[Starfall/ACRA] Metal Fire #10, False Maria 04

Wil Alambre wilalambre at gmail.com
Tue Sep 19 20:24:42 PDT 2006

Kimberly Roberts' attempts to hide from the people who helped
strip away her humanity have failed. Hamilton's clandestine engineers
have been using modem connections to remotely connect to her
computerized brain and rewrite her personality. The only person who
can help her now is a computer hacker named Ed, who she's violently
kidnapped and brutally beaten to an inch of his life.

Star Fall Comics presents...


"False Maria 04" by Wil Alambre

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 The following evening, Gregory and his two programming cohorts were back in
the office. The two techs were fiddling with their systems, trying their best
to pretend not to be interested in Gregory escorting his well-mannered and
menacing guest into the privacy of his side office.

 "So," Poe dropped, as Gregory closed the door behind them. Poe stepped off
to one side, relaxed and casual but for one hand up behind his back. Gregory
slowly walked to his desk, hovering over his office chair but not actually
sitting down. He waited for Poe to continue. He wondered if Poe kept a gun
tucked at his back.

 "So," Poe repeated.

 "I think... I think we're done," said Gregory, trying to put on his official
authoritative meeting voice, the one he used in meetings with his staff. It
came off a little higher pitched than he remembered it. "Whoever... whoever
woke it up, they had to have seen what we were doing. And, it must know what
we were doing. Like I told Mr. Hamilton over the phone, I... I don't think
it'll risk going back online again anytime soon."

 "Mr. Reeves, Mr. Hamilton does not believes this project is over," Poe put
bluntly. He nodded at Gregory, indicating he should sit back down. "We will
all wait tonight and see if metal Fire returns back to regular schedule."
Gregory almost managed to interject before Poe cut him off with a well-trained
glare. "If it does...if it comes back online, we'll be here to act. We'll see
if we can correct this."

 "What if it doesn't?" Gregory asked.

 Poe looked Gregory over grimly. He did not answer.

- - -

 "I don't like this."

 Ed ignored the sentence. Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe if he just kept *working*
this time...

 "I *don't* like this! I really, really don't," it growled, and yanked the
fist full of wires and cables from the back of its head. The jacks made a sharp
popping sound as they came out, and Ed's screens all suddenly went black again.

 Dammit. Ed sighed. Then he winced, a couple ribs letting him know he probably
should be in a hospital.

 "It's fucking creepy," the silvery form sitting beside him said, dropping
the bundle of wires to the ground. "That's my brain you're looking at. My
brain and I don't like it when Hamilton is looking at it and I don't like it
when YOU'RE looking at it."

 Ed couldn't help but stare as the metal girl stood suddenly, and stomped
back to the bathroom. To try and look at the back of its neck in the mirror.
Again. It felt the base of its skull, like the gold plated connections back
there were dried scabs that could be rubbed off.

 Half of him couldn't help but notice a teenage girl. A well developed
fifteen-year-old girl. Well, fifteen by what it claimed, anyway. Fifteen, and
not shy about walking around this decrepit apartment with no clothes on while
a complete stranger sat watching it.

 But the other half of him saw the interlinked metal where the smooth pink
skin should be. He saw the closed vents' running down its back. He heard the
near silent spinning and whizzing of hidden motors that made up the insides.
He knew this girl would never grow up.

 Because he knew it wasn't *real* girl.

 But it *was* glaring back at him. Pissed off for staring, Ed could see it
in the television flicker in her eyes. Something about it reminded him of the
opening of the Outer Limits.

 "This was a mistake," it said, coming out of the bathroom, all washed over
with frustration and anger and stubbornness. Arms crossed over her chest.
"You need a doctor. And I don't need anyone in my head. I know what they're
doing now. All I need to do is stay disconnected, and the can't get to me

 Oh great, *this* again. "We don't know that," Ed tried, calmly.

 "If I'm not connected, they can't put me to sleep."

 "We don't *know* that for sure," he tried. This was the third time he's had
to convince it to let him connect up. He felt like he was explaining networking
protocols to a pocket calculator. "Look, before you smashed... before you
*showed up* at my place, you called me. A *second* before you showed up. How
did you do that?"

 It opened its mouth to retort, and then shut it again, as realization
drowned her stubbornness.

 "See, there!" said Ed pointing. "That's at *least* some sort of mobile in
there. Most likely hooked up to a cellular modem. And that's not even counting
WiFi or Bluetooth or whatever else. I need to find this stuff." He sighed,
and continued "Look, even *if* they connect, I'll be right here. I'll make
sure they don't do anything. You'll just be sleeping..."

