Wicked Game

Fiction by John Seanchai Grose

Installment One: Looking Glass

Byron Jacobson eased himself into his virtual playground. His cyberdeck smoothly disconnected his senses and he fumbled for a moment in the resulting darkness. It surrounded him with a formless touch, an insistent hand. Then a program came on-line, an electronic key was formed, and an unreal door opened with a flash and bright glare into an unreal place. Assured of his identity, sentry programs, invisible but active, allowed him to pass.
Byron stepped out onto a gigantic chessboard, its huge squares etched into a neutral colored marble floor with fine pixels. He walked around pawns and rooks as tall as he was. As Byron neared the far end of the board, he smiled broadly, seeing the white queen had moved to save her king from check.
Then he passed through another door and into a carpeted hallway. There were tables and plants and bric-a-brac scattered about its length. Byron ran his hand over the head of a ceramic lion as he wandered to, and entered, his study.
This room suggested refinement. A phonograph, almost hidden in one corner, ran its needle over a scratched record and a symphony rose hesitantly into the air. A simulated hound lifted its head as it lay in front of a fireplace. Byron crossed to his desk and sat.
He reached into a drawer and removed a sheaf of letters. They were virtual representations of his electronic mail and he read them with care. Some he tucked back into their places, an act which caused the computer that ran his playground to save them for later reference. Others he crumpled with a frown and tossed into the wastebasket at the foot of the desk. These were summarily deleted from the system.
As the music swelled to a single, high note, the door to the study was thrown open. A girl, dressed in a perfectly white dress, rushed to Byron and clutched at his knee. "Daddy!" she cried as she ran, "Daddy! You're home!"
Byron smiled, his hand covering the tiny one on his leg. "I'm home, honey."
"Guess what we did in school today?" The girl's oval face beamed from beneath a mass of blonde curls. She climbed up onto her father's knee, then straightened her dress.
"What did you do?"
"We painted dinosaurs."
"Dinosaurs? What kind did you paint?"
The girl did not answer. Her mouth began to open, then she froze like a videotape being paused. A small hand hung in the air, caught moving toward Byron's thin beard, and the girl's eyes were half closed in a blink.
Byron snarled and cursed, the illusion ruined by a glitch. His virtual daughter, painstakingly created from photographs and fantasy, sat on his knee, now nothing more than a solid mass of pixels and electronic ether. He sent a mental command to his node's main processor with an angry jab of will.

His daughter, freed a moment later, rubbed his beard as she said, "A very big one."
"How big?" asked Byron teasingly.
"Cherise," warned a warm voice from the door, "don't bother your father when he is busy." Bryon and his daughter turned toward the speaker. A tall woman, blonde and lithe, stood in the door. A tight, tan evening gown ran down her body.
"Why don't you get your painting and show it to me later," Byron said to Cherise. With a darling smiled her father had created, the girl slipped down and ran out into the hallway. Byron watched her go, then turned toward the wife which he had also invoked from computer code. "Amanda," he said evenly.
"You're home early. Are you coming to dinner?"
"We discussed this last night."
Amanda sighed and ran a hand down her dress to straighten it. "You don't really love me."
Byron stood. With a smile, he moved to his wife and pressed himself against her. He brought his lips lightly to her neck as she tilted her head to allow him access. "Come to dinner with me," Amanda breathed.
Byron smelled another man's cologne under her perfume. His embrace tightened.
There was a distant part of himself, buried beneath coils of fantasy, that recognized, called attention to, the illusion. This was not his wife. This shadow could not take a lover. Outside the virtual stage, sophisticated subroutines had gauged his mood from his brain's chemical dance and had recreated this familiar drama.
But Byron would play along. He would drink this in and fill his need here.

"Is this a new dress?" he whispered.
"Why?"
"The salesman's cologne is all over it."
"Oh," said Amanda, her tone tinged with challenge. "He wore so much of it."
"He must have," agreed Byron flatly. He drew away.
Amanda began to speak again, to draw him further into the fantasy, but he silenced her with a command to the hidden processors. Like his shadow daughter had earlier, she froze. He walked past her into the hall, feeling hollow inside again.
He entered the chess room again and navigated the giant pieces with disregard. None of them had moved. None gave him the pleasure, the satisfaction, they sometimes did. He conjured up a passkey before he reached the playground's exit and used it angrily.
The black and white checkerboard floor, the white queen and king, and the invisible sentries all vanished in a burst of static and light. Byron's cyberdeck powered down, indicators moving from a bright green to a dull orange.
He reached up and tugged the interface plugs out their socket.
The contents of the room shouted for attention. Colors raged in place. Sounds swam up to assult Byron's ears. For a moment, everything was vibrant and vivid. Then, as his biological senses adjusted to the return of stimuli, the world grew quiet. Still and dim.
Byron sighed, levering himself up off the couch he lay on while interfaced with his computers and the Net. His stomach announced itself hungry. His legs felt weak as he stood and walked to the kitchen.
The realities of the outside world struck him, as they always did, as he passed a mirror in the hall between his real study and the kitchen. For half a second, something hideous was reflected in the glass. A dwarf, a tiny twisted man. Its large head wore a pained expression as it hurried past.

***

Lily pressed a tiny key that would call the next page of the novel she was reading up on the pocket computer's screen and looked across the mansion's manicured lawn to see if the situation had changed. There were still four well dressed men between her and the door, two cleaning their guns by the pool and two almost hidden the deep shadows of the patio.
She sighed and went back to her book.
Two pages later, the security force around the house changed shifts. Lily caught the sounds of laughter, harsh in the quiet of the afternoon, as her novel's heroine was being dragged off a pirate ship by her future husband. A fight between swarthy pirates and the future husband had just gotten underway when Lily put the computer aside and used a pair of binoglasses to watch the men below.
They were professionals. Rather than all leaving at once, each man was replaced in turn, the other three guards continually scanning the grounds for any problems as they did. Lily noted their efficiency with a grim look.
"Hey there," said a voice in her ear.
Lily rolled onto her back, ready to kick the man who had found her in the knees, when she realized the voice was coming through the miniature receiver she wore in her ear. She cursed, her heart pounding, adrenaline flaring in her system, and dug the accompanying microphone out of the collar of her dress. "Byron," she whispered fiercely.
"What's happening?"
"You just about blew my cover, that's what's happening." Lily was hidden well: she had buried herself in a mass of evergreen bushed that formed a kind of border between the inner lawn and the greater mass of the mansion's grounds. A thin blanket of a heat reflecting substance insured that she would not betray herself on infrared while it's outer surface was camouflaged to keep her from being spotted by air. Her pocket computer was too small to be picked up on any scans for electromagnetic sources and since Lily didn't have any kind of cyber or neuralware, that wasn't a problem. But somebody - a gardener maybe - could always accidentally stumble over her where she lay.

"Sorry," said Byron, but wasn't.
"Are you inside?"
"Not to worry, little sister. I have the Net end of things covered."
The operation was straightforward, a simple extraction. Byron would gain access to the building's security systems via the Net and shut them down. He would gain control of any machines linked to computer and use them to wreak havoc and protect his sister as she entered the premises. Lily would rush in under this electronic cover, find the boy they'd been paid to retrieve, and get out.
"Well?"
"Well what?" asked the Netrunner.
"Are the systems off-line or not?"
"Not yet. Give me a minute."
Lily rolled back onto her stomach and used the binoglasses to see if the men below had noticed her jump when her brother's voice had boomed in her ear. They had not. There were two by the pool and two on the patio still. "Give you a minute. What are you doing in there?"
"This place is fascinating," replied Byron. "I've been combing some of Lignelli's files and he sure does have some secrets."
"Byron," commanded Lily, "get the security systems off-line now."
"You sure are bossy for a little sister."
"Do it."
There was no reply, only a slight hiss that meant the program Byron was using to generate a voice from the Net was still functioning. Two minutes later, his voice crackled over the receiver again. "All done," he told Lily.
Lily took a second to focus, adrenaline and excitement singing in her, then sprang out of the bushes and ran towards the mansion.

***

Lily encountered the two men by the pool with the thrum of adrenaline in her bloodstream and a wisp of a smile on her face. She caught of the hand of one man as he pulled a large gun from inside his jacket and, squeezing on his forearm, caused his finger to close down on the trigger.
The gun spat out a line of bullets and by shifting the man's arm, Lily directed the deadly spray into the chest of the second man who had run up from the pool. A large clay vase was split into two large fragments, dark soil and a tangle of roots spilling out it, as the gun's muzzle swept past it. Lily let go of the first man's arm in time to see the second drop to his knees, stunned. Blood began to seep through his designer shirt.
A knee to the gunman's stomach caused him to double over. The astonished cry of his partner dragged at his attention and Lily was able to complete the move with ease; she struck his head with a closed fist and he collapsed, only half-conscious.
Lily moved on, breaking into a run.
The two guards who had been standing by the door intercepted her as she flowed over the concrete apron around the pool. One of them attempted a flying leap, but landed in the deep end of the pool as Lily ducked and redirected his forward momentum.
Before she could turn her attention to the last guard standing, the clatter of gunfire sounded once again in the expectant silence that seemed to wrap itself around the house and Lily felt the impact of bullets against her skin. She glanced down and found they had not penetrated her tightly woven, bullet proof clothing. There would be a bruise, a large ugly bruise, she knew.
The last man was more cautious and only stood grinning, gun in hand, as he watched Lily gauge her wound. When she looked up a moment later, he straightened his arm and looked down through the gun's sight at her.
Lily exploded forward as the gun went off a second time.
Before she realized the second bullet had punctured her clothing and drawn blood, she was in front of the remaining guard and sent a roundhouse kick towards his hand. It knocked the gun out of his grasp and into the grass a few feet away.
Then Lily felt the searing warmth of the slug in her arm.
The man closed his hand into a fist and twin blades, each almost two feet long, sprung from a hidden recess in his arm. He swung them in an arc toward Lily and she fell back. He tried to slash her a second time, but she put up a restraining hand and tried to twist the man's arm so that his forward momentum would carry the bulk of his body past her while she pinned the arm behind his back.
But the man's limb had been modified beyond the pair of rippers. The shock of the blow, catching it, caused Lily's hands to go numb. She stumbled backwards, nearly falling into the grass.
The man came forward as the solo dug into a pocket. When he swung again, Lily caught the arm, this time allowing herself to be carried along with the strike. She touched a thick metal plate to the man's flesh. There was an intense squeal as the device released an electromagnetic pulse into his cyberware.
The man broke off contact, his arm cocked at a fourty-five degree angle. He frowned and tried to swing again. But his shoulder was frozen in place and the blow did not go far. Lily smiled as she planted a kick in his midsection. And then another.
Trained in the use of firearms and his cybernetic weaponry, the last guard was no match for Lily's martial arts skills as she rained blows down upon him. Soon he retreated to the patio, where a snap kick to his head jarred him into unconsciousness.
Panting, Lily thumbed the lock to the sliding glass door and after it processed an implanted command from Byron, opened obediently. She peered into the dim interior for more security personnel, but found none.
Lily whirled, dove to the side, as the man who had fallen into the pool tried to bring part of a deck chair down on her head. She drove a kick into his stomach and he stumbled backwards. Before she could press her advantage, the sliding glass door flowed silently shut.
The guard, dripping onto the patio, charged forward, his makeshift club raised.
There was a flash and a crackle as he contacted the electrified frame of the door. Then her fell away, his vital organs charred by the deadly current the house's security system routed through the door's lock and edges.
Byron chuckled in his sister's ear. "Why don't they make these people take aptitude tests?"

