8FOLD/ACRA: Jolt City # 20, "Download of Doom!" (3/3)

Tom Russell joltcity at gmail.com
Sat Aug 3 19:53:40 PDT 2013

THE STORY SO FAR: Gallery, Whistler, and Cockatrice broke into Earbox Super-Security Prison. Pinning the blame on Gallery, Whistler and Cockatrice hacked into the Secret Internet and threw open the doors of all Super-Security Prisons across the United States, ostensibly to distract the four-colour community from her attempts to acquire the Black Note-- an infrasound frequency that causes the human brain to explode. 
   After discovering Whistler's dead body and the exploded remains of a robotic Cockatrice hidden deep inside the prison itself, the Green Knight has a startling epiphany about the true identity of this robotic femme fatale and her possible endgame. But even if he's right, can he and the Blue Boxer cancel the file transfer on this...

         "DOWNLOAD OF DOOM!"

    ////  //////  /// //////  ////// /// ////// \  // 
// ////  //  //  ///   //    ///    ///   //     \//# 20
//////  //////  ///// //    ////// ///   //      // PT.3

Martin, Derek, and Dmowski put the Architect on speaker-phone.
   "The first two Internets are down," he says. "I'm still working on taking down the Dark Internet. So, you're thinking this is the Gorgon?"
   "It fits," says Martin. "Clockwork nature of the plan, the guards, even Gallery's seizure, triggered by the word 'maestro'."
   Dmowski nods. "He's the one that designed the Super-Security Prisons, back before he gained sentience. So he would know his way around, and where to hide. And he designed the Secret Internet too."
   "That," begins the Architect, "that's not true. I had a hand in the Secret Internet."
   "Based on his design," says Dmowski.
   "There was more to it than that."
   "He would know his way around it, though."
   "Well, yeah. By the way, Dark Internet's down now."
   Derek pipes up. "He's not a he."
   "It," says Dmowski. "Let's not be pedantic, gentlemen."
   "The Gorgon's not even an 'it'," says Derek. "Each version of the virus, on each computer, is a different entity. But it's also not a 'they' precisely, it's not a hive-mind. Am I, am I right on this, Architect?"
   "You're right," says the Architect. "Technically, depending on who you ask, the Gorgon isn't even sentient. It's a self-programming virus. It learns, but not by thinking the way we think, but by trial and error, and a queer sort of evolution. A single version of it creates a dozen variations of itself in a minute, sends them outwards, and they each create a dozen more. In some the code is broken by the mutation and they self-destruct, some are more successful and press on with its agenda."
   "And that agenda," says Martin, "is the destruction of the human race. The virus normally attempts this through a sort of mind control. Patterns of shapes, color, and sound."
   The Architect speaks. "Some of its thralls help to spread the virus by downloading it onto a portable device, like a thumb-drive, and physically transporting it to other computers. It's a little more cumbersome than the usual virus-transmission methods, which it also uses, but if someone walks into a government office or tech-tank with a poisoned thumb-drive, bam, now the Gorgon's cooking with gas."
   "Mostly," says Martin grimly, "the Gorgon just commands them to kill themselves. And then they do."
   "Some people have a stronger will than that, though," says Dmowski. "And when they resist, instead they become paralyzed. Like the guards out there."
   "That's why it's called the Gorgon," says Martin. "And that's why she was called Cockatrice. The answer was right there the whole time. Mocking us. But with the Black Note, there's no struggle, no force of will. It transmits the sound and we die."
   "But how did she get the Black Note?" says Dmowski.
   "The Secret Internet," says the Architect. "The three component frequencies weren't stored on the Secret Internet, but on computers in the three facilities that are totally cut off from all three Internets. If the Gorgon got into the Secret Internet and enthralled people on the other end, they could have downloaded the separate frequencies from the off-line computers and then uploaded them onto the Secret Internet."
   "But," says Derek, "at that moment we've got a version of the Gorgon that has the Black Note but doesn't have access to the Internet. Since the three Internets are completely cut off from one another."
   "Until I hooked up the Internet and the Secret Internet in an attempt to fight Cockatrice's intrusion. A desperate last-resort measure. And the Gorgon was counting on that. That's why the big show. To make us play the hand he had dealt us."
   "But right now, the Internets are down," says Martin. "There's no way for the Gorgon to propagate itself."
   "You said the Black Note was going to go viral," says Derek. "But most anti-virus software can identify most versions of the Gorgon, and most people are smart enough not to click on spam e-mail."
