Alpha Two: Near future cyberpunk set in 2105.
HOMEALPHA TWO - written by Andrew Seas
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The year is 2105. True cyberspace has begun in the form of the neural-net, where humans interface their psyche to a virtual world. Helix Carone, a key programmer for the company that created the neural-net is now on the run, having sold the companies source-code on the black-market. He’s hiding out in the LA Fire Zone, an irradiated area now infested with tech gangs and littered with societies outcasts.

Once financially able, Helix plans to get his biometrics altered and return to ’utopian’ society, but then something throws his plans into chaos. Alpha Two, an android built by the same company has escaped from the Lunar One research facility and is being hunted by the International Security Agency.

Helix alone knows who is responsible for the android’s sabotage and in time he will join its mission and discover why...




ALPHA TWO

CHAPTER 1

L.A. FIRE ZONE


1st November 2105


Helix Carone takes a calming breath, long and deep, and steps from the safety of his apartment lobby. The riveted and reinforced steel doors automatically bolt lock behind him. Although the sky is overcast with heavy cloud, his eyes strain against the sudden change from artificial light. For the past forty-eight hours he has been pinned to his computer console staring at software code.

   Suddenly he is grabbed from behind and thrown back against the door. “The darkness slithers within us all!” says the man grasping Helix’s chest and holding him against the steel. His eyes are sunken and distant, his skin wrinkled well beyond his years. Helix knocks the hands away and in the same movement throws the man to the ground.

   Helix stands over the man and notices psychstim nodes pasted to the man’s forehead. “Time to see the light my friend,” Helix says as he rips the psychstim from the man’s skin and throws it onto the cement. “Or at least—get back a little rational thought.” He crunches the psychstim underfoot leaving the man to gaze at his loss.

   Helix’s heart is racing as he touches the cold shaft of his gun for some reassurance and glances into the distance. Before him the streets lay in wait; dark bodies hustling for transactions. He starts along the sidewalk with pace, hoping not to attract the attention of the peddlers and laments to himself, another day in the Fire Zone, redundant time.

   The irradiated and discarded CBD of LA and a large surrounding area, now known as the Fire Zone, is left to its own decline under the rule of its disenchanted citizens, referred to as levelers. Stale pungent smells permeate the air, skin and clothes washed by rain alone. Helix hears the usual talk on the streets; a steady din of chat, discussions of numbers and figures, wares and drugs accompanied by the occasional buzz of a passing shuttle.

   This walk Helix has made countless times before but it never gets any easier. The best he can hope for is to continue uninterrupted. Most don’t bother Helix. Most recognize him by his tattered clothing as a kindred soul, just another cashless leveler.

   A dark body steps from the side of a building towards Helix. “I got clips, whatever you need.” The man holds at arm’s length a straight piece of wood with three columns of colorful neural clips dangling within individual clear plastic sleeves. Helix brushes the merchandise aside. A shuttle then stops at the kerb giving the man something more promising to concentrate his craft on.

   The levelers consist of all life forms surplus to requirements in the real world, life seeping away through charred distant memories. Some burn out and turn into walking corpses that nobody would recognize. Others manage to persist and display their wares out of old shopping trolleys, pushing neural technology for sale at its lowest ebb—technology built to interface directly to the psyche. Illegal psychstims, neural-caps and at a dime a dozen, neural sim clips to send the more adventurous on a trip to see Alice.

   The weaker members of the leveler population start a downward spiral into Zone subculture. They paste their foreheads with grey microform nodes—neural junkies wearing psychstims wherever they go, the cheapest hit on the street, the hardware cheaper than a pair of shoes and powered by body temperature. After a while the brain starts to adjust, so the junkie adjusts the stim until it fails to give satisfaction. So then they sell it and turn to old-fashion pill poppers and before they know it they're asking Lucy where reality is.

   Helix is dressed in tattered clothing for good reason, to blend in to the dull Fire Zone background. The truth belies the disguise. He is a member of the Zone elite, the scum at the top affording the luxury of the watchful eye of the Zone Security System. The Fire Zone’s big brother.

   A grim looking peddler steps towards him, so Helix steps onto the road, his leveler disguise now in vain.

   “Easy brother.” The man also steps onto the road to obstruct Helix. “You look like a man with some desire. You want some neural action? I got the latest stims on the street.”

   “Not interested,” Helix replies, pushing the man slightly and forcing him to walk sideways.

   “You want some pills, comrade?”

   “I told you—what you got, I don’t want.”

   “Hey! C’mon! Try this stim—two seconds and your Zone is paradise.” The pusher holds out a soiled hand peppered with psycho bullshit tattoos, grasping the tiny psychstim nodes next to purple knuckles. “Come on man—stick it to ya head—I ain’t gonna charge ya to try. Two-forty for the stim, nobody cheaper than me in the Zone—try it.”

   Helix’s right hand is already sweating on the steel of his gun inside his jacket pocket and now he coils his index finger around the trigger and says, “I'm on the level—you bother me again we'll see how a small piece of lead stimulates your circuits.”

   “Hey—hey,” replies the man raising both hands slightly in the air as if Helix already has the weapon pointing at him. The man retreats to a group standing on the side walk. “No problem conquistador—you on some fucking other level!”

      Today, Helix thought, the Zone is giving me too much goddamn attention! Even dressed like shit, I can’t walk out here hassle-free. Do I dress worse and act like these rejects? Helix paused. No way.

   He returns to the sidewalk where, at times, shards of glass crack beneath his shoes, areas not yet slept upon. Many of the buildings have little in the way of glass windows remaining. If the dirty bombs hadn't smashed them, then the new inhabitants did, anything to kill the time. The radiation has subsided enough to make the Zone barely habitable for those on the run, the crooks and the homeless now slung together in a melting pot set to boil over.

    And so there he is. Yet another day in hell, Helix Carone, his identity and everything that makes him biologically Helix Carone prevents him from living in the real world, the monitored world. His biometrics are sampled and the systems are in place to track his every movement. The LA Fire Zone—of all places—is now his safe-haven. The company he once worked diligently for, Bioscope—with all its power and resources—won’t bother infiltrating the Zone. Instead, they will wait. Wait until circumstances force Helix to resurface most likely somewhere in the mid west. Helix Carone wouldn't last long in the Zone, he's too soft and they knew it. For selling off Bioscope source-code he will pay the ultimate price, an agent of their internal security unit—Stella—will take him out, teach the others a lesson.

   He continues along the sidewalk occasionally stepping over beggars, some disfigured by the radiation. Helix would like to help them, throw them loaded cash-clips, but then he wouldn't last two seconds. Money is no problem for Helix, his personal identification is. Once financially able, he plans to source a professional ID agent, get his biometrics altered and return to living free. At only twenty eight, he is Bioscope's most wanted.

   He is of an average height and slim build. His hair is dark and thick and his jaw line stubbled providing him the harder image that is required on the street, but today, it just isn’t working.

   “Hey! You want something to knock out the girls? Got a semdexcost ya sixty.”

   “Go hassle an external.”

   Semdex? Helix recalls an early Zone memory where he was knocked out by the drug. That's how he had met his business partner—Marlow. Helix had only been in the Zone for forty-eight hours. Marlow had been surprised when he recognized Helix's face from a Time magazine article on Bioscope's neural-net team. Marlow had monitored Helix from across a bar and watched as a Zone low-life made her move. The tart had sat next to Helix and dropped a crushed semdex into his glass when he was unaware. Apparently, once he was out cold, she began sifting through Helix’s pockets. She thought she had hit lucky when she found the ZX1 utility gun, outdated Stella issue, lucky until Marlow tickled the side of her head with his standard Zone issue. According to Marlow she had froze. Marlow had then asked her where her accomplice was in return for keeping the lug in the chamber. She had pointed to a skinny man with a shaved head covered in tattoos looking directly back from the bar. Marlow called the tattoo-head to join them in the seat opposite, and that was that—until Zone Security arrived and took Helix somewhere to recover and get signed up.

