ABEND

keket

 

Part One

3328

Data String 001

With her head high and her shoulders back, twenty three year old Jordan Sheldon Brantley walked between the neon track lights and dilapidated walls of an underground passageway. Cockroaches skittered under the piles of garbage that littered the floor, and water trickled down the slime covered walls. Since her birth, Jordan had struggled just to survive. And, for the last eight years she'd lived in the underground, every moment spent trying to make a decent life for her and her daughter, Etain.

As she walked, she pushed her light brown hair behind her ears, then brushed her fingertips across the smooth surface of the Integrated Circuit about her eye. The IC enhanced audiovisual input, and it often boosted the wearer's natural talents and abilities by up to fifty percent. It allowed Jordan to see well beyond what the track lights showed.

Here, in the darkness of the tunnels, lived the Brantley's, her adopted clan, as well as a number of other outcasts. Jordan had been born a topsider, and that stigma would never truly fade. Etain had been born here and was considered clan. She was accepted in ways Jordan never would be.

But, that wasn't enough.

The death of Jordan's parents on the topside had led her to become an outcast from her own clan. Lost, alone, and starving, she'd turned to the underground and escaped into a world of drugs and virtual realities where she could be anyone or anything she wanted.

At the age of fifteen she was inducted into the Brantley clan and implanted with an IC. Only a few days later, an underground outcast had beaten, raped, infected her IC with a deadly virus, and left her for dead. But somehow she'd pulled through, and nine months later Etain was born. Born into a life of disease, rats, cockroaches, garbage, and more.

And that's why Jordan found herself in one of the darkest, blackest parts of the underground now. Etain deserved a better life than this and Jordan would do anything in her power to take Etain topside. Where Etain could feel the sun on her face, be free from disease, and live a long healthy life.

The sound of a shoe scraping across dirty concrete startled her and she turned. A shadow moved closer and she clenched her shaking fists.

"102235?" a rough, gravely voice asked.

"Jordan," she hissed.

A non-descript face loomed out of the shadows. He was average height, average build, wearing a dark suit and tie.

"Jordan," he corrected himself.

"What do you want?"

"Yes, of course. We've been authorized to make a deal with you." His eyes, the only interesting things about him, shone brightly in the darkness. "Your...skills...were brought to our attention."

"My skills?" she asked, uncertainly.

He nodded. "You were born with a unique ability to decipher code. Your IC has boosted that ability, and we feel, that with further instructions and upgraded technology, you'll be of great use to us."

Anxiously she touched the small interface above her eye, not at all liking the way his statement sounded. "Why contact me now?" she asked, swinging her eyes back up to the Informer's face. "Why enlist my skills after all this time? Surely there are others...more...ah...qualified?"

"GLOBAL has asked for you specifically." He smiled, but it never quite reached his eyes.

"I want a signed contract. Five gold for any data runs and two gold for any decrypting or debugging. And—and I want twenty jobs or one hundred gold, which ever comes first. Then that's it," she said, shifting nervously from foot to foot. The more the Informer tried to smile and appear human the more nervous she became.

"Of course," he responded easily. "This way?" He held out his hand and gestured to the even darker alley behind him.

Jordan hesitated, looking back to the faint glow of the neon tracks. When she turned around, the Informer was gone.

She hurried after him.

Data String 001/B

She'd followed the Informer to a round stairwell, her IC barely picking up any light. She swallowed thickly as she walked up the stairs and looked over the rail. The stairs went down and down, so far into the darkness that her IC couldn't pick up even the smallest trace of life.

As she walked up the rusty, winding stairs, she left the underground far behind. The Informer and Jordan finally surfaced in a litter strewn alley, with only a single streetlight to guide their way to one of GLOBAL's offices.

Dull gray walls made up the office. There were no photographs, posters, or decorations of any kind on the walls. A bare metal desk sat in the center of the room. The Informer went around the other side, opened one of the drawers, and pulled out a thin briefcase. He set it on the desk and flipped open the lid.

"Go ahead," he said. "These are for you."

"Why are you giving me these?" Jordan asked, holding a brand new upgraded IC in one hand and an Output Device, commonly called an OD pad, in the other. She glanced warily at the Informer. "Won't they suspect something if they see this new interface?"

"Possibly," the Informer answered, then shrugged. "Brantleys upgrade all the time, Jordan. No one will question it."

True enough, she thought. Questions in the underground were despised almost as much as topsiders were. "Fine. We have a deal then?"

He nodded briskly. "GLOBAL appreciates your support and reminds you that loyalty and discretion are of the utmost importance."

Jordan narrowed her eyes and cast a hard, cold look at the man standing before her. "You won't be disappointed."

"GLOBAL will update you with the OD. Please follow all instructions carefully." He stepped towards the door and grasped the handle.

The Informer paused and cleared his throat. "One more thing, Jordan."

She glanced at him warily. "Yes?"

"Your habitual abuse of a certain...street drug...has been noted. Should this ever interfere in your service with us...." He left the sentence hanging.

"Threat noted." She hurried through the door as he pulled it open and called over her shoulder, "But there's no need to worry. I'm clean." Jordan walked away from the Informer's office and out onto the street with her new Integrated Drive for the IC and the OD pad held tightly in shaking hands.


Data String 002

Water dripped from the ceiling into filthy puddles, track lights flickered on and off in a constant state of disrepair, and Jordan couldn't stop shaking as she walked back through the underground.

What have I gotten myself into? She wondered with each step. Have I just sold my soul to the devil?

She hesitated at the door to the Duplex she shared with her friend, Wire, then slowly opened the door. She closed it gently; afraid she'd wake Etain, and turned to walk across the room.

"Mommy! Mommy!" A small eight-year-old child hurled her body across the dimly lit, sparsely furnished main room and directly onto Jordan's leg.

"Hey, baby, what are you doing up so late?" she asked as she hauled Etain up to her hip.

In the corner of the small, dim room Wire sat by his computer. Matt "Wirehead" Brantley never even looked up from his OD pad or past the Virtual Reality goggles on his scraggly head.

"Bad dreams, mommy," Etain answered, her dark blue eyes wide. She snuggled up close to her mother and laid her cheek against Jordan's shoulder.

The hacker kissed her child on the forehead and wandered through the main room, to the back. Because there were two distinct rooms, it had long ago been dubbed a duplex. Just after the wars had started, two separate families had somehow been able to co-exist in this tiny place.

Throughout the duplex were scattered Wire's bits and pieces of VR platforms, computer drives, and odds and ends. She kicked an archaic Rainbow Box out of the way and went inside the room she shared with Etain. Bright blue neon tracks ran around the ceiling, Etain's drawings hung on the wall, and a computer sat on the only bit of furniture in the room besides the bed; a sagging, white plastic table that glowed faintly from the track lights.

"Dim lights." Instantly the bright light became a soft glow.

She deposited Etain in the bed and tucked the covers up to her shoulders.

"Mommy?"

"What, baby?"

"Where did you go?"

Jordan sat down and scuffed the toes of her boots into the worn floor. "I went topside," she finally answered. When Etain didn't say anything else Jordan turned to see if she was asleep. Half-slatted eyes were watching her carefully.

"What was it like?"

"It was beautiful. The sun was shining bright in the sky. The wind was blowing the leaves from the trees, and everyone was happy—."

"Will I go topside someday, mommy?"

Jordan nodded. "Soon, baby. Now go to sleep."

Etain smiled and closed her eyes.

Bluish-green eyes, more blue in the neon light, glanced at the computer on the table. Slowly Jordan rose from the bed and crossed the room in a few small strides. She pulled up a rusted metal chair and put on her VR goggles. "Voice command," she said softly, so as not to wake Etain.

"Specify user preferences."

"VR mode," Jordan replied. The computer screen blinked on, casting another blue light throughout the room.

"Please specify Avatar."

She considered the request as she jacked into her IC.

"Keleos," she said, and waited as the VR world formed around her. Keleos was her favorite avatar; with a shapely female body clad in short red cams and a tight fitting white t-shirt. Long fiery hair swirled around her head and lit her green eyes with an unearthly glow.

"Logon." Ghostly images began to take shape as she entered the Net.

"Hey, Keleos," the avatar, Wire, called. Where Matt was thin and pale in real life, here his VR form looked like an ancient child's toy, the slinky.

"Hey, where's Nero?" Jordan asked.

"Haven't seen him," Wire replied.

She flashed him a smile before walking off and heading toward a VR corridor that would take her to the Bulletin Board System, or BBS. As she rounded the corner, what appeared to be a flat Video Media Channel screen, loomed up out of nowhere.

"Password," it demanded.

"Nero, this thing sounds just plain nasty now. What did you do to it?" Jordan asked, and turned to the back of the virtual room where Nero sat with an OD pad.

"Gave it your personality," he responded dryly.

"Har. Har. Har." She placed one hand on her hip, then ran the other through her long, flaming hair. "Smart-ass."

"You know it, and you still love me." He smirked, then rose from his chair and showed the OD to Jordan.

"A bedbug?" She raised an eyebrow, a considerable feat for an avatar.

"Yeah, some lame ass cracker thought it would be funny." He took the OD back. "He's now trying to debug his own system."

"I need an Audio Visual mod. Can you get me one?" she asked suddenly.

"Didn't I just give you one?" he asked. "Ya know, I'm not made of these things."

"Yeah, yeah, Etain fried it. Wasn't her fault," she mumbled. Early AV mods, especially the cheap ones, the only kind Jordan could afford, were notorious for going up in smoke. "Besides, I need an AV3 mod."

"You finally decided to upgrade," he replied with a crooked grin.

"Yeah. You got one or not?"

He nodded. "Meet me at Vertigo tomorrow." He watched her sharp nod, then her lean legs and flaming hair as she moved past the BBS and further into cyberspace. He smiled, knowing he'd see that same beautiful body tomorrow- minus the flaming hair.

Data String 002/B

The Vertigo was nothing more then a huge underground room with tons of people, bad lighting, and loud music. Cracked and battered tables were scattered around a large dance floor. Chairs with bent legs, broken backs, and miss matched seats sat around the tables, and here and there people used old packing crates to sit on. A bar ran along the back wall, and two bartenders served watered down drinks.

Brantleys, her adopted clan, milled around in groups of two or three. All had IC's and some had upgraded. Most were quiet, busy with OD pads or inspecting some new piece of software or hardware.

Cyborgs sat at the tables, usually alone. Most of the hardware they wore was beneath skin level. They'd been designed to work in topside factories or in the mines, but their human side Ď the blood, nerves, bones—-- got in the way of the peak performance GLOBAL expected from them. Machines had taken their place, and those that couldn't find topside jobs had slowly come to the underground.

Before the cyborgs, humans had worked those jobs. Those that had survived were called Jack-In-Addicts, or JIAs. They were constantly jacked into everything around them because disease, injury, and near death circumstances had stolen either their human abilities to remember, speak, or otherwise function normally. JIAs needed VR or other forms that held data to record, understand, and respond to the world around them.

Jordan took a seat in the far corner and waited for Nero to arrive. As she did, her thoughts turned to the past.

The underground had been built on the eve of WWIII when the first devastating attacks began and left half of Russia in a cloud of nuclear waste.

Scientists had worked day and night for months converting New York City's subways into shelters. Where they could they'd tunneled under mountains, managing to build small self-sustaining cities. All the tunnels interconnected and covered more then fifty percent of the northern states in what was once called the United States. And with the exception of small leaks over time, the underground was still the fortress it had been built to be. It had saved many lives.

The irony? Now it held the unwanted elements. Brantleys, Jukas, non-clan members, and assorted other 'riff-raff.'

Nero was a Juka. Part human DNA, part animal. When disease had ravaged the Earth in 3010, experiments began on humans and animals in the hopes that the population wouldn't die out entirely. Most of the experiments had failed, horrifically, but they had paved the way for Jukas. Then in 3200 they'd all but died out. Nero was the last of his line, and there were only a handful of others scattered throughout the underground.

Finally he sauntered through the door, two women hanging off his arms. He wore baggy, green Cams, black boots, and a clear plastic vest that showed the striping of his animal heritage on the smooth planes of his chest. His ID/IC was top of the line, two flashing green lights indicating it was the newest model. Nero deposited the women at a table then made his way over to Jordan.

"Hey, sexy," he greeted, his slit green eyes flashing.

He sure acts like an animal, Jordan thought as he leered down at her. "You got it?" she asked.

Nero nodded and sat down across from her. "All business, I see." He kicked his feet up on the table, leaned back, and motioned for a drink. "As usual. You need to lighten up, sexy."

She resisted the urge to throttle him and held out her hand. "Give it here."

"Not so fast."

Jordan's eyes narrowed, and her grin was anything but pleasant. "I've got money, if that's the problem. Anything else is out of the question. Understood?" she growled, then paused, baring her teeth. Her grin widened as he swallowed thickly.

"Sure, sex-- Jordan. I didn't mean anything by it." He paused, running a nervous hand through his thick brown hair. "Just hoping I could get you to come to the Vertigo more. Ya know, party hardy?"

She shook her head. "I don't have the time to party anymore, Nero, and you know it."

Nero watched her a moment, ignoring the barmaid as she brought his drink. "Etain's still sick," he concluded.

"No, but I've got something that will bring in some money now. I never said anything before but—I want to take her topside." Jordan saw his instant, bright smile, and realized sadly that it was the first time she'd ever seen him smile like that.

"Icy," he drawled. Then he reached into the pocket of his Cams and pulled out a small glass vile. Jordan smiled as she saw the tiny AV3 mod inside.

"I owe you," she said softly.

His grin widened lecherously, but all he said was, "Nah, you don't owe me. Just make sure you don't fry this one."

She stood and walked to the doors, leaving Nero and the pulsating music of club Vertigo far behind.


Data String 003

As Jordan sat at the rusty metal chair in front of her computer, a TX modified from bits and pieces of the junk Wire had laying around, she glanced to Etain, who was dwarfed beneath blankets. Her face was pale and her breathing ragged. Jordan sighed and turned back to the TX where she was decrypting a small program GLOBAL had sent to her over the OD pad.

She rested her forehead in the palms of her hands, idly playing with the new ID/IC over her eyebrow. With the AV3 mod, the new interface had been easy to install.

It tended to scare the hell out of Etain, because the two green flashing lights reminded her of demons. A little tweaking, and she'd been able to de-activate the tiny lights, but Etain was still having nightmares.

The OD pad resting beside the TX gave a warbly beep, rousing Jordan from her thoughts. She sat straighter in the rusted chair as she read.

Incoming transmission from GLOBAL. Accept?

She typed, 'yes.'

ID and password confirmation needed.

102235 ********

Transmission from GLOBAL: Access 145.70.321 and copy all files. Transmit data to 125.634.78 GLOBAL eyes only. Terminate site and set Watcher.

Wait, that's Nero's domain! Jordan didn't know of anything he'd do that would piss off GLOBAL. Sure, he was flamboyant, egotistical as hell, and usually a pain in the ass, but why shut down his BBS? It was a hacker haven- a database that entitled all those logged on access to basics. Nero had designed it himself. It was his baby.

As far as Jordan knew he'd never done anything against GLOBAL. But then, she hadn't seen him in weeks, since Etain had gotten sick again.

It wasn't his style. So, why was GLOBAL telling her to permanently shut it down and set a Watcher to see who or what accessed his site?

Data String 003/B

At 3am she logged off the OD and turned to the TX, adjusting the VR goggles and specifying user preferences.

As she rounded the virtual corner she came upon an odd group of avatars. There was Matt as slinky and a buffed and sun bronzed Greek god she knew only as Strife, and Fever33, PhreakGeek, and PhantomEZ. They immediately ceased all talk as her flaming hair came into view.

"Hey," Matt greeted, his shiny slinky body undulating up and down.

"Hey, Wire. Seen Nero lately?" Jordan asked. The small group glanced at each other warily before Wire approached her and led her off to the side.

"What's up?" she asked.

"No one's seen Nero in over a week," he replied quietly.

She shrugged. "That's not so unusual."

"It is when his BBS went down last night and he never showed up to fix it." He shifted nervously from foot to foot, and his avatar shifted from one side of its wire base to the other. It was amazing how avatars could take on the characteristics of their human counterparts.

"What's going on?" she asked, inclining her head towards the anxious crowd behind them.

