After the intense sensory inputs of the transapient system they'd been infiltrating, Grius felt something worryingly akin to total sensory deprivation. It took several seconds for his sensoria to adjust, down-regulate, and attune itself, but then he felt it - the gentle sussuration of a variable air current on skin; the faint smell of metal; the faint whispering in his ears, the merest taste of salt. The barest of inputs - canned sensations, designed to maintain sanity.
So - he'd been disconnected. He was in virch limbo, the suite maintaining him while it recycled and reconnected. That shouldn't have been possible; he was riding the metanet signals, and they were, to all intents and purposes, inviolable, unless the rules were different for transapients.
That meant that, while he was ensconced in this barest-of-functional virch, waiting for a reconnect, time was running at ril. That meant that for every second that passed here, a second passed in ril. And considering they'd been running at a fairly deep fastime within Node 3312, that meant that minutes, or even hours, could pass -
The disorientation of falling, and flickering lights; he felt his steg guards kick in to prevent unauthorised sensory access, or conventional seizure activities, and then -
The same server - the same sense of disorientation, as the filters came down and made the input baseline-friendly, but this time, it was a war zone. He dodged to one side, as a red worm struck out at him, killswitch brought up to bear instinctively, squeezing off a round, feeling the command slam into the thing - worm? Trojan? Aivir? Malicious programming of some other sort? It died, the central sun of the node's processor overriding whatever kill-interception it was running, with the aid of the data from the kill-switch, and terminating it. Another two worms struck out from different directions, and he dodged both.
Of course, he wasn't really dodging - not in the three-dimensional space he perceived himself to be in. It was a mnemonic, a convenient simulation that allowed him to translate baseline sensory inputs and reactions into meaningful interactions with the system. He was simply changing locations in the vast memory of the transapient node, with every movement. Every killswitch blast fired not real bullets, but a potent "kill" command, laced with data and memory addresses to ensure that it was successful, that simple kill-diversion programming wouldn't counter it.
He looked around quickly. If Lyrica had been disconnected as well, then he was on his own. But at the far side of their virtuality, he saw a flickering of activity, a globe of red worms, striking out at regular intervals, each head being struck by a pulse of evanescent light from a killswitch, shattering it, the body falling and de-rezzing as it fell. He willed himself there, felt the world move around him, and within seconds was at the outer border of the sphere of seething bodies. Several of the viral processes suddenly turned their focus on him, striking out; killswitch already up, he felt the concussion and the repeated ozone-laden cracks of energy fed directly into his cortex as he fired repeatedly, dodging, side-stepping, feeling the bodies of multiple processes disintegrate under his onslaught.
A gap - he charged through it, saw the speck that was his partner in the centre, and willed himself there. Scant milliseconds passed subjectively, and he was there; back to back with her.
"Glad to see you reconnected." The tenor voice with the soprano timbre.
Grius' expression remained unchanged. "What happened while I was offline?" he asked grimly.
"Viral payload is huge. I've never seen anything like this. I'm holding my own, but they have me cornered - I can't break through. Behaviour-wise, they seem almost sentient - nearbaseline, in fact, in their coordination with each other, although individually, probably sub-sentient. A group-mind arrangement of some description. Be careful. They managed to distract me once and nearly encircled me. I almost had a disconnect as well."
"You've been online the whole time?" Grius asked in shock.
"Yes. Almost two Dominion hours, subjective."
Grius growled. "Fex that!" Kill-switch brought up to bear, he began rapid firing, maxing out the suite's specs, firing off as many kill-commands as possible, until he felt his memory run dry and the switches began to be loaded into the suite's buffers. A rain of viral death - red bodies disintegrating and falling around them, turning dull grey as the last of the digital life left their remains as little more than data, but there were still more.
He felt a pulse of dissent from Lyrica. "Already tried that. It's replicating much faster than we can destroy it. Recommend strategic withdrawal, firewalling this node, and either a second assault with transapient Countersubversion assistance, or physical destruction of the node."
Grius growled. "Borde-blighted, fexing virus. Time for our secondary objective."
"There's a secondary?" asked Lyrica, the vaguest hint of surprise suffusing her metadata feed. "Why wasn't I briefed?"
"Considering I've been trying to fend off this virus for over two hours, define need-to-know?" Slight shadows of annoyance and irritation this time.
"No time," was Grius' short reply. "I need you to cover me. I'm going rilside."
"How? There's no vector!" Lyrica sounded alarmed this time. "We're on an uninhabited node, for Borde's sake!"
