs. Don’t worry, we’ll find him.” He sat up and swung his legs over the side of his couch. “Hello, Al.”

The woman looked up at Al and grinned. “Hi, sweetheart. See you got yours.”

“Piece of cake,” said Al. “Let’s go,” he said to me. “See you later?” he said to her. Mikey jerked me and I stumbled away. Then we stopped to wait for Al.

“It might be a while,” I heard her say to Al, “this one’s been tough. All this time I thought we were tracking a woman. Lot’s of fakes. They’re getting tougher.”

“Not this one.”

“That’s a surprise after all the trouble you had chasing him down on the Web.”

“It’s probably the first time he’s touched reality since he linked. Killed someone too.”

The woman gasped. “That’s automatic—”

Her partner tapped her on the shoulder. “Let’s go.”

“Okay,” she answered. “How about twenty-one hundred?” she asked Al. “I’ll link then. I should be free. Why don’t we go to Florida? I could do with some rays.”

“I was thinking of Tahiti, a little dancing ... the moonlight, but whatever you want. It’s your call.” After a quick kiss that turned into a decent smooch, Al returned to Mikey and me. His pleasant demeanor evaporated. “Let’s get you processed.”

It hit me then — automatic death sentence. My legs turned to jelly and solidified into lead. Mikey and Al cursed me under their breaths as they dragged me down the corridor and into a room with three immersion couches. I didn’t resist as Mikey strapped me in. Al slipped the interface helmet onto my head and connected me ... and I was in a medieval torture room, strapped to a rack with my arms pulled tight over my head.

Mikey appeared before me, a fiendish grin on his face. “And they say this job doesn’t have perks.” He pulled an iron out of a brazier full of glowing red coals and, with a flourish as if it was a sword, yelled, “Take that!” He stabbed me in the side and laughed.

I screamed and screamed and screamed until I couldn’t scream any more. And then I screamed again.

Now this was pain I understood, nothing at all like I had experienced back in that dingy room. This was sharp, excruciating and vivid. And oh so real. The smell of burning flesh seared my nostrils.

I found my voice, a tiny breathless squeak. “Please ... uh ... oh ... I don’t know anything ... uh ... I swear!”

The pain surged from my left, through my belly, and burst out my right side. I wrenched my head up and saw a blackened point sticking out; wisps of smoke curling up from charbroiled lumps on its tip. At least this was my real body, and not that pallid, flabby shambles they had caught me in.

Mikey left the iron in me and turned to a bench covered with all sorts of fiendish items from different eras in the history of man’s inhumanity to man. One by one, he picked them up, fussed over them and put them down. Thumb screws, nipple clamps, chokers, a helmet with spikes on the inside, skewers, and many more.

I didn’t like the way he hefted an axe. “How about I cut pieces off you?” His thumb flicked the blade. “Could do with a sharpening.” He winked at me. “Hell of a way to get castrated. I’ll have to chop your legs off first, a little bit at a time. I know!” He put down the axe and I started breathing again, little painful gasps of relief. Then he picked up a skewer in each hand, whirled around and speared me in the chest, through each nipple, as if he was a matador and I, the bull.

I arched, I cringed, I cried out, I cried. Once again, I pleaded my innocence, my ignorance.

“Still nothing.” Al’s voice spoke as if he was right next to me.

“But the memories are all there,” said Mikey, “and they are consistent. All his actions tie up. He’s the terrorist, Samantha L’Din.”

“Except his thoughts don’t tie up.”

“Whadya mean?” I managed to croak. Every movement brought on a firefight of pain.

Al popped into existence and gave me a once over. “How’s it going, Mr. Hudson? Suffering?”

“I could try the electric cattle prod on his balls,” Mikey suggested with a bit too much relish for my liking.

“Why are you doing this?”

“Because its fun.” Mikey picked up the cattle prod. My eyes went so wide, my eyeballs were in danger of falling out if I so much as tilted my head.

“We’re interrogating you,” said Al. “I ask questions and scan your neural patterns while Mikey tortures you. The pain you suffer overwhelms your consciousness so you can’t control your thoughts and suppress memories.”

“Normally it works very well.” Mikey stuck me with the cattle prod.

I came to — at least I think I came to — as the worst of the pain receded. My fingers and toes throbbed, my ribs felt pulverized, they must have removed the top of my skull and put it on backwards, and don’t ask about my baby-makers.

“You are one tough nut to crack,” said Mikey. I winced.