He paused, clearly torn. "Come on, let me introduce you."

Data String 003/C

Jordan left VR with more questions then answers. Nothing explained why Nero would disappear.

"Momma?" Etain called weakly.

"What is it, baby?" Jordan asked as she rose and sat beside the small bundle on the bed. She brushed Etain's pale, sweaty bangs back from her forehead and gave her a gentle kiss.

"My tummy hurts."

She searched through the jumble of medications beside the bed. "Take this. You'll feel better in a bit." Etain made a sour face but swallowed the pink liquid. "Want me to sit with you a while, baby?"

Etain nodded weakly and scooted over. Jordan climbed into the bed and pulled her little girl into her arms. She stroked her long blond hair and ran her fingers in circles around Etain's thin back.

"When we go topside, you won't get sick like this anymore," Jordan promised.

"Tell me about it again?" Etain asked, and listened as her momma spoke of large brown things with green tips, blue skies, and white puffy things.... It had to be a dream, because those things sounded far too funny to be real. But it did sound nice. Finally Etain closed her eyes and slept.

"Sweet dreams," Jordan whispered as she closed her eyes and prayed she wasn't lying- that they would go topside and it would be every bit as beautiful as Jordan remembered it.

Data String 004

Two weeks had passed and still no word from Nero. GLOBAL had asked her to shut down inane BBSs and domains that had nothing else to do with Nero.

Jordan slipped into VR more and more as Etain regained her health. She sought out PhantomEZ, who had an uncanny ability to move through pockets of cyberspace that were restricted to most users.

This is where she found HAG. Hackers Against GLOBAL. Their group included Wire, Nero's friends, FlapJack, and Tria.

They all seemed to have special 'skills' that had, at some point or another, been brought to the attention of GLOBAL. Tria was the unspoken leader of the group. She was a purple Medusa, hissing snakes and all.

As time passed, however, she learned that most of them, like her, were working or had worked for GLOBAL at some point in their lives.

Strife was working now, as a Data Runner. He stored files in his ID/IC, usually going topside to transfer them to mysterious locations. He'd said he was still working on a code to decrypt the files, but it was a code no one had ever broken.

FlapJack was a JIA, and so jacked into everything that he was a valuable spying tool. Of course it went both ways. Whatever he learned on assignment was ultimately transcribed to them.

The others who were currently working were doing the same mundane tasks as Jordan. Tria no longer worked for them, and her 'skills' were now focused on GLOBAL's master matrix and finding a way inside.

Jordan was listening with half an ear as they were discussing the pros and cons of infecting a small sub juncture of GLOBAL and entering the matrix while the program fought the virus. She realized suddenly that their conversations had come to an abrupt halt.

"Well?" Wire asked.

She blinked. "Well what?"

"Can you make the bug or not?" Tria asked. Her purple arms were crossed over her chest and Jordan realized they must have been talking to her for some time before she answered.

"I can design anything you want," she replied.

"Good. But I don't want any hard data on this." Tria paused and fixed Jordan with one red eye. "Meet me at Club Vertigo and we'll discuss the parameters."

Jordan nodded and heard Etain calling faintly in the background. "Tonight." Then she was gone, her avatar fading as the connection was severed.

Tria looked at Wire. "You sure she's the one for the job?"

"Absolutely. She could be a master hacker, if only she'd focus," Wire replied. He'd seen her do it. In fact it was how he'd met her. She'd been lying in a tunnel, beaten, raped, and infected with a deadly virus from the hands of her attacker. When he'd taken pity on the beautiful woman, he'd taken her to his home and cared for her as best he could. There was nothing to do for the bug so he'd jacked into her IC with an external to extrapolate the data.

Jordan had beaten it though. He'd watched the data, converted into text files on the external, as her body went offline and her IC kicked into full gear, melding with her mind and fixing what her conscious mind had been unable to.

"Are you sure we can trust her though?" Tria asked.

He blinked and bobbed his slinky head rapidly. "She's been topside. She knows what's important."

"I hope to God she does," Tria murmured.

Data String 004/B

Jordan spotted Tria as she entered the club. Or at least she thought it was her.

Tria, as Medusa, acted a certain way. And this woman, with her hands on her hips, head cocked to the side, and a perpetual scowl, had to be Medusa.

Jordan caught the woman's eye and nodded slightly, watching as she approached.

Tria's bleached hair glimmered in the myriad of track lights, infused with glitter, and braided on one side with a glow wire. Her hazel eyes- oddly gentle- roamed the club, missing nothing. She was five foot four, and her arms and legs were well muscled. Jordan could see the sinewy muscles rippling beneath Tria's beige, long sleeve shirt, and despite the circumstances Jordan found herself smiling as the woman approached.

"Keleos?" Tria asked. Her voice was low and lacked any sign of emotion.

Jordan nodded and extended her hand. "Tria, I presume?"

The bleached blond nodded briskly. "I'd prefer it if we went back to my place." She looked around the mass of people and said pointedly, "Too many ears here."

Data String 005

Tria lived by herself in an Economy. One room was the living room/dining room/bedroom/kitchen, and there was a small bathroom. The usual track lights ran through it, but had a warm glow instead of being harsh. Everything but the computer components were built-in. On the back wall shelves surrounded the bed on both sides, holding OD Texts, mods, clothing, and personal items. On the left wall the shelf continued, but at waist height, and served as a table for Tria's TX. The half wall on the right held an island, with a stool in front of it, slightly dividing the kitchenette from the rest of the room.

"Nice," Jordan said.

"Thanks," Tria replied with the first traces of a genuine smile. She gestured to the edge of the bed and Jordan sat, still gazing at the various odds and ends on the shelves.

"Would you like a drink?"

Jordan smiled slightly. "Thanks."

"Coffee all right?" Tria asked as she made her way into the kitchen.

"Coffee? You're kidding, right?" Jordan surged up from the bed and over to the island, pulling up the stool to watch.

"One perk for working with GLOBAL," she chuckled dryly. "It was part of my contract."

"But you don't work for them now." Jordan raised an eyebrow, contemplating what she knew of the woman standing before her.

"I made sure I had a lifetime supply before I got out." She winked.

"I didn't think anyone ever really left GLOBAL. Let alone with a life time supply of coffee."

Tria's smile disappeared slowly, and she hid a small frown as she turned to fix the coffee. "They get out—just not always intact. Anyway—. How long have you been in service?"

"A few weeks."

"Jor...." She paused and turned around. "Can I call you Jordan?"

"Sure."

"Can I ask you a question?"

"Doesn't mean I'll answer." She watched Tria's brow furrow. "Go ahead. What is it?"

The pale haired woman absently twirled her braid between her fingers. "Why did you join?"

"Why?" Jordan settled herself more comfortably on the hard stool and watched her fingers with interest. "I want out of this hellhole. Etain deserves a better life than anything I can give her down here. "

"An admirable goal," Tria replied carefully. "Why not just go topside?"

Jordan looked up to the ceiling briefly, imagining she could see through the layers that were the underground, to the surface. "I keep telling myself that I'm working for GLOBAL for the currency. But I think I'm really just afraid—of being up there, and loosing everything, again."

"Again?" Tria paused. "Wire said you'd been topside before. What the hell brought you down here?"

"My parents," Jordan said softly.

The bleached blond raised an eyebrow.

Jordan shook her head. "When I was twelve, my parents were murdered. I had no family in the clan. Food, everything—was scarce. They made me an outcast. I lived on scraps. Filthy. Starving.

"Finally I left the clan, hoping to find something better. The further I went, the more I heard about the underground, and the more I thought I'd like it. Outcasts like me, living together and taking care of each other." Jordan paused, lost in thought. Finally she continued. "When I got here, that was the way it started. Till I became a VR junkie. I stole and hurt people for drugs—and in return they hurt me." She felt that pain and horror like it had been yesterday. "Then I had Etain. Things changed then."

Tria was silent for a long time. "I'm going to be blunt and hope you don't take offense," she finally said.

Jordan rested her head in the palm of her hand and looked keenly at the woman in front of her.

Tria's eyes narrowed as she focused solely on the blue-green eyes in front of her. "We will eventually be discovered, as I suspect Nero was, and as a double agent, your life is forfeit at that point. GLOBAL won't care if you were just a spectator or a participant in their downfall."

Eyes wide, Jordan mulled the information over. "I understand that."

"Do you?" Tria countered. "Do you understand that they are not as they seem?"

"Nothing is," Jordan mumbled. She was beginning to wonder if she should get out before she got in too far.

Tria studied her for a long moment before nodding, then retrieved two cups and poured them each some coffee. If the hacker didn't understand, she would soon enough. The question now became how much to tell Jordan. And if she told her too much, would it still be possible to keep this woman and her child safe?

"What I don't understand is why this is so important to you," Jordan said after a moment.

Tria hesitated. "I'm going to tell you the truth. Then it's up to you to decide whether you want to help us or leave. Okay?"

Jordan nodded silently.

"I use to█" Tria stammered to a halt and gulped down half of her coffee, wincing as it burned the roof of her mouth. "I was born topside. From birth I was GLOBAL's puppet. I was engineered in a lab, and brought up without parents." She stopped to refill her coffee cup.

"What were you designed for?" The hacker set her coffee cup on the worn counter and tightly wrapped her hands around it to stop them from shaking. Since the death of the last Juka on the topside, she hadn't thought they were engineering any more humans. But who knew the secrets that GLOBAL hid from the eyes of the public?

"I was designed to interface with any computer without the aide of an Integrated Circuit. My body was altered to produce, repair, or build any circuitry that I required for a particular task."

Jordan's blue-green eyes had widened considerably. "But you have an IC."

Tria nodded. "Not when I was born. I went through one torturous operation after another, but I was a lab experiment destined to fail. When I escaped I had my DNA altered, and all my ties to GLOBAL cut, so they couldn't find me."

"So getting into and shutting down the matrix is revenge for what they did to you?"

"No."

"Then what?"

"I still had eyes and ears, Jordan. I know some things I shouldn't. Important things."

"If it's so important, why haven't they hunted you down and terminated you?"

"Up until now I've been careful."

"Why? Why choose to expose yourself?"

"I don't plan to. But if something happens I wanted you to know. I guess I'm trying to warn you. You can get out now. Forget the virus and just leave."

The hacker stood and paced the length of the small counter. "I'll make the virus."

"But," Tria prompted.

"But I don't come with you. I don't get involved." Jordan stopped pacing and pinned Tria with suddenly cold eyes. "If it gets out and GLOBAL comes knocking on my door, you'll be the first one I hunt down and kill. Understand?"

Tria nodded. "I understand."

The hacker left then, a lot on her mind, including what kind of virus she needed. She had a lot of work ahead of her.

Data String 005/B

Jordan is plain brilliant, Tria thought. She has no idea of her potential, does she? The virus Jordan had created was brilliant in its very simplicity.

Fever33, PhantomEZ, Wire, and herself were gathered together in a darkened room that was off an unused corridor, far, far into the underground. They had salvaged a T2, and while it was an outdated version of the TX, it would get the job done.

They were all jacked in and ready to work. Phantom would go VR to deliver the package.

A downfall of the IC was that it was much more physically integrated into a person than just putting on VR goggles and wandering into cyberspace. Because the IC enhanced audio and visual components, light and sound were intensified. Any experience in VR, using an IC or ID/IC, let the wearer experience cyberspace on a whole other level. Consequently any pain experienced in cyberspace caused the wearer physical pain, including bleeding and bruises, in reality. Some simulations, such as flying or rock climbing, often led to the users death.

"We're going to pull you out at the first sign of trouble," Tria said to Phantom as Fever pulled up his vitals on the T2.

Phantom's real name was Thomas. He had an unruly mass of dark curls on his head, and keen, brown eyes that were closer to black. Standing at six foot, he was rather intimidating.

He laid a large, pale hand on Tria's shoulder and smiled. "I won't disappoint you."

"I know you won't," Tria said softly.

"Ready," Fever said, nodding his blond head from Phantom to the monitor.

"Let's do it." Phantom slipped on his VR goggles and was immediately drawn into a dark pocket of cyberspace. He knew Tria had chosen him for his abilities to bypass certain securities and find places within the net that no one else could. His initial route was easy-- down the twisting and winding corridors that made up the labyrinth-- then straight into the mouth of Hell where he'd plant the virus that would allow them access to the Matrix.

No other avatars were in sight for the journey. He relied on the 3D map, pulled up from his ID/IC, and transmitted his findings back to the others.

As he rounded a corner, the last in a series of seemingly never-ending twists and turns, he stopped dead in his tracks. His heart rate picked up; his stomach fell, and churned.

"Tria?" he transmitted.

Her voice came back, wobbly and distorted. "What is it?"

"A Black Hound," he whispered. He stared at the creature that blocked the entire width and height of the entrance to Hell.

A legendary Guardian virus, they weren't supposed to exist anymore.

"What?" Tria asked, sure she'd misunderstood him.

"A Hound, a Black Hound," he whispered urgently. It hadn't seen him yet. "How the fuck do I get past it?"

Tria turned wide eyes on Fever. "Shit. Is there anyway to pass the Hound undetected?"

"I don't think so," he said.

It had moved its ugly black head, eyes rolling back, as it sniffed the air around it. As it snorted it shook the virtual walls. Phantom took a hasty step back, then froze as it fixed one silver eye on him. Strings of data flashed in their silver depths as it processed the presence of the avatar in front of it.

"He knows I'm here," Phantom transmitted.

"Get him out!" Tria cried.

Fever pounded on the keypad, then looked up, horrified. "I can't," he said hoarsely. "The Hound's captured the signal. It's got him trapped."

"Run, Thomas," Tria yelled, bending beside the figure of her friend as his body shook. "Run." Fine scratches began to appear on the outside of his body as the Black Hound scraped its virus-infected claws across him.

She watched, horrified, as Thomas' blood flowed from his mouth and nose. "Get him out!"

Fever jumped up from his chair and reached for the VR goggles on Thomas' head. He paused with his fingers touching the goggles. Fear made his hands tremble. "The only way to take him out is Hot."

"Do it," Tria cried.

He ripped off the goggles and sparks flew from Thomas' ID/IC.


Data String 006

The harsh and rapid pounding on the Duplex's door caused Jordan to bolt up out of sleep and nearly fall to the floor. She glanced at Etain briefly, saw she was asleep, then ran out into the main room where Matt was already helping Tria and a young blond man lower a shaking body onto the couch.

Stunned, she stood paralyzed in the doorway, until Tria looked up with tear filled eyes.

"Help him. The virus is going to kill him."

Matt was already scurrying around for various instruments and was about to jack the man into a monitor.

"No," Jordan commanded. "He's infected. He'll wipe out every system you have, Wire."

He stopped abruptly with components in each hand, mouth slightly open.

"What happened to him?" Jordan asked as she moved over to the heavily sweating, harshly breathing man, and knelt at his side. The flesh around his ID/IC was burned and bloody. Scratches covered his pale skin and blood rushed from his nose and mouth.

"A Black Hound trapped him," Tria stammered.

Jordan jumped back slightly from Thomas's body. "Say again?"

"A Black Hound," she whispered.

"No way. They were banned," Jordan began.

"Thomas saw it," Tria interrupted, taking the man's hand into her own.

Jordan turned away from the dying man. "There's nothing we can do for him now."

"No," Tria sobbed. "It wasn't supposed to be like this."

"Wasn't supposed to be like what, Tria?" Jordan asked harshly. "He wasn't supposed to die? You sent him in there, with my fucking virus, knowing exactly what could happen."

The pale haired woman slowly lifted her head and met flashing blue-green eyes. She stood and crossed the small room, standing directly in front of Jordan. "No, he wasn't supposed to die."

"Too late for that," Jordan replied coldly.

Tria shrank back from the harsh words, then just as suddenly stood up straight and looked the hacker in the eyes. "He was going to deliver your package and get out. That's it. I never wanted this."

"You play with fire and expect not to get burned?" Jordan asked, her voice momentarily softening as she saw the pain emanating from the woman's bleak hazel eyes.

"Not like this," Tria repeated. She crossed back and knelt beside the man, raising his palm to the side of her cheek. "I'm so sorry, Thomas."

As Jordan registered the agony in Tria's voice, she closed her eyes and let out a sigh before gently displacing the woman from her spot. "I can't stop the virus, but I can stop his suffering." She looked at the woman kneeling beside her.

