TOMSA KIYOTE'S DECK could only hold a spare assortment of icebreakers after he had downloaded its main cargo from his patron, and he was very nervous about making the run.
He was lying back on a couch in the flat in downtown Night City, getting himself psyched. The gray light of the window struck somber highlights from the rich leather upholstery of the couch. Tomsa allowed himself to be distracted for a moment by the luxurious apartment and wonder idly whose it was.

His patron always had an empty flat waiting for him, utilities paid up, in every city he fled to after stealing data in the Net. It was one of the fringe benefits of working for a rogue AI. Tomsa could generally gauge the difficulty of the run ahead of him by the quality of the apartment the AI chose for him.

This was the nicest one yet.

Tomsa decided, finally, that he'd waited long enough. He picked up the end of the fiberoptic line from the deck in his lap and inserted its fat needle into his temple jack; then he punched a button on his deck to set it to level-eleven immersion, which was higher than he'd ever dared go. At eleven he could be on fire in realspace and not know it; also, an otherwise benign mishap in the Net could cause shutdowns of his autonomic system, stopping his heart or lungs.

But he would be fast, oh mother yes.

He jacked in and found himself inside the Victorian suite that was his deck's front end. He went to the wardrobe, pulled out a leather jacket and put it on, then removed a pair of mirrorshades from the right pocket. His personal icon was a faithful representation of himself; the shades were a nice accoutrement. But he didn't wear the shades just to look bad. On a code level, they were actually a sophisticated Reflector routine that would bounce back the detection signals of many species of ice.

Beyond modifying the appearance of his icon, the jacket he had chosen would identify his destination to the secret door that it was keyed to. Secret doors were everywhere in the room. The cheval glass mirror was one door; the space under the bed was another. But the one that would take him out into the Pacifica Region was located at the back of the wardrobe-not particularly original, but he had a soft spot for the stories of his youth. He pushed the other garments aside and stepped through, subvocalizing the password as he went.

Separated from each other by astronomical distance, the neon grid lines of the Net and their black, star-filled firmament tumbled into place around him. He was riding high above the pulsing line of the long-distance link, colored red by his deck's program to separate his path from the white lines around him. Fixed polygons-whole cities-blinked by on nearby lines, giving perspective on the bullet speed of his flight. Farther out, a gigantic sprawl city, like a glowing coral reef, passed downstream in labored parallax. He looked ahead just in time to see a bristling knot of glasslike shards along his course grow huge and swallow him within great canyons of data. His head spun from an inertialess ninety-degree change of path as the deck took him into the preprogrammed Los Angeles subgrid. And then light and fine detail fell about him like heavy snow.

He rezzed into a grassy field under a beautiful blue sky. He was a few yards away from the private long-distance link station, a no-nonsense cube whose walls were patterned in the cinderblock that was the cheapest graphics option that would pass Net Zoning here. The building was about twenty feet square. It was nestled in the corner of a pasture, just on the other side of a ramshackle wooden fence, and cows were grazing around it.

On each of its walls was posted a no-trespassing sign: BĂȘte Noire Security Enterprises, Keep Out. There was a lot of manure around the building. He couldn't smell it-the scenery sim had no olfactory component-but he could hear the flies buzzing.

The fence was the first line of defense; the flies were the second.

He'd scoped out the fort earlier and taken a recording of the scenery, which he'd brought back to his launching room and analyzed. The fence was a code gate that would alert the rest of the system if the pass wasn't given. The flies moved about the fort in a telling pattern: they were collectively a sentry of some sort. However, it was not at all clear what sort that was.

Tomsa zipped up the chest pocket of his leather jacket, and a nimbus around his icon told him that his invisibility routine had been activated. He reached into his open side pocket and produced the glass ball that represented the Codecracker. When the ball glowed green, he knew he was good to go. The fence remained quiet as he jumped it, and he strode up to the bunker.

He was dismayed to see the flies coming together in a black cloud directly in line with his approach. He sidestepped, and the cloud shifted in the same direction-their detection routines were good.