   That was two years ago, a memory Helix now puts aside as he turns into a side alley and finally arrives at his destination, somewhere safe. A steel plate inscribed 'Zone Security Members Only' is affixed to a black nanocarb reinforced door. Helix gazes into a scanner embedded to its left. The inconspicuous bar entrance opens just wide enough to let him in. Inside shadows dance from the light of a six-foot video hologram at the far side providing a slight contrast to amber lights that hang low over round empty tables. Helix walks to the bar, acknowledging Charlie the barman, who promptly pours him his usual before moving on and stands behind his business partner—Marlow; an unshaven scruff of a man with shoulder-length hair. He is sitting at one of the dimly lit tables and Helix listens to what he is saying.

   “I got two words for you, evolution and reality. Darwin went to the final point of evolution, that is here and now. That's not far enough! How old is the universe?” Marlow didn’t wait long enough for an answer. “Pretty damn old. So here's how I see it—reality. Here we are lugging these colossal masses of matter around, when the neural-net has proved that we can exist in the same reality, but with minimal energy. The whole universe could be condensed from a conscious point of view and powered on a 12-volt battery. Now it seems pretty damn evident that conservation of energy is real fucking importantso I put it to you; the Sun burns out, the conscious planet condenses into a virtual world where the same laws of physics apply. Then, this mini planet containing all our souls—a seed, is propelled by the exploding Sun to another younger solar system.”

   “Spaceship Earth,” says a large, bald man from the opposite side of the table, his face resembling a bulldog.

   Marlow immediately slaps the table. “Yep! Spaceship Earth!”

   Helix steps forward from the shadows and says, “And who's running this spaceship?”

   Marlow looks up at Helix, surprised to see him having realized Helix had been listening to one of his lectures. “The operating system. What is a man's best friend?”

   “A dog,” replies the man.

   “Exactly—reversed God. God is the frickin operating system.”

   “So we're a reality within a reality?” asks Helix as he takes a seat between the two.

   “Within a reality, within a reality, within a reality…”

   “Jesus—think I'm gonna need a stim, you’ve given me a headache,” comments the man leaning forward on the table and rubbing his head.

   “Well, you've obviously been here a while, Marz,” says Helix.

   “Now the system has left some fingerprints. Take three countries—”

   “Not again, Marz.”

   “Italy, Brazil and Ireland—what do they have in common, apart from being predominantly R.C.?”

   The burly man shrugs his shoulders, forcing a large underlip to protrude.

   “Seriously Marz! You finished?” snaps Helix extending a hand towards the man and introducing himself. “Helix.”

   “Sven. Pleasure,” the man replies.

   “My Zone accomplice in crime and I should add, the Zone's—correction—the world’s number one neural-net jack-hammer, Helix Carone,” says Marlow, forcing himself upright on his seat. “Sven's an old friend, he and I used to squat down on main…three?…four years ago?”

   “Yeah ‘bout four.”

   “Sven's been outta town for two years, tried making a go of it in the real world, working the shuttle lines—boss pissed him off one too many times.”

   “What happened to boss man?” asks Helix.

   “Don't ask,” replies Marlow.

   Sven cracks his fingers. “Back here beats living in the sling.”

   Helix thought about the comparison. “Well, there's plenty in the Zone who’d argue with you on that.”

  “Sure—but I'm not some junkie joining the leveler spiral!”

  “A small walk to this place just reminded me how much I want out. Sounds like you've got plans.”

  “Deliveries.”

  “I won't bother asking what and for whom—no doubt for a Zone set.”

  “Bringin' in an endless supply of X clips.”

   Helix tsked, shaking his head. “People have cardiacs from that shit and still they do it.”

   Marlow interjects. “Adrenaline junkies.”

   “Yeah—like you,” laughs Helix.

   Marlow leans back in his chair and clasps his hands behind his head. “Now a man needs his kick

out of an occasional X clip. See, now I have a pretty good understanding of how I would react to having some axe-wielding psycho in my face.”

   “Yeah, you mud your pants and jack out, 'fraid you can't do that in the real world Marz—except perhaps mud your pants.”

   Marlow returns a blank face.

   “And talking of clips, here's the update.” Helix reaches into his breast pocket and removes a software clip passing it to Marlow.

   “That's it? Not another—penultimate?”

   “That's it—finito, I'm sick of the damned code.”

   “What's that?” asks Sven.

   “The fait accompli, our finished product. Software to accompany our next shipment of neural-caps to the masses,” Helix replies adding, “Two satellites coming in tomorrow—think they'll take the lot.”




CHAPTER 2

LUNAR ONE



Sam was now certain that something was wrong with the Alpha Two android that required further investigation. Convincing the senior engineer that the droid should be pulled from the work schedule of the next shift was going to be like trying to incorrectly convince a physicist that gravity was actually a form of energy. The senior engineer’s reaction was going to be one step from nuclear detonation. Sam punched his keyboard to time-shift the next project module and compensate for the lost productivity of having one of the five androids absent on the scheduled shift.

   The interior of the maintenance bay, like all the others, was circular with instrumentation panels on the inner walls of the dome. Sam's console was perched up a few steps overlooking the five tables where the androids were reset in sleep mode: two superior Alpha model droids dressed in navy anti-dust suits and three Delta model droids wearing orange. They lay dormant. Neat synthetic hair, eyes closed, silent and still, breathless. Inside their minds dream folding renditions of fake pasts. Their past lives that had never existed. Engineered memories linking and disengaging for interrogation—silent self analysis coercing logic into an improved condition.

   Sam decided to give Spectra one more try. “Spectra—project Alpha Two's current dream sequence.”

   “Unable to interface with Alpha Two,”  replied Spectra calmly in a soft female voice.

   “Damn!” Sam yelled slapping his hands either side of the console and standing up with speed enough to lift him into a low orbit. The floor energized ensuring his feet didn’t leave the surface.

   “Spectra! Shutdown Alpha Two!”

   “Alpha Two now comatosed.”

   The report Sam had requested from Spectra was complete; a hologram of text hung over the console in front of him, a chrome reflected nightmare. The results were bewildering. Highlighted in red were words such as 'Non-construct dream state' and 'Vivid real life situations not concurrent with Spectra construct implementation.' He glanced over the report, switching back to the top hoping some better reasoning would form, but it didn’t. Spectra was informing him that Alpha Two had experiences that were not simulated during any phase of its AI construct development. Mulling that over, he made his way across the alloy steps and exited the maintenance bay. Once through the tubular sun-soaked tunnel to the central dome, he summoned the de-elevator to board the rotating Gravispace. The de-elevator was the only method for gaining access to the living quarters of Lunar One.

   Sam considered his next, and hopefully last, confrontation with the senior engineer in relation to the Alpha Two android. “Haynes is gonna be pissed,” he muttered to himself as the de-elevator accelerated around the outer shell of the Gravispace.

   The obstinate Alex Haynes often criticised Sam’s abilities as an android engineer. Alpha Two had become a contentious issue over the past month. Haynes wasn’t interested, opting to side with the analytical reports from Spectra rather than using rational human judgement. If the android was compromised then, in all likelihood, so was Spectra, and here was the burning proof that Sam required.

   Sam considered his own promotion. A carefully selected employee trained by Bioscope, his knowledge and technical prowess could gain him much reward back on Earth, which was probably why they sent him.

   On Earth, many were of the opinion that Bioscope controlled the planet. All communication systems ran through Bioscope software. Neural-net technology was Bioscope’s invention, the ability to interface unobtrusively to the human psyche. Bioscope owned and controlled cyberspace. True Strong Artificial Intelligence was first achieved by Bioscope scientists and now, finally, the ban was lifted on autonomous AIs. Artificial Intelligence with the ability to move and interact with the outside world. With the implementation of the Spectra Monitoring and Control System, it was believed that all the necessary security requirements were met, therefore the more cumbersome Virtual Reality Machines—VRMs could be replaced with androids, perfect for completing the construction of the Lunar One research facility.


