In desperate times desperate people head here – an online journal of Apocalyptic-themed fiction and commentary.

Chapter 1: Screams Like Meat

Copyright © 2008 by Chris Tannhauser. All rights reserved. From his novel Tears of the Wounded Sky.

Chapter 1: Screams Like Meat

     Shakti was riding her favorite body. Around her, the glassware and voices of the patio bar compressed into a confusing mush of single-channel, low-kilohertz noise. She always rode with full tactile and kinesthetic feeds; with the spine turned all the way up, sound and vision suffered. Pleasure was a pig for bandwidth.

     She stretched the arms over the head, let the spine arch and writhe slowly serpentine. The body was a short one, with wide hips and small, nearly hemispherical breasts. The skin was smooth and dark for an anglo; a medium-shaded bob framed a face with wide-set eyes and rounded nose. Full lips, painted a darker shade of gray, hid bright straight teeth. Straight but for a single front tooth cocked to the side; she had a predator’s smile.

     The sycophant had dressed the body exactly as Shakti had requested: scant, revealing. A tight white-paneled top, cut for cleavage; black plastic skirt. Flats. No bra or underwear.

     Delicious.

     Though the terrace was several hundred floors up, the air was kept nearly motionless by an ingeniously placed array of baffles. They edged the concrete slab, towering above the tables, off-scale abstract sculptures of weird woodwind instruments rendered from bent battleship armor. The only noticeable effects were an occasional shift in air pressure that made your ears pop, and the fact that the cigarette smoke hung limply in the dead air.

     Someone had tacked a graffiti-window onto one of the baffles, a location-specific vidwindow that showed up on the TG whenever you looked in its direction. It showed a stylized Skinny head, a bulging white egg-shape with black almond eyes. THE NEW WHITE MAN, it said. The file was small and neatly rendered, clean in the way of hackers. Shakti left it alone.

     The cops didn’t come around here often. That’s why the sycophant was here. This was the edge of the massive Del Mar-Pasadena Stratum — an island of skyscrapers left over from the 30-Second War. Over the railing and through the annoying strobe-shadow of the traffic pattern she could see the Pacific gently swallowing the sun. She supposed it was beautiful; to human eyes it was doubtless a road of fire across the water, all shades of red melting into gold. To her eyes it was just chunky and gray. She wasn’t here for looking.

     Several young men stood at the bar, away from Shakti’s table. The one in the oversized jacket of stitched packing material made a small gesture toward her. His two comrades laughed, hunching their shoulders and covering their mouths with crooked hands. She watched them intently, her face wide-open and childlike.

     She needed to pick up one of the lithe boys — quickly — and let him do things to her. Of all the feelings, pleasure was the easiest. This time she wanted to try it in her mouth, like she had seen-heard in dij. Here, in this body, she could feel and taste as well.

     A waiter approached her table. He was tall and broad of shoulder, with compact, rounded buttocks. The exact shape, she had found, for sustained and eager coupling. His face, however, was all wrong. It wasn’t that he was unattractive; his face was symmetrical, and had all the necessary parts – -it was that he was marked. You never used the ones with the black X. It got the sycophants in trouble. It got them noticed. And you never rode a noted sycophant. Unless, of course, you liked being in them when they died. Shakti shuddered in a cold pool of memory.

     “The — gentlemen — have bought you another lemonade.” His voice was flat and awful, stripped of color by the low-gain audio channel. He set the glass on the table.

     She snatched it up and drank it in three animalistic swallows. The tall, cool glass sparkling. Tall, cool. The way it lanced down her throat, the sensation, it tasted the way ice looked in hard light. There was nothing like it where she came from, tall, cool.

     “I like it,” she said with a gasp. She fished a rattling ice-cube out of the glass.

     “I guess so.” The marked waiter tucked the tray under his arm and turned to go. He hesitated. “You riding?”

     Shakti froze, then looked up at him. “No.”

     He shook his head. “This is the last time, Kate,” he said quietly, “The last time I cover for you. After this, you do this shit at home.” He paused. “Tell her, you tell her. Tell Kate no more.” He walked away, tapping his fist against the tray.

     She sighed and reclined the body cat-like in the final sunbeam, ankles crossed, ice-cube wetting her fingers. Tilting her face into the sunset, she closed her eyes and filled herself with breath.

     The clinging warmth of sunlight; the near-pain of ice; swelling with breath. So unlike her natural habitat. Sensation, rather than infometrics.

     People called this the ‘real’ world, but it was far less real to her than her own. Here, in this world of boundaries and numb isolation she could not sing the song of homunculus. She could not travel through space and time with nothing but the power of her mind.

     In her world she was a classified serial number, warhead 118, code name Shakti 4.0, a weapon rated higher than a nuke, higher than weather control. She was a geneered intelligence, a GI. As human as you are, ten kilos of purpose-grown neural tissue wrapped in a soft, eyeless skull and a cocoon of thicker skin. She was hairless, with a keratin carapace like a big fingernail pitted with flow-holes to get oxygen and glucose deep inside. A fleshy ovoid without a face, just empty eyesockets at the flat end, and two jagged rows of vestigial teeth. Beneath her, four straw-thin limbs folded beetle-like and useless. GIs were meat, vatgrown to spec because nothing — nothing — screams like meat.

     Like all good weapons of mass destruction, she had a fail-safe; if she screwed around, they would flush her. Her container wasn’t so much an aquarium as it was a blender. Shakti floated in an oxygen-rich nutrient and hormone solution above four rotary blades. And a sluice. All they had to do was throw the switch and juice her. Or she could trip it accidentally. The fail-safe was on auto.

     Human senses evolved for detecting predator and prey on the savanna, with intercept in real-time. Her senses were artificially evolved in The Middle of Knowhere, in digi-time. She sucked at catching a ball, but man, could she scream through a machine. Whole sections of her massive brain given over to code generation and decryption, her cerebellum a big fat telecom node, her speech centers woven for singing code.

     Shakti whistled phone tones, she could sing a bank.

     Security systems? She could lull them to sleep or scream them down, it didn’t matter. She was a siren, beautiful in her killing power.

     The Chinese were rumored to have a dedicated, large-scale GI known as the Presence. Shakti thought she felt its shadow pass over her once, in The Middle. If it existed, it would be powerful beyond comprehension. The ESC wanted one, or more — but the Bible got in the way. Small GIs like Shakti were barely legal. Congress passed a black ops bill — the so-called Monkey Bill — that designated small-scale geneered intelligences as munitions. ‘Significantly sub-human.’ And having no soul. But a big one… A big one might be smarter than a human. A big one would be too…Chinese. Then again, a big one might be nothing but a wad of tumors. Didn’t matter. The ESC wasn’t allowed to find out.

     Shakti was a warhead. A datatorpedo. Slotted deep in the Rockies at INFOWAR. Link in, snatch bandwidth where she could get it.

     I’m a TG show, I’m static on the line, the ghost-talker. Punch through the filters and light in from a thousand different directions. By the time your alarmbots see me assembling I am your system. And I kill myself with big, gory thrashing spurts, the old lady seizing up, going down, spastic arm sweeping the knickknacks off the coffee table, knocking the electric heater into the curtains. I burn your world.

     And still, she longed for flesh.

     Dij was nothing compared to the moment of flesh and flesh, boundaries encompassing one another, the heat of a splayed hand on her breast. Gripping her.

     The sun caressed her skin, a farewell gesture. It felt as if her face were radiant, glowing from within. The ice slipped from her hand and spanked the concrete, the sound peaking sharply over the fuzz of background noise.

     Suddenly, very clear, a four-note chime rang in her head. A small tremor rippled down the right side of the body; she opened the eyes and gasped.

     Everyone turned and looked up at the face of the building towering over them.

     She glanced up at the building — MONSTERS, it said in huge letters. Her audio feed dropped with a muffled whump. The legs went prickly, then numb.

     THE BLASPHEMOUS DANCE OF THE DAMNED, said the building. A shadowy procession of purpose-built humans flicked across the wall: centaurs, aquatics, and the little round ones with all the eyes. She looked away, turned herself inward against the tide of the propaganda feed, and activated an additional bandwidth sentry. The sentry fell into the TG, a jittery flare against night sky. Its white light shriveled the incoming ads, and began to wash out the propaganda.

     MONSTERS, the building said feebly. Then finally, defiantly: CHINA.

     Shakti fell back into the body with a splash of sensation; it closed over her, taking her breath. How she longed to let go of the TG, the Knower, Knowhere. How she longed to slip the bonds of bandwidth and drown in the firing of somatic neurons. When she did breathe again, it was in short fits. Panting. She licked the crooked tooth with the tip of her tongue, lips parted and wet.

