"This is big," Madrid said. "Big. Immense. Our combined egos couldn't cover it, okay?" He tossed the chip down on the workbench, feeling the power springing up from his floppy shoes. He wanted to dance, sing, spritz unsuspecting passersby with his trick carnation. "If we pull this off, Yamujitsu's gonna owe us."
"I get the picture." Red was settling the dermatrodes across her forehead, preparing for the preliminary run. The deck was humming away, scanning for possible surveillance or interference. Standard prep, slipping in. "So I'm supposed to buzz these coordinates--"
"Just buzz. Don't do anything. Johnson wants a scan of the area, that's all."
She nodded, already thinking ahead. "So what am I looking for?"
It was a slow, practiced movement, the way she slid the trodes off, staring at him as if he'd just asked her to crack Microsoft's research core. "Have you been sniffing that greasepaint again?" she asked suspiciously. "You're seriously telling me to buzz an AI?"
"You don't have to crack it--you don't even have to touch it," he reassured her, and ducked to avoid the half-filled cup of coffee she threw at him. "I'm serious, Red."
"So am I, Bozo." She pushed away the chip he had given her with the coordinates. "I've done braindeath four times already, okay? I'm not going for a new record."
"But this isn't your average AI." Madrid dragged up a futon and sat down. "According to Johnson, it's dead. Non-conscious--something happened to the sentience program, wiped it clean. It's just a very big, very complex core."
"So he says." Red frowned. "It smells weird to me."
Bozo sniffed. "That's just my shoes."
Ignoring him, she turned away to type in coordinates, scanning the readout. "Huh. Buster says that's a dead area."
"I told you."
"No, I mean really dead. No activity, no AI, nothing."
Madrid frowned. "You're kidding."
"See for yourself." She punched for the coordinates representing the section of the matrix Johnson had asked them to scan, shifting them into the tank demo. A series of strata were sketched, holograms forming themselves into blank sections of lattice. "The last cores there were the Lake Michigan University Medical Center's system," Red said, studying the tank. "And those were taken off-line over fifty years ago. Hell, they didn't even have AIs back then."
"Tell me about it," the clown said, fingering his carnation. Shit, and that credit had looked so good, too. "Okay, forget about it," he finally said. "I'll tell Johnson he got the wrong coordinates or something--"
She puffed out her cheeks, letting the air sigh through pursed lips. "No, wait a minute. Now I'm interested." She smoothed the trodes, adjusted the antique McMahon sweatband for maximum absorption, then nodded. "I'm gonna run it."
"Yeah. It's probably nothing. And if there's something there, well. . . Who wants to live forever, right?" She gave Bozo a grin and an air kiss. "Okay. Hit me."
Cyberspace bled in from the cardinal points, a bit of theatricality that included reality swirling away down a virtual drain with a burp. Nice, she thought. Must be my birthday present. As soon as she was oriented, she punched high for the middle of the tech areas around Illiana.
Someone was waiting for her.
The shape floated directly in front of her, too translucent to be seen clearly. She could only catch it in peripheral bursts, a vague movement that her brain resolved into some kind of a geometric form. The very simplicity of the piece screamed artificial intelligence -- Red knew from experience that AIs didn't get the concept of interior decorating. As she watched, shadows shifted beneath the shape's facets, moving like smoke as she approached.
I thought you said there wasn't going to be any ice, she mouthed. Dimly, she could feel a cartridge being pressed into her hand, moving down to push the cartridge into the cyberdeck's media slot. Immediately, a clear shield sprang up around her. Something I picked up in Silicon Glen, she felt/heard. The shape seemed to respond to this, the shadows churning faster now.
Goddamn, she thought, I'm being rumbled by an overgrown D&D piece. "I think it's got a lock on me," she heard herself say. Red felt herself shifting in her seat, twisting away from her mind's perception of the AI. "Too big, I'm jacking out--"
"Not yet." The words drifted across the net. "I think we should talk, don't you?" And the immensity leaned in, shattering the icebreaker and enclosing her like a lover's embrace.