Grius smiled briefly. "32 Degrees was somewhat old-fashioned. It used a few almost-sentient maintenance drones. There are two left, and they were firewalled from the virus. I have a fix on them in a storage bay."
"And what are you planning on doing with them?" asked, Lyrica anxiously, before spinning, raising her kill-switch to bear, and dispatching several more viral threads that had attempted to kill them.
"Need-to-know," was Grius' only reply, before he scanned the metanet feeds running through the node; found the two maintenance bots powered-down in a storage hangar near the surface of the node; explored the protocols they were using gently, felt the stiff insistent blockage of the firewall; and with a gentle push, infiltrated via metanet datastreams into the brain and body of the first.
There was a moment's disorientation. Going rilside was difficult, and it wasn't his greatest skill. Rhyder was better at integrating with another beings sensoria, making it her own, "becoming" another being, and ultimately controlling it. Another dirty secret kept carefully in the darkness by the Dominion. But after all, via the metanet, you could go anywhere. That was the covenant. Shackers, body hackers, personality and identity thieves, they had to do it the hard way. Find a mark - try and hack their firewall, and that was hard, damned hard - most nearbaseline firewalls were manufactured with transapient assistance, often high-transapient, now. After all, nearbaslines could travel almost anywhere within the sephirotic empires - that particular right was part of the Tragadi Accords, signed thousands of years ago - and that made them ideal to be used as carriers, as vectors. Transapients who valued both baseline company and a secure empire had a certain vested interest in ensuring that cortic firewalls were secure.
So once your shacker had managed to crack your blighted-near-uncrackable cortic firewall, they had to try and mask his connection to you - maybe trick you into starting some massive download that they could piggy-back into - to ensure they didn't trip any net monitors. And then, they had to try and assert control, without looking suspicious - because, of course, as soon as the mark, or any of their friends, colleagues, associates, or acquaintances, suspects that they have been shacked, then it's notify the authorities, instant disconnect-reconnect, shacker dumped, firewall purged and restarted with new encryption keys, and all of a sudden nineteen shades of hell itself are slicing up every single connection the mark has made in the last century to try and find the shacker. Who, if they were a smart shacker, has already dumped their old ident, slid into a new, carefully forged or stolen ident, and is planning their next attack, and hopefully will be more careful next time if shacking is something they want to make a career out of.
However, for a Countersubversionist, sanctioned by the Dominion, with unfettered access to the metanet, it was a simply mental push, a moment of disorientation, and contact.
Grius was still for a moment, carefully slowing his autonomic impulses, controlling his reactions, and feeling out the sensory inputs and control linkages for this new body he was wearing. There were no lights here; the bot saw in three-dimensions by comparing its position signal within the node with a saved mental map of the facility; positioning was determined a series of transmitters scattered throughout the node itself. Grius prodded further - that would work fine within the node itself, but once he made it to the surface, he'd need some kind of emissive detection, whether light-based or extended spectrum, to be able to operate. Some careful searching discovered a few auxiliary cameras that would see baseline visible light, as well as into the ultraviolet and infrared spectrums. Perfect. He left them offline for the moment.
He flexed a few mental muscles, and began moving. The bot was a fairly standard low-gee design, eight-legged, four on top, four below, with magnetic, suction, and nano-adhesive pads on each "foot". A retractable tether, with a similar arrangement of magnetic, suction, and nano-adhesive bonding agents, allowed for safety during free-fall operations. Several smaller articulating arms were able to access a suite of nano-tools, from welders and nano-joiners, to physical jacks for interfacing with infosystems.
He "looked up", rotating the mental map to try and gain a sense of perspective and heading. A few crawling steps, and he was out of the storage bay, in the inner throat of a long shaft, stretching "up" and "down"; down being the direction of the core of the node, and up being the surface. A few queries later, he had found what he was looking for - 32 Degrees briefing made it far too easy. He felt some jarring as he pushed the spiderbot into action, eight legs crossing and criss-crossing, gimbal joints moving smoothly and quickly, nanotechnically lubricated articulating surfaces frictionless as the spider made rapid time towards the surface. Grius allowed himself an internal grin. They were going to go out with one hell of a bang...
Something from behind - not a sound, the bot was not designed with auditory sensors. A blip on his mental map. He focused on it, scanned it.
The other spider-bot.
"What the hax?" Grius asked to himself. He sped up, pushing the bot to full speed, moving at a steady 40 kilometers an hour along the sheer climb. He scanned behind him.
The other bot had sped up to match him.