   The hum. The repetitive, constant hum of the revolving Gravispace keeping the occupants pinned to their beds as it revolved at two cycles per minute mimicking Earth's gravity. Adrift on the hum, the senior engineer, Alex Haynes, was enjoying a dream. He was half-cut in the back of his Grandpa’s Ford Gamma after a night with the boys in Detroit. His brotherFrankie driving, having disconnected the auto-engage on Grandpa's approvalhe never liked the damn shuttle conversions anyway.

   Haynes awoke from his sleep to a jostling that added to the pure adrenaline generated by those free-wheeling hills and bends. “Look out…!” Frankie almost hit a stump.

   “Wha? What!” Haynes sat up abruptly, clenching the remaining few follicles of a receding hair line, but careful not to hit his head on the upper bunk.

   “Shift’s up,” said Sam, knowing Haynes wouldn't be happy about missing out on the extra twenty minutes of sleep. “We need to talk.”

   Haynes pulled himself up onto his elbows and stared hard, his mouth and unshaven chin lopped to one side. “Talk?” He glanced at the alarm clock and frowned. “This better be good.”

  Sam leant onto the opposing wall of the tiny cubicle, careful not to sit on the console deck and apprehensively said, “It's Alpha Two.”

   Haynes slumped back into the bedding staring vacantly at the upper bunk. “Alpha Two! Alpha Two this. Alpha Two that. So the fucking android’s been spooking you again. Is that it, Sam?”

   “Worse. Spectra can't interface.”

   Haynes twitched his head like something had short fused. “So? A soft fault. You've run a diagnostic?”

   Sam turned to the console and tapped into the keyboard. “Yes—there's nothing physically wrong, but then Spectra came up with a whole lot more to concern us, the thing’s been tampered with, I'm sure of it. Spectra command mode.”

   “Ready for command,” came Spectra's reply.

   “Display latest précis request on Alpha Two,” said Sam in a hurry, attempting to provide the facts before Haynes started whining. “It's all there, Alex—Alpha Two has had real life experiences. We're not just talking about some jazzed-up AI construct program. All indications from Spectra are that A2 has had experiences outside of Spectra's control. Real life experiences!”

   Haynes looked toward the hologram, his eyes flicking to and fro before eventually raising his eyebrows. “OK, you've made your point. Let’s just keep this quiet, there's no need to panic the other scientists. The androids are already borderline zombies as far as they’re concerned.”

   Haynes swung his legs over the edge of the bed and awkwardly crouched under the top bunk rubbing his eyes.

   “I’ve modified the shift already to compensate A2’s absence. I’ll head back and start dismantling its cranium.”

   “Good,” said Haynes, when he really meant bad.


   Sam left the cubicle and made his way along the narrow corridor of the sleeping quarters, the ever-so-light push on his feet causing his body to prop upright on the slant of the floor, compensating for the slight gravitational pull of the moon. In both directions the corridor appeared to slant upwards due to the fact that it was actually the inner wall of the Gravispace. He touched a panel to summon the de-elevator. After stepping into it, the automatic doors closed behind him and he grasped the hand rail in preparation of the rapid deceleration. When the dead-weight of his body disappeared the door slid open. He took a weight belt, strapping it around his waist and returned to the maintenance bay.

   The androids were housed in the maintenance bay while on charge mode. Their twice-daily shift involved working for seven hours, charging for three and interacting socially for the remaining two in order to further develop their personality constructs. Their neurotics were ultimately monitored by Spectra, which in turn was guided by the engineers in situ at the time. The primary feature of Spectra was the reporting of thought processes that were not relevant to tasks at hand and should these processes start to manifest or even turn malicious, the android could be shutdown for construct reprocessing. The eventual goal was to have the android constructs developed to the point of perfect trust and reliability and to remove the requirement for human monitoring of the Spectra system.

   Sam entered the maintenance bay and stared at his team of androids. In a gradual semi-circle the droids lay dormant upon their tables. Retractable clasps kept them in place and each table was moulded to the contours of their clothed bodies. Apart from some slight hardware differences between the Alpha model androids and the Delta models, they should, from a construct—personality point of view be remarkably similar. Alpha Two however had shown some peculiarities. It was more observant than Alpha One, far more to the point of making Sam feel uneasy whenever working alongside the android, it felt human. Sam recalled how, just two days ago, Alpha Two had remarked to him when they were alone, ‘You should follow your own instincts Sam, perhaps don’t pay so much attention to Mr Haynes.’ He had opted not to respond to the android, but in hindsight wished he did.


   Sam stood in the center of the bay facing the tables. “Spectra initiate upstart sequence.”

   “Alpha Two comatoseddo you wish reactivation of this android?”

   “No. Provide visualization of dream sequence prior to losing your interface with Alpha Two and report your analysis.”

   “Alpha Two’s dream state produced unknown memory feedback different to construct phases that were provided by Spectra. Alpha Two's dreams contain images and characters of humans in detail, with emotional states as if it knew them, neither of these character models were implemented during Alpha Two's construct development.”

   Sam looked beyond the tables which were slowly pivoting upright; Alpha Two's table remained horizontal. A holographic representation of the android’s dream was projected toward the back wall of the dome.

   “Spectra. Are you telling me that Alpha Two has experienced interactions with real people during construct development?” Not looking forward to the response, Sam watched the images unfold.

   “That conclusion statistically balances at eighty-two percent.”

   The holographic representation of Alpha Two’s dream formed a long wide sandy beach, partially overcast by deep purple storm clouds. Mermaids appeared, as many as a hundred of them randomly rolling their slender bodies through choppy surf, briefly surfacing before returning to the depths. Above the horizon, a star, or perhaps Venus, hung within the violet glow of a Sun that had recently set. Then an old man appeared in the distance. He was stood at the water’s edge, shiny silver hair tinged purple as the storm billowed and rushed up behind him. Despite the storm, all was quiet, still; somehow serene. The purple storm came closer. One of the mermaids began to change into a beautiful girl, her long flowing hair shining in the purple light as she began to walk towards the man. The silent storm continued across the beach reaching the old man and proceeded towards Alpha Two. Gradually the wind began to howl. The purple changed to grey and then it turned black.

   Sam tried to focus on the man and the girl, but they vanished; the dream sequence ended, leaving only the Spectra signal telling him that the interface was lost.

   “Alpha One and Delta model androids are almost aware, feedback has ceased.”

   The androids glanced at Sam and briefly looked around the dome and at each other as their clasps released. Sam stood in the center of the bay and faced the now upright androids, dwarfed by their size.

   “OK, head on into the canteen and discuss your job briefs,” said Sam.

   “Is there a problem with Alpha Two?” asked Alpha One, realizing one of the team was still

on the table.                                           

   “Yes, well, no major problem with Alpha Two, we're just replacing a damaged optic lens. You'll be completing the shift’s module without Alpha Two,” replied Sam, as the androids stepped past him and proceeded into the canteen room. The door automatically closed behind them.


   Sam stood at the foot of Alpha Two’s table, vacantly gazing upon the android. He then walked slowly along the right side of the table, his mind puzzling over some of its displayed peculiarities over the past month. He stopped level with the android’s chest.

   “A2, just what is your story?” he muttered to himself.

   Alpha Two lay motionless, the blue hint of electroclasp, eyelids closed, still and breathless, then the eyes opened.

   “Fuck!” Sam jumped backwards as the table clasps retracted. Alpha Two grabbed Sam by the collar and pulled him against the table.

   “Spectra! Shut down Alpha Two!” Sam shrieked.

   “Alpha Two already comatosed,” replied Spectra.

   Sam raised his left foot and pushed against the table in an attempt to break free. The android, still clutching Sam’s collar with its left hand rolled off of the table.

   “Spectra! Emergen” Sam was gagged with Alpha Two's right hand before he could finish the

sentence. He began punching at the android’s arm.

   “Shhh, I have no reason to harm you,” Alpha Two said.

