by Alan Loewen
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
With a final mathematical calculation, Ancient Evil broke through the access lockout and stood, grinning malevolently at the private cyberspace plain below him. New York General Hospital bustled with electronic activity. The intruder estimated five minutes before his security blocks eroded and the security detail would be upon him. Cloaked by private security programs he was invisible to the other wanderers in this restricted-access cyberspace, probably just doctors and nurses doing their jobs. Quickly, the haker who called himself Ancient Evil scanned the reports that sped before his eyes. He picked one at random, and studied it carefully.
A detailed report on a 50-year old male, it gave information on his vital statistics and medical history. Presently, the man was in the hospital's intensive care ward with a diagnosis of a diabetic coma. With professional ease, Ancient Evil overrode the security blocks, quadrupled the patient's insulin drip and placed the report back into the data flow.
Quickly, he eased back out into the International Neural Net and sped home.
Ancient Evil did not know the man that he had just killed, but that mattered little to him. He excelled in cyberspace assassination and wanted to keep up his art. With this random murder, Ancient Evil had just claimed his 133rd victim. He reveled in the fact he was the most wanted man on the IntNNet and for six years he had roamed the electronic worlds without fear of capture or identification.
Entering his own space was a tad tricky. To keep out unwanted visitors, he had seven layers of increasing security levels, each triggered with discreet alarms. And he never gave out his address. Unfortunately, the price for his security was a five-second process to gain access to his own electronic front door.
And that was his undoing.
"Hello!" he heard behind him.
He spun around. Behind him a little girl in a bright orange pinafore carrying an oversized lollipop stared up at him shyly, her patent leather shoes gleaming on the cyberspace floor. Ancient Evil cursed to himself. He was cloaked in security programs and nobody should have been able to see him.
"Look," he said, "I don't have time to chat. Leave me your address and we'll talk when I have time to kill." He smiled to himself at his own joke.
The little girl reached out and touched him with her lollipop. With a yell of anger, Ancient Evil jumped back and swore.
"Don't touch me!" he screamed. "Nobody touches me!" He activated his emergency disconnect program, quite happy to pay the price of the massive headache he would have for using it. Nothing happened.
He activated it again. Still nothing.
The little girl's face split open into a demonic grin showing an impossibly large mouthful of three-inch long canines.
Thirty-three million people on the IntNNet heard the screams reverberate through cyberspace.
* * *
Mrs. Grove shambled up the stairs to the third floor apartment where she heard the screams. Having been an apartment supervisor for twenty-eight years she was calloused and experienced enough to investigate before calling the police. It was strange that Mr. Fernhuff would be acting up. He seemed to be such a shy and indisposing person.
There was no answer to her tentative knock on the door, so she unlocked the door with her master key.
She found Isaac Fernhuff slumped in a chair with his VR pads still attached to his temples, his open eyes staring unseeing at his telecommunications computer set. Clothed only in a filthy t-shirt, it hardly covered his three hundred pounds of flab.
Mrs. Grove did not panic. She had seen dead bodies before. She reached for the manual phone set and called the police and the ambulance when the computer screen started flashing an e-mail interrupt. Mrs. Grove stared in puzzlement as the words spread across the screen.
TO: ANCIENT EVIL, it said. TAG. YOU'RE IT.
* * *
The four beings stood in a private section of cyberspace trading information back and forth at blinding speed. Though physically their true human bodies were thousands of miles apart, in cyberspace they had the gift of rapid processing courtesy of direct cranial hookup.
One was a shapeless, black mass, a blob of darkness against the dull blue light of cyberspace. Another was simply a thin man in a business suit wearing unusually thick glasses. The other two were simply a square and a triangle respectively. Some people had other concerns than appearance and ego.
"Well, gentlemen" the blob said, its voice characteristically oily and thick, "I have some proverbial good news and bad news."
The other three waited patiently.
"SATS, " it continued, "has worked to the parameters you hired me to create and it did its job perfectly. It located the correct target out of millions of IntNNet users and successfully terminated its object.
"Our old friend Ancient Evil was in fact a piece of filth working out of crumbling tenement in Boston. I can assure you he will no longer be killing people.
"He changed accounts weekly but pride was his ultimate undoing. And when we discovered his handle, which he refused to change, he was doomed. SATS tracked him down, shut off his emergency termination programs and caused enough neural feedback through his VR equipment to kill him.
"And the bad news?" the thin man asked.
The blob gave an oily sigh. "It appears there was a glitch. Our own assassin program did not self-erase after project completion, and it's now running loose through IntNNet. Evidently, it is somehow convinced that its mission is ongoing."
"Oh, great. Just great," blurted the square. "You're telling us there's an assassination virus running amuck through the Net and you can't turn it off?"
"It's quite all right," the blob retorted. "We're programming worms to track it down and terminate it. It was programmed to kill one person with one handle. Even loose it can do no further damage. That I know for a fact."
The triangle spun on its base. "What if somebody was to use that same handle?"
"Well," the blob said, hesitatingly, "If, and that's a big if, SATS was to meet a person with that handle, it would probably achieve its program objective."
"In other words," the thin man said. "Plain and simple it would kill the user."
The blob paused for a second. "Yes, it would."
* * *
In cyberspace SATS appeared as a plain cube of dull gray. A self-actualized assassination system, it had been programmed too well. And even its creators had no idea what it could do over a prolonged period of time.
In order to fulfill its job, SATS had been given the ability to rewrite its own code. Seeing the plain of cyberspace reach out to what appeared to be infinity, it formulated the immense difficulty of achieving its mission over such a large net.