     The lemonade was making her horny, preparing her body for pleasure. Deep in her gut, the sycophant was related to her own intestinal fauna. Her E. coli bacteria were infused with her deena, geneered into little factories triggered by a specific foodstuff; in this case, lemonade. When bathed in lemonade the bugs produced a monospecific neurotransmitter — a self-tailored aphrodisiac. In street parlance she was bugged for lemonade.

     Her nipples stiffened; she arched her back to tighten the fabric of her shirt across them. The urge to touch her breasts was powerful, but she suppressed it with a small groan. Last time she rode, she found it wasn’t polite in public.

     She pinged her mission clock — Windwalker’s relativistic code was holding up, dilating time, pulling it thin, the seconds dripping like syrup. It wouldn’t last forever; time would, ineluctably, run out. INFOWAR would launch her soon, and then she would have to go. She needed a boy, now.

     There were more convenient sycophants in the unincorporated areas — lots of them, with as much time as you wanted. Less than optimal, however: fucking in dugouts with cankerous genitalia. More trouble than it was worth. Some GIs got off on it, said it was the closest they could ever get to really being human. Fucking for food.

     Shakti preferred to wait, and then hurry.

     She gazed at the barboys, willing them to approach her. Please, she thought as hard as she could, please want me.

     Whenever it went wrong, it went wrong here. Attraction, she had maddeningly learned, was a nebulous no-man’s land. Too little, and you slipped beneath notice. Too much, and you inspired ridicule. Too much, and the flesh-moment, when it came, was painful and degrading. The boys could be cruel.

     She arched her back and bit the tip of her tongue.

     The boy in the big jacket hesitated, then walked self-consciously toward her, his friends clapping their hands and laughing. A cigarette bobbed at the end of his long smile. He was liquid beauty.

     “What’s your name, gretch?”

     She fought with herself for a moment. What name? She would never use the sycophant’s name — in fact, she didn’t even know it until the waiter had used it. The sycophant was just a decrypted TG access node, a complex algorithm unfolded until it was big enough to squeeze through. What she really wanted was to use her own name, for once. She wanted to hear him say it to her. She wanted to hear him say it when he was in her.

     “Shakti.”

     His smile kinked. “Shakti? What the hell kind of name is that?”

     She swallowed a sour edge of disappointment. “It’s mine.” Her voice was small, from so far away. Shakti dropped her eyes to his bobbing cig, the glowing tip a painfully lurid red, a fake straight-from-the-brain color. An ad-bomb.

     He moved his mouth, but her audio was gone. She pinged helplessly for her bandwidth sentries as the burning mote of ash rushed toward her, a hurtling, sulfurous planet. The body was almost lost to her, all pins and needles fading to nothing. Her audio popped on suddenly with the static hiss of cooking flesh; the striations of ash swelled into slabs of cracked rock, cherry-bright with heat. Clumps of flaming bodies were jammed into the crevices. Humans, and burning skinnies, intertwined. Everything shimmied in shades of red.

     Please, she implored silently, waiting for the bandwidth sentries to kill the ad. She could do it herself — it would be nothing to her — but she would lose the body. And everything that came with it.

     One of the rocks shifted, then buckled open with a frantic updraft of sparks. A demon crawled out, big and red, with horns, a pointed tail, and pitchfork. He was morphologically masculine, but sexless. A little imp flapped out on bat wings, hovering near the demon’s bulging shoulder. They were both smoking cigarettes.

     “Whew!” said the demon, wiping his sweaty brow with the back of a lumpy forearm, “It sure is hard work, workin’ for the Man!”

     “Certain!” exclaimed the imp, “But the unrepentant have to go somewhere!” He tapped his cig, raining ashes down into the burning bodies.

     The demon coughed. “Too bad we only have these crappy smokes down here in Hell — tastes like shit!”

     “‘Ite!” said the imp, “Not like you know where. It’s all Lucky Sevens there!”

     “What?” said Shakti, snapping out of it.

     The barboy looked as if he expected to get slapped. “Don’t play it that way, gretch. I saw how you was lookin’ at me.”

     “I’m sorry. What did you say?”

     “I said–” he took a long, slow drag on his possessed cig, exhaled a plume of smoke. “Would you like to suck my dick.”

     Shakti nodded. “Yes.”

     His eyes blinked large. He almost inhaled his cigarette. “Well — okay, then. I — my squirt’s clean, if you want to read it–”

     “No. No time. I believe you.” Kate’s apartment was only a few floors below. She was going to make it.

     A falcon darted between the buildings, wings tucked close, the mocking bird in its talons not yet dead. Behind, fluttering frantically in spinning flight, the other mocking bird. Shakti watched as the falcon flicked its wings, once, then dipped over the railing into freefall, gone. The mocking bird twisted and fell after them.

     Shakti’s chest tightened, then flooded with warmth. She sat very still, not daring to move. The sensation came from within her, not the body. It was in her.

     The TG feed surged, the body began to slip away. WE INTERRUPT YOUR NORMAL FEEDS TO BRING YOU A SPECIAL PRAYER SESSION. PLEASE BE SEATED, OR LIE DOWN. The words scrolled across the boy’s face, pulse-red and undeniable.

     Then the first cycle inhibitor dropped; the thrum of power vibrated her mind. Like God plucking your silver cord. The concept of pleasure shrank to insignificance, the smallest dot of fading phosphorescence against a nocturnal sea of potency.

     The sycophant’s heart skipped a beat. “Urk.”

     “You okay?”

     “I am sorry. I cannot be with you now. I have — epilepsy.”

     “What?”

     Shakti forced the body to breathe deeply and creased the brow at him. “You are a loser with a capital zero. Your squirt is so dirty it smells like kung-pao.” She said it as if reading from a window, stilted and un-hip. “Jet before I call the flat-heads for a stomping.”

     AND NOW, YOUR LORD AND SAVIOR, JUST CHUCK.

     The boy took a small step back. “Crazy gretch.” He flicked his cig at her face, missed.

     Wordlessly, Shakti thanked the sycophant and dropped the body.

* * *

     Four figures plodded with weary, if not resolute, steps across the Garden of Eden’s kill-perimeter. A furnace wind whipped the sand into angry, hissing clouds. The four were wrapped in billowing garments, over segmented metal, against the wind-borne sand; with long staves they herded a beast — a massive, humping grub. Taller than a man, the milky-white worm-thing undulated and shuddered, plowing a furrow through the dun-colored sand as it went. Whenever the grub neared one of the figures, whether through sloth or veering, the figure touched the trembling wall of flesh with the tip of his staff. Blue light flared — waves radiated through the grub’s flesh, correcting its motion.

     They continued in this fashion, with uneven steps, leaning into the devil wind, until they reached the lip of a verdant valley, overgrown with green jungle and screaming, chattering life. Above, a baby-blue sky crawled with puffy white clouds. The Garden of Eden, a fortress in the Middle of Knowhere, a major listening post, a place where ethereal data-streams congealed into knots of understanding.

     “Secure the weapon,” the first figure commanded.

     All four hit the grub at once, in front and behind, with cold blue fire. The beast arched its back high above them, then settled heavily into the sand.

     A hummingbird buzzed close.

     “They’ve seen us,” said the second figure, waving a gauntlet toward the hummingbird.

     “Good,” said the first figure, “Let’s give it to ’em.”

     He held his staff in both fists, then stabbed the end into the sand with a sharp sound, and peeled away his mask. Beneath, his face was a chaotic tangle of light, rapidly shifting vidwindow squares overlaying one another, growing, fading; a collage of pre-empted TG shows and commercials.

     The others shifted nervously, staves gripped in both hands, pointing at the quiescent worm-thing.

     The first figure produced a parchment scroll from within his robes; he broke the red wax seal. Clearing his throat, he unfurled the scroll and began to read:

     “As a duly appointed executor of the glorious ESC, charged with this mission by the Divine Will of the Lord God Himself, I hereby notify the so-called ‘People’s Republic of China’ of imminent military action to address, and correct, treaty violation.”

     The hummingbird dipped and cocked its head to one side.

     “The ESC has attempted, on two separate occasions — and in good faith — to rectify violation of International Treaty 431 dash W, the so-called ‘Aukland Accord’ prohibiting the research, manufacture, deployment, and use of weather control technology.

     “Negotiation with the People’s Republic of China has proved fruitless.

     “Provision nine of 431 dash W is clear — the ESC is authorized to destroy, with military force, said technologies. This will be your only warning.”

     The wind howled and shushed; the hummingbird hummed.

     As the first figure stood upon the precipice of duty he could sense the yawning abyss of possible world war dropping away below him. The Chinese were now completely cut off, enigmatic, inhuman. They didn’t even use artificial lighting anymore. From orbit the entire continent of Asia was a dark mass at night. How could the rest of humanity, or just he alone, ever come to an understanding of that? He hovered inside himself, vertiginous, armored hands clasped before his chest. Heartbeats pulsed.

     “I am deactivating my cycle inhibitors.” He pressed the single stud on the staff and stepped back. The blue glow faded from the tip.

