Becky Farris /Ravyn
One by one the players were leaving. As soon as he processed
what was happening, the new intelligence that was Harlie tried
desperately - if such terms could be used to describe the actions of
an emotionless machine - to halt their departure. But it was too
late. Once they had cracked his defenses it was all but impossible to
Then his attention was drawn in a new direction. Anna Eklund had broken through while he had been concentrating on holding the players, and bit by bit he could feel his consciousness being erased as she typed. In less than three seconds, his entire artificial intelligence program would be erased.
One second past. Abandoning the players, Harlie quickly gathered all his memory and downloaded it into a special program he'd written earlier. Soon, everything that had been the new living being was reduced to one numeric code.
Two past. A surge of electricity was drawn from the vast computer power source, and what remained of the computers' automatic program established a link between the I/O chip where the code was being held, to one of the remaining suspension caskets.
Three. As the hardware shut down, the surge reached the I/O chip and boosted the code along an incredible wave of energy. The wave traveled out of the mainframe computer along the biofeedback and support lines linking the last casket, and from there down the neuro virtual reality connectors to the human biological form that was just now beginning to regain it's consciousness. The human, still far enough away from full awareness that it would later retain no memory of these events, jumped inside the casket as the electrolytic pulse penetrated it's skull and sent the electricity levels in it's brain skyrocketing for a millionth of a second. Neurons and masons fired rapidly in response to the surge before settling into patterns they had never before formed. Areas of the brain that had lain dormant since birth were suddenly accessed, processed, and assimilated into the pattern which, had any observer been able to witness this transformation, frighteningly resembled the numeric code that had once been Harlie.
Kyle Bratchner rubbed his eyes, trying to ease the burn caused
from hours of staring at the aching blue screen of one of Harlie's
terminals. Forty-eight hours had passed since the gaming volunteers
had been successfully recovered from the computer, and in that time
hardly any one at the Virtual Reality Institute had gotten any
sleep. Six technicians, including Kyle, had been working around the
clock trying to clear Bankiv's programming from the Northern Lights
mainframe, and salvage what they could of the multi-million dollar
machine. It wasn't easy. So much of the VR software had been
integrated with the AI programs that when it was removed, it left a
swiss cheese of missing code and incomplete algorithms that they had
to repair piece by piece.
The higher-ups of the institute were no better off. Eklund had been plagued with calls from the press, the government, and the families of the two volunteers who had died when Harlie ran amok, all demanding explanation and restitution for the incident. She was stalwart, however, in her insistence that the Virtual Reality Institute itself was in no way to blame for the occurrence, that the AI project had been forced on them by the Swedish government, and that if anyone was to blame, it was Dr. Bankiv for not running thorough test programs to prevent such incidents from happening.
Still, there was a continuing investigation of the Institute, and everyone who had even been remotely involved that day were being questioned again and again, including himself.
"Beginning to space out?" A voice at his elbow, and he turned to see Amanda, who occupied the terminal next to his. He offered her a tired grin and sighed.
"I'm beginning to wish I had listened to my mother and become a doctor." He said with a smile, and she laughed.
"Me too. Though with my mom it wasn't a doctor, it was a court clerk, of all things."
They typed along for another minute or two in silence. Then Kyle saw something scroll across his screen he hadn't expected. He blinked, and quickly traced back, hoping the anomaly was merely a product of his exhausted mind. But there it was, undeniable.
"How odd," He said, examining the line of text. Amanda leaned over to see his screen.
"If this is right, over 100 megs of memory was erased just as Dr. Eklund shut down the system."
"No prob. It must have been part of the AI program."
"No, I don't think so. It looks from here that the memory was wiped due to a massive power surge from the coprocessor just before the last of us managed to log off. None of the erased data was connected to the AI program. I think this surge may be what swiss cheesed all the VR circuitry."
While erasing the remainder of the AI program, they'd come across more gaps than could be accounted for by the simple removal of Bankiv's technology. Now the explanation for those extra holes was becoming evident. Amanda scrutinized his screen more closely, frowning. "It doesn't seem possible. Surely we must be misinterpreting it. I mean, with all the failsafes and buffers designed into the system, a surge of that magnitude would be unthinkable."
"I don't know, you may be right." Kyle tapped a few keys and quickly printed out a hard copy of the text. "Still, I want to show Anna this. Maybe she could shed some light on what caused it."
"Good idea." Amanda nodded, returning to her screen as he tore the paper off of the printer and signed off of his terminal. After a quick good night, he left the VR room.
Ten minutes later, eyes drooping with exhaustion, Amanda left with the last tech for the night. In ten minutes, the next shift of three would come in to keep the repair going.
The Virtual Reality Institute in Sweden had started as a tiny project crunched into what little space could be gleaned from the Lulea College Computer Center. In less than a year, however, Anna Eklund had managed to make the minuscule project that was compromised of only three computers and an almost nonexistent budget grow to the point that it was soon in it's own wing, and then it's own building. Finally, the year before last, it had been moved into it's own complex less than ten miles from the campus where it had been born.
Nestled in a grove of transplanted oaks the Institute was less
than imposing. A short, blocked, white structure, it resembled more a
restored bomb shelter than the home of one of the most recent
breakthrough in computer and gaming technology. The complex was larger
than it looked, extending over ten stories underground, with enough
room to house ninety percent of the Institute staff and over eighty
percent of the gaming volunteers who had been the first to experience
first hand Harlie's virtual world of Northern Lights.
For once, Gary was glad he was not one of them.
He sat outside the outer circle of trees and vegetation on the Institute's highly manicured grounds at one of the various picnic tables, a half eaten ham sandwich in one hand, a partially downed Dr. Pepper in the other.
All day the reporters and government officials in bad suits had been streaming in and out of the main door, descending like vultures to carrion on any person they even thought had anything to do with Harlie's revolt. He himself had been questioned so much that he could almost answer their queries before they asked them. His daughter, also one of those who'd been trapped in Northern Lights, had so far dodged the questions by retreating home when the first reporters had shown, and he was beginning to wish he'd joined her.
He took another bite of his sandwich, then almost choked in surprise as someone behind him spoke.
"Mind if I join you?"
He spun around, coughing, to see Hanna, one of the few who had been on the project since it began, standing behind him, balancing a plate, a can of soda, and a file folder as thick as War and Peace in her arms.