Tria hesitated at the implication, then nodded, once.

"Get me an OD pad," Jordan demanded, holding out her hand. A moment later the pad was placed in her hand. She had to jack him in quickly, before the virus took out the OD too. She set it up and jacked him in, then pushed enter.

His body stopped shaking even as the virus ate up the contents of the OD. The twin green lights of his ID/IC dimmed and went out.

Tria let out a choked sob as his hand went limp against her face.

"He's offline now." Jordan laid a compassionate hand on her friend's shoulder.

Jordan left the grieving group to say the rest of their good-byes and quietly entered her room, unaware she still held the infected OD pad in her hand. Etain hadn't awakened, and she watched her chest rising and falling for some time, one sentence running a continuous feedback loop in her mind.

I just killed someone.


Part Two

3329

Data String 007

Jordan fiddled with the ruined contents of the OD pad till numbers and code ran through her every waking and sleeping thoughts.

Etain was well, Wire was edgy, and GLOBAL's transmissions were eerily silent. PhreakGeek hadn't been seen in a week and Strife had disappeared on a mission topside two days ago.

Until now there hadn't been a virus Jordan couldn't terminate, use to her advantage or, at least, contain. She sat at the TX now, pulling up information. Something was nagging at her, demanding her attention, but every time she tried to focus it drifted away like a specter.

"What ya doin', mommy?" Etain asked, furiously studying the mass of code running across the screen. She wanted to be like her mommy someday, but right now all she could see where odd little signs.

"Trying to stop a virus," Jordan answered absently, pulling Etain onto her lap.

Etain leaned forward, then back, squinting at the screen. "What do all those squiggles mean?"

"Squiggles?" Both of Jordan's eyebrows disappeared under her bangs.

"Yeah, those." Etain pointed a small finger at the screen. "See? The squiggly things make a scary face."

"Halt program," Jordan commanded. The computer immediately stopped spewing code across the screen. "Where?" she asked Etain.

The little girl sighed dramatically. For a smart mommy she sure could be silly. "Right there." She left a smeared palm print on the screen. Jordan was about to wipe it away and give her daughter a lecture on computer etiquette when she stopped.

"Enhance grid 32," she requested. A scary face indeed, Jordan mused. The code, if she squinted or relaxed her eyes, took on the form of a skeletal face. "Isolate grid 32." The section moved to the upper left corner. "Resume program. What other squiggly things do you see, baby?"

By the time they were done Etain had found a total of five more 'squiggly things.' Now, all Jordan had to do was put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Data String 007/B

Tria wasn't in VR, so Jordan ended up swinging Etain onto her back and jogging through the underground and making horsy noises, much to Etain's delight. She had an OD pad tucked into the back pocket of her blue Cams.

They arrived at the Economy's door and Jordan deposited the little girl onto the gritty concrete floor. Etain knocked excitedly.

"Hi," the little girl exclaimed when the door finally swung open and Tria looked out.

She looked from the brightly smiling child to Jordan. "What do you want?"

"We've come to raid your coffee supply," Jordan said with a wary smile.

"Who's this?" Tria asked, finally smiling at the blond haired little girl who was bouncing on her toes and tugging on Jordan's pant leg.

"I'm Etain." The little girl stopped fidgeting and held out one small hand. "Pleased to meet you."

"Good to meet you, too." She looked up at Jordan. "Come on in."

As soon at Etain saw that Tria had a VMC, she ran over to it and asked if she could watch something. Soon Etain was settled with an animated movie and a handful of cookies. Jordan and Tria sat down at the kitchenette's counter.

"So, what are you really doing here?" Tria asked. "I thought you'd decided you wanted nothing else to do with this."

"I don't. Not really." Jordan grimaced. "Is it true that PhreakGeek Ď Isaac Ď and Strife have disappeared?" She'd only met PhreakGeek once. His real name was Isaac, and he'd just been a pimply-faced teenage cyber punk looking for something new to hack into. And while she'd never met Strife or learned his real name, she knew both boys had been friends. GLOBAL was killing its children for no apparent reason and no one seemed to care. Maybe it was time to put a stop to their power? And maybe it was time to learn the secrets the engineered human sitting across from her was hiding?

"Yes, it's true," Tria finally said.

Jordan looked across the room at her child; her shining smile, dark blue eyes riveted on the VMC, and her small feet kicking through the air as she lay on her stomach. "I can get into the HellMouth," she said after a long, tense moment.

"Impossible." Tria's eyes snapped up and met Jordan's. "And, if you could, I wouldn't let you."

Slowly Jordan pulled the OD from her back pocket and laid it on the table. Tria picked it up, skimmed through the contents, then slammed it back to the table.

"No fucking way," she hissed.

"I can do it."

Tria shook her head rapidly. "Who came up with this? It won't work."

"I made it. And yes, it will," Jordan replied. She glanced at Etain one last time before crossing that invisible point of no return. "I ran a test last night. It worked."

Finally Tria looked at the blond woman seated across from her. "It's...I," she stammered to a halt. "Why are you helping me?"

"I don't really know." Jordan shrugged and averted her eyes. "That's not true. I don't like what GLOBAL's done to you, to Nero and his friends, or those in the underground. I want my baby to grow up in a better place, but no matter where I go GLOBAL will still be there. I'm going to help you stop them, and you're going to tell me what secrets you know."

Tria nodded slowly. "Let's do it then."

"When?"

"Tonight. The sooner the better. Once we've breached the matrix I'll be able to confirm if what I've heard is true or not."

"Fair enough."

"Junction fifty four. Midnight."

"I'll see you there."


Data String 008

Jordan slipped around the corner and spotted the waiting shadows of Tria and her friends.

Tria beckoned her further into the tunnel, her glow wire the only thing Jordan could see. They arrived at an unmarked section that had clearly been abandoned. Errant sparks from chewed through wires lit the dirty hall. There were scattered remains of chairs, tables, and clothing littering the floors. The smells of animal and human waste, rot, mildew and mold, hung thick and musky in the stale tunnel air.

Jordan's heart hammered nervously as they passed through a sagging doorway, then another, and stepped into a large room. Her eyes widened as she took in the site of an old Com center.

"You like?" Fever asked, and waved his arms around. "I found it about a week ago. I bet no one knows it's here." Fever was young, as young as Isaac and Strife, but he was also immature. A week or so ago his hair had been blond, now it was blue, except for the ends, which he'd died black. He was more excited than nervous and sure he could take on the world and live to tell about it. Once or twice Jordan had seen Tria grab him by the elbow and figuratively drag him back down to earth.

Now she took a closer look at the spot he'd picked. It looks like an old tactical center from one of those ridiculous science fiction movies, Jordan thought. Red, blue, green, and yellow lights flashed around the center console, proving the Com still had some life to it. The center surface was flat, for displaying 3D grids, maps, and other tactical information. Monitors hung at angles from the ceiling, and dusty chairs sat around the Com at their stations.

She dropped into one and spun around to face Wire. "We ready?"

He nodded briskly. "Power up, kids."

One by one they picked stations. Wire was sitting on Jordan's left and Tria on her right. Silently they ran diagnostics, bypassed bad sections, and rerouted power from another abandoned tunnel.

As Tria finished, she glanced up from her console to Jordan's intense profile. "Can it be done from here?" she asked.

Jordan nodded, but didn't say anything.

"You can back out now. Before it's too late," Tria said softly.

The hacker shook her head, long blond hair falling around her shoulders. "Now or never," she murmured and stood up. She went from station to station telling each player his or her specific task for the job. Tria was the last to receive her instructions before Jordan returned to her seat, placed the VR goggles on her head, and jacked in.

"Show labyrinth," she instructed Fever, who pulled up the saved schematics from their last trip into cyberspace and displayed it in 3D in the middle of the Com. "Entering now," she informed as she connected. Her avatar, Keleos, appeared at the entrance to the maze.

"Vitals normal," Flapjack called.

Jordan nodded in real life and in the virtual world Keleos nodded too. "Run program Alpha Bitch," she requested with a wry grin. Before their eyes Keleos transformed into a Flaming Hound. Her body and head were now massive, distorted into the mask of a ravenous dog, with fiery red and orange fur.

Beside her Tria gasped.

"Program running," Wire replied. "All parameters functioning properly."

"Here goes nothing," Jordan and the Flaming Hound muttered. "Bring up the saved pathway."

Tria tapped the touch screen and brought up a faint iridescent trail. Jordan would be following in Thomas's footprints, almost literally now. She shivered, then looked up to watch Jordan's progress.

Jordan bounded down the tunnel, flaming fur streaming out behind her.

Etain had found the pieces to the puzzle, but it had been her who'd found the key. The 'squiggles,' when run together, had formed an override protocol for the virus. She was then able to make it dormant.

A Hound was just an automated guard dog. Or, at least it had been in the beginning. Somewhere along the lone someone had built the code up to make it the fiercest and meanest guardian ever known. And then they'd added a deadly and incurable virus. The code had been fused together and the Black Hound had become unstoppable. Until they were banned and shut down by the very man that had made them.

Jordan had built her own Hound from the bits of information still left in the ancient archives, and by her natural ability to write code. She'd then added the dormant virus. By merging her code for the Hound with that of her avatar, Keleos, it was no longer an automated guardian. She could control where it went and what it did as well as having the advantage of Keleos' fiery defense system.

Now all she had to do was find the Black Hound, activate the virus, and pray that she didn't get killed in the process.

As she ran, she began to understood all too clearly why the Black Hounds had been banned- the desire to devour data was overwhelming and almost painful in its intensity.

As she rounded the corner and came upon the last of the footprints, she stopped abruptly.

Shit, he's huge, her mind cried. Seeing data was one thing. Meeting it in the flesh, so to speak, was quite another.

"Heart rate increasing," Flapjack said.

"She's found the hound," Tria whispered. They were all staring at the 3D grid and the massive beast that blocked the way.

Jordan shifted from foot to foot, and the Flaming Hound bounced on its huge paws. Suddenly the Black Hound turned her way, his silver eyes flashing.

"Here kitty kitty," she called hoarsely.

His head lifted, nostrils flaring. He let out an ear piercing bellow and charged.

Jordan and the Flaming Hound let out their own bellow and reared up on her hind legs. The Black Hound skidded to a stop and eyed the data again- reconsidering just who his opponent was. Strings of data flashed in his silver eyes.

She watched him warily, painfully waiting for him to make the next move. Something dark skirted the edge of her consciousness, but her focus was spent on the beast. It slipped to the far recesses of her mind as the hound began advancing again, albeit wearily. It snorted the air and pawed the ground.

"Don't like what you see, huh? Come on, chicken boy, come and get me," she taunted.

It screamed again and launched its body through the air. Jordan jumped up to meet it and they crashed to the ground in a fury of dark and flaming limbs. His claws couldn't penetrate the fire, but he was strong. Maybe too strong. Certainly far stronger than she'd anticipated.

"Do it, Wire," she screamed, struggling to subdue the hound.

Wire hesitated.

"Do it!" Tria cried.

His hand slammed down on the touch pad.

"Warning, virus detected," a monotone computer voice called.

Jordan clawed and scratched at the Black Hound, barely penetrating its thick coat. It wasn't enough. The Hound was going to get away.

Frantically she opened her large muzzle and darted down to grab the Hound's neck in her razor sharp teeth. She bit into what felt like soft tissue and sinewy muscle, but which didn't really exist. Virtual blood surged into her mouth, hot and tinny.

The Black Hound trembled and weakened but still struggled beneath her.

It wasn't going to be enough she realized, as her own strength faded and she began to feel the prick of razor sharp claws against her flesh.

She tore her muzzle from the Hound's neck, and blood ran in hot sticky streams down her jaw and chest.

"Overload the program," she yelled.

Without warning, the Black Hound pushed upwards and spun Jordan off to the side. It pounced quickly and pinned Jordan to the virtual floor.

Wire's long fingers flew over the console.

"Warning, program overload." The computer continued to warn all those listening that the program would overload in thirty seconds.

Thirty seconds suddenly seemed like a lifetime as the Hound screamed its rage and slapped a meaty paw across the Flaming Hound's face and advanced with its teeth bared.

The program suddenly surged, encompassing Jordan and the Black Hound, just as he was about to bite. It took out both the Flaming Hound and the Black Hound, leaving Keleos motionless on the virtual floor as darkness swept over the hacker.

"Jordan."

Someone was calling her name.

"Jordan."

Jordan and Keleos both bolted up as hands shook her. She looked around, seeing the Com center, Tria and Wire, and the labyrinth. Disoriented and dizzy she gagged, till the VR world faded and she was just sitting in the dusty station chair.

"Did I get it?" she groaned.

Tria grinned down at her. "Yup."

"So very icy." Wire slapped her on the shoulder. She shot him a dirty look and tossed the VR goggles onto the Com.

As she stood, a harsh wave of dizziness brought her to her knees. Tria reached for her the same time Wire did and both hauled her back up to the chair.

"Maybe you'd better siddown for a bit," Wire said.

With her eyes closed she nodded slowly and leaned back into the chair. Wetness trickled down her chin and she realized she had a bloody nose. "Diagnostic," she whispered urgently, and held out her hand for an OD.

Had the virus got her too? Even after all her careful planning?

"I've got it," Tria said softly, kneeling in front of Jordan and jacking into her ID/IC with shaky hands. She ran a series of tests before letting out a relieved sigh. "Virus free."

"Thank God," Jordan murmured and opened her eyes. They were all hovering around her, and she shooed all of them off with a wave of her hand, except Tria. "I need to talk to you," she whispered.

The bleached blond nodded and cast her eyes around before motioning to a sagging doorway Jordan hadn't noticed earlier. She nodded, refused help getting up, and followed after Tria.

There were old bunks in the room, some of the mattresses torn and strewn around. She sat on a pile of three and Tria sat beside her. Neither spoke for a long moment.

"You think there are more hounds?" Tria finally broke the silence, her small hands clasped together in her lap and foot twitching nervously.

Jordan blinked. "It's a possibility." She paused, then shook her head. "But, I don't think so."

"What's wrong then?" Tria unclasped her hands and twirled her braid.

"I-I don't know what's wrong," Jordan admitted, but the darkness that had been toying with the edge of her thoughts was coming back, full force, and scaring the shit out of her. She was missing something, she could feel it - could feel how dangerous it was. "When the Hound saw me he came after me just like it's programmed to do." She paused, gathering her thoughts. "But then he...stopped." Jordan turned troubled eyes on Tria. "He stopped, and he looked right at me."

Tria nodded slowly. "Viruses have been known to react to their environments differently then the programmers intended."

"That's not it." Jordan furiously rubbed her temples as a severe headache threatened. "It wasn't just processing data, it was thinking."

Jordan bolted up so suddenly that Tria leapt off the cots, her heart thundering wildly.

Of course, Jordan thought. Shit, why didn't I think of it earlier? "We've got to go." She was already halfway across the room.

"Wha-why?" Tria stuttered, still rooted where she was. "We still have to get inside the matrix!"

"Now," Jordan yelled. "Don't you get it? The Black Hound wasn't automated. They know where we are." She didn't have time to explain further. Her hand touched the door handle when she suddenly heard a shout.

It was already too late.


Data String 009

Jordan glanced frantically around the small, dirty room. Beyond the door she heard the shouts and terror filled screams of her friends. She grabbed at Tria as the young woman rushed blindly forward.

"No," Jordan whispered hoarsely, wrapping her arms firmly around Tria's thin torso as she struggled to get away.

"We have to help them," Tria said urgently.

"With what?" She turned Tria around in her arms. "Huh? With what? We'll get ourselves killed."

"Fine." The bleached blond roughly shoved Jordan away. "Run. I'm going to help them." She moved to the door and stopped suddenly, frozen to the floor. Through the crack in the doorway she saw blood, bits of bone, and gray matter splattered across the floor. A laser fired, and the smell of burning flesh made Tria gag. As she stepped back, horrified, she looked over her shoulder and saw Jordan climbing up the torn mattresses to a vent shaft opening high on the wall.

The shouts and dying screams echoed in Tria's ears as she scrambled up the mattresses and hauled herself head first through the vent.

"I hope you know where the fuck you're going," Tria hissed as she caught up to Jordan.

Jordan's chest was tight, and she was warding off claustrophobia.

