Part IV

Fifty-two days...


Moving quietly, in the way of the warrior, I followed the creek bed up the ravine from whence Split-Ear and his friends had come, the dark shadows of the thick brush dimly visible through the fog, the light of the moons creating a soft luminance that steadily increased the higher I got. Then I broke out of the fog into the night sky and carefully made my way up a steep, brush-covered incline to what seemed from below to be a sort of rocky knoll. Topping the crest into the sudden openness, the unexpected beauty of the view caused all other thoughts to momentarily flee my mind. Just below lay a vast rippling sea of white spreading all the way to the distant mainland where snow-capped peaks climbed into the sky. Above were the stars, almost washed out by the light of the setting moons, and to the north, pale shimmering green curtains danced across the sky, the aurora borealis, companion of my youth. Yet...there was something wrong here, something about the sky, something...different, unexpected. It wasn't the same at the Sages' island as the sky of my childhood village, though it should be, for they were only about fifteen degrees apart... How...

Then I had it. And realized how fatigued I was, how strongly the stress was getting to me. For naturally the sky, the positions of the constellations, were not what I remembered. After all, no matter how similar, this was not the world of my birth, and the stars, the calendar they represented on Earth, could not help me here. And it seemed that, for a few milliseconds as the difference registered but before the chilling realization hit that I did not know what the epoch had been at the time the Sages emigrated from HQ, a spark of hope had briefly flared that I might use the stars' present position as a rough cross-check of what Viggen had said regarding internal time. Confirm at least one small detail of their story beyond the basic nature of PDU-1 and our immortality: that, in fact, 9,000 years had passed since they arrived here. For what, in effect, they were asking is that I accept their briefing, the chain of events as they described them, along with their assertion that our home star was about to begin its helium-burning phase, on faith. Without external corroboration. Then act on it.

On faith.

Accept what in essence was a suicide mission. And, far worse, by accepting a bracelet, the biometric interface necessary for logging into PDU-1, along with the Sages' training and the update for the database, take the risk that, by my actions, I might in some way provide the means for them to regain root access to the terminal. Turn them loose once again upon our world.

Or, do nothing, and risk the death of PDU-1, the death of all that is left of humanity. Both those alive today, and future generations yet unborn.


Fifty-two days...

* * *

I looked at Morgan. "You mentioned that the ACL prevents you from both entering the terminal room and logging into PDU-1's terminals. I assume by this you mean via either a doorway or through remote login from your stronghold. Yet there is a third method -- the biometric control on the entrance you and Peters used when first arriving in the matrix. Dangerous as entering Eos in the normal way would be, have you tried the land route?"

V-Kay looked at Wong, then Jorgensen, nodded.

Jorgensen turned to me. "Eighteen years ago Wong and I went from here to the clearing in Donda Territory via the doorway, and from there by foot to Port Da'Kal. In Port Da'Kal we hired passage on one of Hi'Kon of A'Lan's ships, which took us as far as Torac. From Torac we traveled with the slaver En'Tah to Eos. It was during the Pilgrimage of E'lat, and once in Eos we were able to join the crowd paying their respects to the Temple, and, with the others, kiss the sacred base of the altar. Which, of course, is our camouflaged terminal room."

I nodded, having recognized that irony when Morgan first described write-only to me. There was nothing else that could explain the superstitious awe and fear in which the altar was held by the local population. Or why the Circle-of-Being chose to build their altar on top of a certain large, indestructible rock that, legend claimed, contained the soul of the Universe.

"You must have had an interesting trip," I said, looking at Wong with new interest, reminded once again that the Sages were willing to take serious risks to achieve their goals. The price that she, as a woman, would have had to pay had she been caught inside the Temple was well known. The Circle-of-Being held that women were dirty, inferior creatures without a soul, and they were not allowed, under pain of death by public torture, to besoil the holy shrine. "But why didn't you just open a doorway near Eos? That would have reduced the risk considerably -- especially for Wong, since she would have had to travel disguised as a man and, in the crowded confines of a ship, the chance of discovery would have been high."

Jorgensen glanced at the admin, then suddenly grinned, somehow reminding me of our journey from the home tents of the Donda to the clearing. "It was an interesting trip, in both directions, and a nice change of pace from my normal routine. But Morgan will have to provide the technical details about our problems with the doorway."

Morgan shrugged. "When we lost terminal access, we also lost the ability to define new coordinates for the doorway's database. This restricts us to those access-points that were not only valid during its last update, but can still pass the environmental tests at the time of use."

I nodded, remembering the warning alerts McCain and Singh had received after running the antimatter script.