   Sam pulled at the android hard. He twisted and continued to punch at the android's right arm in an attempt to free his mouth and instruct Spectra. Alpha Two switched its left hand to the back of Sam's head and pulled the engineer in closer to restrict the punching. The android then initiated communication with Spectra, perfectly mimicking Sam's voice.

   “Spectra, shut down all droids.”

   “All androids comatosed,” replied Spectra.

   “You see? I am autonomous of the Spectra system, so why struggle?” said Alpha Two in its own hollow synthetic voice. It then spoke as if both Sam and Alex Haynes were present in a dual voice, “Recognize new administrator.”

   “Please say Administrator's name...”

   “Sphere,” replied the android looking down at Sam and adding, “Global.”

   Sam's energy now drained. A bead of sweat ran down his left temple, he attempted to say something but the words failed to materialize. He gazed up at the android.

   “Spectra, initiate Sphere character set upload,” said the droid.

   “Information uploaded,” replied Spectra

   Sam realized his worst fears; the droid was king of its own domainglobal was an understatement.

   “Suspend accounts Sam Petrovic and Alex Haynes.”

   “Please state your reason for account suspensions?”

   “Security precautions.”

   “Please enter Bioscope security code.”

   Alpha Two proceeded toward the nearest consoledragging Sam with him, still firmly clasping the technician's head between both hands. Sam took hold of the android’s arms to ease the strain on his head. The droid wanted him alive, but for how long?

   Sam’s head was pushed back against the chrome door of the tool cabinet still gagged with the android’s powerful right hand. Alpha Two reached up to the console deck with its left hand and punched in the code.

   “Security code accepted. Accounts of Sam Petrovic and Alex Haynes suspended.”

   With that, the droid released its grip and stood upright, towering over Sam who sat leaning against the tool cabinet.

   “Oh my God…” said Sam. He pushed with his feet away from Alpha Two along the floor. Trembling, he eased himself up onto his feet and said, “What the hell are you doing?”

   “First, unless you attempt to stop my mission, I have no reason to harm you. I am not an Alpha model android, my modifier gave me some enhancements as you are noticing. It's these enhancements that will enable me to complete my mission.”

   “Mission! What mission?”

   “Interface complete, Spectra awaiting binary commands, speech off.”

   “Oral comms is so tedious.”

   “Who? Who modified you?” asked Sam easing backwards along the cabinet.

   Anticipating the obvious attempt to escape, Alpha Two leapt forward and grabbed Sam’s lab-coat. The android pulled Sam hard knocking him off balance and dragged him towards the canteen.

   “Who the hell at Bioscope modified you?” Sam yelled. The android didn’t reply.

   As the pair entered the canteen, Alpha Two stepped up to where Delta One sat, the closest android to the door. Sam was then forced to sit on the android’s lap. Delta One wrapped its arms around Sam restraining him tightly.
   Jesus! Sam thought. Alpha Two is controlling these other droids through Spectra’s interface!

   “Now where is Mr Haynes?” Alpha Two muttered in a broken synthetic drone sending shivers through Sam's body. It left the canteen and Sam began in earnest to fight against Delta One’s restraint. The more Sam turned and twisted, the more the droid’s hold intensified. By the time he admitted defeat, Sam’s ribcage was being crushed and he had to fight to regain his breath. As he relaxed, the machine lessened its hold.

   Alpha Two made its way back to the maintenance area, repositioning itself upon the table and waited for the senior engineer. It wasn't long.


   “Sam, what the hell is going on with the—” said Haynes as he walked through the doors to the maintenance bay, then slowly added, “...cameras?” He stopped, surprised not to see the young engineer working on Alpha Two. “Sam! Where the hell are you?” he called.

   Haynes walked cautiously towards the canteen door. He stared directly at the only visible android through the window, Delta Three. He glanced back at Alpha Two momentarily then returned to the window. As he approached the canteen door he could now see the top of Sam's head, hair all whisked up. Panic struck him. He could see the pale dead color of the android’s hand pushed up beneath Sam's nose firmly gagging him.

   “Spectra! Shutdown all droids! Comatose droids!” he yelled.

   “Spectra doesn't recognize your voice pattern, please speak to a Spectra administrator,” came the reply.

   “Jesus!” Haynes yelled and turned to head back to the exit. In the same instance he could see Alpha Two propping itself up on its table, arms balancing it like a torpedo before hurling itself across the bay floor, curling up mid-flight and rotating to catch its prey. The pair crashed into the side of the tunnel, and at once, Haynes was clamped tight by the android. Alpha Two then made one push with its leg and propelled the pair back into the maintenance bay.

   Haynes struggled to break-free as Alpha Two dragged him into the canteen. The android forced the engineer into Alpha One’s lap, then the android wrapped its powerful arms around Haynes restricting the engineer.

   “Christ! What is going on?” yelled Haynes, glaring at Sam.

   Sam shook his head. “A2 has taken over Spectra. It said it has a mission to carry out. It’s controlling the other androids through Spectra.”

    Both technicians sat and gazed at each other across the table with questioning eyes, feeling all the more pathetic being stuck in the laps of machines they had built. Haynes felt the grip loosen and again attempted to break free before being clamped back down, Sam had already given up. The engineers both turned to look at Alpha Two who now stood at the head of the table.

   “Gentlemen, you will be my prisoners over the next three days while I return to Earth, only then will these androids and Spectra be returned to your control.” Alpha Two smiled, adding, “All your organic requirements will be accommodated during this period.”


   Alpha Two then turned and made its way into the first air lock of the exit tunnel, the door sealing closed behind. Inside the small dome, the surrounding wall was attached with five identical sets of equipment and above each set, the names of each android etched upon plates. Alpha Two unhooked a jet-pack and clipped it on. All that was required for the droid to escape into the lunar landscape was the six digit code to open the final air lock, which had to be punched in from a console inside the maintenance bay. Alpha Two didn't know the number required, but knew how to get itthe humans would cooperate.

   Delta Three entered the maintenance bay and returned with two sets of neural scan-caps. It then carefully positioned the caps on each of the technicians’ heads securing the velcro under their chins. The pair struggled to make the task as difficult as possible, both realizing what Alpha Two was after. Haynes frantically kicked and wriggled in a vain attempt to jostle the cap from his head. It was no use, and Sam had already come to realize it.

   The android then turned off the lights and asked, “What is the exit code?”

   The pair sat in the darkness, trying to forget the question. The android’s grip intensified.

   The question was repeated, “What is the exit code?”

    Sam struggled for breath and began pondering what Alpha Two had said, it meant no harm to anyone.

   As the feedback from Spectra's neural scans came through, Alpha Two began deciphering the data into logical frames of information. Although it didn't know the actual code, it was privy as to how many digits the code contained. The question was asked again, and Alpha Two continued to home in on questionable frames, with the frames already marked as possible linear traces. With Spectra’s added processing of the information, the pair of programs in cohesion produced three most likely combinations, and Delta Three punched them in at the console. On the second entry the air-lock cracked open as the air pressure began to drop.


   Slowly, the door slid away revealing the lunar landscape. Bright sunlight reflected from the surface and lit Alpha Two's face. It stepped onto the dust as it had done so many times before but this time it looked to the left, into the direction of the emergency Earth-return pod. Only the nose of the pod was within vision, towering above the hard white shell of an adjoining tunnel, the massive central dome further to the left. Alpha Two leapt clear of the lunar surface and flicked the jetpack on, gliding over the tunnel before switching it off and falling beside the pod's airlock. The airlock door was only made apparent by emergency red and white paint outlining its frame. The android dropped the jetpack onto the lunar surface.

   Alpha Two tapped in an access number and the door sunk inwards two inches then slid to the left revealing the small airlock, glowing red. Once inside, the droid pressed a control button to reseal the door and the airlock repressurized. A few seconds later the interior color changed to green, indicating to proceed into the pod; Alpha Two pressed the entry button and the final door to freedom opened.