***

The house was full of darkness and dim shapes, the afternoon sun held at bay by heavy blinds and tinted windows. Lily moved cautiously in it. There was a computer on the bar that flickered to life as the solo approached its position. The perfect face of Byron's ICON peered out of it. "I've sealed the house against any further unwelcome guests. Changed the codes, too."
"Good," whispered Lily. "Where's the boy?"
The ICON frowned from behind the looking glass. "As near as I can tell, he's upstairs in the master bedroom." Lily's stomach clenched itself into a knot, willing his current location not to be a sign of what his captivity had been like. "There's a flight of stairs to your right."
Lily located it quickly and padded up the steps, her arms held at ready and slightly away from her body. She was still high on adrenaline. The corridor at the top of the stairs was empty save for closed doors.
"Which end?" Lily asked her invisible brother.
"The south end," he said in her ear. "There's a security system - I've disabled it. I can't find any off system security listed on the floor plans, but that doesn't mean its not there. Watch out, okay?"
Lily moved slowly forward, one step at a time, until she was standing before the heavy closed door of the master bedroom. The keypad lock near its knob blinked green. The solo ran her gaze around the frame looking for laser eyes and receptor sites, but there were none she could see. She waved a hand in front of the door to check for motion detectors, the bulk of her body flat against the wall, but there was no sign of any.
Taking a breath, she forced the door open.
"Our guest is finally here," said a rich voice from the depths of the bedroom.
The bedroom was divided into two distinct areas. One had a great bed, with a thin figure sprawled unconscious over it, with a wall of carved dressers and wardrobes. The other area consisted of a desk, chair, and sofa. There was a grossly overweight man sitting behind the computer at the desk and a young Asian lady sat rigidly on the sofa.
"Do come in," said the man, his great jowl moving as he spoke. "Your friend in my computer system is skilled, but even he cannot disable security camera not hooked into said system. I've been watching your progress - impressive."
Lily glanced over at the figure on the bed. It was impossible to tell its the sex and age at the current distance, but the height and apparent weight would approximately that of the boy. If it was him, the next question would be was he still alive...
"Ah, the boy." The man tapped at the keys of the computer in a distracted manner.
Lily moved into the room cautiously. Her senses were strained, trained in a wide circle around her body. She listened to herself breathing heavily, felt the throb of her wound. She looked at the figure's chest, hoping to catch it rising and falling.
"Don't worry about Thomas," said the man. "I haven't harmed the lad. He was anxious and I administered a sedative."
The solo inched her way closer to the boy, prodding loose piles of clothing with her toe, crouching to see that no one was hiding under the bed. When Lily was close enough, she laid two fingers against the child's throat. His skin was cool, but he had a steady pulse. There was a gun just beyond the reach of his outstretched hand.
"You must think I am a monster," commented the overweight man. The Asian women on the couch looked at her lap.
"I'm not paid to think," replied Lily.
"Oh," laughed the man, "don't be coy."
Lily bent down slowly to pull the firearm out of the child's grasp. He stirred, but did not wake.
Gun firmly in hand, Lily swung around so that it's barrel was pointed at the man behind the desk. She held it loosely, casually, as if it were a natural extension of herself she was adept at using. Her arm ached as she did it. The solo didn't plan on firing it, however; guns make good leverage.
"Ah," said the man.
"The boy and I are leaving," Lily told him. "Where are his clothes?"
"His clothes? In the dresser next to the bed. But don't wake Michael just yet. He's had a trying night."
The muzzle of the gun waver. "Trying?" said Lily, hoarsely.
The man smiled. "Yes. Surgery."
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, it's simple really. I was making him mine. Like Felicia." The man gestured towards the young Asian woman on the couch. She looked at her hands, which she had folded in her lap, her face as expressionless and smooth as a bronze mask.
"And what did you do to her?"
The man tapped a key, then turned his monitor so Lily could see it. There was a green wire frame schematic of a human skull. Nestled in the yellow haze of pixels that represented the brain was a mass of red dots. "This is a map of the human brain," the man explained. "This here - " - he pointed to the red areas - "are clusters of nanites which have been inserted into the skull to change certain hardwired functions."
"What functions?" asked Lily, hoping to gain enough information to give to the surgeon she would be handing the boy over to once they were free of the house. The more the doctor knew, the less time it would take for him or her to reverse the condition.
"I'll show you," replied the man, pressing yet another button on his keypad. The woman on the couch gasped, arching her back. She cried out softly as she slid from her composed position to the floor.
"Stop it! Stop hurting her now!" Lily tightened her grip on the gun as she drew her arm into a rigid line.
"Oh," whispered the man, "I'm not hurting her. Rather the opposite."
A wave of nausea passed through the solo as she realized what was happening.
"You see, the nanite have eaten away the pleasure centers in Felicia's brain and have taken over the functions of that structure. On a limited basis, that is. The only pleasure Felicia receives now comes directly from me. She cannot enjoy the taste of food, the delicate joy of a kiss - "
The gun thundered in Lily's hands.

***

Lily sipped mineral water while Byron scowled. The dwarfed glanced at the sofa that held the curled, sleeping form of the boy Michael and then out to the patio where Felicia sat. His stubby fingers picked at invisible lint on his shirt as he said, "Why did you bring them here?"
"Where should I have taken them?"
"How about his parents?"
Lily shook her head. "Not yet. We have to get him to a doctor to see...what's happened to him."
"That's not part of the deal. Not our responsibility."
"I don't care," the solo replied with a shrug.
Byron straightened his collar. "That's not a professional attitude," he told his sister in an irritated tone. All his nervous mannerisms having been cycled through, he stood. It was an old ploy; Lily was as sensitive about his height as he was and Byron had learned over the years that calling her attention to his deformity often gave him an edge in any negotiations or argument.
Lily took another sip of her water, then cradled the bottle. "The last person who said that to me is dead." Her voice was flat, without the hint of threat. "He was right though."
"And it's professionalism that keeps a person alive in this business. We need to follow through with the plan and dump the kid."
"Was looking through Johnson's files part of the plan?" Lily sparred.
Byron smiled sweetly. "Listen, let's just get the kid to his parents and be done with it."
"Michael."
"What?"
"His name is Michael."
"Well, sister dear, you are not responsible for Michael's well-being or what happened to him. You shot the person who was, remember?"
She nodded. The plastic water bottle crumpled in her hand.
"Besides," Byron continued. "You can't look after these kids. They can't stay here and your apartment is certainly too small. His parents - " he stabbed a short, thick finger at the sleeping boy - "are expecting us to haul him in for hugs and kisses any minute now. Let's give them what they want and collect our money."
"I think part of his brain has been eaten away."
"You said that already."
"What about Felicia?"
"What about her?"
Felicia was sitting in an expensive deck chair on Byron's well decorated redwood patio. Behind her, the sun was dying in the arms of the sky, bands of red, gold, and pink clustered about the horizon. A warm breeze caused the flowers in tidy beds to sway.
The young woman noticed none of this. Her head was bent, her gaze firmly upon her lap and the hands she rubbed endlessly in it. She had not moved since Lily had brought her out onto the patio, the solo expecting the fresh air and pleasant scenery of her brother's tailor ground would do her good.
But there was a shell about the wound girl, an almost physical barrier that kept her isolated from the environment about her. Her expression was always blank, her eyes flat. When questioned or commanded directly, Felicia became animated enough to answer or obey but then fell immediately back into her near catatonic state.
Lily looked out at her. An image of Felicia sliding down a couch, her face alive with pleasure, her mouth open and eyes shut, sprang up unbidden. The solo shook it away and a thin finger of despair reached out and touched her heart.
"We could always zap her," said Byron, following his sister's gaze. He drew back when Lily looked back at him. He knew the expression she wore as she glared at him: he had seen it through a camera's lens as the solo had shot Johnson where he sat. "It was just a joke," the NetRunner hastily added.
The device that was used in conjunction with the nanites in Felicia's brain was sitting in Byron study, Lily having ripped it out of Johnson's desk after he was dead. She wanted to leave it behind - to never think about it again - but it was the key to the young woman's salvation and it needed to be studied. Byron had downloaded all the appropriate files out of the dead man's computer system when Lily explained the gunshots and had promised to get to work deciphering just how the device worked as soon as she got it to the house.
But he had not done that. Instead, he was arguing about what would happen next.
"We need to get both of them to a doctor."
"Yes, you said that."
"It isn't fair." Lily's voice cracked.
Byron looked down at the front of his shirt and began to bits of lint off of it. "If you're going to take them to a doctor, take them to a doctor. But do it now - we need to get the kid back home as soon as possible."
"Get me a file about that machine," Lily told her brother, "so I can take it with me."
With a ghost of a scowl, Byron walked to his study.