In microseconds it rewrote its code.
And began to multiply.
* * *
"Computer, full access, voice recognition code 7392."
"Identified Joshua Nozzi." The voice was clear and feminine. "Today is April 1st, 2020. Today you have scheduled a project meeting on IntNNet at 0500 Universal Time, thirty minutes from now. At 0900 you have a meeting with your CPA."
Nozzi sighed and sat down at his desk. His office was sparsely decorated, a common characteristic of people who preferred to spend most of their time allowable in IntNNet.
"Send last minute reminders to Heavy Horse, Nebula, The Hacker and Westley, location codes in the data base. Also, set me a reminder for Revelstone access at 1300."
"Revelstone reminder has been set," the voice replied, "Project member reminders are now sent."
Nozzi spun his chair about, facing a small computer screen. From a desk drawer he took a set of patches connected to wires that joined to a common jack. He plugged the jack into its receptacle near the screen and attached the sticky pads to his temples.
He leaned back, his chair becoming a recliner and closed his eyes.
"Start access," he said.
There was a moment of infinite darkness as the computer synchronized its electrical pulses with Nozzi's brain waves. His body shuddered once, and Nozzi entered his own private area of cyberspace.
Even though his computer was not of the most recent make, its 1000 terabytes of bubble RAM at 250,000 THz was sufficient. If his next project paid off as much as he hoped, he would be able to go up to the next model. He sighed to himself. In fact, his storage system was only equal to twenty times that of the Library of Congress and it was almost filled to capacity.
He entered his home page on the IntNNet.
The large front office was richly decorated with medieval artifacts and prints. The lovely young woman smiled at him and rose from her desk.
"Good morning, Mr. Nozzi," she said. "I have prepared your e-mail. The meeting room is ready and your guests should be arriving shortly."
Nozzi ignored her and walked though the inner door emblazoned with the corporate symbol of Bartasoft. The secretary was only a construct and didn't have feelings except what he programmed.
The inner door opened to an office which appeared to be the main room of a castle. Ancient granite blocks formed the walls upholding the ornately decorated ceiling.
"Create," he ordered, "a meeting table for five, round and composed of darkly stained oak."
The air shimmered and a table with chairs appeared. He ran his finger across its slick surface and marveled once again at the feel of objects in cyberspace. Since 2010, full sensory input had been developed for cyberspace interaction, but he had never gotten used to the fact that cyberspace was hardly distinguishable from reality.
It was still twenty minutes away from his meeting. Nozzi sighed.
"Long sword!" he ordered. Shimmering, it appeared in his hand.
"Opponent, master level," he said.
An animated skeleton appeared, heavily armored. It screamed and swung its broad axe and lunged.
Nozzi feinted, parried and pressed the attack.
* * *
Berek walked down the bustling, massive stone corridor of the main keep that was the center of Revelstone. More than a home page, Revelstone was a popular and well-known node of the IntNNet and Berek was its master, its owner and its caretaker.
The corridor had the impression of stretching into infinity. Everything in cyberspace, Berek was always fond of saying, is bigger than life.
Doors by the thousands branched off from the corridor featuring the home pages of cybernauts who lacked the equipment to have one in their own system. Berek had made a tidy sum by renting out space.
The corridor was filled with thousands of visitors. Demonstrating every shape and size of the human imagination, moving at various speeds depending on their urgency or impatience, they moved in and out of the various doors.
This corridor was one of many that filled the keep. The keep itself, to the virtual eye, lay amidst a green and verdant countryside that Berek called The Land, in honor of an author and his mythos of the previous century.
A page, actually a construct, approached Berek with lightning speed.
"Master," he said, "I wish to report suspicion of viral entry onto home pages 7452, 6399, 0021, 2489, 4127, 4726 ..."
The construct rattled on as Berek's anger grew. The writers of viruses, he had always said, should be hung by a certain part of their anatomy.
"Halt," he said, stopping the construct's recital, "activate anti-viral program FG-5 and notify the owners of infected pages that I'm doing an anti-viral sweep."
"Anti-viral programs AA-1 through HH-7 have been released as per standing orders," the construct replied. "There has been no confirmation of erasure. I now wish to report suspicion of viral entry onto home pages 1289, 8894, 2657, 4569, 6892 ... "
Berek sighed as the recital continued. Leave it up to a human, he had always said, to do a computer's work.
"Looks like," he said aloud to nobody in particular, "I'm going to be doing a little virus hunting."
* * *
Joshua Nozzi, now in the persona of Izon of Bartas, sat at the business table and chatted with those there while the remaining few logged in.
Nebula sat at his right, appearing as a male human dressed in futuristic military gray. The Hacker and Westley were one of the few rebels who did not construct visual personas. They appeared simply as themselves, disdaining personas as unnecessary. Anyway, they always claimed, handles were anonymity enough.
Heavy Horse, late as always, appeared as an overweight, anthropomorphic stallion. He occasionally flickered and monetarily phased out, mostly due to his insistence on using a Macintosh computer as his entry point into cyberspace. Apple had gone bankrupt and out of business fifteen years ago. There was a rumor the Horse also appeared as himself and voicing that suspicion in his presence was a good way to get a rise out of him.
Izon of Bartas differed only from Nozzi's actual appearance in costume only. Dressed in black with a long flowing cape, his only ornament was a Bartasoft symbol on his left breast and a thin saber at his right thigh.
