Tuesday, June 07, 2005

What Do You Need?

Twenty minutes later, the woman stops the car at the curb of another street, in front of another apparently-abandoned building. She leans back and pops the lock open again.

"This is where you get off, buddy. Have fun." She smiles the same mocking smile at him between the seats as he gets out of the car. As soon as he stands and closes the door, she jerks the car out of park and pulls away.

He watches the vehicle until it rounds a corner and passes out of sight, and then turns to the building behind him. Indescript, dead -- a heavy structure, composed of decaying cinderblocks and narrow, heavily boarded-up windows. Heyward walks to the door, finds it unlocked, and pushes it open cautiously.

The interior of the building is in the same state of disrepair; the only light is from a couple of bare bulbs hanging at intervals in the hallway that leads away from the small room the door opens into. At the end of the hallway, Heyward can see two heavily-armed men -- Exiles, most likely -- standing on both sides of a closed door.

He walks down the hallway towards them. The men look him over as he approaches, as though checking him against a description. Without a word, one turns, unlocks and opens the door, and gestures Heyward through.

The room on the other side of the door is the same, structurally, as what Heyward has seen of the rest of the building -- ruined, falling apart. Unlike the front room and the hall, however, this room is lined with wires and electronic devices.

Heyward runs an eye over them, warily. Jamming, shielding, security -- he can guess what all of this hardware provides. It keeps this room and its occupants hidden and safe -- away from the Machines and Zion, and any Exiles who might object to the business carried out here. It stands between this room and programs such as what Heyward once was.

A glint in the rooms' corners, at the joining of walls and ceiling, catches Heyward's attention. Surveillance cameras. Ah.

He should have been expecting that.

"I see you've noticed our . . . insurance, Heyward."

Heyward's focus snaps forward, to the Exile seated at the far side of the room. There are several other Exiles, silent and alert and armed, standing in the corners -- but this one is obviously the one in charge. The one he came to see.

App. Short for something, the Exiles he forced the information from told him, but none of them knew precisely what -- not application, they said. At least they didn't think so. Something else.

App sits behind a massive, exquisitely crafted -- or programmed -- desk, its surface gleaming and smooth in the harsh light of bare light bulbs. There is nothing on the desk, and Heyward guesses that it is primarily for show, to draw attention to App himself.

It is most likely an unnecessary gesture. App draws Human attention, at least, quite effectively on his own.

App is a stunningly handsome program. His features are fine-boned and precise, perfect; his eyes are dark, almost black, and there is something exotic in their size and angle. Black lashes rim them, and narrow eyebrows lead down to them. His face seems built around his eyes. His black hair -- only slightly darker than his eyes -- is straight and of shoulder-length, kept neatly swept back at the base of his neck with a crimson tie. His RSI is not that of a large man, but there is a definite sense of strength to him -- the kind of strength that a snake has, lean and lithe and concealed until it is needed, brought out for the sudden strike and the grip and the kill.

He is handsome in the manner of the poet or the vampire -- though he does not care for the latter comparison.

Today, he is dressed in red and black -- a red silk shirt and tailored black pants -- and is lounging easily in a red leather-upholstered chair, as indolent as the Merovingian himself.

"Yes, Heyward, you won't be getting out of here without leaving something behind. I know you're one of those Machinist people. One of their least-flexible, in fact, if I am not greatly mistaken. And I don't believe I am."

App waves a hand at the second chair across from the desk, a twin to his own. "Here. Sit."

Heyward crosses the room slowly, on edge, aware of everything around him. The cameras are a trap, and he does not care for what they imply. He sits in the chair, forceably upright, not allowing himself to relax in the slightest.

"You . . . know me." This is not a question on Heyward's part -- it is a statement. It is obvious the Exile already has information that Heyward would rather he did not. Yet there is a hint of a question, not voiced -- the underlying question of how much he knows. One Exile already is using a . . . particular piece of information in ways inconvenient to Heyward; he would rather the number not increase.

"It's my business to know redpills, Heyward. Keep track of the customers. See who's happy and who's not." App leans across the desk fluidly, confidently. "And you seemed happy enough. Machines, Machines, Machines -- you've been with them since your Awakening, yes? No sign of wavering."

App leans back. "So, what brings you here? Not skipping out on your captain to join the bright-eyed Zionists or us parasites" -- the word is pronounced lovingly, caressingly -- "are you? No."

App locks eyes with Heyward; and Heyward holds the gaze impassively, as best he can.

"I can see it in your eyes, Heyward -- it's almost like looking at one of them. You want to kill us. You'd like to bring this whole place down around our ears. Burn all our pretty things and all our parties, build a gray city from the gray ashes and laugh . . . Though you'd never laugh, would you?"

