Machina Obscura by Carol Meacham by Carol Meacham - Read Online

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Summary

Xyl, a twenty-year-old NetRunner, is released from prison by a Federal agent who needs her skills for a simple run on a biotechnology company.

But all is not as it seems. Xyl finds more questions than answers, and along the way picks up an enigmatic partner named Gracie. The two find themselves working together without truly trusting each other, following the trail of clues to the destroyed netspace of a misguided programmer. And Xyl has a price on her head.

Only Xyl's NetRunning expertise and sacrifice can stop the programmer's Artificial Intelligences from carrying out their misguided plan...

Published: Mushroom Publishing on
ISBN: 9781843193944
List price: $3.99
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Machina Obscura - Carol Meacham

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Meacham

Chapter one

The steel bars within the heavy airtight door scraped against the lock mechanism, the squeak of the synthetic rubber seals disengaging very loud in the dim stillness. Light lanced around the edges of the door before it was pulled away. The tiny room revealed beyond the door was a meter and a half on each side and three meters to the ceiling, the walls and floor thickly padded with scarred and torn dull brown gelfoam. The small figure sitting up against the wall was secured in a straitjacket and the head was encased in a black plastic helmet that shut out light and sound.

This is it, the guard said to his companion as he brought out his WorkMate and scrolled back through the file. Number 5429, solitary confinement. Serving five to seven for theft, data piracy and data system intrusion. Been here two and a half years.

Excellent, the other man said, peering into the gloom of the confinement cell. And she’s been in solitary all that time?

No, says she was in general population for the first five months. She tried to poison one of the guards. You sure this is the one you want?

The executive turned to look at the burly guard and nodded. She’ll do. I’ve already transferred the payment. Get her out of there.

The guard shook his head and stowed his WorkMate into a pocket of his armored uniform. He took his tazer from the holster at his belt. All right then, it’s your funeral.

* * * *

What’s the hold-up? That thirty minutes has turned into three hours!

We apologize for the delay, Agent Searles, came a polite synthesized voice from the speakers hidden within the acoustic tiles of the walls. Inmate 5429 became unruly and Corporal Jimenez had to subdue her. 5429 sustained a fractured arm and the medibot is currently working to repair it. 5429 is waking from the anesthesia now.

Searles drummed his fingers on the metal tabletop and glanced toward the chronograph display on the commpanel by the door. He ran one hand back through thinning blond hair and shook his head in exasperation, then jumped to his feet and began to pace again. After a moment he reached for the rumpled gray synthsilk jacket flung over the back of his chair and shrugged into it. Is the girl awake enough to understand what I’m saying?

Yes, Agent, the medibot used a neurohypnotic unit, Inmate 5429—

Fine. I’ll talk to her now. I don’t have all day for this.

A pause as the Artificial Intelligence seemed to recover from being interrupted. Turn right, down the hallway to the elevator, and go to the third floor, Agent. The medibot will meet you there.

Searles didn’t answer, just swept up his WorkMate from the table and whirled out the door.

* * * *

The medibot’s skeletal manipulators were icy cold on the bare skin of her head as it removed the neurohypnotic unit. The surgical light above her overwhelmed her eyes, brighter than anything she’d seen for more than two years. Sometimes the bots had taken the helmet off and there had been a light in her cell, but it was little more than a very dim strip of a half dozen orange diodes. The thrice-weekly showers were in shadow. It was the unexpected emergence into sound and light that had stunned her long enough for the guards to haul her out of her cell, but the familiar shock of scalding water had broken through at last and she’d dived at the one at the door. She’d hoped she could catch him off guard and he’d taze her, but he was at least twice her mass and threw her back against the wall. So she’d tried again, and again, until he’d bashed her against the tile one time too many.

The quiet hum of machinery was too loud, the steel table beneath her seeping chill into her bones. The blinding white light of the surgical light moved away abruptly and the dual optics of the medibot swung into view, the irises of the cameras within cycling open and the faint red glow peering at her with mechanical coldness.

Welcome back to the land of the living, 5429. You can get up now. Corporal Tilson left your clothing and personal effects in the storage bin two and one-half meters to your right.