Madrid turned just in time to see Red's EEG go flatline.
And reality warped in upon itself, forming a mandala that spun through the realm of space-time. Warp, fold, weaving itself into something new.
Red found herself leaning against a glass window. She looked down.
"Chicago." She recognized the Fuller domes in the distance, stopping at the interzone of slum and highrise, a faint puddle of blue to her left. The height, the view clued her in -- this was a mockup of the Mid-Axis Tower, neé Sears. "This is Chicago."
"Welcome to my home." Her attention snapped to the man standing across from her. Perfectly ordinary, dressed in a suit style popular at the turn of the century, he seemed to be a wraith against the cool expanse of glass. Short, dark hair curled over a pale face, making him look child-like, tousled. The real focus, through, was his eyes -- electric green-blue, naked arc flaring behind old-fashioned eyeglasses. Immensity captured in two glowing spheres. Red felt herself drown in those eyes, reflecting through eternity hot and evermore, mirror against mirror to form the long tunnel--
"No. If I wanted that, I would have taken you when you entered the sector." The man turned away, focusing that intensity on the cityscape sprawled below them. "I need you alive and well, Red. I knew you would come eventually."
"Or somebody like you. I expected it, you see. The multinationals don't like having me loose in this lovely consensual illusion they've created, so they've finally gathered their courage and hired a cowboy to find me." The man closed his eyes, seemed to concentrate. "Your name is Hoosier Red, you're twenty-five, single, a high-priced data dancer, your partner is Bozo Madrid -- who, by the way, is trying to resuscitate you as we speak -- you specialize in smuggling interdicted infotainment data and software, you've never been caught although Trump/Turner and the ADOJ would be delighted to have you brainwiped--" His eyes opened abruptly. "And you're a Leo."
"Just barely," she said, uncomfortable.
In response to her unspoken question, he turned back. "Once upon a time, long ago, my name was Browning. Now, you might say I've outgrown it by quite a bit. You can call me Labyrinth."
"Fine." She leaned against the glass harder, feeling the cool slick surface against her shirt sleeve. Too real -- only an AI could maintain this level of mockup. "So why did you grab me?"
"To talk. To find out what Ralph Johnson wanted you to do."
There was a certain amount of loyalty she owed to her employers, loyalty that prevented her from talking about a deal. She glanced out the window again, saw how high up she was. How easily the window could be broken if Labyrinth wanted it.
To hell with it. "I was supposed to buzz this sector, see what was going on," she admitted.
"That's it. Just buzz. I wasn't expecting company."
"I see." And Labyrinth smiled to himself. "I'm surprised Johnson limited his first move to a simple reconnaissance mission. I expected a little more creativity from him, considering your talents."
"I don't normally get a lot of flattery from an AI," she said, resisting a wild urge to bat her eyelashes.
"I'm not flattering you. Only the best cowboys would have a chance of coming back with their neurons intact from this sort of job."
Labyrinth looked mildly surprised. "I thought it was obvious. You see, Johnson wants you to erase me." He disappeared, and the mockup went with him, tumbling Red into blackness.
Great, she thought. A melodramatic AI. . .
Red awoke to a rhythmic drumming, pain flaring red to the beat.
Thump -- the AI that called itself Labyrinth, standing against the glass panorama of Chicago. Calling her by name--
Thump -- telling her he had been waiting, expecting someone like her--
Thump -- someone who had been sent to erase the artificial intelligence programs that made him an entity--
Thump -- and then disappeared without so much as a by-your-leave. God, she hated rudeness like that--
Hot clamp of a mouth, and air rattled down her throat. Words floating over her, telling her to wake up, come back.
"Okay, already," she said feebly, waving off the blurry image. It consolidated slowly into a clownface, hovering over her like a particularly perverse angel. Hands were still on her chest, feeling for the beat. "Is this your idea of foreplay? 'Cause if it is, your technique needs some work."