"Running a search on the database we found two access-points in the general vicinity of Eos, one close and one distant, that, though defined years ago, were still safe to use." He grinned at me. "That is, safe technically. Socially, they each had a couple of minor drawbacks. The main problem with the close one, in Z'Hann Territory, was the Z'Hann's unfortunate habit of killing male strangers on sight. That left the distant one, in Donda Territory, as our only alternative. On balance, which access-point posed the least risk turned out to be a tough question, but after days of heated debate we finally decided the odds favored the one in Donda Territory, primarily because the Donda are, by and large, considered slightly more sane than the Z'Hann and therefore slightly less likely to shoot first and ask questions later."

I returned his grin. "Thank you," I murmured. "But I can well see the Z'Hann's point."

"True," he said, and I could tell he too was thinking about the reception we each had received from the naturalborn when first entering PDU-1.

"They were both almost killed!" the admin said harshly, breaking her long silence. "If it hadn't been for Wong having her medical kit along and being able to administer field conditioning to each of those thugs whose ships --"

Wong spoke for the first time, in a quiet, precise voice. "Perhaps it turned out for the best," she said to the admin. "The Donda might be able to utilize the conditioning of those two men if she travels the same route and finds she needs their assistance. After all, she too will have to enter Eos in disguise." She shifted her gaze to me, a strange, almost detached look in her eyes, much as if I were an object of vague interest under a bioscan, said, "I will explain how to activate their conditioning and under what circumstances it may be used when I configure your bracelet and install the mental block you will need for protection against the oracles."

* * *

I shuddered slightly in the damp breeze that came with dawn, thinking about the oracles. Their powers, like ours, came from an ability to exploit the an'tala bug, but instead of using them to bond with a different life-form for the purpose of survival, they used them for political control.

Unlike the Donda and Z'Hann, the oracles were few in number, for their talent was more rare than ours and took many years to develop. But their lack of numbers, as far as the rulers of Eos, Port Da'Kal, and A'Kon were concerned, was more than compensated for by the sheer strength of their powers. These powers, with a range of approximately two passages, made the oracles a serious threat to those who lived within their reach, because they were able, once in their trance, to monitor what they called ripples in the loom of existence -- the general location, moods, and scattered thoughts of isolated individuals. In addition to this, a few of the more powerful oracles were able to perform what they called a deep-probe. Under certain circumstances, usually after making direct physical contact with a prisoner who had been weakened by intense, prolonged torture, they could probe that person's mind, stripping it to its core. This invariably resulted in the destruction of the prisoner's mind, which the Toh'a, though not the Ka'Don, would then put to political use, chaining his victim to a post in the central square, drooling and babbling, as an object lesson to others.

However, because of the range limitation, the oracles rarely attempted to monitor either the lands of the Donda or the Z'Hann, for seeking wispy shadows drifting across vast landscapes, shadows so dreamlike they may or may not even be there, was for the most part a fruitless endeavor. At best all they could extract from us was a possible guess at position, a slight alteration in the background noise that was so subtle it was almost useless. And that only if one of the three city-states managed to get an oracle fairly close to where we might be, for in the desert the telepathic barrier the diaks erected to prevent cross talk between the various diak/warrior dyads protected us in spite of the distinctive signature of our an'tala-trained and addicted minds.

Perhaps partly because we made such frustrating targets, it was the naturalborn who eventually became the oracles' prey. Over time their duties had evolved into the supervision of intricate intelligence operations between the city-states, the maintenance of internal security for the rulers and priests, the interrogation of prisoners, and the manipulation of religious superstitions in Eos and A'Kon, along with public opinion in secular Port Da'Kal -- all matters that rarely had occasion to affect us directly. Unless we tried to enter one of their communities.

This was the reason why, were I to undertake the Sages' mission, I would have to permit Wong to set within my mind the same block they themselves used -- so I could not only enter Eos undetected by the Toh'a's oracle, but as well, if captured, resist interrogation by either physical torture or deep-probe. For although a warrior, once separated from her diak, was vulnerable to an oracle's powers, that wasn't the case with the Sages. From them an oracle could only receive a blank, a nothingness. Yet that too could be a hazard, a potential giveaway, if the Sages were accompanied by naturalborn individuals or warriors, because of the personal interactions between protected and unprotected minds that, during the oracles' random surveillance of the loom, could strike a wrong note, since they were occurring between what the oracles saw as normal and null areas.