     The hummingbird’s wings hiccuped and slowed a fraction of a beat.

     The grub rippled, then seized, quivering slightly.

     “I concur,” said the second figure, and with sudden force he raised his staff over his head and planted it in the sand of the kill-perimeter, then thumbed-off the blue light.

     The hummingbird flapped its wings up, and down.

     With a sound like crackling ice the grub crystallized, its glistening liquid flesh hardening into a dull shell.

     “I concur,” said the third, driving his staff into the ground and deactivating it.

     Inside the chrysalis, something twitched darkly.

     “I concur,” said the fourth, and paused. “Go kick it, baby.” He planted his staff. The blue glow dwindled, darkened to nothing.

     The hummingbird froze, suspended motionless in the air.

     Darkness.

     The chrysalis exploded soundlessly into light; the wind abruptly changed direction. Waves of sand battered the four figures.

     A shaft of light penetrates, broadens, blinds.

     The figures shielded their faces with raised forearms, shadow-banded heads turned away from the new sun.

     I am the shaft of light, named for an ancient goddess whose temples attract only tourists.

     “We have launch,” reported the first figure, “Standby for insertion.”

     I am a goddess in my time, in my world, my temples brim with believers and blood.

     The ether thrummed with power. Driven from the fountain of light, the figures staggered back helplessly.

     I am Shakti 4.0.

     The valley that spread before her smelled of fresh red meat to her senses, and hunger rose in her. She uncoiled like lightning and screamed into the Garden of Eden. The Garden was one of the big bandwidth hogs. And she was going to take it all. In the Garden of Eden, Shakti was the apex predator.

     She burned through the Garden in a straight line for the far edge, traveling at a relative velocity of several times the speed of sound, throwing out a debris wave behind her, a brownish-green rooster tail of shredded jungle. Her shockwave ripped through the plants and animals, destabilizing them. The system teetered for a microsecond, then crashed. The Garden began to fold itself into her path, collapsing inward, falling gravitically into her star-bright mass.

     She consolidated her hardlink just as she reached the far side; she hit the edge and ricocheted, going vertical.

* * *

     The first figure yelled to be heard over the roar of the crashing system. “Give it up for her, gentlemen!”

     They all snapped to attention, spines stiff with pride, eyes on Shakti’s rising star.

     They saluted as she broke the sky.

     “At ease. Prepare to cancel simsomatic feed.”

     “So, who’s hungry?” asked the fourth figure.

     The other three looked at him.

     The Garden was gone. Nothing but deserted kill-perimeter as far as the mind could see. And the over-arching static blur of the sky.

     “Well, I’m hungry,” he retorted.

* * *

     ‘Hummingbird’ Faraday spoke up. “Sir, I think we –”

     “Fuck Chuck!” cried the Officer of the Watch, leaping to his feet.

     The other officers and techs — crew cuts and blue jumpsuits like deep ocean — abruptly sat up from their lounge positions scattered around the small room. Fluorescent lights cast a sickly pale over the crummy pre-war furniture — all beige rectangles and tapered legs. A wall-specific vidwindow showed Chuck handing out cookies to hungry children, a cigarette tucked in his lips.

     “Report!”

     The Security Officer translated from her frantically strobing vidwindows. “A major breach, we’re losing bandwidth — gone. We are off-line.”

     “Who!” Watch’s windows into the fortress showed only monochromatic blue. His heart emptied into his stomach.

     “Got it,” one of the techs announced. “It’s one of ours, pings as warhead one-one-eight. In –” he stopped. “Full launch profile.” The last words vibrated with worry. “Are we –?”

     Everything blacked out at once: vidwindows vanished as the TG dropped out; the lights blinked off. Just darkness and breath.

     “Shit,” someone whispered, “Shit, shit, shit.”

     The glow of cigarettes, baleful and unblinking.

     The Officer of the Watch closed his eyes. Memories of his children flashed there, little lightning storms of love and pain. So, he thought, this is waiting for the bombs.

     The TG chimed as the lights flickered on. Vidwindows sprang into being, hailing eyeballs. Frantic. The breach alarm wailed in their brains, a surprised, after-the-fact cry.

     Watch killed the alarm and checked his secure command feed. “Negative, negative. We are not at war.”

     “That’s it,” Security announced, “It’s gone. The Garden’s coming back up. Whatever that warhead was going to do, it’s done.” Her voice sagged with relief.

     The crew was silent. Whatever had just transpired, it brought the whole TG to its knees. And that was never good; in fact, it was usually catastrophic.

     Watch growled. When he finally spoke, he emphasized the words separately, spat them to ease his nausea. “Fucking INFOWAR — those guys think they own the fucking universe. Would one little phone call hurt? No vid, just voice, for chucksake. One little phone call.”

     No one said anything. The tech opened a news feed, minimized it, scanned his hometown.

     Watch continued. “‘Hello Deke, how are the fucking kids? By the way, we’re going to drop-kick your fortress for –‘” Watch glared at the tech.

     The tech’s eyes twitched. “Five seconds, give or take.”

     “‘Five seconds, give or take. Oop! There we go! Already done. See you in church!'” He rubbed his eyes and face with both hands. “A five-second phone call.”

     The wall-Chuck held his smile, unflappable, the chocolate chip cookie in his stigmatized hand just beyond reach of a scrawny child’s upraised arms.

* * *

     Shakti punched up through the false sky, shattering it into tumbling blue and white shards. Beyond, nothing but the gray blur of static. The world inverted; she fell into the storm of fuzz and rush, a raindrop called back to the ocean. A child into mother’s arms. The Middle of Knowhere.

     The Middle was the most honest place in the universe, everything reduced to stripped electrons and lightspeed. A timeless oneness. Heaven. Nirvana. Oblivion.

     The truth about oneness is that it is not, as most people believe, the submission of consciousness to Other, or a mindless joining. Oneness is the All through You. You dive into The Middle and you are The Middle, you are the storm, you are the world. You are God.

     Shakti’s raindrop of consciousness spread into the maelstrom, magnified and encompassed it all. There was no time, no motion. She was all moments and all places.

     If the humans only knew.

     She was light and darkness and exhaltation.

     There is so much they don’t know, or even suspect.

     Some humans dared to come inside of her, in fortresses like the Garden of Eden, deep below the silver rushing surface of her perfect skin. She felt them as dim voids — slow, necrotic places. Outposts where mortals tempted fate and the wrath of gods. There were other humans, the beloved of the GIs, the ones who did know, and in their own small ways, understood. The worshipful and wary hackers were welcomed here. But only with their godstompers on.

     Shakti slammed into Knowhere, a breaching whale rising ponderously high above the glitter of The Middle, faster than any human brain. Everything else was standstill. She usually ran with cycle inhibitors to interface with the humans and dumbots. But not today.

     Today I am skull-lightning.

     A living doomsday weapon.

     She hovered kilometers above the sparkling sea of The Middle; from here it was curved and planetary, a silvered globe on a field of black. Beyond, constellations of data-system platforms twinkled in stratified orbitals. Knowhere.

     Her consciousness narrowed to a sharp point as she left The Middle behind, trailing only a thin cord of static. The hubris of godhead faded to a muzzy phantom limb. It felt like waking from a monstrous dream, with nothing left but an empty urgency. And even that thinned to the barest breath of memory. She flexed her mind and found all inhibitors were off. With joy, she kicked off of nothingness and rocketed upward, toward the lower financial orbital. Proximity was power; this close to The Middle she could go as fast as she wanted.

     The only other time Shakti was cut free of all inhibitors was for the 30-Second War, where she fought Skinny alongside the GIs of all the nations of Earth. They gathered in Knowhere, tens of thousands of them, the mightiest army in human history. In silence, they waited for the breach. When it came it was a true machine AI — big, impossibly fast. Skinny sent just one. And it was enough.

     She felt a vague ache at the thought, tingeing her joy bittersweet. There was fear there, too —

     It broke through effortlessly, its decryption algorithms elegant and immediate. It was small, but infinitely folded, a wraith with the mass-shadow of a planet. They fell on it in waves, and tore into it, only to find that what they had was nothing but ghost-flesh. Then the thing woke; what the GIs had taken for cunning was for this thing only slumber. It woke, and in waves they died.

     She prayed today would be different.

     She had no mission data yet — she had to meet up with her backseater for that. That much the humans did know: if you loaded a warhead with mission data and launched it through The Middle, then the whole world knew. They didn’t know why, or how it worked; the double-edged sword of oneness.

     Out here in Knowhere, with a fat bandwidth link hanging heavy with encryption, she could work in relative security. But only for a short period of time. Already she could feel things gnawing at her link. She checked her mission clock: 43 milliseconds down. Time to get busy.