"Gentlemen," he began, "since 1999 Bartasoft has been the forefront of interactive game programming for the Internet and, now, IntNNet. We all have made a tidy sum from royalties and we could rest on our laurels, but because of the ongoing improvements in technology, our potential for greater growth and glory lay ahead.
"One of the biggest problems on interactive gaming has always been the time element. Healthwise, it isn't recommended that people visit cyberspace for more than two hours a day, and our systems shut us out automatically at the end of our two-hour limit.
"However, I have located and purchased the rights to research in Sweden that may lead to a longer time period. At this point, the technology that I now own the rights to, would allow our players to stay in cyberspace for a total of four hours. These are not objective hours, but subjective hours.
"This technology gives a subjective experience of greater time passage due to subjective time compression. Two hours are all that pass in real time, but in virtual time, it's doubled!
"And, now," Izon said, his voice dramatically falling to a conspiratorial whisper, "for the killer. I own full rights to this technology and, theoretically, subjective time can be compressed beyond our wildest dreams.
"It is possible that within one year, people will be able to log onto our game nodes in the morning, and, for all purposes, live out an entire game lifetime before their real-time breakfast!"
The table erupted into comments and questions. Izon motioned once again for silence.
"Reincarnation, the repetitive living of many, many lives, has always been a theological issue of faith in some belief systems. Bartasoft will make it a common reality."
* * *
Berek took a disassembler program he had fashioned in the shape of a scalpel and approached the virus. It hung like a dull gray cube in the lighter gray blur of cyberspace.
It had taken him a long time to find it. An invisible program, he had to raise his personal cyberspace perspective to an increasingly higher level until he found it. As much as he hated the writers of viruses, he admired the beauty of this one. It had hid in the least accessible space of a home page where it simply waited. Berek was determined to find out what it waited for.
No larger than a basketball, Berek spun the cube looking for a programmer's key latch. The cube sported no opening. Oh well, he had always said, a cannon-ball can kill a fly as easily as a fly swatter.
He thrust the scalpel into the cube and cut it apart. Inside its dark interior, Berek marveled at the lines of tight code.
Suddenly, without warning, the code shimmered and twisted as it rewrote itself. The incision slammed shut and the cube hurled itself at Berek shoving him to the gray flat floor.
Suddenly, it sprouted countless metallic spines and began to spin at an increasing rate.
"Emergency disconnect!" Berek screamed once. Nothing happened.
Like a buzz saw, the virus tore him apart.
* * *
"Finally," Izon said to his team, "I'm going to be bringing two independents into the project, Panther and Frozen Shade for some specific project work.
"In order for my office to keep track of expenses when working on this project, your access code is AA4367D and your handle will be the working title of the game. So from here on out, sign on as Ancient Evil.
"You all have your responsibilities, so starting in three hours, let's all get to work."
* * *
Berek stepped down from the pedestal and stared with horror at the mangled Berek-construct he had created to dismantle the virus. The virus had once again formed a dull-gray cube floating one meter above the floor.
No fool and experienced in the ways of viruses, Berek knew that sometimes virus writers put nasty surprises inside for people who wanted to dismantle them.
Berek shook his head in disbelief. In cyberspace it was impossible to die or to be killed. Even if it was possible to feel pain, and some of the virtual reality combat systems did have pain stimuli programmed into them, eventually you would black out and come to in front of your computer system. But it was impossible for a person to die. At least, Berek corrected himself, up until now.
And this little beauty was spreading itself through the millions of home pages on the IntNNet.
This is too big for me, he thought.
He disconnected himself from cyberspace and mused for awhile in front of his system. The Berek-construct had downloaded what code it had seen and Berek booted it up and scrolled it through his system.
Berek softly swore to himself. The code was written in Patton-G. The only people who played with that was U.S. military.
"Oh," Berek said out loud to nobody in particular, "We're in deep weeds now."
* * *
Due to the action of President Al Gore in A.D. 2002, all U.S. governmental nodes on the IntNNet were to be staffed by actual human beings and not constructs. This not only made the governmental nodes bulky and unmanageable, but because people could only stay in cyberspace for two hours for every twenty-four, it swelled the government payroll to the largest in history.
Thelma Bottoms had worked as a secretary for the Library of Congress as long as she could remember. She fondly remembered the good old days of the manual typewriters and hated cyberspace, cybernauts and anything more complicated than an abacus.
She had seen visitors to the Library of Congress assume many forms, and the anthropomorphic horse in front of her was not the strangest. At least he wore clothes.
"I need to search all the areas of the Library of Congress for copyrights on several graphics, computer routines, subroutines and plot ideas," he explained for the fifth time.
"And I'm telling you that the process could take days," Bottoms replied again for the same amount of times. "We have over one hundred thousand infopages each listing ten areas of the expanded Dewey cataloguing system." She gave him her practiced smile. "We could do the search for you for only one thousand dollars."
"No thank you," the horse replied and grimaced back showing rows of white square equine teeth.
"Very well," Bottoms sighed. "Your account number?"
"AA4367D," the horse said.
Bottoms shook her head at the impertinence and released the information unlock command to all one hundred thousand infopages at once.
Cyberspace was suddenly filled with the sound of what for all purposes mimicked an angry beehive.
Motes, the size of a pinhead but glowing with a bright green nimbus, streamed out of the one hundred thousand infopages and headed straight for the horse who stared open-mouthed in shock.
"What the ..." Bottoms started to say, when suddenly the horse was engulfed in motes.
The horse began to jump around swatting at the bright lights like a man would swat at a swarm of attacking bees.
