Fiction by John Seanchai Grose
Installment Two: Injured Angel
Bryon's home was dark and expansive. It was full of carpeted hallways that were always thick with shadows, large rooms that were never used, and every available surface was crowded with dust and faux Victorian bric-a-brac.
Byron had boughten it with his inheritance, Lily explained absently as she drove. When their mother had died, the Jacobson family fortune had been divided between Lily and Byron. Lily squirreled her money away, using some to purchase the equipment and training she would need to sell her services. Byron had boughten the mansion and a mountain of computer equipment. Ten years later, Lily still had a sizable sum nested in a dozen different innocuous accounts while Byron had trouble paying his heating bill.
Lily pulled the car up to the main entrance and helped Felicia out. The solo typed a quick sequence of numbers in a key pad by the ornately carved front door and it magically popped open. She ushered the girl inside while she got the suitcases full of clothing and personal effects she had boughten for Felicia.
"Byron said you could stay in the Green Room," Lily said, shutting the door with her foot. "That's upstairs to the left. Let's put your things away and then we'll get you something to eat."
Felicia looked at the wide staircase before her, then glanced from side to side.
"Byron's here," the solo explained. "He's gonna be here. I think he is in his study, working on the Net. You probably shouldn't bother him unless you have to."
The girl nodded dutifully.
"Listen. I have to go. Here's my cellular phone number - " the solo adroitly produced a business card from a hip pocket, twisting the suitcase out of the way - "just call me if you need me. Okay?"
Felicia nodded again.
Hours later, after unloading her new clothes on the bed of the Green Room and a quick dinner, Felicia fingered Lily's card. She sat against the headboard of a great four-poster bed, examining the numbers of the exchange by the weak yellow glow of a reading light.
The Green Room was named for its motif. The deep carpet was the first verdant item a person noticed when entering, but it was not the last in attendance. The wallpaper was a filigree design of green and gold, tasseled light shades of that color hung of faux antique lamps, and even the bedspread was tinged with a delicate shade of green.
Felicia felt tiny. She was...afraid.
Recognizing the condition, she reviews the available materials on the subject. File after file scrolled silently in her inner vision. When she was done, there was a moment of calm. Then panic flooded her. She touched the embossed numbers of the card and willed her legs to move.
The rest of the house was utterly silent and still. Felicia felt exposed as she slowly made her way down the main stair; she crept down it as close to the wall as she could manage. When she reached the foyer, she hunted for a phone. She did not remember seeing on in it earlier and her search produced none now.
Where would Byron keep a phone, she wondered. There hadn't been one in the kitchen and there certainly wasn't one in her room. Should she go back upstairs and look through the other rooms? The thought of find accidentally waking Byron kept her rooted where she stood. There might be a phone in the study...
Felicia crept forward.
Byron was laying unconscious on a leather couch that sat along side a bank of computer equipment. His twisted, small form was utterly relaxed, his face blank. Felicia, having Interface Plugs herself and having swam through the Net, knew immediately he was oblivious to her presence and would be as long as he remained lost in another world.
The young girl looked about the room for a phone. There were bookshelves obscuring the walls, a desk of some dark, polished wood, leafy plants scattered about for effect, a series of linked computers and deck, the couch and the sleeper on it. Felicia moved toward the desk, expecting it to be the most likely spot for the phone.
As she rounded the couch, Byron's eyes opened. His hand shot up and grabbed hers.
"Hello there," said the dwarf, sitting up. He pulled a jack out of his Plugs.
Felicia did not answer. Her eyes were down cast, her arm limp in Byron's grasp.
"What are you doing in here?"
There was no answer.
Byron let Felicia go and stood. He smiled at the girl who was taller than he was. It was a malicious thing. When he walked over to his desk, Felicia turned to leave. But Byron called after her, "Do you know what this is?"
She stopped dutifully and glanced at the mechanism on the desk. She did not know. She shook her head, eyes once again turned toward the floor.
"My sister found it at Maximillian Ourtous' house. It's some kind of signalling device." He paused, running a stubby hand over the mechanism's smooth surfaces. He took a trailing wire, found the power jack at the end of it, and plugged the machine it. It whirred softly. "It sends signals to the nanites in your brain."
Nanites? Felicia would have frowned were she alone. Instead, she filed the information away into memory and waited for Byron to say more.
"Do you know what this does?"
Once again, Felicia shook her head.
Byron activated the machine without hesitation. Felicia gasped and fell to the floor.