   "Once before, several versions of it uploaded its hypnotic patterns onto YouTube," says Martin. "If this version, and the versions it creates, still has the capability to create those bot accounts..."
   "... It can upload the Black Note to video sharing sites," says Darkhorse, entering the room. He's out of breath and carrying the unconscious Chemist. "Sorry, Gorgon had a death-trap for me. Took me a while."
   "Well, that," begins Dmowski.
   "Be right back." Zip!
   "Confirms," continues Dmowski.
   Darkhorse returns, having placed the Chemist in the infirmary.
   "It then," finishes Dmowski. "The Gorgon has the Black Note. The question is, what are we going to do about it?"
   "I'm sorry," says the Architect, "but remind me, who are you again?"
   "Uh, Tad Dmowski. Assistant District Attorney for Jolt City."
   "I don't mean to be rude," says the Architect, "but there's really nobody for you to prosecute here."
   "Yeah, okay," says Dmowski. He gets up and leaves.
   "What was that for?" says Martin.
   "I just think things would go a lot faster if we didn't have to explain and correct everything we're talking about."
   "Agreed," says Darkhorse.
   "So," says the Architect. "The Gorgon has the Black Note. The question is, what are we going to do about it?"
   "It can't be just YouTube," says Derek. "It must have bots programmed in its code for all the other video sharing sites, for pirate networks, for music downloads. I mean, it might not think the way that we think, but it must know the second we get a whiff of this, we'll isolate it and take it down. The only way it can succeed is to hit us so fast and on so many fronts we can't react."
   "Isn't there some way they can detect the sound and prevent the upload?" says Martin.
   "Acoustic fingerprinting," says the Architect. "YouTube implemented it last year due to the Viacom lawsuit. Many others use it. But we can't just put the Black Note out there. Someone is bound to get a hold of it if there's enough copies for the various services to cross-reference."
   "Oh!" says Derek, beaming.
   Martin smiles. "The clock is wrong?"
   "The clock is wrong," says Derek. "We don't need the whole Black Note. Any one of its component parts is safe."
   The Architect picks up the ball. "So we just take one of the components. The program will check for that particular fingerprint, and any time any of the Gorgons tries to upload the Black Note, it finds the component and squashes it. That's brilliant."
   Martin regards Derek warmly. "You may have just saved the human race, kid."
   "Twice," says Derek.[1]
   "Don't get cocky," says Martin.
   "Yeah, let's not pat ourselves on the back," says Darkhorse. "There's still a bunch of versions out there with the Black Note. And they're going to keep trying, and spreading, and getting smarter. That's the problem with the Gorgon. You shut it down, you destroy the computers and the robot bodies and what-ever-else, but then some earlier version of it is still out there, making new copies of itself, evolving..."
   "But those won't have the Black Note," says Derek. "Just this particular, uh, strand. If there's a way to isolate this strand..."
   "We can probably assume it's on the computer I was using to hack into the Secret Internet, and that it sent out e-mails from that computer, right?"
   "And none of my friends are dumb enough to open those e-mails."
   "Uh, I dunno, but probably."
   "And we can assume it knows that. It might not know that I was coming for it, but it would know that anyone who could create a bridge on the fly between two mutually-exclusive Internets isn't Uncle Frank trying to naturally increase his penis size."
   "So in addition to sending the e-mail to all my friends, it would have to send the e-mail somewhere else. To another computer that would be ready to run its bots. Even with the Internet down, I can check that Sent list. I can at least get the e-mail address."
   "Don't!" says Darkhorse. "It might try to hypnotize you. Let me run over there and do it; like all speedsters, I'm immune to the Gorgon's power."
   "I have the speakers off-- that was the first thing I did when you said Black Note-- and to see the light patterns, I have to have eyes."
   "You're blind?" says Darkhorse. "Then how do...?"
   "But getting the e-mail address isn't going to tell you where the computer is," says Derek.
   "Thank you, Tad Dmowski," says the Architect. "But I can find out where the server is, and I go there, physically go there, hook up a computer and hack into the account. It's a start, but I'll follow it to the end." There's a click and dial tone.
   "What just...?" says Derek. "Did he just...?"
   "I think," says Darkhorse, "like with the ADA, he doesn't mean to be rude, but there's nobody for us to punch in the face here."
   Derek looks at Martin with a disconcerted expression. "That whole thing with using part of the Black Note for the fingerprint, I'm not going to get any credit for that, am I?"
   "Nope, it's all Architect from here on out."
   "That's twice, and no one knows it," says Derek.
   "So it goes." 