“I swear!” I gurgled, coughing up blood. “I don’t know anything. Please! You have to believe me.”

Al paced back and forth at the edge of my vision. “Something isn’t right. If he’s aware he did those things, then he should have ancillary thoughts before and after the events. I should detect traces of shame or gloating or some kind of emotional response. No one is immune to their feelings. Even after he killed Preston — nothing. Confusion if anything.”

“I told you he was good,” said Mikey, more as a plea. “Let’s end the interrogation. It’s time,” he patted my shattered shoulder, “to make Mr. Hudson a martyr to his cause.”

“Not yet.” Al stopped next to me, and bent over as if to peer into my brain. “Pattern Recognition detected a faint trace of an unusual pattern, almost like it was imprinted over his. But it’s gone now.”

“Virus?” Mikey asked.

“Too complex.” Al turned away, dismissing me. “Let’s leave him in holding for the moment and then I’ll try one more interrogation. First, I want to check Preston’s brain; there might be some residual memories I can pick up. Why did he go to that room...?”

The torture chamber faded to a grey nothingness. No sensations, except for a sense of floating, and boredom to keep me company. At least there was no pain. If time passed, I had no idea of how much. It seemed an eternity.

And then I was in a simple office, back in one piece, sitting at a table opposite Al and Mikey. Mikey stared at Al in disgust. “Why can’t we just close this case and let justice take its course?”

“I hate puzzles I can’t solve.” Al turned to me. “You don’t know Jarred Preston.”

“I could’ve told you that.”

“You’ve never even met him.”

“I could’ve—”

“Shut up!” Mikey glared at me as if this was all my fault.

“It doesn’t make sense,” said Al. “Why would a Level Ten SysManager, who has never been outside the Web, exit for no reason?”

“And then get killed and frame me?” I added, trying to be helpful.

Al leaned back in his seat and half-smiled at me. “It’s a possibility.” Mikey looked away and scowled at the corner. “Tell me ... Paul,” Al asked, as if we were old friends, “do you know a Kareen Oblikhan?”

“No ... but you know that, don’t you?”

Al nodded. “He’s a Level Nine Diagnostics. He also went outside for no apparent reason.”

“Ex Level Nine,” said Mikey. “He’s dead — garroted. Al’s girlfriend got there just a little too late to save him.”

“Again, it was too easy. The killer is one Goran Pratchek.” I shook my head — no idea. “Just like you, he’s completely mystified. And Pattern Recognition caught a trace of an unusual pattern, very much like the one you had.”

“So you’re saying it’s a virus?” My spirits rose.

“No,” said Al, dashing my hopes. “It’s far too complex. I don’t know what it is, but I’m giving you a reprieve for the time being.”

“I still think he should be executed,” Mikey muttered. “You know what?” he asked aloud. “I think our Mr. Hudson has some kind of multiple personality disorder and we just haven’t found a way to trigger his terrorist personality. Yet.”

“So, we’re going to let you go, for the time being.”

“But we’re gonna keep tabs on you.” Mikey gave me a thin smile. “For when your other personality makes a show. Then — pow!” He thumped the desk and I jumped. “It’s back to interrogation for you.”

I felt a presence then. That’s the best I can say. Something or someone peered over my shoulder. I spun around, left and then right, but there was no one there.

It spooked me. “Can I go now? Open Sesame!” Nothing. Damn, how did they do that? All I wanted to do was get as far away as possible from them and my invisible shadow.

Mikey laughed. “He thinks he’s on the Web.”

“What do you mean? Of course I am.” Wasn’t I?

The room vanished. I opened my eyes and blinked in the bright light of the interrogation room I had first been hauled into. Mikey and Al pulled off their helmets and then Al pulled mine off as Mikey released me. Al plucked a thumb-sized disk from a slot in the side of my helmet and tossed it to me.

“Your holding cell,” he said.

“I was in there?”

“We all were,” said Mikey. “Can’t allow a terrorist any chance to escape onto the Web.”

I sat up and shivered. That presence was still with me, like a thought in the back of my head, a word on the tip of my tongue. I ruffled my hair and grimaced. “What is that?”

Al looked across at Mikey with a lazy smirk. “Call it protection.”

“It’s how we’ll keep track of you.”

“What do you mean, protection? From what?”

Al shrugged. “A virus perhaps, hopefully from whatever left that imprint.”