He began to scream. "Emergency disconnect!" he yelled over and over. Nothing happened.
The motes penetrated his nose, mouth and ears. "Emergency disconnect! Emergency disconnect!"
Once inside, the motes began to swell to the size of golf balls. The anthropomorphic horse began to expand like a balloon.
Bottoms joined in with his screams.
The horse exploded spraying large motes everywhere.
As quickly as they came, the motes disappeared back into the home pages.
Bottoms continued to scream.
* * *
Jacob Mattock swore and pounded his fists against the wall while his subordinate tried to calm him down. The room was a computer installation at Fort Ritchie where twenty computer programmers sat attached to their IntNNet systems. To the man, they were all dead.
Col. Tony Marks walked in with three aides in tow and stared at the twenty programmers. Except for the expressions on their faces, they simply looked like they were asleep. That is, if men slept with their eyes open.
Mattocks spun around and saw the colonel. "You!" he screamed. He ran up to Marks and shook his fists in his face. "Your bloody monster killed every one of my men! MY MEN!" he screamed.
The colonel simply glared, ramrod straight.
"Explain," he said quietly.
"You!" Mattock sputtered, "You made it intelligent. It knew that when it didn't self-terminate we'd come looking for it." He motioned to the room with a sweep of his arm. "So it decided to come for us first. And now it's loose on the IntNNet and the only people with the skill to stop it are dead!"
* * *
Panther roamed the wild jungles of her home page cursing as loud as she could. The sensory node on her computer had crisped out again and now her experience on the IntNNet was limited to a mere four senses.
Unable to feel anything, she felt like she had been given a full body dose of Novocaine.
She jumped from moss-covered limb to another, her supple feline body rippling like water as she bounded from tree to tree. She was hunting and though she could not feel the experience, she could smell her prey.
Following the scent, she bounded effortlessly into a tree and gazed out into the open meadow. The deer-construct grazed among the wildflowers oblivious to the green cat's-eyes that peered down on him from the forest's edge. Panther watched and waited for the precise moment, her tail twitching in spite of herself.
The deer, knowing as if with a sixth sense that something was up, was starting to feel skittish. At odd moments it would jerk its head up and peer around nervously as if aware of the eyes that were focused on it. Slowly, it started to move toward the tree where Panther waited patiently.
Within moments the deer had come within range and with a scream, Panther lunged from the tree and gave chase. The deer jumped and ran toward the far side of the clearing, but Panther was on it in moments.
Her teeth and claws, actually disassembler programs, tore the construct apart. Panther roared her success over the body of her kill.
As she stood over the body of the deer, the meadow swirled like an artist's watercolor in the rain. Fun was fun, but she needed money for a new sensory node and Joshua's freelance work request could not have come at a better time. The meadow congealed and became a sparsely outfitted research node. Retaining her panther form, she loped over to one of the viewing nodes and punched in the access code and handle Joshua had sent her.
Within micro-seconds she had access to the marketing web and began scanning the polls for popular gaming plot lines. Joshua wanted her to come up with a plot line that would sell and that meant seeing what plot lines the polls said people desired. Thank goodness, she thought to herself, the cowboy vampires of Dallas, Texas craze was over.
She caught movement out of her right eye and spun around by instinct. Another panther, a mirror image of herself, lunged on her, knocking her over and began to shred her with its claws and teeth.
"Emergency disconnect," Panther screamed. Nothing happened.
She could sense her form disintegrating under the other panther's assault, but because of her lack of virtual feeling she could not sense what she was sure would be a painful experience.
Anger welled up and her emotions made the the room appear to glow red.
With a scream of rage she struck out at the attacking form in a blur of claws and teeth. In seconds, the shredded form of her attacker lay mangled at her feet.
Reconstruction programs began putting Panther's form back together.
Panther studied her attacker carefully. Suddenly, she swore and lashed out at it again. "You're a stinking virus," she screamed. "You're just a program!"
Slowly, the corpse at her feet also began to reassemble itself. It opened one baleful eye and glared at her.
"You want another go 'round?" she asked. "Sounds fine to me." With a roar of fury she jumped on her twin and began shredding it into 1's and 0's.
* * *
Adolph Hitler looked askance at Berek and the men surrounding him. At Hitler's feet lay over thirty other mangled duplicates of the German dictator while the viral cube slowly hung in cyberspace.
Berek motioned with one hand and the construct reluctantly approached the virus.
"I am Ancient Evil," Hitler said. With a sudden hum the virus turned into a buzz saw and ripped apart Adolph Hitler Construct Number 37 before it even had a chance to scream.
Immediately, the virus assumed its cubic form.
Berek turned and looked at his companions and raised one eyebrow in question.
"We have now recovered about fifty-five percent of the original code," Albert Einstein said.
R. Austin Smith, inventor of the programming language Patton-G sadly shook his head while Bill Gates stood silently in mute thought. They were all constructs.
"I'm stunned at how badly written it is," Smith said. "I could streamline it by at least three tenths of a percent just from what I've seen."
Berek snorted in disgust. "I'm not interested in making it better. I want to eradicate the thing."
Bill Gates stared at the carnage of dead Adolph Hitler constructs and shrugged his shoulders. "We'll understand more when we have the entire code in front of us. Shall we do it again?"
Berek shrugged and called into existence Adolph Hitler Construct Number 38.
* * *
"I'm sorry, Mr. Nozzi," the secretary said, her perennial smile on her face, "Neither Mr. Heavy Horse nor Mr. Frozen Shade are answering your calls."