Because of this I was surprised that Jorgensen and Wong had made it to the Temple undetected, yet perhaps it was because their visit was totally unexpected after so many thousands of years had passed, and the oracles -- they themselves mortal -- weren't focusing in that direction. Sensing the faint but distinctive shadow of a warrior behind the barrier of her diak, something they were trained to detect, was one thing; sensing a total blank in a crowd when not actually looking for it and never having personally experienced it was another.

"So what happened after you reached the altar?" I asked Jorgensen.

Jorgensen shrugged. "We had hopes the emergency biometric control on the terminal room's physical entrance might still be working, but it wasn't. We did obtain one valuable item of information, though, and that was that the regular lock -- the one you would use -- was still operating, for when, while kissing the base of the altar, we tried to activate it, we got a Permission denied response. This confirmed what we had suspected all along -- that our problem was one of permissions, that our UIDs had been placed on an Access Control List. But we had to try."

I nodded, having finally arrived at my real question, the purpose behind my asking them if they had tried the land route. "What would you have done if you had gained admittance? Since the ACL also controls login?"

Jorgensen hesitated slightly, then said, "We had a special tool Morgan and Peters put together that would, during a login attempt, have attracted PDU-1's attention, and by issuing a warning, directed it toward the relevant section in the Gates Library. Not as good as updating its operational database, but..." He shrugged again.

I nodded again, having detected the odd, uncomfortable note in his voice I had been half-expecting. I was getting to know him fairly well by now, his inherent straightforwardness and honesty, his underlying decency. Lying did not come easy to him, even under conditions such as these. Finally those subtle undercurrents that had been bothering me, undercurrents that whispered warnings of dangers beyond the obvious, of a hidden agenda, were beginning to resolve, show their outlines, though still faint, indistinct. And, floating to the surface of my mind, perhaps as a form of half-conscious confirmation regarding suspicions that had slowly been growing for some time, suspicions based in part on the pattern of Morgan's hacks, their style, came the words Trojan horse and social engineering . Timeworn cracker techniques on Earth. Yet those ancient tools could be double-edged. Turned against their users. If one were prepared.

"This was the point, then, where you realized you had run out of internal options and had to risk an outsider?"

"Yes. We spent the next eighteen years researching alternate solutions, but finally had to admit our only hope lay in bringing in one of RJR's `customers,' for they are the only ones for whom we can turn off write-only, and therefore the only ones who stand a chance of gaining access to the terminal room. This meant one of the Donda or Z'Hann. Out of them, you were the one we selected, not only because of your technical skills -- which are actually more advanced than your dossier reported -- but also because our calculations indicate you stand a slightly better chance of reaching the altar alive than the other prospects on our list."

"I am honored," I said dryly. "But I think it is time you explained to me how you are able to toggle write-only if you can no longer su to root, and why immortality was given to everyone in the trn group instead of just your inner circle?"

* * *

I became aware I was no longer alone on the knoll, but glancing around I could see nothing unusual. Then there was a slight movement back in the brush behind me, the flick of an ear, and I realized it was Split-Ear or one of his friends. Or rather, what was likely his entire family group, since, now knowing what to look for, I saw there were approximately twenty-five of the javelina just inside the edge of the brush, spanning, as best I could tell, four generations. But they were doing nothing but watching me, some even lying down, the two oldest females nursing their young while standing, two to each litter.

They at least were not hampered by sterility, did not have the admin's anger.

"His sense of guilt backfired on him," she had said, with a withering look at Morgan, "so you ended up sterile too. Just like the rest of your tribe."

I gazed at her, thinking about what she said, about the realities of a warrior's life, how we had to be ready to move at any moment, be prepared to fight for our lives, could not afford the luxury of children or a fixed home, even if we had wanted them -- and some of us did, for the evolutionary pressures were every bit as great for us as those the javelina faced. Our numbers were now few in comparison to what they once had been, as time and the incessant attacks from Port Da'Kal and Eos took their toll. And while it was true that over the last few hundred years the rate of attrition had fallen, still it was steady, and eventually, sometime in the future, we would be gone. Yet this pain, this knowledge, had been blunted by our relationships with our diaks, for these relationships, because of an'tala and our addiction, were far closer than a relationship could ever be between a mother and her --

"Yes," Morgan said to me. "There was in the end guilt, and a lot of it. I have never been able to understand our society's obsession with money, power, and violence, the single-minded, take-no-prisoners greed and exploitation that led to the destruction of our home planet. I suppose I am naive, one of those who, like V-Kay said, lives in an Ivory Tower. It is the solving of technical problems that I enjoy, the intellectual challenge, and the more difficult the problem, the greater the need for innovation, for exploring uncharted territories, pushing my mind to its limits, the better I like it. But most of all I like the act of creation, the mental states it generates, the building of new and useful tools. That is why, when the initial contracts for PDU-1 were let by RJR, and Sun called a select group of us in and offered us the opportunity to lead the effort to solve what many felt to be the greatest technical challenge of our -- or perhaps any -- age, I accepted with alacrity. I had no idea at that early stage how the project would develop, certainly no idea what the politicians and business types and bureaucrats would do with my team's work, the ends to which it would be put, and when I finally woke up and saw what was happening, it was too late. By then I was in too deep and had no choice but to continue with the project if all the lives so far lost were not to be lost in vain."

