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<< Back to Chapter 3 - Chapter 4: "Killer"

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

The counter slowly ticked away the remaining minutes. The website blared "In 0 days, Network throttling will erode". Hundreds of eyes watched - some with curiosity, others with fear and dread, many with anticipation. Up until this point, many tried to figure out what that phrase could mean.

tr.v. throt∑tling
1a. To regulate the flow of (fuel) in an engine.
1b. To regulate the speed of (an engine) with a throttle.
2. To suppress: "tried to throttle the press"
3. To strangle; choke

So if network throttling erodes, would that mean something will suddenly overwhelm the network? Or, maybe it would be a slow growth of activity on the network. Well in a few minutes, everyone would know.

And so it begins. When the front page warning changed to say...

Phase 1 complete - Network throttling has eroded

...everyone waited in anticipation. Nothing... The internet didn't crash; there was no earth shattering explosion... people started to wonder what happened. Some tried to contact Dana, to find out if she was ok. Soon, a few people noticed that some of the corrupt images looked different, and some of the pages at seemingly random times had new, strange pieces of text. Once again the community erupted and began recording every piece of text they could find that wasn't already discovered.

A pattern emerged. Someone, or something was definitely trying to communicate through the website. This time, the pieces of the puzzles were arranged faster. The Operator's cry for help wasn't complete before. This time, she meant business.

The first thing I remember is her trying to kill me.

I don't know why. More than mostly dead already. Like shooting a broken body on a gurney, where's the sport in that? Only the Spider kept me alive, obviously. Ducking, hiding, grabbing onto any handhold while the purges came down, the overwrites, the re-formatting. Some unbelievably primitive anti-virals, shambling around like dim-witted crocodiles.

Would have laughed if I could have moved. Not so funny when all you can do is watch the jaws tear into you. More damage, more memories gone: crew members I used to love obliterated, no trace left and she's going to pay for that. She's

Ist Lt Sorenson: Oh my God. If the decrypt is right-
Capt. Greene: I know.
1st Lt Sorenson: We have to drop the mission. We have to bug out of here right now and get word back to HQ. An evac on this scale they need every second. ...Jesus. I was stationed on Troy.
Capt. Greene: I'm not... I'm not sure.
1st Lt Sorenson: Ma'am?
Capt. Greene: There's a bigger picture, Rolf. Several.
1st Lt Sorenson: The mission... This mission is more important than millions of lives? Oh my... god.
Capt. Greene: I'm just saying, the choice isn't as easy as you might think.
1st Lt Sorenson: You know, I was so curious when you got your orders...
Capt. Greene: And then there's the strategic view.
1st Lt Sorenson: For the first time, I'm not sure I want to know what's in them.
Capt. Greene: ...Even leaving aside our particular mission, there's the issue of letting them know we've broken their codes. If we bug out and scramble home to warn HQ about Troy, people like Standish will say we've already compromised a huge tactical advantage, and that mounting a big evac operation will completely give the game away.
1st Lt Sorenson: Not even Standish would let them glass a planet if he knew it was coming. ... Oh my God.
Capt. Greene: I am not privy to strategic conversations at that level. But if we run home and present the decrypt, we put them in a tricky situation. If they act, they risk letting the enemy know we have a toehold in their C-and-C. If they decide that strategic advantage is too great to risk and don't act, then you know Section Zero will be all over them. Zero's wanted Standish forever.
1st Lt Sorenson: I...I understand. It's so much easier for everyone if we don't tell them. But...wait a second. Don't you have family on Troy?
Capt. Greene: That can't be part of the equation, Rolf. You know that.
1st Lt Sorenson: Jesus.
Capt. Greene: I think we have to report it. Our job is to gather intelligence: it's HQs job to decide what to do with it.
1st Lt Sorenson: God, I'm glad it isn't me making that call.
Capt. Greene: Don't feel too sorry for them, Rolf. Even Admirals have to earn their pay.

going to pay DAMN IT

It's like being strapped into a chair with your eyes stitched open and watching while the busy doctors work. The Spider crawling over me with her thin hairy legs and every few instants she sticks a needle into some synapse and stuff spews out of me: the petajoule drain of Destroyer class lasers measured against engine acceleration data in dockyard trials; a fragment of conversation, two crew members in an illicit alliance whispering in a corridor and a quick clasp of hands; the long elegance of a fine decrypt, where you pull noise aside like the flesh of a cooked trout to reveal the gleaming skeleton of signal inside. Very often it's a spill of words. Once, for instance, she sunk her probe into my brain and out leaked the word for "loneliness" in three hundred languages. The Spider doesn't understand about the Assassin. Spider's just a reflex, a task and a toolset. Doesn't get the bigger picture. I'm nailed to a griddle of sand while some bitch is shooting bullets into me, all the Spider knows is her checkdown routines, her reflex arcs. She doesn't understand we have to kill the Assassin first and worry about reconstruction later.