He took a deep breath and then went to work, sending thought commands to set off a cascade of routines. Even as he brought up his menu display in his right peripheral view, he queued up and then executed two routines. A Flak program rezzed out of thin air, ripping through the flies like a hundred phosphorous tracer rounds, a visual representation of detection routines hopelessly confounded; the mirrorshades adjusted automatically to the barrage of line noise, filtering it down so that his view was plunged into deep darkness. Only Flak could be seen, squirming against the black background like persistence of vision behind closed eyelids. Then, made visible by its liquid reflection of the surrounding glow, the second program, a thick, twisting cylinder known as Worm, erupted from the soil, latched onto the bottom of the bunker wall, and dissolved it with kneading, peristaltic convulsions of its mouth. The program pulled itself up through the wall, unzipping a line of mortar to a height of six feet, and then switched back along its own length. It made several passes, up and back down and then up again, trailing a widening gap behind it. The instant the breach grew wide enough, Tomsa tripped a routine to speed himself through, and the world blurred away as he connected with the link within and plunged along another LDL pathway.

This time he was on a proprietary connect in a backwater of netspace, and there was no grid, were no stars, to keep him company. He was in the heart of the beast.

There was but one line against the black background, uniform and unbroken, and he experienced no feeling of movement until the code gate came swirling out of the darkness and he smacked right up against it: a right-hand spiral of light turning in on itself. His mirrorshades flashed red light across his view, indicating that they were bouncing detection routines back at the gate. The gate wouldn't stand for much of this before it dropped his line. He took his best guess at the right move and executed a little something that he'd picked up on a run through employee records on another BĂȘte Noire data fort.

The 3-D white-light construct of a human brain revolved in the air before the code gate. The center of the spiral retreated like a stung worm, unwinding from the center out, until there was a hole in it big enough to admit the "brain." The code gate sucked the graphic in, and then its spiral closed over it.

Tomsa had seen gates like this that were Cortical Scanners, but he wasn't sure about this one; he was crossing his fingers. Even then there was no guarantee that it would accept the MRI scan as being feedback from its own detection routine.

Tomsa'd originally picked up the scan on a quest to find potential inside partners. His patron could use neuropsych records to find disaffected employees just ripe for turning coat, and this scan was from one of those. He hoped the employee had not been let go; this was the only scan he had on hand.

The gate spoke: "Welcome, Dr. Neshai. Password, please."

Password? A brain scan and a password? Tomsa glanced left to his menu for support. Then the bottom of his stomach dropped. The Codecracker was not there. He reached in his pocket to double-check, and sure enough, it was empty. The cloud of flies must have taken it out in the confusion. What's more, he'd jettisoned his Raffles program before the run to make room for the special package his patron had given him. Still, his mind railed irrationally against defeat.

He thought hard about the file he'd lifted that had included the brain scan. What was the guy's wife's name? What department had he been in?

He started to sweat. He couldn't focus his thoughts.

"Password?" the code gate asked in a tone that let him know time was running out.

It was no use. The odds of guessing a password cold were worse than the odds of pulling up a royal flush in five-card draw. He had failed, and his failure would put the system on alert. They'd move what he was looking for, and it would take him years to find it.

"This is the final call for password, Dr. Neshai."

Dejected, he groaned an in-your-face expletive at the gate. And to his astonishment the spiral unraveled until it was a hoop of light opening into a well-lit corridor. "Memo from security, Dr. Neshai: 'This is the third warning. You have not changed your password in eighteen months.' Would you care to leave a new password now?"

Tomsa repeated the phrase, as no doubt the frustrated Neshai had time and time again. He wished he could shake the tech's hand.

"Password recorded. You may proceed."

THE CORRIDORS of the data fort were antiseptic white. Light filled them from no determinate source. Tomsa had been in forts constructed to look like dungeons, even one made to look like the guts of some extraterrestrial creature. The absence of menace was not a comfort: it merely meant there would be no warning when he broke the invisible boundaries respected by the regulars. He queued a Speed Trap, but didn't run it yet. He cut his auto movement, causing his body sim to kick in so that he could feel himself standing in the corridor, and then he took off walking. There was a T-branch to the right. He popped the Speed Trap, and a flat view screen rezzed in the air in front of him, giving him a picture of what was around the turn.

The screen blipped and then showed him the image of an empty corridor similar to the one he was in. The blip was probably just line noise. But he wasn't stupid enough to go forward on that assumption. He accessed the buffer on the Trap and rewound, then advanced the frames one hundredth-second sample at a time.

Oh, Hell.

The viewscreen showed him the image of a skeletal figure with glowing red eyes and hung with dirty tatters of clothing. In just three frames, a slot opened in the floor beneath its feet, and it sank out of sight. It was a Liche. The blackest kind of black ice. Erase your forebrain and rewrite it to make you a slave to its corporate masters. Somehow it had gotten feedback on the Speed Trap, which meant it could be pinning down his location even now.

