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.

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