Devon gulped as the doors opened and he saw the lion that was now facing them. It was larger than the last two and unlike the others, it was fully active. There was no way Duck could finesse her way out this one.
His hand reached reflexively for the kill switch, but it wasn’t there. He was merely a passenger and on the wrong side of the deck to kill the connection. It was all in Duck’s hands now. She had control of the switch and their defenses.
‘Defenses’: the word hovered in his mind as he recalled that Duck had dumped almost all functionality in favor of imitating the bot she’d spotted in the hotel. There were no defense routines, no evasion programs, nothing. All programming they had was in Duck’s head, and had yet to be written.
He could sense the lion’s targeting system activate as it pulled power from the node to back itself up. He braced himself knowing that even through the hitcher jack it was going to hurt. Then everything went dark.
‘So this is what death is like,’ was the last thought through his mind before he realized that he’d been dumped.
“Dammit!” he swore, or tried to swear as the disorientation hit. “She dumped me,” he growled as he tried to fight his way through the waves of nausea. “She freakin’ dumped me!”
As another wave of vertigo washed over him, he felt somebody shaking him.
Cat studied Devon carefully as she waited for him to recover his senses. “Devon,” she asked slowly. “What happened?”
Devon shook his head as he staggered around to the other side of the table and checked Duck’s pulse. He let out a relieved sigh when he verified that she was still breathing then tensed when he caught sight of the screen. He stood transfixed as he watched the lion make it’s move.
“Dammit Devon,” Cat yelled. “What is going on?”
“Black IC, active... No defenses primed... she dumped me...” he managed to stammer as he watched one of the lions massive paws darken the screen.
Cat took a deep breath. She didn’t know much about decking, but what she did know screamed at her that Black IC could spell certain death for anyone who tried to match up against it and failed. Judging by the look on Devon’s face, that was exactly what was happening.
She reached for the kill switch.
*** *** ***
Duck’s mind raced as she looked at the lion and realized that it was fully alert and targeting her. She quickly scanned the status messages she’d intercepted from the lions and realized her mistake: the outer lions were supposed to track the comings and goings to the sub-node. By deactivating them both, she had activated the inner lion. Now he stood, set to confront anything coming through the door, and that meant her.
‘Fine mess,’ she grumbled to herself as she began trying to assemble something that would help her. She knew she could merely jack out, let Zyrebien’s trace routines follow her connection back to the hotel, but that would not give her the information she needed. Then again, neither would staying and getting killed.
She had less than five seconds to make up her mind and act. When she realized that, everything else seemed to fall into place. Duck hit the release button and activated the screen. Devon would just have to watch from the outside.
The lion had one purpose: to destroy. Anything that met its gaze was to be disassembled, preferably in such a way that its creator would be destroyed as well. It had no feelings about what it did, it was simply what it had been created to do.
At least that was the theory behind its existence. However, its creator had other plans. Somehow he seemed greatly pleased at the carnage his creation was designed to wreak, and he felt that the construct should get the same pleasure out of its job as he did.
He could not give it emotions, but he could give it power. The rush, almost like adrenalin that would surge through it when it triumphed. Little did he know, that his gift had also provided for his creation’s downfall.
As its claws raked down the side of the intruder it felt the surge, feeding its ferocity. It swelled in size as it felt the construct beneath it start to waver. Victory was within its paws, and still more power surged into it.
Suddenly it was bigger than anything, the power flowed and the danger of the power feed didn’t register until it too late. It was, after all, only line upon line of code. It was never designed to hold that much energy.
Duck let out a relieved sigh as the power dissipated. Tiredly she propped herself up and looked at charred remains of what had once been the lion.
“Nice kitty,” she sighed as she forced herself back up. Her head throbbed slightly, but other than that she was good to go. She released her retrieval routines and was about to start her search as the room spun around her.
“No!” she swore as she was sucked into the vortex of a jack-out. “Its not freakin’ fair!”
Cat watched worriedly as Duck reeled from the effects of the disconnect. She tried to keep herself calm, knowing that the disorientation would wear off, then she could try to deal with the injuries. She was not ready for the tirade Duck launched into as soon as she was coherent.
“Who hit the kill switch?” she demanded. Her voice was weak, but the anger shown through.
“Duck,” Cat called gently. “It wasn’t safe... We had to pull you out.”
