Subject: Cyberica
From: Damon Jason Casale
Date: 8/25/1995, 1:32 AM
To: fanfic@andrew.cais.com

Okay, here it is.  Somewhat in the style of BGC or Armitage III, I think.
Anyway, C&C appreciated.

----------

I

        He stood alone looking out over the sprawling city, as erratic
gusts of wind clawed at him through a flimsy jacket.  A panoply of
twinkling stars spread out before him, a silent testimony, an unreachable
goal.  The cage that held him was far stronger than steel, wrought with
one very simple idea.
        The city itself was a study in contrasts.  Freedom had known no
greater reign in all of human history.  The price?  Total slavery by means
of a tiny computer chip implanted at birth, making one's every thought
known to the soulless bureaucracy.  Steal a watch?  It knew.  Lust after
another's wife?  It knew.  Grumble about the chains that bound the
so-called utopian society?  It knew.  And one wrong thought could bring
death.
        Steven turned, trudging through the crusted mud towards the complex
that would be his home until...  Well, best not to think about it.  The
science and security councils would be doing quite enough of that.  They
might decide to keep him alive, a reminder of the penalty for resistance.
Then again, his death would serve almost as well.
        Ice cold bullets of rain descended, creating a morass of sludge and
washing away whatever little green had grown up since the last storm.  In
seconds, he was drenched and chilled to the bones.  The wind and rain
battered him, threatening to send him wholesale into the rivers of muck
forming all around.  Oblivious, he stood outside the iron gate as the guard
slid it back.  "I'll leave you out there next time."
        "Do that."
        The guard escorted him down a stark hallway into a waiting
elevator.  As they walked, the fury of the storm outside faded into eerie
silence, broken only by faintly echoing footfalls.  The doors closed, and
the guard leveled a threatening glare at him.  "Ashley's been waiting for
almost half an hour."
        Steven leaned against one wall, half-closing his eyes.  "So I'm
supposed to be a good boy and be on time for my interrogation."  He smiled
sadly.
        A balled fist to the jaw sent him to his knees, his head spinning.
A wet trickle oozed down his chin.  "It's too bad.  I would've enjoyed
breaking you.  Count yourself lucky."
        The elevator doors slid open, revealing another deserted hallway,
this one in a nauseating pastel blue.  "Get up."

        "It's about time."  A gentle face turned hard and arrogant for all
the wrong reasons, Ashley walked out from behind a desk.  "Put him over
there."
        Steven stumbled forward, as the guard shoved him into the room.  He
dropped him into a chair, and thick metal clasps wrapped themselves around
his arms and chest.
        She picked up a long, amber colored needle.  "Wait outside."
        With one last, viciously grinning stare, the door closed behind
him, leaving only a decidedly unpleasant memory.

        Pink.  Steven opened his eyes, frowning at the needle in his arm.
"Truth serum."
        He leaned back, chuckling softly.  "You'll regret that."
        She stared at him with narrowed eyes.  This one would be an
interesting challenge.  Excellent.  "We'll see."
        "Tell me, after I tell you what I know, do you think they'll let
you live?"
        Suddenly, a small jar of pens sitting on the desk behind her seemed
infinitely more interesting.  "You don't know what you're talking about",
she whispered.
        "Don't I?"

        He looked at her again.  Even under that curling sneer, those frown
lines around her mouth, she was still beautiful.  Sadly, that ugliness was
as much a part of her as anything else.  He wondered aloud how life could
have treated her so harshly.
        "I'm not a colonel for nothing.  I earned that rank."
        "Pushing paper."
        The anger surged, and her eyes flashed dangerously.  She fixed him
with a venomous look.  "If it weren't for you filthy rabble, there wouldn't
BE any war to fight!"
        He shrugged.  "Blame it on us.  We must be poor, misguided souls
for the council to grind us to powder so mercilessly."
        "That's enough."
        "No it's not.  You wanted the truth.  Don't think they refused to
give me a chip to find out what they wanted to know, for nothing."

        That got a response.  Steven, along with six others, had escaped
the implantation.  Unlike the older rebels, he hadn't been around to see
the dawn of the present regime.  Their parents had been approached shortly
before they were born and given the choice.  No chip for each child, but
certain death for them.  The resistance was losing, badly.  There was no
other way.  If not for Steven himself, they would have been crushed long
ago.  Ashley knew exactly what they were fighting for, and it frightened
her.  They had almost captured the central registry computer, but a call to
the armed forces reserves had put a swift end to most of the freedom
fighers, and had taken their greatest prize.
        It had almost succeeded.  Such a blow to her carefully orchestrated
universe didn't set well.  But personal feelings had no place in her work.
For that, the resistance leader was lucky.

**********

        Another day, another argument with the guard, another session.  It
had been a week already.  The questions were endless:  troop movements,
marching orders, personnel listings...everything.  She left nothing
untouched.  Perhaps it would have been better to have stayed out, caught 
pneumonia that first night, and died.  But Steven had a plan.  If she
wanted the truth...

        "Tell me about Jay."
        He sighed.  "One of the section seven leaders."
        "Your section.  The one you came from."
        He nodded.
        "Where is he now?"
        "I couldn't tell you."

        Annoyed, her lip curled in that peculiar sneer of hers.  "Don't
play games with me.  Where *might* he be now?"
        He shook his head, smiling slightly.  "Sorry.  If one of us is ever
captured, everything changes.  Most of your information is useless."