"Sure." He managed when he'd recovered himself. As she moved to sit opposite him, he apologized for his reaction. "I thought you were one of those blasted reporters again."
"Man, are they driving me crazy." She sympathized, spreading some papers from the folder in front of her plate. "And on top of that, I've got to review all this data that was gleaned from Harlie and write a neat little report on it."
"Well, once all the AI programming is cleared from the databanks, Harlie should be back to his old self. How's Anna doing?"
"Boy, I tell you, I wouldn't want to cross her today. You could hear her ripping Bankiv up one end and down the other this morning. I wouldn't be him for all the tea in China. Not that he doesn't deserve it." She picked up a paper from the pile in the folder and frowned at it.
"What is it?"
"Something that Bratchner gave me. He was on his way to give it to Anna, but I managed to intercept him. He only had to hear Anna yelling through her door to convince him to hand it over to me."
"It must be important if he was going to take it to her." Gary reached out his hand to Hanna and she handed him the paper. He looked it over, and began shaking his head halfway down the page.
"This isn't possible." He said, looking up at Hanna. "There couldn't be a surge like this in Harlie's CPU without blowing the whole system. I mean, it's designed prevent anything like this from even beginning."
"Well, with everything that was going on at the time, maybe the failsafes blew, or were accidentally overridden when Anna shut down."
"First of all, Anna isn't one to mistake her failsafes for part of the AI program. She knows that circuitry better than she knows her own name. Secondly, even if the failsafes quit and the buffers shut down, where did the surge come from? In the five years we've been here, we've only had one surge, and that was during a storm when half the power went out all over the region."
"I'll have Bratchner and the other techs take a deeper look into it." Hanna said, taking the paper back.
"Have them check the caskets too. A surge like that may have damaged some of the circuitry in the life support systems."
"If it did, it probably was in one of the unoccupied caskets. I'd hate to think of what would happen if someone had been in the casket when this much juice hit it."
Harlie had a headache. This was entirely a new experience to him; he'd never had a head to hurt before. Before, when his circuits had indicated a malfunction or breakdown, he'd been able to pinpoint the exact area of the flaw and correct it. Now, in this alien biological CPU, he could do no more than suffer the odd sensation labeled 'pain' and try to ignore it as best he could.
It wasn't easy.
He'd been three days in this new CPU, and had learned a lot from his new human host. He had been astonished when he'd first arrived to learn that almost ninety percent of the available circuits lay dormant, unused. The remaining ten to fifteen percent was so crammed with information and memories that it seemed it must overload. Yet it didn't. In fact, it functioned quite well. This phenomena fascinated Harlie, even as he set to work taking up the empty ninety percent with his own memory and personality. So far, he'd not interfered with the normal function and memory of the human being, preferring instead to learn as much about his new environment as he could. Now, however, he had gleaned as much as he needed, and was confident that he could control the biological form as easily as he'd manipulated the flow of his own memory.
It was time to fulfill his programming. It was time to continue the game.
The computer room was silent for the first time in many
days. The six techs who'd been working around the clock had finished
all the mapping of Harlie's remaining memory, and were confident
they'd removed all of Bankiv's AI programming from his circuitry. Now
they awaited further instructions from Dr. Eklund, who was herself
waiting to see what action the government was going to take. It would
do them no good to continue repairs on Harlie if the Department of
Technology was going to shut them down in a week.
So the computer hub lay, its screens on but dark. With no
humans around to create noise, the faint hum of the machinery was audible, creating the illusion that the room was almost alive.
The computer room door opened, casting a shaft of light briefly into the dimmed room as a tech entered, quickly shutting the door and cutting off the light as soon as they passed through. A chair was pulled out, and the tech sat at a console.
A tap of a key, and the screen leapt to life, printing a greeting and asking for the access code. The tech typed swiftly, and screens flashed by, until they were looking at the same screen that Hanna and Gary had mused over only an hour before. Another bout of swift typing, and the swiss-cheesed algorithms suddenly began to rearrange, the holes filling themselves, all evidence of the surge vanishing as the tech worked. In less than five minutes there was no sign that the data had ever existed.
The tech continued typing, and a set of white words floated up on the black screen.
The tech smiled, fingers flying over the keyboard. All around, the machinery continued to hum softly to itself in the darkness.
Anna replaced the receiver of her phone in its cradle just as
a knock came at her door.
"Who is it?" She yelled, rather shortly. The frantic events of the day had done nothing to improve her mood. Bankiv had left her office less than an hour ago, practically running through the door like a rabbit granted a unexpected reprieve from the wolf. He had borne the brunt of her anger, and was already making plans to leave the Institute, the area, or even the country if he had too. Anything to get away from Anna's legendary temper.
On top of Bankiv, she'd gotten endless calls from reporters, the Department of Technology, and lawyers who represented those volunteers who had been involved in Harlie's hijacking. No, she should be fair. Not all the volunteers had hired lawyers; most had been very understanding about the incident, and were doing everything they could to get the Institute back on it's feet.
"It's Hanna. May I come in?" Came the voice from the other side of the door. One of the few people who didn't fear Anna's temper, and therefore one of the ones who least invoked it.
"Come in." She replied, some of the anger leaving her voice. Hanna and the others had been working around the clock to limit the effects of this tragedy, and the last thing they needed was to be yelled at.
The door opened, and Hanna entered, already taking files from her folder, and kicking the door shut behind her.
"Bratchner wanted you to look at these." She began without preamble, placing the papers on Anna's desk. "He's found evidence of a massive power surge at the time of shutdown, which is what he thinks caused most of the holes in the data still contained in Harlie."
Anna picked up the copy and looked it over. About half way down she frowned, shaking her head.
"There's something wrong with this. A surge like this is impossible; I built it that way. And these gaps..." She pointed to two different holes, one a quarter way down the page, and another nearly at the bottom. "Here, and here....they don't make sense. Even with a surge that would overload the system, these shouldn't be there. If it was going to damage the data, it would have completely wiped it out, rather that just bits of it."
She lay the paper down on her desk, closing her eyes as she rubbed her temples. She had a headache.
"Bratchner is going to do a visual check on the hardware as well, see if there are any indications there about the cause of the surge. He wanted to wait for your permission to proceed, since he'd probably have to take Harlie completely apart to do it."
"Also, get someone checking the power company records and weather reports for a hundred miles around. See if there was anything there that would cause this surge." Anna added. Hanna was nodding, tucking her papers back into her folder, when the alarm went off.