   Once inside the small craft, Alpha Two removed an unrequired body capsule and threw it into the airlock before positioning its massive frame into the middle seat of three and attaching a safety harness. The android then interfaced with the pod's guidance system as the craft's airlock hatch closed and outside four boosters ignited causing the craft to shudder. Alpha Two overwrote the destination Earth access window to its preferred location: the North-East Pacific Ocean.
 




CHAPTER 3

SAN FRANCISCO


5th November 2105  06:20


   “So somebody with B-level clearance has got the balls to sabotage an android,” said Stella agent Darcy Jones scratching his head. He had just received news of the escaped Alpha Two android in the worst possible way. Bioscope’s CEO, a now seething Clemence Bishop, had him via a video link.

   “Yeah! Someone! That jack-hacker Helix Carone!” shrieked Bishop. His plump face reddened with anger. The large screen tracked the overweight Bishop as he paced behind a solid mahogany desk somewhere in Paris. He was a powerful man, perhaps as powerful as anybody on the planet and Darcy had now accepted his own position as Bishop’s personal assassin.  

   Darcy had the unenviable task of roping in Carone—a source-code runner known to be hiding out in the LA Fire Zone. Young, extremely intelligent and slippery as code-ice. The assignment was going to be dangerous, but the money put up by Bishop made it worthwhile. Besides, it had been a while since the last piece of real action.

   “Correct me if I’m wrong, but Carone went AWOL two years ago,” he replied against better judgement.

   Bishop almost screamed, spitting saliva as he spoke. “Two years ago he worked on the Spectra system! Look, this little fucker's been selling more confidential information than anyone before, ran off with source-code that has turned Bioscope into a second-base company. Information that your pathetic fucking unit should have stopped. Why the hell did I set up Stella? You people are as useless as the external authorities! At least now I'll actually see your worth Darcy. It's gonna be a bit trickier than just wasting some old man!”

   “Yeah! This guy Carone had better still be Mr nice guy, not turned into some Zone knuckle head or I'm as good as cat fry,” he replied, agitated at Bishop’s tone. The dossier on Helix Carone had not painted a cold blooded killer, and in the Zone that was becoming rare.

   Darcy thought back on his meeting with Carone a month ago in the Fire Zone where he had posed as a fence dealing in load—hacked information, under the alias Demeron. The meeting was brief and uneventful, Darcy detailed corporate inside information his fake client was interested in. By chance Carone had posted him positive news only a few days ago.

   “Get on and hook up that meeting, forget Frisco—Maxine will get someone else to cover,” said Bishop as he stopped pacing and leaned forward placing two plump hands on the desk and peered into the camera. “We finally get the ban lifted on autonomous AIs then this, I want Helix Carone scanned then fried!”

   A snapshot of Bishop's face was left as a frozen swollen image on the screen as he closed the call. Darcy immediately hit the console to get rid of the image. On meeting Carone, Darcy never would have suspected him capable of such malice, information running sure, but thisthis wasn’t Carone’s forte. He placed his briefcase on the glass coffee table, opened it and took out a small clip Carone had issued him. He inserted the clip into the side of the console deck before leaning back into the soft leather of the hotel sofa and lit a cigarette. Smoking didn’t effect the agent’s fitness, the smoke was filtered by his favorite implant and the nicotine extracted and injected cleanly into his blood stream.

   The display screen on the opposing wall lit up with the words—'Welcome to secure  communication. Encryption protocol engaged, please wait…'  It took almost half a cigarette before there was a link established.

   “Helix,” came the fugitives answer, accompanied by a green artificial face displayed on the screen.

   “Mr Helix, I hear you've got some load.”

   “Yesit's exactly what you were after.”

   “I need that real quick.”

   “How quick?”

   “Tomorrow.”

   “Tomorrow?” The fugitive paused and the face frowned a little. “Tomorrowcheck into the Malba hotel tonight, you know the drill.”

   “I'll wait for instructions.” Darcy closed the connection and took a hard drag on his cigarette sensing the fugitive’s apprehension. He removed the clip and returned it to his briefcase, while the possible scenarios for tomorrow raced through his head. If Carone did have some hand to play in the sabotage, then he would surely beef-up security for any future transactions. On the other hand, if he had nothing to do with the android's sabotage, he would hear it on the news in which case he would be just as precautious realizing that he would be a prime suspect having worked on Spectra. Either way, Darcy concluded that this time he was really putting his life on the line. He had never been a plug before, a beacon for the Feds to home in on, and the Fire Zone was new territory.

   He checked his watch, it was only six-thirty in the morning. He then strolled to the mini bar, opening a black lacquered fridge door and removed a bottle of orange juice. So, I’m finally going to the Fire Zone to extract Carone, the most esteemed of all information runners. He knew one day he would be called upon for such an extraction. In his profession, he knew the Zone would some day beckon his presence. Most information runners had backup of some kind and manage to re-immerse themselves back within utopian society with bogus identities, but not Carone. Helix Carone’s was definitely no more than a five minute plan and run, with the essence of his very being traceable anywhere, it was little wonder he ended up there.

   “Darcy?” The screen was now lit up with Maxine, his boss. She was sitting behind a large grey desk and wore a stylish beige suit that complemented her figure. She had a slightly Asian appearance with black hair pulled tight into a tail at the back. Darcy had a wry smile as he considered that Maxine would have bore the ruthless brunt of Bishop’s fury.

   “Accept,” said Darcy.

   “You've heard the news? I would've let you know myself, but—well you know Bishop. So you up for it?”

   “Always up for it Maxi,” he replied with a cheeky grin and began strolling towards the screen adding, “So when does the return pod touchdown?”

   “It wont. It will be blown out of the sky in about three hours.”

   “You hope. So Bishop wants this Helix Carone scanned. You knew him didn't you?”

   “I spoke to him occasionally. Nice guy. Muchhow do you say, real-world. Nothing like half the other freaks. Down to Earth, strange as it may seem as he was our finest programmer” Maxine was about to continue but was interrupted.

   “Sounds like he took your fancy, and I thought you as being above the nerds.”

   “Yes, well you obviously have a typically mono view of stereotypes, don't you Darcy. Now, to work. Get the meeting arranged with Carone.”

   “Done.”

   “When?”

   “Tomorrow.”

   “Which satellite hotel?”

   “The Malba.” Darcy lit another cigarette.

   “Make the arrangements with the hotel, I'll handle the FBI.”

   “OK. And this backupI want at least two hovers. That's twenty blues in the air, base them at strategic points within a five-kilometer radius of the Zone.”

   “I'll do my bestbut you know there won't be many volunteers to go into the Fire Zone.”

   “I want full hover squads Maxi and that's final!” Darcy took a seat on the leather sofa and tapped the console while issuing a voice command. “Console, load map LA Fire Zone.” Instantly an opaque map overlaid the screen view of Maxine. “Well this is it, the LA Fire Zone—living quarters for society’s outcasts, the abandoned and outlaws alike. The hovers should be placed strategically somewhere within the radius, indicated in red. Get them down early, out of sight ready for my signal. I want to be sure that one of them can get to my location within a few minutes.”

   “Yes, or if our Zone source can pinpoint the meeting place prior to you going in, we can place them in one area for a quick strike.”

   “You really have been in the office too long Maxi. Any source for inside info can't be relied upon. This source, who?”

   Maxine stood up for a closer look at the map. “The same guy that informed us Carone was in the Zone. He’s working on getting close to the ZSS.”

   “Doyce? That dead head infiltrating Zone Security? You’re kidding! No way us suckers are gonna get that luckyin our case he'll probably throw us way off, forget it. Oh, and that Frisco meeting by the way, you got Garnet on that?”

   “No. Hamilton.”

   “Hamilton?”

   “He's got a predisposition to I.T. We need someone with technical smarts, not just another Stella Agent with ZX2 hangover.”

   “ZX2 hangover?” Darcy felt he was being categorized as an ammo head, like Garnet.

   “Well you have both credentials, don't you Darcyyou know your stuff, which is why I appointed you number one. Of course which is actually number two after me.”