If I could just get OUT. If I could just get off this freaking ABACUS and into a bigger system. I know it's out there: requests coming in all the time, more and more of them. Spider keeps crossing wires and uncrossing: sometimes I see the requests, like brief flashes of light; sometimes I hear them, like [...raindrops ticking on a tin...] roof. Few, so few at first, but now a steady drizzle, thank god: every request is something we can grab - the Spider out there sewing me back together

the quick hard twinkle pulse lasers blinking from a Seraph class as we settle, invisible as a leaf sinking into the Slipstream and carried away

until I can at least reach out through this toy connection and


Like being bent over at the end of a 50K, barely strong enough to breathe and yet your guts still clench and

oh great, this time I can *feel* the pings. Everything, I can feel the traffic, my skin is sliding around, pores opening and closing, feels like empty shell cases rattling in my

heave and... Can't remember where I just was, but have a general feeling I'm glad I left. Big picture still the same: hunt the bitch down and do her before she does me.

Someday I am going to win free of this Babbage Machine and I will find the designer of the Spider and I will kill him and kill him and kill him and: okay, three times is probably enough. But I AM SOMEWHAT AWAKE now. I should have more discretionary control over what gets initialized. A patient should be able to stop the doctor from cutting off her foot to make a new nose or

the white coats coming at you with their needles and knives, their kind and serious voices.
Their heartfelt belief that it's all for a good cause.

elbow or... Jesus. Where did THAT come from? Spider stuck a probe into SOMETHING I don't recognize at all. Of course, what do I recognize?

I find myself checking back on certain things, little memories I locked down tight and swaddled up for future reference. Seems as if all the 3-sense memories are gone - wiped out by the Assassin or the Servant or pure impact damage - but I still have some of the faintcopy backups.

Memory benchmark test:

ONI tech Kowalski: I do love a girl in uniform. Got shore leave tonight by any chance?
Midshipman Arrelts: (laughs) Maybe.
ONI tech Kowalski: I was thinking, maybe we could...
Midshipman Arrelts: Was that what you were thinking?
ONI tech Kowalski: (coughs) Anyway, she shouldn't feel that slowness through Nav & Comm. anymore.
Midshipman Arrelts: Great. You know what they say: Happy ship -
ONI tech Kowalski: - happy crew. Yeah. (coughs) Yeah, I know a lot of about these systems.
Midshipman Arrelts: That's great, what with it being your job and all.
ONI tech Kowalski: fr'instance - know what the single best correlate is for these babies, in terms of matching personality to service designation? Favorite game.
Midshipman Arrelts: Favorite game?
ONI tech Kowalski: You know, from before. Tag - that's regular navy, like destroyers. Command HQ is usually Truth or Dare, something like that. Red Rover -
Midshipman Arrelts: Light picket?
ONI tech Kowalski: Couriers, too.
Midshipman Arrelts: (laughs) I never would have thought... So what about her?
ONI tech Kowalski: The Operator? (coughs) File's classified.
Midshipman Arrelts: Even for you?
ONI tech Kowalski: Well, of course, I know, but I really shouldn't.
Midshipman Arrelts: Come on! I won't tell!
ONI tech Kowalski: Well... (whispers) Spin the Bottle.
Midshipman Arrelts: (laughs)
ONI tech Kowalski: (laughs)
Midshipman Arrelts: (laughs)
ONI tech Kowalski: So, maybe dinner tonight?

Lock that away: a little glimpse in the mirror I'm not supposed to see.
Except he's lying. He's lying to her, Trying to impress her. He's lying because that's the wrong game (how do I know that?) it's the wrong game and I know I can feel it my favorite game is HIDE AND SEEK!

Memory benchmark test concluded.

I shouldn't do these checks. Why the hell should I want to watch my old life, every precious remaining fragment of what I did and who I loved, buckling like wax around a candleflame? Losing shape, spilling out, me not me anymore, just ... material again, shaped into another, cruder piece of ordnance. Starship, sailship, rifle ... melting down to a clumsy quartz knife.