Why'd Etain have to find those fucking squiggles?

She stopped abruptly, and Tria ran into her feet with a muttered curse.

Etain. She banged her elbows and cursed as she reached for the OD pad she usually carried in her Cam pocket.

"What are you doing now?" the bleached blond asked.

"Etain," was all Jordan said.


Data String 009/B

She couldn't reach Dodger, Wire's friend and temporary babysitter, via the OD pad. Even jacked into a junction box she could only listen, terrified, to the silence.

"He's not there," she said.

"Maybe...maybe he took her out? Got something to eat?"

Jordan twisted slightly in the narrow vent and gave Tria a look that said, "Yeah right, and topsiders love Brantleys."

Tria shrugged. "You never know."

"The day Dodger leaves his Economy is the day hell freezes over," Jordan muttered. Dodger, sweet boy though he was, was afraid to even pop his head out the doorway of his home.

She punched in another set of instructions and found the vent blueprints, got her bearings, and sighed heavily. "Let's go."

Data String 009/C

From the vent's metal grid Jordan couldn't see anything. The VMC was playing and children were singing off key. There was static from the link that Jordan hadn't severed, hoping Dodger would eventually pick up.

And that was it.

She pried the grid away and dropped to the floor. Tria followed with a muffled yelp.

"I don't see anything," the bleached blond whispered.

Neither did Jordan, but as she caught the faint stench of burnt flesh her stomach churned and her face paled. For a moment she didn't move, even as Tria crept around the waist high wall into the kitchen. She heard the gasp and sprang into action, but Tria's arm shot out and blocked her way.

"Let me go," Jordan demanded.

Tria grabbed both her shoulders. "It's not her." Jordan still fought her, and the woman let her go, knowing she had to see for herself.

Jordan rounded the corner, only to see a young man crumpled on the kitchen floor. Dodger. She knelt beside him, in a pool of his blood, and felt for a pulse. Dead. Blindly she looked around the kitchen.

"Where are you hiding, baby?" she whispered to the otherwise empty kitchen.

"Not in the bathroom," Tria called from down the hall.

A breath of air escaped past Jordan's trembling lips and she sank fully to the floor. That's when she noticed the OD resting on Dodger's still smoking chest. She picked it up and stared at it. Tria touched her on the shoulder, making her jump.

"Hey, it's okay," the pale haired woman said softly. "It's just me." She pointed at the OD in Jordan's hand. "What's that?"

"Dunno," she mumbled, then activated it with shaking hands. An Informer's bland smile and shining eyes greeted her.

"If you've found this then you know the boy is dead, and we have the girl," he said. "You have one option," he continued. "Turn yourselves into GLOBAL and the girl will not be harmed."

Etain's little face suddenly came into view on the screen. Jordan gasped as she noted the blood staining her baby's pale yellow shirt and Cams, the bruise on her chin, and the violent scratch running down her cheek.

"Oh God," she whispered hoarsely. I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

"Those bastards," Tria muttered.

"You have one hour to report to a designated GLOBAL office," the Informer said. He smiled, patting Etain on the head. She whimpered and both women cringed.

"GLOBAL does not make empty threats," he said, and the screen went blank.

The OD pad dropped from Jordan's hand as if she'd been burned. She backed up against the counter, turned, and slammed her fist into the cupboards, shouting an unintelligible string of curses.

Tria picked up the pad and switched it back on. She glanced at the time stamp, then the current time. "We've got half an hour."

Jordan shook her head. "Not we. Me." She brushed past Tria on her way to the door.

After a moment of hesitation Tria rushed to catch up and grabbed the hacker's elbow, pulling her to a halt. "We," she stressed. "I started this. We'll finish it together."

"No. I-I can't ask you to-" Jordan choked on the words as she met intense, determined eyes. "Too many people have died already," she said painfully.

"Don't you think I know that?" Tria cried. "I'm not going to let Etain be a victim, too."

"But-"

"Don't you argue with me, cracker. We're going together, and coming out with Etain."

For a moment Jordan said nothing, then she nodded her head. "If they touch her, I'll kill them."

Tria smiled grimly. Not if I get to the bastards first.


Data String 010

"We don't have time-" Tria began.

"Shh," Jordan admonished. "If you're quiet I can walk and program this damn thing."

"Can't chew gum and think at the same time, huh?" Tria's attempt at levity failed and she fell silent as she led the way to the door that would take them topside. The only sounds were their footsteps, till Tria pushed the door open. It grated against the hinges so loudly that it sent a shiver up her spine.

They followed a narrow set of winding stairs to a ladder that led straight up to the surface. Tria pushed the heavy, steel trap door open and they both squinted against the streetlight's feeble attempt to penetrate the darkness below.

Tria started to climb then looked down. "Ready?"

Jordan tapped at the OD one last time, jacked out, then tossed it to the ground and crushed it beneath the heel of her black boots. "Let's go. We've got half an hour."


Data String 011

"Jordan," the informer drawled. "We're so glad you could make it."

She refrained from killing him, for the moment. "Where is my daughter?" As she looked him up and down she wondered if it was the same Informer who'd met her in the tunnels months ago.

"Right this way."

They followed him down a long, gray hallway. The farther they went the faster Jordan's heart beat against her ribcage.

Metal doors lined the hallway, but it wasn't till they got to the last door that the Informer stopped and rested his palm against a touch pad. A soft, green light scanned the print then asked for verification. He spoke a series of numbers, and the door sprang open.

As he pushed the door in, Jordan saw Etain sitting in a chair against the back wall. Despite her resolution to stay calm, kick ass, and take names later, she rushed into the room, towards her daughter, only to be stopped by large hands.

"Let me go," she hissed.

"Mommy?" Etain asked in a shaking voice, too terrified to move from the chair the bad man had told her to sit in.

Jordan struggled against the hands, looking over at her child. "It's okay, baby. Mommy's here now." She twisted to face the Informer they'd met in the hall. "Let me go to her."

"There's no need. She's fine. Thanks to your speedy arrival." But he motioned for the other Enforcers to take Tria over to the chair right beside Etain. She struggled briefly, turning to glance at the hacker, who nodded, ever so slightly. The bleached blond went willingly then, only to mutter curses as they roughly forced her to sit down.

Jordan bit back a powerful surge of hatred. "Let me go to her." She paused, and through clenched teeth, ground out a "Please?"

The Informer seemed to sigh, then nodded briskly. The hands released their tight grasp, and Jordan rushed to the far side of the room. She swept Etain up into her arms and held her tightly as sobs shook the tiny body.

"I was so scared, mommy," she whispered, after the tears abruptly stopped.

"I know, baby." She smoothed Etain's hair and rocked her gently. "Everything's going to be all right now. I'm going to get us out of here."

"Okay." Etain rested her cheek in the curve of her mother's shoulder and held tightly for a long, silent moment. "I love you, momma."

"I love you too, baby," she whispered raggedly. I'm going to get us out of here, alive. We'll go topside, and everything will be okay.

The Informer cleared his throat.

"Will you sit down here with Tria for a minute while momma talks to the bad men?" Jordan asked.

Etain glanced at the woman with the almost white hair and nodded slowly. She remembered her. She was nice. Etain looked long and hard at her momma. "But you come right back, ╬k?"

"You betcha," Jordan said with a brightness she couldn't come close to feeling. "You go sit now." The little girl fiercely hugged her one last time then stood hesitantly by Tria, who held out her arms and Etain gladly scrambled up onto her lap.

Jordan turned to the Informer. "All right, you've got me. Let them go."

"That wasn't the deal."

"Excuse me?" she asked, dangerously calm.

"We said the girl wouldn't be harmed. We did not agree to let anyone go."

Her fists clenched at her sides, anger sweeping over her in roiling waves of red.

There was one Informer and three Enforcers in the room, each with a laser323. Bad odds, even if she had a laser of her own. Which she didn't. But she did have one thing they didn't. She just had to get as many of them away from her daughter as she could. "Very well. Is there someplace we can discuss—our options?"

"Certainly." He nodded to a door on the left side of the room. "This way."

Etain's eyes widened as her momma walked across the room and through the door. She struggled in the slim arms that held her, till Tria whispered something in her ear. The little girl nodded once and settled back down.


Data String 012

Jordan noticed that only one Enforcer remained in the room with her daughter and friend. Three Enforcers joined her in the room, and the other hurried away after receiving some instructions on his Ear Piece.

As they sat around a small table she tilted her head in thought. She leaned casually back against the stiff metal chair. "So," she drawled. "What is the purpose of bringing me here when you could have just killed us all?"

"You defeated the Black Hound," he said simply.

"So?"

"We have use for you," he said.

Her eyes narrowed. "You had enough use for me before, that GLOBAL specifically sought me out. It's not my fault you didn't use me then."

"That was an unintentional oversight on our part." A screen and touch pad rose from the surface of the table. "Since then you were brought to our attention."

"By who?" Jordan asked, her eyes narrowing dangerously.

The Informer remained silent.

She watched angrily as he pulled up footage of her escapade in the labyrinth- but from the Black Hound's perspective.

"Whomever you had running that hound should have been more—aggressive," she said. "His hesitation was my advantage."

He blinked, then nodded. "The programmer is no longer with us."

Despite her current ╬kick ass' attitude, that single statement sent gooseflesh across her arms. "What exactly does all this have to do with me?" she asked.

"Your—friends," he sneered, "all tried, in one form or another, to breach the matrix." He smiled coldly. "And failed."

"Stop beating around the bush and get to the point."

His smile faded. "You're knowledge and skills will be used to enhance the matrix."

"Let Etain and Tria go and you've got a deal."

"We are not bargaining or making deals anymore. You've betrayed us once and we feel that you'll betray us again. That leaves us with only the one option." The Informer motioned the others to her sides.

The arms that grabbed her were too powerful to struggle from, and the only thought she had was to stay alive.

Be strong and brave, she prayed to Etain. I will save you.

Data String 012/B

The internal timer on her IC said she had ten minutes. But they were already bodily dragging her down the gray walled hallway, further and further away from Etain and Tria.

She had to stall.

"You can't do this. I won't willingly enhance the matrix."

For centuries GLOBAL had taken dissidents and chemically altered their brains so that they would be able to ╬function' in normal society. But if that failed, the people were shipped to the tri-city of Trinity where they were never seen or heard of again. The rumors were endless. The most popular rumor was that GLOBAL hacked the people into tiny pieces and fed them to the inferno that fueled the city.

Trinity was a massive city that had started out as three small towns. They had grown so large that they'd formed into one, becoming the city of GLOBAL's main headquarters.

Jordan didn't want to find out if the rumor was true or not.

"You will join with the matrix, willingly or not," the Informer said. He'd paused and turned back slightly to look at the hacker. She was held firmly between two Enforcers, but still she continued to struggle.

Join with—. Jordan looked into the Informer's eyes. Streams of data rolled across their silver surface. "I'm infected," she said. "You don't want█"

The Informer smiled. "You haven't been infected with a virus in over seven years."

She stopped struggling and blinked rapidly. "How do you know that? Only Wire—."

"Not just your friend Wire, Jordan. GLOBAL knows everything."

She was suddenly, absolutely terrified that they did indeed know everything.

Five minutes.

"And yes, Jordan, we know that in about five minutes you set the power grid to overload and wipe out the electricity for the entire block."

She swallowed thickly. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Don't play stupid. You and I both know that's not the case. Come on, you've stalled for long enough now."

The men that held her arms in a viselike grip began to propel her down the hallway, following the Informer.

How? How did they know? Nero had given her the AV3 mod to upgrade. Wire had known too. Nero had disappeared. Nero—one of the only people she knew who could have run the Black Hound.

"Nero," she whispered.

The Informer just laughed.

"But why?" she whispered.

There was no answer.

Jordan struggled harder, desperate to get away. Enforcers, subordinates of the Informers, were powerful half-humans. Like Informers they wore no IC's or ID/IC's, but data could be seen streaming across their pale green eyes. One small hacker was no match against them.

Frantically she studied the drab hallway. The walls here were bare too. Nothing.

The power flickered for an instant, then the generators kicked in and floodlights lit the hall. This would have been her chance, had the power failed completely. Instead, they just kept walking.

Ahead, the Informer stopped at a sealed doorway and turned to make one last biting comment. Jordan had slumped over, her head resting on her chest and her feet dragging along the floor.

"What happened?" The Informer asked.

The Enforcers just shrugged. The Informer turned and strode toward Jordan. He grabbed her chin and forced her head up.

"Playing games will get you nowhere," he said, as he gripped tighter. There was no response. Was she playing a game? The twin green lights on her ID/IC were off.

In the time it took the Informer to blink, Jordan had snatched the laser gun from the holster on his thigh and pressed it between his eyes.

"Let me go," she hissed at the Enforcers. "Now, or he's dead." Whether he was all human or part or all cyborg, the Informer still had a basic instinct to survive.

Nothing moved but his eyes as he looked at the two men holding the hacker. "Let her go," he said.

Their hands dropped to her sides.

"Get on that side," she ordered.

As the Enforcers moved behind the Informer, Jordan took a step back, keeping the red beam trained between his eyes.

"Nice move," the Informer said, calm once again. "But it won't help you. There are more on the way."

Jordan shook her head. "It doesn't matter. You've given me just enough time." As she spoke, she walked slowly backwards.

The Informer's silver eyes flashed. The Enforcers bounded out from behind him. Jordan began shooting and one by one they fell. She aimed the laser back at the Informer, but he was gone.

"Shit!" Terrified, she turned and ran as fast as she could, saving Etain the only thing now on her mind.

Data String 012/C

In the room where Tria and Etain were being held, the power flickered off and on. Tria cursed under her breath. Not enough time.

Etain shook in her arms.

"Shh, honey," Tria whispered. "It's okay. You're mommy's going to come and get us, any minute now."

Too terrified to speak, Etain simply nodded, her long blond hair falling in waves around her shoulders.

Tria slid the little girl over to the seat beside her and spoke softly, "I need you to sit here for just a minute. I'm going to help your momma. Okay?"

"Don't leave me," Etain whispered urgently, her dark blue eyes wide and terrified.

"I'm going to be right here. But I need you to stay there. Can you do that for me, sweetheart?"

"Don't leave me."

Tria gently brushed the bangs out of Etain's eyes. "I'll be right in the room. You just close your eyes real tight and don't open them till I come back."

Fearfully Etain nodded and closed her eyes.

As Tria stood and casually stretched and yawned, she glanced at the Enforcer stationed in the center of the room. He blinked and suddenly turned towards the door, giving Tria the opportunity she needed. She hurled her body onto the Enforcer's broad back and wrapped her arms around his thick neck. He grabbed her arm and flung her against the wall.

Her head hit hard and she winced at the pain as she struggled to stand.

Etain began to cry and threw her hands up to cover her ears, scrunching her eyes closed even harder.

The Enforcer trained his laser on the woman as she stood. "Don't move," he warned. He'd been ordered not to kill them, but there was no order against immobilizing her.

Tria kicked out and sent the laser flying. It fired a shot into the ceiling.

Etain screamed as the casing on the track light shattered.

Both the Enforcer and Tria lunged for the laser. Tria made it there first, turned, and fired blindly.

Data String 012/D

Etain screamed for her momma, tears running down her cheeks. Blood was splattered across the front of her pale yellow shirt. Tria stood across from the child, a laser in hand. She shook, till a hand reached out of the semi-darkness and gently lowered the gun.

Jordan stepped out of the shadows and grabbed Etain up into her arms.

"Shh, baby. Momma's here now." She looked at Tria. Blood was splattered across her strong arms and ashen face. Shocked eyes stared at the Enforcer on the floor. Jordan gently touched her elbow.

"We've got to go."

Tria blinked, then nodded. "Yeah. Let's get out of here."

Then they ran.

Tria grabbed the back of Jordan's shirt as they came to an intersection. "This way," Tria said and tugged them to the right, following behind Jordan again as the hallway narrowed.

A laser beam barely missed Jordan's ear. She ran faster, desperately clinging to Etain. A shot singed through her long, blond hair.

Another shot, and Tria stumbled, falling across Jordan's back. They tumbled to the floor, warm blood washing Jordan's back in a crimson flood.

Etain screamed as she was pinned beneath them.

With a strangled cry Jordan pushed Tria away and turned. Silver eyes flashed in the darkness. A red beam danced across the back of Etain's pale hair....