        Incensed, she slapped him, hard.  Personal feelings aside, any such
impertinence was dealt with swiftly and harshly.
        He looked back, the smile gone.  "Don't blame me.  Your superiors
weren't interested in that, anyway."
        "Hmph.  How would you know?"

        He leaned forward, settling upon a potentially deadly gambit.  "I
can tell you something they would be, though."
        Suspicious, Ashley sat down at the desk again.  "Well?"
        "He's married.  One of the other children is his wife."
        She looked away, rolling her eyes in disgust.
        "And she's pregnant."
        "What?"
        "You heard me."

        Puzzled, she studied him carefully.  "Another rebel.  So what?"
        She'd taken the bait.  He calmly returned the stare.  "If you want
an answer to that, you'll have to trust me.  I can't tell you; I'd have to
show you."

        Curious now, she sat there, pondering what he had said.  He was up
to something, that much was clear.  But something about him made her want
to trust him.  It wasn't his face, swarthy, scarred, and graying.  The way
he carried himself, maybe.  His smugness didn't help matters, but it was
obvious he believed in himself.  Fine then, she thought.  I'll play your
game.

II

        On a sunny afternoon a few days later, she surprised him.  "Put
this on."
        He puzzled over the jumpsuit for a moment, then looked up at her
sidelong, grinning widely.
        "Don't act *too* smug about it.  I'm sticking my neck out for you.
If there's any trouble--"
        "I get the point.  Now, would you close the door?"

        Ka chink.  And the lock clicked.  She wasn't trusting him any more
than she had to.  That, he could understand.

**********

        "There.  On the other side of that ridge."  The aircar dipped
slightly, dropping towards the field beyond.  For miles in all directions,
there was nothing but grass, hills, and the occasional stunted tree.
        "What's all the way out here?"
        "Evidence."
        That brought a hard stare.  "What does that have to do--"
        "Wait and see."

        The car settled to the ground, coughing up a cloud of dust.  Steven
pointed at a rocky hillside, thick with brush.  "You can't see it too well
from here, but that's a tunnel entrance."
        Ashley stepped out of the car, looking around.  "What happened?  A
firefight?"
        Steven gave the trampled ground and scorched growth no notice,
wearing a distant expression.  "Perceptive.  Not two weeks ago."
        There were some things better left buried and forgotten.  He didn't
have that luxury, this time.

        The tunnel was narrow and damp, leading off into the darkness.
Their footsteps echoed in the musty air.  Ashley wrinkled her nose.
"What's that smell?"
        "It'll get a lot worse."

        Suddenly, the tunnel opened out into a wide chamber carved out of
the living rock, and she stopped short.  "Don't tell me you've never seen
death before, colonel."
        "Not...not like this.  I'm going to be sick..."
        He faced her.  "Those aren't soldiers.  Those are women and
children, butchered like cattle."  His voice took on a husky, somber note.
"I don't know what kind of animals the military is hiring these days,
but--"
        "You can't be serious!"

        He slapped her, knocking her back against the wall.  "You look at
that and tell me I'm not serious!!"  he shouted.  Turning, he walked back
up the tunnel a few feet, fuming.  In the darkness behind him, she sobbed
softly.  To her credit, she seemed untouched by the win-at-all-costs
military mentality so common in the upper echelons.  Perhaps.  Perhaps
there was a glimmer of hope, against all reason or fate.

        "What..."  Steven looked back into the cavern.
        "What is it?"
        "I heard something."

        "Let's get out of here."
        She nodded.  They started back along the tunnel.

        "Someone's following us", he mouthed silently.  Steven flattened
himself against the wall, motioning for her to continue.  Ashley hesitated.
But no, she was certain it wasn't a trick.  Those bodies testified to that.

        She disappeared down the tunnel.  Minutes passed.  He began to
wonder if it *wasn't* just his imagination when a faint light appeared in
the tunnel behind him, creeping closer.

        He grabbed him from behind.  "What the--"
        Steven started in surprise.  "John!  But what are you doing here?"

        Ashley reappeared, running back down the tunnel.  "Better question.
What is SHE doing here?"
        Steven waved him off.  "Never mind.  Ash, this is John.  He
*should* be a hundred miles from here.  Care to explain?"

        John sat down slowly.  "I heard about this just a few days ago, but
couldn't get away.  I didn't believe it...that is, until I saw them."  He
looked back down the tunnel, expressionless.  But his eyes screamed
volumes, of a wound so close to home it could not bear to be spoken.

        He studied Ashley, still nervous.  "She have anything to do with
it?"
        "No.  Matter of fact, it took some convincing for her to believe it
happened at all."

        They stood.  "Sorry, but we can't stick around.  Later...maybe."

        Steven and Ashley started down the tunnel.  After a moment's
hesitation, John hurried after them.  "Wait.  What about the others?"
        Steven smiled sadly.  "I guess I should have explained this a bit
better.  I'm her prisoner."
        That brought John up short.  "But--"
        "I made a promise.  And I intend to keep it."

        The aircar sped towards the distant city.  "You're awfully quiet."
        She looked up at him.  "What am I supposed to say?"

        Ashley looked back at the city, thoughtful.  "Why didn't you
leave?"
        "You think I didn't know about that needler in your pocket?"
        She was silent at that.
        "I meant what I said, though.  You trusted me."

        "So what now?  You've seen the bodies."
        "Jay's wife, too?"
        He shook his head.  "No, she was with him.  But it might just as
well have been."  How much had they lost?  He dared not contemplate it.
Far, far too much, of that he was certain.

