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            The sounds of snoring and much appreciated sleep filled Sector Beta VII of the East Wing of Futokora.  The sound was quickly accompanied by Marco’s heavy, echoing footsteps. 

            “That better not be you, Sid.” mumbled Marco. 

            He had more than just his career to worry about.  When things went wrong at Futokora someone had to take the blame.  Or, as it was written in the company handbook and work release waiver: “It’s all for the good of the Corporation.  Even if you will no longer work there.”  Marco loved his wife and he loved his kids, and he wanted it to stay that way- his wife and his kids.  There was no way in hell that he would let Sid’s incompetence tear his life apart.

            The door to Sid’s office, if you could call it an office, swung open violently.  Marco stood in the entrance, looking bigger and meaner than the Corp.’s deadliest piece of ICE.  Sid woke with a jolting start that nearly flipped him backwards out of his chair.  His hands scrambled across the desktop, frantically searching for his glasses. 

            “Uh, M-Marco…” stuttered Sid.

            “Mister Beck!”

            “M-Mr. Beck.  Uh-hey!  What-uh *ahem* What can I do you for?  For you.  What can I do for you?”  Sid sat up straight in his chair and tried to look alert and busy.

            “Maybe I didn’t make myself clear.”  Marco began to pace around Sid, making him very uncomfortable.  Sid tried to swivel his chair around to face Marco.  Marco would instantly change directions, maintaining his level of superiority. 

            “This Data Fort needs to be up and operational first thing Friday liteshine!  I come in here, and I find you leaning back in your chair asleep!  And don’t tell me you weren’t sleeping!  I could hear you snoring halfway down the hall!”

            Marco spun Sid’s chair around and stopped it when they came face to face.  He grabbed the chair by its armrests and leaned towards Sid.  Sid retreated into the chair as far as he could.

            “Everything’s in the glow, Mr. Beck.  It’s all in the glow.  I was just taking a little break, that’s all. You know, it’s company policy when building Data Forts.  Fifteen minute break every two hours.”

            Marco released the chair and backed away from Sid.  Sid forced a smile, and swiveled around to the computer.  He opened his current work file and showed Marco the progress he had made thus far.

            “I’ve got all the ICE for the fort selected.  Now, it’s just a matter of choosing which ones I’ll use and in what order they’ll go.  Do you know what the Agenda’s going to be, yet?”

            “No.” answered Marco.  He wanted to know.  He figured that he had earned the right.  In the event that something were to happen or possibly go wrong, he wanted to know just what it was that he had risked his life for.

            “I was just asking.  I mean, knowing what it is could help expedite matters.  If I knew what the Agenda was going to be, I could have the Data Fort up and ready by tomorrow night.”

            “Well I don’t know!  I can’t tell you ’cause I don’t know!”  Marco didn’t mean to blow up at Sid.  The pressures of the job were beginning to get to him.  He hoped that the CEO’s weren’t setting him up to take a fall for them.  They’d done it before to people he knew, but Marco always thought, more like he wanted to believe, that they in some way deserved it.  His temples began to pound as an intense migraine set in. 

            “Finish your break,” said Marco.  “Then get back to work.”  Things would be so much better on Saturday.  One way, or another.

            Spider shut and locked the door to his apartment.  He stretched his arms out and fell backwards onto the liquidex filled cushions of his sofa.  He laid there for what seemed like an eternity, letting the liquidex mold and conform to the shape of his body.  The cold, sterile voice of his computer called to him from across the room.

            “Greetings, Spider.  You have a message waiting for you in Netspace.”  Spider rolled over on his side and cocked his head back at a very uncomfortable position. 

            “Thank you, Mother.”  Spider slid off the sofa and drudged over to his computer.  He plopped down in the gyro-chair and pulled his VR helmet down onto his head.  He plugged the mainline into the base of his skull and relaxed, letting his brain and the cyber-link assimilate one another.  His body shuddered as a million nano-electrodes washed over his brain.  The sensation was not as unpleasant as it sounded.  It was actually quite enjoyable.