He paused, giving the admin a hard look though still speaking to me. "So, when the opportunity arose for me to assuage my feelings of guilt and make up in a small way for the part I played in RJR's many abuses, I naturally took it, a simple matter of configuring the immortality code to operate on anyone in the trn group, rather than using a configuration file containing only the UIDs of those from HQ who survived the assassination attempt. And in doing this, I well understood I would be `censured' by the Council, for immortality is a form of power and I was giving it to outsiders, but by then I didn't care about that, just as I didn't care about the bad feeling my action would create among our group. I have, after all, to live with myself, my conscience. Accept my responsibilities toward those I harmed. And, whether you like it or not," he said, now speaking directly to the admin, "you have to acknowledge that, in light of our present circumstances, it is fortunate I chose to do what I did, for otherwise Ryahda would not be here today, and, instead of a slim chance to get our update to PDU-1, there would have been none."

V-Kay raised his hand, palm outward, a gesture of peace, said to the admin and Morgan, "These are old issues that can't be undone, and it is time to move beyond them. Wasn't there a question about how we can toggle write-only without root access?"

A look of understanding passed between the admin and V-Kay; then, giving me a thin smile, she said to Morgan, "Why don't you tell her, since it seems so important?"

Morgan shrugged, as if distancing himself from something, said, "When PDU-1 revoked our root and terminal privileges, it left us access to a number of tools and weapons that we would need for our daily lives, and the ability to toggle write-only was one of them. This I could understand and accept, for by its lights it could no longer permit us root access; what I couldn't -- still can't -- accept was the perverse, ugly way it did it. It provided me, if you can visualize this within a mental interface, an old-fashioned, consumer-style point-and-click interface from the dark days of the Wintel hegemony, and the damn thing drove me absolutely mad. I tried every way I could think of to get around it, for I knew it had to be running SUID root, but it was as brain-dead as all GUI interfaces are. Drove me absolutely mad, and if I didn't know better, I would swear PDU-1 was having a laugh at my expense."

* * *

Fifty-one days...

I shivered at the memory, understanding Morgan's frustration, wondering about the way he seemed to take personally some of PDU-1's actions, since PDU-1 was just a machine, no matter how advanced, and could not be expected to have human motivations. Its mind had to be totally alien, for its experience, its mental processes, were not based on flesh and blood, and it could not experience either the pains or pleasures of being human. Or animal, either, I thought, as one of the javelinas stepped from the brush and slowly came toward where I sat cross-legged on the ground, stopping a few meters away, and made eye contact.

Fifty-one days...

I stared back at her, a strikingly beautiful young female with white tips to her ears, as she stared at me in wonderment, with a deep curiosity in her eyes, and the thought came that I had been much like her when young, that, though of different species, she and I had much in common. And a name floated into my mind, Lookie, and it was hers, if not by others, then by me.

Lookie...and I realized that Split-Ear was her father. There was something about her eyes, the mind behind them, the sense of a probing, stable, intelligence. And suddenly everything fell into place for me, my decision now made, without conscious volition. For I realized that a world that could produce a being like Lookie was without question worth preserving. And that beyond that, they, Lookie and Split-Ear and the rest of their family, their species, deserved their chance at life too, just as did my people, and the diaks, and even the naturalborn, that PDU-1 was a marvelous world, a creation of the highest level of human intellect, almost godlike in its completeness, its integrity, and that whatever the risk might be to me personally to try and preserve it, that risk had to be taken.

Fifty-one days...

I slowly stood, placing my quiver-pack on my back, and Lookie came forward a few steps further, touched my right foot with her nose, then looked up into my eyes again, almost as if asking something.

"I will do the best I can," I said to her, as well as myself, "for the sake of us all." And, slowly turning, I nodded farewell to her, to the herd, knowing I would never see them again, for some reason feeling a deep sadness at the thought, and started back down the knoll, into the fog and darkness, feeling their eyes following me, every step I made, until I was out of sight.

Fifty-one days...

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