 "It's NOT just sleeping," it yelled at him. "These are guys FUCKING with my
head. And they can put me to sleep, and they can come here while I sleep and
do anything they want because they can turn me off like a VCR!"

 "Look..." Ed started before getting cut off.

 "You don't KNOW these guys. For *sure* they know someone's here with me.
Maybe not you, but they know someone's here. If I'm back on, and they... they
shut me off again, they'll send someone. They'll know I can't stop them if
they can watch me sleep online." A frown, deadly serious. "These are not nice
people. These are straightforward; shoot you in the back kind of people. I've
met them before. They will come in here and shoot you dead. They'll shoot you
dead, and I'll be right here doing nothing... 'cause I'll be asleep, having my
BRAIN DEFRAGGED or whatever it is they're DOING!"

 "Okay, okay," he conceded, putting his head in his hands, digging the heels
of his palms into his closed eyes. That didn't last long, as a jab of pain
from a swollen cheek reminded him he was actually in pretty bad shape. That
hospital idea wasn't sounding overly bad.

 He wasn't cut out for the action, thriller crap. This wasn't going to work.
He couldn't concentrate if he knew there were fucking *gunmen* coming to kill
him. Hell, even if she was wrong and no one came, Ed was sure he'd die of
sheer *paranoia* right now.

 He could almost hear Val's I-told-you-so's.

 But he *needed* it online. He needed it at least *connected*. To see how it
all worked, how that fantastic operating system managed. He needed direct
access to the system for a prolonged period. If anything to, find any way of
shutting that network hole.

 Assuming he could even make heads or tails whatever he found.

 Jeez, this would be much easier if...


 Ed stopped. He turned, looking at the robot. Then he looked back at the
spare systems at his feet, currently doing little more than running iTunes
and filling a couple widescreen monitors with beat matched screensavers. Then
back at the robot.

 He clicked his tongue a couple times, thinking. Okay. Okay, yeah, this might
work. "I have an idea," he announced, "but you're not going to like it."

 "Why not?"

 "Well..." he said with a combination of caution and *wicked* anticipation,
"If you thought people dialling in and mucking around with your brain like it
was an open source project was creepy, this is going to *really* freak you

- - -

 A knock on the office door, and one of the programmers poked his head in.

"Greg? You wanted to know when she came back online?" Gregory stood up,
relief bunching up in his throat, and followed the kid back to the computers.

 "Everything's on schedule," said the tech, sitting at his desk, and bringing
up a terminal window. "I have the regular network connection, I'm getting good
responses. I've already sent the shutdown command and you can see, the upper
and lower consciousness numbers are coming down. There's some suspicious
activity in some areas, but that's expected to be expected from last night."

 The two of them watched the crawling characters on screen. The other
programmer across the room was tapping away on his keyboard; get updates on a
variety of processes.

 "Bring everything down," Greg said, biting his lower lip. He slid over to
and empty terminal, and logged in, getting a mirror of the system outputs.
"Put everything in standby or sleep. *Everything*, the whole system. If we
can figure out what happened..."

 "Can you erase what happened last night?" Poe asked.

 "Well..." Gregory started, confused, but already seeing how it would come
together. "Well, yes. I mean, it's just system logs, after all. We could just
copy some of last week's non-activity files over anything referencing last

 "Don't explain it to me. I won't understand it anyway. Just go ahead." Poe
snapped open an expensive cellphone, and hit redial. A single ring later, a
muttered party answered. "It's me," replied Poe to the other end. "Round up
some reliable people and get over to the Roberts apartment. There are one or
more visitors there that we need evicted." A pause. "I'll stay on the line."

 Gregory must have been staring at the man for a while. Poe eventually looked
in his direction, still on the cell phone, and then covered the microphone as
he whispered to him.

 "Eyes to your screen, Mr. Reeves," he chastised.

- - -

 Jackson jacked the headpiece to the cellphone on his belt, then made sure
the microphone was near enough to his mouth. He couldn't help a bit of
nerd-like glee; a few years ago, this sort of communication was restricted to
spy novels. Now anyone could pick better equipment for his or her mobile at a
local electronics shop.

 After confirming he still had his live connection to Poe, he repeated what
he was there to do for benefit of the other two grim looking men in the van.
Go up, grab whoever's up there; remember to keep silent, or they may attempt
to revive the robot; preferably alive for questioning, but not a priority.

 All three nodded in agreement.

 Jackson opened the side door of the van, and the three of them crossed the
street to the dark apartment building. Using a provided set of keys, they
unlocked the front door, and quietly filed in. The windows were boarded up,
the lights long broken or burnt away. The only light was the filtered
moonlight through the cracks in the sills and the walls and the doors.