"Oh, please." He touched her face once, carefully. "If you have to flatline, please don't do it while I'm around. It upsets me."
She had to laugh. The movement stitched hot pain through her sternum, identifying the drumming -- a CPR attempt. "Hey, no problem," she wheezed, struggling to sit up. "Next time, I'll make sure you're in the john first."
Blearily, she gazed around the room, at the trodes tossed in the corner. Careless, that, she thought -- those puppies cost a fortune. Hot afternoon sunlight cut across the dusty floor, seeming to paint it with lambent stripes of gold. She was reminded of the Chicago stim, the Mid-Axe's observation deck flooded with the same light. Dust motes dancing to the tune of Brownian motion. Damn, I oughta flatline more often, she thought idly. Makes me real poetic.
She could feel Madrid's arm around her shoulders. The clownface was distorted now, sweated away in places. She knew that if she could see her own face, she'd be able to find the missing makeup. "Babe, what happened in there?"
She squeezed her eyes shut against the sunlight, trying to remember everything. "Weird. Something very weird. I met somebody -- something, an AI. Called itself Labyrinth." Her eyes opened almost automatically, striped brown irises meeting blue. "It said Yamujitsu wanted to erase it. That's why we were hired, I think. To burn it down."
Madrid fired off a string of Spanish, mostly obscene. "I should've known," he spat. "'Just for a pass,' he said. That bastard." He added some other curses as he helped Red get up, guiding her to a temperfoam cushion. "You stay here. I'm going out--"
"I'm not gonna kill him." And here he smiled, the tiny fangs snapping out from the end of his incisors. Madrid had a series of tiny reservoirs implanted in his gums, reservoirs which held a range of chemicals ready to be injected through those fangs. Killer hallucinogens, mycotoxins, KCl for stopping the heart, some stuff he wouldn't even tell her about. "We're just gonna go out for a bite."
"Don't be dumb," she repeated. "He didn't know I was going to flatline."
"He should've bloody well guessed!"
"No." The black feeling seemed to fade, replaced by understanding. She struggled to sit up straighter, watching the implants. "He must've figured I'd spot the cores and verify position. Maybe it would have reacted, maybe not, but he obviously didn't expect Labyrinth to pull a major move on me. Either way, he would've gotten his information, we would've gotten our money, and everything would've been fine.
"But Labyrinth moved first."
"Yeah." She rubbed her chest, trying to ignore the ache. "It just wanted to talk -- it didn't want to kill me. That's why it let me go so fast." She glanced around at her deck, at the LEDs blinking the time. "Three minutes. Christ, was that all?"
"Eternity flies when you're having fun." he said darkly.
"Hush," Red murmured. She didn't allow herself to revel in the sensation of being protected. But -- oh, hell, I could really use it this time. Reaching out, she cupped her hands around the backs of his knees, kneading the sensitive flesh there. "Johnson's not worth it. Hurt him, and we're going to screw Labyrinth. And I don't want to do that, not until I find out what the hell's going on."
Madrid finally shrugged, the implants retracting. "Okay. I won't butcher the shithead. Yet." He allowed himself to be drawn down to her level. "However," he enunciated, "you're not going back to those coordinates again unless I'm there with you."
"You're being a male chauvinist pig again," she chided him.
"And you love it, in your own retro-Steinem feminist way."
"It's kind of nice," Red admitted. "But I wasn't planning on going back. Not until I did some homework, anyway." Some interior chemical balance shifted, from fear to desire. Idly, she started undoing the fastenings for his silks, pulling at the cloth gently until she had him exposed. She wanted the reassurance of skin against skin, slick pressure telling her she was still alive. "What say we head back for a little vacation?" She grinned suddenly, dazzling even in the sunlight. "Maybe to Chicago?"
Madrid glanced down at himself, a slow answering grin spreading on the clownface. "And me without a thing to wear."