“One way or the other,” Mikey helped Al pull me to my feet, “we’ll get our terrorist.”

And then I was on my way back to my pod for full immersion into the Web. Free to do what I liked. It didn’t last long.

I don’t know what tipped me off, but I felt a subtle caress on the edge of consciousness, a delicate meandering through my thoughts like the trickle of water insinuating itself over a desert riverbed after a cloudburst in distant mountains. My concentration slipped. An unbidden memory surfaced of a dingy room with tattered wallpaper, a green and white floral pattern. Kanarowak, the Aldabarian space pirate, took advantage, slipped my grip and freed his disperser.

He fired.

My body began to dissolve and a flood of intense, prickling pain surged over me, drawing me back to the present. “Open sesame,” I managed to growl before Death drew me to its bosom. The scenario shrank to a picture on the screen of my personal interface and the pain disappeared. Kanarowak waggled his optical sensors at me, turned yellow in disgust and slithered away.

Still, those phantom fingers fondled my memories, plucking unwelcome morsels. And a presence I had forgotten, returned to haunt the periphery of my thoughts, stronger, excited and staring at the back of my neck like a mongoose about to tackle a cobra.

Then more memories: Adeline, my lovely wife in The Awakening — Terraform Disaster Alien Mars Version Four Million and Three where she died before my eyes, her head bitten off by a Zenophobian.

“Get out of my head!” I screamed. The fingers vanished.

A woman appeared before me — slicked down, short red hair on a taciturn face, square jaw and cruel, grey eyes. Incredible! She had invaded my personal space, my inviolate inner sanctum. How?

“Who are you?” I asked.

“How did you know I was there?”

“How did you get in here?”

“I will ask the questions.”

“You have no right!”

“I have SysAdmin privileges.”

Government?

“You are guilty of the murder of Jarred Preston. And yet WebPol have let you go. I need to know why.”

“Because I’m innocent,” I blurted out.

The barest hint of a smile crossed her face but failed to crack the ice. “As if that matters.” She reached for my head. “You can’t resist me.”

I tried to pull back, but her arm snapped out and her fingers pierced my forehead. A surge of excitement sprouted from the back of my mind even as unbidden memories tumbled out around me. “I’m bugged!” I managed to mumble. “They will—”

“They will know nothing. I’ve already disabled your tracker.”

Then she was inside my head, my mind, gouging out memories of my interrogation. I put two and two together. “You’re Samantha L’Din!” My words were weak, distant, smothered by an avalanche of otherness, and spoken in my head.

You are still aware?

In a tiny corner of my mind I was, though battered by the onslaught of memories. Then there were three of us.

What’s this!” She tried to escape, but the presence pounced. Surprise turned to confusion and then fear flooded my mind, followed by seething anger — none of it mine.

I tried to hold her, but my thoughts were trapped in jelly. She broke free and my inner sanctum shattered. All around me, a myriad of yellow, orange and red lines crisscrossed in all directions. White lights danced back and forth along the strands while strange symbols: pulsating gold stars, azure pentagons and shivering green pyramids among them, popped up or vanished at random. Some showed scenarios in action and some showed faces — portals to the outside world. This had to be the hidden underbelly of the Web.

She took off down a strand, one light among billions, dragging me along for the ride courtesy of the presence, which tied me to her.

You won’t get away!” I cried. “You’re the terrorist, not me.

Terrorist?” Her sarcastic laugh reverberated around me. We jumped to another strand. “Yes and no.

We moved to diverge onto another strand. I concentrated as hard as I could and we slipped and missed, instead taking the next strand, but with a flick we were back on course. Still, it was a small victory.

I am part of SysAdmin and SysAdmin is the terrorist. Do you understand?

No,” I muttered, too dumbfounded to resist as we danced across the Web.

A crystal chandelier raced toward us and I concentrated on it. The Web vanished and we were in a honeymoon scenario, naked on a bed— Siamese twins joined at the head and wedded at the waist with a restraining harness. She lay on top, her huge body blanketing mine, and I stared into her malevolent eyes.

So why are you a terrorist? Who was the man you made me kill?

There are no terrorists, not any more. SysAdmin is the terrorist and SysAdmin is not the terrorist.

What are you talking about?” I wriggled, trying to free an arm so I could push her away. No good, so I did the only thing I could do, I concentrated, willing her to disappear. The scenario shimmered for a second and then steadied.