 Once inside and out of sight of the street, all three men unzipped their
jackets and pulled out large pistols they were obviously very comfortable in
using. Jackson put a finger to his lips, and pointed down the hall toward a
winding set of stairs.

 "We're inside," Jackson reported over the phone. He then looked at the
other two and nodded up at the ceiling as they reached the base of the stairs
"It's on the third floor. Keep quiet until we're right outside the door."

 "Did you see that?" one of the men in the front whispered. The three of
them looked up at the first landing, where the startled gunman was pointing
his pistol. "Did you just fucking SEE that?"

 "What - what did you see?" Jackson said, looking up to the next landing.

 "I saw something move up there," the man rasped nervously, cocking the gun.
"It looked like that thing in the jungle in that movie... JEEZ, there it was
AGAIN!" he stepped back suddenly. The others staggered back suddenly, pistols
ram rod straight at the stairs, pointing at nothing.

 Poe was buzzing in his ear, but Jackson wasn't listening. He thought he saw
it too. There seemed to be a weird roundness to the nothing up the stairs.
Like the peeling paint on the walls weren't... quite flat. It was hard to
make out, but you could catch it in the corner of your eye when... when it

 It was moving! It was moving right at them! The man at his right shivered!
Two shots went out at the shape.

 There was a spark of a ricochet, bullets bouncing wildly off metal. For
that brief second, the distorted emptiness flickered to television static.
Two red flickering points and a lithe steel form before a scan line wiped it
back to dark nothingness.

 "Oh fuck," Jackson managed. The three of them fired blindly at the stairs.
Between the gun flashes, the thud of shots drilling into old wood, the sharp
scratch of that flickering static when they connected, they heard only a
nasty giggle from the near invisible teenager.

- - -

 "Jackson? Jackson? ... REEVES!"

 "What?" jumped Gregory, spinning from his screen and knocking over a small
pile of printout.

 "What's going ON?" Poe barked. He had his hand over the cellphone, but
Gregory could still hear a massive amount of commotion coming from the other

 "What's going on with what?"

 "You said she was ASLEEP!"

 "She *is* asleep," Greg replied, confused. He pushed back in his seat,
giving Poe a clearer look at his screen. Not, as an afterthought, that it
would make much sense to him, of course. The other techs craned their necks,
and then looked at their own screens in confusion. "She's completely shutdown
and immobile."

 Poe furrowed his brows, and thrust the cellphone at Gregory's direction.
There were sounds of men yelling, sporadic gunfire, and science fiction laser
effects. Disturbing crunching, cracking sounds, all of which were filtering
through a tinny sounding speaker.

 "My *men* beg to differ..."

- - -

 Ed sat in the dark apartment, only the computer screens and funny scented
candles the robot liked keeping him company. He had two keyboards in front of
him, and he pounded away at both of them with abandon. Despite the expected
danger, he could help grinning as he worked away.

 On his right, he had a couple terminal windows going. He was backtracking
the intruders' connection and tip-toeing right past the intruders firewalls.
He was sweating with a mix of concentration and anticipation. Whoever these
guys were, they were very, very good, and Ed had to be very, very careful
they didn't see him crawling around.

 Once inside, he parsed through their system to their versioning software.
He marvelled at the sheer amount of information they had. They'd been at this
for months! Wow! A backlog of applied patches, several copies of previous
system, ready to be re-installed in case of a fatal crash, a planned upgrade
path, complete with milestones and due dates! Everything you'd need to work
on a clandestine artificial intelligence!

 A quick look at the system clock reminded him he couldn't afford to browse
around. He skipped right into the directory structure, looking for the source
code for the Metal Fire networking module. As he started a WGET on the
appropriate TAR files, he stole a moment to look at the monitors on his left,
hooked up to the spare systems grinding away. The spare systems the intruders
were hacking into.

 The systems they *thought* was the head of a shutdown mobile weapon. Ha!

 It hadn't been easy to convince the robot. Just bringing up that its brain
was anything but flesh and blood got it nauseous; it almost threw up when he
pointed out that Hamilton's programmers wouldn't be able to tell the
difference between the operating system in its skull... or a copy of that
operating system running on one of the tower boxes at his feet.

 It had taken him almost two hours to convince it there wasn't any other
way. Not that that was completely true, mind you. They could always run. He
could have gone through the BBS' logs and might have been able to backtrack.
It was possible they would have been online waiting for a connection. It
might have meant risking a day or two lying low, but Ed was pretty sure he
could have found them eventually.