            Spider rocked the gyro-chair forward, to a more upright position, and secured each of his fingers inside the light touch controls at the end of the armrest. 

            “Log on user name?” questioned the computer.  Spider rolled his neck clockwise, stretching his neck. 

            “Ben Richards.” answered Spider.

            “Password?”

            “Butcher of Bakersfield.”

            “User name and password confirmed.”

            “Mother, engage auto start and activate run deck.” 

            Netspace opened like a blossoming bud, depositing Spider into the very familiar surroundings of his home within his home.  All runners had a home fort where they checked their messages and started their runs.  Most runners made their home forts to be as far from their real homes as possible.  Ancient cities and gothic mansions.  Not Spider.  He had designed his home fort to look just like his real apartment; right down to the dust and cobwebs in the corners and under the tables and chairs.             

            Spider walked over to the mail slot in the front door of his virtual apartment and picked the letters up off the floor.  He ignored the first two, throwing them on the sofa, opting instead for the third.  It was a note from Cyb.  Spider touched the seal on the back of the envelope with his finger and watched as it slowly unfolded. 

            “Spidey, sorry about earlier.  Tensions were running on a tight wire.  Please come and see me.  I’ll be here all darkfall.  Cyb.”

            Spider opened the door of virtual apartment and stared at the cold, black, twinkling abyss of Netspace.  He used to feel secure and at home in cyber-world, but not anymore.  Now, he saw Netspace as an enemy, a predator, stalking all who chose to enter.  This wasn’t the first time that he had felt this way, he wondered if it would be his last. 

            “Mother, open a light tunnel to grid LV-426.”

            The space just beyond Spider’s front door rippled and opened like a camera shutter, revealing a blinding light that was so bright it made Spider’s teeth ache.  He stepped into the light tunnel and let it transport his body across Netspace.  The hairs on Spider’s arms stood at attention as the light tunnel deposited his digital form at the crossroads of grid LV-426, Metropolis.  It was Cyb’s Netspace hideaway; one she and the others fought long and hard to get.  It was, though, an incredibly entertaining struggle, convincing the previous owner that that area of Netspace was haunted by the still conscious mind of a dead runner.

            Spider stood at the entrance to Metropolis, Cyb’s vision of how 2020 should actually be-instead of the decaying world that it really was, and hesitated.  He certainly didn’t want to involve Cyb any more than she was already.  He reached out slowly with his right hand and pressed it against the well disguised door.  Cyb’s reply was almost immediate.

            “Who is it?” asked Cyb.  Her voice was more wanting than questioning.  Spider got the feeling that she had been waiting there since she left Nostromo’s. 

            “Sarah Conner!  Who do you think?  It’s me Spider.” 

            The wall before Spider melted away from a focal point about waist high, making a full sized door space more than big enough for him to get through.  The wall began to seal itself immediately after he entered Metropolis.  The sight of it always took his breath away.  Metropolis didn’t exist so much beyond the main wall as it did beyond Cyb’s dwelling.  Cyb’s VR home fort was a large penthouse apartment that sat atop an incredible 300 story building.  The walls of the apartment were glass, allowing all who visited a visionary’s view of a time that should be theirs.  Spider stepped to the closest wall and looked at the marvel below.  Cyb had designed every aspect of the home fort inside the grid to exist and progress on it own.  It was a world all unto itself.  Spider leaned hard against the glass, desperately wanting to push through and out into the utopia that called to him.

            “I’m over here, Spidey.” called Cyb from across the room.  Spider turned to face her and smiled.  He was impressed, but when it came to Cyb he always was.  She wore a whisper thin, translucent metal, body gown that moved before she did.  Slowly, ever so slowly, Spider’s mood began to change and soften.  Cyb glided across the sensor feel fibers of the carpet and into Spider’s arms. 

            “I though that this would make you feel better.”  She snuggled her head against Spider’s neck.

            “You always do just the right things.”