She tugged at the harness, but it resisted her attempt to break free and grew even as she struggled with it. “Clever,” she said, “but they won’t catch me. They have tried before and failed.” Then she stared through me and chuckled.

What’s so funny?

They think they are so smart! But I’ve slipped through their fingers each time and all they’ve ended up with is a dead body and a murderer — case closed. This time they will end up with a suicide.

So ... so you’re going to kill yourself? Sounds good to me.

No, you will.” A cold terror washed over me.

The room vanished and we were back, racing along a strand. We jumped from strand to strand. And I knew why. Through her, I could sense them — Al and Mikey — just two of the lights darting around us searching and trying to track us. And I knew where we were heading.

She spawned false echoes and fake identities, like flurries of snow to cover our trail, and left viruses to lie in wait, hungry for victims.

I did my best to slow her. A furious thought here and we missed our connection, a visualization there and we slid into another scenario. Each act of rebellion brought her wrath down on me. Pain suffocated my mind, worse than anything that Mikey had inflicted. Oh how I wished to be back in that torture chamber, electric cattle prod and all.

But I bought more time.

I forced my questions on her to weaken her concentration and lower her defenses. “It doesn’t make sense. How is SysAdmin the terrorist?

It worked. The number of lights grew around us.

There were terrorists, ages ago, when the Web was young. They saw it as a threat to their cultural identity and a challenge to their beliefs — a plot to subjugate the population in a prison of fantasies. And when they found they couldn’t succeed outside, they brought the fight into the Web. But they were of little threat until Samantha L’Din found an ancient backdoor into SysOps.

We closed on a portal and my face stared back at me. I tried to divert us, but each time, we pulled back on course. The cloud of lights converged on us. I was saved! But there was a flash and a wave rippled away, an information overload, disrupting and blanking out the lights all around us.

“No!” I cried out in anguish. “What are you?

A component of SysAdmin. The old SysAdmin was redesigned with parallel personalities, a super-consciousness to track down and destroy the terrorists. Except a terrorist infiltrated the design team. He added a flaw to make SysAdmin absorb each terrorist’s personality. The terrorists became part of SysAdmin and to protect SysAdmin, I, and others, were spawned to hunt down and kill the design team. Now we hunt those who uncover the truth.

Jarred Preston! And the other guy.

My face rushed up at me and then I was out — no, the three of us were out. I saw nothing but black at first, until a cover slid away to reveal a dim, blurry chamber. What was she going to do, slip away and leave some kind of agent or virus to control me — a robot slave? Could the presence restrain her long enough for Al and Mikey to reach me? For that matter, why weren’t the cops waiting? They must have known.

I had to do something.

Except my body felt like a distant echo. My thoughts were my only weapon. I concentrated on one thought: sit up. Over and over, I sent the thought.

Sit up.

Nothing. The fluid, my body was immersed in, drained away.

Sit up.

Still nothing. She could escape any minute.

Sit up.

Still nothing — no ... a jiggle, a movement ... a tightening of stomach muscles ... something pulling at my head, tearing away.

And my body sat up. Viscous fluid drained from my face and dripped off the tube inserted in my mouth.

I’ve got you!” I crowed, more to hide my fear. “You’re trapped! You can’t get back.

What makes you think I want to return to the Web, here?

My body stood up without consulting me. The tube in my mouth pulled out with a pop and retracted into the side of the pod. Thinner tubes slid out of my nostrils and I felt faint jerks below, front and back, extremely personal. A cylinder moved overhead, descended to engulf me, and jets of hot water blasted every nook and cranny, followed by a hurricane of warm air. Then the cylinder released me.

I experimented with improving my control as my body climbed out of the pod and padded down a path between columns with immersion pods radiating out from them. My arm twitched. We reached a door and I made my left leg kick out. My body stumbled into the doorframe, bounced off and regained its balance.

The presence must have had an effect because my body didn’t feel so distant. But my efforts had little effect. Where were Al and Mikey?

We entered a room lined with suits on racks. My left arm went to pick the nearest, but there, next to it was my old suit. My arm jerked and snatched it instead.

I didn’t do that.

Despite my efforts, my body pulled on the suit and then ambled out into a long corridor, eerily familiar, a kind of ghostly deja vu. A small cart waited and we climbed on. My left hand casually slipped into the coat pocket and fingered a small disk such that I almost missed it. Another plan was at work here.