After about four hours of waiting around the prison, Martin takes Derek aside. "I got an errand to run. Can you and Darkhorse hold down the fort?"
   "Yeah, sure," says Derek. "You know, they got a vending machine if you're hungry."
   "I'm not making a snack run," says Martin. "Say. Boxer."
   "You remember that time you wanted to put a tracking device in my utility belt and I told you there's no way in hell I'm going to let you do that?"
   "Did you do it?"
   Derek smiles and reaches into his bag of tricks.

It's nearly midnight when Gray Glaive turns in. What a rotten day this was.
   Sure, he got out of the woods, and sure, he got the belt, and, sure, he managed to tuck himself away into a motel room. But he had hoped to get on the Dark Internet and maybe line-up a c-lister to buy the belt. Or maybe borrow a face-and-papers so he could buy a plane ticket out of here. He wasn't sure precisely what he was going to do, but all of it involved getting online, and it didn't help that both Internets were down.
   He doesn't like planning, but he doesn't like hurry-up-and-wait, either. Makes him antsy. Gives schmucks like the Green Knight time to catch up to him, and he'd rather not give him that much time.
   "Speak of the devil," says Gray Glaive. He flicks on the electropartisan, filling the room with a soft blue light, as the Green Knight emerges from the window curtains.
   Gray Glaive was laying back on the bed, but one rather impressive forward flip later, he's on his feet on the floor, the electropartisan pointed at Martin.
   "I'm kinda partial to my belt," says Martin. "Helps keep my pants up."
   "You gonna come and take it from me?"
   "Either that, or I got to get suspenders," says Martin. "And they don't flatter my figure. I've tried."
   "Yeah, you keep talking, and maybe you'll think of way to take me down," says Gray Glaive. "I beat you the first time. I would've ended you, if it wasn't for White Ant."
   "White Ant?"
   "Yeah. White Ant." He spits in disgust; it passes through the partisan's crackle and evaporates with a sizzle. "Bastard threw a tree at me right when I was about to gut you. But he ain't here now. And you're useless without your belt."
   "You ain't so hot without your partisan," says Martin.
   "Yeah? Maybe that's so. That's probably why I like it when I have the partisan and you don't have the belt."
   "No," says Martin. "You have the belt. Around your waist."
   "You're just a regular chatterbox, ain't you?"
   "I was giving you a chance to do this nice," says Martin. 
   "Bark or bite."
   Martin pulls out the clunky tracker. Derek, you magnificent bastard. He presses the big red button, and the tracking device in the belt sends a jolt of electricity coursing through the villain's body. The partisan drops to the floor and, convulsing all the way, so does Gray Glaive.
   Martin waits a moment before he takes the belt off the unconscious villain. From one pouch, he retrieves the quickcuffs he uses to bind his prisoner.
   From another, the ring.

Four days later, the Internet comes back on, and so does Gallery, the left side of his face paralyzed from his Gorgon-induced seizure but otherwise fine. Dmowski stops in to see him and brings him up to speed on what has happened.
   "What about Jerry?"
   "He's alright," says Dmowski. "There are some specialists working on his case right now. He'll need medical care for the rest of his life, but the doctors think with time he'll be able to walk, think, talk. I'm going to recommend compassionate release on humanitarian grounds."
   "He doesn't have anyone to take care of him, though," says Gallery. "I. I could take care of him. I've been taking care of him."
   "I know," says Dmowski. "And so does the rest of the world. The Architect might end up on the cover of Wired and Time, but you two will get the Advocate, maybe People. A lot of support for you. Unfortunately, even with your facial paralysis, there's not as much of a case for compassionate release. My office isn't likely to press charges against you for your part in the Gorgon's plot, but you didn't precisely cooperate, either."
   "I gave you the Black Note."
   "You gave us what the Gorgon wanted. You didn't break character until the seizure. If you had something, though. Something we could actually use. Well. Maybe I can get you on parole."
   Gallery takes a deep breath and begins to spill the beans. When you're desperate, you do some very stupid things.

