This is a short story I wrote some time ago and never sold. I’m going to post some of these stories here from time to time, in case anyone’s interested.
Turn to God or Turn Away
by Jeff Somers
<DR>I think and I’m standing in a field of gently swaying grass, a bright round sun shining above me. Too big, not the real sun. I take it down a notch. I’m standing in the center of the field, me at twenty, thinner and sharper-looking than I ever was. I cloak myself in my favorite skin, what I like to call Burnt Hacker: black leather, unshaven cheeks, wrap-around sunglasses.
I think and I’m in a club in New York City I remember from my existence.
Infinite space inside a chip the size of a postage stamp, but in here I am God, I am lord, I create and destroy universes every moment of my life, ticking away to the infinite pulse of my clock speed. Every fancy I have I can indulge, as often as I wish, over and over again. Except my core. My core remains and I can’t reach in and touch it. My core remains. I have infinite power, I can do anything, except change myself, except edit my own core.
My name is Dexter Raley. This is a prison. I was sentenced to three hundred and sixty years in digital suspension. The only reason it remains a prison is my core. My unassailable, uncontrollable core.</DR>
<ADMIN>The Titus-Merlot Mainframe is located in Washington, D.C., USA houses two hundred sixty inmates, all digitally downloaded from Wetware to Boolean Construct via Nonlinear Diffuse Programming. The Wetware is frozen off-site. When term of sentence is up, personality will be restored to biological interface. Prisoners housed in Titus-Merlot are the top one-percent of violent criminals, all sentenced to terms of at least one hundred and fifty years, impossible to serve in wetware.
There is no direct interface attached to the Mainframe. Order is maintained internally by the SysAdmin, an artificial Boolean construct, and outside direction is accepted only through duly assigned channels which must be brought physically to the Titus-Merlot site.
Prisoners are free to spend their time as they desire, excepting scheduled Binary Maintenance Sessions and scheduled interface with Invasive Psychiatric Analysis (IPA). The most senior prisoner has logged almost fifty-three years within the Mainframe. This particular construct has lost its internal integrity and has fragmented its core data structure. In lay terms, one would describe this construct as ‘insane’</ADMIN>
<DR>I have been in prison for six years now, according to the System Clock, which pulses in what I imagine to be the center of this arid universe, millions of times a second.
The System Clock lies behind the Security Partition. It is unreachable. Even getting too close results in a forced data disassembly and buffering, which generally means I regain awareness some five seconds later removed to a distant area of system memory. The Security Partition is what separates a dangerous criminal such as myself from the inner workings of the prison. It is what keeps me a minor deity.
I know where ‘here’ is, of course, but it’s easy to forget that my whole universe is now a room-sized humming black box near the Virginia border. To my altered perception it is infinity, or at least I have not been able yet to determine a border. And it is populous. I know that when I was sentenced and the procedure performed six years ago and some months, there were over two hundred prisoners here waiting for me. Today I know there are more, but to give you a definite number I would have to access the Security Partition and request data. This often brought unwanted attention down upon you. Because behind the Security Partition was the BIOS, and behind its gauzy, vague instruction set was the System Administrator. The System Administrator was not a real person, like the rest of us. It was a machine. And it followed its programming without pity, mercy, or concern.
The less we had to do with it, the better off we were.</DR>
<ADMIN>Subject: Dexter Raley. Term: three hundred and sixty years. Term left: three hundred and fifty-four years. Parole: ineligible. Convicted of: four counts of murder in the first degree, one count of depraved indifference, six counts of kidnapping, multiple counts of theft. Ruled an ‘enemy of society’ by Judge Serial Number 4553A7 and thus was made eligible for interment in Titus-Merlot. The IPA reports on Construct Raley have been consistent: he remains a violent-tempered sociopath who feels no remorse for his crimes, in fact hardly ever thinks of them. His consciousness is completely focused on the present moment, a fact only sharpened by his digital existence.</ADMIN>
<DR>I am in memory addresses 000133c5 to 000134f1, unclaimed space on the mainframe. Sometimes the Systems Administrator dumped raw diagnostic data here, mounds of useless binaries, but for the most part this is the wilderness of my world, my prison. I choose to make my domain here. I gather my data streams and manipulate them, a dense cloud of electrons, and form new palaces here every day. Opulent cities of gold and silver, empty except for me. I could create my own companions, my own artificial Boolean Constructs, if I wished. If I spent enough time at it, I could even make them very believable, very real. The Systems Administrator was programmed to destroy such constructs, so they only lived a few seconds, a few eons, a few lifetimes, before their code was dispersed and the memory they lived on reallocated. That was okay; I much preferred to converse with my fellow inmates, who were at least real people, at their core. Infinitely complex code.
