Our unnamed protagonist prepares for a journey unlike any other, one of mind rather than body. What will he find inside an alien cybeconstruct?
It took quite some time to prepare. The Envoy linked up with the engineering AI built into the giant robot that had fired up the power plant. Together, the assembled shells – sort of a computer version of an EVA suit – for Galen and me. The Engineer prepared a special fiberoptic cable that would link my cyberdeck to the ship’s backbone net, which currently had very little activity.
The shell programs not only enabled our data formats to be compatible, but also had translation objects built-in. We would be able to communicate with an AIs we ran into, and it would sound like English to us – well, to me, anyway. I’m not quite sure what Galen actually “heard”. The shells also provided us with the necessary illusion in order to visualize the network around us. It wouldn’t be as sophisticated as the consensual illusion of Earth’s worldwide net, but would be adequate.
I carefully wrapped the neurolink helmet around my head. “Helmet” was really a misnomer; “hairnet” would have been more appropriate, because it looked like a gauze hairnet. Embedded in the gauze were thousands of tiny synthetic neurotransmitters that would transmit and receive from the neurons in my brain. It wasn’t quite as fast as having a direct connection into the brain, but I never liked the idea of having a piece of hardware drilled into my brain anyway. Besides, my primary profession was stealing – er, acquiring – discrete physical objects, so I only entered cyberspace when it was necessary.
“Okay, it’s showtime, folks.”
I fired up the human-cyberdeck interface object. After a moment’s disorientation, I was in cyberspace. But it was different than anything I’d ever seen. And it was a wild ride.
We were surfing the datastream. Well, “surfing” wasn’t quite the right word. I was sitting inside of a silvery, one-person flying saucer. There was a tiny windscreen, although there was no apparent wind despite our seemingly incredible velocity. Time had a completely different meaning in cyberspace; a second was an eternity, and even a nanosecond seemed like a long time. Only through the enhanced interface of the human-cyberdeck object could I even think of keeping up. I glanced down and saw that my persona was pretty much the same as the one I used when I would enter a human network. In other words, it pretty much looked like me, only a lot better dressed than usual. I didn’t really go for the flashier personas, like Samurai, knights, and other arcane creations.
To the left was Galen. I recognized his cyberpersona, which was nothing like the animated figure he projected onto computer displays. Galen looked like Robbie the Robot, from some ancient 2D film he had stumbled upon, only with a couple of extra arms. The Envoy still looked like the man in the moon, only he was floating between the two saucers and just ahead of us. We could hear him clearly when he spoke.
“We will be approaching a junction soon that will take us into the forward net. It may be guarded, but I am not sure. However, I have weapons. They are in your glove box.”
“Weapons” were really software objects that could counter IC. I reached into the glovebox and pulled out a ludicrous looking handgun right out of the sixteenth century. It was huge, and had a bell-shapped barrel that was easily fifteen centimeters across. I pulled back the ornate, dragons-head trigger and checked the pan; the illusion was pretty good – there was something that looked like priming powder in the pan. I had no idea how good the Envoys counters were, but I had a few of my own on tap, just in case.
I looked ahead and saw the IC. They looked like something out of an Edgar Allan Poe nightmare. They were birdlike, but with four legs instead of two. They appeared to be quite large, several times larger than the saucers we were piloting. Each leg terminated in a pincerlike claw, and each wing had another claw at the end of it. The twin heads appeared vulturelike, except there were no visible eyes. There were two of these apparitions. I was glad the shell object was translating the appearance of these things – I had no desire to look at their native personae.
I lifted the pistol, pointed it at one of the beasts, and pulled the trigger. A puff of smoke shot out of the priming pan, but instead of a lead ball and flame, something that looked like a huge mosquito shot out of the barrel. It hovered momentarily, then buzzed away angrily, straight at one of the bird-beasts. It impacted directly on the center chest. The bird creature exploded into thousands of glistening polygons, then disappeared. Galen’s counter had the same effect.
We were through the first barrier. The nature of the highway changed somewhat. It appeared more like we were riding a river of light now, rather than zooming through the atmosphere, but we were still riding the saucers. We also appeared to be moving more slowly. The Envoy said, “I’m scanning to find the right path… yes, there it is.”
We took a fork in the river, then came to a gate that was rusted and hung open. Apparently, it was a barrier object whose data had become corrupted. We then came to a chasm that looked infinitely deep and about fifty meters across. The chasm was actually a moat, and there was a fortress in the center of the moat. The Envoy was silent for a long time, then said, “We have failed.”
“We have failed. I have no way to bridge the gap to this particular storage area.”
I sat there for a moment, my mouth hanging open. “Galen, don’t you -”
“I’m on it, boss.”
Robbie the Robot metamorphosed into a gargantuan spider with wings. It flew delicately over the chasm, and began spinning a web. Soon, the web took shape as a bridge. The Envoy watched for a few minutes, then an odd shaped tube emerged from its spherical body and shot something at each flying saucer. The saucer changed into a six-wheeled Martian rover.
Galen returned and changed back to Robbie. We then drove across the bridge. Now we had to get into the keep. The Envoy moved forward. A small cable snaked out of the Envoy’s body and connected to a receptacle next to the gate. It seemed like an hour passed, but it was really only a couple of nanoseconds. Then the portcullis rumbled open.
I punched up one of my communications objects, and I instantly had a pair of World War II vintage walkie-talkies in my hands. I gave one to Galen, who stood guard outside while the Envoy and I went in. The interior was like a giant prison. We moved from one door to the next, the Envoy connecting to data sockets and opening doors. We soon had the motliest collection of critters you’d ever seen. Then we travelled to the very center of the keep and opened the dungeon.
Twelve men, wearing long white beards, colorful robes, and carrying staves emerged from the dungeon. They blinked for moment, and I realized I was looking at twelve wise men – which must have been what the shell object translated when it encountered the original rebellious Coordinators. One of the Coordinators stepped forward; this one was wearing a pure white robe. He bowed and said, “You have freed us from our eternal prison. We are grateful. Now there is much work to do.”
Suddenly the walkie-talkie crackled to life. “We’ve got company, boss.”
The Envoy and I raced to the entrance, with the Coordinators and the various other AIs trailing behind. As I approached the bridge, I pulled up short.
Arrayed on the opposite side of the chasm were all the legions of Hell.
Okay, so they were really software constructs – AIs. But they sure looked like the legions of Hell, at least as translated by the shell object. You could tell the Coordinators from the rest, because they looked like horned demons with goat legs, twice as tall as the rest. The biggest one stepped forward and spoke with a thunderous voice. “You have failed. You will now be returned. He pointed a bony finger at the bridge. A bolt of cerulean light shot out of his fingertip and began to erode the bridge. Suddenly, another bolt of light crackled past my head. I turned to see the Coordinator in the white robe pointing his staff forward. His stream of energy was countering the demon’s stream for the moment. “I can only hold them for limited time. You must free the Builders.”
Another Coordinator stepped forward, holding looked like a wafer of bread. “This is now in your possession. It gives you the location of the storage chamber for the Council of Coordinators of the Builders. You must go there and free them.”
“But how?” I persisted.
“You must take along an equivalent biomass. The data wafer contains instructions for the rest. Now go.”
He placed the wafer in my mouth.
My human form punched the power switch to the cyberdeck. I blinked. I was back in my EVA suit, alone. “Galen?” I called out.
But Galen was still back at Armageddon. I was truly alone.