An off-handed gesture indicates the cameras. "Of course not. And, so -- the cameras. You tell on us, Heyward; and we tell on you. It only seems fair. So, I suggest you keep this meeting secret, and your intentions . . . non-violent?"

Heyward nods slightly, abruptly. There is great shame in this meeting, for him -- forced to come to one Exile in order to pursue another.

"Good." App places both hands on the desk and leans forward again. "To business, then. What do I have that you need so much that you would come to me?"

"I . . . require devices to block operator observation within the Matrix." Heyward forces himself to meet the Exile's eyes again, from behind his dark glasses. "This operator is unusually . . . attuned to the system. I believe he would detect any programs created by Humans. I require Machine programming, and the Machines do not give such out lightly to their . . . Human operatives." Heyward hesitates on the last phrase, forced again to name himself, however indirectly, as Human.

"So you come here. To me. To the second-best, you believe." App leans further forward and his voice takes on greater force and directness for a moment. "First-best, Heyward. First-best."

One of his hands snakes down behind the desk and pulls upon a small drawer. He reaches in and draws out a handful of small objects, spreads them out on the surface of the desk.

"Here. Jamming devices." The objects are metallic, flat, and circular -- slightly smaller than a nickel. "They attach themselves to the skin. You apply and activate them like so" -- App places a device against the skin of his inner arm and presses a small central button; he hisses in a brief moment of pain as it extends tiny hooks into his flesh -- "to deactive, hold down both of these" -- he pinches the device, pressing two buttons on its sides -- "and to detach, hold those down and twist." He twists it, and the hooks withdraw from his arm, leaving only small red marks and a few tiny beads of blood.

"It's quite simple. And foolproof, I assure you -- the interference will read as minor technical problems with your ship's systems or your own neuraljack. There's a healthy radius on these, as well -- your operator will be able to see nothing for some distance around you." App stands and sweeps the jammers into a tidy pile on the desk. "How many will you need?"

Heyward has considered this beforehand -- one for each member of the Nothingness's crew and two for backup. "Six."

"Leading a minor insurrection, are we? Interesting." App picks out six jammers from the pile and sweeps the rest off the desk into his hand to return to the drawer. "And how will you pay for these . . . ?"

Heyward spends little $Info within the system -- only enough for necessary abilities and upgrades --, and he has collected more from the Exiles he has deleted today. He withdraws a disc from a coat pocket and displays its balance to App before placing it on the desk.

"Simple information? And what if that isn't enough?" App sits on his side of the desk and leans far across it, very close to Heyward. Heyward holds completely still, his discomfort at the Exile's proximity clear. Quickly, smoothly, App raises a hand to Heyward's neck and draws a finger along the wire cord there. Deliberately sensual, he trails the finger down to the hollow of Heyward's throat before hooking the cord and drawing the yin-yang pendant out from under Heyward's shirt.

App cups the pendant in his hand. "Very nice." He turns it back and forth, watching Heyward out of the corner of his eye. "And what if I asked for this?" He clasps his hand on the pendant and tugs a little on the cord, drawing it tight against the back of Heyward's neck.

"No." Still struggling with the sensation of the Exile's finger against his skin, Heyward is surprised to hear his own response. Firm and spontaneous -- no conscious thought involved. Simply "no." Even though he would retain the original in the Real, losing the pendant here is not, it seems, an option he is willing to consider. This is unreasonable, emotional; and it worries him -- but it does not change his answer.

"Interesting." App pulls the cord a little tighter, forcing Heyward to lean forward slightly. App leans forward himself, bringing his face very close to Heyward's. "Very well. I don't need any more pretty things, Heyward. The $Info will do." He holds Heyward's eyes as he slips the pendant back down Heyward's shirt, and then smiles as he draws his hand back up along Heyward's collarbone under the shirt.

Heyward breaks, reflexively grabbing for the hand to pull it away. This is a mistake. The odd feeling of tension -- almost of electricity -- that has followed the Exile's touch snaps into something much stronger with the new contact. App's smile broadens.

Heyward jumps up from the chair and back from the Exile, releasing the hand as though it had stung him. He does not understand any of this, but there is something dangerous and very physical at work here. He has to leave. Now.

App laughs, watching the panic and confusion on the face of the Human before him, watching the unconscious flush rise in his face. "Naive! A blushing schoolgirl! How old are you, Heyward? My sources can only trace you back a few months -- where were you before that? Who were you before that?"

App grabs the jammers in one hand and vaults over the desk with the other. He walks up to Heyward and offers the handful of devices. "Here. Take them. And remember that I can reveal to the Machines at any time that you were here."

Heyward takes the devices gingerly and nods -- a reluctant acknowledgement.

"Now, you'd better go. Before I get any . . . ideas." And the Exile leans forward again, sly laughter in his eyes.

Goaded, Heyward regains some of his composure. "Exile . . ."