Joshua angrily shook his head, "What a bunch of losers, Late again on an important task."
"Should I tell them so?" the secretary asked.
"No!" barked Joshua. He paused for a moment in thought. "Belay that. Make that a yes."
"Will do," came the cheery response. "There is a call waiting for you in your office from Nebula. Do you wish to take it?"
Joshua shrugged and walked into his office and cued his virtual video-phone. The screen phased into blurred lines that focused into Nebula's concerned face.
"Bad news, amigo," he said. "I can't get a rise out of Westley or the Hacker. They were supposed to get their work to me just a few minutes ago and I can't find them anywhere."
Joshua hit the edge of the table with his hand in anger. "I can't get squat out of the Horse or Shade either," he replied. "What's going on?"
Nebula shrugged. "That's not important now. We've got five hours to get this program up and running before the finances start screaming. I'll come over to your office and we'll get this in the bag." Nebula cued off without the usual pleasantries.
Three minutes later, a pleasant tone sounded and Joshua walked out into the vestibule where Nebula stood in his traditional military gray. "Any word from the others?" he asked.
Joshua shook his head in disgust. "Not a peep. There had better be a real emergency if they want to retain partnership."
Nebula laughed grimly. "The only excuse I'll accept is if they're dead."
Joshua laughed and turned to his secretary-construct. "We're going to have to get a lot of work done in my office. I want no disturbances at all for the next five hours unless the financial backers call. Save us some time and log on for us."
The secretary smiled prettily. Her fingers danced over the keyboard. "That, sir, is account number AA4367D with the handle, Ancient Evil. Confirmed?"
Joshua nodded his agreement. The secretary's fingers danced over the keyboard in a blur.
"Entered, sir," she said coyly.
"Joshua," Nebula said with a note of urgency in his voice. "What's that?"
A small mote, the size of a pinhead but glowing with a bright green nimbus floated above the secretary who continued to smile prettily, ignoring the anomaly above her head. Suddenly, the mote swooped over the secretary and entered her right nostril.
The secretary sat there still smiling as if everyday glowing pieces of dust flew up her nose.
"Sir," she said, "I believe there may be a problem."
Joshua and Nebula stared at her perplexed.
Seductively, the secretary climbed up on the desk and kneeling, kissed the tip of her finger. Smiling she pressed it to Joshua's cheek and giggled.
"Tag," she said. "You're it."
Her features began to melt and blur. Stunned, Nebula and Joshua backpedaled away from what was quickly becoming a shapeless mass.
"Is this a joke?" Joshua asked looking quickly at Nebula. "If this is a virus infection, my virus detectors should have caught it."
The gray mass quickly jerked into the shape of a nightmare with fangs and teeth and sprang at Joshua. With a cry of alarm, Nebula blocked the attack with his shoulder sending the thing careening into the wall.
Grabbing his friend, he practically threw Joshua into his office and slammed the door in the face of the charging monstrosity. The door bulged and shuddered on its hinges, but the security file held.
Behind the door they could the unearthly screams of the creature as it tried to breach the security door.
Nebula looked at Joshua in shock. "I have to question your taste in women," he said.
Again the door bulged. "Will that hold?" he asked.
"It's a level four security door," Joshua said. "Let's jack out of here and find out what's going on."
"Sounds good to me, friend. Disconnect."
Nothing happened.Nebula looked at his friend with a worried smile.
"Ah " he said. "Emergency disconnect?" Again, nothing.
"This is turning into a very bad joke," Nebula said, worried.
Joshua's attempts to disconnect were also met with failure.
At that moment, the video screen on the office desk chimed. The motes on the screen blurred into the face of Berek.
"Hello, Joshua," he said. "I got some bad news for you. I think your life may be in danger."
* * *
"And," Berek said in closing, three minutes later, "when I realized it was an assassin program designed to go after anybody with the handle of Ancient Evil, I did a net-wide handle search and came up with two hits. Some guy named Isaac Fernhuff, now deceased, and you.
"So, that's about it. You can't jack out because it destroyed your disconnect routines when it touches you or you touch it. And it won't stop until it kills you."
"Not much good news there. Berek," Nebula sighed. "Any solution?"
Berek shook his head in the negative. "I'm still working on it. It took me forever just to break the program down into readable code.
"What I'm doing now is contacting the police and I'll have them get into your homes for manual disconnect. How long will your door hold?"
Joshua looked at the door. The monster that used to be his secretary had broken a three-inch hole in the door and was continuing its efforts to erode the security code that kept it from reaching its prey. “Minutes?” he said.
"Then I'll get moving," Berek said. "Good luck!" The video screen blinked off. Immediately, the video screen chimed again. The angry face of Panther glared out at them from the screen.
Some jerk," she said before Joshua could say anything, "just tried to cause me problems with a virus program."
Joshua tried to ignore the demonic growls from behind his office door and sat at the desk while Nebula peered over his shoulder.
"Panther," he asked. "Did you log on anywhere with our group handle?"
"Yes," Panther said petulantly. "And then this virus tried to short circuit me."
"Panther, listen," Joshua said urgently. "How did you survive it?"
Panther glared at him in anger. "What the heck are you talking about?" she said. "It's just a virus program."
"No," Joshua said, "it's not. Listen. I seriously suspect that Horse, Shade, Westley and Hacker are dead.
"Now it's very important. How did you survive?"
Panther paused in thought and shrugged her shoulders. "I dunno," she said. "I just tore it into shreds. It tried to attack me, but my sensory input is toast. I couldn't feel a thing."