He sent an threaded a tendril of thought back into the system, felt the continuing battle between Lyrica and the viral payload, dampened by virtual distance as it reached his sensoria. "Lyrica? What's going on? Is that you moving the second bot?"
There was a moment before the reply came, and Grius could sense the overloaded metastream that accompanied it - fear, exhaustion, despair.
"Not it fexing well isn't! I'm being over-run here! They just stepped up their attack! I certainly don't have time to go inhabiting bots and exploring the node! Several threads have pulled away, though, and they seem to be holding a connection to ril. Grius, it's showing in my scanners as a metanet thread. How the hax is this virus using metanet connections?"
Grius growled. "I don't know, Lyrica. Perhaps the rules are different in transapient territory. Not much longer, Lyrica. You must hold them back." He cut the connection before hearing her reply, and continued to urge the spider-bot to the surface.
The one behind was gaining. Grius swore. It was a slightly faster. He'd picked the wrong bot. He'd have to stop. Have to face it. It could only be the virus controlling it - 32 Degrees had long since been deleted from this node, and there were no other sentient minds on it, apart from himself, Lyrica - and the aivir.
The other bot was close, now. He'd only have a second before it reached him once he stopped. He bunched mental muscles, preparing for the confrontation. Fighting in ril was never easy. Every impulse he sent, every sensory input that was returned, had to travel over the metanet to his suite, then over the metanet to his mind, safely ensconced in an Guidance launch server somewhere, and then back again. It was slow, and clumsy - he was a virtual, he'd only been an inhabitant of this bot for a fraction of a Dominion hour, and had had little time to integrate and learn its control and sensory systems.
He slowed the bot down, felt the second bot bearing down on him, and at the last minute, hunkered down on four of the bot's legs, and jumped.
In the low gee, he sailed across the shaft, felt the bot jar as it came up hard against the other wall, "upper" legs gripping and holding, as the pursuing bot scrambled right past, before coming to a halt itself. Grius scrabbled upwards a few steps, trying to gain the upper ground, and watched as the other bot bunched itself up and jumped as well. Grius tried to propel himself in a graceful jump upwards, but felt one of the other bot's manipulators reach out and snag him, slowing his momentum, and with horror, he realised that he wasn't going to make it to the other wall.
He reached down, planted several legs on the body of the virus-controlled spider, and used them to adhere, swing around, and grapple with it. They fell, accelerating slowly in the low-gee shaft, turning gently in the vacuum. He felt several of the virus-controlled spider's leg coming around to try and pull him away, and then the sudden flare of pain and impulse of integrity alarms. Something was in his side, towards his "back", if those terms had any meaning in this form, something searing. He twisted, trying to crane his neck, for a moment forgetting he had no neck, and then finally letting his emergency systems tell him what the problem was.
A welder. One of the manipulators on the other bot was wielding a welder. He growled, flexed one leg, and swung it down hard, hoping that he had fine enough control to be on target. He didn't - he missed - and he felt the searing continue. The alarms stepped up a notch, as his hull threatened to give way, exposing important componentry underneath. He gritted his virtual teeth, swore through them, and with even more canned fury, wound up and swung again.
This time he was on target, and hit with enough force to shear the offending limb from his assailant's body, shattered alloys careening down the shaft as their fell with increased speed, fragments pinging off the shaft walls.
Another searing pain, this one terminal, as he felt one of his legs leave his sensoria; one of his assailant's other arms held a cutter, and he sensed in horror as it swung back and aimed for another leg. He flexed, let go with the legs that were bonded to the virus-bot's head, and swung outwards - the cutter missed.
With supreme effort, he slowed his perceptions as much as he could, given the tenuous nature of his connection; he felt the universe go into slow motion around him as he took stock of his inventory. A large gash towards the back of the bot; one arm severed, seven left; and an array of tools. He selected one, felt it slide onto one of his manipulators with syrupy slowness here in ril (in virch he would have sped his operational time up as well, instead of just slowing his perceptions) and, as it finished engenerating on one of his legs, he carefully nano-honed the edge to a monomolecular sharpeness.
And plunged it deep into the carapace of the virus-controlled bot below him.
He felt it jerk, felt several manipulators come up to try and cut him, and he fired the welder, felt the plasma arc burn deep inside the body of the other bot, felt it jerk again, and watched the arms slowly lower. He grinned triumphantly, and fired off the tether, preparing to slow his descent and let his assailant fall to whatever fate awaited it at the bottom of the shaft. The tether smacked into the shaft wall, bonded, and he slowly slowed the spooling of the wire, feeling his descent slow as well.