“It wasn’t safe!?” Duck was almost incoherent with disbelief and something else Cat couldn’t quite place.
“Duck, the IC, we saw it attack, the Screen went dead, your deck was sparking... “I was afraid we were too late!”
“Too Late?” Duck sighed in frustration. “Dammit Cat, I won... I beat it... “ she was almost sobbing as she continued. “I had to let it get close enough... to activate its power feed... I over loaded it... It was down for the freaking count and you jacked me out!!!”
Cat was confused now. “But... the damage...”
“The Deck took the damage... Its designed for that,” Duck’s voice was at least softening, but Cat realized that was more due to pain than calming down.
“You’re hurt...” Cat stated evenly.
“Yes I’m hurt,” Duck answered tersely. “That’s usually what happens when you pull something like facing down black IC by letting it hit you!”
Cat pulled back slightly as she studied her friend. Something in Duck’s eyes told her she wasn’t entirely there. “Can you go back?” she asked meekly.
“No I can’t ‘go back!’” Duck answered. Her tone was both sarcastic and glum. “I was this close!” she muttered holding her index finger a quarter of an inch from her thumb. “This freaking close... and you pulled the plug!”
“I’m sorry...” Cat answered slowly. “But right now... don’t you think you should lay down?”
“I’m not in the mood to lay down,” Duck growled petulantly. Her voice taking on the tones of a child that should have gone to bed hours before but was stubbornly hanging on to see mid-night.
Cat sighed. “Duck... I’m sorry... I can’t undo what’s been done, but it did something to you... I need to make sure you’re all right,” Cat urged in gentle almost hypnotic tones.
“My deck!” Duck sighed as she moved forward and saw the damage from the attack. “My beautiful Deck...”
“Yes Duck... “ Cat answered gently. “And you’re head is...”
“I have to fix my Deck.”
“Duck, you are going to sit down, shut up and let me check you out or so help me, I’m going to whallop you upside the head until you either get some sense or you’re unconscious!” Cat finally growled. There was only so much comforting she could put up with before blowing a gasket.
Duck looked up at her and grinned. “And now you know how I feel...” Duck answered in a very cool tone.
Cat glowered at her, unsure if Duck had bested her, or was now on the upswing of her seeming manic tirade.
Duck smiled at her and winked. “Got and aspirin?”
Cat let her breath out slowly as she shook her head. “One of these days my friend....”
“But until then... lay off my deck...”
Cat nodded when she saw the seriousness in her friend’s eyes. “I’ll try...” she answered as she moved closer and began a healing spell that would take most of the edge off of Duck’s pain. Cat tensed as she met with resistance. A lot more resistance than the decker should have been able to offer.
“Duck... this’d be a lot easier if you let me in...” she urged.
“Hu?” Duck answered insightfully.
Cat pulled back slightly and realized that it was not something intentional, Duck just seemed to have a natural resistance to magic. On one hand it was a nice thing to have, but when uncontrolled it meant more work when somebody was trying to heal her. Cat sighed, realizing once again that her friend was a lot more complicated that she had thought.
She gave Devon a worried look as she tried again to get inside Duck’s shielding and fix her up. Something told her that nothing was going to be easy where Duck was concerned.
Devon merely nodded and began going over the damaged deck.
Duke sat up as he noticed the magic being worked within his protective web. As he focused in on it, he realized that the woman, the decker had been injured and one of her companions was trying to heal her. He was surprised as the magic user stopped, pulled back and inspected the woman.
Altering his consciousness slightly he brushed against the woman’s mind and was surprised to find that he could not penetrate anything more than surface thoughts.
‘Indeed...’ he thought as he continued to flow around her. This was indeed an unexpected turn of events. ‘No real worry,’ he told himself. She is on the trail of the toy without any influence from him. If he was lucky, he’d be able to achieve his goals merely by allowing the woman to continue along her current path.
His only worry was helping her remain alive long enough for her to carry out her mission. He was beginning to realize that this meant that not only did he need to protect her from those who would kill her, but from herself as well.
‘So... human...’ he sighed. ‘Still, she will serve her purpose.’
“Is something wrong?” Ferron asked as he shifted consciousness once again.
Duke smiled at him. “Nothing we can’t handle,” he assured his friend. “Nothing we can’t handle.”