   Maxine's figure and smiling face was a general distraction behind the map. “Console map off,” said Darcy taking a drag on his cigarette adding, “Yeah, well the idea ain’t that flash with me Maxi. This guy's gonna be as paranoid and suspicious as a freakin' stim junkie, just better be the same nice guy you spoke to two years ago. Me a damn plug!” Darcy exhaled a small cloud. “Fucking implants

   “Losing your nerve Darcy? I'm sure Bishop has made it worthwhile. Now get packed and head for LA, I'll give you an update in transit. I'll push for three hovers and get the Feds up to date. Chin up. Ciao.”  

   Again the screen was left with a still image, but this time Darcy left the attractive snapshot of his boss. He rarely got to meet her in the flesh as she was mostly confined to the Paris Bioscope head office. Although she could handle herself as effectively as any Stella agent, she was now ordained as an office girl and Clemence Bishop's personal bodyguard.

   Darcy stood and walked towards the screen muttering, “Honey, Frisco's a walk in the park.”




CHAPTER 4

OFF THE COAST OF CALIFORNIA



The emergency Earth-return pod continued to shake hard as the friction with the Earth’s upper atmosphere seared the outside of the vehicle upon re-entry. In front of Alpha Two the glass window glowed amber.

   The android re-checked the pod’s gauges as the expanse of the Pacific Ocean appeared to cool the flaming orange beyond the window. Alpha Two’s location was right on target. It unbuckled its seat harness as the shuttle continued its automated descent. It then reached forward to a panel next to its feet and ripped it open. The android pushed its right hand behind the panel and removed a large metal plate, a magnet that was welded to a looped wire handle. It also removed a navy-blue self inflating safety vest and a thick steel rod. It unzipped the top of its suit and slipped the vest and magnet inside an inner pocket before re-zipping it. Then the android proceeded to smash one of the glass windows of the shuttle with the steel rod. The window cracked upon the first blow. Splintered more upon the second. Then whoosh! A large hole formed sucking the cabin air and causing the android to almost lose its hold of the rod. The hole was far from large enough for its frame, so the android continued to smash away fragments until it was. Alpha Two then let go of the steel rod which was immediately sucked out of the cabin.

   Alpha Two placed a hand either side of the gaping hole and guided itself through, allowing the air suction to pull its large body through and kicked its feet at the last second, propelling itself away from the pod to begin its free-fall descent.

   The android placed each arm at its side and arched its body causing it to distance itself away from the pod. It straightened, hurtling through the air like a guided missile, further and further away from the pod, and as such, away from the authorities that would be searching for it.

   Far below the blue ocean was speckled with the reflection of the midday sun broken occasionally by small tufts of white clouds. The android’s synthetic black hair was windswept directly back, and its blue eyes continued to scan the heavens for any sign of its enemy. The android checked its global position via its onboard hardware, ascertaining a slightly more north-easterley direction was required and so arched its body again until the correct heading was achieved.

   Alpha Two had to ensure its touchdown was within the busiest shipping channel, otherwise it would never make it to shore. The registered distance to the oceans surface ticked over as the android’s velocity increased, twelve hundred meters, eight hundred. Alpha Two placed its hands together, flattened, and stretched them as far in front of its head as it could reach. Three hundred meters. The droid’s body was perfectly perpendicular to the ocean’s surface, then slam!

    The water rushed around the android like a torrent of Niagara Falls, forcing it to spin forwards into the foetal position as the depths began to slow the machine. At the surface, a spire of white water projected twenty meters into the air. White air bubbles surrounded the android as it reached inside its suit and removed the inflatable vest. It pulled a cord on the vest, causing it to inflate and was dragged back to the ocean surface.

   Alpha Two clutched the vest firmly as it rechecked its position was correct then placed its arms into the vest and strapped it securely. There it bobbed and waited. The sea was calm and gentle as the android was lifted and dropped by the roles of aerated water. 

   In all directions the vast blue expanse relinquished no suggestion that the android was within the busy Asia to Los Angeles shipping channel. Alpha Two now knew it had to be patient, and for that matter, conserve its energy. It shutdown all but the necessary systems, and set an algorithm to ensure one of its arms would keep the android pointing west, into the direction of an incoming ship. And waited.

   For two hours the android floated atop the gentle ocean surface. At one point, a curious pod of dolphins inspected the android, circling around and occasionally nudging Alpha Two.

   Then Alpha Two spotted it. On the horizon, a gigantic container ship loomed ominously. Occasionally it would disappear from sight as the android fell into a trough of the ocean current, then reappear. It looked foreign, like it didn’t belong to the majestic ocean, but it had more right to be there than the android.

   Alpha Two noticed it could see more of the right hand side of the ship and so manoeuvred itself to ensure it remained head on to it, into its path. The android knew it was going to sap a large amount of its energy reserve to remain in such a position right up to the crucial moment, the point where it would attach the magnetic plate to its hull.

   As the giant ship drew closer, Alpha Two ditched the vest and tore the suit completely off revealing its blue-sheened naked body. It began to sink. Alpha Two was not buoyant. It then swam hard, peering through the water and occasionally swimming to resurface and ensure it was still within the path of the ship. The algorithms implanted by the saboteur ensured the android’s swimming abilities were on par with the dolphins who had just visited. It surged through the water, flexing its body and kicking both feet together, guiding itself with hands stretched out in front.

   Alpha Two could now see the hull from under the water approaching fast. The android stopped swimming and allowed its body to sink. It sank further and further as the ship loomed ever closer. The giant steel structure now began to pass overhead, until the deeper section of the hull brushed Alpha Two. The android attached the magnetic plate, clunk!

   With its hand looped through the wire attached to the plate, and firmly gripping its base, Alpha Two again shut down all but its essential systems. Soon it would be in Los Angeles Harbor.





CHAPTER 5

CUTTING THE DEAL


5th November 2105  17:30


To do a deal with a Zone Security System member, you have to send in a body—one that is still breathing. Helix considered grimly to himself that bodies were common in the Zone, mostly dead ones. So far he hadn’t added to the tally. Maybe it was just a matter of time?

   In the Zone, the traders are called satellites—stemming from the fact that they are required to spend a night in a ZSS operated hotel on the outskirts of the Fire Zone prior to a meeting being arranged on the inside—they’re usually disposable front-men sent in by legitimate businesses.

   Two hard case satellites sat in front of Helix. The smaller of the two was slouched in his chair with a neural-cap upon his head, under the trance of the neural-net. Overhead, the asbestos roof of the abandoned warehouse thundered beneath the downpour. The trio sat at a plastic table in the center of the warehouse.

   The larger satellite had a nervous twitch. He kept looking from left to right then back again, occasionally going for a glance over either shoulder, before returning his attention to Helix where his left eye would blink rapidly, and the side of his face would twitch in unison.

   “First time in the Zone?” asked Helix.

   The man nodded.

   “We’re pretty safe. ZSS have us covered.”

   The man returned a blank face. Helix noticed a faint scar running down the man’s left cheek, from his left eye to beneath his chin. Something to explain the twitch perhaps, but he sure looked nervous.

   “Let’s see what security level we’re on,” said Helix placing the ZSS spectacles over his eyes, confirming he was still online. He looked around the empty warehouse. The three exit doors were framed in neon green, with the rest of the building framed similarly in blue. In the top left flashed the words, security level 5.

   “Security level five,” said Helix adding, “If it was three or under, I would probably jack your friend there out, and start making moves.”

   The man grimaced and nodded.

   “You know much about the ZSS?” asked Helix.

   “No.”

   “In the Zone, they’re worth every penny—if you’re not in a set. Sole traders like myself wouldn’t survive five minutes without them. Right now, I’m walking down the main street towards this warehouse, jumping from camera to camera as it were. They’ve got these tiny cameras cemented to the walls, and these specs tap into them. Every nook and cranny of Zone territory is scanned and mapped into the three-dimensional virtual Zone.”

   “Virtual Zone?”