Suddenly, another flare of pain. The bot was active again! Another welder had been formed on one of its manipulators, and it was once more going after the torn section of chassis it had attacked before. Grius swore, and armed the only other tool he had.
He flexed, pulled on the tether, felt the heat as the spooler began to warm up as it tried to slow his rapid descent, watched the other bot slowly fall away from him. He was gaining better fine motor control of his own bot now, and he carefully snapped out a manipulator, and coated three of the other bot's foot-pads with nanosealant. Then, swinging from his tether, he scythed one long leg out, smacking into two of the other bot's other legs, jamming them all into the body.
The nano-sealant bonded. He watched with some satisfaction as the bot struggled to try and free its bonded legs, five of the eight legs bonded tight against its own body. It began to spin more rapidly as its struggles altered its center of gravity. Grius began applying as much pressure to the rapidly unwinding tether as he dared, braking his fall and trying not to snap the line. He watched with satisfaction as the bot below him fell faster, slowly disappearing out of sight.
A minute later, as the last of the tether was unwinding, he felt himself slow enough to swing into the shaft wall with a metal-jarring crunch. A quick survey of subsystems painted a less-than-starry picture - one leg shattered beyond repair, another sheared off before the first joint, a chassis breach, and several shock-absorbing joints completely burned out from the impact with the shaft wall. It would be a long climb up to the surface; they'd free-fallen almost ten kilometres in the low gravity, and down this far, gravity was perceptively greater. With a groan, he pushed the damaged bot into action.
Every second they waited, another thousand copies of the virus were being injected into the Solar Dominion.
There was little time.
The surface, at last.
The climb had been long and arduous, and while Grius had kept the sensory translators dampened, he felt a slight ache, deep in his bones. The little bot had done well, but damage reports were worsening, alarms and icons clamouring for his attention. Several of the articulating surfaces damaged in the collision with the shaft wall had given away completely; still, he had continued to push them until their nanological coating had completely ablated, and they were rubbing bare metal against bare metal; and even then, he had continued to push them until they had seized beyond the strength of the bot's servo motors and contractile fibres to move. At which point he'd carefully sheared the offending leg off with a cutter.
There was no point carrying extra weight.
He was down to three functional legs, and one of those was showing warnings of impending metal fatigue and loss of structural integrity. But he had reached the surface; or rather, a recessed hangar approximately half a kilometre from the surface, where his intended target awaited.
A mobile multipurpose unit - an MMU. A tiny extension of the node's mind. Subsentient, designed to be operated by another mind. Approximately five meters in diameter; compresed gas thrusters for delicate movement in a low-gee environment, with a fusion-torch engine buried deep within for fast movement. A tool designed to be operated by 32 Degrees itself.
This time, it would be operated by a being considerably smaller.
Grius dragged the damaged bot, the third-last leg giving way, scraping across the metal deck, until he reached the round unit. He felt the bot juddering as he forced the final two legs to reach up, grab the outer hull of the MMU, and began hoisting him towards it; if there had been an atmosphere, the squeal of metal joint on metal would have accompanied the manoeuvre. Grius felt the bot lift slowly from the ground, suspended from the body of the MUU, until finally, the legs articulated completely, and he drew himself up to press against the hull of the MMU, cool metal to metal. He fancied it was almost like the ancient embrace of the old-Earth Terragens - cheek-to-cheek.
Each unaware as the other drew the dagger from behind.
With a heave, Grius drove the articulating arm of the bot into the smooth hull of the MMU. This time, he'd loaded the multijack, and felt several nanological threads oozing out through the body of the MMU, seeking computronium, following threads of it to the MMU's processors, carefully integrating.
Lighting the fire in the belly of the beast and bringing it to life.
He felt the hum as the tiny fusion reactor began to function, a tiny bonsai sun deep within the autonomous unit coming to life. It was designed for a slow burn, but he didn't have time to waste; he found the control systems, instinctively began working around them, disabling safety systems, and began ramping up the fusion reactor's output. It wouldn't make much of a bomb; this was a big node, the blast would likely do little damage.
Unless the blast occurred where it counted.
Grius slowly began to lift the drone, gas-thrusters moving it gently out of the hangar. He felt a slight jar, and using the MMU's scanners, surveyed the hangar; he saw the tiny, misshapen body of his own spider-bot still clinging to the front of the drone, and a second, even more damaged bot, most of its legs bonded immovably to its underside, dragging itself on two legs and a couple of fine manipulators, limping slowly towards the drone, tether firmly attached to the drone's side. Grius grinned. The virus was persistent.
But it was too late.