She sat up slowly, wary and still stunned at the sensory overload. She looked down at herself as she carefully swung her legs to the floor and tried to stand up. The bright greens, reds and purples of the Chinese dragon tattoo winding around her left lower leg were shockingly bright against the paleness of her skin, and so was the black and yellow cobra tattoo around her right forearm, it’s head stretched out on the back of her hand. She moved her left arm to check the comical blue and purple cartoonish monster on her arm just below the shoulder. She couldn’t check the Celtic three-armed spiral on her back, but she assumed it was still there. After two years even she was surprised to see again the artwork scrawled across her body.

She turned toward the storage bin the prison AI had indicated and caught sight of herself in the mirror-like polished surface; a distorted vision of a pale-skinned, bald-headed, androgynous wraith. The gray eyes were weary, shadowed with silence and time and pain. Thin oval face, her ribs sticking out, bony. Skeletal, like the medibot that whirred softly behind her as it moved toward the secured door of the prison’s Infirmary. Fresh bruises splotched her skin from the fight with the guard. She shook her head slightly and opened the storage cabinet door — found the clothes within.

She heard the medibot speaking across the room, and the impatient nasal voice. She didn’t bother to turn, just pulled on the faded blue jeans and dropped the t-shirt over her head in silence.

The rust-colored spots that had soaked through the t-shirt’s worn fabric two and a half years before were still there. As were the tazer burns on the battered leather jacket she pulled from the cabinet. She pulled out her boots and sat down to tug them on.

Hey, kid. What’s your name?

She looked up as the strident voice called from across the Infirmary, blinking indifferently at the executive pushing past the medibot.

Agent Searles, the prison AI said from the speakertile on the wall nearby as the executive stopped in front of the girl. Inmate 5429 has not spoken at all since she was incarcerated. Her file states that removal of the nanobots may have caused damage to the speech centers or the auditory nerves.

It’s not that, Searles said irritably. It’s that whole ‘right to remain silent’ thing. Well, kid, that’s not going to fly with me. Look, I’ve bought out your time and as of two hours ago you’re free to go.

She blinked again, face expressionless.

Searles gave an exasperated snort and punched icons on his WorkMate’s small screen, then turned it around to show her the file now loaded there. Look. Release order. Inmate 5429. Signed by the warden, the judge who sent you to this crackerbox and a Federal Corrections Bureau chief.

She blinked again, recoiling from the small screen, her hands tightening on the leather of the jacket across her lap. Why? she managed to croak finally.

Searles shook his head and punched the WorkMate’s stand-by button. Not here. Now what’s your name?

She looked up at him and abruptly got to her feet, tugged her jacket on and shrugged to settle its weight around her too-thin frame. Xyl.

That’s it? Searles waved off her small shrug. Come on.

* * * *

You bought my time out of prison for a run any Gilligan with an attitude could pull?

Searles glared at her angrily and glanced around none too furtively into the surrounding dimness of the all-night ramen shop’s interior. I don’t want just any Gilligan out there. I need a professional.

Xyl gave a contemptuous snort and tried to eat more of the egg roll in front of her, but everything she put in her mouth tasted wrong and she was having a hard time forcing it down her throat. Then you’ve joined the wrong chatspace. Shoulda sprung the guy in the cell next to mine, he’s a contract laceration artist.

Searles glared at her again. Keep your voice down, he hissed at her. I don’t need a street thug, I need a top grade NetRunner.

Like I said, wrong chatspace. She sat back against the crumbling plastic of the seat and the nearly colorless gray eyes regarded the executive with a great deal of weariness. I don’t play those games anymore. Not even for fun.

Then how about for your freedom and enough money to keep you healthy and wealthy for the rest of your unnatural life? Searles asked, grinning slightly as he took a chipcoin from one of his pockets and flipped it to land on the plasticized surface of the table between them. The small metallic roundel glittered in the light like a fluttering brass moth before chiming as it hit the table. I have an appointment booked for 9 AM tomorrow at Intelligon’s South Atlantica clinic. In less than twenty-four hours you could be running with their newest upgrade on their Torus 3 nanos. An upgrade that is not yet available to the general public.

Xyl sighed and rubbed her eyes with one hand. Then shook her head and drank off the remainder of the vitamin broth in her mug. Download this, Mr. Big, and archive it before you answer. There hasn’t been enough money generated from any scam or so-called economic system to do the one magic trick we humans haven’t managed to pull out of our hats. Unless you count that old myth, and if you ask me that guy was on a major letdown from a weekend eating shrooms and just crashed so bad his friends all thought he’d died. It doesn’t take a brain full of nanos to get seriously flatlined, but it makes it a hell of a lot easier.