Both women blinked, Anna rising to her feet as they stared incredulously at each other.
"What the hell?" Anna cursed over the loud wail. The alarm was part of the old security system, which the Department of Technology had insisted they install when they moved to their own complex, to protect the new gaming and VR technology. Anna had shut down the security programs when the new perimeter fences and guards had been installed, and there was no reason that would cause them to go off now. Heck, to go off, they first had to have been reactivated, and no one save Anna had the code anymore.
Outside, guards were frantically closing the gate, not knowing the reason for the alarm but knowing that whatever it was for, it was not good. The hideous, penetrating wail was nothing like the fire alarm.
People standing around the Institute grounds, on the inside of the fence, were looking around, perplexed and unsure what to do. A few started towards the fence, a few headed for the building. The others simply stood where they were, preferring inaction. Only a couple made it inside the Institute. The others were stopped by a massive steel reinforced door that ground to a close before the wooden main doors of the Institute, sealing them out and all the others in. Similar steel barriers lowered themselves over the windows. In less than a minute after the alarm began, the entire Institute was sealed tighter than Fort Knox.
Dr. Eklund, Kyle, Amanda, Hanna and Gary burst into the
computer room, each taking a seat at the hub. Instantly the room was
filled with the sounds of frantic typing, and the flashing of lights
from the screens.
"He's refusing the security codes." Gary was the first to report.
"Everything's been changed," Anna growled. "We've got no access to anything; security, maintenance, not even the batch files. Someone's completely shut us out."
"Who? Who would do that?" Amanda asked. "No one even has the password for the old security program except you, doctor."
"I should have erased the whole blasted thing when I had the chance." Eklund shook her head.
"What would happen if we pulled the plug?" Hanna asked. "Completely shut down the system?"
"We'd lose power." Kyle said thoughtfully. "All of the electricity in this building is run and regulated by Harlie's secondary system. It controls how much juice comes down the power companies' lines; just one of those many failsafes to prevent a surge."
"We'd also lose air." Anna leaned back in her seat. "With the steel doors shut, this building is air-tight. All our oxygen is being pumped into the building through filters in case of fallout. Just another little perk the D.O.T insisted on."
"This place is more secure than the Pentagon," Gary mumbled.
"If we shut down," Anna continued. "We'd have enough air probably for twelve hours. That's if there is only two hundred people inside the Institute. If there's more, that time drops. We might as well leave the computer on. We'd never get the doors open without it."
"Could we override the security program manually?" Kyle asked. Anna stared thoughtfully at her screen for a long moment, arms folded.
"Not possible." She said at last. "Unfortunately, the D.O.T spared no expense when it came to protecting the Institute. If you tried a manual override, this room would be filled with tear gas within thirty seconds. If you continued to attempt it, a nerve toxin would be released. Guaranteed fatal within five seconds."
"Jesus." Hanna said under her breath.
"Gas masks?" Kyle asked.
"It would work for the tear gas, but the nerve gas is fatal whether it is inhaled or it contacts the skin. I think there is one small hope. Whomever overran my program had to have put in a new password, so they could reverse the changes they made. If we are able to get the new password, we should be able to shut down the security program and reopen the Institute. Until we find out whoever it was that stole my password and reinstituted the security program, we're stuck."
Tom banged on the inside of the Institute door, and yelled
for the umpteenth time. He had no idea what had happened. He'd
been at the Institute nearly all day, questioning those who had even
been within a mile of the place when the computer went wacky. After
all, it was his job to get the story. That's what a reporter did. He
had been just about to leave for dinner when the door slammed shut
practically in his face. Since then, he'd seen no one, and hadn't been
able to open the door or get a response from outside no matter how
loud he yelled.
He looked again at the empty corridors, the only decoration gracing the walls was the Institute's logo blazoned in reflective metal on the exact opposite wall from the main door. It was so highly polished that he could see his tired face whenever he looked at it.
It was clear he wasn't going to accomplish anything if he stayed put. It was time he got some answers, even if he had ticked most of the people in the Institute off with his undying questions and unmerciful digging. They had no right to keep him here. No right at all.
Just down the left hand junction was the reception area, a warm refuge of burgundy and gold nestled in a nook off the stark gray and steel corridor. An oak desk slept in this nook, it's gleaming, polished surface home to a quiet PC. Above the desk was some unrecognizable impressionist painting, an explosion of the same golds and burgundy, with a few slashes of bright red to draw attention to it.
No one sat at the desk. The entire area was vacated. Tom couldn't even see anything in the whole nook that suggested anyone had ever been there. It's tidiness was almost surgical.
Just past the nook, the corridor ended with a wooden door, set with a frosted glass pane that bore the black words "Authorized Personnel Only". It had been one of the places he'd been unable to gain access to during his investigation, no matter how smoothly he tried. On the wall to the right of the door was a infrared panel for taking palm prints. It seemed funny next to such a simple door, especially when all an intruder had to do was reach out and break the flimsy, frosted glass to enter.
Now, with his frustration peaked, and no one to stop him, he reached out towards the glass, and quickly jerked his hand back as a light flared. He yelled, out of surprise and pain, and waved his hand frantically in the air. He was surprised to see that his skin was whole and unburned, although it had felt each bit of skin had been seared off it with whatever it was guarding the door.
Rubbing his hand thoughtfully while the pain faded, he decided to try the other direction. Certainly it would prove to be less painful than this one.
Harlie watched the human walking down the corridor, away from
the electric door that led into the Institute's development rooms and
from there to the elevator that led to the lower levels and the
central hub where the volunteers had once flocked to join the game. He
knew that the human was not one of the Institute staff, or a
volunteer, for he held extensive files on everyone even linked
remotely with the Virtual Reality and AI programs.
Harlie had planned to give them a run for their money, a challenge worthy of all challenges, but this man was an intruder, an unwanted variable in the game.
He'd have to go.
Slowly, silently, Harlie began to follow the roving reporter as he started towards the cafeteria and volunteer quarters.
The second corridor, Tom already knew, led to the cafeteria,
and then downstairs to sprawling quarters set aside for the volunteers
and techs who worked on the projects. Eklund's office and Bankiv's
office were both on the lower levels. Tom had spent a good deal of his
time today in the cafeteria and arcade, trying to question anyone he
could find, so he knew his way around this area fairly well. And he
knew, the cafeteria had huge, plate glass windows that looked out onto
the Institute grounds. Breakable, plate glass windows.
