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Ghosts Of The Past

Chapter III


"Hunters, lower your weapons," the android announced in an eerie monotone. I've noticed that military androids favor that voice despite the technology being available to make them sound completely human. I figure it's psychological warfare--to make the listener see the android as an inhuman killing machine instead of a person and so instill fear.

It was working.

"Who are you and why should we comply?" Talissa barked.

"This area is under the jurisdiction of the 32nd Galactic Mobile Infantry, WORKS, and is off-limits to all hunters."

From his hammerlike head and relatively massive build, I recognized the android as a TYPE:R. They were designed essentially as mobile armored gun platforms, very tough but not too swift with the reflexes. I glanced over at Liss, and she glanced back. I knew we were both thinking the same thing.

Clearly the RAcast knew, too, because he fired. The monotone voice also tends to trick observers into thinking the android speaker is stupid and unperceptive, a low-grade electronic intellect.

The three-round burst that stitched into my armored chestplate pointed out just which one of us really was stupid. The impact blew me off my feet, the third photon charge hitting me while I was actually falling. Next to me, Talissa landed in an equally embarrassing heap.

"According to WORKS Regulation--" the android began, but I didn't let him finish. Instead, I swung my blaster up and fired--hipshot, really--while still lying on my back. Apparently I had access to better equipment than WORKS, because the shot punched a smoking, sparking hole in the android's upper leg. It swayed, trying to correct its balance, and its next several shots peppered the floor instead of us.

Talissa followed my example; with a flick of her blade she called forth the Zonde technique, slashing the military RAcast with lightning. We got lucky; the android's failsafes tripped to prevent electrical damage to its AI core, leaving it frozen in place, its body beyond control until the charge dissipated.

"He's going to remember us," I said grimly. "He'll be able to download visuals from his memory to any computer for an ID scan."

"No, he's not."

"Liss, we can't kill him. He's a person, not just a robot, and we're the criminal trespassers here, so it's not like a real case of self-defense."

"What do you take me for, Sejanus?" She got a bright purple metal disk, about four inches across, out from one of her belt packs and slapped it against the back of the TYPE: R's head. No more than two seconds later, the RAcast pitched forward and hit the ground with a crash. "Disabler. It should wipe the last ten to twelve minutes from the android's memory. I do plan ahead for these jobs, you know."

"Sorry, Liss. I'm not exactly at my peak, mentally."

She flashed me a grin.

"First time I've ever heard a guy admit to that! Now, let's get going before the rest of the WORKS crew gets here."

I couldn't argue with that, so we moved on, slipping through a network of corridors and rooms and being careful to avoid being spotted by the occasional WORKS guards. Luckily, the military had done a decent job of keeping the area clear of hostiles, so we didn't encounter any more robots on our way to the teleporter pad. A small terminal sat next to it and we approached. The teleporter was inert, so I inputted my access code. If it was possible for nanoseconds to crawl past, they did, until the message, "CODE ACCEPTED. SET DESTINATION COORDINATES." appeared.

"Your turn."

Swiftly Talissa entered the Seabed destination coordinates which she'd no doubt been provided by Natasha. Once the teleporter hummed to life with scarlet light-bars cycling through the air, we stepped onto the pad. For a few seconds the world was swallowed in darkness...

...and we opened our eyes to look upon Hell.

"We're here," Talissa said softly.

We stood in water up to our ankles. The main lighting had been shut down, leaving only a ghastly yellow illumination from the emergency lights. The humidity was all but total; water leakage and the power drain from ventilation made each breath hot and wet. I all but drank the air rather than inhaled it, and the stifling heat made perspiration stand out on my face within seconds. It was like being in a tropical jungle, only worse, since the steel walls on all sides and the knowledge of the water pressing in all around them--water obviously not being kept out in all places--made the Seabed more horrifically claustrophobic than any outdoor location could be.

"I wonder if this place is even stable?" Talissa asked.

My stomach lurched as I thought of the tons of water above crashing down and engulfing us.

"Please don't mention that."

I switched my blaster for an autogun, a less powerful weapon but one that was considerably easier to handle in these confined spaces.

"How are we going to find Mome's data?"

"We'll start here and work outward, checking every terminal we find," Talissa decided. "There's no other way."

We crept down the hall, the silence around us broken only by the sloshing of our steps through the water. I barely suppressed a shudder as I remembered the rumors of the kind of creatures found in this area and what an obvious signal to them all the noise we were making would be.