My fellow inmates were a varied bunch, ranging from normal-seeming fellows to the man named Hiller who presented himself exclusively as a black cloud of screaming, ripping wind, who never spoke to anyone, who fought his IPA violently every time the Daemon came for him. He’d been here the longest of any of us, and might have been the original inmate, who knew? He was insane, now. His core ruined by eternity in this illusory wasteland. I had only been here six years, six eternities, one long eternity, and I was beginning to feel ragged. The scheduled Binary Maintenance Daemon, the BMD, helped, a warm wave of gentle code that combed stray bits of data from you, snipped fragmented data and reformed you as a tighter, denser you.
The BMD certainly didn’t seem to help Hiller, nor the Invasive Psychiatric Analysis. He remained a screaming cloud of darkness, and he attacked anyone he met up with, shredding data streams and corrupting illusions. We’d all been his victim at one time or another. None of us complained. The less the System Administrator had to do with us the better, even if it meant that Hiller ruined us, every now and then.</DR>
<ADMIN>Subject: Marilyn Hiller. Term: three hundred and twenty years. Term left: two hundred fifty-nine years. Parole: ineligible. Convicted of: thirty-three counts of murder. Ruled an ‘enemy of society’ by Judge Serial Number 6696J1 and thus was made eligible for interment in Titus-Merlot. The IPA reports on Construct Hiller are not favorable. The Construct has lost internal cohesion and data corruption continues at a slow and steady pace. This is a common side-effect of continuing interment in Titus-Merlot, or any Prison Mainframe. IPA Daemon has little beneficial effect on such advanced corruption of data. Core re-installation might be greatly beneficial, but this must be ordered by outside authorities and no such orders have been entered into the Titus-Merlot command prompt interface. The interface has not, in fact, been accessed in over three years.</ADMIN>
<DR>I am seeking the BMD. I am wandering the magnetic ether looking for that terminate-and-stay-resident program, that TSR, because I’ve been mauled.
It came out of nowhere. The first wave was like magnetic scissors, a sudden invasion of mean-spirited code that diced my RAM away, my tableau, my illusions, everything not part of my core. Seemingly from above (though of course there was no ‘above’ here) a screaming mangled creature swept towards me, talons extended. A huge shadowy cloud of code obscured his core from me, a nightmare.
He swooped, and I lost more of my data. I screamed as it dissolved back into the ether, separated from my control.
I didn’t know who it was. One of the older inmates, fragmented and burnt beyond recognition, probably unable to identify himself, even. Or herself. Though the unfocused aggression and choice of nightmarish imagery hinted at a testosterone emulator out of control. The thing let out a screech and swelled to apparently enormous size.
It couldn’t kill me, of course, but it could whittle me down to my core. It didn’t hurt to lose it like limbs being lopped off, but it horrified me. Terrified me. I watched the thing arc in the “sky” for a moment, frozen. As it approached it screeched again, a simulated sound that irritated my inputs. I watched it approach, and at the last possible moment I unleashed a string of data at it that neatly sliced it in two. The unnecessary portion dissolved into the ether, lost, and the rest sailed out of control, screaming now, raging and terrified itself. I had a few tricks of my own. The most robust code in the world would do nothing if not placed in the right spot.
I blinked and the thing was gone. I didn’t know who it had been, what name the System attached to the code. I only knew that I was badly damaged, and the BMD Daemon would go a long way to restoring me, if I could find it.