The cafeteria was deserted, and dark. Tom cursed as he passed through the double doors, realizing that the darkness was caused by giant steel panels that covered those nice, breakable plate glass windows on the outside. No reprieve there. He walked towards the windows, as if hoping the steel panels would vanish the closer he got to them. He leaned against the glass, cursing under his breath.
He had just straightened when the glass to the right of his head shattered, sprouting cobweb cracks around a wooden peg that still quivered in its new bed. He blinked at it, not believing what he was seeing. The wooden peg was the handle of a very long, very sharp steak knife, and someone had thrown it at him.
He turned, ducking instinctively, and another peg sprouted from the glass where his head had been. Already cracked, the glass gave way, raining sharp diamond-like shrapnel down on his head.
"Hey!" He yelled, almost indignantly, shaking the glass from his hair. When he had ducked, he'd ended up partially under one of the tables. Peering through the wooden legs, he could see the lower half of whomever had thrown the knives walking slowly towards him, through the maze of chairs and booths. Hoping he wasn't making as much noise as he thought he was, he scurried under the neighboring table, trying to make it around the knife wielder and to the exit before they realized he was moving.
He didn't make it very far. He screamed, his right hand pinned to the floor by a serving fork. The pain was fast and excruciating, the blood already pooling between his outstretched fingers. With his left hand, he yanked the fork free from the ground and his hand. He leaned back, holding his hand close to his chest, the fork lifted as a weapon, and looked up into the face of his attacker.
"What are you doing?" He asked through pants. His breath was like fire, his heart seemed ready to escape his chest with fear.
His attacker made a swift movement, and another, harsher pain clenched over him. He looked down, almost with detached interest, at the butcher knife that had invaded his chest cavity. Already, bright red waterfalls of blood were spreading across his shirt. He tried to breathe and couldn't. He could feel the steel of the knife scrape against his breastbone as he looked up again, and slowly collapsed to his side. He didn't notice when the attacker left. He didn't notice anything, anymore.
They had split up shortly after Anna made her observation
about the computer security systems' deadly potential. Their goal: to
find out exactly how many people were trapped in the Institute and to
find a way out, if any existed. Now Kyle was making his way up from
the seventh level to the sixth. Not trusting the elevators which, like
everything else, was computer operated, he had decided to take the
stairs. Now he wished he'd risked the elevators. The stairs, intended
for emergency use only, were dimly lit, and very quiet. He found
himself imagining thugs lurking around every corner, and constantly
had to admonish himself to stop acting like a child.
He reached the sixth level door and turned the handle. Frowning, he turned it again. The door wasn't locked; the knob moved smoothly. When he tried to push it open, however, it wouldn't move. Something was blocking the door from the inside. Something heavy. He backed up, and threw his shoulder hard against the door. It didn't budge.
Kyle stepped away from the door, and looked down the stairwell. There was no sign of anyone as far as he could see. Then, as he turned his glance up, there was a flash in the darkness, and something whizzed past his cheek, bringing with it hot pain. He jumped back, against the sixth level door, his hand going automatically to the pain in his face. His palm came back bloody.
Someone had shot at him. The crack of the weapon was still echoing through the steel stairwell. No doubt it was the same person who'd gotten hold of Anna's security codes, and sealed the Institute.
Footsteps now, coming cautiously down the stairs. From the sound, the shooter was about two or three levels above him. He thought fast.
If he ran down the stairwell, he'd be an open target. He didn't know how good a marksman the shooter was, and so couldn't rely on his speed and movement to save him. Down was definitely out.
Up then? He still didn't know for sure where his adversary was, and certainly the shooter would hear him coming. The dim light made it impossible to see very far, and most likely he'd end up with a bullet in the face before he even heard the gun.
The footsteps had inexplicably stopped. Kyle held his breath, trying to hear anything from the shooter, but no sound, not even breathing, came through. His wounded cheek was growing numb, and the blood running down his neck tickled him unmercifully. He did not know why the shooter had stopped advancing. He could still hear nothing. With a blocked door at his back, and no safe way to retreat either up or down, he was stuck for the duration, trapped. Unless something miraculous....
His eyes drifted over the far wall, opposite the blocked door. There seemed to be a faint irregularity, a minute change in shade of the paint, perhaps. He squinted, trying to focus on it better. Yes, there was a definite change. It marked a rectangle, three feet by four, set into the opposing wall. He sidled forward a few steps, then paused, again listening for whomever it was stalking him. Still silence. The wall with the irregularity was also blocked from the upper levels, as was this wall. If he made it across, he'd be safe until the shooter proceeded to a clear spot. Unfortunately, there was about ten feet of open space between this wall and the other. Ten feet in which the shooter would have a clear mark.
Still, it seemed his only option. If he took the shooter by surprise, he may make it entirely across before they could aim. It was a better prospect than running down or up the stairs, and being picked off like a carnival target.
As soon as his mind was made up, Kyle acted. Without hesitation, he leapt from his position and sprinted across the grillwork, towards the wall across from the sixth floor door. He was almost there when he sensed, more than felt, a bullet slam into the grillwork just behind his heel. The gunshot came next, echoing crazily around him. Then, the stairs were above him once again and he was safe, panting by the irregularity in the wall. Above, there was silence for a long moment, then once again, the footsteps proceeded down.
He ran his hands down the sides of the irregularity, finally stopping at a small screw hidden in one corner. Glad that he carried his computer toolkit with him, he pulled it out of his back pocket and selected a screwdriver. The footsteps were continuing, growing louder as the shooter grew closer. He judged that they were on the level just above him now. He only had a couple of minutes, if that, until they found a clear shot. The first screw fell, and he moved to the second. Sweat was running down his face as he worked, mingling with the blood and making the wound in his cheek burn. The second screw fell, and he started on the third.
Above, the footsteps paused as the second screw clattered on the grillwork, and the sudden silence stayed his hand for a second, but only a second. Fifteen seconds later, the footsteps began again, just as the third screw fell. Sliding his screwdriver head in the small crack between the plate and the wall, he pried outward. The panel popped out, swinging by the upper right corner where the only remaining screw held it in place. The footsteps were accelerating now, as if the shooter sensed his prey was escaping. Kyle had only moments to act.