App only smiles as the guards come up around Heyward and force him back out the way he came.

In Search

Heyward waits as the last washes of green code stream away from the sides of his vision and the Matrix solidifies around him.

"Alright, princess, you're good to go," Salamander chimes in as the code fades and disappears.

Heyward ignores the familiar jibe and begins walking towards the nearest alleyway as Salamander continues.

"So, what's it going to be today -- running errands for Daddy Gray like a good little Machine, or deleting Exiles to work out those repressed anger issues?"

Heyward enters the alleyway, and his face settles into lines of satisfaction -- not a smile, but as close to one as he will allow himself. He draws his weapon, carefully lines up a shot, and fires at the Exile gang members running towards him, overeager to defend their turf.

"Exiles," Heyward answers Salamander as close combat is joined.

Heyward finds a kind of peace in the methodical, self-directed deletion of the Exiles wandering the City's streets; and he has gone on such killing sweeps often enough before that he knows Salamander will see nothing unusual in his doing so today.

He hopes to make his actions today seem routine enough -- and boring enough, from what Heyward knows of Salamander's programmed personality -- that the operator will lose interest and not watch as closely as he might.

Because Heyward has more in mind today than the simple deletion of rogue programs. There is something he needs -- and, as any being with any experience of the Matrix knows, if you need something within the system -- anything -- there is an Exile willing to provide it to you, for a price.

But first you have to find that Exile.

Heyward kills gang members for hours, ranging up and down Richland, in and out of the alleys and parks, circling back to places he has already visited to delete the new waves of programs that spring up so quickly to replace the destroyed.

After the first two hours, Salamander begins to make sarcastic remarks; Heyward ignores all of them -- even the ones that involve fairy queens, tutus, and ballet slippers. The remarks become more and more sporadic over the the next hour and a half; and as the fourth hour draws to a close, there has been silence for some time.

Salamander has finally lost interest and turned his attention elsewhere. Now the real business of the day can begin.

Heyward continues to delete Exiles -- but, now, before each final killing blow, he asks them a question.

Where can a redpill find the things his captain does not want him to have? Things, perhaps, that give you . . . privacy, within the Matrix?

He asks quietly, never spelling out precisely what he wants, in case he is mistaken and Salamander is still watching -- but he doubts this is the case.

The deletion of many Exiles later, he has an answer.

Stand outside a particular abandoned building on a particular street of the many streets in the City -- building and street both unremarkable, indistinguishable, unless you are told, from any of the others. Stand there facing the street, as if you are waiting for someone -- which you are. Wait long enough, and that someone will come. Follow their lead.

Straightforward enough.

Heyward finds the building and the street without difficulty. He stands and waits, as he has been told he should.

He waits for over an hour. He begins to doubt the veracity of the information he has obtained -- but it was repeated to him, in pieces and in whole, by more than one of the Exiles he deleted. This seems to indicate that it contains some truth -- or, at the least, is a very organized fiction for the in-fighting gangs to have agreed upon. Perhaps, Heyward reasons, this is a test of some sort, to make certain the . . . customer is truly interested in obtaining the Exile's wares.

Heyward is interested; and, in a situation like this, alone and with little emotion involved, he can be almost as patient as he was within the system.

Finally, a middle-aged woman -- apparently just another passerby on the street -- stops as she passes Heyward, turns toward him, and extends a hand.

Taken aback, Heyward hesitates a moment and then reaches out and accepts the handshake. The woman withdraws her hand first, and the two stand looking at each other, still silent.

"So," the woman says, "Matrix not as free as you thought it would be, redpill? Looking for help?"

"Ah . . . yes," Heyward responds. Others' assumptions concerning his identity -- his apparent Humanity -- always leave him disconcerted and uncomfortable; but they serve his purposes here, as elsewhere. He will do nothing to dissuade her.

She nods. "We have jamming programs running -- don't concern yourself about your operator." She turns away and begins walking. "He -- or she -- won't be seeing any of this. Come on."

Heyward follows her down the street a short distance, until she stops at one of the vehicles parked along its side, takes a set of keys from a pocket of her jeans, unlocks the driver's seat door, and gets in.

"You," she says as she leans back to flip the lock on the passenger door behind her, "ride back here." She sits back up, slams her own door closed, and waits, quirking an eyebrow at Heyward expectantly.

Heyward opens the back door and slides in to the back seat, thrown slightly off-balance by the woman's casual attitude. As he closes the car door and digs in the worn seat for the ends of the seatbelt, he catches the woman looking at him in the rearview mirror and pauses, oddly self-conscious.

"That's right, sweety," she says. "Buckle up. Never know what you're in for in this part of town . . ." She shoots him a smile in the mirror, very slightly mocking; and the expression is mirrored in her eyes.