"No," Jordan screamed, struggling to untangle her legs from Tria's dead body. "No!" She twisted their bodies too late, and the laser shattered the back of Etain's skull.

Jordan's harsh guttural scream stopped the Enforcers in their tracks. They paused, with lasers raised as Jordan glanced down blindly.

Etain's limp body hung in her arms. Her small, dark blue eyes were wide with fear. When Jordan looked up, the pain and devastation were clear in her eyes.

A wild rage began to burn in her chest. Gently she laid Etain on the ground and surged to her feet as if in slow motion. Before the first Enforcer could blink, the hacker was hurtling her body across the remaining distance.

Fueled with adrenaline and rage she snapped his neck, grabbed his laser, and faced the other Enforcer. The Informer stood by the wall, waiting patiently.

She smiled cruelly as she pulled the trigger and watched the Enforcer's blood splatter, fragments of blood, bone, and muscle covering her shirt.

A laser shot burned the flesh of her shoulder. She turned and took out two more. Eight Enforcers went down before the Informer raised his hand and halted the replacement Enforcers as they entered the hallway.

The Informer studied her for a long moment. "We didn't believe you had it in you to kill someone." He paused. "It looks like we underestimated you again."

Jordan looked at him, shock running through her now ice cold veins. The other Enforcers stood behind him, lasers ready and aimed at her chest. She took a deep breath. The laser in her hand shook as she lowered it to her side.

"Go ahead and kill me."

The Informer grinned suddenly. "I don't think so. You're much more valuable to us now."

Jordan sighed and raised the laser to her temple.

The Informer took a quick step forward, then suddenly stopped. He motioned for the Enforcers to lower their lasers.

"Jordan, please. Come with us. Enhance the matrix. None of this will matter anymore." He waved his hand to indicate Tria and Etain.

She lowered her eyes and looked at her daughter, then glanced up. "No." She pointed the laser at the Informer and fired. "You underestimated me again, asshole," she whispered as he crumbled to the floor. In the chaos that followed, she tossed the laser to the floor, picked up Etain, and began to run.

Footsteps echoed behind her.

Jordan ran down the narrow hall, around the corner, and to the door. Laser fire shattered the glass as she pushed her way through and outside into the sun.

Gasping for breath, she made her way down the sidewalk, the shouts of the Enforcers ringing in her ears.

There was nothing to do but run.

Escape—.

To some place where even GLOBAL's all seeing eyes couldn't easily find her. And there was only one place that she knew of.

The desert.

Part Three

3329

Data String 013

Mahu was a desert nomad, guest, and adopted member of the Tiva clan. She sat, straddling the wide, heavily muscled back of a Hakute; a beast that was part horse and part lion. The beast, Sinopa, was her only companion as they strode across the desert dunes.

Mahu's long, jet-black hair fluttered around her wide shoulders in the dry air. Beneath dark goggles she squinted her golden eyes, straining to see the tiny figure in the distance. Slender fingers pulled on the reins and Sinopa slowed to a stop.

Who in hell would be out in the desert, on foot, in the heat of the day? She wondered, adjusting the binocular goggles. Still she could only make out a thin hunched form.

The breeze blew violently and sand pelted her tanned cheeks. With the breeze came the scent of blood and the sounds of mournful wailing.

As Mahu steadily approached the figure she could finally make out that it was a slender woman leaning over a small, broken, and bloody body. The stranger's pale hair hung in limp strands above slim shaking shoulders.

Jordan was so lost in her pain that she didn't even know the dark haired woman was there till a shadow slid across Etain's pale yellow blood stained cams and shirt. Slowly she looked up and into the eyes of a beast with a massive lion's head and horse-like body, a Hakute.

The person astride the Hakute was a tall woman, with the clan tattoo of a flying dragon above one strange golden eye.

Jordan's wailing had stopped, but she held possessively to the small body in her arms. She looked up defiantly, and met a pair of pale gold eyes that would have taken her breath away had she not already lost all feeling when she'd lost the child in her arms.

"Go away," she hissed.

Mahu could see the woman now- the interface, bruises, and violent cuts, the blood and gray matter splattered across her chest, and the lifeless body held tightly in her arms. She slid from Sinopa's back and knelt beside the woman. "You're a Brantley?" she asked.

"Yes," Jordan replied.

"And the child?" Mahu asked.

The hacker looked down, and her hair fell around her shoulders. Desert sunlight glinted off the sand, sending shimmering shades of gold onto her child's ashen face.

"She's mine." Jordan paused and choked down another sob that tried desperately to surface. "She's not Clan."

"I will take her with me to the Tivas," she said softly. "And you."

Jordan looked up and met golden eyes, but said nothing.

Mahu helped the woman and the child onto Sinopa's back and made her way to the village.

As they entered the Tiva village Jordan hugged Etain to her shaking body. She glanced up at the waning sun, then around the village; finally realizing they'd come to a stop and the woman was standing beside the Hakute with her arms outstretched.

"I've got her," Jordan said, keeping hold of her child and sliding down from the saddle.

The weight of exhaustion, hunger, and fear suddenly bore down on Jordan and sent her collapsing into the desert dust. A loud murmur rose among the clan as Mahu waved them all off and carried both bodies to the home that was open to her as a privileged guest.

As the woman lay unconscious, Mahu pried the child from her tight grasp and laid her on the table. As she prepared the body, she prayed to the Sun, the Earth, the Moon, and the Sky to grant the child safe passage. She put feathers and dried flowers into the girl's curled fists and crossed them over her chest before wrapping her in a sheet and laying a worn piece of leather on top.

The leather had an intricate design; the crest of the Tivas - a dragon, but with his wings stretched to both sides and breathing fire. The Great Dragon was poised for flight and would guide the child's soul and protect it on the journey home.

Mahu turned to the blond haired woman, who was sleeping in the bed, and making strange whimpering sounds. She crossed slowly to the bed and sat gingerly on the edge. Hesitantly she brushed blond bangs from the pale young woman's forehead. There were cuts and bruises along her face and arms, and her shirtfront was splattered with blood.

"No," the woman murmured. "Why did you do it Nero? Why?"

"Who?" Mahu asked. "What happened?"

But the sleeping woman only groaned incoherently, rolled over, and fell into a deeper sleep.

Mahu's questions would have to wait.


Data String 014

"Etain," Jordan cried.

"She's here," Mahu said softly, slowly advancing to kneel beside the bed. Wild green eyes looked blindly at her. "There." She turned her head slightly and pointed to the prepared body.

Jordan's shoulders slumped forward. Disbelieving eyes slid away from the still, covered body of her small child.

The dark haired woman retrieved a pitcher of water from the nightstand and poured a glass for the young woman, watching as shaking hands took the cup and drank slowly. Sweat had formed on her brow and ran in rivulets between her breasts, soaking the front of her tattered and bloody shirt.

When the cup was empty, Jordan held it tightly. "Thank you," she murmured.

"For what?" Mahu asked.

The disheveled blond woman waved towards the table without looking. "For that.... For preparing her."

Mahu rose to sit on the edge of the bed. "You are welcome. She has been prepared according to Tiva custom. Tomorrow, before the sun sets, we will send her soul to the stars." Mahu paused. The woman's eyes were glassy, fixed on something, some point that the nomad couldn't see. "Unless you wish to follow Brantley custom?"

Jordan blinked, glanced at Etain's small covered body, then looked at the woman who had brought her here. Where was here?

"No, I'd rather have her soul set free then to be condemned to spend forever underground." In the past, when a person died in the underground, they were frozen and placed in a cryotube. It wasn't long before there was no more room. After that, Brantleys would journey through tunnels that had been abandoned or never finished. The deceased was then sealed into the floor or wall.

"Tomorrow then." Mahu nodded.

"What's your name?"

"I'm sorry. My name is Mahu Tiva."

"Jordan—. Just Jordan."

"Okay, Just Jordan. Rest now." Mahu started to rise but felt a cold hand grab her arm.

"Where am I?"

"I brought you to a Tiva village. The Elders have said that you may stay until you have recovered from your wounds."

Jordan's head tipped to the side as she regarded the woman sitting beside her. "I made it to the desert?"

"Apparently."

"Was there Ď was there anyone else there? When you found me I mean?"

"I saw no one."

The hacker finally set the cup on the bedside table. Her hands shook and she shoved them under the covers. "Are you sure?" she asked.

Mahu nodded. "I saw nothing and no one but you and the girl."

There was silence for a long moment as Jordan listened to the sounds outside of the small quest house. Children ran and yelled happily, intent on some game. An elderly woman shooed a camp dog away from the meal she was preparing. Something pawed at the ground. A Hakute?

Jordan blinked sleepy green eyes. Her stomach rumbled as she smelled roasting game, but she was too tired to eat.

Mahu's hands twisted in her lap. "Many of your people have appeared on our land. The first was alive when we found him. The rest, like your daughter, were dead."

"Where's the first one?"

"The elders say he died of his wounds a week after arriving here."

"What did he look like?" Jordan asked. Her eyelids were so heavy now that she fought to keep them open.

"A teenager. Tall, gangly, greasy hair█"

"Phreak█Isaac, I mean."

Mahu's eyebrows rose. "You knew him?"

"Yes, and probably all the others." Their faces flashed before her eyes. Friends. All dead. Bright, full of life—. Dead. Jordan closed her eyes and squeezed them shut, trying to banish them from her thoughts.

"What happened?" Mahu asked.

"We were all betrayed," Jordan whispered painfully. Exhaustion finally overcame her and she slid back against the pillow. In a matter of seconds she was asleep.

Mahu gently pulled the covers up around the woman's slim shoulders. "Rest now," she said softly. Somehow she knew that this was only the beginning.


Data String 015

Mahu's voice rang out, hauntingly clear, through the Tiva village as she sang the burial song and Etain's ashes blew across the morning sky. Jordan stood beside her, strong and silent. Her stoic, pale face revealed nothing of her inner turmoil.

The hacker had fresh clothes, and her skin was scrubbed clean. There were no signs of her brutal escape, except scratches on her arms and purpling bruises on her face.

As Mahu ended the song and turned slightly to face her new friend, she let the silence hang between them, unable to say anything. When Jordan turned away, walking into the desert, the tall woman stood her ground, resisting the urge to reach out and touch the younger woman.

There was nothing Mahu could do, no comfort she could give to make Jordan's pain any less harsh. So she returned to the guesthouse, sitting in a darkened corner with her eyes closed, trying to ward off an impending migraine.

The sun journeyed across the sky and eventually dipped below the horizon, shrouding the desert in darkness, bringing a small amount of relief in its shade. It was long after dark that Jordan returned and sat quietly at the small table. She'd cut her hair short as the mourning custom dictated.

Jordan glanced to the shadows and the barely visible outline of a long trim body.

"I have to leave," she finally murmured, laying her forehead against the cool surface of the wooden table.

"I know," Mahu answered, eyes still closed, and not bothering to move into the light. She shifted and crossed her legs at the ankles. "Where will you go?"

"I don't know," Jordan mumbled against the tabletop.

The dark haired woman hesitated before saying anything more.

It was Jordan who finally spoke. "I have to leave, before I endanger you or your people." She sat up and rubbed her eyes furiously.

Mahu leaned forward, the light just touching her high cheekbones and highlighting the strands of deep red and brown in her dark hair. "You're safe with us. GLOBAL Ď"

"Who said anything about GLOBAL?" Alarmed, Jordan sat up straight and looked the woman in the eye. "I didn't tell you that."

Mahu nodded grimly. "How many people do you think come to the desert on vacation?"

Jordan made a rude noise. "No one."

"So that must mean you are running from something." The nomad shrugged. "With the other deaths—it would make sense."

"Nothing makes sense anymore," the hacker mumbled. She ran her hands through her short ragged hair then propped her elbows on the tabletop. "Yes, I am running from GLOBAL, but no one can hide from them, Mahu. Probably not even here in the desert. When your clan was nomadic, maybe you could hide. But not now."

"You can and we do," the nomad replied as she slid back into the shadows.

"How?" Jordan asked.

"You just have to know how to use GLOBAL's powers again them."

A blond, skeptical eyebrow shot up into Jordan's bangs. "And you, the Tivas, have done just that?"

The tall woman stood then and drifted into the light surrounding the table. "Come with me. I'll show you."

Data String 015/B

They topped a large dune before Mahu urged Jordan to look back at the Tiva village. When she turned and looked out over the desert it was all she saw- pale, yellow sand and the sun just beginning to rise. She squinted, turned, but still there was nothing to see.

Jordan placed one hand on her hip and tilted her head thoughtfully. Her ID/IC couldn't detect any changes in light, or anything else that would have given the village away.

"I'm impressed." She paused, then glanced at Mahu curiously. "How did you do it?"

The desert nomad regarded the smaller woman for a moment. "How much do you know about programming?"

Jordan raised one wry eyebrow. "I hacked into GLOBAL's mainframe. I'd say I know a little something about it."

Mahu blinked. Suddenly one and one made two. She pulled an OD pad from the pocket of her desert colored Cams, and handed it to Jordan, who eyed it skeptically. "It has the plans on it. Go ahead and look," the dark haired woman requested.

Silently she obeyed, her eyebrows rising by notches till they finally disappeared beneath her scraggly bangs. "Impressive," was all she said as she handed the OD back to its owner.

"Thank you." Mahu studied the blond woman for several long moments, wishing she could understand the emotions struggling to surface on the slim, battered face. "Shall we return now?" she asked softly.

"If it's all right I'd like to stay here for a little while longer." Jordan settled into the sand, crossing her legs and turning her face to the weak rays of the morning sun.

Mahu stifled a sigh.

Jordan barely heard the dark haired woman leaving. She glanced up briefly, her eyes hooded. "Will you stay awhile?"

Mahu turned around and slowly sat beside the young woman. "For a bit." The wind ruffled her long dark hair as she looked out over the barren landscape that she'd come to call home for the past few years.

"Were you born a Tiva?" Jordan asked. She pushed the sand around in a circle with the soles of her boots.

"No," Mahu replied. "I was born an outcast, because my mother was an outcast. We traveled a lot because we had no clan. But when I was eight my mother was killed by the man we were staying with. I ran away, and I've been by myself ever since."

"The Tivas adopted you?" the hacker asked as she glanced at the dragon tattoo above Mahu's eye.

"In a way." Mahu shrugged. "In my travels I learned many things. I helped the Tivas camouflage their village, and in return when I pass through here, they allow me to stay with them and share their food."

The wind surged powerfully, cutting off any response Jordan might have made. She watched as the sun crested; the sky turning numerous shades of purple, orange, and red before slowly brightening.

The wind ruffled Mahu's long, dark hair around her shoulders while sending grains of sand tumbling down the sides of the dunes like miniature rockslides.

"It may be none of my business, Jordan, but what happened to you and your daughter?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

"Does it have anything to do with what you said about hacking into GLOBAL's mainframe?"

"I said, I don't want to talk about it." Jordan brought her legs up to her chest and buried her face in her knees.

"I'm sorry," Mahu murmured, barely audible over the rising wind.

Jordan lifted her head a notch. "No, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you. Maybe we can talk about it later. Okay? It's just too painful right now."

"Okay." Mahu turned golden eyes out over the desert, squinting against the ever-brightening sunlight, and wondering about the others that had shown up in the desert. GLOBAL had dropped their bodies here and the Tivas had systematically followed custom and sent their souls flying to the stars.

How had Jordan survived when the others hadn't? What had she survived?

Abruptly Mahu asked; "Hungry?"

The rumbling in Jordan's stomach gave away the fact that she hadn't eaten in days. "Guess so."

"Come on then. I've got some soup to heat up and some fresh fruit." Mahu stood up, pulled the young woman to her feet and smiled lightly. "If you're good I'll even make some dessert."

Jordan smiled reluctantly and followed Mahu back across the dunes and down into the Tiva village.


Data String 016

"Are you going to eat that?" Jordan pointed to the remaining grapes on Mahu's plate.

The dark haired woman grinned as she passed them over. "Help yourself."

"Fhanks," Jordan mumbled, stuffing several into her mouth at one time.

Mahu stood and stretched and began to clear the table.

"I'll do that," Jordan offered.