        In the distance, a hawk dived out of the sky, chasing an agile
meal.  She watched it, pondering.  "If I report this--"
        "No.  The council will suspect something like that, especially
after this stunt."
        "Perhaps.  But they know nothing about this."
        He stared.  "You didn't tell..."
        "They never would have allowed it, anyway.  You're right, I did
trust you."  Trust you, hell.  I believed in you.  And I still don't know
why.  She wanted to shout, to scream at him.  Anything to blot out the
memory of those gruesome, needless deaths.  Worse, it made sense.  A
horrifying, depraved kind of sense.  *This* was the penalty for resistance.

        He smiled slowly.  "Thank you.  Still, don't report it yourself.
Go through a third party."
        "All right.  If it's reported, then what?"
        He looked away.  "Depends on how high this goes.  That someone
might conveniently 'disappear'."
        She didn't like the sound of that at all.  "How?  After all, if you
have a chip and do something that blatant, you'll--"
        "They don't."
        "WHAT??"

        He faced her again.  "The highest echelons of the government don't
have chips."
        She stared at him, aghast.  "But...but how--"
        "Believe me, with my sources I can find out a lot that's not
'common knowledge'.  The government couldn't function if the peons could
spy on the real bigwigs."  He chuckled.  "Besides, 'government' and
'utopia' are mutually exclusive terms.  Power corrupts.  And that's a lot
of power.  They just can't let it go to waste like that.  No, they can find
plenty of uses for it, since they aren't bound by it themselves."

        She was silent the rest of the flight back, absorbing the
implications.  If what he said was true...no, it *was* true.  She believed
him.  But her universe was coming apart at the seams.  Nothing was certain
anymore.  Nothing except him.

III

        "Wait."
        She turned, looking back at him.  "What's the matter?"
        He tapped the side of his head.  "This."
        She sagged back into the seat.
        "I'll have to ask you to trust me again.  If they find out what I
showed you, they'll call off this charade.  I'll get a chip, and you'll get
a coffin."  He had gambled on this from the start.  Had he read her right?
Much more than their lives rested on that trust now.
        "I'll need something small and shiny."
        She produced a silver pen from an unseen pocket.  "Will this do?"
        He nodded.  "I hate to do this to you, but I don't have any
choice."
        He held up the pen, waving it slowly back and forth.  "Focus on
the pen.  Think of nothing else but the pen."
        Her eyelids grew heavy.  The pen moved back and forth...slowly...
        "All right, listen.  You will forget about the bodies, and
everything else you saw near the ridge today.  Instead, you will remember
me showing you plans for 'humane' attacks on the computer centers and the
central computer.  You rejected my evidence as unconvincing.  You will also
forget that I hypnotized you."

        He paused.  "You will forget that I mentioned Jay, or his wife, to
you.  When I snap my fingers, you'll wake up, and will not remember
anything except what I've told you to remember.  But when I say, 'Ash, it's
Steven', you will remember everything.  Do you understand?"
        She nodded slowly.
        He returned her pen, and...snap.  She blinked, shaking her head
slightly, then looking at him suspiciously.  "What--"
        "You looked a bit dizzy there.  Something wrong?"
        She pushed him away.  "Everything's wrong.  Why did you even
bother?  Guard!  Guard, come here."
        He sighed.  Things just got about ten times worse.

**********

        It began a few days later.  Ashley, as usual, hadn't been able to
get very much out of Steven, and was in a foul mood.  Then...
        "What's going on?"  Steven squirmed in the chair, unsettled, as
several sirens whooped throughout the complex.
        "It's a raid.  Get up."  The metal clasps withdrew, and she pulled
out a small, narrow gun.  A needler.  Pull the trigger, and thousands of
tiny shards of metal would shoot out, ripping flesh and bone to shreds.
She motioned for him to move ahead of her.
        He stood up, stretching.  The door slid open, and they walked out
into an empty hall.  The guard lay face-down on the floor a few feet away,
his head in a pool of blood.  "They missed us, it would seem."
        She kicked him forward.  "Move!"

        Down a maze of hallways and narrow corridors, they silently ran.
Around a bend, a large steel door beckoned.  "Damn.  Where's the guard?"
        Producing a set of keys, she opened the door and waved Steven
inside.  Click.  Scattered overhead lights brightened the area.  At one end
of the bay, a huge set of doors hung on sliding rails.  Several road and
air vehicles of various sizes sat next to them.  She pointed at one with
the needler, and closed...
        Chank!  A rather nasty looking rifle caught the door before it
could shut itself.  The door opened again, and six large, angry thugs
shoved their way into the room.
        Ashley dropped, firing the needler.  Two bodies fell, quivering,
and the others scattered for cover.
        She grabbed Steven, holding the gun to his head.  "Drop your guns
and come out, or he dies!"
        An echoing chuckle sounded from somewhere in the room.  "Go ahead.
He already betrayed the resistance.  He's no good to us, dead or alive.
Lose that needler fast, lady, or do I have to spread you across the floor?"

        "Dammit!"  The needler clattered to the floor a few feet in front
of her.  One by one, the thugs gathered around them.  "Tell your friends
they'll be--"
        "These aren't resistance.  They're just common criminals."  Steven
shook his head, disgusted.  "We're in the same boat, this time."
        The thugs circled them slowly, threateningly.  They were the very
picture of the dregs of society.  Every one an outcast, a criminal by
thought or deed.  Individually they were nothing, and the government
usually ignored them.  Together, the danger was plain.  A threat recognized
too late however, to save Ashley, or guard Steven.