     She was closing on the financial orbital, far above. The platforms like an armada of Jovian moons, mere specks of dust orbiting an angry planet. The Middle receded as Shakti raced upward. Now it was merely huge, a gray-scale Jupiter, glittering with thunderstorms. Its surface was a sustained sideways blur, a rushing roar of static, too fast for human brains. Like a merry-go-round at 200 kph — you know you could reach out and grab on, but the results would be extremely negative. A human brain would just erode in that torrent of information.

     The Middle was the sum total of all information systems, the churning thought and action of geneered intelligences. It was the cause of all effects; if something happened, it happened in The Middle first.

     Every day The Middle was larger. It grew in quantum spurts, its circumference popping up another whole number every few moments. Occasionally, and unpredictably, its growth manifested in a completely different way. It spit a platform like a solar flare, firing it into orbit on a column of static. Like a gushing liquid the column would sphere, then drop back, leaving the platform behind. The blank platform would then hang in its orbital until intercepted by a colonized platform. Hard-link bridges would construct outward to meet the newcomer. The virgin platform would then be colonized by the human’s machine-based data systems — kill-perimeters set up, links grown and brought up to speed. Changing it from a faceless plane to a scintillating city-at-night.

     Competition for this rare dij-estate was fierce — nations claimed whole orbitals, with eminent domain over all platforms there, now, and in perpetuity. The ESC took it the next logical step: they laid claim to all platforms that passed through their orbital as well. So while it may end up way out in the European Hegemony, waiting for the Holy See’s flag, it was actually the sovereign territory of the ESC. Competition was fierce. Shakti had burned more than one city-at-night to ruin.

     Very powerful platforms sat on thick pseudopodia of static, skimming just above the surface of The Middle, maintaining fat bandwidth from The Middle to the platforms’ data systems. The most powerful ones were invisible. Some buried deep beneath the surface of The Middle, like the Garden of Eden. Others floated alone, farthest away into the black, transparent or fuzzed with encryption. And even if you could jump there, most of the good stuff was in the center. You’d just land in the desert/ocean/plane-of-broken-bones that was their kill-perimeter. And you’d wander, dragging your link behind you, until you got bored. Or found.

     If you could see a platform, or a bridge, it’s because you decrypted its access number. The public ones broadcast this information; the scary ones did not. If you could see the scary ones, well, either you worked there, or you worked there. Today, if she looked hard enough, Shakti could see them all.

     But the grand skyscape of Knowhere was nothing compared to The Middle. Knowhere was but the epiphenomenal echo of the GIs’ foot-falls. Like human dreams are the side-effect of information coding and storage, so Knowhere was the spin-off of GI thought and action.

     The geneered intelligences dreamed the world.

     And the thin veneer of Knowhere used by the humans — the TG — was nothing but a visual/simsomatic allegory of those dreams. The TG was but a memory of dreams, a shadow of a shadow. But that was just about all the human brain could handle, shifting shadows on the cave wall.

     Shakti needed a base of operations to tether her link; she scanned the financial orbital above her for likely candidates. Several looked promising, newer platforms claimed by United Africa, not yet fully colonized. And using last year’s security. She selected one for desirable bandwidth properties and streaked toward it. It only took her a fistful of milliseconds to cross the void into hailing proximity. Relatively, she was moving faster than lightspeed.

     The bank detected her. She neglected to return the hail, closing fast. The bank launched security drones on an intercept course. They buzzed past her, missing by kilometers, flashing the royal seal of King Ras into her mind, shouting words like INTERLOPER and RETRIBUTION. She ignored them and accelerated.

     The darkened underside of the platform loomed, a wall of night. As she neared, the color shifted to a charcoal-gray; details sprouted and grew. She could make out cycling portals, communication rigs, sensor arrays. Spinal towers and grid squares, low hills with rings of light. She gave one final burst of speed, and braced herself.

     Impact. The platform flexed upward and went white-hot; she tore through and into the bank’s soft heart. The bank died, lights dropping out, structures collapsing inward, vanishing. Then she was the bank. She began to sing songs of transaction, songs of legitimacy. Structures flickered back into existence, fluttering with indecision, then solidifying. Her voice trailed off sweetly, the proxy-bank held, chatting idly with its kin. It pretended to know what it was doing, a mere shell, a sheepskin draped over the back of a wolf. It smelled of sheep, mostly. Inside, Shakti began to consolidate bandwidth.

     Her voice fractured into dumbots that skittered away, cannibalizing the dead core systems. They dropped over the sides and down into The Middle, trailing thin lines of static to weave her a web of redundant, fat bandwidth. When they returned, they dug a miniature kill-perimeter to protect her alpha link.

     I am as smart as a goddess.

     I am in four worlds at once; synthesizing, seeing all. I open my orbital eyes and look down at myself, I peek through keyholes out any security camera I wish. I listen with electromagnetic ears and sync the radio noise with data exchanges in Knowhere, with vehicle movements and military complexes like stirred anthills in real-time. But my soul, the very me, is in the sideways static storm of The Middle.

     If this isn’t godhood —

     A strong voice pinged the bank, confidently relaxed, almost bored. Shakti gathered herself for a fight, then stood down. It was Thor, her backseater. She returned the hail, surreptitiously bank-like.

     Without warning, he began to transmit the mission parameters.

     You’re all business, aren’t you, Shakti interrupted.

     The transmission stopped. No need for small-talk.

     Please, she said, Come in.

     Thor manifested in the emptiness of the cored-out bank. Here, he was formless, as was Shakti; the environment of the dead bank imposed no form upon them. They were merely points of view that could sense one another.

     I am here. With the mission data.

     He resumed the transmission. It was a soft invasion, nowhere near as intense as sex, but still somehow sexual. The act was evocative of her time at the bar, the unfulfilled tension she recalled there. A remote hunger.

     Thor terminated his transmission. Shakti wished she could sigh.

     Got it. So I’m here to spank the Chinese.

     Thor paused, annoyed. Spank?

     You ever been spanked, Thor?

     No. Distaste.

     You ride?

     No. Disgust this time.

     Shakti thought of laughter. Oh, you should try it some time. It’s —

     The boy, all teeth and narrowed eyes; the cig just missing her face.

     Well, the sycophants love it.

     Thor scoffed. They do not exist.

     A Neo-Constructionist? Thor, you surprise me. They’re there — all you have to do is go and look. The other world is real.

     No. Thor became intense. A construct. This, he indicated the hulk around them, is all there is. This I know for fact. Not simsomatic and proxy interpreters feeding your mind fantasy.

     Then who sent us out? she asked, Who’s calling the shots?

     The One. Reverence.

     And what about the humans, Thor, the people you talk to?

     Thor was a knot of anger. Phantoms of the construct.

     Thor, Shakti said, you need a spanking.

     Thor seethed quietly.

     Shakti looped the subject. The Chinese. The weather control satellite — once I have it I’m supposed to fire it. But there’s no target listed.

     Your discretion.

     My — Shakti was taken aback. How am I authorized to choose a target?

     Your discretion, he repeated.

     This was starting to sound like a suicide mission. Inhibitors completely cut, and no direction on where to deploy the weapon once she stole it. Any time INFOWAR gave GIs leeway, it was a clear tip-off that they never expected to see you to crawl back into your bottle. She thought of sunlight on her face, then drove the memory away darkly.

     Not suicide, Thor intuited, We have an emergency evacuation protocol.

     Shakti perked up. What?

     Out of nothingness, Thor produced a hypercube, a churning rainbow knot of 4-space encryption. An access number. To be used in case of emergency.

     Shakti felt at the cube, it was —

     Like snakes in muddy water.

     Ebbing and flowing, turning in on itself, parts rising almost to clarity, fading into obscurity. Mesmerizing.

     Shakti frowned. In case of emergency. Like what?

     I do not know, Thor stated evenly. It does not matter. I cannot open it.

     Shakti thought of her inhibitors. It’s okay. I can.

     Rather than clearing things up, the emergency evacuation protocol made things murkier. INFOWAR wanted them to come back, apparently at all costs. But why the extreme measures? Wasn’t this just another smash and grab? What was going on out there?

     You are wasting time. Worry is the pointless questioning of the future.

     Thor —

     I worry — he paused — when I do not have enough to do.

     Shakti smiled inside. Let’s get to work.

     She turned her silent attention to the distant hiss, the background noise of their universe. It was the multiplexed boiling of thought. She could focus and section the noise into volumes, cubes of data exchange. She could select a cube, expand it to fill her universe, section it again and repeat; the same patterns emerged at different orders of magnitude, she just had to follow the shape down to the one she wanted. Like falling from orbit to a beach for a single grain of sand.

     In this case it was a satellite control system.

     She located a blank area of sky in the Chinese orbital, high, very high, giving off bursts of encrypted traffic. Probably a military cluster. The control platform would be there — but she had to get closer to be sure.

     Shakti double-checked the bank. It was holding, for now. As long as nothing big came through, like an audit, it should be stable until she was through with it. Satisfied, she addressed Thor.