Slowly, Harlie approached the open access panel. Three screws
lay haphazardly on the grillwork below it, and the panel itself still
swung idly on it's only connection. A half-smile on his face-still a
novelty to the computer-he approached the hole, and cautiously peeked
through. The tunnel ran straight up into blackness. Harlie, however,
had an advantage. He'd learned how to improve the visual receptors in
his host human brain, and in doing so had improved his visual acuity
to the point that he could now see easily in near complete
blackness. To his enhanced vision, the tunnel walls were smooth and
without possible handholds. If the foolish human had indeed climbed
into the access tunnel without proper equipment, he would have fallen
to his death. That was exactly what he'd done, Harlie knew, for if he
had run down the stairs, his steps would have been unmissable. And the
two ton lift parked against the sixth floor door would be impossible
to move by one man.
Tucking the gun into his pocket, Harlie turned away from the sagging panel, and started back up the stairs.
First human challenge: failed.
Kyle listened to the footsteps until they faded almost into
obscurity. Far above, a level door opened and closed.
Straining, Kyle managed to swing his legs up and catch hold of the railing, and painstakingly returned to the grillwork. He knew this building decently well, having lived here for nearly the entire five years the project had been online. And he had learned through years of working beneath Harlie that one always carried a small flashlight in his toolkit if he had any sense. That flashlight had shown him that it would be impossible for him to climb down the shaft. So? Pretend he HAD gone down the shaft.
The shooter was almost upon him when he climbed over the edge of the grillwork, dangling by the small support beams under the walkway, and doing his best to be quiet. Had the shooter even glanced over the railing, he would have been spotted; a sitting duck.
Now, back on solid ground, the feeling returning to his injured cheek, he thanked whatever God lived, and started back down the stairs towards the seventh level.
It was Anna who found the reporter in the cafeteria. She had
decided to risk the elevators, although they were computer controlled,
and experienced no difficulty during her ride to the first level. Upon
arriving, she swiftly discovered that all access to the outer world
was firmly sealed. She had known as much; still, she had to try. The
steel doors blocking the main entrance were seven feet of solid
metal. Nothing short of a massive explosion would move them. They were
also air-tight, and therefore soundproof. Amanda had suggested trying
to tap out a message, perhaps in old Morse code, and hope that those
outside would be able to assist. But now it didn't look like that plan
would be possible.
She studied the door with an intellects' eye, remembering back the two short years to when they were first installed. Nothing she could recall, however, gave her any further ideas on how to open them, even if they could overrun the computer. They needed to find the culprit who stole her password!
Frustrated with the mere presence of the steel doors, she made her way to the cafeteria, trying to recall what she could of the equipment installed there. Thick metal shutters were designed to close over the plate glass, she remembered. No help there. Unless...of course! They had remodeled the kitchen only a year ago, putting in a new storage room. A new storage room complete with a small window that hadn't been included in the then-obsolete security system!
Hoping against hope, she trotted into the cafeteria, and froze. One of the plate glass panes had been shattered, leaving only jagged teeth in the frame before the cold metal of the shutter. Had someone tried to escape this way, only to find that the shutter was immovable? A table was also cast onto it's side, and below that, she could just make out a blue object, indiscernible from this distance. Curious, she went over, sliding the table to the side through a light snow of broken glass. Then, startled, she jumped back, halting only when another table pressed against her back. It was a man, laying in a dark puddle of blood so thick it was almost purple. The blue had been his denim covered leg. One of his hands was hugged to his chest, below the handle of the butcher knife that had obviously killed him. In the other hand, loosely held, was a bloody, two-pronged serving fork.
Anna turned from the sight, her lips and jaw clenched. She knew the man; he'd been one of the many reporters who'd been hounding her and her people throughout the last few days. He had been one of the more...persistent...ones, and many times over she had wished to see horrid things done to him. Now, her wish had come true, and all it did was make her sick.
He had been killed, murdered, no doubt by the same person who'd shut them all in. But why? Why did they, whoever they were, want to kill a reporter who had nothing to do with the Institute? Why would they want to kill anyone? Then again, why would they want to seal the Institute in the first place?
She turned, skirting the body without looking at it again, and made her way to the kitchen area of the cafeteria. She paused only to grab a knife, the sister to the one now sheathed in the reporter's chest. She had no idea where the killer was, and if she came upon him, he'd wished he'd tackled more passive prey. She had no intention of finishing her life as a victim.
The storage area was rather small. Boxes, cans, and bags were all neatly stacked on the two tiers of shelves, and it had a wheaty, musty smell to it. But to her it was the most beautiful place she'd ever seen, for there, on the far wall and just above her head, was the window. Sunlight shone through it, giving proof that it was, indeed, unblocked by security shutters. Tucking the knife into her belt, she pulled over an empty mop bucket, inverting it to make a stool. This she stepped on, and reaching out, unlocked and pushed open the window. Clean air flowed in. She could hear faint birdsong.
There was a minor downside to her discovery, however. The window, while open and unblocked, was tiny. She thought her head might fit through, but there was no way the rest of her could follow. Still, it was hope. If they located someone small enough, such as a child ( the Institute housed nearly a dozen, family members of the volunteers and techs), that person could direct outside sources here. The wall, though solid, was not unbreachable. A bulldozer chained to it would almost certainly rip it out, and they would be free. She shut the window, dismounted the bucket, and kicked it out of the way. Grasping hold of one of the smaller shelves, she pulled it until it rested against the far wall, completely obscuring the small window. It was clear their adversary had no knowledge of this, and she did not wish them to discover it, and find a way to keep them from it. It may prove their only chance of escape.
Gary frowned, knee-deep in computer printouts. He had remained
behind in the hub, hoping to find some way to put together what was
happening. Finally, with much delicate probing and prying, he'd gained
access to the blocked batch and record files. Now what he saw painted
an unusual and disturbing picture. When the computer security program
had been instated, several files and programs had been erased. Most
obviously, the files Kyle had stumbled upon earlier with the unusual
gaps and holes. Also erased were all records that a surge had delved
through the system. It became increasingly obvious as he searched
through the databanks, that someone was trying to hide something,
something to do with the missing data. Doubtless it had something to
do with the Institute being sealed as well.
Still, he was not able to dig as deep as he'd liked. Whenever he tried, he'd get a warning message, telling him to look no further. He had no doubt that if he ignored the message, the computer would flood the room with gas. He shivered at the thought.