        "Ah--"  Ashley collapsed to the floor, unconscious.
        "Why the hell did you--unh--"
        "Bring 'em.  They won't touch us, with hostages."

**********

        "Get the hell off of me!"
        Steven rolled over and sat up, bleary eyed.  In the darkness beside
him, Ashley cursed.
        "Always this grumpy in the morning?"
        "Oh, you're a real help."  She stood, feeling around in the dark.
There had to be something.  A door, if she was lucky.
        "Don't bother.  We're here until they feel like selling us to the
highest bidder."
        "Shut up.  I'm not giving up that easily."
        He laughed out loud.  "Who said anything about giving up?  We'll
get our chance."

        She sat down again.  "Fine."
        "Chill.  Don't you military types ever relax?"
        She grumbled.  "Never learned how."
        "Now's the time.  I hope to god you weren't born like that."

        "Hey, say something."  Steven frowned.  "What's wrong?"
        "Nothing.  Just...remembering."


        "Mommy?  My flower's dying."
        "Have you been watering it, dear?"
        "Every day."  Most of the petals were gone now, and the white rose
was yellowing and crinkling around the edges.  Ashley put the pot down on
her windowsill again.  "Can you make it better?"
        "I'm sorry, dear.  It's just time..."

        "Mommy?"  She ran into the living room.  "What's wrong?  You're
crying."
        "Who was that at the door?  Where's daddy?  Mommy, where's daddy??"

        Her mother dropped the note, collapsing back onto the couch,
trembling with silent tears.  Ashley picked it up...

Dear Mrs. Hammond,

        It is with great sorrow that we inform you that your husband was
killed, along with several other guards, in a resistance raid on cyber
center four today.  Our heartfelt condolences go out to you.  You may be
assured that the criminals responsible will be brought to trial and
executed as expediently as possible.

                                                With deep regret,
                                                Sgt. Walker

        "Is daddy..."
        "Ash, daddy won't be coming home.  Not for a long...time."


        "I hate you, Steven Ryan", she whispered.
        "Say again?"
        "Nothing."  She laid back, closing her eyes.  Oh yes, she'd find a
way out of this mess.  If only to see him die, slowly and painfully.

IV

        "Wake up, you two!"
        "They squinted, shielding their eyes from the bright light.  The
thug hauled them to their feet.  "Hank wants to see--"
        Steven elbowed him in the stomach.  He went down hard, gasping.
"Move it!  They'll be all over us any second now."

        They ran at a dead heat down the tunnel, passing several junctions.
Angry voices could be heard behind them, growing closer.
        "Here!"  Steven led the way down another tunnel.  A few more feet,
and she would have seen the bodies again.

        The tunnel opened out into a gully, muddy with the afternoon rain.
Ashley broke for an aircar parked a fair distance up the bank.  Steven
turned to follow...
        "Oh shit...Ash, duck!"  Several of the thugs burst from the tunnel,
pulse rifles raised.  Steven tackled one, pulling him to the ground.  The
others fired, narrowly missing the car as it sped away into the rain.

        He picked himself up slowly, three rifles pointing at him.  "Hank
ain't gonna be happy 'bout this.  Bring him inside."

**********

        "You're dumber'n you look."  Hank slouched back against a moldy
wall.  Fat, yellow teeth glinted dully in the flickering torchlight.
        "Why?  Why'd you help her escape?  She'd as soon kill you as look
at you."
        Steven shifted uneasily.  The ropes around his wrists and ankles
tugged at his already raw skin.  "I have my reasons."
        One of the thugs shoved him to his knees from behind.  A kick to
the face and another to the stomach left him dizzy and gasping for air.
"Bill here doesn't like you much.  Don't get him madder'n he already is."
        "You wouldn't understand", he wheezed.
        "You'll tell me anyway.  See I coulda gotten a shitload a clams
with her.  You're worthless."  He leaned forward, leering.  "Maybe I should
just kill ye now and save myself some trouble."
        Steven doubled over, as a fit of coughing took him.  Bill waited,
then pulled him to his feet.  "All right.  *cough*  She's got info that
could bring down the whole system, but she doesn't know it.  Try to pawn
her off and they'd waste all of us.  I couldn't take that chance."
        "You tell a pretty big 'un.  Convince me."
        "She has the info.  I can get to it.  And she can use it.  I think
I'll keep my life insurance to myself, thank you."

        Hank thought a moment, then nodded.  "Time to earn yer keep, then.
We're hitting the north tower tomorrow night fer arms.  You da point man."
        Steven shook his head.  "Hit a cyber and I might consider it.  Not
this."
        "You'll do what yer told, or Billie'll take ya apart..."  He
grinned ferally.  "...limb by limb."
        "You want to see the end of this as much as I do.  Don't force it.
Let me go."

        Hank leaned back, gesturing.  "Chain 'im up."

**********

        Night fell, and the band moved out.  Stick around too long, and
they might end up pincushions, courtesy of a military strike by Ashley and
company.  Chips notwithstanding, they had a better chance elsewhere.
        "Thanks to yer friend, we only have one car."  Hank pointed.  "See
dat hill?  By morning."
        The aircar vanished into the darkening night, leaving Steven and
eight thugs footing it.

        Trudging through the valley, the group marched ever nearer to the
almost-mountain on its rim.  Inhospitable, it gave them little comfort, the
night insects, the skin-abrading underbrush, and the eerie howls of a
roving pack of wolves constantly dogging them.