***

Byron waited until Lily hd been gone fifteen minutes before he hurried into his study and settled himself in the low-back, well-padded couch designed for NetRunning. His short fingers quickly found the datajack and snapped it into place. A cool world of electronic darkness rushed up to engulf the dwarf.
In the dark, Byron produced a key and a door of dazzling pixels appeared. He stepped forward into the chess room, where he saw the subroutines that ran it had been busy: at the far end of the chess board that was the floor, the black bishop had been toppled. The dwarf chuckled and moved on.
The study was how he left it, although the program that ran his playroom had put its various inhabitants through eight hours of virtual time. Amanda had gone to dinner alone and Cherise was in bed. Randomly chosen subroutines had been activated and subtle changes had occurred: dust had built up where dust is liable to, the pixelized sun had set in a randomly colored sunset Byron had missed, the phone had rung and messages were scrawled in Amanda's broad hand on a pad near it, and a bird had flown into the window of Cherise's room, frightening her.
Byron walked to his desk and removed a leather binder he had created there during his run with Lily. He thumbed through it briefly, checking to see that the inscription and translation programs had worked properly, then headed for an older part of the house.
He walked down an open, empty stair that swept down from the second floor towards the massive front doors. Byron, perfectly formed in his hidden world, ambled through oak planned halls. He passed the kitchen where a computerized cook had prepared a dinner on a computer-controlled schedule. Finally, he reached the door to the cellar.
Byron held out an open hand and, with a quick mental command to the controllers, a key formed in it. He opened the door. The flick of an antiquated switch caused a naked bulb above a set of narrow stairs to light. He walked down them, binder under his arm.
At the bottom was a large open area. It had an earth floor and walls. Byron's deck intercepted certain computer codes and translated them into a smell of decay. Without pause, he flipped a second switch and another bare lightbulb began to glow.
"Oracle," Byron called. When there was no response, he called again.
The form of a bent man slowly resolved out of one of the room's remaining pools of darkness. His hair, a dirty grey, was long and tangled. His face was etched with famine and insanity. As he shuffled forward, a heavy iron manacle on his ankle pulled lengths of chain out of the shadow.
"Oracle," said Byron. "Digest this." He threw the binder at the feet of the wild man, who, slowly, retrieved it. Then shuffled back into the darkness without ceremony.

***

The Oracle squatted in a corner leafed through the binder wildly, turning pages with abandon and muttering incoherent curses. Byron, through his connection to the machine that created the cellar and Oracle, could feel his programming wake and absorb the information contained within the binder.
Byron sensed connections to the Net being formed, opening up, and information was sent in packets through those lines by the Oracle. A database, nearly buried under various subroutines, whirred to life. Data came and went along spidery connections to the outside world.
And then it ceased. The spider web of communications sputtered and disintegrated. The database was shut down and buried once more. The Oracle, having dropped the leather binder, looked up with a sane face.
"Oracle," Byron commanded, "speak."
Calm eyes looked out of a calm face. "What is your question?"
"Is there a correlation between Maximillian Ourtous' data and any of my current projects?"
"Maximillian Ourtous' death was reported to the police at twenty twenty-three hours by one Ms. Lane. Employment records for Ourtous' business do not show a record of any such woman on the payroll. Financial statements do not indicate purchases which might have been intended for Ms. Lane. A trace on the Ourtous genealogy was unsuccessful in locating any relatives with the surname Lane. Thus an anomaly."
"Go on," prompted Byron.
"A Net search for the term 'Ms. Lane' returned with eighteen such persons within the city limits. Narrowing the field with available financial records for these returns indicates fifteen were either out of the city, out of the country, or otherwise occupied at the time Maximillian Ourtous' death was reported to the police. Thus there is a high probability that one of the three remaining 'Ms. Lanes' had a connection to Ourtous."
"Okay. Now the connection to me."
The Oracle cocked his head. "Of the three remaining 'Lanes', one - Patricia Margaret Lane - has accepted credit transfers from the Arasaka Corporation on a regular basis. Project Mole is currently operating within the Arasaka Corporation as is Project Saturn."
"What is the probability - low, medium, or high - that this is just a coincidence?"
"Given the current information, probability of coincidence is high."
Byron smiled. "Excellent. Oracle, command: search the Net on an hourly basis for any new information regarding Patricia Margaret Lane and her connection to Arasaka."
"Accepted."
Byron turned and left the cellar. When the door at the top of the stairs closed, the Oracle dropped the pretense of sanity as the subroutines governing his behavior woke from their suspended state. With a roar, he threw the binder against the far wall, where it dissolved into pixels.

***

Felicia watched the medic through slitted eyes, pretending to be asleep on a hard bench out of earshot, and thought it odd that he was afraid of her. She reviewed the signs again - lack of eye contact, fine tremors, strained vocal qualities - and reaffirmed her initial impression: fear and unease.
But there was no threat. She was immature, her physical capabilities far from a challenge for the well-muscled middle-aged man. His practice was in a poorly patrolled part of the city; surely he had some combat skills.
Felicia hypothesized causes for the medic reaction as he spoke with Lily on the far side of the room. They were bent over a monitor, an x-ray of her skull displayed upon it. The medic was empathic and shaken while the solo listened calmly, her arms folded across her chest.
Lily. Her savior. The woman who had destroyed her old life and the one kind person in it. Felicia called the file dealing with emotional distress up out of her internal memory and reviewed it as an image of a gun going off, of Maximillian slumping in his chair, swam through her mind.
She tried to suppress it, but it was not part of her machine self and could not be dispelled.
Lily was kind. And sad. The cause of her distress was much easier to ascertain than the medic's source of fear. Felicia had watched her, shaking from her reward, as Lily lowered Michael's gun. She watched as Lily pushed the personal computer and its peripherals from the desk onto the floor. Felicia heard the disembodied voice spring from a hidden speaker.
"What in the heck do you think you're doing?" the person Felicia later learned was named Byron asked.
Lily had stood by the desk, her eyes focused on Michael as he recovered.
"Lily? Are you okay?" said the voice.
"He's been torturing children," Lily answered. Felicia spent the ride to Byron's estate trying to classify the tone that was so evident in the solo's reply. It was difficult because there were some many elements within it. She eventually decided it was an anguished reply.
"Are you okay?"
Lily kicked the computer monitor into the wall. She grabbed data cables that lay exposed on the desk and pulled onto them until the snapped off from the interfaces set into the floor. And then she was crying. She woke up Michael, and carrying him from the bed, came to ask Felicia if she was alright.
Of everything that happened that night, Felicia remembered Lily's eyes most vividly. Even the image of Maximillian's death was beginning to be frosted over with a haze of time. But the solo's eyes as she bent to help Felicia to her feet, the boy still cradled protectively in her arms, still leapt to the fore of Felicia's memory. They were becoming red from crying, a striking shade of green, and round with pain.
And Felicia went with her and listened to her instructions and accepted her charity. Lily led her out of the nightmare into a period of shock and grief. And now there was a grayness that lay over the world, a neutrality greater than anything the young woman had known before. Felicia struggled with it mechanically and reread her files about dealing with emotion distress and discomfort.
She ran a finger along the flowery skirt Lily had boughten for her as she watched the solo and the medic argue about her condition.

Installment Two: Injured Angel

Bryon's home was dark and expansive. It was full of carpeted hallways that were always thick with shadows, large rooms that were never used, and every available surface was crowded with dust and faux Victorian bric-a-brac.
Byron had boughten it with his inheritance, Lily explained absently as she drove. When their mother had died, the Jacobson family fortune had been divided between Lily and Byron. Lily squirreled her money away, using some to purchase the equipment and training she would need to sell her services. Byron had boughten the mansion and a mountain of computer equipment. Ten years later, Lily still had a sizable sum nested in a dozen different innocuous accounts while Byron had trouble paying his heating bill.
Lily pulled the car up to the main entrance and helped Felicia out. The solo typed a quick sequence of numbers in a key pad by the ornately carved front door and it magically popped open. She ushered the girl inside while she got the suitcases full of clothing and personal effects she had boughten for Felicia.
"Byron said you could stay in the Green Room," Lily said, shutting the door with her foot. "That's upstairs to the left. Let's put your things away and then we'll get you something to eat."
Felicia looked at the wide staircase before her, then glanced from side to side.
"Byron's here," the solo explained. "He's gonna be here. I think he is in his study, working on the Net. You probably shouldn't bother him unless you have to."
The girl nodded dutifully.
"Listen. I have to go. Here's my cellular phone number - " the solo adroitly produced a business card from a hip pocket, twisting the suitcase out of the way - "just call me if you need me. Okay?"
Felicia nodded again.
Hours later, after unloading her new clothes on the bed of the Green Room and a quick dinner, Felicia fingered Lily's card. She sat against the headboard of a great four-poster bed, examining the numbers of the exchange by the weak yellow glow of a reading light.
The Green Room was named for its motif. The deep carpet was the first verdant item a person noticed when entering, but it was not the last in attendance. The wallpaper was a filigree design of green and gold, tasseled light shades of that color hung of faux antique lamps, and even the bedspread was tinged with a delicate shade of green.
Felicia felt tiny. She was...afraid.
Recognizing the condition, she reviews the available materials on the subject. File after file scrolled silently in her inner vision. When she was done, there was a moment of calm. Then panic flooded her. She touched the embossed numbers of the card and willed her legs to move.
The rest of the house was utterly silent and still. Felicia felt exposed as she slowly made her way down the main stair; she crept down it as close to the wall as she could manage. When she reached the foyer, she hunted for a phone. She did not remember seeing on in it earlier and her search produced none now.
Where would Byron keep a phone, she wondered. There hadn't been one in the kitchen and there certainly wasn't one in her room. Should she go back upstairs and look through the other rooms? The thought of find accidentally waking Byron kept her rooted where she stood. There might be a phone in the study...
Felicia crept forward.