"Nah, it's okay." She glanced back in time to see Jordan smiling. Despite the bruises she was beautiful. Mahu didn't realize she was staring until Jordan asked her if something was wrong. "Uh, no," she stammered.

Jordan searched for a safe topic of conversation. "The camouflage program—. You did write that, didn't you?"

Mahu nodded.

"Generally people outside of the new cities don't have access to OD pads. How is it you came across one?" Jordan asked, studying the graceful way the woman moved, even doing something as simple as washing dishes.

"I lived in New Gulf for a time," she finally explained.

Mahu had finished the dishes and sat back down across from the smaller woman. She could feel the questions rising off the blond woman like energy from a rising storm.

"How long were you in New Gulf?" Jordan asked, resting her elbows on the table and unconsciously leaning forward.

"Not long. Before that I was at Trinity, Widow's Peak, New Grayson—. All over the place, really."

Blue-green eyes widened. "Trinity?"

"Yeah."

Jordan's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What were you doing at Trinity?" she asked slowly.

A deep sigh escaped Mahu's thinned, red lips. "I have an—ability—that lets me—see things. Unfortunately because of that GLOBAL recruited me for a time. There were others who were more powerful then me. They didn't want me anymore, and I was free to go."

Silence enveloped the room, except for the drip-drip of a faucet and the distant whirring of an air unit.

"I have an ability," Jordan said at last. "That lets me see things too."

"What do you see?"

The blond head lowered as she looked at the table and studied its smooth, wood grained surface. "I see code. Data. Things no one else can see. I can manipulate programs and viruses. Hack into anything—.'" She looked up then to find the reproach she was sure was in those beautiful golden eyes. When she found none she smiled slightly. "What do you see?"

"Things yet to happen," Mahu said quietly.

Two pale brows disappeared beneath Jordan's bangs, again. The dark haired Tiva seemed to have that effect on her. "The future you mean?"

"No. No one can see the future. I can see what could be."

"Can you see my fu- what I'll be doing?"

Mahu hesitated. "A little."

"Will GLOBAL find me?"

"I don't know," Mahu lied. "I don't know."


Part Five

3329

Data String 017

"No!" Jordan screamed. "Etain!" She fought in the darkness as hands grabbed for her shoulders. "Let me go. Etain?"

The hands released her and she scrambled up. A light suddenly turned on and she blinked against the blinding glare.

"Are you okay?"

Slowly Jordan focused on the woman in front of her.

The woman, Mahu, held her hands up, as if to ward off blows. "Jordan?" she asked and took a tentative step forward. "Bad dreams, nothing more. You're safe here, remember?"

"No. Never safe," Jordan whispered hoarsely. She dropped back to the bed and drew her knees up to her chest. Oh, Etain, baby. I promised you sunshine and sunsets. I promised—and you died.

Mahu knelt in front of the shattered woman and gently touched her on the knees - relieved when she didn't strike out or run away. "You are safe," she said softly. "I won't let anyone hurt you again."

Jordan blinked, looked up, and met pale eyes. "Etain would have liked you, I think," she said.

A sad smile tugged up the corners of Mahu's mouth. "I would have liked her, too." She drew the sheets up, from where they'd fallen on the floor, and said, "Come on, back to bed now."

Like a small child Jordan scurried up to the pillows and allowed herself to be tucked in.

Mahu hesitated as she stood beside the bed, looking down on Jordan, whose eyes were wide though sleepy. Her hair was mussed and spiky, her face was pale, and she resisted the simple instinct to cradle the woman in her arms and promise that there would be no more bad dreams. That tomorrow would be a new day and life would go on. But, platitudes meant nothing to a woman who'd lost part of her life, her child. The Tiva was ready to walk away and return to the couch when Jordan made a strange noise.

"Would you like me to stay—till you fall asleep?" Mahu asked.

Tears ran silently down Jordan's cheeks as she regarded the woman standing beside her. "Please," she finally said.

The dark haired woman did the only thing she could. She sat on the edge of the bed with her hands folded in her lap to keep them from shaking.

Jordan closed her eyes, but it was a long time before she fell asleep. Before she did she felt warm fingertips brush the sweaty bangs from her forehead, wipe the tears from her cheeks, and a soft voice promise that things would get better.

Mahu lay down beside her and wearily closed her eyes.

Data String 017/B

Mahu sang, her voice rich and smooth. She didn't sing because she was happy. She sang because the words would guide Jordan's soul to the stars.

The flames licked higher, climbing closer and closer to the wrapped body on the trellis.

Jordan had failed to stop GLOBAL, and Mahu had failed to protect her as promised.

As the flames crept across Jordan's body, Mahu's heart began to ache, and pain began to burn across her chest.

Jordan's body began to glow, the green light even brighter than the fire. The nomad blinked and shielded her eyes as a bolt of light raced outwards.

It struck her in the chest, before she even had time to react. The pain sent her staggering backwards, and she fell to the sand. When she looked up, the green light connected their bodies, heart to heart and soul to soul.

Make it right, Jordan's soul whispered to her. Help me find the truth. Help me make it right.

In too much pain to speak, Mahu simply nodded. Silently she swore to Jordan's soul that she would do everything in her power to stop this vision from becoming the true future.

I promise, she swore.

Suddenly she awoke, breathing hard and her hand clutching the fabric of her shirt above her heart. For just a moment she swore she saw a faint green light running from her heart down to Jordan's sleeping body.

Shaken, she left the bed and moved to the chair in the far corner of the room.

Data String 017/C

Jordan blinked the sleep from her eyes and slowly sat up.

One side of Mahu's face was hidden in shadow while on the other side her high cheekbone and full lips stood out against her dark skin, as she sat in a chair in the corner of the room.

"Morning," Mahu said.

"Thought you were asleep."

"On this chair?" Mahu groaned. "Impossible."

"Sorry."

"Not your fault. I should have gotten up hours ago and moved to the couch." She stood and stretched, sinewy muscles rippling beneath her thin sleep shirt.

Jordan threw back the sheet and slapped her bare feet to the cool floor. She shivered. "Tell me you have coffee."

Mahu chuckled. "No, but something almost as good."

'Almost as good' turned out to be a very sweet and rich tea that left Jordan's toes tingling. She sighed happily as she pushed the empty mug away and leaned back in the kitchen chair. "Not bad," she said.

One fine, dark eyebrow slid beneath Mahu's bangs. "Told ya so."

Jordan just stuck out her tongue. "So," she drawled. "What's up with this meeting the clan elders want me at?" They'd discussed it at dinner last night but the dark woman had been a little too vague for Jordan's liking.

"I suspect, now that you're here, they can't ignore what's been happening anymore."

"You mean they wrote off the other deaths as nothing?" Jordan asked incredulously.

"Pretty much," Mahu confirmed. She paused for a moment, offering to refill Jordan's mug. When she passed on more tea Mahu looked down at the table. "They didn't know much or care about GLOBAL before I came to them. They won't interfere with things, unless they are in direct danger."

"Don't they see that everyone is in danger?"

"I'm the only one that can see, Jordan." She met blue-green eyes now. "I can talk, but it doesn't mean they hear."

Jordan studied her intently for a long moment. She knows. The thought came and went before she could comprehend it fully. There's something she's not telling me. "What is it you're hiding?"

This time both eyebrows slid beneath Mahu's bangs, though she tried to stop them. "I'm not hiding anything."

"Uh huh, and we all reside in little tubes, covered in slimy stuff, and live our lives out in some kind of freaky matrix we all think is real," Jordan replied sarcastically. When Mahu said nothing she blinked furiously. "I was joking!"

"Okay, we don't," Mahu said at last, her eyes lit with a devilish glow.

Jordan growled low in her throat. "Don't tease me like that."

"Sorry. Couldn't help myself," Mahu replied with a smile.

Jordan laughed.

Mahu blinked. She laughed. The first real laugh since I met her. She shifted back in the chair and crossed her legs at the ankles, happily wondering what it would have been like to know Jordan under other, better, circumstances.


Data String 018

The clan elders, Mahu, and Jordan were gathered in the small meeting hut where they conducted all their clan business. A long wooden table, worn smooth by age and many hands, took up the length of the room. Orbs lit up the corners of the room, and tapestries depicted massive silver dragons holding the Earth in their talons.

Jordan wordlessly slid into a high backed, painfully straight chair while Mahu refused to sit and paced from tapestry to tapestry as the elders gathered. When the last finally sat, so did she.

The desert woman gazed about at the men she'd come to know over the past few years. She had a great deal of respect for them. It had taken them a long time to accept her, and even longer to respect her in return.

Attalus sat at the head of the table. His skin was weathered from years in the sun, and his gray, grizzly hair and beard matched his aged eyes. Now he scratched his chin as he carefully pondered the words they'd gone over in his home before meeting here.

"It has been told to us, as by our ancestors, that one day the Earth will no longer be the world we know. A stranger will come, bringing death. She will be like the sun, fighting the darkness. She will change the world," he finished, reciting the legend that had been passed to him by his father, and his father before him, for centuries.

Mahu's mouth opened, but Attalus raised his hand.

"You do not believe our legends, Mahu. There is no fault in that. But look back on what has happened. Look forward to what will be," he said. The old man shook his head and turned towards the young one. "Tell us how you came to be here."

Jordan blinked rapidly, an image of her child coming to mind. This time the tears did not fall. "We were betrayed."

"Why were you betrayed?" Attalus asked, in his deep, warm voice.

"Money, greed, power...I don't know." Jordan shrugged.

"You've fought the darkness," he began. "You will fight--"

Jordan interrupted. "I don't want to fight anymore." She stood abruptly; startling all those seated at the table. "I don't know what I'm fighting for anymore."

"You are fighting for the light," Attalus said calmly.

"My daughter is dead," Jordan cried. "I have no more light."

"You have--"

"No," Jordan repeated. "No more fighting. I won't let anyone else die, because of me." Jordan began to pace around the table. "You saw the others." She glanced at the seated elders. "GLOBAL left their bones to bleach in the desert sun. You followed your customs and sent them to the stars, but you didn't care."

Attalus began to protest and Mahu raised a cautious eyebrow at Jordan.

The hacker continued before anyone could say anything. "But now that I'm here, danger is at your doorstep. That's why you called this little meeting, isn't it? Well don't worry. I'm not staying. GLOBAL won't punish you for hiding me."

Some of the elders seemed to visibly relax. Attalus stood from his seat and approached Jordan.

"You are welcome to stay as long as you need. But you must prepare yourself to fight."

Jordan vehemently shook her head. "I told you I'm not fighting anymore. I just want to go somewhere where GLOBAL will never find me."

The clan elder laid a compassionate hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it away.

"Who will stop them?" he asked. "Who will avenge your daughter's death?"

"I don't want revenge. It's never been about revenge."

"Then what is it about?"

"I don't know."

Attalus sighed. "Mahu, come here."

Hesitantly Mahu approached them. "Yes, elder?"

"Tell her what could be."

Mahu opened and closed her mouth, then cleared her throat nervously. "What could be?" she stammered.

"Tell her the visions I know you've seen."

The nomad shuttered visibly. "I've seen how powerful GLOBAL will become. The chaos, the wars, the atrocities—. Unless someone stops them."

"So what?" Jordan said, shoving her hands into the pockets of her Cams. "She said someone. And that someone is not me."

"No," Mahu murmured.

"See, I tol█"

"No." Mahu captured Jordan's eyes, looking deep into her soul. "You are the one. The only one that can stop them."

"Bullshit," Jordan declared. She took a few steps away from the small group. "You're lying."

Attalus tried to smile reassuringly. "Yes, you are the one, child."

Jordan shook her head. "No." Hastily she backed up and ran into a tapestry. The dragon stared down accusingly. Jordan struggled to breath. No, she wasn't the one. She couldn't be. "No. It's a lie," she repeated, turning suddenly, headed for the door.

Mahu began to follow, but the elder laid a surprisingly strong hand on her arm. "Let her go," he said gently. "She must have time to think."

"Think about what?" Mahu asked harshly. "I promised her that she would be safe. Do you want to take that from her by forcing her to take on GLOBAL when she's obviously not willing to?"

Attalus' gray eyes widened slightly. "Of course not. I--"

"I don't give a flying fig what you say. I made a promise I intend to keep." She looked down at his hand. "Now, let me go."


Data String 019

"Jordan?" Mahu called across the dunes. "Jordan?"

The heavy slap of an angry palm against packed sand gave off Jordan's whereabouts somewhere to the left.

The moon was a pale sliver in the sky and barely lit the Tiva's path across the desert. She stumbled to a halt as she viewed the smaller woman on her knees, staring into the sky, shoulders shaking and silent tears running down her cheeks.

Jordan glanced back over her shoulder in time to see Mahu turn and walk away.

"Mahu?" she asked quietly.

The figure stopped, but did not turn.

The blond woman stood slowly and went to stand beside Mahu.

One of Mahu's hands absently reached up to smooth Jordan's short, blond hair. The hacker drew in a sharp breath as her hand made its way to the ID/IC over her eyebrow. A long, tapered finger traced the hardware around the edge, sending a shiver up Jordan's spine.

"Does this hurt?" Mahu asked softly.

"N-no," Jordan stammered. "It did at first...."

Abruptly she pulled her hands away and shoved them into the pockets of her Cams. Then the Tiva took a step back and sank into the cooling sand. After a moment Jordan joined her.

Moonlight glanced off the sand, for a split second blinding Mahu.

"I still hear her screaming sometimes," Jordan murmured. "I promised Etain they would pay, but I can no longer find the strength to fight."

"You don't have to fight alone anymore. Look at me, Jordan," Mahu requested. "Please?"

Hesitantly Jordan looked up. The moonlight cast a pale halo behind the Tiva's dark hair.

"I know you hurt." Jordan's mouth opened in protest, but Mahu laid one gentle finger across her lips. "I only ask you to trust me. Let me help you."

"I trust you," Jordan replied immediately.

"Good. Then let me help you."

Jordan tilted her head slightly to the side and regarded the smile that crossed Mahu's lips and the flickering of emotions that raced through pale eyes. It was a long moment before she could respond, and even then she could only speak what she knew. "I care for you greatly, Mahu Tiva. I trust you with my life. And I trust...that you will do everything to keep us safe."

Mahu nodded slightly.

You...we will survive, Jordan promised silently. The promise was eerily familiar to the one she had made to Etain that day. She only prayed that this promise would not be broken.


Data String 020

Mahu lay in bed, sheets tangled down around her ankles, Jordan tucked securely against her side. She'd planned to sleep on the couch, but Jordan had once again asked her to stay, and Mahu could not refuse her.

The Tiva stared at the ceiling, heart hammering wildly in her chest at the nearness and warmth of the beautiful woman beside her. Jordan had draped her arm across Mahu's stomach in her sleep and she absently ran her hand up and down the exposed skin, stopping now and then at small scars.

Wonder how she got this one? Mahu mused, running one finger lightly across a feathered scar on the back of Jordan's hand. The blonde woman stirred at the touch and murmured something in her sleep.

It was a long, long time before Mahu slept. And when she did, she began to dream.

A long, bleak tunnel stretched out before Mahu. It was so long and so dark that she couldn't see the end.

Something skittered across her bare feet, making her shiver violently.

It was cold here. Wherever here was.

She had no desire to move forward into the unknown, but something was pulling her, calling her.

Golden eyes looked left and right, seeing only darkness.

Somewhere in the distance a tiny voice sang a childish rhyme.

"Who's there?" Mahu called. Her voice echoed off the walls and seemed to carry on into forever.

"Who's there?" she called again.

No one answered.

There was something behind her. She could feel it now, slowly creeping along like the mist advancing across the mountains.

Mahu turned around, but it was just as dark behind her.

And it was coming.

So close that she could hear its harsh and ragged breathing.

She turned and ran, headlong into the darkness, with her arms stretched blindly forward. Whatever was behind her was getting closer. She could feel its hot breath on her neck.

She ran faster, even as her lungs began to ache and her legs began to burn.

Then, suddenly, she stumbled forward and fell. She closed her eyes and screamed, as she tumbled head over heels through the never-ending blackness.

Searing pain shot through every part of her body as she impacted with a cold, hard surface.

When she opened her eyes, a soft yellow glow surrounded her. Beneath her body she could feel a smooth surface, cool to the touch. The singsong rhyme was louder here.

From within the warm glow, shadows began to move forward.