        Steven stumbled and fell, parting a thick patch of undergrowth.
One of the thugs grabbed a handful of hair and pulled him to his knees.
"Giddup, or ye'll die right here!"  The knicked blade of a knife gleamed in
the light of the crescent new moon, waving back and forth in front of his
nose.
        A renewed chorus of howls sounded, closer this time.  "Better hope
it's...not you they're after", Steven wheezed.
        "If it is, you'll wish I *had* keeled you.  Now giddup!"

        Hot and humid, the night gathered its shadowy children.  The wolves
were getting too close.
        "Wait.  We've got to do something."  Steven sank to the ground,
sweating freely.  "Here."
        "I don't want your smelly shirt."  The thug tossed it away.
        "No, that's the answer.  Everybody, your shirts.  But someone has
to lead them away."
        "He's right.  They hunt by scent.  Dunno if they'll eat us, but we
shouldn't take any chances."  One of them picked up the discarded shirt.
The rest grumbled, but made their own contributions.  "I'll catch up with
you later."

        "Move!"
        They ran, silently.  The matted underbrush left no visible clue of
their passage.  Whether that made any difference, they would soon know.
        Minutes later, they reached the edge of a field of tall grass.
Pines and oaks dotted the area, and just beyond, the hill rose up into the
night.
        A cacophony of yips and yowls broke the silence.  Long moments
passed, and the cries finally died away.  One lone figure emerged from the
darkness, breathless with fear.  "Almost had me, but I lost 'em.  We'd
better move.  It'll be morning soon, and they'll find us easy."

        The first faint, searching rays of dawn saw eight hot, tired, and
ornery thugs and one exhausted captive at the foot of the hill.  Before
them stretched the beginnings of a large tract of forest, unravaged by man
or nature.  The perfect hideout.  And the perfect ambush.

        The air hummed with laser pulses, met by the screams of the wounded
and dying.  Three fell, and the rest scattered, limping, in all directions.
Steven slumped to the ground, dizzy with exhaustion.  Booted feet pounded
all around him, as a squad of troops raced by.  Mistaken for dead, the
ropes that bound him unnoticed, he was soon alone in the fog of settling
dust.
        He waited until they had passed, then crawled forward, inch by
agonizing inch.  After an eternity, he reached the edge of the wood.  The
squad and the thugs were nowhere in sight.  Next to a dense stand of pine
sat Hank's stolen aircar, his body and two others, riddled with needles,
beside it.
        Steven made his way into the cockpit just as several of the troops
came into sight from around the hill.  As the car rose, hovering for an
instant, bolts sang through the air.  With the last of his strength, he
guided the car past the hail of fire from below and up into the open sky.


        The city provided many things, but a safe haven wasn't one of them.
At the moment, it was dry regarding Steven's whereabouts as well.  So John
and two others returned by foot, foregoing the use of a trackable aircar.
Steven, on the other hand...

        "Look!"
        "It's gonna hit the lake.  Hurry!"

        John and the others raced after the steadily falling aircar.  Over
a ravine and down a rocky slope they ran, reaching the shore just as it
crashed into the water, throwing its occupant clear.

        "Oh my god, it's Steven!"  John dived into the lake, paddling
furiously towards the disappearing aircar.  Steven's limp form sank out of
sight, and John followed.  A series of eddies from the mouth of an
adjoining stream dashed Steven against an outcropping of rock before John
finally caught up with him.  Pulling him to the surface, he swam back to
shore.

        "Steve, don't do this to me!"
        "He's not breathing."
        "I can see that, dammit!  You can't die on me now..."

V

        Steven awoke, coughing up a lungful of water.
        "Nice to see you back in the land of the living."  John closed the
door and knelt at his bedside.
        "Wha...what happened?"  he croaked.
        John smiled.  "You tried to swallow a lake, that's what.  Want to
tell me about it?"

        He sank back onto the bed.  "Last thing I remember, I was running
from a band of thugs and a goon squad."
        "Well, get some sleep.  If there's a hell, you've already had one
visit too many."
        "Tell me about it.  I could count every last muscle in my body
right now...'cause every single one aches like shit."

        John stood.  "Call me if you need anything."  He walked out of the
room, turning off the light.
        Steven closed his eyes.  He'd think about getting up, maybe, in
about a week.  Right now, he had only two things to think about:  forcing
something more or less solid down his throat, and...
        "John!"
        "Yes?"
        "Any news on Ash?"
        John poked his head through the doorway.  "Haven't heard anything,
no.  I'll keep you posted."
        "Thanks."
        "No prob."  His head disappeared again.
        He sighed.  With the failed attempt on the central computer, they'd
have tripled the guards, on the alert for another possible attack.  Ashley
was his last chance to see the dominion of the cyber society come to an
end.


        Within a few days, Steven was up and about again.  There were
things that needed attending to.

        "You're sure?"
        "Evening, the day after tomorrow.  They don't know about the
bunker, of course, but we shouldn't take any chances."
        The trip to the city had borne fruit.  But the prospect of a raid
on the resistance was none too appealing, especially considering how few
they now numbered.  Oh, there were other groups, in other cities.  But this
one was the key.  The central registry was here.  Destroy this group, and
the rest would fall.  Steven couldn't allow that to happen, no matter what
the cost.  And he had only one option left.
        "John, locate Ashley.  I don't care what it takes.  If they raid us
now, the resistance is finished."
        He nodded.  If it was possible at all, he'd be the one to pull it
off.