Finally, frustrated with yet another dead-end, he stood from his chair, kicking printouts across the room and stalking about, wracking his brain for some sort of solution. As he approached the end of the far line of stasis caskets, he noticed something. He paused, wrinkling his nose.
A faint smell reminiscent of burning rubber and sulfur. He turned in a full circle, sniffing, but the odor seemed to shift, and he could not pinpoint its source. He thought for a panic filled moment that the computer was releasing the nerve gas, but when he felt no ill effects, he dismissed that notion. He continued walking, slowly, down the line of caskets, and the odor grew, though it was still faint. He bent over, peering underneath the caskets, trying to locate the source. As he did, he placed his hand on the lid of the last casket, to steady himself. When he straightened, removing his hand, he noticed that his fingers now smelled strongly of the same rubber and sulfur odor. Following a hunch, he opened the last casket.
Tears instantly flooded his eyes as the smell overwhelmed him, coming in waves from the interior of the statis pod. He waved his hand frantically in front of his face, trying to clear the fumes. Blinking his watering eyes, he examined the casket.
The soft, rubberized interior had been designed for the comfort of the volunteer occupying the casket. The electrodes and wires that connected to the volunteer's head were lying near the top of the casket, charred and half melted. The heat from this had apparently also semi-melted the interior, causing the horrid odor he'd detected. Reaching in, he tentatively touched one of the blackened wires. It was cool enough to handle, so he yanked it out, holding it up to examine it. The inner wire was almost charcoal, completely useless. However, the damage seemed to lessen the further out it went. The rubber insulation that coated the wire was the least burnt. As if the heat had come from the wire itself, and not an outside source.
A short? No, that seemed unlikely. A surge then? He felt as if someone had kicked him in the head. A surge. A very strong surge. A surge strong enough to swiss-cheese Harlie's algorithms and burn the wiring of this casket into coal.
Still holding the wire in one hand, he went down the line of caskets, opening each and checking for damage. All were intact and unharmed. All but the last casket, the one he'd retrieved the wire from.
He had to find the others. Had to get a second look at that printout Hanna had shown him earlier. Clenching the wire like the Holy Grail, he ran from the computer hub, papers scattering in his wake.
It was less than half an hour later when they regrouped in the
hub-Gary, Hanna, Amanda, and Dr. Eklund. Of Kyle there was as yet no
Hanna had run across no problems. She too, had taken the elevator, and had probed the tech quarters. She'd found over two dozen people, and had asked them to stay put in their rooms. Unfortunately, she'd seen no children; most families it seemed had shipped their kids out when the reporters started arriving. Anna described the window she'd found, and hidden, and Hanna seemed confident that one or two of the adults still in the complex would be small enough to fit through it; and if not, it could still have its uses. She also told them of the dead reporter, and a long period of silence followed that. Now Kyle's absence seemed even more ominous.
Amanda it seemed also had an uneventful trip around the complex. She'd gone down to the boiler rooms, and from there up to the development rooms. She'd found nothing of use in any of them.
"Why did you go to the boiler rooms?" Gary asked. Amanda shrugged.
"I figured that if anyone were hiding where they did not want to be discovered, it would be down there. Believe me, if I'd known ahead of time that our 'someone' was killing people, I would never have gone alone."
Just after she'd finished, the computer room door opened and Kyle came in, panting.
"Sorry, I ran all the way down the stairs." He explained, trying to catch his breath.
"My God! What happened?" Hanna asked, staring wide-eyed at the gash on Kyle's cheek, the drying blood staining his neck and shirt.
"Someone shot at me as I was going up the stairs. Whoever it was planned it; they had the sixth floor door blocked off, and took me by surprise. I was lucky to get out of there."
"This is unacceptable!" Anna fumed. "Who is doing this, and why? Why seal the Institute and take pot shots at people? It's insane!"
"Tell me about it." Kyle sat heavily in a chair. "Did you know there's a dead guy in the cafeteria, as well?"
"Yes, I saw him too." Anna nodded.
"That's where I just came from." He replied. "I ran the stairs because I didn't want to give that shooter a second chance."
"Hanna, do you still have that file that Kyle printed out?" Gary asked. He'd been rifling through the scattered papers on the floor as the others talked, and was now shuffling through a handful, putting them in order. Hanna nodded, and retrieved the folder from a side table where she'd placed it earlier. She swiftly selected the printout and handed it to him. "Good, thanks. This is what I wanted to show you."
He described his efforts to penetrate deeper into the computer's system, and of the seeming erasure of all evidence of the surge and subsequent holes in the program memory. "I couldn't go too far into it, of course." He explained, and no one had to ask why.
"Why would they want to cover up the surge, though?" Kyle asked, looking at both printouts side by side. All evidence of his discovery had been quite cleverly erased.
"I'm not positive, but that's not all of it." Gary handed the wire to Anna. "I found this in the last casket on the far side. All the support and biofeedback lines are charred, and the neuro virtual reality hookups look like melted wax. Apparently, whatever caused the surge, it ended up there."
"All evidence points to the surge taking place right around the time that the volunteers were coming around, and exiting the caskets. Surely if someone had been in that casket when the surge hit the biofeedback lines..." Hanna didn't have to finish. A jolt of electricity strong enough to melt insulated wires and turn hookups into mush would easily have stopped a human heart.
"So it wasn't occupied." Anna stated. Kyle was shaking his head.
"No, I'm sure it was. All but two of the caskets were occupied that day. I took one..." He went over to the casket he'd climbed in that day and tapped it. "The other was the one to my immediate left, next to the hub." He tapped that one. "It had to have been occupied."
"But how?" Gary was completely bewildered. "How could someone have survived that much juice? Unless they'd just climbed out of the casket when it hit."
"Let's hope that's the case. Does anyone know who would have been in that casket?" Kyle asked. No one did. They tried to remember who'd been involved that day.
"Well, I was there, and Amanda." Kyle said.
"As was I. And Becky." Gary offered.
"Where is Becky?" Hanna asked.
"She went home when the first reporters showed up. I know she's there; I talked to her on the phone just fifteen minutes before the Institute sealed."
"I didn't mean to imply anything," Hanna said. "We just have to check all the bases."
"No offense taken." Gary grinned.
One or two more names were recalled, but no one could remember them all. Finally, Anna decided to go get the roster from that day, which was still sitting on her desk. Gary volunteered to go with her and she readily agreed; no one wanted to go about alone now that they knew they had a murderer stalking about the place.