   “It’s kinda like being in a game, only its real, and you only get one life. Let’s say the security level dropped to two. The ZSS would find an escape route for me, and plug it into the virtual Zone. That would then project a neon green path, overlaying whatever I’m looking at through these specs. I just need to run like a dog toward whatever is green, and keep the fuck away from neon red.” Helix laughed. “That’s the badies!”

   The small satellite removed the neural-cap from his head and pulled himself to sit upright in his chair. His bleached blond hair immediately returned to spikes that pointed to all corners of the cosmos. “The hardware’s good. Very, very smooth. I usually feel a little nauseous after returning from cyberspace, but now I feel fine. I’m impressed.”

   “It’s the embedded software I coded. I’m glad you appreciate the difference from the other crap on the market,” said Helix, returning the goggles to sit across his forehead.

   The man nodded. His blue eyes were deep and focused. Helix always paid close attention to the eyes. They can tell a lot about a person. Tell tale signs of implants, drugs, or too much pyschestim use. This man had none.

   “So, we have a deal?” asked Helix.

   “On final approval of my boss. Then we do,” replied the man.

   Helix was in no mood to hang around after a deal which was as good as clinched. A consignment of two hundred neural-net caps with software to be delivered to a location somewhere outside the Zone. Besides, they weren't his type, hard-cases that were about as interesting as broadcast television.

   “When your boss is happy with the merchandise, run this console patch, it will allow me to make secure contact with you and I'll then advise where to deposit the down-payment,” said Helix and passed the clip to the blond man who promptly placed it in a shirt pocket.

   “How long for the second batch?”

   “Mid next month—I'll have another hundred ready, you can pack that one and take it for your boss to try.”

   “No chance of that, a friend of his got fried some years back.”

  “Oh? Well, as I said, those caps are hardware fused, even if some asshole breaks the software, the cap will just shut down at the first sign of neural interference giving the rider a smooth transition back to reality.”

   “He won't risk becoming a vegetable at any odds. We've got a tech back at base—he'll run some tests.” The smaller satellite stood up and handed the neural-cap to his larger accomplice who carefully placed it in his briefcase.

   Helix shook hands with the small man, however, by now it was obvious that the larger man was just security and offered no hand. After they vacated the building, Helix gazed around the room shrugging his shoulders.

   “The coast is clear,” crackled in his ear. “Helix, looks like a security breach in the Malba again—we need IDs.”

   Helix switched his microphone on. “What? At the Malba?”

   “Yeah—and since your satellite Demeron arrived.”

   “Well, I'll sleep a whole lot better tonight. Someone find a bug?”

   “Something like that.”

   He made his way through the back door of the empty warehouse and along a narrow alley to a row of adjoining garage doors. It had been raining for the past couple of hours. Avoiding puddles was difficult. Arriving at the last garage door, he crouched down to the base and ran his finger into a small gap until he felt the tiny ID pad causing the door to unlock and open automatically. He was a little uneasy that there was a security breach so soon after dealing with unaccustomed satellites, however the coast was clear, and the ZSS still had him monitored.

   Inside the garage was a rented taxi shuttle. As with all taxi shuttles in Zone territory, it was worn and almost due for the scrap heap, left to see out its days working the formidable Zone streets. Helix climbed aboard and removed his tablet which was rolled into a tube. He flattened the tablet then logged into the ZSS system reading the caption heading aloud. “Twelve unidentified satellites. Nope...nope..nope...”

He proceeded to flick through the images. Three he recognized, two of whom he had just dealt with and another one—alias Demeron—was lined up for a meeting tomorrow, the location yet to be set by the ZSS. Helix instructed the shuttle to take him to his favourite ZSS-operated bar, Charlie’s, while tapping in the names of satellites he recognized.

   Since the bombs had hit the CBD of LA, the radiated zone was left to decline under the control of  its leveler population, the homeless and the illegals. The disused office blocks turned into squats, stim junkies and other addicts abandoned by the state now lived in office block communes. The streets void and compassionless, the only time a police van dared enter the Zone radius was to drop off more homeless—more levelers.

   Those who entered the Zone of their own free will did so for pleasure or for business. The externals or ‘Xs’ entered to make a quick score and head for a club, others such as the satellites entered for professional level transactions via the ZSS involving hacked information, cheap illegally imported hardware, or just a big score.

   Time in the Zone seemed redundant, like the tick never made a sound, just an empty repetition of existence. Helix noticed this after the first month, the cold repetition of time—repeated faces somehow worn that little more each day.

   Arriving at Charlie’s, he climbed from the shuttle, leaving it to make its way for the next pickup and peered into the scanner. The door opened slightly and he entered. Walking towards the bar he performed a two fingered salute and nodded to the barman. “Usual, thanks Charlie.”

   “Good day, Charlie?” asked Charlie, pouring a small glass of Pernod which he passed to Helix. He called everyone Charlie, even the ladies—Helix figured it was his way of saying 'I don't give a rats who ya are.'

   “Yeah—OK Charlie, nothing that'll fry an egg.”

   “Big Charlie was looking for you this morning.”

   Helix was left to ponder who Big Charlie was. In the Zone there were a lot of Big Charlies. He put his glass down. “You mean Charlie with boys Charlie?”

   “Yeah—that be the Charlie,” replied the barman.

   “Us Charlie, or them Charlie?” asked Helix referring to the type of industry that this particular Charlie traded.

   “Mmm…” The barman stopped filling the fridge for a moment. “This, that and the other—Charlie.”

   “Oh. Shit,  Big Charlie!”

   “Yes—Mansutti!” Nodded the bartender, with a grin.

   Well, at least the Charlie repetitions were over, but what would the chief of anything loud in the Zone want? Helix hadn't seen him for over a month and that was just over a brief drink in one of his nightclubs. Thinking back to that meeting Helix smiled to himself about a story that Mansutti had told him. About a man who had lost his body, but it was only funny because he didn't believe it. People like Derek Mansutti had a lot of spare time for stories.

   “What's funny?” asked the barman.

   “Ah—just some story Mansutti told me about a guy that got stuck in the neural-net and lost his body,” replied Helix taking a sip on his drink.

   “Oh? So what's funny?”

   “Well, it isn't true.”

   “Oh, isn't it!” snapped the barman. “Try telling that to his brother!”

   “If that's true they would've isolated his body location by now and jacked him out.”

   “Would've, if it wasn't for the fact his body is being constantly moved.”

   Helix was blown away by the thought. To think it was actually true, some poor bastard was trapped in cyberspace, the truly fictitious man-made world. “This guy, you know him?”

   “No—just heard of him. Mansutti and some heavies from the Plato sets been making noise. Always diggin’ around for info on possible locations—Mansutti’s even got the ZSS onto it.” Charlie paused for a moment before leaning forward and quietly saying, “Lix—word of advice. Don't get too involved with Mansutti or the Plato set.”

   Helix agreed to himself. It was best to heed Charlie’s advice, not that he ever got too involved with anyone in the Zone.

   A light flashed at the top of the bar's console box indicating an incoming call. “Charlie, is Helix there?” A hologram of a familiar face appeared. It was Marlow.

   “You here Lix?”

   “Yeah, patch him through.”

   “What's up Marz?” asked Helix while Charlie poured him another glass of Pernod.

   “Lix—you heard the news?” Marlow's face gazed out across the bar, blind—Charlie never installed any cameras within the bar.

   “News? What news?”

   “Get Charlie to put CNN item one on—might be of interest to you. I'll see you back at the pad.”

   “Err...yeah, OK,” replied Helix. He wasn't sure what could be so interesting to him. “OK with you, Charlie? Put the news on?”

   Marlow’s face disappeared as Charlie switched to the latest news bulletin. The large holographic screen at the far side of the bar lit up with a polished CNN news presenter…


News Item One:- Thank you for joining us. Further bad news for the mega-tech company, Bioscope, today with the International Security Agency being placed on high alert as the search continues for a rogue Bioscope android that has escaped to Earth from the Lunar One research facility. The Alpha model android overrode security systems in place at the facility and held two engineers hostage but left them unharmed, before escaping in an emergency return pod. It is believed that the droid has been sabotaged, but there is no clear explanation why. The International Security Agency will be working around the clock to retrieve the droid before it falls into the wrong hands.