        Late the following afternoon came the real bombshell.
        "What?  They called it off?"
        "I'm as confused as you are.  What the hell are they up to?"
        Whatever it was, it was big.  This group was the key.  And Steven
was the key to this group, so...
        "John, what about Ash?"
        He sat down again at the com terminal.  "Hold on.  I'll run through
the news feeds and the mil networks.  I doubt there's...wait a sec."  He
frowned, shaking his head.  "I don't believe it", he breathed.
        "What?"
        "See for yourself."
        "...order of the council...for treason...scheduled for six
tomorrow....oh my god."  Steven collapsed into another chair, visibly
shaken.  "How did they know?"
        Everything was falling apart.  Of course, it was meant to lure him
into a trap, that much was clear.  But he had no choice.  Ashley's voice
still held enough credibility to destroy the councils.  It was up to him to
ensure that she had that chance.

        "You can count me in."
        Steven smiled sadly.  "I didn't doubt it for a minute.  But will it
be enough?  Will *anything* be enough?

        After a sleepless night, preparations began in earnest.  At
precisely 11:48, cyber two would be hit, as a distraction.  At 5:30, a
hopefully unexpected strike on the security council chambers would take
place.  And at 5:35, the rescue attempt would be made.  Ideas flowed like
water.  One could only pray they succeeded.


        "Sonic grenades, pulse rifles, two C4 explosive charges--"
        "And five of us.  Ready, willing, and able."  John straightened up.
"We won't let you down."
        "See you after the dust settles, then.  Good luck."
        Steven leaned back, watching them go.  In a few hours, they might
all be dead.  Or the cyber society could be changed forever.  He wasn't
sure which was the more frightening prospect.

**********

        The explosion was deafening.  Shattered glass and chunks of metal
blew outward in all directions, as the cyber center slowly collapsed in on
itself.  This time, there was no lagging troop of guards to find the C4,
securely hidden inside a recessed panel.  There were no deaths.  And the
two injured were very fortunate indeed.
        John walked casually down the steel causeway, reading a newspad,
glancing up with the expected expression of alarm at the explosion behind
him.  He backtracked long enough to check for injured passerby, keeping an
eye out for approaching security squads.  Noting the situation well in
hand, he continued on, shaking his head in mock despair over the
infuriatingly persistent freedom fighters.


        "Now-see-here", he breathed.  "It *was* your decision to call off
the raid, councillor Tarvin.  And now this!"  Greg frowned unhappily.
        Without glancing up from the monitor at his desk, Vane Tarvin
motioned him to a chair.  A steady clackering issued from an inset
keyboard, and every so often a ream of obfuscated status reports slithered
out of a thin slot at one end of the desk.  "Don't expect them to be any
less aggressive for our 'leniency'.  You will of course double the guards
on Miss Hammond", he hummed.  His smooth, vaguely irritating voice kept a
steady rhythm, cracking momentarily.
        Greg sat, then stood again, pacing.  "You expect them to make the
attempt after all?  She knows nothing, I tell you!  I scanned her myself."
        The clackering stopped, even as Vane pumped his arms up and down in
a nervous gesture, finally looking up.  "Explanations are not necessary.
You will obey the instruction."
        "Sir--"
        "If her memory of part of the interrogation has been erased, then
we must assume Steven is the cause.  Go, before you are removed."  His
hands found the keyboard again.
        "My humblest apologies, councillor.  I will double the guards as
you request."  Bowing and scraping, he backed through the ornate, wooden
doors.  Once outside, he breathed a sigh of relief.  He never would be any
more than an assistant, but sometimes he wished he'd been assigned to
another councillor.  Tarvin could be so nauseatingly arrogant.  If not for
his intellect, the council would never have chosen him.

VI

        Nothing was impossible.  The security detailed in and around the
execution room made it close enough not to matter, however.  Ashley stood
next to a seemingly innocuous bank of electronic superfluity.  Were it not
for the iron maiden-like gloves embedded in it, holding her hands, no
amount of threatening would faze her.  As it was, she was terrified.  The
minutes ticked away, and the cold, creeping dread grew.  Closer and closer
to the moment of death, awaiting her with gaunt, open arms.

        Outside, the commotion grew louder.  Thousands upon thousands
chanted in unison.  "Death!  Death!  Death, to the traitor..."  Huge
vidscreens flickered to life, as Ashley struggled at the machine.

        "Any last, pitiful begging for mercy, Miss Hammond?"  Tarvin
floated into the room, his chair hovering a foot off of the floor,
concealing half of his tiny frame.  His eyes glittered as he cackled with
insane glee, and his hands fluttered from side to side, searching for a
nonexistent keyboard.
        Ashley remained silent, glaring venomously at him.
        "Just think.  In less than one short hour, your entire nervous
system will be slowly fried to a smoldering cinder.  And you will be
conscious of every second of it.  Don't disappoint us.  You have an
expectant audience tonight."  A too-wide grin split his face, making it
appear even more hideous.

        There wasn't much time.  John hurried along with the rest of the
guards, as they returned from a brief sweep of the area surrounding the
execution room.  Tarvin would not be pleased if there was an interruption
in the proceedings.  Sweating freely, he adjusted his helmet visor.  He
only hoped that Steven had made it in time.  Hmm...5:27.  Soon.  Very soon.