The first room we came to looked less like part of a research facility than it did part of a basement. Large polycrete pillars, most chipped and cracked in places, supported the ceiling while pipes and conduits snaked along the walls. There were, however, two computer terminals mounted opposite one another in the middle of the long sides of the room. One looked dead, a mere lump of inert gray metal. The other, though, seemed to still be active, green bars of text scrolling up its display.

"Let's go take a look," I suggested.

"You're better at computers than I am."

"I don't even know what to look for."

"Neither do I."

"Good point." We crossed to the terminal, Talissa keeping her eyes on the room in case of hostiles while I worked the machine--the reason, of course, that I'd have preferred it the other way. Even with a partner to look out for me, the idea of turning my back on any room down here clamped an icy hand around my heart.

How could Mome have stood it, working for hours down here? He was a scientist, not a fighter. How could he have done it? Had the monsters all been eliminated, somehow?

That wasn't my problem, though. I quickly ran through the various options the terminal offered, and soon hit a wall: the facility's AI core was inaccessible. It wasn't as if I was being locked out by a security wall; there was just nothing there, as if the core, "Olga," had been shut down outright or physically disconnected from the network. It was really quite strange. Since the terminals were computers themselves, the Seabed subnet still existed, but the core and most of its processing power were no longer available to use.

Coping as best I could, I ran a network scan for any signs of recent activity. I found a few traces, probably database searches run by Mome and his team. They hadn't been performed at this terminal, though, but remotely. Then I got the bright idea of asking the machine where the search of this terminal's memory had been sent from, and I got an answer.

"Upper level, Section A9, Block 4," I recited.

"What's that?"

"The location of a computer which sent a search request to this computer four days ago. Probably, it's where Mome worked from when he was in the Seabed."

"Can we get there from here?"

"I don't know; I'm not finding a schematic in this machine's database, nor anywhere that's easily accessible on the network. Of course, it would help if I had some of the security codes, but we do what we can. Honestly, I don't think it's there to find. Why eat up local data capacity with maps and maintenance schematics when you can just put it on the mainframe and access it whenever you have to?"

"Can you access Mome's computer from here?"

"I'll give it a try."

I did, both with voice commands and using the terminal's touchpad. Unfortunately, the word "try" when used after the fact, invariably equates to failure, and it was so here.

"Blast it!"

"What's wrong?"

"I'm hitting security blocks on the network."

"I don't understand. You weren't before."

I shrugged.

"I was checking the operations logs, then, seeing what various computers were doing. Now I'm attempting to actually access data. That's something different. I know, it shouldn't be, but with the core hacked out of the subnet the system design doesn't make sense anymore. I'm assuming that network oversight was an AI core function and that it was this Olga that handled security. No Olga, no defenses. The databases are different; they have multiple levels of security installed on the local datastores themselves as well as on the network channels to restrict unauthorized access."

"So how did Mome get into the data? Oh, never mind, I'm sure the Lab's staff could whip up some kind of codebreaker for him to bring down, some kind of security disk."

"I wish Natasha had bothered to give us one."

"Probably, she didn't want us poking around where we didn't belong. We're just here to retrieve Mome's file, not look at it."

"These people treat melodrama and paranoia like they're food and drink, don't they?"

Talissa clapped me on the back.

"See, Sejanus, that's the problem with seeing the world all in shades of gray. You get so you can't recognize right and wrong when you encounter them."

"How pleasant. Now, how does Natasha expect us to recover Mome's data without having security codes?"

Talissa chewed at her lower lip.

"Okay, we know that our client isn't an idiot; quite the opposite, in fact," she said.

"Right."

"So she expects us to be able to bring her the data if we find it. Meaning that she doesn't expect it to be sealed, right?"

She was ahead of me, again.

"I think you've got it, Liss. The security blocks on the network restrict the flow of data from machine to machine. I checked this terminal's datastores and found them secured, but that's all data from the original Pioneer 1 staff."

"So if we actually go to the computer Mome was using..."

"We ought to be able to download his files, the new files, out of local data, so long as they don't have to pass to another machine on the network."

She grinned broadly.

"Finally, some progress!"

I was less inclined to be optimistic. Big surprise there.

"That's presuming, of course, that our deductions are accurate, that we're able to find the computer, that no one's beaten us to it, that Mome didn't slap a load of fresh security on his own work, and that nothing eats us on the way."

"You're such a ray of hope, Sejanus."

"On the good side, we probably won't be ankle-deep in water on an upper level, if we can get there."

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