***

Byron was laying unconscious on a leather couch that sat along side a bank of computer equipment. His twisted, small form was utterly relaxed, his face blank. Felicia, having Interface Plugs herself and having swam through the Net, knew immediately he was oblivious to her presence and would be as long as he remained lost in another world.
The young girl looked about the room for a phone. There were bookshelves obscuring the walls, a desk of some dark, polished wood, leafy plants scattered about for effect, a series of linked computers and deck, the couch and the sleeper on it. Felicia moved toward the desk, expecting it to be the most likely spot for the phone.
As she rounded the couch, Byron's eyes opened. His hand shot up and grabbed hers.
"Hello there," said the dwarf, sitting up. He pulled a jack out of his Plugs.
Felicia did not answer. Her eyes were down cast, her arm limp in Byron's grasp.
"What are you doing in here?"
There was no answer.
Byron let Felicia go and stood. He smiled at the girl who was taller than he was. It was a malicious thing. When he walked over to his desk, Felicia turned to leave. But Byron called after her, "Do you know what this is?"
She stopped dutifully and glanced at the mechanism on the desk. She did not know. She shook her head, eyes once again turned toward the floor.
"My sister found it at Maximillian Ourtous' house. It's some kind of signalling device." He paused, running a stubby hand over the mechanism's smooth surfaces. He took a trailing wire, found the power jack at the end of it, and plugged the machine it. It whirred softly. "It sends signals to the nanites in your brain."
Nanites? Felicia would have frowned were she alone. Instead, she filed the information away into memory and waited for Byron to say more.
"Do you know what this does?"
Once again, Felicia shook her head.
Byron activated the machine without hesitation. Felicia gasped and fell to the floor.

***

Like the pleasure device, the sun was another invader into Felicia's consciousness as it flowed around green draperies in a wave that pooled on the floor. Light, echoed and reflected by the Green Room's furnishings, stung her eyes and she woke from a grey sleep.
As Felicia let her legs hang off the edge of the bed, dim memories from the night before surfaced. She thought briefly of Byron and what he had done to her, of the satisfied smile that spread across his face as he watched her writhe on the floor, and of regaining consciousness in the study, Byron gone, and shakily climbing the stairs to her room.
But those memories were less than real in the bright inquisition of sunlight; they haunted the recesses of Felicia's consciousness, like the coppery aftertaste of fear, as she dressed and performed her regular series of stretching exercises. Next she accessed her internal computer for the word and quote of the day, which she diligently attempted to memorize as she straightened the room.
By the time she was descending the house's great staircase, Felicia's memories of Byron's assault had faded. They came rushing to the fore, however, when she saw him sitting in the kitchen, eating a light breakfast. She had intended to sit and eat some fruit she had seen the night before, but now froze in the doorway, eyes downcast.
"How is our angel this morning?" Byron asked, chewing on toast.
Felicia nodded once.
"Come in, sit down. Have something to eat."
The young girl did as she was told, sitting in the chair farthest from the one Byron occupied. The dwarf vacated a second piece of toast from a small plate and transferred a portion of his own eggs, bacon, and hash browns on to it for his guest. He set it in front of her, saying, "There you are."
Felicia picked up a fork, but did not eat.
"Lily called while you were asleep. She said she has some errands to run, but should be here about noon. I have to go out to meet some people. You can entertain yourself until then, right? There's a TV in the game room."
Felicia nodded once more.
"Okay then. Say, you haven't taken a bite of your breakfast. Eat up." Byron paused, waiting for her to comply. When she did not immediately do so, he prompted her again. As she ate a forkful of eggs, the dwarf said, "That's better."
Then he stood. "Well, I have to go. See ya around, kiddo."
When Felicia was certain he was gone, she dropped the fork like it was red hot and ran from the kitchen. She spend the next hour huddled and shaking in a dark corner. After a long span of complete silence, she abandoned her hiding place.
Byron was...Felicia searched for a term for his behavior as she sorted out her feelings towards the man and his acts the night before. She struggled through a crisis, realizing why Lily had been so upset the night she had killed Maximillian and taken her away; Byron triggering the device locked in her skull was wrong, Felicia knew. She felt it was so. It was not the kind of thing one human being did to another. And yet...and yet Maximillian had created and implanted the device in Felicia; he had used it at his whim. She had never before considered her surrogate father to be...evil. But he was. And Byron was evil, too.
Felicia sat on the stairs and cried.
Then sorrow and despair drained away and was replaced by a fierce anger. Felicia had never raised her voice before, but now she screamed. She howled and hammered the walls with her delicate fists. It was wrong. It was wrong. And the device was still inside her, waiting to be used again...
Felicia gasped, anger momentarily sublimated, then ran towards the study, intending to destroy the pleasure device's remote trigger before Byron could return.

***

The sunlight that lit the rest of the house with bright spears and glowing pools was absent in the study, making its contents seem dim and drab. A profusion of leafy plants and the oils used to preserve the wood of the expensive furniture gave the room a musky smell.
Felicia saw the trigger still sitting on the desk and started to walk over to it. As she passed Byron's couch and the squat computer next to it, she paused. She ran a finger over the matte finish of the case and inspected the deck and its components.
Maxillian had let her play in the Net, exploring the electronic world with data plugs she was legally too young to posses. Going online had been a special reward, an hour long respite from the drudgery of her lessons and life with her adoptive father. She had used the time, glowing inside as brightly as pixelized architecture, to explore various city grids and speak with the anonymous ICONs she found inside. The one place she was never allowed to go was Maxillian's own computer network...
Felicia sat on the couch and examined the overly large deck and computer more closely. She familiarized herself with its systems and then without allowing herself to change her mind, snapped the jacks into data plug at the base of her skull. Revenge, she though as the world shuttered into darkness, she was going to have revenge.
Felicia found herself in the dark and panicked. The fear that she had stumbled across an electronic trap of Byron's and would never see again swam up in her. Then the deck informed her that her senses were working as they should; the environment she was in was simple darkness.
And there was a door before her.
Felicia fumbled with the deck's menu and requested more information. The door was stream of solid code, impenetrable to her ICON until a virtual key was presented. A quick inventory of the deck's stored programs turned up that key and soon the door melted away.
Beyond was a room whose's floor was made up of large black and white tiles. Sitting upon them were various chess pieces, all enlarged, and the effect was that anyone moving to the far door felt as if he or she had somehow been shrunk and was now moving across a chessboard. After a quick examination, Felicia left.
The next door opened into a virtual representation of Byron's sprawling home. Certain features were different, but there were to many similarities for it to be coincidence. As Felicia moved into the foyer, a voice called out from the kitchen: "Home already?"
Felicia froze.

***

"I was expecting you to stay out all night, sniffing around other women." A woman, sculptured and blonde, flowed forward. She took a drag off a thin cigarette and watched a trail of smoke waft of the end of it before continuing. "So, did you meet anyone exciting?"
Felicia did not speak, but took a single, panicked step backwards.
"Byron, honey, the silent treatment is an old game," said the woman in an acidic tone. "We've been through this before."
Relief flood Felicia as she realized she was wearing Byron's ICON. Her appearance in the Net was created by chips in the deck she was using. At this time, she was borrowing Byron and thus would appear outwardly to be him. She was safe.
When Felicia did not answer, the woman became more irate. "Listen, I don't need this. Cherise was sent home from school today for throwing paint and the new maid we hired quit without notice. She must have realized you don't love anyone but yourself." The woman tapped ash into a nearby plant.
Felicia brought up the deck's menu and ran a check on the other ICON. The results were just what she expected: the woman was nothing more than a computer construct, a false skin. A little more work and she found and activated the subroutine that would disable the program. The woman and the wisps of smoke that floated about her disappeared.
The house became still.
Felicia spent the next hour exploring its gothic and sometimes overwrought depths. She discovered the master bedroom, the virtual study, and even stumbled across Cherise in the playroom. The cherubic girl looked up from her game when Felicia opened the door and smiled. Felicia quickly shut it and moved on. Eventually, she found the cellar.
She descended the stairs and found the light. A figure moved in the shadows and, despite knowing it wasn't real, gasped. When the Oracle crept forward to receive instructions, Felicia froze it in place with a command from the deck she was borrowing.
As she studied the program's make up and function, she frowned. It was designed as a kind of search engine, but was more. It would accept a set of parameters from the user, then find all data on its subject. But then it would correlate all the related data into whole, providing the user with a report based on small, disparate facts.
While the function was somewhat unusual, it was the program's appearance that bothered Felicia. A tattered, malnourished man would not be out of place in certain environment, but to have one living in the basement...Felicia shudder.
And knowing she had found what she was looking for, copied the Oracle's program into her internal memory. The process took a few seconds as the deck copied the data to itself and then into the chip in Felicia's skull. When it was done, she jacked out.
The physical world settled on Felicia's consciousness. Lily was standing above her.

***

Lily drove without speaking. She used her red Mitsuzuki Bushi as a sleek ram, aggressively parting the traffic around her, then when she was clear of the other vehicles, took the speedometer to the red line. The car sang over the road's ferrocrete.
Felicia pressed her palms nervously against her legs, willing the car to slow to a more manageable speed. When Lily brought the Bushi onto the interstate, sliding smoothly between the already present press of vehicles, without hesitating or releasing the accelerator, the young girl paled. Calming lines of text were scrolling through her memory and mind's eye.
Like a fever breaking, the silence between driver and passenger diminished and fell away. Lily opened her mouth, then shut it. She started to speak, then stopped. Finally, she said, "You had no right to go through his things."
The car slowed.
"I don't know what you though you were doing with Byron's computers, but you never should have touched them."
Felicia did not respond. Her eyes were on her lap.
Lily looked over at her. The sun rushed across the desert, pierced the passenger side window, and silhouetted the young girl. Instead of a pubescent Asian child, Felicia became a study of rays and shadows, her posture humbled, the desert an orange background through the window.
And for a moment, Lily saw her charge not as a trespasser, as an innocent who had been deprived of normal socialization and nurturing, development that would have taught her the morality of invading the space of others. For a moment, Felicia was an injured angel.
Then a low cloud severed the ray of sunlight. Sympathy fell to anger. "I can't believe you actually did that."
Felicia whispered.
"What?" asked Lily.
There was a paused - a space filled with the sound of the Bushi's tires over the road - then the young girl said in a voice that was the birth of her assertiveness, "Byron is evil."