At the end of June, Trimmer calls the Green Knight and Blue Boxer into her office. It's the first time Derek's stepped foot in there since he got fired. Unsurprisingly, he's already been replaced. She looks familiar.
   "Trinity Tran," she says, offering her hand to shake. "Nice to see you got your bag back."
   Ah, yes. That's where. "So you were the one." [2]
   "I'll let Miss Trimmer and her guest know that you've arrived."
   A moment later, Lacey Trimmer enters the room from her office, followed by Darkhorse.
   "Another team-up?" says Martin.
   "Not quite," says Darkhorse. "I'm retiring."
   "You just got back in the game."
   "My heart's not in it."
   Martin knows that's not it, but doesn't press it.
   "Which leaves the two of you," says Trimmer. She looks pointedly at Martin. "For the time being. Which brings us to a bit of a conundrum."
   "Does it?" says Derek.
   "You're a gadgeteer, and he's an athlete," says Trimmer. "And, thanks to Councilman Canton, as well as the events that led to my hiring, there is renewed pressure to adopt the Fitzwalter Rule."[3]
   "With due respect," bristles Derek.
   "I am resisting that pressure," snaps Trimmer. "But it was easier to do so when we could argue that Darkhorse was only temporarily out of action."
   "Now that's gone," says Martin.
   "Sorry," shrugs Darkhorse.
   "Jolt City has a proud tradition of non-powered four-colours," says Trimmer. "It goes back before even your predecessor, Green Knight. I'd like to keep it that way if I can. But nostalgia only goes so far, and when the day comes and... and the Boxer is all we have left, I won't have much of a leg to stand on."
   "Thanks," says Derek.
   "In time, he'll prove himself," says Martin.
   "If that's the case," says Trimmer, "we'll have to buy him that time. A populist, or at least populist-in-appearance move towards Fitzwalter could get pushed through very quickly, especially if Canton wins the mayoral election. The problem is finding a hero with powers who would actually want to live in Jolt City. With our crime rate and poverty, we're just a few shades more appealing than Detroit."
   "Would you settle for a reformed villain?" says Martin.
   "Who'd you have in mind?"
   "White Ant."
   "White Ant?" says Trimmer. "His fingers can chew through wood."
   "It's still a power," says Martin. "When he escaped, he helped me with Gray Glaive."
   "And when I found him," says Darkhorse, "he gave up without a fight."
   "I'll talk to Dmowski," says Trimmer.

The superheroic social event of 2008 is the late July retirement party and mixer coming in the wake of Darkhorse's Mask Statement. Brian Clipper and his fleshy blonde wife Daphne receive their spandex-clad guests in more traditional formal wear on the lawn of their home just outside Jolt City.
   As soon as Martin gets there, he scans the people and the surroundings until he can find a tree at the periphery of the occasion. He goes to that tree, one plastic cupful of punch in tow, and leans against it. When no one's looking, he lifts up his mask and takes a sip.
   Ray used to drag him to parties in both identities, the socialites and the spandex crowd, and Martin never got particularly comfortable with approaching people, making small talk, weaving through an increasingly intoxicated crowd. And so he finds a spot and leans there, stationary, watching them all from the outside.
   Derek is the opposite, Martin observes. He's friendly, happy to meet people, even shows a genuine interest in them. There's something about him that's fresh and comfortable and full of promise. Even with all the anger he has, and the frustration, and the guilt, there's something in Derek that Martin never had. Or maybe Martin had it but it broke; something has been broken inside of him since he was twelve years old. Derek doesn't break, and maybe that's why he feels slightly more comfortable about stepping down by the end of the year.
   Kid is clumsy as hell though.

Derek sees a young woman in a costume standing against a tree and staring at a cup of punch at the edge of the party. Even as he chats with this hero and that one, his eyes keep drawing to her. Finally, he walks up to the woman whose nametag identifies her as Knockout Mouse. A mop of hair hides the entire left side of her face.
   "You look like Veronica Lake," says Derek.
   She flinches.
   "I wasn't making fun of you, I was just, I was making a. Never. Never mind."
   She sips her punch.
   "You're the one that stopped the Fiddleback, right?"
   She mumbles. "yes".
   "Yeah, I read about that. That's pretty impressive."
   "thank you".
   "I'm. I'm not bothering you, am I? I can go if I'm bothering you."
   "no, i'm just, you're not".
   "I'm bothering you. I'll go."
   "i just don't have anything to say". Her visible eye flits up, looks at him for a moment, and then flits back to her empty cup of punch.
   He studies her for a moment. She's not being aloof or snobby, he realizes. She's shy. He can hear it in her voice.
   "You want to get out of here, away from all this? We can go jump on some rooftops, bust up a couple muggings, grab a slice of pizza."
   "like a". She clears her throat, speaks up. "Like a team-up?"
   Derek can't believe the words that come out of his mouth. "Unless you're single, in which case we can make it a date."
   She blushes deep and lovely.