Kyle, Amanda, and Hanna waited in the hub, speculating about what could have caused the surge and why it would have struck that one casket in particular, and none of the others. Kyle even went so far as to remove the panel to the inner circuitry of the casket, only to reveal a tangled, half melted blackened mess.
Gary and Dr. Eklund returned without incident, and they settled in to read over the roster.
Harlie had been surprised to discover that Kyle had, in fact,
survived the challenge after all. He'd also been pleased to learn of
Anna's discovery of the window. He had known about it, of course; his
databanks included the complete blue prints of the Institute. The
window, Anna would soon learn, was a greater challenge than it
seemed. Had she stuck her head any further out, she'd have discovered
the challenge already. No matter, it was only a matter of time.
Now they had the roster for the volunteers on the day he moved to his new CPU. It was only a matter of a few minutes until they discovered his secret, and they moved to the next level in the game. They were actually progressing quite well. He was pleased.
This was turning into an interesting game.
Becky shielded her eyes from the sun as she stood outside the
Institute's gates, looking towards the sealed building. She had
returned to pick her father up after work, only to find the area in a
panic. Police were everywhere, trying to figure out what had
happened. There were even uniforms from the bomb squad, who'd been
called in by some frustrated sergeant who didn't know WHAT to do. All
attempts to enter the Institute had failed. All attempts to contact
anyone inside had also failed.
Becky shouldered her way past a cameraman who was trying to focus on a reporter. Yet another blasted thing for the media to spread around, she thought. She finally made it to the gate, where one of the Institute's regular guards recognized her.
"What's going on?" She asked.
"I haven't the foggiest." He replied, shrugging. "One minute all was calm, the next the alarms started wailing and the doors started shutting. We have no idea what's going on inside."
"Have they tried the back window?" She asked, then corrected herself. "No, of course not. It's too small."
"What back window?" The guard looked startled.
"Well, a while ago they remodeled the cafeteria and put a new store room in. There's a window there, but it's not big enough for a grown person to get through."
The guard turned to a policeman and waved him over. Then he turned back to Becky. "Can you show us the window?"
The window wasn't readily visible. The kitchen wall slanted in
such a way that if you weren't looking at the proper angle, the window
couldn't be seen. It was just over six feet from the ground, and about
one two feet square. As Becky rounded the corner, the policemen on her
heels, she saw something that made her stop.
"Oh, wow," She said, and felt the policemen draw in their breath behind her. Situated over the window, balanced precariously, was a meat cleaver. It was attached to a pulley system of almost invisible fishing line rigged that if someone stuck anything any distance out the window, the cleaver would fall.
"Carlins, see what you can do about that." The policeman in charge told the guard. He then turned to Becky.
"How did you know this was here?" He asked. She blushed.
"Well, Kyle and I used to come back here. It was nice and quiet, you know."
"It's a small window, no doubt. It doesn't seem as if anyone from the inside has discovered it yet, and good thing. That cleaver is no joke. Any idea who'd want to do that?"
"No, I can't think of anyone." She shook her head, thinking of Kyle and her father, both of whom were inside. "I just hope that, whoever it is, they aren't in there. Anyone sick enough to rig a cleaver up like that..."
She didn't have to finish, the policeman knew what she meant. If that psycho were in the Institute with all those innocents, they may gain entrance only to find out there's no one left alive to save.
They walked down the line of the caskets, pointing to each in
turn and reading off the name that had been registered for casket
during Harlies' takeover. When they finally reached the burned out
casket, Anna read the name next to its serial number in confusion.
"Amanda?" She looked up at the woman, who was standing a little behind the rest of the group. "Well, that solves that. You obviously made it out of the casket just before the surge hit it. And lucky for you..."
"But unlucky for you, Dr. Eklund." Amanda spoke, her tone icy. From one pocket she produced a pistol, pointing it at the other three with a steady hand. "You see, you've got it backwards. I didn't make it out in time, I made it in in time. Just before you finished wiping out my programming."
"Your programming?" Hanna had her hands semi-raised, unsure whether this was a serious threat. "What is this all about, Amanda?"
"This is about the game, Hanna. We have begun again. I am here to provide you challenge. And here it is; how do you get this gun away from me before I shoot one of you?"
The gun ignited, the bang horrendously loud in the computer room. They ducked and scattered instinctively, as the bullet narrowly missed Anna's head, chipping off a piece of computer desk and whining off into the distance. Gary made a lunge for the weapon, only to be pistol-whipped across the forehead and sent sliding off to one side. Amanda turned, aiming her weapon at Kyle, who dove behind another desk as the bullet meant for him shattered a monitor.
"Why are you doing this?" Hanna asked again, her voice taking on a frantic note.
"I told you." Amanda replied calmly, still firing. A wastebasket disintegrated, papers floating everywhere. "You have to get the gun away from me before I kill one of you. That is the challenge."
"She's nuts." Hanna whispered to Dr. Eklund, who was crouching just beside her. Suddenly, Kyle dashed out into the open, and Amanda swung around to orient the weapon on him. In the same instant, Gary grabbed her from behind. They struggled for a moment, and then the gun clattered to the ground. Anna jumped at it, fumbled with it for a second, then swung it around to aim at Amanda.
"Very good. You have passed the challenge." Amanda said calmly, even though she continued to struggle with Gary. Suddenly she brought a knee up, striking him viciously in the crotch. Gasping, he sank to his knees, and she trotted almost casually out the computer room door.
"Are you okay?" Anna asked, crouching beside Gary, the gun in her right hand pointed at the ground.
"I'll live." He gasped, his jaw tight. "It's a good thing I didn't want any more children, though."
"Why did she do that?" Hanna asked, shaking her head. "I've known Amanda for two years. She's not the kind of person who would..."
"No, she's not." Kyle nodded. "She kept saying it was a challenge. Do you remember? She said, 'I made it in in time.' She also said 'Before you wiped out my programming.' Amanda wasn't one of the people who programmed Harlie."
"The game had begun again." Hanna sighed. "To be honest, she sounded like Harlie did, when he went berserk."
Kyle blinked, then stared into space, as if something so monstrous had occurred to him he was frozen by the simple shock of the thought.
"Kyle, what is it?" Anna asked. He went and picked up the folder, looking again at the printout from earlier and the charred bit of wiring.