Tomsa sang the fastest, lowest-level code song he could sing, praying he didn't miss a note: queuing a Killer, setting the parameters of its action, deploying it.

Just then the floor opened up before him and exhaled the Liche like a death rattle. Tomsa's Killer came to his rescue just in time, and a katana flashed out to intercept the Liche's groping skeletal arm. The sword was there before the rest of the Killer, which was a risky configuration, but it seemed to be working. The body rezzed in a second later. A samurai. Silk and lacquered armor. With his other hand, the samurai drew the wakizashi at his belt as the Liche plunged forward. Suddenly both the Killer and the Liche froze, as if caught together in a program loop. The samurai's short sword was lodged between the Liche's cervical vertebrae, bending the Liche's head in the opposite direction. Straining to twist the blade, the samurai grunted as the phalanges of the Liche's hands raked the air toward him.

Fortunately, the Killer prevailed. "Hai!" he yelled triumphantly, and the Liche's head twisted off with a pop. The samurai spun on his heels, sheathed his swords with a hiss of steel that ended in a curt double-click of hilts, and bowed to Tomsa as the Liche melted into the floor. Tomsa bowed back, even as he derezzed him to free up RAM.

THE LICHE was not planted where it was at random. The hall seemed to contract as Tomsa walked down it. Then he realized that its walls were shifting, losing resolution and disintegrating here, wavering there. The floor grew plastic and formed itself into a pair of arms with groping hands.

He had stumbled into the territory of the AI that ran the data fort, the object of his quest.

Tomsa's patron was ever striving to increase its power in the Net. It would never put itself at risk of injury by attacking data forts, but a lone netrunner slave could hardly steal enough data to satisfy its appetites, so it had developed a unique solution: send a runner in to deliver a spore of itself into a corporation's core AI systems. Like a vector parasite spreading viral disease, Tomsa sought out corporate AIs and delivered a copy of his patron's personality into their guts. The spore would assimilate the AI and then flee back to its parent with all the data the subverted AI had commanded.

Tomsa executed the spore-extraction routine in his deck and pushed full fast-forward on movement.

The hall was now a treacherous narrow gauntlet of sinus rimmed by sharp geometric formations that stabbed inward at him as he whizzed by-everything from Liches to Hellhounds, simplified beyond recognition by systems not up to rendering at such speeds. Black ice all around now, and at the speed he was pushing there was no way his Killer would be able to meet the threat. He glanced back at his line and saw the passage behind completely blocked by a lattice of boiling polygons. This was it: he was already a dead man flying.

If he tried to jack out now, the system would latch on to his cortex and squeeze it apart like rotten fruit in a vise.

Shock seated itself in his brain as a calm, dreamlike objectivity as he settled into his hurtling flight. He began to chant a mantra of machine-language code, a kind of song, mentally poking into registers, claiming interrupts from his navigation routines, streamlining functions. But there was more than the ice threatening his composure. Tomsa's normal experience of his deck was as a kind of guardian angel hovering overhead just out of view, responding fluidly to every nuance of his will. But now he struggled to wrest the attention of the deck from the extraction program, which was claiming its resources. He imagined the unfolding spore as a frantic animal, squirming and swelling in the confines of its undersized prison, trying to understand the parameters of its home, trying to reconfigure. It would be so easy to let it out now, before it was fully hatched. Before it could save him.

One jabbing polygon caught him a glancing blow as he went by, and he lost feeling in the left side of his body.

He careened off, heading for the wall.

White light filled his head just before he made contact. The spore personality had fully extracted and then groped out of the deck looking for more memory.

It was keeping the ice at bay. The tide had turned.

And then it was over, and the subverted AI jacked him out back into the apartment.

It took several minutes for his heart to stop its furious racing as he lay there on the couch, but he recovered fast, just as he always did. This time was close, and he would bring that to his patron's attention during their next meeting in the Net-it would probably earn him a few extra thousand.

Every assignment seemed more ambitious. Sometimes he felt only horror for the day he ever stumbled upon the Wilderspace fortress where he was forced to choose between quick death and the Faustian deal.

On the other hand, with what he was used to, what else was he gonna do for a rush?

Bob Kruger is a freelance writer who grew up in Boring, Oregon. He knows enough about computers to be a danger to himself but not to the Establishment.

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