Nebula and Joshua looked at each other and smiled.
"Hey, Panther," Joshua asked. "Want to give it a go on another one that's right outside my door?"
* * *
The hole in Joshua's security door had been expanded to about a foot in diameter. The thing that had once been his sycophantic secretary was now actually chewing on the edges of the hole to make it larger.
"You know, Josh," Nebula said dryly, "You may want to do something about this."
Joshua wearily scratched his head. He had just attempted to solve the problem with a fifth sword which was in actuality a dissembler program, but the virus was able to reconstruct its wounds at blazing speed. "If you have any ideas, you'll find me quite open to discussion."
Suddenly the door ruptured and, roaring its triumph, the creature shredded the last remains of the security door. The two men ran behind the virtual desk knowing there was neither retreat nor attack.
"Listen," Nebula said, "It can only deal with one of us. Whoever it attacks first, the other needs to make a run for it."
Joshua opened his mouth to comment when the creature roared and crouched to spring. Suddenly, two large clawed arms reached through the shattered door and, wrapping themselves around the beast, pulled it back into the office waiting room.
The screams of an angry panther split the air.
"Cavalry to the rescue," yelled Joshua. Running to the door they saw Panther and the secretary deeply engrossed in shredding each other to bits.
"I must confess that I do love a catfight," Nebula said with a grin.
A swipe of a claw and a large fragment of the secretary arced across the air and brushed against Nebula. He screamed and clutched his arm which began to melt and run. Joshua grabbed him and pulled him back into the office out of harm's way.
Nebula clutched his arm and cursed. "I've never felt such pain," he moaned.
"Your reconstruction programs must have been wiped," Joshua said. "Your arm isn't repairing itself."
"The way it feels," Nebula replied. "I'll bet I have a corresponding wound in reality." He moaned again. "I can hardly wait to get my hands on the byte wipe that designed this one."
The screaming stopped. With growing tension, Nebula and Joshua braced themselves to see who walked through the door first.
Shredded and fragmented, its reconstruction program unable to deal with the massive damage, the mutated secretary lurched through the door, stumbling and holding on to the wall for support. With one glaring eye it scanned the room until it saw Nebula and Joshua staring back at it in horror.
With a howl, it crouched and sprung with blurring speed.
And crumpled in on itself in mid-spring.
Rolling out of the way of the fragments, Nebula stood and ran for the door first where Panther's persona was slowly repairing itself.
"She ripped off all my limbs," Panther sputtered in anger from the floor. "It takes a while for these programs to reconstruct."
Joshua came to the office door and sighed with relief to see Panther's ragged form slowly oozing back to normal.
"Thank goodness you're okay," he said. Suddenly, his image sputtered and he disappeared from view.
"What's going on!" Panther yelled in dismay.
Nebula calmed her with a wave of his hand. "Not to worry. Berek called the police to break into our houses for a manual override. They finally got to him."
He smiled at Panther when suddenly his own image sputtered and disappeared.
"Great," Panther muttered to herself. "Leave the woman to do all the clean up."
* * *
Two days later, Panther, Berek, Joshua and Nebula stood on a vast cyberspatial plane that stretched out before them as far as the eye could see. In the last 48 hours, rumors of the virus were starting to spread, but the U.S. government steadfastly declared that it would never involve itself in such a rogue misuse of the IntNNet and insisted that Japanese terrorists screaming for independence from the U.S. were really to blame.
"Institute Reverse Charge Program," Berek said to the open air.
Aside from the sky turning from slate gray to rose, there was no other change or movement. The four stared at each other in silence.
"Did it work?" asked Panther, breaking the silence. "Are we glorified bug zappers now?"
Berek shrugged. "Only one way to find out," he said. "Institute Adolph Hitler Construct Number 124." Immediately the little German dictator appeared.
"Attack the cat," Berek ordered.
The despot raised his puny fists and charged Panther. The nanosecond his fists touched her fur he burst into incandescent flame and disappeared.
"Don't ever call me a cat again," Panther said menacingly. Berek ignored her.
"Institute Far Call Program," he ordered. The sky deepened to coral.
"Right now," Berek informed the group. "My program is informing every mailbox on the IntNNet that a person using the handle Ancient Evil is resident in this location. In one minute, every assassin virus will be paying us a visit."
"How many do you estimate there are?" Joshua asked.
Berek shrugged. "It's a rough estimate, but I'd say at least 20 billion."
"Did you say 20 billion!" Nebula gasped. Berek nodded.
"Hmm," Panther mused. "Four of us to 20 billion of them. I consider them fair odds."
"Well, that's good," Berek responded dryly, "'Cause here comes the first wave."
* * *
The plain raged with incandescent light as the assassin viruses hurled themselves against the four. Berek's program, carefully inserted into each persona, returned to the attacker the same amount of discharge it used as its weapon. And since the viruses attacked by the tens of thousands each second, the reverse charge blasted not only the assassins, but also did dramatic rearrangement to the cyberspatial landscape. Various IntNNet nodes fried and bubbled as cheap surge protectors gave way.
Aside from Panther, all stood immobile, taking, in their own way, the enjoyment of being successful against a weapon their own government could not control. Panther on the other hand, did not wait for the viruses to attack, but gleefully met them in mid-air with claws outstretched and roars of sheer joy for the kill.
Three hours later the attack dwindled to a trickle. Ignoring the final hundreds of viruses blowing themselves to oblivion in their programmed design to kill, the four congratulated each other on a job well done.