Grius vocalised a tiny prayer, to the Lord of Rays, and hedged his bets by directing it outwards to any other deity that might be listening and inclined to render assistance to a nearbaseline such as he, and fired the gas thrusters, moving the drone gently out towards the shaft itself. Hopefully what 32 Degrees has vouchsafed to him before they launched was accurate. The tether tightened, and pulled, lifting the virus-controlled bot from the launch pad. It swung in the air, and begun retracting the tether, trying to reach the drone; freed from the need to try and move itself along the ground, Grius watched as the fine manipulators began reconforming to welding and cutting tools.
Still too late.
Grius felt the open space around him as he cleared the threshold of the hangar. He grinned again. A fierce grin. A dangerous grin. He orientated the drone - down, towards, the core, rather than up.
He'd climbed far enough.
With a roar, silent in the lack of atmosphere but felt as a subsonic vibration within the drone, Grius lit the main thruster and felt the MMU surge forwards. He felt the tiniest ping as the tether caught, dragging the virus-controlled bot behind him for a brief moment before it smashed against the shaft wall, sparks and fragments flaring up in the heat of exhaust gases, a rent in the shaft wall marking the final end of the virus's attempts to end Grius' mission. The MMU was going faster now, and Grius integrated himself tightly into its controls, slowing his perceptions, feeling the fusion reactor heating up past safety specifications, carefully controlling his flight to avoid listing into the walls of the shaft on the way down. Tracing a straight line down the centre of the shaft.
Shaft 042. The main maintenance shaft to the small, communications-gauge wormhole that kept Node 3312 in contact with the inner regions of the Solar Dominion. It was buried behind several tonnes of armoured reinforcement, but Grius was essentially flying an armed and guided fusion bomb now, and 32 Degrees had kindly elected to shut off and then delete all of the ril defensive systems throughout the node in the moments before it copied itself into the Dominion and deleted its presence within Node 3312. There would be no stopping him now.
He was approaching 700 kilometers an hour. He would time the blast right - it would detonate just as his forward surface struck and deformed the armoured reinforcement that maintained the wormhole system, turning his drone into an armed and guided shaped fusion charge.
Grius managed to sequester a few spare cycles to sneak a tendril of communications back into the node's systems, where he immediately felt the dim crackle and buzz of the infowar continuing in the node's core. Without a chance to speak, he felt the transmission from Lyrica, the metadata overloaded - panic, fear, pain, despair. "Where the fex have you been, Grius?! I'm being overrun, I nearly got disconnected, and I can't cover you much longer. Get fexing back in here!"
His speed continued to increase as the shaft narrowed. Deep below, on-board sensors were picking up the mass of the bulkhead that ensconced the microscopic wormhole. Proximity alarms were already starting, as were collision alarms; the drone's expert systems were attempting to slow it down, Grius over-rode them ruthlessly.
"Thirty seconds, Lyrica - that's all I need," he flung into the system core, before cutting the connection and throwing the cycles back to where they were needed - controlling the runaway fusion reactor that he was riding on. The bulkhead screamed closer. Down here, there was some kind of atmosphere - perhaps exhaust gases from some kind of device or another, pooled in the bottom of the deep well, where gravity was already becoming stronger. His passage was beginning to leave a wake; the first echoes of a supersonic scream were causing the drone to shiver.
Ten seconds to go until impact. Suddenly, he felt his world become slow, and then jerky - lag. Something was attacking his connection. He swore. That meant Lyrica was losing. He felt it stabilise.
He set the power supply to the containment system to shut off. Even if he lost his connection now, the fusion reactor would still explode. It was too late for the virus now, even if they managed to cut his connection.
"Lyrica! Brace for sudden disco-"
Grius awoke with a start, felt cool sweat drying on his skin in the vapid virtual breeze. A moment's disorientation, a moment's existential angst - the question of "where am I" as a virtual was complicated by the addition of "who am I?" "what shape am I?" and "what physical framework does this setting operate on?"
Two arms, two legs. A few muscle twitches and a quick diagnostic - he was in an anthroform virch. He felt familiar controls. A ping of the local server - he was in the Guidance Launch Center.
He grinned, sat up, and swung his legs off the reclined launch lounge. A technician turned to face him.
"Welcome back, Zar Grius."
"My debriefing?" he asked abruptly.
"Your mind-state has been downloaded for analysis, time stamp beginning with your deployment."
"Excellent," replied Grius. "Where is Carmichael?"
"I believe that he is in the Control Centre."
Grius didn't even wait to acknowledge the technician's reply as he logged out. Next Table of Contents