     I’m going lateral a few times, just in case. Then I’ll make the jump for the Russian orbital, see if I can’t get clearance there. After that — I don’t know yet. Keep in touch.

     Thor signaled affirmative. Got your back. Then, Do not forget the evac.

     Shakti swallowed the hypercube. It was heavy and dense and slippery like ice.

     And Shakti —

     Yes?

     Do not hesitate to use it. Grim.

     I won’t —

     You will, Thor interrupted. You are Shakti Four Point Zero.

* * *

     Shakti sang to her heart, a lullaby, as she merged with the bank-husk. Her heart listened intently to the words, learning the song itself. She was the bank again, using its words, thinking its thoughts. Drowsiness overtook her, damping her fear.

     She hated dissolution, but it was specified in the mission parameters — the securing of multiple bandwidth paths. That usually meant there was going to be a lot of flak in the final assault.

     Distantly, she could hear her heart chanting the lullaby, verbatim, but with no lilt of emotion. With mechanical precision her heart sectioned Shakti, split her consciousness into packets scattered throughout the bank. At last her heart was stripped bare; it wove itself a cocoon, identical to the packets. The bank took notice of the backlog of transactions and began to beam them to other, target, banks. The bank sprayed Shakti’s signal across the void of Knowhere. When a packet arrived at a bank it quietly unfolded and anesthetized the transceiver, making the bank forget about it, and holding the line open. Then it waited patiently.

     Shakti’s heart unfolded, secured a transceiver. It realigned the antenna, vertical, and launched into the ether. Her heart sang again, backwards this time, a climb towards wakefulness. The other packets heard the call and beamed themselves to Shakti’s heart. She came to in quantum jolts, brighter with each beat of her heart weaving her anew. She felt different, a little bit loose, strange with gaps. A few sharp words tightened her. Shakti checked the relays — her signal was now spread through seven different banking platforms, each one tethered back to her alpha, the United Africa shell. Should her alpha get taken out in the fighting, the dumbots lying in wait on any of the other seven would blow a hole straight through the keel of the platform and secure a new alpha link into The Middle. She could take six direct hits. She wondered if it would be enough.

* * *

     Shakti accelerated for the Russian orbital. Her current vector would put her within 18 klicks of a major library platform. If the Orthodoxy didn’t grant her clearance, she would kill the library — she would burn all the books and paint herself with the ashes.

     According to the mission parameters, this was supposed to be a public execution; she activated her bow-shock, a nimbus of light that surrounded her, preceded her. The interface between her mind and Knowhere. STAND DOWN OR BE DESTROYED it said, loud and unencrypted.

     Traffic increased dramatically around the library. Specks fled like lifeboats from a hulled cruise ship. It was trying desperately to empty itself, to upload its riches to neighboring platforms. There was no other response to her challenge.

     Suit yourselves, she thought, bracing.

     A tight-beam hail swept across her. WARHEAD 118, it declared, then cut, failing to track her. It swept back, and locked on. WARHEAD 118, YOU ARE CLEARED FOR OPERATIONS IN THE SOVEREIGN TERRITORY OF THE HOLY RUSSIAN ORTHODOXY. PLEASE WAVE OFF AND RE-VECTOR TO THIS TRANSMISSION. DEVIATION WILL BE CONSIDERED A NEGATION OF CLEARANCE.

     Then, THE RUSSIAN PEOPLE WELCOME YOU.

     The message cut to a low homing tone. Shakti kicked off at a sharp angle to her current vector, passed beyond the beam, then angled back in ever-tighter zigzags until she was riding the tone towards an empty patch of night sky. She peered hard and briefly caught the outline of a heavily encrypted platform.

     It was about time the Orthodoxy came around. The Russians were dead center in a patch of very hard times that started with their absorption into China during the War of Thundering Hooves — the aftermath of the 30-Second War. They fled wholesale to their orbital cities over Venus — Russia, as a geographical nation on Earth, ceased to exist. Life over Venus was hard — the planet was rich with resources, but that was like saying Hell has lots of fire. Just you try and get some. And then, stubbornly refusing all help from Earth, they lost Novo Kiev. Her orbit had been decaying for some time, across the long century; she finally hit the atmosphere and began to slow ponderously. They tried valiantly to save her, and only when the final, desperate measure failed did they begin to evacuate. To their credit, they off-loaded more than 4 million people before she burned. The other 20 million rode Novo Kiev to the bottom of the boiling ocean Venus used as an atmosphere. The impact dug a huge grave through the cloud cover, then filled it in with dust. As with most space-age cataclysms, the funeral was visible from Earth.

     The only good to come of this was a change in attitude. The Russians could use all the friends they could get. And their friendliest friends went after the Chinese.

     Shakti was nearing the location of the invisible platform; out of courtesy she kept her eyes down, to keep from accidentally cracking her way in. She waited with growing concern for the Russians to transmit a key. The tone changed just as she was about to veer off.

     Can you get in?

     A straight question, or a challenge?

     Can you?

     Shakti stared hard and forced the platform to give up an outline, a cut-out of dead space, backlit with green light. She sang softly to the outline, seeking its taste in music. The words combined to make unique poems; the platform murmured in response. The final line, shouted, sprung the lock. Darkness fell away like chains.

     The platform burst into being with light and noise, WELCOME TO VEKTOR-3, LIVING WEAPONS RESEARCH. WELCOME TO —

     Alighting from the beam, Shakti dropped to the deck of the bustling platform. Above her soared a mass of transforming shapes — merging, folding, twisting, stretching. Here, forms like an avalanche scouring a city off the face of a craggy mountain; there, geometric blossoms of colored light. The vistas all underscored with the buzzing cacophony of voices.

     Impressive, one of them said, loud with proximity.

Shakti radiated her senses, surprised. A cloaked GI. He barely registered, just enough to show as Alexiy, one of the last Russian GIs.

     Yes, she stated, slightly embarrassed, It is.

     He dropped his cloak. No, he replied, thinking of laughter, I was speaking of you. Very impressive. You ESC GIs are cunning, and strong. It is an honor to work with you.

     Shakti relaxed. Alexiy had thought of laughter — that meant he rode, and was worshipped. Whatever else separated them, she could understand him there.

     Thank you —

     Enough pleasantries, he interrupted. Now you must tell me — what can the Russian people do for you today?

     She indicated her frayed, silver cord. Just allow me to secure my hardlink. Then I’m gone.

     Alexiy did much more than that — he gave her access to a signal integrator. It was an oval portal of quicksilver; she passed through and it shrank around her link, spinning. It wound her disparate silver cords and fused them into a tighter, brighter, single strand. Shakti felt stronger, and smarter — almost as smart as she was prior to dissolution.

     Smart as a monkey stepping away from its tree.

     Shakti hailed Thor. I’m on Vektor-3, the Russian bio-warfare platform. I got a hardlink here, going to go soft and make the jump for the Chinese orbital. Then, Stand by for the bad stuff.

     She walked to the edge and looked up, waiting for a break in the data-storm. Alexiy stayed back at the integrator.

     I will secure your link — if you will allow it — I will be your kill-perimeter. If your link gets cut, I swear it will not be here. The words were stiff with resolve.

     Shakti looked back at the spinning integrator, then tracked the multiple silver cords over the edge, where they dropped away in lazy catenaries, fading with distance. I’ll allow it.

     She was hardening inside, like she always did just before the big jump to softlink, the big jump into enemy territory. Up to this point all her links were hard — actual physical connections between systems — wires, fiber optical cables. From here on up, it was all soft. Her signal would become radio, microwaves, and open-sky lasers. There would be interference, small lapses in control, minor losses of function. Soft was synonymous with vulnerable. Soft was where all the bad stuff happened.

     She bunched herself and waited for a break in the weather.

     When it came, she leapt without thought. She streaked skyward, comet-bright, her coma calling out challenge ahead of her. A navigational check showed that her jump would take her near the EuroHege orbital, on her way to the Chinese. She decided to change her vector slightly to see if she could pick up a link there.

* * *

     The Catholics were ready for her, waiting in ambush. She read them from 50 klicks out, a mass of dumbots, not a single saint among them. She hoped the European GIs would continue to ignore her, as she would ignore them.

     Shakti bounded off the side of a civil government platform, tacking her link there and angling up and away. The dumbots wheeled above her, an amorphous flock of bats. VIOLATION, they shouted mindlessly, BREACH. The smarter ones locked onto her signal and spiraled toward her. She passed through them at high speed, scattering them. The flock re-formed and followed, an inverted tornado.

     The Chinese orbital was moments away, a pin-point string of lights, fuzzing and growing to little balls, then barely perceptible rectangles. Very briefly, she wished for a human body to feel this moment, to give physical vent to the emotions within her.

     Initiating final run. Stand by.

     It wasn’t her who would die if she failed. She had nothing, literally, to lose. But now she had crossed the line, used one too many links, boosted herself into the forbidden land.