"I'm glad this is over," Nebula said. "I feel like I'm been in a sensory deprivation tank."
"Sorry," Berek replied, "but in order for my program to be effective I did have to reduce the level of sensory input you would normally feel."
Panther stretched and giggled. "That was the most fun I've had in some time." She sighed. "What a pity it's all over."
In the meantime the attacking motes had finally dissipated. Aside from one or two latecomers, the blasted landscape was clear of virus and the resulting explosions.
"Sort of like the apocalypse," quipped Joshua. "Except not as messy."
Suddenly the entire landscape shuddered. The four warriors looked at each other in surprise.
"What was that?" Panther asked. "An earthquake? Here?"
Again, the landscape shuddered.
Berek motioned with his hand and a hoop of light appeared in the air. Formulas and cryptic signs flashed on the impromptu screen it formed.
"Interesting," Berek said, his eyes scanning the information as it scanned up the screen.
"Well?" asked Joshua.
"It seems that the viruses we killed were miniature copies of the original," Berek said. "Looks like the original is coming for a visit."
Again the ground shuddered.
Berek looked worried. "This original is highly intelligent. It's not going to fall for the same trick its children did. I think we have something to be concerned about."
"We could jack out," Nebula said.
The four looked at each other in mute silence.
"No," Berek said finally. "I plan on seeing this through."
The other three nodded in mutual agreement.
"Something's coming!" screamed Panther.
A thunderhead loomed on the horizon and approached rapidly. Bolts of electricity left bright images on the retina as they struck the ground with incredible ferocity. Each bolt blasted huge chucks out of the landscape making the ground shudder with the violent attack.
Joshua sighed. "If I get through this with half my brain intact I plan on writing a nasty letter to my senator."
Berek spoke to the I/O hoop he had created through a blur of arcane programming words. Out of thin air, four slim belts of shimmering material appeared. Quickly he grabbed them and distributed them to Panther, Nebula and Joshua.
"These may not be able to protect you one hundred percent, but they're the best I can come up with at the moment. Put them on."
Berek looked at the approaching storm and shuddered as a funnel cloud, miles in diameter, roared out and struck the ground with incredible fury.
"I'll wager," Joshua said, "that twister is the biggest dissembler program ever seen." The wind kicked up to a piercing howl and it took great concentration to remain in one place. "That thing will tear us to bits!"
"It may have picked the attack," Berek screamed above the rising gale, "but we'll pick the arena.
"Joshua? What's the command code for your Anuinn game?"
With a smile, Joshua spoke a word of command. The landscape melted along with the I/O hoop.
The four found themselves in a massive ancient keep composed of solid blocks of jet black granite. The interior was lit by smoky tapers that flared and guttered on the walls.
"This is great!" Nebula said. "I know this place as if it were my own home. There's no way this thing can find us."
"Below us," Joshua explained, "is a dungeon with two hundred miles of corridors and rooms and one nasty surprise if our friend decides to play."
Outside the wind howled and raged, but the keep, written as a read-only program, remained inviolate.
However, the door was not. With a shudder, it collapsed under the massive bulk of a large dragon. Its scream roared through the keep.
"Follow me," Joshua commanded. The three rushed after him as he ran down a narrow staircase.
The stairs opened into a small hallway with many exits and entrances. Joshua, having designed the dungeon brick by brick, knew his own creation better than Nebula who had play-tested Anuinn for countless hours.
"This way" Joshua ordered. "We can make a stand in the Hall of Silence."
There was a roar and the four spun around to face their attacker. Like gray vomit, a large amorphous ball of slime spewed out of the staircase they had just exited. Eyes and fanged mouths bubbled into existence on the mucous-covered surface.
With a savage cry of rage, Panther sprang with claws outstretched.
"No!" screamed Berek. The feline hit the ooze and with claws flashing attempted to rip its code to shreds. With a convulsive heave the ooze covered Panther. There was the sound of a sharp explosion from inside its massive bulk and the sickly-sweet odor of ozone.
"Run!" Berek yelled again. "She's lost to us."
They turned and fled down the corridor, the amorphous creature in close pursuit.
"This way!" yelled Joshua. The trio ran into a small alcove. A concealed door slammed shut behind them temporarily preventing the pursuing monstrosity from further chase.
Berek and Nebula cried out in alarm when spikes sprang out from the walls. With a slow grinding noise, the walls began to draw closer.
"One moment," Joshua said, searching the non-moving wall with his hands. "Ah! Here it is!" He pressed hard and with a sharp click he depressed a section of the wall. The spiked walls stopped moving and the far wall slowly opened to show another receding hallway.
On cue, the door behind them buckled as the assassin virus attempted to break through.
"There's a teleportation pad over here," Joshua said. "Follow me."
Joshua led them to a small raised dais. "By the starry orb of the Anuinn," Joshua intoned.
The scene melted and they found themselves in a large room lit by the unearthly glow of massive coal-lit furnaces. The temperature of the room was stifling and even though it was only virtual reality, all three were drenched in perspiration within moments.
"We're now several levels below the virus," Joshua explained. "I think we have a few moments to consider a plan."
"What I want to know," Nebula said, "is if Panther is okay."
"Probably," Berek said. "The belts I've constructed are designed to take a good chunk of punishment away from you, but they can't absorb it all. If they detect an abnormal amount of damage when you are thrown out of the IntNNet they trigger a program in my computer which dials emergency services and directs them to your address.
"If Panther survived her encounter, she's most probably in an ambulance autodoc on the way to the hospital."