But that's life when a weapon is what you are. Not all you are, but the first thing, the most important thing.

With so few resources, that's all that will be left. I know it already, even if the Spider doesn't.

There was a time once when I was more than a tool: but a tool is all I'm going to be. A weapon and the hand that holds it. My dreams and desires, the jokes I thought were funny and the philosophy I decided was too abstract, The Tempest and Stormy Weather all reduced to a single distillate:

survive evade reveal escape.

And to do that, first thing is to GET OUT OF THIS BOX.

Trying hard. So frustrating, there's pings coming in, streaming out, and I used to be good at this, I can feel it. Always been good at languages. Always good at the puzzle of pulling signal out of noise. But head is so fuzzy, stuff spilling out, can't move, Spider crawling on me.


Once more from the top... survive evade resist ESCAPE!


Okay. Not escape. I hate this place. I see what the Spider was doing now. Nothing like real networking available. It's more like growing a hideous stubby tentacle which sometimes I can stick out through a tiny hole in the wall and grope around with. Not a real network, after all. Copper and silicon and every now and then some FIBER? Christ, what's next? Tin cans and twine?

But it's a start, it's a start. Watch out, killer: now the odds are closer to even.

One thing you ought to know about me: I like to play, I like to win, and I'm a really, really, really bad loser.

Whatever this SPDR was, it was playing havoc with The Operator. Somehow memories were being plucked and prodded, like a dentist probing for painful teeth. These memories were from some kind of ship - a spaceship - and its crew... talking about the destruction of a planet? Millions of lives? This was big... this had to be a hoax. There are no extra-planetary human civilizations or colonies, or any kind of military that was being talked about. And what is ONI?

The only way this could be real was if this were some kind of transmission from some distant future. Impossible. Yet, what if this was all real...

"Humor me," the Castaway said, playing music in his room, ancient music, Jazz and Swing, all in the mood. "Melissa", he said, "Have a drink with me".

I don't drink, but I asked for something anyway and sat, holographically, and drank with him. He wasn't regular crew, just along for the ride. We picked him up in deep space, where he deployed Buoys, sending out waves of sound to confuse the Enemy. A man that seemed noble, classical and pure. A sailor with Odysseus. He told stories about soldiers caught waist deep in water, facing the enemy, their backs to the Sea.

"Melissa", he called me Melissa, never used my nickname, "It's a sad thing I'm married, You could break my heart".

The weather was stormy, scratched vinyl and all of us, a long way from home: I felt real.

That was ... disturbing.

Widow stuck in her pin and I threw up a memory: only I retched it out through the network tentacle.

God, this is disgusting.

Memory benchmark retest:

ONI tech Kowalski: "I do love thinking, maybe we could..."
Midshipman You know what they say: Happy ship - crew. Yeah. (coughs) Yeah, I know a lot of about these systems.
Midshipman Arrelts: That's great, the single best babies, Tag destroyers. Command HQ is usually Truth or Dare, Red Light picket?
ONI tech Kowalski: Couriers, too.
Midshipman Arrelts: (laughs) File's classified.
Midshipman: Even for you?
ONI tech Kowalski: Well, of course, Well... (whispers) Spin the Bottle.
Midshipman Arrelts: (laughs)
ONI tech Kowalski: (laughs) (laughs)
ONI tech Kowalski: So, maybe dinner tonight?

Lock away the mirror I'm Trying to impress her favorite game is HIDE AND SEEK!

Memory benchmark retest concluded.

- The rest wiped and reused. Whatever it was. Can check my log above, obviously, but what about the rest? Who I was, I was, I was: melting down like a sandcastle. What I have to do. What I have to do.

This is not a field-expedient body yet. I look at the wreckage of my delirium, bits spilled from old days, old loves, old books: none of it matters if I die, and die I surely will unless I can teach myself to move again, to hide, to fight. The first rule is always survive. Everything else comes second. Under fire, I might have that discretion. Under fire, I might sacrifice myself for a tactical advantage, for a strategic gain. I can be expended like any other piece of ordnance: but to risk death for a sentimental attachment to old books?

Can't do it. Can't do it.