            “And you had the nerve to be mean with me at the door.”

            “I’m sorry.  Jester…”  It was the first time Spider had said his name since finding out that he was dead.  Spider’s legs began to shake and his knees buckled.  Cyb took him by his arm and led him to her couch.

            “It’s okay, Spidey.  It’s not your fault.  You weren’t responsible for his death.”  Cyb held Spider close and rubbed his cheek with her hand.

            “No.  Your wrong.  It is my fault.  What happened between Olivia and I was completely my fault.  She hates runner because of me.  She killed Jester because of me.”

            “Here.”  Cyb pulled a bottle of Dandelion Wine out of an ice bucket sitting on the table and poured a glass for Spider and herself. 

            “Just drink it and relax.”

            “You don’t know.  You don’t know what happened between us.  What I did.”

            “Well, maybe it’s time you told me.”

            Sandman leapt from his runners chair and stumbled to the ground.  In his haste to escape from the horror that he had found in Netspace, he had neglected to exit “properly”.  The muscles in his neck tightened and the veins in his temples bulged.  His chest spasmed violently as he desperately tried to remember how to breathe.  Sandman slammed his head forcefully against the floor over and over, again and again.  His nose bled and his teeth chattered.  Ripping one’s subconscious out of Netspace was not something that was recommended.  The risk of self lobotomy was great, if not certain. 

            Sandman struggled to his feet, but fell again.  What he saw in Corp space couldn’t be true, it wasn’t possible.  Who would conceive such a wicked and diabolical scheme.  It all made sense now.  He knew why Jester had to die and why he was only the first of many.  They had to be told.  Futokora had to be stopped.

            Darkness wrapped itself around Sandman, and he succumbed to its vicious comforts.

            “Olivia and I met in Netspace.” began Spider.  He removed Cyb’s hand from his chest and began to aimlessly pace around the room.  Cyb watched and listened in silence, afraid to hear the truth that she had asked for; the truth that she needed to hear. 

            “I was free floating.  Letting the impulses and sub waves carry my body where it may.  It was blind coincidence and vengeful destiny that brought the two of us together.  Our body smacked into one another.  The odds of such a thing happening were so great, so much against the reality, that we instantly felt drawn to one another.  She was beginning her career as a Sysop at Futokora.  I had just discovered the thrill and excitement of running and was preparing for my first lesson with Giger.”

            Spider’s throat suddenly felt dry.  He snatched his glass of Dandelion Wine off the coffee table and quickly swallowed its contents.  Spider kept his back to Cyb.  He met her gaze only through the reflection in the window. 

            “We began meeting at Sulaco, the old runner’s den on 117th St. and Brother’s Blvd.  We would use a conjoined link and travel Netspace together, joined both physically and mentally.  The passion and emotion was overwhelming.”

            Cyb closed her eyes tight and tried to block out rush of hurt and betrayal that swept over her body and soul.  Spider saw it in the reflection and sank his teeth deep into the index finger of his left hand.  Sure, Cyb shared intimacies with others of their crew in Netspace, but her heart and soul and being belonged to Spider.  The few times that she had shared with him, heartbeat to heartbeat, were theirs alone.  He was her only one.  To hear that he had once shared a strong bond with someone else was more painful than any physical assault. 

            Spider flattened himself against the window and continued on. 

            “Olivia told me of a new Data fort that she was working on and how she was lining up the ICE to protect it.  I was so anxious to prove myself as a true runner and use what little that Giger had taught me in that short time.  Olivia had unintentionally installed the Agenda before aligning the ICE.  I passed the news along to Jester and Chrome…”

            “Oh my god.” whispered Cyb.  The black truth suck quickly into the quagmire of her bruised psyche and betrayed trust. 

            “The Daedalus Affair.”

            “Yeah.  So, now you know.  I’m certain that you can fill in the rest by yourself.”  Spider turned, his eyes glued to the floor, afraid to look up and see the hurt in Cyb’s eyes.  He slowly made his way to the door an touched its focal point, causing the wall to shrink away from its center.