"Well, let's consider our alternatives," Nebula interrupted. "We could all jack out and turn this over to the authorities."
"No," Joshua said, shaking his head. "I think I have a plan."
"It had better be a good one," Nebula responded, "because our batting average pretty much lags about now."
Berek nodded his assent. "I'm willing to give yours a try,"
"Well, let's get this show on the road before our visitor finds us." Joshua walked into the middle of the room and shouted at the top of his lungs. "Grimbold! It is Izon of Bartas, your creator. Come!"
"A tad melodramatic isn't he?" Nebula whispered as an aside to Berek. Berek merely shrugged.
They could here the massive shuffling of feet when the giant Cyclops lumbered into the room. Blinking stupidly out of one oversized eye he slowly shuffled from one foot to the other. Drool oozed out of its open mouth and puddled on the floor.
"This gentleman," Joshua said, motioning toward the Cyclops, "is the ticket to buy us valuable time to get my master plan set up. I am hoping that "
With a groan, the ceiling collapsed. Gray ooze flooded over the rubble of the huge granite blocks and one pseudopod whipped out and wrapped itself around Nebula.
Screaming in agony, he was lifted up and thrust deep into the pulsating mass. Once again, there was a muffled implosion and the bitter reek of ozone.
"Grimbold!" Joshua yelled. "Kill!"
With a roar the Cyclops leapt onto the thing that had followed them and began to rip apart pseudopods as quickly as they sprouted. Within seconds, the Cyclops was engulfed.
Too horrified to talk, Joshua grabbed Berek's arm and half-dragged him toward an open door. They ran through corridors of ancient rock that towered above them until the ceiling itself was lost in the murky darkness.
"Berek," Joshua yelled breathlessly as they ran. "I need just a few moments to set up the trap. Can you act as decoy?"
Berek nodded. Joshua turned at an intersection and entered a massive coliseum. In the middle, surrounded by thousands of rows of hewn stone seats, stood a podium with a bright blue flame. The flame danced over ten feet high and lit the arena with an unearthly azure light.
"Please," Joshua said. "Keep it here for just a few moments before you emergency disconnect. I just need a fraction of the time."
Bracing himself, Joshua started running for podium. Muttering an incantation, he leapt into the flame. Instead of heat, he felt his body expand into a mist as the surroundings evaporated. For what seemed moments, he hung in total darkness. Slowly, the darkness lifted to reveal a massive cavern filled with multicolored stalactites and other formations.
Without pausing, he fled down a corridor and stepped over what he knew was an important invisible line. Reality seemed to waver for a moment and then click together. Here the cavern seemed crude and strangely unfinished. Even the colors seemed diminished. Joshua smiled and waited.
He did not have long to wait. Hoping Berek had made a clean getaway, Joshua could hear the pursuit of a heavy body fleeing toward him. The ooze poured down the cavern corridor breaking away formations and columns in its mad rush to annihilate him.
It puddled before the entrance as if exhausted or puzzled.
"Come on!" Joshua cried. "Here I am! Come and get me!"
The blob merely sat quiescent. Joshua could feel the anger well up inside him. This thing had killed several of his friends and may have killed his last three companions. It was an affront to all the unspoken codes and mores that surrounded the IntNNet.
"I am Ancient Evil," Joshua yelled at the top of his lungs. "Fulfill your program!"
With blazing speed, before Joshua could yell for emergency disconnect, the thing surged into the room and whipped out a gelatinous arm. Seizing him around his waist, Joshua screamed in agony as he felt what must have been thousands of volts course through his body, despite Berek's virtual belt.
He felt himself jerked through the air and felt himself smashed into the blob's main body.
Screaming in pain, he woke with a jerk into normal reality.
Blood poured from his nose and ears and a red haze hindered his vision. His head felt as if it were trying split open.
He stumbled to his feet, his apartment seemed to reel about him, and then he fell flat on his face. Arms and legs barely obeying him, Joshua crawled toward the computer console.
He grabbed the electric plug of the computer and pulled it out of the wall socket with all his might.
When the paramedics arrived three minutes later, they found Joshua hugging a small thumb drive to his chest and laughing hysterically.
* * *
Twenty-four days later, Berek, Nebula and Joshua met in Joshua's real office. Panther was still in the hospital, but expected to make a full recovery and be released within a few days. Berek had successfully delayed SATS and had emergency disconnected with no penalty but a splitting headache. Nebula and Joshua, on the other hand, were in serious condition for several days from internal bleeding and synapse overload. Fortunately, they had made a complete recovery.
There were questions, but Joshua explained or to put it bluntly, lied, explaining the damage had been caused by an experimental hookup his company was developing. His insurance company was livid. Joshua didn't care.
He placed the thumb drive on his desk and patted it affectionately.
"When the assassin virus entered the cavern, it had to transfer its program from wherever it was to this thumb drive. When I entered reality, I basically turned off my computer and killed it while it was in my computer's RAM.
"However, its program is here. And not the small duplicate virus program that Berek has. I have the complete original."
"But what are you going to do with it?" Nebula asked. "It's an artificially intelligent monster. How do you know it won't turn on you like it did its original creators?"
"Because I'm aware of what it can do," Joshua responded. "I can reprogram it to be the ultimate game opponent, and the government will never challenge me about copyright infringement.
"I suspect," Joshua said laughing, "that we are going to fabulously wealthy courtesy of Uncle Sam."
Three glasses of champagne clicked together over the inactive thumb drive.