 But he was curious. And he *really* wanted a stand-alone copy of that AI
system. Hell, once they got started, he was surprised at how easily it
configured itself, the hypnotic user interface gliding over the relatively
primitive hardware and echoing its parents configurations as best as it
could. Just watching it go through the motions of responding to Hamilton's
programmers was amazing!

 The snapping gunfire a couple floors below shook him up.

 Crap. He turned back to the screens on the right. He tried to ignore the
pounding and cracking. He tried to ignore the yelling and shouts coming from
downstairs. He especially tried to stop imagining the noises coming any

 It didn't last long, though, and was eventually replaced by an ongoing
groaning, like from some sickly animal that was mangled in the underside of a
car. He was turning up the volume on the music player it when his downloaded
beeped its completion.

 Okay. Okay, we don't need *you* boys anymore, he thought as he sent back
down the pipe a couple particularly nasty lines of code. This was the same
code that had cooked his laptop a night or two before. If his experience was
any indication, they'd be lucky to be able to get *power* to their computers,
never mind doing anything more complicated than adding integers.

 The terminal windows sputtered disastrous feedback, spit trash characters
randomly as the computers on the other end fell apart. He smiled, satisfied,
as he watched files and folders on the other end corrupt and regurgitate, and
finally blinking off completely. The connections to the robot's OS copy
quietly disappeared.

 "Bu-bye, assholes," Ed waved to his screen.

- - -

 Gregory sat dumbfounded, staring at his blank screen. Everything was gone.
Everything. The other two techs were swearing aloud, slamming on their
keyboards. He must have been staring dumbfounded at his own useless, infected
hardware for a while because he had completely forgot about Poe. Until the
man heaved a disappointed sigh, and closed this cellphone with a plastic

 "Mr. Reeves, can you and I have a private conversation in your office?"

 The question was much too curt to be taken as an actual request. Poe walked
to the side office and held open the door as Gregory slowly got up out of his
chair. He took a moment to look over the faces of the two younger programmers,
their expressions mirroring his own; paralysed fear. He sulked into his dreary,
off white office, and sank into the guest chair as Poe closed the door behind

 "This isn't my fault," he started suddenly. "This *isn't* my fault. This
was never anticipated! There was never supposed to be someone with... if we
knew...if we were *told*, we would have... we would have *planned* for..."

 Poe said nothing, but did tilt his head at the last sentence.

 "I didn't mean it was *your* fault," Gregory said desperately, one hand
gripping the arm of his chair as if it would back him up in this matter. "I
just meant... I mean, I don't think... *anyone* knew this was going to..." He
choked on the words for a long couple seconds, then finally managed to squeak
out "God, you're not going to kill me, are you?"

 Poe smirked. "I'm not going to kill you."

 "...Really?" Gregory rattled his fingers against the chair arm a second.
"Oh." His nervousness didn't go away, if anything, it became worse by the
sudden lack of direction. "Um. So... so then we're okay?"

 "After a fashion," Poe said. Gregory flinched violently when Poe moved his
hand from behind his back. He didn't seem relieved when he saw a fat envelope
instead of a pistol.

 "The remainder of your fee, Mr. Reeves." Gregory looked confused for a
second, and Poe went on somewhat reassuringly "As you said, these events were
not your fault."

 Gregory silently took the envelope, his fear and nervousness replaced with
stuttered confusion. This was not how he imagined outright failure to be

 "Tomorrow morning," Poe lectured, "an accountant for your company will
suddenly discover a rather well hidden but massive financial irregularity.
After a short investigation, they will discover large amounts of money have
been illegally funnelled away from where it's supposed to be. Unfortunately,
all the paperwork they'll find will plant the blame firmly on you."


 "Come, Mr. Reeves," smiled Poe smiled pleasantly, obviously enjoying
Gregory's mix of terror and confusion. "How did you think we were paying
you?" He let the matter sink in before continuing.

 "Mr. Hamilton would like you to continue working on the I-Form project.
You'd be working with Dr. Anabali, who is looking forward to your hearing of
your practical experience with the fully evolved I-Form. You will have a new
working environment, a new place to live, a carefully constructed alias to
avoid complications, and, let us not forget, *protection* from a sure to be
furious Metal Fire.

 "If you refuse..." Poe stopped, looking at his manicured fingernails, as it
would hold a particularly witty phrase, "Take my word, prison is not a
comfortable way to pass time."

 The shock held onto Gregory like a deep limestone core, being eroded away
by a feeling of inevitable defeat. He looked up at Poe, considering how to
respond, but after minutes of silence, he saw there was no need. Poe knew
what Gregory's answer was going to be. After all, that was the point of the

 "Don't worry, Mr Reeves," Poe said reassuringly in a tone that was not
reassuring at all. "This is only beginning."

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