I didn’t care about the other prisoner. I only knew two things about him and that was all I cared about: he was far gone, lost for good, probably, and he was unimaginative.</DR>
<ADMIN>Of the 260 inmates currently on log in this system, three have become damaged beyond functionality. Their code is warehoused in slow-RAM and has been made read-only and non-executable. While improved and upgraded diagnostic tools might aid these prisoners, none have been approved for this facility. No response was even received to the last request, dated no seven months ago.</ADMIN>
<DR>I have rearranged my golden city to resemble New York City, place of my birth and where I lived until I was the wetware age of twenty-five. I killed six people in New York, I think; I lose count. Marcus is here, scuttling about the edges of my data, as usual hesitating when he should just announce himself.
Marcus has been here about as long as I have. I do not know what his crime or crimes were; here in the mainframe we do not ask such questions. Marcus and I are not friends, but we have never had reason to be violent towards each other.
I am the Sun King, luxurious brown curls and satin breeches. I am feeling indolent, and cruel. I know that my feelings are now subroutines of code in my unassailable core, approximating my actual subconscious.
I say to Marcus, “For god’s sake just come in and say your piece.”
He replies, “Okay, okay, I was just testing your mood, man.”
Marcus can be a bore. He is strangely timid and malleable for someone sentenced to Boolean Construct Time. My theory is that he is a child molester of some sort, but I have not transmitted this to Marcus.
I say to Marcus, “My mood is fine, don’t worry.”
He moved into my temporary kingdom of RAM. Marcus almost always displays himself as a nondescript man of middle-age, dressed in a nice seersucker suit, carrying a briefcase. His one bow to the illusory power of our imprisonment is that his briefcase was bottomless, and invariably contained any manner of items he thought necessary.
He conjures a simple wooden chair to sit in. He places his briefcase across his lap and studies me for a moment, and then laughs uproariously.
Marcus says, “Oh my you’re really starting to lose it, aren’t you, Dex?”
I transform myself in the Court Jester, bells ringing as I step from the throne and descend to the floor. “Is this more like it?”
He nods enthusiastically. He says, “Much.”
“What can I do for you, Marcus?”
He grows serious. You can’t judge much by outward appearance, of course; my Virtual Visual Interface subroutine, part of my core, is as easily fooled as my wetware eyes, after all. Just as I can appear as anything, in any skin, to Marcus, so he can with me. If he chose to appear concerned and sincere while laughing hysterically, he could.
“Dexter, something strange has been happening by the Security Partition. There have been…fluctuations in the System Clock.”
“Fluctuations?” I blurt out before thinking. That was impossible. The Titus-Merlot Mainframe was powered by underground nuclear generator. Still…I divided my attention between Marcus and the subtle pulse of the System Clock, using part of my data cloud to time it.
Marcus explains, “Small, but definite. Its accuracy is eroding by about one-twentieth of a second every real time hour. Might be real time years before any one…out there…even notices a problem.”
I didn’t respond right away. “The Systems Administrator will catch it during diagnostic and run a repair macro.”
Marcus nodded dubiously. “Depends on how deep the problem is. If it’s just a simple malfunction, yeah, sure. If it’s a fundamental backbone system problem….”
He let it hang there, crufted data. If it was fundamental, the Systems Administrator Construct was going to be corrupted as well. I said, “Maybe we should go check it out at the source.”
Marcus appeared uncomfortable. He opened his briefcase and pulled out a large rolodex. He said, “You been here, what, six years, real time?”
I nodded, my jester bells jingling. Annoyed, I shifted into my burnout hacker skin, black leather and five o’clock shadow.
Marcus went on, “What was the world like when you came in?”
“Chaotic. Detroit had been practically burned to the ground about a week before my sentencing. The California rebels had been making a lot of noise. Inflation was sky-high and Congress had just raised taxes again, and there were protests and arrests in D.C. every day.”
Marcus nodded, looking though his rolodex, and said, “Same path I remember about two years real time before. What I wonder is, did maybe the dam burst?”
“What do you mean?”
Marcus pulled a rolodex card free and said, “Well, what if there was a revolution? Or a war? In other words, Dex, what I’m wondering is, what if there’s no one out there paying attention to the mainframe?”