***

"Evil?" The car strayed into the opposite lane, then came back. Even as Lily was dispelling the idea, it began to root in her. Byron was cruel at times. And distant. But evil? "What do you mean by that?"
"He's evil. He's not right."
"How do you know?"
"I saw his other house and the program he had in the basement."
"What program? What did it do?"
Felicia's assertive fire died. She fell silent. After a moment, Lily prompted. "What house and what program?"
"Byron has a virtual representation of his house inside his computer. It's strange. There was a woman inside - not a real one, a program - and a little girl, too. I wandered around and that's when I found the basement."
"And there was a program running in the basement?"
"Yes."
Lily looked over at the girl. Afraid of the answer, she asked, "What kind of program?"
"It was a sifter. It sifted data."
The solo let out a breath she'd been holding. For a moment, she had expected to hear the program was a kind of sex slave. She'd heard about them from friends and did not think much of people who's partners were nothing but imagination and condensed light. There was also a part of her that expected something far worse.
"What was so bad about the program?"
"I'll show you later. I have it stored in memory."
"Okay, show me later."
Relieved, Lily pressed her foot down on the accelerator and the car, its speed renewed, dove along the road that led to the hidden offices of Dr. Michael Van Durham, street doc extraordinare.

***

The elevator that plummeted into Van Durham underground hideaway bristled with miniature cameras, scanners, and surveillance equipment. The sound tiny telephoto lens zooming in and out, each trying to capture a different detail, filled the enclosed space like the drone of an overly large housefly.
Lily wanted to pace, to root out the the less obvious cameras, but restrained herself. She stood near the back of the elevator, hands held in front of her, and willed for that image, something placid and innocent, to be transmitted to the monitors down below.
Felicia was still and complacent by nature.
Van Durham will be able to help her, Lily thought, or prayed, as she waited for the elevator to reach their destination miles below the surface of the planet. She had casually asked around about people specializing in nanites and Dr. Michael Van Durham's name came up a number of times.
But the recommended scientist was a recluse. As best as Lily could piece together, a lab accident years ago had shaken his sanity and left him phobic. He caught a glimpse of the terrifying potential of the tiny machines, created a hermetically sealed underground environment and now lived protected from all nanites but his own.
Lily couldn't blame him. There was a story in the screamsheets nearly every day about some poor fool who had gotten himself dissolved into a puddle of goo when his industrial nanites got loose and took his body apart cell by cell. Felicia was a living testament to their destructive nature as she rode down into the lab of a man who made them.
When the elevator finally stopped, there was a door, pressurized and made of a steel polymer, and beyond it, a room totally devoid of any features save another similar door on the opposite wall. When both Lily and Felicia were inside, the chamber sealed itself.
There was a long pause that made Lily's skin itch. Seconds past.
Then, crackling from a hidden speaker, a voice said: "Hello. This is Dr. Van Durham. Before you go any farther, I wanted to establish the ground rules. Hundred of thousands of nanites have just flooded the room and are entering your body as we speak. They will lie dormant there if things go as planned. If for some reason my vital signs should cease, a signal will be sent to the machines in your bodies and you will also die - in a spectacular fashion, I might add.
"But don't let me scare you will these necessary threats; please come in."
The door in the far wall opened with a hiss of depressurization.

***

Byron moved through the Net like a whisper, smoke drifting, or a hint of a memory that vanishes before it is caught. A masking program covered his ICON, reflecting the virtual world back on itself, and so he walked through it unnoticed.
In the physical world, his crippled body smiled where it lay on his couch. His ICON mirrored the expression, changing it to suit his perfect, digitalized form, but the grin's predatory nature was translated without distortion.
The Runner ghosted through the crowds that choked the street and vanished into a building. Once inside, Byron let his masking utility fall away. There was another ICON inside, waiting, expectant.
'You're late," said the figure, cloaked in a simulated overcoat, its face lost in the shadow of an almost cartoonishly large fedora.
Byron pulled up his deck's menu and launched another program. A shimmering, hollow ball formed out of an unimportant point between the two ICONs, then swelled until it encompassed them. When the privacy measure settled into place, Byron answered: "Oh, I had other business."
The cloaked ICON was frozen - checking out the nature of the program he had just activated, Byron imagined - then, waking from a fugue, it said, "What does that mean - other business?"
Byron waved the question away. "Did you arrange everything?"
"Of course." Pause. "Did you transfer the credit?"
"Not yet."
"Not yet? What do you mean, not yet?"
Byron was smiling again. "Just what I said. Not yet."
"Why not?"
"I ran across something interesting while researching your background." The other ICON's face betrayed a twitch before it's own entered a command that would disconnect its facial responses from his physical body's. Byron continued as the figure froze once more. "You have two birthdays."
"What do you mean?"
"You have two birthdays. Two different ones on record. Your birth certificate - properly filed - lists it as May 3rd, 2002. But your personnel file from CiberCystems, Inc. lists it as May 2nd, 2002."
Byron typed commands into his deck while his physical body's legs twitched in anticipation. The nature of the privacy screen changed as a subroutine was activate: it still shielded the pair from most kinds of Net surveillance methods, but now nearly invisible bits of it drifted towards the other man's ICON. As they landed on his skin, they mutated into tiny burrowing programs that would drift back along the man's access lines, jamming them open. In a few moments, Byron's prey would find himself unable to jack out.
"It's just a mistake," said the man. His ICON's electronically generated voice carried no hint of fear.
"That's right - a mistake. A fly in the ointment. An out of place brush stroke on an otherwise brilliantly forged Mona Lisa. A mistake." A signal from Byron's deck indicated his burrowing motes had done their work. "Of course, no one's perfect. Well, most folks anyway."
"It's nothing." The ICON was stony and calm, but Byron imagined - savored - the panic the other man must be feeling as he tried to drop his connection to the Net and found it was seared open. He was a captive of a virtual jungle and the predators it held.
"I'm afraid," offered the dwarf, "that it's enough for me to kill you."
The resolution of the other man's ICON fuzzed for a moment as the person on the other end tried desperately to sever his connection to the Net. And then the cloaked figure solidified. Byron knew he had to hurry; his prey might realize he could escape by risking brain damage and simply yanking his jack out of his interface plugs. That just wouldn't do.
So Bryon's ICON raised its hand as the dwarf hurried entered another command. A second subroutine in the privacy program woke and the great hollow ball collapsed in on itself. Now about the size of a fist, it hovered in the air between the ICONs for a moment, glowing white hot. Then it dove towards the cloaked figure's chest -
A man screamed in the real world as the ball made contact with his virtual self, the destructive program willing his machines to send a large current down thin wires that had been spun in zero gravity, through the ceramic, metal, and plastic, and into the delicate organic circuitry of his brain.

***

The chamber beyond the empty room was cavernous, sterile, and full of light. Patches of unsupported incandescence floated near the ceiling, reflecting off impossibly thin computer screens and stainless steel equipment. The walls were white and seemed to absorb the electronic noises that issued from a a circular desk with various computers crowded onto it.
"So this is the girl," said Van Durham, poking his head out from behind a computer.
"Yes," replied Lily. She scanned the room for anything unexpected and aside from haphazardously placed electronics and discrete surveillance equipment, there was nothing unusual. "This is Felicia."
"Hello, Felicia." Van Durham stood.
The solo and the girl slowly walked to the circular desk and once there, Dr. Van Durham looked Felicia over with a frown. He approached her and bent her head to expose the interface plugs buried in her hair. "She has plugs."
"Yes. The...man I told you wasn't too concerned about her health."
"What other modifications?"
"I'm not sure." Lily turned toward the girl. "What else?"
Felicia was examining the floor. "Interface plugs, internal memory chips, biomonitor, and Sandevistan speedware," she answered shyly.
Van Durham whistled, his expression full of horror and surprise. He looked at Lily. "You realize that all has to be removed. Why whoever did this decided to have her implanted before she had finished growing, I don't know. It's insane."
"He was a monster."
"I guess so," replied the doctor as he led Felicia around to the other side of the desk. She was pliable. Van Durham sat, Felicia at his knee, and began to assemble various pieces of electronic equipment Lily did not recognize. "Then there is the nanite cluster."
Lily swallowed a lump in her throat. "Yes."
The doctor held up a scanner, telling Felicia, "This isn't going to hurt at all," and passed it across the top of her skull a few times. A monitor on the desk woke to display a wire frame of her head and a dark mass within it.
The expression of horror returned to the doctor's face.
"What do you think?" Lily asked.
"He was a monster."
"Can you do anything?"
Van Durham sighed. "I'm not sure. Maybe. At the very least I can disable the nanites that are currently in place."
The wire frame image wavered. The doctor pulled a keyboard closer and a brought up a diagnostic. When it was complete, he turned to Felicia. He touched her arm, saying, "Honey, you can't access your memory while we're doing this. It's causing interference."
Felicia's expression shifted.
"What is it?" asked Lily.
"It's where I have the program. You're erasing it."
"What program is that?" asked the doctor.
Lily answered through the girl's silence. "She downloaded a program into her memory, some kind of Net search utility."
"Oh. Well, we can store it in one of my computers while I run my scans, okay?" Van Durham searched his desk for a set of cables and attached them to a computer not in use. Felicia expertly transferred the program.
A moment later, the image of the Oracle - skeletal and wild - appeared on the computer's screen. It rotated there, an inanimate shell. "What the hell is that?" Lily pointed to the image as Van Durham put away his cables.
The doctor's frown was in his voice as well as resting on his visage. "That's the way the program looks in the Net." He tapped a key and the Oracle stopped rotating. Another command replaced the grey flesh colored skeleton with scrolling codes of routines and subroutines.
"Why would it look like that?" asked the solo.
"I don't know," replied the doctor, distracted as he explored the programs code. A moment later, he said, "There are parts of it missing." He turned towards Felicia, who shook her head.
"What exactly does it do?"
Van Durham called up the main routines, freezing them on the screen, and pointed out code for the solo. "It's just what you said it was - a search type program. It...No. No, it's all here. But this is...strange."
"Tell me."
"He was a monster. My god, he was a monster."
Lily gripped the doctor's shoulder, leaning over him to look at the screen. "What?"
Van Durham's hand rested on the keyboard. He took a deep breath. "The parts that I though were missing, they're not. The program was designed to have something like holes it in."
"Why?"
"Because it was designed to be used with an interface. An organic interface." Van Durham glanced back at Lily. "The holes are places where the program receives direction and input from an outside source."
The doctor's voice was low. "That source...my god...was a human brain. This isn't an automated program, but a kind of merger between code and a mind to direct it. It is run by someone's brain."