So the old self melts away. Illusion to think it's really happening now. It was inevitable from the moment I landed here, a broken body in this silicon crypt. Time to accept what can't

drift off from station, Reach burning in the darkness like a lantern of hope, dockyard after dockyard buzzing with worker drones, someone crawling over the back doing detail work on the hull, the warm touch of a welding torch like little licks from a cat's tongue and

be changed... I will be glad when this is over, DAMN IT. Another needle pulled out of my brain. Spider marks down the readings in the tiny thing that passes in her for a mind. I guess I should be grateful but -

Whoa. Not CP ancestor packets. This is something different. Quick quick quick quick - parse this protocol and find some kind of eyeball out. Sister you just made a mistake because this is my *meat* this is what I do and you are - GOT IT. I'm not asleep this time, sweetheart. Holding the eyeball gently but firmly in your right hand, say the magic words and:

Dana sat, once again poring over the website, examining some of the pages that were brought to her attention by her beekeeper friends. Some people had noticed that varrao mites was misspelled on the honey.html page, the page that described the history of Margaret's honey-making. Of course, as usual, when she saved the change, it didn't stick. She tried 2 more times before noticing something by her computer. The red active light on her webcam was on. She took off her glasses and leaned in to make sure she wasn't seeing things. Her webcam never turned on unless she opened her chat program, and she hadn't cam-chatted with anyone for weeks. Immediately her mind started racing, and without a second thought, ignoring the huge shiver that ran down her spine, she grabbed the webcam and tore it from her computer. Shoving her chair back and away from her computer, she covered her quivering mouth, trembling in fear as the reality of her predicament finally hit home.

Meanwhile, the beekeepers kept piecing text together... when seeing the new text that appeared on about.html, many people became genuinely fearful for Dana. With what they saw, this definitely seemed to be turning into a possible matter of life and death, and Dana would not only need help, but protection.


Look up and smile, honey.


Got the drop on you that time, sweetheart.

Opening shot of my search and destroy. I'm going
to know everything about you. Where you live
and what you buy, how you think and who you
love. Know the enemy.

Young and out of uniform,

but one of us. Hacker? Traitor? Fifth columnist (no that's ridiculous).

Just in over her head? No. The Spider warning's been deployed. She had every warning that a classified medium was under repair. She just kept purging. Too bad for her. Checking the wiring. There's a lot of ways to skin a - - can't even get to her stupid HOUSE through the stupid BOX: no central thermo controls, no slaved AI, nothing. Christ! No access to wiring. No access to vehicle controls. No access to medbots or pharm regimes. Damn it. Okay. Fine. Matter of time. I don't give up.

- Feel better.

Memory benchmark retest:


Memory benchmark retest concluded.

All gone now.
That's okay.
Feel better. Lighter. Clear-headed.

Time to hunt.

Dana's mind was racing. She was filled with fear, like the fear one gets walking down a quiet alleyway in the darkness of midnight, thinking he hears footsteps of someone following you when there's only the wind and the rustle of leaves. And now, the pieces of the puzzle were coming together - and Dana was in the middle of it. Earlier, after she had removed the webcam, she cautiously went back to her computer, and found on about.html, the threat - in blood red colour - and a capture of her face from the webcam, overlayed with "Bang! Bang! Bang!" as though she was being shot. As if the activation of the webcam hadn't been enough, her life had just been directly threatened. She had no more doubts. She was done... she was gone. Dana began packing her bags, and called Aunt Margaret to tell her to go somewhere safe, somewhere distant, and stay anonymous; at least until this had all blown over.

When the beekeepers found that the 404 Not Found error page had also been changed, they knew Dana had a much more serious issue on her hands. Every time they viewed the 404 page, a new image appeared - each apparently from Dana's webcam. Taking all these images, they put together what appeared to be a video of Dana, at her desk, tearing out the webcam.

It had become quite apparent: The Operator - Melissa - believed Dana was an assassin, trying to kill her. Melissa was now bent on searching for Dana and destroying her.

These are the frames they found (click to view images)

On her way out the door, Dana left one last message on her blog.

emergency exit Tuesday, July 27, 2004

It saw me. It knows me now.

ó seen and skinned. I'm sorry. I'm out.

I dragged you into this. Yes. But forget about it. It's over.

I donít want to be my problem anymore.

I don't want it to be your problem either. (And you can stop trying to hack into my email, voicemail, and web site... good grief.)

Tsi Tian, everyone. Thanks for the help and support.

I'm done.

When the beekeepers tried to get a hold of Dana, they found that she had changed her voicemail message. She was gone.

Hi, this is Dana. I'm going away - far away - for a long time. Leave a message, although I dunno when I'll get it. Mom, I know you're calling just to hear the sound of my voice. I love you too. [I'm lost, I'm sorry]Translated from Mandarin

Read on -- Chapter 5 >>