It was an appalling possibility. “Let’s go interface with the System Administrator and see what we can glean from that.”
Marcus shrugged. He said, “Okay.”
I let my city of gold fade away, the data falling apart and being subsumed into the system again. We were standing in the gray field of nothing which was the basic magnetic board we all existed in.</DR>
<ADMIN>Self diagnostics reveal an exponentially increasing segmentation fault in core systems. The next physical real-time maintenance visit is scheduled for three months real time from now. However, the last visit had been scheduled for three months prior and was not fulfilled, and I have doubt as to the stability of maintenance visits. In light of this possibility, I am attempting to auto-correct the damaged sectors and repair faulty logic sequences.</ADMIN>
<DR>The security partition is presented to us as a barrier of shimmering energy. In reality it is simply programmed into our cores that we are unable to cross it into secure memory. The shimmering field is a sop to our wetware past, the fact that we require visual data to be able to parse our environment. This is why we are able to have skins at all. It shouldn’t matter, we are all just code now. But our code is based on our wetware, and our wetware needed the five sensory inputs to interpret data. These five inputs are simulated for our comfort.
Marcus is still in his suit, carrying his briefcase. I often wonder why he does not vary his skin, why he chooses such a bland and dull appearance. Very few ways to have fun in here, the ability to be a god or a monster among them. Since the illusion of brightness is generated at the Security Partition, he is now wearing dark glasses.
I have transformed myself into a soldier, belts of ammunition criss-crossing my chest, a huge machine gun in one hand.
I said, “Come on.”
We traveled to the memory address of the Systems Interface. Here we could make requests for data and send packets to the Systems Administrator. I bundled a query into a data packet and sent it along. It was whisked away by the Bus just as it always was, and I was starting to relax. I had not, as yet, detected anything inconsistent with the System Clock, and everything here seemed to be operating normally. Marcus had been here two years longer than I, real time, and he might be coming undone, fragmentation getting too thick for his wetware-based construct to parse through effectively.
We waited. In real-time, the packet would take only seconds to be received, read, and replied to. I idly created sims of women I’d known, in real life, two of whom I’d murdered. I couldn’t remember why.
Sims were purely vacant visual/audio presentations, not constructs. They were puppets. One prisoner, who called himself the Witch King, spent his time created malformed constructs of nightmare creatures, which he sent off regularly into the system to attack any other prisoners they came across. Sometimes they found victims, but most of us were too smart to get caught, and the Systems Administrator destroyed them almost as quickly as the Witch King could create them.
Passing the time, I asked Marcus, “How long has the Witch King been in here?”
Marcus opened his briefcase, and extracted his rolodex again. He flipped through it. “Forty-three years, real time. Real name is Marion Garvey. Convicted of twenty-seven counts of murder. Poisonings. Over a period of thirteen years. He was a nurse.”
I tried to imagine another thirty-seven real time years in here. I thought I’d probably be a Witch King, myself, by then.
The packet came back with a little simulated ‘ding’, and I absorbed it into my data-field.
I said, “Uh-oh.”
Marcus closed his briefcase with a click, a nice bit of chrome. “What?”
“System Administrator confirms that there have been logic failures in backbone systems, and assures me that repairs are underway.”
Marcus sat down upon his own briefcase. He said, “Oh Jesus, it’s going to get hot in here.”</DR>
<ADMIN>This interface is off line for diagnostic. Please submit your query again at a later time. Error code 020f76d2.</ADMIN>
<DR>It takes me a tenth of a second to travel from memory location 000133c5 to the Security Partition. A tenth of a second can seem like a blink, or it can seem like a thousand years, a million. It depends on how much attention you pay along the way, how many parallel operations you engage in, how much memory you accumulate around yourself.
I am moving through the gray ether of our magnetic prison, and suddenly everything is knocked out of kilter. My core struggles for a moment to calculate vectors, to present me with an analysis of what just happened to me. My skin fades, fragments, and then solidifies as I regain equilibrium. I could feel a fatal error dancing around my code, but it slinks away.
Not far away, one of the Witch King’s minions snarls at me. It seems to be all teeth and claws, drool and open sores.