As the car pulls off, Heyward wonders if all Exile programs are distantly related to Salamander.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Visiting 01 Continued Further

Heyward moves about her room on the Nothingness, holding still for only moments at a time before pacing on. She has discovered, since her transition from program to flesh, that she can no longer ever hold completely still -- to hold any position for too long results in pain; and many emotions seem to generate energy that must be used, even if for no purpose.

At present, nervousness drives her pacing. She gave Treius information -- warned him that there was a threat at hand, a close threat, and that he must be watchful. She gave him nothing specific, no hard information -- simply an appeal to observe, to be skeptical, to use reason. But she knows that it will very likely be enough to arouse curiousity -- perhaps from Treius, and perhaps from the others who were in the Matrix when she chose to speak -- Canonical and 1Strike.

They will wonder about the nature of the threat, certainly. About whom or what it is that she referred to and would not name.

And they may wonder how she came to know of such a threat. Why she has this information, and why she would not reveal it outright.

Heyward stops pacing and sits on her berth to think.

She chooses not to reveal Veneer directly. She realizes this is a choice, and it concerns her. She must find reasons for her choice, must trace it to its source -- as she has urged Treius to do with his choices.

Treius leads her reasons. She believes him to be led by his emotions, by his desire to trust others. She further believes he must be corrected of this if he is to lead No Exit with efficiency. She knows that Humans can break when faced with truth, that they can fall back into denial -- she is uncomfortably aware of her own brush with this tendency, herself. If Veneer is revealed to Treius directly, she does not believe he will respond to the threat appropriately. He must be made to see the logic himself, to follow it to the threat himself; he must reach a point where he cannot deny the danger Veneer presents, and he must reach this point of his own power. To force him to it could cause emotional reactions -- resentment, perhaps -- that she does not want focused on her.

She further fears for her own safety if she reveals Veneer outright. Her past two encounters with Veneer in the Real have made her vulnerability outside of the Matrix very clear to her -- there is no RSI reconstruction here, to cover for her disturbing lack of skill. Veneer could become violent, or he could reveal her identity to the Humans in retaliation. Both are situations she wishes to avoid.

Finally, in a confusing corner of her mind, she knows that she hesitates to reveal Veneer for reasons that have very little to do with logic. He is one of her few remaining connections with the world of the Machines. Within the system, she was in constant communication with innumerable other programs -- she was never, Humans would say, alone. Never trapped in her own mind. Though she may speak with Agent programs now -- may receive orders from Agent Gray and react to them -- it is nothing like the integration she was once a part of. Veneer knows what she is and actively seeks communication, as the true purpose-driven Machine programs do not; he allows her . . . connection. The sharing of information.

But this sharing of information goes only one way, and Veneer uses the connection for his own ends. She knows that. As long as he has remained a seemingly passive force, she has allowed communication to continue. Because she is weak. Because, in this new existence, it seems so easy to deny truth in favor of desperate emotional need.

After today, after the active threat Veneer has suddenly, overtly, become, logic cannot let her deny what her loyalty to the Machines demands. Only emotion stands in the way of her doing what she must.

She knows that Veneer will have covered his actions; this is another reason she cannot reveal him directly -- he is manipulative and quick to act; she fears he could easily turn aside accusations made against him, make them appear baseless.

She is certain he believes he left no hard evidence of his actions today.

He is wrong.

Heyward strips off her slightly singed long-sleeved shirt. The rough cloth rubs against the electrical burns spreading out across her chest and makes her flinch. The burns are not particularly serious -- but they are very real and very visible, pink and red and blistering. Clear, angry bruises crawl along her arms where Topsight held her down and she struggled against his grip.

Heyward examines the injuries and runs a finger slowly along the scar on her left cheek. Yes. Veneer leaves evidence.

She puts the shirt aside and selects another from the things Death and Taxes gave her -- a shorter shirt, with a low neckline and straps instead of sleeves. It leaves much of her skin bare and makes her feel even more uncomfortably vulnerable -- but it also leaves the bruises and parts of the burns uncovered and visible.

Heyward gets up from her berth, opens her door all the way, and leaves it open as she lies down on top of the blankets of the berth to sleep. Her brief, interrupted rest in the drone plant did little to relieve her fatigue; and she hopes that perhaps someone will come by and see the injuries and form the right questions. She is far from convinced that Treius retains any true vision, but he does seem unusually perceptive for being blinded; and Nichomachea remains sighted.

As does Veneer.

Perhaps, she thinks, even if this achieves nothing else, it is time that he sees his actions do leave . . . not-so-easily-erased tracks. Perhaps it is time that she bait him -- force him to reaction and gain information from his responses, as he has been gaining information from hers.

It occurs to her then, as she lets her herself lose consciousness, that perhaps this . . . "game" . . . can be played both ways.