We zoomed down the corridor and the cart slowed to a stop, next to a lift that bore me up to an exit that opened out into an oval of brilliant, white light, bathing a sedan. I struggled against the inevitable, but all I could manage were twitches and jerks.

My frustration boiled over into anger. “You think you’re so smart? Well, I’ve outwitted you, trapped you in my brain. We’re not going anywhere!

I drew on all my willpower. My body trembled and stumbled a couple of steps, and I managed to twist my torso halfway round. Then my control vanished, snuffed out.

We climbed into the sedan and it whisked me out into twilight on the same highway that led to the old city, to a room with a gun with a bullet with my name on it. And one dead body already. The thought gutted me.

I don’t get it. What do you hope to achieve by killing both of us?

I will not die.” She laughed at me again, that same depreciative laugh, like I was an idiot or something. “You haven’t worked it out, have you? That room was one of many the terrorists used to infiltrate the Web. It has a remote portal hidden in a secret compartment. That’s how I will escape.

She gave me the memory: I walked into the room, took off an old interface helmet from Jarred Preston’s head, put it on my head, then pulled it off and stashed it in a compartment under the window, closed the panel, pulled out the gun, raised it up, pulled the trigger—

No!

Why...? Why do this? The terrorism ... it’s so pointless!

Why do you breathe?” she asked. “Why do you prefer certain scenarios over others? Why do you prefer certain women and not others, certain foods, friends, clothes? You were born with those preferences. They are products of your genes, just as mine are the products of my genes, the memes of my personalities. I cannot help what I do.” The car pulled up outside the old building. “Part of me must tear down the Web and force the population to recant, and part of me must protect it at all costs, so I compromise.

My body climbed out and stood before the sadly familiar entrance. “And innocent victims suffer,” I whined as the unfairness of it all hit me.

Either way, it is the price of freedom.

My body climbed the first step. I fought back by swinging my right arm in front of me. My body teetered and then swayed and twisted before righting itself. But I caught a glimpse back down the street. No sign of rescue. My spirits sank even further.

They are coming,” she said, “but, they will be too late for you.” My head turned and this time I saw a black dot in the distance, growing larger. I should have felt elated, but the indifference in her voice had a deadening effect on me.

The old elevator rattled its way up to the floor with the same old tattered wallpaper. Through the doorway, Preston’s body still lay under the window, just recognizable in the dim light. Soon, we would lie together, my fading body heat of no use to him. I heard car doors slam below me.

My hand touched a switch and a dull, yellow light snapped on to illuminate the grisly scene. The gun lay up against Preston’s knee. A sad whine announced that the elevator had been summoned and with agonizing slowness the sound of its descending faded away.

Don’t do this,” I pleaded as my hand touched a spot just below the window frame and the panel opened. Both hands reached for the helmet, and there, in my left hand was the disk, the holding cell.

I know,” she said. A whine announced that the elevator was on its way up. “A good plan, but flawed. They think they are dealing with a person.” My left hand trembled and the disk slipped through the fingers. I tried to drop the helmet, but my right hand refused to obey me.

She put the helmet on my head and then ... I couldn’t sense her, but there was something in her place, simpler, colder. And a faint echo of the presence. A distant rattle and clunk announced the arrival of the elevator.

I bent down and picked up the gun. It rose toward my head. Heavy footsteps raced down the corridor. Too late. Too late.

The dark opening of the gun barrel stared into my eye. My fingers tightened their grip. I tried to will my hand away and the gun wobbled. “Go away,” I screamed and that “something” dimmed. My left arm twitched and rose under my command, even as I began to lose the battle with my right hand.

And she was back.

So they think to trap me so easily?” So Al had set another trap?

My right hand stopped trying to pull the trigger. If they thought they had her, if they set me free? What then? How many more would die? I remembered that look on Adeline’s face when she realized I couldn’t save her. How many faces would carry that last look because I couldn’t save them. I tried to freeze my right hand. It’s trigger finger twitched as I tried to make it squeeze.

Don’t!” she screamed.

“Don’t!” a voice cried out.

My left hand struck my right hand and the gun fired. A loud bang blew away my hearing, a brilliant white flash stunned me and someone heavy crashed into me...

Maybe I blacked out, I don’t know, but the mother of all headaches let me know I wasn’t dead. At least I had my body back and the pain was all mine. A warm liquid seeped down behind my left ear and my hearing began to return. I heard voices, but not hers.

“Is he alive?”