"Where am I?"

"A place between the here and now," a child answered in a soft melodic voice.

Mahu found that the only thing she could move was her head, so she turned in the direction of the voice. A little girl stood there, hands in the pockets of her yellow cams and a bright smile on her face. Her blue eyes shimmered and her long, pale hair shone golden.

"Hello, Etain," Mahu whispered.

The little girl smiled.

"Why are you here?" Mahu asked. "Why am I here?"

"You need answers."

"Yes, I do." Mahu waited for the little girl to speak and share all her otherworldly knowledge. But she remained silent. "Well?"

"I can answer one question."

"But—." Mahu paused. A searing pain pulsed behind her temples and traveled to her heart. "But I have so many—."

"One, and only one."

"Can I save her?" the nomad finally asked.

Etain smiled gently. "That's not the question that needs answering."

"I don't understand." Mahu blinked, confusion making the throbbing in her head almost unbearable. Pain tightened her chest and she found it difficult to breathe. "I need to know how to save her."

"You know how." The little girl paused and tipped her head. She seemed to be listening to something that only she could hear. "I must go now. You've asked your question."

The wrong question, Mahu cursed. She struggled to move her arms, to reach out for the child, demand answers, and not let her go till she got them.

But the girl was fading away.

"No," Mahu cried. "Tell me how to save her!"

"Seek the truth," the girl whispered as she disappeared.

The dream faded and Mahu awoke with tears in her eyes and a lingering pain in her chest and head.

What truth? She wondered. What do I do?

There was one person who might know. Quietly she slipped from the bed, dressed, and left the guesthouse.

Data String 020/B

Mahu paced the front room of Attalus' small living quarters. It was sparsely decorated, in keeping with strict tradition - less is more. One worn, wooden chair faced the curtained window, and a small table sat beside it with an orb casting odd shadows against the wall.

"Stop pacing, child. You will make the floor dizzy." Attalus popped his graying head around the corner as he spoke in his aged, warbly voice. He smiled at Mahu and told her to sit. She shook her head, but ceased pacing. "What is on your mind, that it brings you here at this hour?"

Mahu looked up and met fading eyes with her own, vibrant ones. "I need answers," she stated simply.

The old man nodded and took the lone chair for himself. "Go on."

While Mahu's body had stilled, her mind was raging. "My visions speak of finding the truth to save Jordan's life." Mahu paused and turned weary golden eyes on the respected elder. "But I don't know what that truth is or where to find it."

The old man stroked his long gray beard. "The truth is always in our hearts. We just have to find the key to unlock it."

Mahu growled low in her throat. "Sometimes I think this whole ╬cryptic' stuff is because no one knows what the hell is going on."

Attalus chuckled. "Perhaps. Or perhaps it's because I know the how and not the what."

"Huh? Nevermind. Enough already. Just tell me what I'm suppose to do."

He shook his head. "I can't tell you what to do, Mahu."

She sighed and ran her hands through her long dark hair, pushing it impatiently behind her ears. "If you don't know and I don't know—." she mumbled and headed for the door, her questions still unanswered.

As she left, Attalus called softly, "Someone always knows, my friend. You just have to ask the right question of the right person."

Data String 020/C

Over breakfast Jordan brought up the topic of leaving.

"Do you really want to come with me? Even though I refuse to fight GLOBAL?"

Mahu nodded and smiled. "Someone has to keep you out of trouble."

Jordan grinned weakly.

The Tiva had decided not to discuss it any further then their plans to leave, but Jordan had other ideas.

"I just wish I knew why," she said. She looked at Mahu's strange golden eyes. "Why? Why did they all have to die? Because of Tria's truth? Because of what she thought she knew?"

Mahu blinked wide eyes, but Jordan didn't notice as she seemed to talk to herself.

"What was so damn important that I believed in Tria without question? That I risked mine and Etain's life to find it?" Jordan grew quiet and began to push the remains of her breakfast around her plate.

"I know where you can find out."

Jordan looked up quickly. "Where?"

"Trinity."

The hacker shoved her plate away and stood up from the table. "They'd kill us before we even got to the front door."

"We don't need the front door."

Jordan childishly covered her ears. "I can't hear you. I'm not listening. Not gonna do it--"

"Hey." Mahu came around the table and put her hands over Jordan's while she stood less then a few inches away.

Blue-green eyes looked up. Slowly she lowered her hands. "I'm afraid, Mahu," Jordan admitted. "I'm afraid of getting you killed."

"Why don't I worry about me? Huh?" The Tiva brought her hands up to Jordan's face and gently traced her jaw line from ear to chin before dropping her hands back down to her sides. "I won't let anything happen to you, Jordan. I promise."

It's not me I'm worried about, Jordan thought. She stepped back from the heat of Mahu's body and crossed her arms over her chest.

"Let's just get out of here," the hacker said. If there's a safe way to find out what the truth is then I'll do it, she thought as she walked away.

Golden eyes widened as they saw a shimmer of green light.

Data String 020/D

They'd packed lightly and left on foot early the next morning. Soon sweltering, blistering heat forced them to travel at night and sleep during the day.

They traveled in the moonlight, Mahu's keen senses keeping them on the path toward their destination on the coast.

One day's journey from New South Beach - as the sun was just beginning to rise, and the travelers were bedding down for rest - Mahu leaned up on one elbow and watched as Jordan arranged her bedroll.

Jordan was cursing under her breath.

"You know, if you sit on it then spread it out, the wind won't send it flying across the desert." A single, dark brow rose up beneath Mahu's hairline as Jordan turned to her with a not so amused look.

"I'm not having trouble with that, thank you. I'm trying to find that one patch of sand that doesn't have a lump in it." She slapped at the blanket and the sand beneath it, arranged her body, cursed some more, and got back up to slap the same patch of sand.

"You're nuts. You know that, don't you?" Mahu asked with a chuckle.

"So I've been told," Jordan mumbled.

Mahu grew serious as she watched the young woman finally get comfortable. "You know, we can still get the answers you need."

"No." Jordan shook her head as she lay on her back. "Forget it. The quest for the truth killed Etain. I won't let it kill anyone else."

Chest aching, Mahu looked at the ground.

"I've disappointed you, haven't I?" Jordan asked, turning her head to the side. Mahu was resting on her side, her head braced in her palm. One shoulder shrugged.

"No. It's not about me, Jordan."

"What is it about then? Why are you here with me?"

Mahu hesitated, twirling an unrecognizable pattern in the sand with her fingers. "I promised to protect you█"

"But why?" Jordan interrupted. "Why risk your life for me?"

"I care about you."

Painfully Jordan closed her eyes. "You don't even know me."

"I know that I found you in the desert for a reason, and I know that I'm suppose to protect you."

You don't know me at all, Jordan wanted to scream. You don't know the stupid mistakes I've made, or the things I've done.

But Jordan said nothing. Mahu's simple confession had hurt. GLOBAL had taken everything she loved, and there was no way she could care about anyone or anything ever again Ď not if there was the possibility that they'd be taken from her too.

Not if you stop GLOBAL, a little voice said.

How? she wondered.

"Jordan, I know you don't want to hear this, but when I was at Trinity I found a sub-level that looked like it had been abandoned for centuries. I don't know as much about computers and programming as you do, but I think I found an archival Com."

"So? Archives are all over the place. That won't help."

"No. It was an archive for GLOBAL."

The hacker sat up quickly and turned to face Mahu. "What did it say?"

"I don't know. I couldn't break the password." The desert nomad watched as Jordan's eyes gazed into something unknown, her mouth open in surprise.

The sun was beginning to heat the air and sand to uncomfortable levels. Jordan shifted and gazed out across the desert. Her breathing was harsh and ragged.

No. There's no way I'll risk it all again. I can't afford to lose the one person in this world that I trust. But I want to know. I want to know so badly what killed my baby.

"Get some rest," Jordan finally said. She lay back down and rolled away from Mahu. Something tugged at her chest, demanding her to turn around. But she refused.

"Could we really get into Trinity undetected?" Jordan asked quietly.

"Yes. I have a program, but it was damaged."

"I can fix it." She'd find Tria's truth. But what then? I don't know, she admitted. I just don't know.

Data String 020/E

As they walked through the night once more, the moon and the faint glow of Mahu's OD pad lit their way.

"It's not damaged, just not complete," Jordan said.

"I wasn't able to save the entire file. Can you fix it?"

"I think so." Jordan tapped at the pad, bringing up window after window. "If I can figure out exactly what it does I can rewrite the missing code." Or I think I can, she silently corrected herself.

"It opens some kind of a door," Mahu said with a shrug. "That's all I was able to find out."

Jordan nodded as she jacked into the OD. "I'll see what I can do."

They continued on through the darkness. In the morning, Jordan returned the OD to Mahu for safekeeping, and they slept for a few hours before continuing on.


Data String 021

Their supplies had dwindled to nothing, so they'd decided to re-stock while at the seaside city of New South Beach.

The downtown area was busy, filled with humidity, sweat soaked bodies, the smell of suntan lotion, and dozens of different foods. The beaches, once miles from downtown, were less then half a mile now. Tall, metal encased buildings sparkled in the sun, and no one noticed Jordan and Mahu.

At an old, abused ATM, the hacker pulled a stolen Ident chip from her back pocket, and they made their way with a pocketful of cash.

The main strip was filled with hotels. They chose one on the seaside, on the top floor, with a nice view. The sun was beginning to set, bathing the town in unearthly shades of pink.

"I'm going to go see what kind of supplies I can get," Mahu called as she walked to the door. "Anything in particular that you want?"

"Not really," Jordan said. She wondered into the bedroom.

"Okay, I'll be back soon."

Jordan flopped onto the bed and closed her eyes. After a while her arms flailed and smacked the wall as she surged out of powerful dreams and into the waking world. Pale light streamed in through the slatted window shades.

She blinked furiously, holding back tears, and stood shakily. As she got up and went into the living room, she clicked on the VMC.

"Tomorrow will be sunny, with a 90% chance of rain," the newscaster said.

"Uh huh," Jordan mumbled, roaming around, setting up a pan of water on the two burner stove. She set out a plastic cup and tea bag.

"And the latest news from GLOBAL after these messages."

She sat on the couch to wait and ignored the throbbing headache that pulsed through her temples. An annoying salesman on the VMC was trying to sell Rovers 'Half off.'

"Change channel," she called grumpily.

There was nothing on.

She got up to check on the water, but as she stood a red dot appeared on her shirtfront, directly over her heart.

The Laser323 shattered the hotel window and scoured the couch cushion, sending it into a burst of flames. The blast of the laser nearly caught her in the temple as she hit the floor. Frantically, she crawled across the carpet as the wind howled in through the window and pushed her bangs into her eyes.

They'd found her.


Data String 022

As Mahu scoured the back streets for supplies, her mind kept drifting to thoughts of Jordan.

At a street corner she paused, her throat tightening and a sudden pain pulsing through her chest. She stumbled and closed her eyes.

A familiar, slender body slithered across a plush carpet, as glass sprayed down all around her. She could smell the acrid smoke in the air.

Mahu's eyes flew open. Jordan!

Data String 022/B

Enforcers were everywhere. Each corner. Every light.

Mahu stuck to the shadows of the metal and glass encased buildings as she ran towards the seaside hotel. With each step, her heart beat faster and her lungs burned. The green light that bound Mahu to Jordan seemed to pull fiercely, glowing brighter.

She ran around the corner and stumbled to a halt, before hastily ducking back out of sight. The hotel lobby doors were blocked by well-armed Enforcers.

Silently, she slid deeper into the shadows and crept around the building.

At a side entrance a lone Enforcer stood with his back to her.

She drew in a deep breath, lunged forward, and caught him by surprise. His Laser323 skittered across the pavement, landing a few feet away, as they fell to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs.

He was stronger then she'd thought, easily pinning her to the ground. His silver eyes flashed. She knew it wouldn't be long before a handful of Enforcers came storming around the corner to take her out.

Jordan's beautiful face flashed before her eyes. Bleeding. Broken. Dead—.

She snapped his neck and tossed him to the side.

As she grabbed the door handle she hesitated, then retrieved the Laser323.


Part Six

Data String 023

Where are you, Mahu? Are you safe? Did they find you too?

Wind howled through the shattered hotel window and plastered her sweaty bangs to her forehead and into her eyes. She didn't dare breath, let alone move. Her spot behind the couch afforded very little protection.

Slowly she slithered on her belly across the plush carpet, the smell of smoke and burning fibers making her gag. At the edge of the couch she stilled and listened carefully.

Nothing but screaming wind, licking flames, and sparks from the VMC box. She peered around the corner, hidden mostly by the thick leg of the end table.

Instinctively she reached for the OD pad she always kept in the back pocket of her Cams, only to remember she hadn't carried one since Etain's death. Mahu still had the OD with the newly re-made program. With a muttered curse she turned around and crawled to the other end. There was a seven-foot gap between the couch and the exit.

A clear shot for her attackers.

They must be on the floor above, in the hotel opposite this one. How many are there? Jordan kicked off her black boots and hefted one in each hand, then let them fly in opposite directions. One went up in a poof of smoke. One, two three—the second blazed to life halfway in its arch to the ground.

One assassin?

Somehow she had to distract him. Her eyes landed on the jack concealed by the carpet and the leg of the other end table. She pulled on the cord and the phone box thudded softly onto the carpet.

Her fingers stilled over the touch pad. What the hell is the name of the hotel? Sea Something. No, Seaside. Think. Dammit.

"Operator. How may I place your call?" a bored voice asked.

"Um, my friend is staying in the hotel next to this one. What's it called again?" Jordan asked.

"Sea Breeze. Would you like me to patch you through, ma'am?"

"No. No, thank you." Jordan disconnected the link then turned the box over in her hands. She jacked into the port on the bottom with her ID/IC and pulled up the schematics of Sea Breeze and narrowed down the possible choices.

"Room service?" an equally bored voice asked, as Jordan jacked into room service.

"Hi, can you send up party platters of some kind to rooms 612 through 615?" Jordan asked. She shifted on the floor, willing her legs and feet not to fall asleep in their awkward position.

"Oh, what kind of party?" The voice sounded less bored now.

"It's a surprise. Ricky just turned sixteen."

"A birthday party?" the operator asked. Jordan murmured an ╬uh huh.' "We have a special for that. Would you like me to send it up?"

"That'd be great," Jordan gushed. "Can you send it up as soon as possible?"

"Of course. Who will this be billed to?"

Jordan's grin widened and it was on the tip of her tongue to say GLOBAL. "George Riley, my husband. He'll take care of it. How long do you expect it will be?"

"Not long, dear. Twenty minutes?"

"Ten minutes. And my husband will make sure you get a big tip for being so helpful."

"Thank you. Tell Ricky happy birthday for me."

"Of course, and thank you." Jordan severed the link. Ten minutes was a lifetime. One she wasn't sure she had anymore.

Data String 023/B

Time's up!

The operator had promised her ten minutes. It was now or never.

Jordan sucked in a lungful of air, blew it out harshly between her teeth and lunged for the door. The assassin barely had time to ignore the incessant knocking on his door before he realized his target was slipping away.

The Enforcer cursed, sighting down the scope and catching a flash of blond hair as it flew out the door. He fired anyway, sending flaming bits of the door scattering in every direction.

Data String 023/C

Jordan rushed down the carpeted hallway to the emergency door. She threw it open and slid on socked few down the first three steps before grabbing the rail and dragging herself to a stop. She ripped off her socks before continuing down.

She ran around the corner at the bottom of the stairwell and slammed into an Enforcer.

For a brief second she struggled, but he pressed her tight against his chest, one arm in a strangle hold around her throat.

She closed her eyes, suddenly exhausted.

How did they find me? Did they tie the stolen Ident chip to me? Did an Enforcer see us and we didn't know it?

How? Dammit, how?

The Enforcer turned towards the lobby but stopped mid-step.

She felt the heat of the laser blast as it passed her shoulder and hit the Enforcer solidly in the chest.

He dropped to his knees. Jordan opened her eyes and stepped to the side as he fell face first to the worn linoleum.

She looked up and met Mahu's golden eyes. Eyes so fierce and bright, that Jordan took a fearful step back.

Mahu suddenly grinned, a lopsided grin, that made Jordan's fear vanish.

"Let's go," Mahu whispered.