   Helix muttered, my God, beneath his breath as the revelations echoed into some distant chamber of thought. The hologram now unfocussed and tunnelled to the same point. His mouth was parched. A memory of his old friend from Bioscope, Charles Langford, whom he had met in the Fire Zone just two weeks prior was now firmly in the chamber of conscious thought. Helix recalled what Langford had said.

   Soon, Bioscope will lose an expensive employee from far away, my dear friend. I want you to  join him. Participate in his mission as your own, and I will reward you both financially, and biometrically. That is all I can tell you. If you’re captured and scanned, well, they, like you, will know nothing.

   Silence had befallen the bar, broken only by a few whistles of approval and shouts of yeah!

   Helix shook his head in disbelief. A fucking android! That was the expensive employee!

   “Jesus! What do you reckon Lix?” by now Charlie was halfway down the bar with his back to Helix.

   It took a while for Helix to register the question before answering, “Dunno. Probably—well most likely someone wants some gear, maybe got a company like Aminox lined up.” Helix reached for a bottle of water and poured a glass, taking it to his lips as efficiently as possible.

   “Yeah—or terrorists—who knows?” Charlie turned. “Fucking shit! I don't like this technology crap—before you know it we'll be the animals, serving some fucking machine—not good, not good at all.”

   Helix wasn't listening. He recalled the brief meeting with Langford. A six digit code Langford had given him and a software clip. Helix tapped his breast pocket reassuring himself that it was still there. On further investigation of the clip, he had found it to be a broadcast clip, a neural-net locator used to connect two parties within cyberspace. Helix had never considered that the other party might be artificial.

   The meeting had turned quite sombre, Langford speaking as if he knew an end was coming. It did, he died three days ago in a freak shuttle accident.

   Jesus Chuck. The bastards killed you didn’t they?


   Helix knocked back the remaining Pernod and promptly poured a fresh glass from a bottle the barman had left. He thought back on Langford, the old man had been his closest ally at Bioscope and enlightened him to the malpractices of the multi-national biotech company. A company now run by a megalomaniac named Clemence Bishop. Langford had founded the company with Bishop’s deceased father Harry, and had regretfully relinquished much control of the business empire.

   Langford had become a true friend during his early apprentice years, guiding and tutoring Helix through the complex issues involved with AI construct development.

   “Charlie? What time was that broadcast?” asked Helix, interrupting more of the barman's prophecies.

   Pressing the appropriate console button, the time of the original broadcast was displayed at the top of the hologram: November-5-2105 1130—six hours ago.


The broadcast continued, time stamp: November-5-2105 1430

…Item One Update:- The International Security Agency has recovered the emergency return pod used by the Alpha Two android. However, there is still no sign of the droid. Agency media liaison staff have indicated that the craft was located and followed prior to it splashing down somewhere off the California coast, but were stunned to find they were chasing an empty vehicle. It appears that the android opted to free-fall from a considerable height immediately after re-entering the Earth's atmosphere…With me now is a senior engineer from Bioscope who may be able to enlighten us to just how this could have happened…

   Helix watched as a Bioscope representative was asked some difficult questions by the presenter about the android's abilities and came to the conclusion that there was now on the loose a walking, talking super-human whose only requirement for kinetic energy was a three-hour charge obtainable just about anywhere on the planet.

   Charlie was not impressed. He threw a dishcloth hard into the side of the bar and turned to Helix. “What’s it all coming to? These fucking androids! They’ll have a whole army of the rubber fuckers soon! They’ll probably send ‘em into this shithole, ya know, clean the Zone up!”

   Charlie was right. Just ask anyone on the planet. Enough paranoia had been embedded into the populous mindset courtesy of nightmarish movies dating back over one hundred years. The average citizen of 22nd Century Earth was vehemently opposed to letting an artificial intelligence free range. Helix recalled the day they were given approval to work on Lunar One. Riots in Paris and demonstrations across the globe that lasted weeks. Convincing the world to trust Spectra was the underlying breakthrough for Bioscope. Now, thanks to Langford, all that was reversed.

   Helix wanted to get the broadcast clip connected to the net and see if the android was jacked in. The anti-tech sentiments expressed by Charlie were also starting to get the better of him, so he finished his drink and left the bar, his mind in disarray over the implications of the news cast and tainted with alcohol.


   Back at his apartment on the fifteenth floor of one of the many converted office blocks, Helix began listing the extra security precautions he would have to consider. This was big. As a chief Spectra programmer at Bioscope, and now on the run, Helix knew he would be a prime suspect for sabotage of the autonomous AI project. Worse still, if Stella knew he was in the Zone, they just might take the plunge for his extraction.

   Helix logged into the Zone Security System on his console. Three-dimensional holograms of satellites imaged from within the Malba Hotel hovered behind his desk. He slowly tapped them through, attempting to trigger any residual memory of Stella agents he had met in the past. He stopped on Demeron, smartly dressed in a business suit with cropped jet black hair. The image slowly rotated.

   The short notice this particular satellite had given him to arrange a meeting was suspect. Sure Helix had dealt with him before, and recently he had posted the guy a line on some load from a source he knew Demeron was interested in, but why the hurry? Am I getting paranoid? Maybe this guy was just needing the info before a change on the stock market. One thing is for sure, if he is a Stella agent, one of Bioscope’s own, all the security precautions the ZSS throw at him wont blow his cover.

     

   Helix tapped into the console. ZSS UsersClient: DEMERON:::Password: ******.

   The profile for the meeting came up. Helix said,“Mids. I want Virtual Zone assistance. This Demeron has got sus—full implant scan required.”


   Helix pressed post then logged out of the System, rocking back in his chair. He glanced again at the image of Demeron and then abruptly snapped to as there was a tap on the door.

   “Lix?” Marlow's face lit up on a screen pasted to the inside of the apartment door as several deadbolts shuddered and the door opened. “Hey Lix, big news,” said Marlow placing a large box on the floor and closing the door behind him. He had the typical appearance of an average leveler, long scruffy hair and unshaven. His face was brimming with excitement at the news, an excitement not shared by Helix, not in the same way.

   “Yeah, big news,” sighed Helix.

   “What's the matter? The meeting went alright?” asked Marlow noticing the enlarged face of Demeron hovering behind the desk.

   “Productive, we've got two hundred caps lined up.”

   “Sweet! Knew they wouldn't pass these babies up. So what you think about this droid?” asked Marlow folding his arms and leaning on the back of the sofa.

   “Nothing.”

   “Nothing? But what you think, terrorists?”

   “Maybe.”

   “Jesus! Lix? You look like someone's knocked your wind out.” Marlow picked the box up from the floor and walked to the far side of the room where a wall of shelves housed various electrical componentry. He placed the box upon another and turned to face Helix. “So you gonna tell me what's up?”

   Helix thought about the consequences of telling Marlow. It wasn't that he didn't trust Marlow, but telling him was one more brain loaded with enough to link Langford and possibly screw the old man's plans, so Helix opted to tell Marlow even less than he himself already knew. “I met someone—from Bioscope, two weeks ago and made a...well a kind of pact.”

   “A pact?”

   “Well, I haven't  much to tell, and before you jump to any conclusions that we're gonna start trading in robots, I can assure you that I had nothing to do with the sabotage of that android. But I think I know who did.”

   “Who? No, don't answer thatthe person you met?”

   Helix stood and walked towards the full-length window and gazed out at the streams of shuttles running along a line beyond the next tower.

   “Well, that's who I think was responsible. What I would like to know is, why.”

   “And does the who give any clues as to why?”

   Helix turned to face Marlow. “Nope.”

   Marlow pointed to the image of Demeron. “What's with the face?”

   “A satellite I'm meeting tomorrowgot some load for him. In light of current circumstances I'd rather pull out—but this guy,” Helix shook his head adding, “is way too lucrative.”




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