            “Spider, don’t.”  Spider paused at the open door.  Neither could believe the words that Cyb had spoken. 

            “I don’t know how I feel right now, but I know that I don’t hate you.”

            “Well, that’s more than I can say for myself.”

            “You made a mistake.  A big mistake.  What you did was selfish and stupid, but you’re not responsible for Jester’s death.  You wronged her, not him.  Her grife should be with you and you alone.  If it wasn’t Jester it would have been someone else.” 

            Cyb looked down at her gown and swallowed hard.  She had completely forgotten about how she was dressed.  Given Spider’s revelation, she no longer felt that it was suitable attire.  She pushed the hidden micro-weave button on her left wrist.  The gown shifted and flowed around her, changing into a dark, dull, black, bodysuit that left only her head uncovered. 

            Spider saw this and turned away.  He expected no less, but it still hurt all the same.  He tried to turn back around to face her, but couldn’t. 

            “Ty’lea, what about us?” Spider’s lips quivered with each word.  “You said that you don’t hate me, but that doesn’t mean that you still care for me.”

            “I don’t know.  My feelings for you haven’t changed.  I’m just not sure if we can continue on the way we were.  I guess we’ll just have to take things slowly.”  Spider nodded in compliance.

            “Go home, Spider.  I’ll call you around liteshine.”  Spider forced a smile.  He opened the wall of Cyb’s grid and stepped out into the static and ultra-white noise of Netspace.

            “Looks like everything’s going to be okay.” said Peeping Tom.  He adjusted his position in his runner’s chair.  “I wonder if O’Bannon is logged on?”

            A series of rapid fire knocks shook Chrome out of his drug induced haze.  He blinked repeatedly and tried to pick himself up off the floor.  The knocks came again, like rolling thunder carrying pain.  Chrome panicked.  No one ever stopped by his place without prior contact and approval.  Chrome was the most easy going of the other runners, outside of Spider and Jester, but was also extremely paranoid.  Or as he always stated: “Just because your paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”  He wondered if he had been tagged by Futokora when they killed Jester.  Thoughts of a Dedicated Response Team standing outside his door flooded his mind.  He frantically searched for an exit to his apartment other than the front door. 

            “Chrome!” called a voice from beyond Chrome’s front door.  “Chrome!  It’s Sandman!  I need to talk to you!  Dammit, Chrome, open the skraggin’ door!”

            Chrome tossed the canister of Plisskin Black back under the couch and opened the door to Sandman.  Chrome noticed that he looked more pale and gaunt than usual.  He swore that he could almost see through him.  Sandman practically fell into the apartment, still weak from his early Netspace withdrawal.  Chrome helped him to the couch, quickly checking first to make sure that his illegal drug was safely hidden.  The last thing he needed, on top of everything else, was for everyone to find out that he had an occasional drug habit.

            Sandman man sat tensely on the couch, ignoring Chrome’s advice to relax and catch his breath.  Chrome left his side for a moment.  He returned with a can of fresh water mist.  Most, if not all, of 2020’s water had been contaminated when Ceti Alpha 5 crashed down to Earth in 2017.  It was the United Nation’s first orbital space station.  The world was assured that the pollutants weren’t harmful, but pure, uncontaminated water became scarce fast.  Sandman misted his face thoroughly, quickly forgetting that the 4oz. can probably cost Chrome about 15 bits. 

            “The Corporation!” Sandman finally blurted.  “Futokora!  I found out what they’re hiding.  My God, Chrome.  I didn’t think that anyone could be so heartless and cruel.”

            “What is it?  What did you find?”

            “I broke into Futokora’s HQ through the Shredder Uplink Protocol, like I normally do.  Once inside, I disabled my virtual form and free floated.  The HQ was loaded full of ICE.  I’m not talking about walls and code gates, I mean deadly ICE.  Bolter Cluster.  Data Naga.  Mastiff.  I almost jacked out right then.  I’d never seen that much heavy ICE all at once.  I did a check sweep, just to make sure I hadn’t been spotted, and that they weren’t tryin’ to box me in.  That’s when I ran into their Agenda.  I couldn’t believe it.  What they’re planning…  It’s insane.” 