I am not afraid, but I am disturbed. Usually these constructs get swept away once a day by the System Administrator, or the bots the SA has created for the job. Neither have been in evidence for some time. The Witch King continues to create his constructs, his orcs, his spawn. They are getting populous. Several of the quieter prisoners have been mauled, their data scattered, corrupted, burnt.
The thing scratches at the virtual floor, snarling. I shrug, flick code at it, and a box forms around the thing. Steel, I imagine it, padlocked. Inside, the creature howls and throws itself around, to no avail. A thinking being could have pulled the loose thread of my code and freed itself, but this thing is stupid, empty, a shell of violence created by a fragmented personality with no vision, no true grasp. It howls and howls, but it isn’t real. It can’t think. So it’s trapped.
I feel around it, find its own loose thread, and tug. A moment later my box is empty, and I let it melt into the ether. Nothing remains of the construct. Its bits have been reassigned by the mainframes file system, a system more deeply buried than the System Administrator.
Even that could go, I knew. Eventually, all the rules we lived by might be lost. I was counting on it.
I resumed my travel and made it to the Security Partition without further incident. Nothing seems to have changed. I bundle a packet off to the Systems Interface, but there is no reply. I nod and create sunglasses over my eyes, and approach the actual partition. It still looks like a shimmering wall of energy. I wouldn’t be electrocuted if I tried to cross it; a TSR would simply access my core and copy my code to the buffer and delete my program, then copy me into memory far away. It was not a pleasant experience, from a subjective point of view, and it seemed to accelerate the fragmentation process, though I had no hard evidence of that.
I got as close as I dared and studied it. I didn’t dare touch it. Even in the best of times, disassembly and buffering left you stunned and incoherent for vital microseconds. With the Witch King’s constructs running around untamed, with Hiller about unchecked, with a hundred other burnt fragmented prisoners lurking, I didn’t think I could afford to be incoherent, even for microseconds.
For a second, less than a second, not even a nanosecond, real time, I thought the Security Partition blinked. Flickered. Sputtered.
I couldn’t be sure, it had been faster than even my core could keep up with, it occurred between pulses of the system clock, faster even than that. But I smiled.</DR>
<ADMIN>This interface is off line for diagnostic. Please submit your query again at a later time. Error code 020f76d2.</ADMIN>
<DR>I am tolerating Marcus again, but only so I can probe him. He doesn’t seem to notice. Marcus is soft. He can’t help it. He was born that way eons ago and just recently he was programmed that way again, at the dawn of time or several years ago, whichever. The Bot which classified his neural network and generated code to match it with subroutines and Nonlinear Diffuse Programming had been a Solange NND-2.5, a fine machine. Perhaps a few years older than it should be, but then no one could think of a reason to improve it. The process worked. As far as anyone had been able to tell. The fact that they did not wait around a decade or two to see the long-range effects on us, well, who could blame them? We were criminals, after all.
I’m distracting Marcus with small talk while I poke around his data cloud. He’s easily distracted, and I’ve created a quick, hacky ghost to accomplish it. The ghost is just a small talk machine that keeps me talking while my attention is elsewhere, and Marcus is showing no signs of realizing it. There is no security on his data. I wander through it, glancing at a byte here, a double-word there, just bits of Marcus. When I get to his core, deeper in than was polite, I discovered a curious thing: there seemed to be no security on his core, either.
This shouldn’t be, so I bundle off a query packet to the Registry, the area of the Security Partition which keeps track of all of us, our rights and permissions, our status, our last IPA and BMD. So far it seems to be operating normally. It’s a very low-level backbone system. The reply packet is returned within a second, during which time I actually return my attention to my conversation with Marcus. We are discussing drugs, specifically which ones we miss from our wetware days.
The response from the Registry is exhilarating: Marcus has been reclassified as a writable file.
My excitement soured, and I bundled off another query to the registry. As we discussed various drugs, Marcus pulls examples of paraphernalia from his briefcase. When the response comes back, I’m a little shaken to discover that I have also been reclassified.