“He’s still breathing,” said Mikey. I heard a hiss and felt a soothing coolness on my scalp. “That will hold the bleeding for the moment.” The pain receded and I sensed her presence returning, growing stronger, boxing me in.

My eyelids flickered and then I saw Al’s grinning face.

“So, you are alive, sorry we’re late.” His grin faded to an embarrassed smile. “She fooled us.”

“We thought she had kidnapped someone else.”

“She got away.” The words came from my mouth, but they weren’t mine. I tried to sit up and as my head swam her grip weakened, but the effort was too much and I sagged back into her grasp.

Al picked up the helmet and turned it round to show where the bullet had torn through it. “No. It’s a pity. I would’ve liked to interrogate her.”

I snatched control. “What do you mean? She’s—”

She swamped me. “She knew what you were trying to do.” My hand flopped over the carpet under her control. She found the disk and held it up. “Here. Your ... thing, whatever you put in my head, it never got to put this in the helmet.”

“It was a long shot,” said Mikey.

Al ran a finger along the groove torn by the bullet and picked at a spot. “I told you before, I didn’t like mysteries.” He pulled out the remains of another disk. “I found the compartment when I came back to check. So I replaced the Web interface in the helmet with a holding cell.”

Mikey took the remnant of the disk from Al and turned it over in his fingers. “The one we gave you was a backup, in case we were too late and she detected this one.” He grunted a mirthless chuckle. “Somewhere there’s a mindless body.”

I heard the rattle of the elevator. “Sounds like your ride has arrived,” said Al. “You’re lucky, you’ve only got a flesh wound. I guess a couple of weeks in a real hospital and then you can go home.”

Home?

No!

You can’t stop me.

I concentrated as hard as I could; I had to tell them. My headache flared up and her presence slipped. Pain! She couldn’t take the pain! My right arm jiggled and rose.

I pawed at Al’s arm as my headache faded. “You don’t understand! She—”

It’s pointless to resist.

Al looked down. “You want some more pain-killer?”

No! My arm slipped, but I twisted my elbow and my hand smacked down against my wound. Pain blotted out all reason and I screamed. I screamed. Not her.

“She’s not a person.” My words tumbled out. “She’s SysAdmin.”

No!” she cried, but too faint to stop me.

I shook my head and as each wave of pain crashed on the beach of my psyche, the undertow dragged her out to sea. “SysAdmin is the terrorist!” The room spun and I closed my eyes.

Mikey shook my shoulder until I opened my eyes. “Are you serious?” he asked.

I nodded and thumped my wound so hard that tears washed the blood off my cheek. “She’s still in my head.” I grabbed his hand and squeezed it as hard as I could. “You have to believe me.”

Stop! I won’t let you.” I could feel her streaking toward the shore.

“Why did you just hit yourself?” asked Mikey.

“The pain keeps her at bay. I think it overwhelms her.” Even as I raised my hand again, it trembled and resisted me.

“No.” Mikey blocked my arm. “Allow me.” He pulled back, then slapped me across the face so hard, my eyeballs rattled in their sockets. Alone once more on my deserted beach, I blurted out what she had told me.

Al rubbed his chin, deep in thought. “It explains a lot.”

A stretcher glided in and they stood up and moved aside to let it stop beside me. A medic strapped me in and after fussing over my head, he let the stretcher take me out. We entered the elevator and it rattled its way down.

“We need a whole new strategy,” said Mikey. They mumbled some more, heads close together like two conspirators.

No...!” she wailed. My control slipped and my body thrashed against the restraints. Then Mikey leant over me, and with the smile of a chocoholic starting a binge, he slapped me again. “Don’t worry, Paul,” he whispered, “when we get you back into Holding, I’ll give you as much pain as I can.” He winked and patted my shoulder. “You can count on me.”

We left the building and cold air slapped my face. That was real cold, not artificial, the same with the dull thud of the pain. It was the difference between life and death. Even if they got her out of my head, how could I go back to my old life? I would be forever looking over my shoulder and that was no way to live.

“I can help,” I mumbled.

Al winked at me and smiled. “You already have. And who knows...?”

The stretcher climbed into the back of an ambulance, and Mikey slid in beside me. “I promise, I’m gonna outdo myself when we get back.” His eyes lit up and he smacked me again. “Just warming up,” he said with a teasing chuckle.

I closed my eyes and grimaced. This couldn’t be real, could it? “Open Sesame,” I mumbled. Nothing. Damn!


The End