Ferron smiled. ‘I hope you are right my friend,’ he thought to himself. He did not look forward to the consequences of failure.
Cat let out an audible sigh as she pulled out of the spell she’d been working on. Duck’s defenses had proven much more difficult to breach than she had previously thought possible, especially for a non-mage.
“So doc?” Duck asked sarcastically. “Am I going to live?”
Cat shook her head. “If you keep up like this, I doubt it, she teased. “I don’t know how you managed it, maybe its that thick skull of yours, but the damage didn’t go too deep.”
“You sound disappointed,” Duck commented wryly.
“Well, if you’d been hurt more, I wouldn’t feel as bad about pulling you out like that...”
Duck looked at her, noticing the tone in her friend’s voice. “Yeah well, your intentions were good,” she offered.
“Yeah... but how much did I cost us?”
“Confirmation and details,” Duck told her gently. “I can try again some other time, at least now we know the project name, and a lot more about why people are so hot to get this thing.”
“Care to share?” Cat asked, her curiosity getting the better of her.
Duck smiled. “Oh, you aren’t going to believe this one...”
“Try me,” Cat answered, her expression challenging. “Go ahead and try me...”
“The black box is an implant... cerebral... It’s a deck... A deck unlike anything I’ve ever seen. According to the design info, its compact, internal, allows for full immersion, flash upgradable...and faster than anything available since its right there... all the time,” Duck paused allowing it to sink in then grinned. “Oh, and if that weren’t enough... it can hook through the matrix through a satellite link up.... from just about any satellite... and it automatically detects, connects and switches.... Now how much would you be willing to pay?
Cat looked at Duck as she began her trideo commercial immitation. Now she understood why people were willing to kill for this thing. “And it works?”
Duck shook her head and let out a sigh that almost sounded like a hiss. “That’s the problem. Either it doesn’t work, or its working too well...”
“All the test subjects on record haven’t survived its implantation... seems it’s a little too good, and they haven’t quite perfected the on/off sequence... implantees overload and then flatline... longest survivor on record lasted 4 hours.”
There was something in Duck's expression that mad Cat gasp: the images she’d received of the crash, the emptiness she felt from ‘Yala’s fiance. “Daniel?”
Duck nodded pain and anger flashing dangerously in her eyes. “They nabbed him outside our base... Opened him up and fried his mind...”
Cat looked at Duck for a minute studying her expression and body language: the kid was hurting. “You knew him...”
Again Duck nodded. “He was my mentor, and my friend.”
“Damn,” Cat sighed.
“Yeah...” Duck answered. There was something very dangerous in the way she said that one word.
Cat nodded. “And somebody just left you the information?”
Again Duck nodded. “One of their boys is a little too close to the fire... A decker, working for two Interpol Agents. From the looks of thing’s he’s taking out a little insurance policy. Seems the Agent’s aren’t supporting him, they’re holding back so that they can build their case, leaving him caught in the middle.”
“This Rogers and Hammerstein you mentioned?”
Duck nodded. “There’s a lot more information. I’ll get you a print out when we’re done here. As it is I’ve already sent the full specs to another decker, Tracker. He’s Wiz’s best friend and teammate.”
Cat stiffened when she realized that Duck was not taking any chances. “What gives?”
“Our friend included a list of the most likely candidates,” Duck answered cooly. “I’m at the top of the list.”
“Number two with a bullet...”
Cat shook her head angrily. “All of this over something that doesn’t work, and they want guinea pigs.” She was really beginning to regret pulling Duck out of the matrix now.
“Don’t worry,” Duck told her conspiratorially. “We’ll get them, and right now we’re about to go for the bonus round.”
Cat gave Duck a sidelong look, then nodded. “The morgue?”
Vermillion tensed as he sensed something reaching out to him from inside the building. There was something about the feeling that set him on edge. It was dark and dangerous and seemed to seap into everything. He was surprised that Cat hadn’t seemed to notice as it permeated everything in its vicinity. It was probing him, trying to reach in and understand his motives.
He reached out to meet the probe, straining to understand the power behind it. As he met the power it seemed to overcome him . He could feel his stomach churn at its alieness. Then it was inside him trying to erase any trace of its existence. He clamped his hands to his head as he tried to push it out of his mind and break free.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was gone. He struggled to trace it, but it was almost as if it had never been. He knew better. Whoever was behind the power didn’t want to be known, but somehow they seemed involved in this in a major way. He was still trying to understand when he received a com message from Cat. They were coming out.