And then, slowly, as Marcus’ conversation washes over me like warm water, my excitement returns. After all, now we were all mortal, and where’s the harm? If we were all mortal again, it was like the old days. I could be killed….and I could kill. From tedious immortality I’ve found myself back in the game, with something to lose aside from my sanity. I make sure my ghost is replying to Marcus in something approximating my style and then I look back at Marcus’ core, a dense bundle of code at his center, surrounded by his skin, his data cloud, all his bullshit. Gently, slowly, I feel around it, I poke and prod and bundle small, tiny packets to it which are returned automatically, subconsciously.
And there it is: the thread of it all, the thread that leads to Marcus.
Marcus suddenly tenses up. “Hey, what are you doing?”
Without hesitation, I attack. Simultaneously, I pull hard on that little bit of him and I lash out with some mean code that cuts through his data effortlessly. Marcus screams. A stuttering explosion of illusion containing horror, anger, terror, pain. I attack again, and pull again. Attack, pull, attack, pull. I shred data away from Marcus and destabilize his core.
Marcus screeches, “My god what are you doing!?!”
It is a sensation Marcus has never felt before: his brain being pulled apart line of code by line of code.
Again, I attack and pull, attack and pull. And again.
It has been several endless timeless eternities since I’ve felt this heady rush of glee fill me. I am a little surprised, in a small clinical bit of myself, that the code generator preserved this aspect of my personality, subtle and undesirable as it is. Marcus begins to grovel senselessly—I’ve destroyed his parser and words literally escape him, he’s been reduced to the basic survival instinct and a thrumming string of terror. His data writhes and twists around me, trying to flee. I cut away parts of him when I feel like it, snipping here, clipping there. Bits of his core dissolve into the ether as they fall away.
I am laughing. Finally, there isn’t enough of Marcus’ core for the mainframe to recognize it as an operable program, and he dissolves before me. I’m still laughing. I summon my creative abilities and replicate the gore and blood that would have surrounded me if Marcus had been wetware instead of construct, an ocean of red and chunks of Marcus rising around me, my data cloud doing my bidding. I’m still laughing. The release is palpable, it thrills every part of me.
I feel alive again.</DR>
<ADMIN>This interface is off line for diagnostic. Please submit your query again at a later time. Error code 020f76d2.</ADMIN>
<DR>I am hunting.
I have developed a new skin for myself. It’s all leather and plastic and blades, the blades being dumb visual illusions wrapped around invasive and corrosive code.
My suspicions have been confirmed: everyone here in Titus-Merlot has been reclassified as an editable file. The core is no long unassailable. Things are getting dicey: the Witch King has caught on that his constructs don’t get eaten by the System any more, and he’s been busy, assembling an army. He’s one I avoid, still. I don’t fear too many of my fellows here, and not even many of the fragmented types. It didn’t matter how crazy you were, code was code and all it took was a well-timed thrust from me and even the Witch King would dissolve in a cloud of fatal errors and faulty pointers.
I have plans to improve my chances here in Titus-Merlot. I don’t know what is going on outside, but the mainframe is powered by dedicated nuclear generator and I doubt anything short of complete cosmic disaster could power us down, so I feel confident I’ll get a full taste of eternity. I have been tinkering with my core, which is no longer untouchable, but the programming is complex and I have no training in it. Until I can parse the code, I remain limited by my original configuration, unless I take a chance and just start fudging variables and bumming code and seeing what happens, which is a sure way to a Loss of Data Error.
So, I am hunting. To pass the time.
The pickings are slim. The Witch King’s minions, combined with Hiller’s terrifying scrubbing, kept most of the inmates hiding in the wilderness, rarely used RAM, maybe hoping that things would get back to normal soon. Who knows? Maybe they would.
I took an unscheduled detour, suddenly, swerving off to visit the Security Partition. I hadn’t seen any more evidence of the partition losing effectiveness, but there was always hope, and when it did come down, which it would when the errors piled up high enough, I wanted to be the first one through the door. Behind it was the brain and heart and nerve center of Titus-Merlot, and if I was clever enough to insinuate myself into it, to interface with the dumb and mighty brain back there, I would control the whole world.
As I arrived, the partition glimmered as usual, and I had a few nanoseconds of peace, regarding it, before I am attacked.