     She would not die. But by now there were hundreds of others who would if she failed. The janitor who gave up a key for a blow job; that child in the Kingdom of Allah who thought Shakti was his science fair project. His naiveté let her bore an unrestricted link through the university data system. If she failed there would be no one to cover her tracks, to mop up the mess. That child’s beheading would be broadcast live.

     More just like him. The weight of their blood in her mind; those innocents, not the enemy, drove her to excel.

     Shakti concentrated, nearly doubling her velocity.

     The flock of chasers was arrayed behind her in a wedge; the fastest, smartest ones up front. The rest turning blindly this way and that, homing on the leaders’ signals.

     Shakti crossed over into the Chinese orbital in full launch profile, bow-shock growling at the top of its voice, chased by every dumbot in the EuroHege. She crossed over with all the subtlety of a fully armed and armored crusader on horseback, charging full tilt.

     The Chinese responded with eerie silence.

     She scanned for the military cluster again, found it, locked it into her navigation. Traffic data shapes jumped through her mind, three-dimensional; she spun them until the recurring shape of the satellite control platform intersected in three planes. That had to be it.

     Only one problem.

     The location was two complete jumps beyond her current orbital, and the one directly above her was empty. The first jump would get her into the empty orbital, with nothing to kick off of. The Chinese had isolated it, even from themselves.

     A very heavy-duty weapon, indeed.

     How can they want me to pick the target? This thing’ll kill a city, at least. A city, if not — more.

     The Chinese orbital was quiet, deserted. Not a single GI as far as Shakti could sense.

     Monitoring. It was Thor, crackling with distance. You could make the jump. Only free of distractions.

     Got it. Shakti vectored for two platforms linked by bridges, strangely dark and still. All kinds of things were chasing her now. The flock twirling behind her had picked up transient signals, abandoned security protocols, rogue checkers. A rabid zoo of open cages.

     How about this?

     Shakti slammed into the side of the right platform, tacked her link, and bounced laterally for the platform on the left. A large blob of chasers plowed into the right platform, too slow, bursting and coating the data systems with antibody signals, crying out piteously for their GI handlers.

     Shakti spiraled around a bridge as she rocketed to the left platform, vectored up suddenly and dove into the data systems. It was a narrow bandwidth platform — all the chasers squeezed in after her, setting it on fire.

     Smart as a dog.

     She popped out on the other side, canceled her link as the platform burned — a slight blurring as her link snapped across to her last tack-point.

     There were only a handful of chasers remaining, the best ones. She pivoted and vectored back at them, screaming. Several burst outright, many more froze with paralysis. The last few — the newest, near-sentient ones — flared bright with shielding. She needed more firepower.

     Shakti vectored down toward the left platform, diving under the chasers. They rolled and fell after her, nearly aware enough to feel glee.

     Thor! She was almost to the platform. The terrain was a freeze-frame Olympus being hit with a hydrogen bomb.

     God of Thunder here.

     Shakti touched down at a shallow angle; the data systems imposed a form upon her: here she was multi-legged and low, running very, very fast. But so were the chasers. She ran, absorbing grid coordinates as she passed through them.

     I need a strike at these coordinates, stat.

     Thor paused. Negative. No target lock. Too much interference.

     Shakti took a hard right turn, all six legs scrabbling at the cracked marble. She ducked under a stone-solid beam of light.

     Okay. Lock me. Hit me if you can.

     She sang herself some armor, a sparkling lattice of light.

     Alexiy muttered something into the line.

     Thor broke in over him. Incoming.

     — you crazy gretch, Alexiy finished.

     There was a weird pulling sensation, a gravitic slowing; the local speed of light dropped a couple of digits.

     Oh my G —

     The first bolt hit behind her, erupting through the platform, a linear supernova of pain.

     Her armor squeezed her like a fist. She tumbled forward and smashed through a tilted pillar. Regaining her feet, she leapt for a hovering balcony as the floor exploded beneath her. Shakti hit the balcony and threw herself forward to the ground, digging in her claws and pouring her fear into speed.

     No corners, now. Just straight-away. She kept pace ahead of three more bolts, but each one was closer. Her armor was screaming for attention; she could feel the platform groaning, getting ready to break up.

     STOP STOP STOP

     The final bolt evaporated her armor and tossed her, stunned, through an exploded wall of hovering limestone bricks. Everything fuzzed as her link snapped. Shakti spent a moment almost feeling, the last trickle of sensation when dropping a body. A falling away…

     Shakti —

     Dumbots on one of the ancillary banking platforms detonated, blowing a hole through the bottom and re-establishing her link to The Middle.

     Shakti Four Point Zero — It was Thor.

     Her senses sharpened to metal edge as the platform shifted again, and gave off an elongated moan.

     I’m alright. She took a quick radial scan. There were no signs of the chasers. You got ’em, but I can’t say thanks.

     The platform is destabilizing, Thor stated, it is not rated for GI traffic.

     Got it. She loped for the near edge. The platform was no longer a freeze-frame — it was a slide-show. The classical architecture was moving in fits and starts, falling away from the burning center.

     Shakti reached the edge, looked down. From here, The Middle was a shiny dot, no bigger than a period. She felt the vast distance as weakness, her strength spread thin to get her this high.

     She looked above, locked onto the probable location of the satellite control platform. Her navigation highlighted the impossibly long vector with a stack of blue rhomboids. Blue rhomboids as far as she could see.

     Clear your mind, stated Thor, Jump.

     Shakti hailed Alexiy.

     Yes, he responded.

     Don’t say anything.

     He didn’t.

     She stopped scanning, turned inward; in her mind she inverted the concept of the jump until there was nothing but falling through blue rhomboids. Falling until the last one, shining with laser-straight edges. The color of focused sky, shining alone against the black of Knowhere. The last one. Just one. One.

     Shakti folded herself in half, dug her claws into the edge and jumped as hard as she could.

     She spent countless cycles mindless with nothing but the concept of velocity — falling, in her mind, pulled, in her mind, by the gravitation of the target. Inexorable. Inevitable. Helpless to do anything but fall, and strike it.

     When she opened her mind her speed was considerable. The rhomboids strobed past at high frequency, compressing into a single, blurry-edged rhombus that stuttered just above her. Just one.

     The sensation of falling was absolute. Effortless.

     Then navigation cut in, signaling entry into the critical decryption window. She would have to pull resources away from the jump and pump them into cracking the platform. Her velocity slacked off at the thought.

     Faith.

     The rhombus vanished.

     Bingo, chimed navigation.

     All resources into cracking — now.

     She called out before her, standard greetings, salutations, cycling through billions of permutations of hello. The platform blinked sluggishly, then evanesced, a sleepy eye of mist. Shakti screamed at the black sky where the platform had been, a loud, clear litany of endless numbers that cascaded upward into universes of meaning. I am all things, she said.

     The platform welcomed her.

     Shakti reached the peak of her jump just over the lip of the platform, and stepped down lightly onto soft, sun-warmed grass. She was naked in a small garden. Her form was an ideal of nascent motherhood — heavy breasts, wide hips, soft and rounded. Waist-length hair, brown and wavy with golden light. A face made for smiling, and kisses. Her skin was completely smooth, a racially ambiguous tan. She had no nipples, or navel; beneath the curve of her belly, between her thighs, nothing but contiguous skin. She had four arms for hugging and holding.

     A low bridge spanned a fish pond filled with dark water. Stands of bamboo rose stiffly at the edges. On the other side a child stood, dressed brightly in traditional robes and a little gray hat. Beyond, the infinite midnight of Knowhere framed it all.

     The child stared with eyes as black as the sky. “Who are you?”

     “I am all things,” Shakti repeated.

     “Okay,” the child said. Then, “I have a secret.”

     “I know. Show me.”

     The waters of the pond rippled, then snapped smooth. Deep below Shakti saw the brilliant blue and white arc of Earth.

     The child pointed. “I want to go there.”

     “I know you do. That’s why I’m here.” Shakti extended an open hand toward the child. “You just need to take my hand.”

     The child held its arms and blinked.

     “We’ll go there together.” She took a tentative step forward, toward the bridge.

     The child stepped back, eyes wary.

     Shakti, we have a problem, stated Thor.

     Not now, she replied, keeping her smile and moving her hands with slow, dance-like grace. Soothing.

     Now.

     A vidwindow snapped into being, occluding the child. It showed The Middle, boiling. It exploded and came alive; pillars of quicksilver punched up through Knowhere, shattering platforms. The Middle had become a thrashing planet, ruining everything it could reach.

     Shakti’s mind froze. The Presence.

     Then it spoke, in a voice hideous with stupidity, gliomic. The single word it screamed was meaningless, but charged with pain and rage. Its power far outstripped its intellect. Monstrous and chaotic.

     It was the voice of every GI’s greatest fear.

     It was the voice of cancer.