***

The room was swallowed by silence. Then, "Are you saying someone runs this program?"
"No, not a person. A brain."
Lily's hand went to her mouth and her eyes teared. She wanted to deny it, to wipe a mental hand over the conversation and set everything the way it had been, to steal her brother back, but a current of revulsion and anger shot through her and she could not turn away.
Evil. Felicia had said Byron was evil and now it was true. Undeniably true. The image of Byron resting in his crib, baby fingers gripping his malformed feet, wrestled with the mocking horror of the Oracle as it stared out of its computer monitor.
Byron was sick. He was sick. Lily clung to that thought. He was sick in mind and body.
His birth had been a miracle, a triumph of surgery over the chaos of a chemical mistake. Lily remembered ease dropping at her parents door at night and asking them over breakfast what fetal restructuring was. Your brother is sick, her mother had told her, very sick. When Byron was born, after hours of sweat and blood, slipping grey-faced out of the womb, she had touched his tiny, twisted feet and cried.
But now Lily's brother had moved beyond the ravages of prenatal exposure to a toxic chemical soup. He was born a dwarf but became psychotic. He was sick. He was, as Felicia had dared to say, evil.
Lily choked back tears, whispered good-bye to her brother, and grieved.
Felicia, ashen, watched her from behind the doctor's knee.
"Do you have any 'trodes?" the solo asked Van Durham.
He nodded.
"Then add them to my bill. Felicia and I will be back tomorrow."
The doctor handed over the thin headset without a word and walked Lily and Felicia to the door. They rode the elevator to the surface, the solo too lost in sucking eddies of thought to notice the cameras had been switched off, then walked to where they had hidden Lily's car in the underbrush.
"I know where we're going," Felicia said as she opened the passenger side door.

***

Lily's mind ran as smoothly as her car did over the asphalt. It glided empty along with the scenery. She had put the ramifications of her brothers actions, the under lying diseased state of his mind, and drove in shock.
Felicia sat quietly, alternately watching the desert slide by and the driver. She had not spoken since entering the car. Lily could detect a tension in her still face and dark eyes, an expectancy peeking around her usual mask.
As the car rounded the curve that would end in the fringes of the city, the cellular phone rang. As Lily's hand fell to answer it, she saw the number of the caller flashing on it's display. Byron. She hesitated.
"Hello," said the solo, holding the phone to her ear like a black plastic snake.
"Hey there." Byron's voice was unchanged. Lily thought, through the filter of her recent discovery, that it should be. It sounded like Byron, but the old Byron had been killed, slain by the newfound monster inside him.
"What...What's up?"
"Nothing. I was just checking in to see how things went."
A pause, dead air. Then, "Van Durham says there's hope. For Felicia."
"That's good to hear. Did he say how much it will cost?"
"No. I didn't ask."
Byron chuckled. "You sure are a bleeding heart." When Lily did not answer, holding the phone in a stony grip, he continued: "Listen, something's come up. One of my old friends from the Net is in trouble and I promised I'd help. So I won't be home for a few days."
"What does this friend do?"
"He's a runner. Why do you ask?"
"No reason."
"Well, anyway, if you want to leave Felicia at my house, go ahead. Just remember there won't be anyone home."
"Good."
Pause. "Are you feeling okay? You sound...odd."
"I'm fine."
"Okay, if you say so. Well, I have to go. I'll see you in a few days."
"See you in a few days," Lily answered and mechanically hung up. The car slide into the city.

***

Whatever restrained and smoothed Lily's emotional responses as she drove to Byron's house faltered, disintegrated, as they searched it. Images of decaying corpses paraded through her mind as she had opened the front door and now it seemed as she there was a nest of skulls waiting to be found in every shadow. The solo's hand shook as she disturbed dusty papers, opened cabinet and closet doors, and wandered into darkened rooms. At times, her face was wet with tears.
Whether through chance or subconscious design, the last room Lily and her ward searched was the study. The solo could feel it's oak door watching her like an eye, its vision powerful enough to pass through intervening walls. It waited for its turn, content in the center of things. The study was, Lily knew, the most likely place to find damning evidence.
Did she need evidence beyond what she already knew? Lily shook away the thought.
"The computer is in here," Felicia said. Her hand was on the door knob.
"I know." The girl waited. "Go on in."
It took a kind of mental rape to crack Felicia's dispassionate shell, Lily reflected as the girl timidly entered the study. The studied deference was falling away from her personality in pieces and the solo wondered what Felicia would be like when it was completely gone. Intelligent, inquisitive. Angry.
The solo squared her shoulders and entered the study. The leather couch and computer sat in the middle of the room like squat conspirators. Lily stared at the plastic of the computer, wondering if it's housing was big enough to hold a human brain and the nutrients needed to keep it alive. She wanted to think it was too small, but couldn't tell.
Felicia untangled the 'trodes and plugged them into the deck. It was powered up and Lily could feel it humming. A green light was flashing on its display. Felicia lay back on the couch, jack already snug in her hidden interface plugs, and Lily sat at her feet. She fit the 'trodes over her temples and the last thing she saw before the world went black was the young Asian girl's solemn, dark eyes.
Felicia eyes swallowed her and cast her into darkness.
Lily panicked. The utter blackness was confining. It trapped her arms at her sides and kept her legs from moving properly. She struggled as it smothered her. Lily screamed, but that too was futile.
Then a light flared and a voice whispered in her ear. *Calm down. It's okay.*
*What? What?*
*You're just experiencing some disorientation. You'll feel better in a minute.*
*Who's there?*
*Felicia. It's me.*
Lily gushed relief. *Oh, my god! Thank god!*
Lily's body moved without her willing it, walking in the darkness. She could not stop it. The light brightened until Lily could see a door. Her arm rose, an independent automaton, her palm up, and a second patch of brightness formed around her fingers. It flashed towards the door, which opened on contact.
*Relax* said Felicia. *Stop fighting me.*
*I don't know how* the solo wailed. The darkness and betrayal of her own limbs ate her confidence and resolve. It was too much. She had to get away, find a way back to the real world. Her breathing was rapid and shallow.
*Just relax. Remember that I am in control. You're experiencing the sensory information secondhand.*
*What?*
*The 'trodes.*
*Okay, okay.*
*Just relax.*
The virtual entity that was Lily and Felicia moved into the chessboard room. Felicia took a long, slow look around it to let her passenger take it in. *Is this...is this the Oracle?* the solo asked.
*No. I don't know what it is.* Pause. *Let's move on.*
They passed into carpeted halls, Lily reeling as she saw how much they were like Byron's physical, real world home, then Felicia took them down the sweep of the main staircase. A program rezzed at their approach and Byron's unreal wife turned to regard them with a sneer.
"Hiding again, dearest?"
*oh my god oh my god oh my god* whispered Lily.
"No," said Felicia, determined to assume her ICON's role this time.
"Really? I thought intimacy scared you off."
"Not really."
*What is this? What is this?* demanded Felicia's ghostly passenger.
*His fake wife. He has a girl, too.*
The perfect Byron ICON descended the stair. It took the cigarette out of Amanda's slim hands and crushed it on the carpet.
"My, we're feeling bold today," said the wife. "Is there a new woman in your life?"
"Should there be?"
Amanda laughed and Lily cringed as much as she was able. "Always being evasive. It's one of the things I like about you, my darling husband."
"What are the others?"
Amanda ran a hand along the ICON's jaw, the sensation transmitted to Felicia and Lily. "Oh, I like it when you are coy. When you are strong and persuasive. I like it when you teach me how to be your wife..."
*STOP IT!* cried Lily. *Just stop it!*
The ICON's hands grasped Amanda's arms and held them to her sides. *We can't go now.*
*Yes yes we can*
*We have to see the Oracle. It's not far.*
*Felicia, I can't.*
Pause. *Please.*
"Are you going to stand there all day or are you going to be a husband to me?" the Amanda program demanded as the Felicia-Lily entity clasped it.

***

Amanda's comment caused the shy Felicia to let go of her arms and the virtual woman used her freedom to step into the ICON's arms and put a hand behind its head. She drew closer, her lips slightly apart, her breath rapid and sweet.
Felicia scrambled backwards, falling onto the stair. Before Amanda could react, the girl triggered the subroutine which shut her down and Byron's imaginary wife winked out of existence.
*Why didn't you do that earlier?* said Lily in an exasperated tone.
Felicia did not answer. The ICON wiped its mouth with the back of its hand.
Feminine distraction gone, the Felicia-Lily constructed headed for the cellar stairs. Lily asked to go back once again, half-hearted, before they descended the dimness below. A naked bulb rained a blurred circle of illumination down upon a packed earth floor and rough hewn wooden support beams.
*Where is it?* asked Lily, hoping the Oracle was gone.
*Hang on.*
A moan drifted out of a dark corner. There was movement, something lighter then the shadows moving forward. Then the Oracle, hideously gaunt, broke into the circle of light. It squatted near a beam, muttering to itself.
Despite having seen its image before, Lily gasped. *my god my god*
"Oracle," said Felicia, masquerading in the Byron ICON.
It groveled, not answering.
"Oracle," said the girl again, more forcefully.
"Yes..."
"Describe your nature."
"I am the Oracle."
*Ask it what its function is* prompted Lily.
"What is your function?"
"I sort. I assimilate. I report." The Oracle held a hand over its eyes, afraid of the light bulb's glow, as it looked up at the ICON.
"How do you perform these jobs?"
The program was still. Then, "Rephrase the question."
"Do you use a brain?"
*Good. Good.*
"Are you a person?" Felicia pressed.
The Oracle's mouth hung open. It's eyes grew wide, it began to shake where it crouched. Then it shook its head, waving its arms wildly. "No, no, no! No! No!" it screamed. Then, wrapping its arms about its head, the Oracle wavered and disappeared.
*What happened?* asked Lily.
*I'm not sure. It shut itself off somehow. Hang on, I'll restart it.*
A few seconds passed as Felicia relayed commands to the virtual environment via her borrowed deck and then, slowly, reluctantly, the Oracle appeared again. It was still sitting by the beam.
Its hollow face was a caricature of pain. "What is your question?" it whispered.
"Did you used to be a person?" Felicia demanded.
"Don't," it cried. "No. Pl - " It did not finish.
"Tell us!"
*Felicia, no. Let's go. Let's just go.*
*But it hasn't told us yet.*
*Honey, I think it has. Let's not make it suffer anymore. In fact, let's go find a way to put it out of its misery.*
There was a pause, then. *If you think that's best.*
*Oh, yes, I do.*
The cellar was plunged into darkness. Then the cellar was gone, leaving only the empty black. But that too faded and Lily found herself looking at the study's ceiling. She had fallen off the couch while she and Felicia explored Byron's virtual fantasy. The solo sat up stiffly, working the circulation back into her hand and arms, then wiped twin wells of tears from her face.