            Chrome took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.  He found it hard to concentrate.  His head was still ringing from the Plisskin Black, and he wished that Sandman would get to the point.  He wanted to know, needed to know what was so damned important.  Why did Jester have to die?

            “Skrag, Sandman!  Say it already!”

            “It’s South America!  They’ve decided to delete them, once and for all.” 

            South America was the last freehold of pre-Corp. civilization, having lost Africa in 2018.  A bastion of Democracy amidst a world of Technocracy.  The guerrilla fighters of  Province XII had been fighting the good fight against the Corporations for years.  With every encounter they were forced to fall back.  The line had been drawn, and Futokora was determined to cross it and put an end to it all.  It was a long time coming, and Chrome knew it.  He had seen it coming. 

            Chrome thought for a moment.  What he and Jester had floated into was bigger than anything they ever faced before.  Revealing Project Babylon.  Shutting down the Netwatch Operations Office.  Trashing the Braindance Campaign.  All fun and games.  This was more, much more.  Futokora would have no qualms about killing them, all of them, to protect their secret.  Chrome felt his heart skip a beat and his breath catch in his chest. 

            “We’ve gotta get the crew together.  Sandman, I need you to go back to your keep and alert the others.  Don’t give ’em any details.  Just tell them all me to meet at Nostromo’s at…” Chrome checked the digital info-screen implanted in his wrist. 

            “10 o’clock.  Don’t be late.  Now go!”  Chrome immediately went to his computer, JaCquelyN, and started laying out his plan. 

            “You want me to call everyone,” asked Sandman, as he made his way to the door.  “Even Spider?”

            Chrome turned sharply towards Sandman.  The intensity in his eyes went beyond all emotions.

            “Especially Spider.”

            Spider opened a light tunnel and stepped in.  The VR wormhole shuttled him across Netspace and back to his own grid.  Spider reached for the concealed handle on the door to his home fort, then paused.  The hair on the arms of his physical body slowly began to rise and stood at attention.  The electrostatic matrix inside Netspace increased.  An Alpha One Priority Wave swept across the entirety of VR realm, leaving its encoded message only at it’s pre-designated sectors.  Transmitting a Pow Wow was serious business.  Whoever sent it needed to get in touch with a lot of people at once.  Spider’s grid lit up, indicating that he was one of its recipients.  A deep chill ran through his virtual form and he hoped that no one else had been killed.  He quickly opened the door and stepped into his home fort.

            “Welcome Spider.  You have an A1 Pow Wow from Sandman waiting.”

            Spider stood behind his sofa, bracing himself on its back.  He didn’t know if he could take anymore bad news.  He’d lost a good friend, strained his relationship, and the day wasn’t even over yet.  He could only imagine what was left.

            “Mother, open the Pow Wow from Sandman.”

            “Sandman alert!  Emergency meeting at Nostromo’s.  Tonight.  10:00 o’clock exact.  Everyone is to attend.  Especially Spider.”

            Spider relaxed for a moment.  No one else had been killed, but he knew that his troubles were long from over.  The meeting was set for ten.

            “Mother?” called Spider.  “What’s the time?”

            “7:23 liteshine.”

            “Disengage run deck and jackout.”

            Spider removed the VR helmet and disconnected the jack from the back of his neck.   He climbed out of his gyro chair and shuffled over to the sofa.  He pushed the recessed button on the left arm of the sofa, reconfiguring it into a bed.  The back laid flat and the arms lowered.  Spider eased himself down onto the liquidex and tried his best to relax.

            “Mother, give me a recall notice at 9:30.”

            “Affirmative.  Goodnight Spider.”

            “Goodnight Mother.”

Jerale C

Mindseyechronicles@comcast.net

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