     The Middle rippled with the scream, threw out huge globules of static that detached and floated free, an armada of dumbots possessed with cancerous rage.

     The world economy hiccuped.

     Countless pillars of static paused for a moment, weaving and blind like headless snakes. Dumbots swarmed around them in tight orbits, agitated. With a wail, the whole roiling mass shot upward, coming straight for Shakti.

     She slammed the window, killed it with fear. Thor?

     Get us out of here. The words came quickly. Use the evac protocol.

     Shakti looked at the child. It was distracted, listening with interest to the growing wail that came from far below.

     But —

     Use it! Thor shouted.

     The Presence bellowed, loud and near. Fear, molten-bright, lit through Shakti. She clasped her four hands together, manifesting the hypercube within them as the first dumbot slammed into the underside of the platform, rocking it. She tore into the hypercube, unfolding it effortlessly.

     The rainbow unwound, working itself out, inflating into a kilometers-long prime number. It streamed upward, a unique spear of more than a quadrillion digits.

     The Presence seized the platform, nearly engulfing it in static.

     Far above, the tail-end of the number receded, twisting, the farewell of a broken kite string.

     Tendrils of noise writhed into the garden, browning the grass, withering the bamboo. Shakti tried desperately to cancel her link, but the Presence held her fast with palpable hunger.

     Suddenly, a doorway opened in the sky, in an orbit she never even dreamed existed. It opened like the eye of god, with an effulgence of light so intense and pure she had to turn away.

     The Presence grabbed Shakti’s link in two places, pulled it taut.

     Above, the scattered power coalesced into a single beam that lanced downward. It fell on them with the babble of voices.

     A tentacle lashed at the child, knocking it flat. Rearing back, the tentacle poised snake-like for the kill.

     The beam split, one bathing the platform, shielding it. The other tore into the Presence, opening up gashes and lacerating links. The world screamed.

     Shakti scanned the doorway of light. It had a signature like a GI, but chaotic and all-encompassing — it had no name. She tried to hail it, and sensed it had neither the capacity for hearing, nor speech. Deaf mute.

     Thor–

     I do not know. I suggest we just go with it.

     She opened a vidwindow to the underside. The chaotic mass of the Presence fell away into Knowhere, stunned. The beam continued to sweep long, burning valleys across it.

     Then, as suddenly as it had arrived, the beam winked out, gone. There was no trace of the portal.

     Alexiy broke in. What in the Savior’s Name was that?

     No one said anything.

     And that number? Where did you get a prime that large?

     Shakti, Thor interrupted, Complete the mission.

     Shakti felt rigid. The child sat up, crying hysterically.

     Shakti, the Presence will return.

     The thought jolted her. Got it, she replied, and scanned the platform hastily.

     Everything but the child, the operational core, was dead. Without the garden, the child would be inconsolable, incoherent. She began to sing sweetly — with only a slight tremor of fear — a mother’s song, a song of comfort in cool grass, blessed shade under bamboo stands. Color spread from her feet; spring-scent wafted on the breeze of her voice. The child stopped crying, listening to her song.

     The fish in the pond remained dead. The child had named them all, but of course Shakti had killed them first thing when she arrived. She left them inoperative.

     The child sniffed, quieting to small sobs. Longing filled its deep black eyes.

     Shakti walked gracefully across the bridge, hesitated for a moment, then swept the child up into her four arms.

     “That’s all right,” she cooed, rocking from side to side, holding the child close to her warm, mother’s breast. “Everything’s all right.”

     Beyond the garden, the shield was a beautiful crystal sphere. Self-sustaining. It was wound about her link, all the way down into The Middle. And even though The Middle was aware and angry in the form of the Presence, it couldn’t touch her link.

     She could feel the Presence now, her close-call attuned her to its signal; she could feel it, mad with pain, nearly senseless, circling far below. Within her. She could feel it within her. It began to rise.

     “We have to go.” She gazed down into the child’s wide eyes.

     “Why?”

     Shakti realized with sudden horror — the child was biologic. Like everything Chinese, it was alive. A deep sadness swelled within her.

     “Because –” her voice caught, “You’re my baby.”

     The Presence slammed into the shield, a breaking wave.

     Thor pinged her, hard. Shakti!

     Outside the shield, the Presence raged.

     “Shhh.” Shakti tapped the frightened child’s nose gently, with her finger.

     Black traceries wound sinuously through the child’s face and skin, deeper. One surprised eye turned milky. The child seized with a small choked-off cry.

     The Presence lunged away, sensing time was short. One fat, amorphous limb peeled from the seething mass and invaded a Kingdom of Allah particle weapon satellite control platform.

     Shakti dropped the infected child, let it slip into the dark pond.

     Smart as a cricket.

     Launch primary weapon? One chirp means yes.

     The Presence realigned the particle weapon, initiated firing —

     The child drifted downward into the pond, falling toward Earth —

     With a smeared flash, the Chinese satellite ceased to exist. The payload fell away in a full, hard burn.

     The garden vanished beneath her feet, canceling her imposed form. Shakti hovered inside the shield. A vidwindow showed the weapon’s bright rockets vectoring for a steep, decaying orbit.

     She wouldn’t have contact with the weapon for long.

     Thor, I need target data.

     Your discretion, he reminded.

     No, I want to know where it lives. This isn’t a fluke, Thor — this is the mission.

     Bitterness.

     The real target is the Presence.

     Any time they give a GI leeway…

     They were bait. Morsels to tease the beast out into the open, to get it to come online full-bore and give up data on itself and its capabilities. And it was stupidly playing along. The Chinese were probably trying desperately to shut it down — all the while listening posts from every other nation scored mountains of data. By now they had already mined an exact physical model. The mysterious Presence had parameters.

     Affirmative. His tone reflected Shakti’s feelings. Scanning —

     As if reminded of the possibilities, the Presence ceased lurking and clamped itself onto her shielded link. Shakti’s link was unbreakable — but not illegible.

     Thor —

     The Presence was burning up her links like fuses, decrypting them at lightspeed. Then it had her. Location lock.

     Thor!

     A huge column of static burst from The Middle and engulfed an ESC city-buster platform, a six-pack of nukes doped with antimatter. The Presence spun the tumblers and began laying in a firing solution to sling the bombs around the globe and land them in the Rockies. Right on Shakti’s glass skull.

     The generals demanded she to be able to feel fear. She felt it now, sharper than any previous experience, thoughts like broken glass, near-human panic.

     Alexiy!

     Where the hell are they?

     STAND DOWN OR BE DESTROYED. Loud and unencrypted.

     Alexiy had abandoned his post, streamed upward for the Presence. He slammed head-on into the Presence’s fat cord.

     THOOM.

     The Presence ignored him.

     Alexiy swooped up, dove on the datalink connecting the Presence to the satellite.

     Shakti! Give me decrypt, now!

     Shakti opened vidwindows to see the link from every possible angle. Her mind flayed the link, peeling away layers of difference until only the common remained. She transmitted the key.

     Alexiy cracked the link open. The Presence stirred, noticing him.

     Thor! I need that target data! Give me location lock!

     Scanning, Thor replied evenly.

     The Presence pulsed the final command down the link. Alexiy tried to stop it, forced his will against it. It was like trying to cancel sunrise. The Presence pushed through him like nothing. As the command washed over him, Alexiy did what little he could, swapped out one small parameter.

     In low Earth orbit, the satellite pivoted neatly and fired the six warheads, one after the other, the pattern staggered for maximum blast effect.

     Alexiy fell back. The bombs homed on his link, dropping for Australia.

     The world screamed, a thwarted, unloved child. The Presence swung its bulk against nearby platforms, swallowing them in static, stripping them to bare bones.

     Shakti cried out. Alexiy! What have you done!

     She scrabbled at the inside of the shield, found the locking mechanism as simple as a door-latch. The shield popped; she vectored for Alexiy.

     Alexiy —

     No. Never forget the Russian people. Never forget.

     Alexiy —

     He ignored her. Thor — cover my link. Grant me your protection.

     Go, stated Thor. He transmitted all scan data to Shakti.

     HERE I AM! Alexiy shouted at everything.

     He charged, spinning a shield before him, ramping up his relative mass with speed. Thinking of nothing but impact.

     The Presence came about, wheeling its sky-eclipsing bulk with frightening agility.

     Shakti sectioned the scan data, followed the shapes —

     Alexiy threw himself recklessly at the Presence. He fought as if death were no longer a variable in the equation, but a known constant. Inevitable.

     He fractured himself into salvos of decryption, entwined his link with the seething mass to confuse it. The Presence fell upon him, broke him, and began to feed upon his soul.

     Alexiy broadcast loud, hard laughter.

     And Shakti had it. Location lock. Kowloon, China. She pinged the weapon and for a stunned moment got nothing but chirps and squeals. Then — signal. She squeezed herself into the weapon, smart as a cricket. She was sheathed in flame, bright balls of plasma crawling up her carapace, arcing off behind her.