        A nearby alarm panel nearly knocked him off his feet as it began
shrieking in earnest.  He's early, John thought.  They quickened the pace
yet again, nearly running down the hallway.
        Ahead, a door opened, and Tarvin floated out, cackling to himself.
"Steven is slow again.  Will he never learn?"  Mumbling congratulations to
himself on surviving another of Steven's attacks, he drifted through the
ranks of the guards.
        John backpedalled, joining a small retinue escorting Tarvin and
Ashley who, for her part, looked relieved at the brief stay of execution.
At least Tarvin was predictable.  Pleasing the people with a live execution
was more important, though only slightly less so, than the enjoyment of the
execution itself.

        "Lock her in there.  As soon as the--aaaa!"
        Tarvin uttered a hoarse cry as John shoved him and Ashley into the
room ahead.
        Steven knocked them out of the way, reaching for John.  A laser
pulse flew, and a bloodcurdling scream tore through the air.  John fell,
and the door slammed shut.
        "You bastard..."  Tarvin shrank away, hands fluttering madly.  "No,
I won't kill you.  But I'll make you wish I had."  His hatred smoldered,
barely contained.  Turning, he clapped a small pad to the wall, pulling
them back.  A second later, a smoking hole brought a view of the chaos
outside.  The people mulled about in confusion, as fires and small
explosions ripped through the security council hall.

        The aircar rose above the mob, speeding away.  "You won't escape,
Steven."  Tarvin's hands waved about in all directions, unsettled.  "She
has a chip.  My guards will find you eventually."
        Steven pulled out a needler.  "If you don't *shut* the *hell* up,
I'll *match* that mouth of yours with another one.  About a foot lower!"
The city fell behind, and he glanced about, checking for pursuing security
forces.

        "Ow!"  A quick twist, and Ashley grabbed the dropped needler.
"Turn the car around.  NOW."
        "Fire that and you'll spread us all over the valley.  If I were
you, I'd be pointing it at Tarvin.  It was his idea for the fake execution
to bait me into coming for you."
        She gestured at him with the needler.  "Fine, both of you then.  I
think I'm fast enough to grab the controls before we crash.  You want to
take that chance?"
        Steven looked back at her, tears in his eyes.  "Ash..."
        She leveled the gun at him, her finger tightening on the trigger.
        "Ash, it's Steven."
        Her hand trembled.  The needler clattered to the floor of the
aircar.  She sagged back in the seat, hand over her mouth, shaking
uncontrollably.  "I almost..." she whispered.
        "It's okay."  He smiled sadly.  "You couldn't help it."

        "We'll be landing shortly.  Hold tight."
        "Ahh, so that's your secret.  Hypnosis.  Most ingenious.  I
underestimated you this time, Steven, a mistake that will not be repeated."
        "You won't get the chance, I assure you."
        "Ashley hugged him close, kissing him lightly.  "Now I'm glad I
trusted you."
        "C'mon, I'm trying to drive here."  Steven smiled.  "Besides, it's
not over yet.  But with your help, it will be very soon."

        *Slap*.  Ashley looked away, fuming.
        "What the hell was that for?"
        "You figure it out."

**********

        "Where's John?"  Bill ran towards them, breathless.
        "Bill, I'm sorry."
        He stopped short.  "He can't be...no..."
        "There was nothing I could do."
        Steven looked down.  "Go get Jay.  And get the clean room ready."
        Leaden, he walked back inside the bunker, just ahead of them.

        "Ash, help me with Tarvin here."

        "Come on.  Whatever it is, we can talk about it later.  It's not
safe outside."
        "Hmph."  She shrugged.

        A few minutes later, they gathered in the clean room.  Enclosed in
thick, translucent plastic, three operating tables lined one wall.  For
delicate surgery, one didn't spare any precautions.

        "He's seen the bunker.  C'mon Ash, it's the only way."
        She chuckled hollowly.  "This how you treat all your guests?"
        "That's not fair."
        "Maybe not.  But this certainly isn't."
        "May I?"  Jay interrupted.  "I can't promise anything, but with
this setup there's almost no chance of the chip going off.  We can't get
another one.  Don't you want to see the end of all of this?"
        Ashley looked away.  "I'm not sure any more.  I don't know what to
think."
        "Please."  Steven took her hand.  "I don't want to beg--"
        "Then don't."  She looked back at him, her lip trembling.  Why?
Callous one moment, gentle the next.  Yes, she was afraid.  But she was
more afraid of herself.

**********

        "Wake up, councillor."  Steven shook him lightly.
        His eyes snapped open, and his hands quivered.  "You...Steven."  He
grinned nastily.  "My guards have not yet arrived?  Do not worry, they will
find us."
        "You'll be waiting for them.  See, I'm letting you go."
        "Such generosity."  The smile grew wider.
        "Come on, Ash.  Let's go."
        "Wait..."
        "Oh, you're worried about her chip.  Think nothing of it."
        "What have you done?"  His hands were erratically waving about now.
        Steven tapped the side of Tarvin's head.  He stared back in mute
horror.
        "...n-no!  Impossible!  You cannot do this!!"

        They walked away, and Tarvin's cries trailed off into silence.
Steven chuckled softly.  "Once they find out just who it is they're
reading, the dominoes will start falling.  It won't be long now.  Thanks."
        She smiled up at him.  "Forget it."
        "Really.  I like your chip in his head better, anyway."
        She looked away suddenly.  He really doesn't know, she thought.  He
doesn't realize he's doing it.
        "Now what?"
        "Nothing."

        "Come on.  We're evacuating the bunker, just in case."
        "In case what?"  She stopped.
        "In case the dominoes don't fall fast enough."