But you have managed to pull that particular rabbit out of the hat. Several times, in fact. Searles tugged his WorkMate out of his coat pocket and scrolled down through the file contents displayed on the small screen. The Persona info file retrieved from your previous nanobot collective indicated you have flatlined and revived at least half a dozen times.

Xyl stared at him unblinking for almost five seconds. Corp, you’ve got a giant economy-sized case of the stupids. Flatlining and reviving doesn’t mean I’m a professional, it means I haven’t got the sense that Saint Darpa gave to small black squares of silicon. Computers learn from their mistakes, humans don’t.

Searles tossed his WorkMate back onto the table in front of him. Listen, kid, what is the sense in spending the best years of your life rotting in some hellhole of a prison getting beaten by the guards every other day? I’ve sprung you and now you have your life back. I’m giving you the chance to get right back to the life you seemed to be enjoying before you got tagged and bagged. What else do you want, a jumpticket to the Orbitals? Because that’s the one card I can’t pull out of thin air.

Xyl sighed and gave up on trying to eat the egg roll. She ran a hand over the hairless skin of her head and rubbed her eyes. Fine, great, it’s your chipcoin. What is it you want me to do again?

For the moment, just show up at 8:30 AM tomorrow at the Intelligon Clinic. Everything’s already paid for. That chipcoin is linked to an open expense account, just don’t go buying yourself the Governor’s Suite at the top of the Peachtree Hilton. Take a couple days to rest up and make sure you’re not going to have a cerebral hemorrhage. I assume you’re aware it usually takes less than a day for shakedown time on re-implantation.

Xyl nodded and reached for the chipcoin. How do I find you?

You don’t. I’ll call you. Searles grinned and gathered up his synthsilk jacket and WorkMate. And keep your head down. I won’t be able to haul you out of storage again.

* * * *

The dawnlight was beginning to rise over the trees, causing the morning dew to mist from the pines and maples and willows. The distant hum of traffic and the wail of sirens didn’t disturb the stillness; the ducks floating on the small lake were paying more attention to their reflections on the mirror-calm surface of the water. It was muggy already, the Southern tropical climate uncomfortably sultry even through the dark of the night. Two and a half years of seasons had passed while Xyl had been confined in the South Atlantica Correctional Facility. She’d never realized how she’d subconsciously kept time with the tilting of the planet and its attendant climatological changes. North Atlantica seasons mostly operated on the relative amounts of air pollution and the artificial divisions of the calendar.

Xyl sat cross-legged on the rickety siliplastic boat dock, watching the water and the ducks, the light slowly rising over the trees across the lake. She turned Searles’ chipcoin over in her hands, her fingers tracing the imprinted icon of the Federal Bank of Atlantica. Then her eyes fell to the red-brown stains on the loose white folds of her t-shirt.

She reminded herself for possibly the hundredth time that night that she could simply walk away. Disappear. Take a walk down a maglev tunnel or take a dive off the Peachtree Hilton’s roof. There was no real reason why she should let a bot stick a needle in her skull and inject two hundred milliliters of saline and nanobots into her brain. The civilized twenty percent of the world’s population floated a precarious existence on the suppressed rebellion of the other eighty percent, narrowly escaping being pulled under and devoured by frantically tossing out hope to the hungry monster they’d created. If you wanted to die but didn’t want to do the deed yourself there were plenty who’d do it just for the giggles.

There was no reason at all why she had to go through with this.

She tucked the chipcoin back in her jacket pocket and got to her feet. The sun lanced into her eyes, but it made nothing any clearer, answered none of the questions.

It didn’t bring back the dead.

* * * *

The rippling moire pattern began to fade, the surging waves of white noise began to recede behind the hum of machinery and the whirring of servomotors. The great advantage of neurohypnotic anesthesia was that it took less than two minutes to bring the patient back to full consciousness. It did nothing to ease the sharp ache in her neck and the slight burning deep inside her head, but those would both fade in a matter of hours. Xyl lay back on the thick gelfoam and closed her eyes, watching the flashes of colored light as the nanobots began to make themselves at home inside her brain.