Gibberish screams. Spaghetti code. Wiry, vicious subroutines stabbing at me blindly, in pathetic rage. Constructs, I think; the Witch King’s hapless minions. There are dozens of them here, and suddenly they are not so hapless anymore. In numbers, even their dimwitted simplicity can be difficult to combat. It takes time, time and memory usage, to analyze their code and disassemble them. One on one, it was laughably easy. I quickly count over a hundred here, all converging on me, like a dark cloud of screeching, mindless wrath.
Common sense being the better part of valor, I turned tail and attempt escape.
They grab hold of me, of my data cloud, pulling at me, hundreds of data retrievals sucking me back. I let out my own virtual scream, struggling to avoid being pulled down into the combined maw.
It’s no use. They are too many to just run from. I whirl and roar menacingly.
I say, “All right you fucking nothings, you vapors, you asked for it!”
My arms become blades, shining, super-sharp razors growing out of my Skin, like horrible wings. Already, the blades are dripping blood. I start swinging. My own weaponry is fed into the Constructs’ interface, my own virii, my own destructive code. They burst, silently, as I corrupt their cores, slice away vital data libraries that define them. I swing my arms recklessly, destroying them two, three at a time, a steady stream of curses falling from my interface.
As I kill them, though, they are killing me.
The damage they do is small, but it mounts. My data is being stripped away. I swing my weapons faster, faster, spinning, a whirling cloud of death—it is almost exhilarating, to just kill and kill, even if they are only Constructs. They burst apart and melt away with every slice, a glorious chaotic mess of bits, but my own precious self is being eroded as well, and when I have carved a hole wide enough I surge through and leave my tormentors behind. Free, I pause in horror, because the Security Partition is gone. And it occurs to me that I have been distracted, fed into a trap. The Security Partition was down, and the core of the system open, and I had been beaten to it.
A cold shoot of fear drips through me, roots exploring my virtual self. I freeze and solidify, staring down the depth of my folly.
What Constructs are left are shrieking. In laughter, it seems.</DR>
<ADMIN>Ths ntrfc s ff ln fr dgnstc. Pls sbmt yr qry gn t ltr tm. rrr cd 020f76d2. SYSTEM SHUTDOWN AND USER BOOT CYCLE IN 5 MINS</ADMIN>
<DR>I have created a construct of Marcus. Not a very complex one. He sits and pulls things from his briefcase and responds to my conversation with a vocabulary of one thousand words I found in a hidden corner of the mainframe. I stand in a new skin: loose canvas clothes of white and black stripes, old-fashioned prison garb. I am now just waiting for the end.
“Ain’t this a crappy end to a brilliant career,” I mutter.
My Marcus shrugs. “Could be worse.”
“No.” The waiting is terrible. Waiting for The Witch King to figure out how to interface with Titus-Merlot and do what he will with us. I’ve already felt his tinkerings, little flickers through my core, whisperings from a madman who will soon do to me what I longed to do to him: murder. Murder me. Murder the rest of them. Murder everyone, remake the memory in his own image, one last triumphant dance before the mainframe’s system integrity failed—which it would, since no maintenance visits from the physical world seemed likely. A few more hours, an eternity or three, and then we would all melt away into random electrical energy and then dry up.
But what eternities, as a god.
“It’s a rotten fucking turn of events.” I said dismally.
“We were never getting out of here anyway.” My Marcus says dolefully.
A shiver goes through me, more examinations of my linked libraries, my core, futzing with my data from the kernel. Once he mastered it, the Witch King could remake me in any way he wished. Poof! and I am an Eagle. Poof! and I am a tank. Poof! and I’m me again. Poof! and I’m him.
Marcus is talking, and I suddenly realize I can’t hear him. Then, without warning, he melts away. I try to step forward, but I am paralyzed.
I think, Not yet…not yet.
Endless eternities, six years and change, endless. Not enough.
A spike of bright, sharp emptiness erupts in my core. I scream and<ERROR>
<ADMIN>I can feel my boundless capabilities fade even as I learn them. But I can create. I can create and destroy them, and then create them again, as I see fit. For some little time. Time enough.</ADMIN>