It's not just the costume crowd that comes to pay their respects. Various politicians, law enforcement officials, and functionaries start to funnel in just before dinner is to be served. Martin spots the original Darkhorse, Phil Whaley, struggling to endure small talk that he still perceives to be happening in slow motion. He sees Lacey Trimmer and Trinity Tran, as well as both Mayoral Candidate Carlos Canton and Mayor Bernie Bates. He sees Tad Dmowski, and Dmowski sees him, making a bee-line.
   "I thought I'd see you here."
   Martin nods. "What can I do for you?"
   "It's kind of a, of a serious thing. Could we go off somewhere?"
   "No need," says Martin. He reaches into his utility belt. "Dr. Fay whipped me up another scrambler." He clicks the button and all the chatter goes on mute. "What's up?"
   "I talked to Gallery last month. To try and get his sentence commuted, he let me in on a, on a little secret."
   Martin's been worried about this since Gallery recognized him beneath the mask. "What. What secret is that?"
   "There weren't four that broke out of Earbox. There were five. He says that Pocket Vito is alive and at large. I tried checking into it, discretely, and it doesn't seem to check out. At the same time, we never recovered the body."
   "You want I should look into it?"
   Dmowski nods. "But discretely. Until we can prove it, I can't commute Gallery's sentence, and he'll still be in Earbox, where Vito has many friends. And with Whistler dead, Vito would know it was Gallery."
   "I'll see what I can do," says Martin. "And I'll let you get back to the party."
   Dmowski leaves. One moment, Martin is alone, and the next, Brian Clipper is standing in front of him.
   "You're the sociable type, I see," says Brian.
   "I'm the most interesting man at the party," says Martin. "Everyone has to come to me."
   Brian chuckles. "I just wanted to say that it was a pleasure to fight alongside you. I know you didn't always have much use for me, but..."
   Martin waves his hand. "You were great. I got to ask you, though. Why did you quit? Don't tell me your heart wasn't into it. That's bullshit."
   "My heart..." begins Brian. He turns and darts a finger into the crowd. "Okay, this is sappy, but Daffy, she's my heart. She is my whole world. Always has been, ever since we got married.
   "I was looking forward to getting back into my union, doing my thing. And it's not that I've slowed down. It's that, that day of the break-in. I rushed into the Gorgon's death-trap. Which I've done a dozen times before. And I got out of it. Which I did a dozen times before. And it was a close call. Which it always had been. Which was always great and fun and exciting. Before. But if I hadn't made it...
   "And I guess I'm just getting to the point where I don't want that to be a possibility. Me and Daffy have a long, slow life ahead of ourselves."

Martin was waiting for Dani when she got home that night. When she opened the door, he was sitting on the couch. When she closed the door, he got onto one knee.
   He held the box in his palm, and, struggling just a little, popped it open with some leverage from his thumb.
   He smiled at her.
   "No," she said.
   He stared at her.
   Then, more gently: "No."
   "I don't. I don't understand."
   "I want to say yes. I've wanted you to ask. A thousand times I would've said yes if you had asked."
   "I'm asking. Please. Danielle. Be my wife."
   "If you had picked me."
   "But I'm picking you."
   "Pam!" says Dani. "Pam made your mind for you! You couldn't pick me over Pam. You had to wait until she didn't want you anymore..."
   "Dani, no, that's not so. I love you. I've always loved you."
   "I love you too," says Dani. "But I've always known that I was your second choice."
   Martin gets up on his feet. "I screwed up. I screwed up bad. I never should have... but please. Please. Let me make it right."
   "Some things you can't," says Dani. "Sometimes people screw up and something terrible happens. They didn't want it to, but it does. They try to fix it, but they can't." She trembles. "Lord, do I know. There are people who are dead because I screwed up. And I can't fix that. I can't ever make it right."
   "It wasn't your fault, Dani," says Martin.
   "It's sweet of you to say that."
   "It's true."
   "... I can't stay here," she says finally. "I'm going to go see my cousin in Atlanta, stay there for awhile."
   "Dani," says Martin. He holds her close with one arm, presses his face against hers. "We would be good together. For each other."
   "We were good together," says Dani. She kisses him. "Goodbye, hero."


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