He faded into the shadows and watched as first Cat then her three companions exited the building. Somehow he felt safer with them out of that building.
As the exited the building and he caught another glimpse of Red he shook his head. He had never suspected that Gypsy’s niece was somehow involved in all of this. Like everybody else he and assumed that she was just... ‘Gypsy’s niece.’
He had no idea what was going on, but he knew it was up to him to follow them and watch over them. Black Cat would fill him in on the details when she could.
Devon looked around as the others piled into the car. “So... where to now?”
Duck looked at him for a moment then shook her head. “This is where we part company,” she answered. “I need you to get this information out to as many of the appropriate authorities as you can,” she told him, then looked at Wayne. “Wayne, I need you to keep an eye on Dev for me.”
Wayne gave a slight nod. It was obvious that that was not what he wanted to be doing, but he also understood the fact that he was needed elsewhere.
Devon looked at her and cocked his head. “And where pray tell will you be?”
“Cat and I are going to hook up with a few old friends,” she answered.
There was something in her expression that made Devon shake his head. “Nah, nah, nah...” he said shaking his head. “You two are up to something and I’d like to know what it is.”
“You don’t want to be anywhere near us on this,” Duck told him.
Cat stuck her head between them, then locked eyes with Devon. “Trust her,” she suggested.
“Just tell me what you’re up to.... Dammit Duck, I read those files. I know what’s happened to your friends, and I know you’re next on the list, so start talking.”
Cat turned towards Duck and gave her a questioning look. Duck shrugged. “Dead people place,” Cat said looking at him.
“‘Dead people place.’ What the hell does she mean by ‘dead people place’???”
Duck shook her head then put a comforting hand on Devon’s knee. “Cat and I are going to the morgue to see what we can dig up on our friends.”
Devon was about to comment when Cat once again leaned over until her head was between them. “Interesting choice of words,” she told Duck.
Duck bowed her head, then gently pushed Cat’s head out of the way. “We need to find out exactly what, and maybe where things happened to them.”
Devon nodded hesitantly. “You will be careful?”
Duck winked at him. “We’ll be careful,” she assured him, then looked from Devon to Wayne. “You two, stay sharp and crisp. They’ve killed people because they might know half of what we’ve been able to figure out. We’ll meet up later on.”
“Be careful,” Wayne urged. “I don’t want to have to explain to your uncle how I managed to let you out of my sights with everything that’s been going on.”
Duck nodded. “Just stay clear of everything. Especially Roger’s and Hammerstein. They are not playing with a fair deck.”
Wayne nodded as the car pulled to a stop. “You know how to find me,” he told Duck as he got out of the car. “Just leave a message and I’ll find you.”
Duck nodded then moved up front as Cat took over the controls.
“You ready,” Cat asked as Duck finished strapping in.
Duck looked at her and nodded. “Oh yeah, well past ready,” she answered.
With that Cat drove off, leaving Wayne and Devon to cover each other and get the message out. She knew it was dangerous, but it was a lot safer than letting them come along.
“So,” she asked, knowing all too well that she wasn’t going to like the answer. “You got a plan?”
Duck smiled at her and winked. “I think so. We cut some orders, create a few records and bring them a dead body or two to be put on ice.”
“And where did you plan on getting a dead body at this time of day?”
Duck smiled at her. “Well, I figure we can ask Vermin to join us and he can play dead, that’ll get us in, from there...”
“Wait... “ Cat cried out in surprise. “Vermin?
Duck nodded. “Well I figured if he’s going to be in on this, he might as well be on the front lines instead of following us everywhere we go.
“Wait a minute, you knew that he was tailing us?”
Duck raised her eyebrows. “Please, he’s rather hard to miss. Bring him in and brief him, I’ll see about getting us into the morgue.”
Cat shook her head as she transmitted Duck’s request to Vermillion. “So how are you going to get into the system to create the records we need?”
“Wing it,” Duck answered with a shrug. “You brief Vermin, I’ll break into the police station and cut the orders. And hopefully you’ll be in and out before anybody tries to dissect you. ”
“Some how Duck,” Cat sighed. “You aren’t being very comforting.”
Duck shrugged. “I try.”