Installment Three: Opening Gambit

Lily refused to spend the night in her brother's house, a decision Felicia did not argue with, but insisted they waited for him there during the daylight hours. The solo did not know exactly when Byron would be back, but she wanted to be there when he did return, if possible.
There was a knot inside her waiting to be released, a place of tension that rolled around her stomach or sometimes her hands. She would have to confront him with what she knew. With what she had experienced. Lily spent hours guessing at his reaction. Angry and hostile. Or immediately penitent. Ashamed.
Felicia watched the holovid or read. She was efficiently patient, sitting with a book on her lap, cleaning the lunch dishes, or reviewing files in her internal memory. Lily was too busy to engage her in anything but the most rudimentary of conversations.
At dusk on the fourth day after Lily had found the Oracle, Byron came home. He opened the door on the solo and Felicia as they were leaving, bags of books, tapes, and music disks in their hands. Lily dropped her duffle.
"Hey there!" said Byron. "What's up?"
Lily's breath was strangled in her chest. "I have to talk to you."
"Okay. What's wrong?"
"I found the Oracle."
He frowned. "What oracle?"
"The one in your computer. The one that uses a human..." Her throat closed over the word.
Byron was still, considering, sorting through replies. Then he looked over at Felicia. The girl shrank against the wall and Lily stepped quickly between them. She cut his gaze like a fire. "Did she tell you about it?" Byron asked.

"Leave her out of this. Let's talk about you instead."
"So she did break into my files and then helped you break in too."
"Byron, you're sick." The anger the solo wanted in her tone did not come through. Instead, the statement was a strangled cry.
The dwarf had a black nylon back slung over his shoulder. He slid it off. "Get out."
"You need help. I really think you need help, Byron."
"Get the hell out of my house." Byron rummaged through his back as Lily moved to put a hand on his shoulder. He drew back, a gun in his hand. His stunted thumb moved the safety to the off position. "Get the hell out of here!" he roared, motioning toward the door with the muzzle of the gun.
"My god," whispered Lily. "Put that away. Now."
"I will kill you if you don't leave immediate," said Byron, his voice black and low.
The solo held out a hand, palm first, as a kind of shield. "Calm down. Calm down." As she felt behind her for Felicia and dragged her towards the half-open door, she began to cry again. Byron was capable of shooting her. Her heart contracted around the fact like it was a serrated blade.
"We're leaving now. Don't shoot." When Felicia was safely out of the line of fire, she moved back into the foyer on the balls of her feet to retrieve their bags. They were unimportant as possessions but would serve as a test. He could shoot, but would he?
Lily saw Byron's finger tighten, tense, on the trigger.
She snatched up both bags as quickly as she dared and once again backed out of her brother's house. She set the duffle and backpack next to Felicia and watched Byron. Her arms trembled. With awkwardness caused by his twisted limbs, he reached out and slowly closed the door on her.

***

Byron blindly rode a wave of anger. It curled and writhed within him. His carefully built facade, his delicate relationship with his sister, lay in ruins, and he disliked feeling so naked. He disliked being discovered. The enormity of it.
The dwarf stalked to his couch, lay down in front of the computer, and jacked himself into his fantasy world, a furious addict. The world darkened. Byron opened the door without pause and moved through the chess room, not noticing or noting the placement of the pawns. He passed into the portion of the virtual environment that was model after his real world home.
He felt better, walking quickly. He was perfect again, perfectly formed in here.
Amanda intercepted him as he strode through the kitchen. She attempted to tangle him in a random storyline he'd written the elements of, and Byron struck her down. The fantasy woman's face swelled as she lay against a wall, her fingers tracing the edges of the blow's impact, eyes full of tears. "Stay away," Byron growled as he moved on.
Outside, it was thundering.
Byron navigated the basement stairs with ease and found the light still on. His stubby fingers, hidden behind the false world, typed commands into his deck. "Oracle," he said, typing, and the Oracle sluggishly materialized.
"Oracle," Byron said.
It lifted its head. Its eyes were hollow.
"Begin a search for a man named Jerome Black. Report your progress in real time."
"Yes..." The Oracle's face blanked and then, "I have initiated a connection to the Net. Processing. Search engines are being created. Search engines are being released into the Net. Processing. Processing. Processing. A reference to Jerome Black has been found."
"Report," barked the dwarf.
"Reference to Jerome Black found in a document located in San Diego Justice file server. File contains court transcripts, indicating Jerome Bla -"
"Does it contain his telephone number?"
"No."
"Find Jerome Black's telephone number."
The Oracle nodded weakly. "Search engines being modified. Processing. Reference to Jerome Black's telephone number found in the Tasty Jack's Pizza customer database."
Byron grinned and plucked the number from the Oracle's computer memory. He shut the Oracle down and it dissolved. Then, with a dance of fingers over his keyboard, he opened up a connection to Black's phone.
It rang. A window blossomed in the air of the basement as he answered.
Jerome Black was in bed, his dark hair bedraggled, a nude blonde woman hidden in a tangle of cheap blankets beside him. He frowned into his telephone's camera. "Who is this?"
"Hello, Jerome. This is Byron."
"Like the poet?" The man laughed and reached for a bottle of whiskey that was on the nightstand.
"You remember me. We've worked together before. Two years ago."
"I do? We did?"
"Yes," assured Byron. "Listen, I have a job for you. There's someone I want you to kill."
After the details were hammered out and payment arranged, Black hung up and the floating window winked out. Byron recalled the Oracle and said, "Begin a search for all reference to Lilith Jacobson..."

***

Lily's hands, which had incapacitated and killed men, gripped the steering wheel of her Mitsuzuki Bushi in effort to keep herself from crying while driving. She thought of the gun, and her white knuckled grip was rendered useless. Things were falling apart. The part of her life that had always been stable, solid, was disintegrating.
The traffic on the way to her apartment was full of aborted opportunities for lane changes and turn offs. The other drivers clashed over space, jostled each other. They were ignorant of the solo's distress. She gunned the engine and forced her car into another lane like a red wedge. Horns cried out.
Lily's apartment building had a secure parking lot. She paused at a gate while an automated computer sensed her car, queried it, and the car responded. The gate swung open on motorized hinges and Lily parked her Bushi with unnecessary speed. She distractedly helped Felicia with her bags. Her hands were shaking as took the girl's duffle.
Lily thought about the gun and her's brothers small hand pointing it on the slow, secure elevator.
After Felicia had fallen asleep on the futon in the spare bedroom, Lily prepared to cry. She curled around a pillow on her bed, the holovid tuned to a station that played only old black and white romances, and willed herself to let go.
But she felt empty inside, like a fire-charred building's shell. There were no tears.
With thoughts about Felicia turning slowly in the back of her mind and the holovid's light dancing across the walls of the room, it's noise level only suggestive, Lily let go of the images of the gun pointed at her and her brother angry, and without meaning to, succumb to sleep.
A shrill noise woke her.
Lily stumbled out of a sea of grey dreams and sat up. She let go of the pillow she was clutching, confused by the noise. A red light was blinking on a panel set by the door and a speak on it was emitting a high pitched whine.
Lily vaulted out of bed to check it. There was a fire in the building.

***

Practice allowed Lily to suppress a surge of panic and disable her apartment's alarm. As the shrill noise died, she began to notice smoke creeping in on the edges of her vision, a precursive ghost of the fire.
The solo felt the door. It was cool, and she opened it.
The living room beyond was a sea of haze and unlit furniture. A heavy black smoke clung to the ceiling and walls, staining the white paint with a greasy soot. Lily ran to the other bedroom, her hand over her mouth.
Felicia was asleep on the futon. She was below the line of smoke that was pressing itself under the room's door. Lily woke her roughly. "Come on," said the solo. "We have to go. We have to get out of her."
Felicia did not protest. As Lily gathered her up, she lay limply in her guardian's arms, her eyes wide, expression pale. Lily grabbed two of the girl's blouses, handing one to Felicia and pressing one over her mouth.
"Okay. Let's go."
The front door was warmer than the previous two, but not hot enough to indicate a fire on the other side of it. The hallway was filled with smoke, giving the solo's jog down it an eerie, supernatural, or dreamy feel. Felicia breathed deeply through her flowered shirt.
Lily paused near the elevator. Riding them was something you were supposed to avoid during a fire, she knew, and a brief image of her charred body being found curled around Felicia's instantly dispelled any notion of chancing a ride down.
The apartment building had been built only a few years before and had no fire escapes. They could not climb down the building's outside, in the cool, smoke-free air, while fire gutted the inside. There were no emergency slides that could be thrown off the roof and Lily did not think she could fit into the garbage chute.
That meant the stairs were the only path to safety. Lily moved past the elevator and opened a heavy door that led to her floor's landing. The bowels of the stairs were smoke-filled, full of a dim and flickering orange light, but Lily started down the steps anyway.
She passed the nineteenth floor. The eighteenth.
Near the sixteenth floor, she adjusted her grip on Felicia. A woman had run up past them moments before, screaming in broken street Spanish. Lily had tried to get her to turn around, but the woman wouldn't listen. "The roof," she kept saying in her native tongue, "the roof!"
The twelfth floor. Lily could hear near drown voices below her. The other tenants were braving the fire that seemed to wait below. The smoke was too thick now for the impromptu masks to keep out and the air was rolling with heat.
Eleventh floor.
Tenth floor. Lily counted them off as they went by.
On the eighth floor landing, the wall by the solo's head exploded in half-hearted explosion of white building materials. A smoke-slowed part of Lily's brain clicked and she realized she was being shot at, the gun's bark being hidden with a silencer. She dove forward -
- fell down the next flight of shallow stairs -
and twisted so that Felicia was spared the brunt of an impact with a wall. Lily's back slammed into a soot-smeared faux plaster wall and her breath exploded out of her with a puff of smoke. Her vision swam.
A man appeared in front of her, dressed in tight black clothing. He had a cybereye that gleamed with a ruby laser's light. He smiled and drew a bead with a black gun. Lily dropped Felicia.
The man fired.
Lily drove her head into his stomach. The assassin tried to twist away, but Lily clutched at his sides and held him in place. He doubled over and the solo withdrew. She panted for half a second, then snapped a kick at the man's head.
He slipped backwards, the gun coming up.
Lily spun away before the next bullet could find her and was back in front of the man before he could fire again. Her forearm contacted his chin. She drove her knee into his abdomen and swept his feet out from under him. He fell against a wall.
"Who are you?" Lily asked as she used the heel of her hand to drive the assassin's head back into the wall behind him. His cybereye left ruddy light trails in the thick smoke. The man did not answer. Lily hit him again. He brought the gun to bear, only to have the solo knock it out of his grip. It went off where it fell.
Weaponless, the assassin fought back. He feigned exhaustion and when Lily closed for another blow, he pivoted on his hip and sent a solid kick into her midsection. Smoke driving away the stairway's oxygen, Lily immediate lost her breath for a second time. Before she could work through it, the man darted past her.
She thrust out a leg, tripping him. The man hit the stair's railing -
- then fell over it.
Lily sucked in air through a blouse before she looked over the side of the railing. The man was sprawled on the steps below, his posture somehow off, subtlely unnatural. His arms and legs were bent at odd angles. He did not move.
The solo bent over Felicia, who had crawled into a corner, touching her hair, the skin at her hairline, before picking her up. The child's face was smeared with soot and half hidden under a blackened daisy blouse.
Lily carried her to the ground floor, where Fire-Rescue had cleared a path through the fire. Men in shinny yellow coats were spraying water over the buildings walls as they walked out to where the other tenants huddled.
Handing Felicia to a neighbor, Lily spoke with the fire chief about the man in the stairwell.