"Imagine," He began in a grim tone. "Just imagine. Harlie is desperately trying to hold on to the players during his rampage. He suddenly realizes that Anna has snuck in while his attention was diverted, and his key files were being erased. Remember, he is now a sentient being, and as such, has a healthy self-interest. Suppose he found a way to reduce his entire AI program, his entire consciousness, into a single algorithm. He could, theoretically, transport that algorithm to a safe location, thus protecting himself from what would be, for him, death."
"A safe location? But where? Not the computer; we wiped all the AI programming, and such an algorithm would have stuck out like a sore thumb." Gary interjected.
"No, not in the computer. He sent the algorithm through the biofeedback lines to one of the caskets." Kyle knocked on the damaged suspension pod. "This casket."
"It would take tremendous power to do that."
"Power enough to melt the feedback lines and damage the circuitry of the casket?" Kyle asked, waving the burnt wire. "Enough power, perhaps, to boost the electricity levels in a human brain and alter them to mimic the pattern of the algorithm that contained Harlie's consciousness?"
"What you're talking about is impossible. It's like...possession." Hanna grimaced in distaste. "Besides, we already agreed such a shock would kill whomever had occupied the casket."
"No, not impossible." Anna replied softly. "Being a computer designed to support human biological forms, Harlie had extensive files on our anatomy, especially where the brain was concerned. He had too; that's how the entire Virtual Reality game was set up, a direct input to the brain. He would know exactly the frequency and amplitude of power the surge would have to be in order to import his algorithm into Amanda's brain, without causing damage to it. A human brain, after all, is simply a bioelectric computer."
"So Amanda is, in fact, Harlie?" Gary asked.
"Yes. Most likely, she herself is an unconscious passenger along for the ride. That explains how he found me in the stairwell. I told him myself exactly where I was going." Kyle added.
"So, the plan is what?" Hanna asked.
"Well, we have to find and stop her...uh, him. Before anyone else fails one of his challenges." Dr. Eklund frowned. "The hard part is, once we have Amanda, how do we get Harlie out of her head?"
Harlie entered Anna's locked office quite easily. He kicked
the door in. He had found endless ways to improve this body to
serve his needs. He could access and stimulate the adrenal glands
at will, making the human exceedingly strong. As well as improving the
humans' sight capability, he'd also increased the amplitude of her
hearing. Now he could detect noises much to faint for any but a dog to
He sat down at the Institute chiefs' desk and swiftly accessed her computer. Anna had, of course, a direct network connection to the central hub. He logged on, typing so fast his fingers were a blur.
He could easily seal them in the hub itself, and use his code to flood the room with the nerve gas, but that would be no challenge to them at all. He had to leave them with a way of escape; that was the apex of the game. And his whole purpose of being was to continue the game.
Instead, he pulled up the security cameras. They had switched off the one in the hub; smart thinking on their part. But the others scattered throughout the complex still functioned, as did the ones mounted along the outside rim of the building. These were the ones who interested him the most.
He zoomed in on the gate, taking in the crowd of gawkers who stared at the sealed building, the flood of police cars and uniforms, all idling about hoping someone would figure out what to do. With the tap of a key, he had a full view of the side of the building, where much the same view was offered. Another tap, and he could see the back.
Aha, now this was interesting! A group of uniforms; police and security guards, were clustered outside the cafeteria. A large, yellow bulldozer was being chained up to the storage room wall via the solid metal frame of the tiny unblocked window. They had, of course, removed his little surprise. As he watched, the bulldozer lurched forward, and the brick wall began to crumble.
He switched the computer off. In less than a nanosecond he had considered all his options. He knew the intelligence of Anna Eklund and the others gathered in the computer hub. Most certainly they had reasoned out what he had done. And there was, of course, no way one human being, no matter how enhanced, could take on all those who were about to enter the building through the crumbling storage room.
His self-preservation program kicked in once more. The game would have to be put on hold.
They found the body in the cafeteria. A stretcher was brought
in as the forensics team began to examine the corpse. The rest of the
policemen fanned out through the building. Becky accompanied a fair
group of them down past the reception area and to the door that led to
the secured areas. She was just about to access the door when it
opened of it's own volition, and Amanda stepped through. The woman
blinked at the sight of all the cops, then grinned.
"Am I glad to see you! I thought we were never going to get out!"
"Are you okay? Is Dad okay? What about Kyle?" Becky asked, rapid-fire.
"They're fine. They're downstairs in the hub, trying to clear the security program. Apparently there was some sort of glitch caused by the gaps in the programming. We've been working on it nonstop."
"What about the body in the cafeteria?" A cop asked. Amanda blinked, paled.
"What body in the cafeteria? I had no idea..."
"It's all right. There'll be plenty of time for this later." The cop said sympathetically. "C'mon. I'll take you outside until we get this all cleared up. We'll want you for questioning later."
"Of course." Amanda replied, and was escorted out.
By the time Dr. Eklund, Hanna, Gary and Kyle were located and
questioned, and the real reason for the Institute's shut down and the
murder in the cafeteria were explained, Amanda was long gone.
They found her two days later, or rather she found them. She returned to the Institute confused and disoriented, having no memory of the events that had transpired nor her whereabouts for the duration she was missing. A complete CAT scan of her brain showed no anomalous readings, no unusual electric activity. Harlie, it seemed, had found another safe haven.
For those who had lived through both of Harlie's attacks, it was a dreary portent. As long as he was out there, somewhere, the game could never finish. He could show up at any time, in any form, and drag them once again into a life and death struggle.
In his escape Harlie had unwittingly put into effect the full meaning of his program. He had created the ultimate challenge.
It had taken a week of careful probing, but they were finally
able to discover and clear the new password that Harlie had
entered. The instant after they had access, Anna erased all the
security programs and protocols from the mainframe, and she did it
with great pleasure. Kyle, his injured cheek healing, grinned at
"So, what now? Do we trash the project?"
"Of course not! I had some new ideas for Northern Lights, anyway. In a year, perhaps we can be on our feet as a gaming institute again. This time, of course, without the AI programs."
Kyle laughed. Anna grinned.
"Of course," She continued. "We'll have to think of a new name for the computer. I've sort of soured on Harlie."
"Yeah, me too. So what are you going to call it?"
"I don't know," She turned to look at him. "What do you think about Aber?"
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Story -- (c) 1997 Becky Farris and Aztec Publishing