Jordan nodded silently, but paused.

Where could they go? The ground floor was overrun with Enforcers.

She tipped her head towards the stairwell. "Up?"

Mahu glanced back and forth helplessly, then nodded.

As they ran back up the stairs, Jordan absently touched the smooth surface of her ID/IC, and it suddenly dawned on her that Nero had given her the AV3 mod she'd needed to upgrade. If he'd been working for GLOBAL all along he could have easily placed a tracer with it.

"I'm going to need your OD and some tools," Jordan said as they pushed open the door to the roof.

Mahu squinted against the sun's glare. After blinking several times she asked why.

Jordan paused on the top rung of the emergency escape ladder. She tapped her ID/IC. "I need to get this tracer out of my head."


Data String 024

Jordan was jacked into the OD, running a diagnostic on her ID/IC. Her feet Ď in a new pair of black boots- were propped up on a table.

Mahu was pacing impatiently behind her. "How much longer?" she asked.

"You're worse then Etain," Jordan chastised affectionately. "Sit down, it won't be much longer."

A few minutes later, Jordan found the tracer in the ID, just as she'd known it would be.

They'd been tracking her the entire time.

She sat up straight and took the small toolset that Mahu had gotten her and went about removing the ID. It was as easy to remove as it had been to install it. With one exception. The world spun in crazy circles, sending Jordan to her knees on the floor, clutching her belly.

"Are you all right?" Mahu asked, kneeling beside her.

Jordan couldn't move. "So'k," she mumbled, afraid too much talking would make her vomit.

The ID had become such a part of her that its absence had sent her world reeling. It would take a moment for her equilibrium to return. But it would take hours, or maybe even days, for her body to adjust to life without the enhancements of the ID.

After a few moments, Jordan, with Mahu's help, sat weakly in the chair. Idly she held the ID in her hands. She didn't know enough about the tracer's intricate technology to deactivate it.

Suddenly she stood and tossed it on the table, fighting off a wave of nausea as the world spun around her. "Let's go. They'll be here any second."

"Where to?" Mahu asked.

Jordan shrugged. "Anywhere but here."

Data String 024/B

They skirted the light from the street posts and stayed to the shadows as they wandered the back alleys of New South Beach.

"Only a few hours till sunrise," Mahu commented mildly.

Jordan absently nodded, disconcerted that the evening was darker without the ID she'd grown so accustomed to in such a short amount of time.

"What do we need to open the door?"

"Not much. A little power—." Jordan shrugged, and Mahu noticed that her gaze was locked on something no one else could see.

"Having second thoughts?" Mahu asked gently.

"No." Jordan shrugged again. "Maybe I'm just afraid of what we'll find. I dunno."

"You know, that no matter what we find, I'll still be here."

Jordan blinked, as if considering something for the first time. "I hope so," she mumbled. She stopped suddenly and turned to face Mahu, staring into pale golden eyes. "What if what we find we don't like? What if it changes everything? What if-"

"Hey." Mahu took Jordan's shoulders and squeezed gently. "Hang on. I don't know the answers, hon. All I know is that GLOBAL has gone to every length to stop you from finding the truth. Whatever that may be. If it's important enough to kill to keep it quiet-"

"Then it's imperative that we blow the lid off it," Jordan finished.

Mahu nodded and released Jordan's shoulders.

"Let's do it," Jordan said firmly.

"No doubts?" Mahu asked, her eyes intent on Jordan's face.

Jordan grimaced. "I've got all the doubts in the world. But yeah, let's do it."


Data String 025

Mahu knelt beside the COM panel built into the side of an unused bank building. Jordan was jacked into a port, re-routing power from one of the many junction boxes in the city. With the Black Hound out of the picture this was going to be the easiest hacking she'd done in a long time.

"Got the coordinates?"

Mahu spoke a series of numbers from memory. With one or two minor adjustments, Jordan set the perimeters so the portal would open up less then five feet from their location.

"Ready?" the hacker asked, glancing into Mahu's pale eyes.

"Ready as I'll ever be," Mahu muttered. "Let's do it." She readied the Laser323 she'd stolen from the Enforcer and stood.

The hacker jacked out of the port, and stood up. She tapped the OD pad. A blue-white light shimmered faintly a few feet in front of them. Slowly the light formed into a circle with pinpoints of red light around the edges. Three points blazed brightly before connecting into a triangle.

The blue-white light flared briefly within the triangle before becoming a stable doorway.

The hacker nodded to herself, something deep inside finally putting the pieces of the puzzle to together.

Silently they stepped through the triangle of light into a dim room. Bio-beds made up one half of the large, dome shaped room, while computers and monitors took up the other half.

Jordan slowly made her way to the computers and laid a shaking hand on the cool black surface. All the secrets, the truth that so many had died for, lay in this silent console. With a touch of her hand she could bring it to life, and with it the answers she so desperately needed.

But she was afraid.

Mahu came to stand beside her and laid a gentle arm around her shoulders. "We don't have to do this, you know?"

Jordan looked up, her eyes filling with tears. "If I don't do this then Etain's death, and her life, mean nothing."

Mahu nodded. With more strength than Mahu knew a single person could possess, Jordan squared her shoulders and looked around the room. She pointed to the door.

"Make sure it's locked. We may be here for a little while." The hacker ran trembling hands over the flat keyboard, initiating the start up sequence, and praying that she could keep it at minimal power to hide their presence. Mahu had said that this room had gone unused for over hundreds of cycles. Jordan just hoped that it meant they no longer monitored it.

For agonizing moments the computer whirled and groaned, making enough noise to scare Mahu and Jordan into complete stillness, wide eyes staring at each other. Then, suddenly, silence.

A small green light appeared on the screen, flashing on and off.

A command prompt. But a prompt for what, Jordan didn't know. It had been a long, long time since anyone had used an interface as old as this one.

Finally she decided to check out the file menu. Hundreds of bizarre file names whirled past on the screen. Only one caught her attention.

She typed in GLOBAL. It was a series of text files.

Global News

Scientists throughout the world met secretly yesterday.

For several months the president and much of the White House have been in secret discussions on the end of the war.

Scientists have warned the world for centuries that a war using nuclear bombs would cause a global winter.

Scheduled for a press release tomorrow; the president will evacuate as many people as possible to underground shelters. A lottery has been formed and citizens of the US will be notified if they win the lottery. Those that do not win will be forced to find alternate means of survival.

Global disaster is inevitable.

Several more files contained information, and even blue prints, on the underground passages and living quarters. Separate files explained the lottery procedures and the list of names that had been drawn. A couple articles mentioned chaos, destruction, and looting. A scientific analysis contained information on global winter and how many millions of lives were predicted to be lost.

Even more files contained records of the survivors and detailed descriptions of their lives and the life of the underground. Children were born, people died, and through it all scientists vowed to find better ways to live in the dampness and cold.

"Any luck yet?" Mahu asked, as she paced by the doors.

Jordan looked up briefly. "Nothing yet. Nothing that you can't find in any of the archives anyway."

Then, there it was, in green and black. The information that Etain and Tria and all the others had died for. A handful of encrypted files that Jordan easily broke into.

If it was this easy, why had so many people died? Jordan's fear grew with each line of text.

To enhance the lives of those in the underground, the scientists had built the hardware and software for the human race to continue in its daily life, even if the real world around them had died out. Without stimulation and growth the human mind would wither and die.

Soon every human in the underground was hooked up to a bio-bed and living in a virtual world that no one wanted to leave. Not when radiation, starvation, and death very the only things that awaited them on the top side.

They had no way of knowing that a glitch in the program would keep them in their bio-beds for more then 700 cycles.

"Mahu. Come here. I think I might have found something." Jordan waved her over and, with a reluctant look back at the doors, Mahu came to stand beside the screen. Jordan relayed what she'd already found. "These next files," Jordan explained, "are written in a different computer language. It's not compatible with the original programming." If she'd had to guess she would have said that it resembled the language of the OD, that maybe it was even a precursor to it.

"It's a journal." Jordan leaned forward eagerly and read aloud.

"I am the first one awake. The others lie in their beds, pale and silent, and I don't know what to do. I've managed to find the supplies of food and some blankets to keep warm. I've also managed to form a small hand-held that I can use as a journal to tell of my last days. For I know that I am truly the only human that has survived.

"As the power units fail, I watch one by one as my friends and family slowly wither and die before my eyes."

Jordan took a step back. "My God. How horrible."

Mahu gestured to the screen, seeing only scattered text and numerals that made no sense to her. "What about the rest of it? Does it say anymore?"

The hacker nodded grimly. "A lot more." She continued reading the story of a lonely and desperate man named John Sevr. Who, without much mechanical knowledge, tried to fix the power units to save mankind. The entries soon became less regular, until they stopped almost completely.

The last entry read: I've done it! My family is dead, but I have the power now to make the world a better place.

I have no use for the others. In my exile I've learned that I need no one. They can go and do as they please, while I make sure there will never be another global winter.

One file remained.

Jordan took a deep breath and began to read the final entry.

"I've been betrayed by the very same people I saved. A small group that awoke from the bio-beds have taken command. They call themselves GLOBAL, and have taken up residence in the city of Trinity. My city! The city I built to make this world better!

"I've escaped here, to where it all began. They won't think to look here because most of them have forgotten. The others never knew. I had thought at first that they'd opened and read the GLOBAL files. But it's only a perverted sense of irony that led them to choose that epithet.

"I hate what they've done and the lives they've taken to gain their power. I will never forgive them. I will never forgive the fact that I must now destroy the very utopia that I created. Because if I don't stop this, no one will. They will take over the world.

"I'm safe here, but I don't have much time.

"I must abend the program-"

Jordan took a step back and rubbed her gritty eyes with her palm. "That's it."

"That's it? It just ends there?" Mahu asked. When Jordan nodded silently she said; "I don't understand what happened."

"I'm not sure."

Mahu waited for her to explain, but when she remained silent Mahu stood and began to pace. "I don't understand," she murmured. "In my visions I never saw this man. Why couldn't I see the truth?"

"Because his ╬utopia' had become his only truth." The hacker paused. Slowly she looked around the room. "That's why Tria's truth wasn't in the matrix—. Why we couldn't find it—. They stopped him before he could abend the program." Jordan stumbled backwards and slid down to the dusty floor. Mahu knelt beside her, concern bright in her eyes.

Jordan looked up into golden eyes filled with uncertainty and fear.

"We're still in the program, aren't we?" Mahu whispered.

Jordan nodded.

"Then we've got to stop it. Right?" The desert nomad stood quickly and wheeled to face the computer. "He was going to do it here. Wasn't he?"

"I'm not sure. If he was using his hand-held he could have accessed the main computer from anywhere down here." She paused. "But it's not likely."

"Then we can stop it." Mahu turned back to Jordan. "Right?"

"That's the theory," Jordan replied hoarsely.

Data String 025/B

"Are you ready?" Jordan asked, turning to Mahu in the semi-darkness.

"Yeah, let's get out of here."

Jordan opened another portal and they surfaced topside, at the base of a mountain that overlooked a small city.

They sat in the shade of a dying Maple tree.

The sun was shining brilliantly and reflecting off the metal and glass encased city.

In a few moments nothing would ever be the same again.


Data String 026

"I wish abending the program would bring Etain back," Jordan said as her fingers touched the marred surface of her IC.

"I'm still not sure I understand," Mahu said, delicately directing the conversation away from Etain. "Call me dense if you will."

Jordan smiled softly. "You're not dense. I'm not really sure I'm right anyway. My basic understanding is that abending the program will stop GLOBAL."

The nomad nodded. "But other than that?"

Jordan shrugged. "Other then that I'm just not sure. The very world we live in holds no truth."

There was silence for a long time. Mahu intently watched the city, not knowing what to say.

"What now?" Jordan asked.

"Let's do it."

Jordan looked at her friend with a grimace. "No doubts?"

"Oh, I've got all the doubts in the world." Mahu grinned. "But, let's do it."

Data String 026/B

Jordan had interfaced the OD with the computer to make the search for the program code easier. Now, as she sat on the hillside, with streams of data rolling past on the OD pad, she hesitated.

She looked up at the blue sky and the snow-capped mountains on the other side of the valley that cradled the small town not far below them.

What if there was nothing else? What if- Mahu's long slender fingers gently encircled her shaking hand.

Jordan drew in a deep breath and pushed the button.

They watched as the brilliant yellow light of the sun slowly faded to a sickly yellow. The grass dulled and shrubs and brush withered and died before their eyes. The wind began to howl and scream.

In the city below them, Informers and Enforcers eyes flashed then went blank as they fell to the ground. Rovers screeched to a halt, and an Air Transport fell from the sky. Green lights from ID's and ID/IC's blinked rapidly before fading into nothing. The constant whir and groan of motors died, as all electronic equipment ceased to function.

Then suddenly everything was gone.

As if it had never even existed.

Jordan blinked rapidly, but there was nothing but darkness. "Mahu?"

"Right here," the other woman whispered. In the darkness she found Jordan's hand again and lightly grasped her fingers.

The hacker tapped the IC above her eye, reassured by the angry little buzz it gave off.

"Lights on."

Track lights all around the grid room burned to life. Bio-beds were scattered around the room in a fashion that used as much of the space as possible. Some of the beds had been broken, their pieces scattered around. Wires hung from some, and the remains of ancient bones rested quietly in others.

"What if someone hacks the program and restores the files?"

The blond hacker shook her head. "See that COM panel way over there?"

Mahu nodded and they started walking towards it.

"He created the program to wipe itself clean if it were stopped abnormally - abended. There is no trace of it left in the computers whatsoever. After I destroy that COM panel and open the doors to the topside, GLOBAL has no power over us whatsoever." Jordan stopped next to the panel, absently tapping the flat keyboard. She punched a few buttons and brought the COM panel to life.

"I found this when I was searching for the program code."

A large blue, green, and brown Earth loomed up on the screen. There was no need for Jordan to explain the computer simulation as it ran through the wars and the Earth was destroyed. Next it showed a period of years where a number of topsiders existed, then died out in the wake of nuclear winter. The sim showed little activity from the underground dwellers, but as it continued to run, the Earth began to show signs of life again. Hundreds of years later grass, trees, rivers, and even small wildlife covered the Earth.

Abruptly the sim stopped.

Mahu looked at Jordan with questioning eyes.

"Look at the time stamp," Jordan said.

"3002," the Tiva read. Her eyebrows rose to hide beneath her bangs. "That's over two hundred years ago," she whispered.

Jordan nodded. "We can go up to the surface. The real surface." She knelt in front of the gray metal panel that housed the electronics for the COM. "All I have to do is short this out to open the doors." She unhooked the latches and pushed the panel open, looking up at Mahu as she did so. She paused. "Are you okay?"

"I don't know."

Jordan wrapped her hands around a large bundle of multicolored insulated wires.

"Wait! What if it's a trick?"

Jordan paused. She waved her free hand around the seemingly endless grid room. "What else is there, Mahu? We can't go back to the program, and I can't make a new one. Code like that would take years. We'd all die before then."

Slowly Mahu nodded, her pale eyes still hesitant.

"It'll be okay." Jordan pulled the wires taut, until they snapped, sending sparks flying in all directions. Darkness and silence descended. It lasted for so long that Jordan began to wonder if she'd made a fatal mistake.

Then suddenly they could hear the screaming and groaning of metal hinges that hadn't been used in over a thousand years.

At first only a sliver of bright light could be seen. Then the rust fell away and the doors flew open. They held up their hands to shield their eyes from the intense sunlight.

Jordan blindly grabbed for Mahu's hand and dragged her towards the sunlight. As they reached the doors, a warm breeze ruffled Jordan's hair. She breathed in deep and caught the scent of strange and wonderful things. The sun beat down on her pale skin; the kind of warmth she'd never felt before.

"What now?" Mahu asked, her nostrils flared, as she breathed in deep the scent of pine trees, grass, and wildflowers.

"I don't know." Jordan looked around the vast and rolling countryside then back to the large metal doors. "The others will follow the light and end up here."

"No. I mean, what do we do now?"

Jordan's eyes widened, startled by the question. She paused as a faint green light leapt from her heart to Mahu's. She blinked several times and the light was gone. It had only been her imagination.

"I was hoping you'd come with me."

Mahu smiled. "I'd like that."

ABEND

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