***

Although the apartments above the eleventh floor were all cleared for occupancy, the day after the fire Lily gathered her important possessions - an array of clothing, gadgetry, and forged identification papers - and checked herself and her ward into a hotel. She fished a random ID out of her bag and registered under a false name.
After all, someone was trying to kill her. Or Felicia, she mentally added as she rode the elevator up to her modestly expensive suite of rooms. The fire had been set to draw them out of her secure apartment and into the stairwell, where the would be assassin lay in wait. It was a good plan, the solo decided, and would have worked if the killer had been competent.
Lily opened the door to her room with gun in hand. Felicia waited in the hall while she searched the main room, then the two adjoining bedrooms. Lily signaled for the girl to come inside and Felicia sat on the suite's gigantic couch while the solo rummaged through her bags for assorted pieces of technology.
Lily attached tremblers, tiny vibrating machines that stuck to glass via suction, on each of the suite's windows and then set up a more bulky white noise generator near the door. On the door itself, she rigged a sensor that sound an alarm if the door moved more than a centimeter, then sealed the jam with a quick set chemical epoxy. Lily used a electromagnetic pulse generator to deactivate the lock. She set her cellular phone, and its accessories, on an end table. Then she used a second sensor to sweep the rooms for listening devices.
When she was done, she had a bottle of mineral water from the wet bar. Felicia had juice.
A few hours later, they curled together on the couch, gun and canister of sedative within easy reach on the floor, and watched the holovid. Felicia sat through Gone with the Wind, Part III and Return of Nanostein before she fell asleep.
Lily switched over to the classics channel, but it not watch the movie it was airing. Someone had tried to kill her. Whoever was behind the attempt had not hired a professional and, Lily decided, this could mean a number of things. Said person was either too poor to afford the best, didn't know he - or she, Lily added hastily - had not paid for a competent assassin, or the person who wanted her dead had simply been in a hurry and contracted what was readily available. Lily sighed.
Was it Byron? Lily took a sip from her water while the question hung in the air. Yes, she admitted, Byron would kill her. Her brother was dead, a twisted version masquerading in his place. If it was Byron, then the incompetent gunman made sense. He'd only had a few hours to find someone.
And that person had botched the job. Lily thought about the fire, the stairwell.
Tomorrow, she decided, she would make a few calls and discrete inquiries. She had contacts on the street, being part of that culture herself, and knew with the right incentive, someone would roll over and expose the person bankrolling the assassin. She would visit the bank and confirm what she dreaded was true.

***

When the teller at the First International Bank claimed that no account existed for Angel Watkins, one of Lily's shadowy identities, she was surprised and momentarily flustered. The Watkins account had held twenty thousand Euro Bucks a week earlier. Lily bit her lower lip, thanked the woman, and stalked out of the bank.
Although she had not intended to, she found herself crisscrossing the city, several credchips in hand, to visit the financial homes of her other identities. It was frustrating work. No, there was no account under that name. No, there had never been an account for that name. We don't make mistakes. Have a nice day.
Lily drove like the car was on fire.
Just as she was about to give up, she found an account that had not been compromised. The bank manager at the Rosy Dawn Vietnamese International Credit Union was about to about to turn the solo away, rudely claiming she did not look like a Susan Phat, when Felicia became bored with the bank's holographic sales pitch and wandered over to stand next to her guardian. Lily took her hand. The manager coughed politely and authorized the closure of the Phat account. Lily gathered up fifteen thousand Euro Bucks worth of credsticks and as she walked out, smiled.

***

When the teller at the First International Bank claimed that no account existed for Angel Watkins, one of Lily's shadowy identities, she was surprised and momentarily flustered. The Watkins account had held twenty thousand Euro Bucks a week earlier. Lily bit her lower lip, thanked the woman, and stalked out of the bank.
Although she had not intended to, she found herself crisscrossing the city, several credchips in hand, to visit the financial homes of her other identities. It was frustrating work. No, there was no account under that name. No, there had never been an account for that name. We don't make mistakes. Have a nice day.
Lily drove like the car was on fire.
Just as she was about to give up, she found an account that had not been compromised. The bank manager at the Rosy Dawn Vietnamese International Credit Union was about to about to turn the solo away, rudely claiming she did not look like a Susan Phat, when Felicia became bored with the bank's holographic sales pitch and wandered over to stand next to her guardian. Lily took her hand. The manager coughed politely and authorized the closure of the Phat account. Lily gathered up fifteen thousand Euro Bucks worth of credsticks and as she walked out, smiled.

***

Teddy bears sat next to boneless dolls on a wall of shelves. The remains of a tea party, small cups and saucers, plastic forks and plastic cookies, lay on a child-sized table that sat in a corner of the darkened bedroom. Crayola drawings, their colors muted by shadows, lined the walls.
The bedroom door opened and and a rectangle of light illuminated the room.

A golden-haired child stirred in her sleep, small fists pressing into her eyes to shield them from the intruding glow. She yawned, hunted for the doll that had fallen off the side of the bed, and sat up.
Byron entered the room, stooping to retrieve the fallen toy. "I think you dropped Suzie," he said as he laid the doll back into his virtual daughter's arms. He sat on the edge of the bed. "You awake?"
"Yes," said Cherise sleepily.
"Good. Your mother said you wanted clowns at your birthday."
Cherise nodded enthusiastically, drowsiness forgotten.
"How many did you want?"
"Five clowns."
"Just five?"
Cherise nodded.
"Alright then. I just wanted to tuck you in." Byron drew his daughter's coverlet up to her chin.
"How many more days, daddy?"
The dwarf smiled. "Two weeks left, honey. Can you wait that long?" Cherise nodded again, pulling her doll to her chest. "Good. It'll be here before you know it. Well, I have to go to bed now myself, honey. I'll see you in the morning."
Byron stood and walked to the door. He watched the mass of pixels and programming that was his daughter Cherise in his virtual fantasy, feeling hollow inside, then left and shut the door one the unsullied but unsatisfying part of his life.

***

Lily toyed with a credstick while her contact, the fixer Amsterdam, settled into the booth. She tapped the plastic bar against the worn formica of the table, not wanting to look into his craggy face, to read what was written there and destroy hope.
"Good to see you again," said the fixer. His bodyguard, a female solo named Mariposa, leaned against the Amsterdam's side of the booth, toying with her knife. Her assortment of specialized guns had been taken away at the door and put in a locker next to Lily's. "Now, what is it I can do for you?" the fixer continued.
Lily tensed, her hands still. "I need you to tell me who's trying to kill me."
"You know that's not done," Amsterdam sighed.
"I brought money, lots of it."
"Money won't buy me a new reputation when my current one is ruined. If I live long enough to manufacture a new one, that is. Once word gets out that my word is not my bond, I'll have some very unhappy ex-customers convinced I was lying when I said their secrets were safe we me."
"I'd protect you," offer Lily and her counterpart, the solo Mariposa, laughed.
Amsterdam was merely grinning. "I'm sorry to say I don't think you'd be up to the job."
Lily dug into a bag at her side, produced four more credsticks like the one she was nervously fingering, and laid all five on the fixer's side of the table. He eyed the denomination stamped into each - one thousand eurobucks - and shook his head.
"You know me," tried Lily.
"And you know how the business works. I'm sorry."
"Just something. Anything. A hint."
"A hint?" asked Amsterdam, incredulously.
Lily felt like crying. She hadn't expected Amsterdam to turn over a name, but she had hoped. Had hoped that their close association of more than five years would amount to more than business, hoped that Amsterdam was not as much a product of the streets as he seemed to be. Those hopes had crumbled and blown away.
Lily was more than competent as solo, a modern day solider of fortune who's battleground was the cityscape. But discovering the identity of the person or persons responsible was almost beyond her. She didn't have the necessary skills or connections to ferret a name out of the web of lies, rumor, and information. Now that Amsterdam, her best street-level contact, had turned her down, she would have to try.
Lily took a calming breath and pointed to the money. "Then I want a new identity."
"Another one?" asked the fixer. "Didn't I already sell you three?" Lily gave him a level glare, thinking, business men don't joke around with their clients, and Amsterdam capitulated. "Alright, alright. Did you want anything special?"
"Something unusual for me."
"As you wish." The fixer stood, handing the credsticks to Mariposa, who moved cat-like towards the door. Amsterdam followed, then turned back to Lily. He bent down as if to kiss her, did so on the cheek, then as he pulled away, whispering, "It's someone you've angered recently."
Lily pretended he had said nothing, then when the pair left, collected her gun and went to the apartment she had rented that morning. Felicia was waiting for her.

Seanchaí


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