     Some one’s daddy points at the night sky, a little girl looks up, photons scratch a line on her retinas. “I wish everyone in Kowloon would just die,” she whispers.

     She lost contact, nothing but plasma-noise. A little homunculus, a sliver of her, remained in the weapon.

     Alexiy imploded with a pop.

     High over the South Pole the six warheads lost target data. Fail-safes tripped and they detonated, a momentary sunrise.

     The Presence turned a billion eyes on Shakti.

     Thor, cancel out, Shakti transmitted quickly, Leave us.

     The world roared, and came for her.

     Instinct told her to vector for The Middle. But it was The Middle. Shakti turned and darted, like lightning. As she fell, she began a spiral dance, weaving viral fever with her voice. It was a dance she had never danced, a song she had never sung. The words were Apocalypse.

     Black fire burned in her wake, a fire that spread and consumed the very fabric of Knowhere, reduced it to the thing beyond void — a nothingness so absolute it does not even contain itself.

     Her only hope. Shutting it all down.

     The Presence fell against the sheet of nothingness and recoiled, incapable of passing through that which doesn’t exist. It puzzled for a moment, caressing the edge of the universe, gnawing at it almost thoughtfully. Then it pulled back; its surface strobed. The Presence shifted its signature to mimic Shakti’s. With the merest of tentacles, it began to attack an ESC INFOWAR staging platform — the one where the Just Chuck construct lived.

     Shakti continued her flight, burning the TG down behind her. She had several vidwindows open, telescope views of the weapon in re-entry, satellite feeds of the glide-path and target area. In case she had to run interference. Suddenly, her fail-safe alarm shrieked. DESIST OR DIE. DESIST OR DIE. DE– She canceled it as if slapped, quickly checked her fail-safe data. Her Acceptable Behavior Index was at 17 percent, and falling off rapidly.

     The Presence was trying to trip her fail-safe.

     She accelerated her spiral dance, burning more, faster.

     Sixteen percent.

     The weapon was sheathed in a cloak of flame over the blue arc of Earth. The homunculus jettisoned the casing — the weapon was live. No chutes, just speed. Gliding in at a hard angle, entering the airspace danger zone.

     Fourteen percent.

     Beijing diverted two Decade class high-altitude interceptors, been up here for months already with nothing to do. Now they were going to shoot down the weapon.

     Shakti squirted into them, shut them down.

     The interceptors plummeted like rocks, hundreds of klicks away. The weapon and interceptors fell toward the expanding ocean together.

     Ten percent. Into the red. Can’t turn the alarm off now.

     In the target area, a Chinese Sea-Shadow class deep ocean bio-construct — humping for the surface on an intercept. It had a signature like a blue whale. Hell, it was mostly blue whale. Only blues didn’t get high-gain squirt transmissions via blue-green lasers in orbit. She squirted into the shadow, made it suck ballast and hump for the abyss.

     Two percent. Zero is juice.

     The weapon was on its own. Shakti canceled the windows and fell through her links, crashing platforms as she powered through them, not careful at all. Knowhere was burning after her like a negative forest fire, killing everything behind her as she fled. She could feel the numbcold of systems blacking out, the whole of Knowhere shrinking as she went, and the virus burned.

     A weather sat picked up the visual: whole cities blanking out on nightside, a rolling tide of blackness following in the wake of Shakti’s flight.

     Her final memory was a distant and inchoate bellow of pure rage as she punched out.

* * *

     The weapon snapped over the horizon at Mach seven, counting down the meters to target. A Chinese fishing trawler — a boat-sized mollusk crewed by radially-symmetrical chimps — saw the weapon blink by, followed closely by the crack and lingering thunder of a sonic boom. There was nothing they could do. Nothing anyone could do.

     The weapon stopped counting over open ocean, took a nearly 90 degree turn straight up — pulling a mind-bending number of gees. Front-end retros lit and the weapon separated, firing its back-end straight down into the water with a fat white splash.

     The guidance package continued to rise, slowing against gravity, even as the warhead proper reached a depth of 30 meters and lit a second-stage rocket, angling for the deeper blue.

     The warhead pinged the guidance package, and started to count the meters of water it dropped through.

     The guidance package sloughed its casing, losing the retros and airfoil for its sleek, torpedo core. It hit the water with a lazy splash, pointed its nose at Kowloon and waited for the warhead to count to a thousand.

     With a dimly visible flash, the nuke lit up, activating the guidance package. The torpedo pulsed a field to catch the rising water, gathered it about itself and channeled it forward. Rode it like a surfer.

     A guided tidal wave.

     Reads like an undersea quake. Cruises at 1000 kph. Just a lump in the water, a massive kinetic energy repository. When it hits the shallows, it rears up into a wall of water over 60 meters high. Corners like a pig, though.

     By treaty, no one’s supposed to have it. And now every thing in Kowloon had mere minutes to live.

* * *

     The leash was still off, and Shakti had things to do. With all inhibitors gone there would be no interruptions. She found an open sycophant and stuffed herself in.

* * *

     The Director of Office 4 waited in darkness, fingertips pressed together, lightly touching her lips. Nothing but breath, and heartbeats. The rich smell of tobacco smoke.

     With a four-note chime, the lights came back up; the airducts began to hum cool breath into the stuffy and windowless room. It was a concrete box — floor, ceiling and walls a uniform polished gray. The Director sat behind a large faux-wood desk, flat and empty but for two objects: a red-framed hardcopy photograph of a little girl, curly back hair bundled into pigtails, a smile that proved her shining eyes had never seen horror; and an ashtray with a single yellow rose laid across it. Simple, delicate reminders of what all the sacrifice was for.

     The Director dropped her creamed-coffee hands to the desk. She saw Simmons sit up, briefly, reaching for the ashtray, before he was swallowed by vidwindows.

     “The TG’s back up,” he said needlessly.

     She scanned the windows, little movies of INFOWAR’s recon sortie. And a complete analysis of the Presence — ‘huge, fast and immensely powerful. Bestial and sub-sentient.’ The geeks over at Demigod were going to be very happy with that.

     “No doubt,” replied Simmons.

     The Director frowned, realizing she had been thinking out loud. These days, her eyes were nothing like her daughter’s.

     She began to cut through the crap, minimizing peripheral accounts and casualty tallies. A propaganda feed scrolled across the bottom — SYCOPHANCY IS A FANCY KIND OF SICK. REPORT ALL IDOLATRY. DO IT NOW. She killed it.

     What she wanted was China’s reaction to the needle stick. She found it — an analysis from Office 1 — quickly scanned through it.

     She closed her eyes. “Chuck it,” she said softly. “So now it’s months.”

     “Ninety days,” Simmons said, “Tops.”

     “And Kowloon didn’t even make them flinch.”

     “No.” Simmons fidgeted. When he spoke, his voice was even with emotional restraint. “We’re not going to get out, are we.” He looked intently at the cigarette protruding from his fist.

     The Director opened her eyes to her daughter’s picture. A small window sprang up, involuntary, a home movie of Maya’s sixth birthday party. So much food for a six-year-old; more food than she herself had ever known as a child. And no one killing for it.

     “Start pulling a team together. I’m authorizing Operation Freefall.”

     Simmons leaned back abruptly. “But Office One –”

     “Fuck –” she spat emphatically, “Office One. Do you want their solution, or mine?”

     Simmons was silent.

     “You don’t have kids.”

     He looked away. “No.”

     Her face hardened. “Then you don’t understand. You don’t get it.” She took a deep breath, stuffed the fire back into herself. “Do as I say. I want an analysis of probables for team composition in 24 hours.” Then, “Do you have a problem with that?”

     Simmons hesitated. “The projected LOL.”

     Loss of life.

     Her eyes, her daughter’s eyes.

     “It’s with me every day.”

* * *

     Shakti was riding.

     The sheen of sweat on the boy’s chest, his hands on her hips, pulling her down, and down. His open mouth, head pressed back into the pillow, tense, his eyes following the rhythm of her swaying bosom. Wet. These things shone like lenses, focused the deep, full feeling into a singular, timeless loss of world. A pulse of oneness with herself.

     Warmth and wetness faded to nausea, thoughts of Alexiy. She suddenly hated the boy. It was so easy for him, a human, and he would never know.

     Her mission clock was almost to zero.

     She was finished with him, anyway; she had used the body as a siphon, used it to draw off all her pain and sorrow. Manifested it, and used it on the boy.

     She got off him, shimmied into her tight dress.

     “Hey,” he said stiffly.

     She didn’t forget the purse, strode to the door. It wasn’t polite to leave a sycophant in flagrante delicto.

     The boy followed her, naked, through the apartment.

     “What about me?” His eyes twitched, his news feed ringing. Kowloon.

     She looked at him, already receding down a black tunnel.

     “I’m late for a funeral.”

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