VII

        On a ridge overlooking the bunker entrance, they watched as several
security squads marched out of the bunker.  Seconds later, the ground shook
with the force of several explosions.  In the valley below, gaping holes
opened in the earth, revealing the burning halls of their former home.
        "I don't understand it", he breathed.
        "What don't you understand?  They're destroying the bunker."
        Steven turned towards her.  "Why?  They pulled out Tarvin, so they
knew he was in there.  They almost certainly knew about the chip."
        He shook his head slowly.  "It just doesn't make sense."
        "Then we need a new plan, right?"
        "You have something in mind?"
        She smiled, nodding.

        Unnoticed by the security squads, a lone aircar sailed away towards
the city.

**********

        The gate opened in front of them.  "I never thought I'd be coming
back here."
        Ashley chuckled.  "It does bring back memories, doesn't it?"
        Steven took a careless swing at her, and she twisted away.  "Now,
now."
        
        The elevator doors slid closed.  Steven shifted uncomfortably.
        "What's the matter?"
        "Not used to wearing these.  Doesn't even fit right."  His helmet
drooped a little lower, and he pushed it up again.
        "Relax.  We'll be out of here in twenty minutes."
        He grinned.  "Or the next visit's free."

        The doors opened, revealing a dimly lit gray hallway.  Several
doors later, Ashley produced a small card.  "Let's hope my pass still
works."
        Click.  The door cracked open.  Inside, Steven stared in wonder.
"This?  That's all?"

        In front of a cushioned chair rested a small monitor and keyboard.
The rest of the tiny room was bare.  Here, men's darkest secrets were laid
bare, sifted and cataloged by the lowly bureaucrats serving the councils.
This was where it all happened.

        Ashley sat, activating the monitor.  "In a few minutes, his
scandals will be all over the public net."

        Breathless, silent minutes passed, the glow of the screen and the
faint click of the keys Steven's only reminder of the now-teetering
dominoes, ready to fall.  Years ago, he had met Tarvin briefly, under
rather unacommodating circumstances.  The memory of that encounter burned
vividly in his mind, a solemn reminder of the price of freedom.  How ironic
that that memory, and others like it, would be the very keys to loose those
heavy chains.

        The screen suddenly went dark.  "What the hell?"  A few more
keypresses, and she sank back into the seat.
        "Well?"
        She sighed.  "It was worth a try, anyway."
        "What happened?"
        She pointed a finger at his temple.  "Bang."
        "You mean he's..."
        She nodded.  "And they shut down the public net, too."

        She stood.  "Let's go.  There's nothing we can do now."
        "No...maybe there is.  But we need to get back to the council
hall."

**********

        "Sir, I really must protest this treatment!"  Greg squirmed, trying
to wriggle out of Steven's grip.  "You have no authorization--"
        Steven held the needler up to his nose.  "How about a new nostril,
huh?  Do as you're told, and be quick about it."  He looked back at Ashley,
smiling slightly.  "Councillor", he added.
        Flustered almost to incoherence, the councillor led them into a
private office through a set of ornate, wooden doors.  "In here", he
sighed.  Just when things were beginning to improve...
        He sat behind the desk, touching a few keys.  "All right, say what
you will."

        Outside, the vidscreens flickered to life.  A few passerby turned
to watch, puzzled.

        Steven shook his head, grinning.  "It's your show, councillor."
        "I-I-I wouldn't know what to say--"
        "Then tell them about your chip."
        "B-b-but I don't have a ch-ch-chip--", he sputtered.
        "Exactly.  Well done.  And neither do any of the other councillors,
isn't that right?"
        "I-I-I--"
        Steven's grip tightened on the needler's trigger.
        "Ah n-n-no, they don't!  Please..."  Greg trembled fearfully, eyes
wide, staring at the needler.
        "Thank you very much, councillor.  That's all."
        Greg breathed a deep sigh of relief, and stood, still shaking
slightly.
        "Go on."

        "Now...I'm sure everyone has heard of the unfortunate death of
councillor Tarvin.  What you may not have heard is that he died of an
excessive amount of scandal on the brain."
        Ashley smiled at that.
        "You see, the councillors and their assistants have the right to
lie, cheat, steal, swindle, you name it.  All in perfect freedom and
privacy, since they don't have chips.  However..."  Steven tapped Ashley's
temple.  "Ashley was kind enough to provide Tarvin with a chip of his own.
Sadly, it was too much for him, and the council decided they didn't want
their precious secret exposed to the world."
        "But...you now know it's possible to have your own chip removed
*without* it going off.  Everyone should have the right to lie, cheat,
steal, lust...all in the privacy of their own minds.  Trust should be the
word of the day.  Isn't that right, Ashley?"

        The vidscreens grew dark again, and the crowds of people began to
disperse.


        They made their way out into the crowded causeway.  Scattered
cheers went up from the still-present masses.  Ashley looked up at Steven,
a grin tugging at the corners of her mouth.

        She kissed him, a feathery touch on the lips.
        "What was that for?"
        She smiled.  "You figure it out."

        He'd seen that expression, that glitter in her eye, somewhere
before...

        Oh.

        Oh.


        Uh oh.


        She smiled again, warmly.  Hand in hand, they walked back to the
aircar, as the last rays of sunset faded away into starlit night.
        Yes, he'd seen passionate kisses before.  But this was something
altogether different.

END

Damon Casale, dc56+@andrew.cmu.edu

* Maison Ikkoku * Kyoko Otonashi * Video Girl Ai * Amano Ai *
               * Blue Lightning * Kerin Gray *
Blue Lightning forever...Kerin, are you out there?