Standard nanobot clinic procedure required the nanobot recipient to remain at the clinic and rest until the technicians received the first upsignal self-test. Her exhaustion pulled her under as the colors began to fade into geometric forms and alphanumerics.

* * * *

Pepper –

I don’t know if you’re there anymore, you old bomb-tosser, but I’m doing this anyway ’cause I don’t have anyone else to pontificate to anymore. Besides, you were the only one besides Auri who ever actually listened.

I guess you’ve known long since what happened. You may not have the details, just that Auri’s dead. I don’t know what happened to Bubble and Squeak, but I’d assume they got out before Security showed up. I know they traced our signals, it came out in my trial. We almost made it. Another hundred yards and we would have been out and away and richer than Azim’s forty thieves.

They shot her, old man. One second she was right beside me, we were dodging for all we were worth while all the demons of hell seemed to be having a mummer’s parade behind us, then her bike was on the deck sliding and she wasn’t on it anymore. I couldn’t leave her there. I’d have flashfried them all if I’d had the hardware. But she died in my arms.

You always told me Auri would get me in trouble someday, but I know that’s not what you meant.

Well anyway, some nutcase Fed bought out my time. He’s run me through the nano mill and gave me a chipcoin with a lot of zeros between the numbers and the decimal. Why, I have no idea. I already had an agenda when this null-bit in a cheap suit came knocking at my cell door. The last thing I needed was some Fed wanting an expendable NetRunner to haul me out of my own private hell.

Why is it that when you’re alive and trying to connect people mostly ignore you but when you’re busy trying to die those same people will throw themselves in front of a maglev to save you? Oh yeah, I remember now. It’s those zeros between the numbers and the decimal.

Well, in true ex-convict style I spent my first night of so-called freedom sleeping in a public greenspace. I thought about waiting until all the motherboards brought their microchips out to play so I could stare leeringly at the little girls, but I had to be at the nano mill at 9 AM.

I think I’ll head north. Mr. Big’s got the tab so I might as well go somewhere where the air needs chewing and the street never sees the sun.

It’s all the same anyway, old man. Just bread and circuses and economics, everywhere you go.

Chapter two

Xyl was jerked out of her uneasy doze by the drag of deceleration as the maglev commuter train began to slow. The lighting inside the train began to brighten and the synthesized bot voice recited departure instructions in Arabic, then in Mandarin, then in German. Disoriented from the sudden transition from dream to waking, she glanced up at the scrolling LCD screen near the ceiling and tried to figure out where she was.

North Atlantica, Old Manhattan. The blue alphanumerics scrolling smoothly across the bottom of her visual field indicated World Trade Center Station. The tiny tumbling green pyramid in the lower left corner of her vision was not blinking, so she had no NetMail or CallBacks waiting. She nodded unconsciously and reached up to retrieve her backpack and her long black leather coat from the luggage rack above her head, waiting as other more eager passengers got to their feet chattering and laughing.

Thirty-six hours of doing nothing but sleeping and staring up at a hotel room ceiling had partially erased the more obvious signs of exhaustion. A quick shopping run via her nanos’ Mid-Mode had brought the hotel’s bot to her door three hours later with two changes of clothes, the leather longcoat and tickets for the maglev commuter express to Old Manhattan leaving that afternoon. She’d downed two liters of vitamin broth but hadn’t been able to keep down the vegetable soup she’d forced herself to eat. She didn’t care. Vitamin broth had enough calories to sustain human life, that was its intended purpose. In a few days it wouldn’t matter anyway.

World Trade Center Station was the main maglev commuter station for North Atlantica with more than two hundred trains arriving every hour from East Canada Metro, Mid-Atlantica/Old DC and South Atlantica. Elevated and underground tracks all over Old Manhattan were managed and controlled by North Atlantica Port Authority through a collective of advanced Artificial Intelligences. The human contingent of the Port Authority had realized decades ago that human operators simply could not handle the thousands of decisions that had to be made every hour when a single error could send hundreds of people to their deaths and bring traffic to a halt for days. The system now ran itself with the AIs at the controls, and there had been only two accidents in seventy-six years. Both of those accidents had been due to human error.

The main concourse of the Station was a hollow cube of a building reaching ten stories to the roof. Arrival and departure concourses lined the four walls at every level, baggage-handling bots trundling along on