Like the pleasure device, the sun was another invader into Felicia's consciousness as it flowed around green draperies in a wave that pooled on the floor. Light, echoed and reflected by the Green Room's furnishings, stung her eyes and she woke from a grey sleep.
As Felicia let her legs hang off the edge of the bed, dim memories from the night before surfaced. She thought briefly of Byron and what he had done to her, of the satisfied smile that spread across his face as he watched her writhe on the floor, and of regaining consciousness in the study, Byron gone, and shakily climbing the stairs to her room.
But those memories were less than real in the bright inquisition of sunlight; they haunted the recesses of Felicia's consciousness, like the coppery aftertaste of fear, as she dressed and performed her regular series of stretching exercises. Next she accessed her internal computer for the word and quote of the day, which she diligently attempted to memorize as she straightened the room.
By the time she was descending the house's great staircase, Felicia's memories of Byron's assault had faded. They came rushing to the fore, however, when she saw him sitting in the kitchen, eating a light breakfast. She had intended to sit and eat some fruit she had seen the night before, but now froze in the doorway, eyes downcast.
"How is our angel this morning?" Byron asked, chewing on toast.
Felicia nodded once.
"Come in, sit down. Have something to eat."
The young girl did as she was told, sitting in the chair farthest from the one Byron occupied. The dwarf vacated a second piece of toast from a small plate and transferred a portion of his own eggs, bacon, and hash browns on to it for his guest. He set it in front of her, saying, "There you are."
Felicia picked up a fork, but did not eat.
"Lily called while you were asleep. She said she has some errands to run, but should be here about noon. I have to go out to meet some people. You can entertain yourself until then, right? There's a TV in the game room."
Felicia nodded once more.
"Okay then. Say, you haven't taken a bite of your breakfast. Eat up." Byron paused, waiting for her to comply. When she did not immediately do so, he prompted her again. As she ate a forkful of eggs, the dwarf said, "That's better."
Then he stood. "Well, I have to go. See ya around, kiddo."
When Felicia was certain he was gone, she dropped the fork like it was red hot and ran from the kitchen. She spend the next hour huddled and shaking in a dark corner. After a long span of complete silence, she abandoned her hiding place.
Byron was...Felicia searched for a term for his behavior as she sorted out her feelings towards the man and his acts the night before. She struggled through a crisis, realizing why Lily had been so upset the night she had killed Maximillian and taken her away; Byron triggering the device locked in her skull was wrong, Felicia knew. She felt it was so. It was not the kind of thing one human being did to another. And yet...and yet Maximillian had created and implanted the device in Felicia; he had used it at his whim. She had never before considered her surrogate father to be...evil. But he was. And Byron was evil, too.
Felicia sat on the stairs and cried.
Then sorrow and despair drained away and was replaced by a fierce anger. Felicia had never raised her voice before, but now she screamed. She howled and hammered the walls with her delicate fists. It was wrong. It was wrong. And the device was still inside her, waiting to be used again...
Felicia gasped, anger momentarily sublimated, then ran towards the study, intending to destroy the pleasure device's remote trigger before Byron could return.
The sunlight that lit the rest of the house with bright spears and glowing pools was absent in the study, making its contents seem dim and drab. A profusion of leafy plants and the oils used to preserve the wood of the expensive furniture gave the room a musky smell.
Felicia saw the trigger still sitting on the desk and started to walk over to it. As she passed Byron's couch and the squat computer next to it, she paused. She ran a finger over the matte finish of the case and inspected the deck and its components.
Maxillian had let her play in the Net, exploring the electronic world with data plugs she was legally too young to posses. Going online had been a special reward, an hour long respite from the drudgery of her lessons and life with her adoptive father. She had used the time, glowing inside as brightly as pixelized architecture, to explore various city grids and speak with the anonymous ICONs she found inside. The one place she was never allowed to go was Maxillian's own computer network...
Felicia sat on the couch and examined the overly large deck and computer more closely. She familiarized herself with its systems and then without allowing herself to change her mind, snapped the jacks into data plug at the base of her skull. Revenge, she though as the world shuttered into darkness, she was going to have revenge.
Felicia found herself in the dark and panicked. The fear that she had stumbled across an electronic trap of Byron's and would never see again swam up in her. Then the deck informed her that her senses were working as they should; the environment she was in was simple darkness.
And there was a door before her.
Felicia fumbled with the deck's menu and requested more information. The door was stream of solid code, impenetrable to her ICON until a virtual key was presented. A quick inventory of the deck's stored programs turned up that key and soon the door melted away.
Beyond was a room whose's floor was made up of large black and white tiles. Sitting upon them were various chess pieces, all enlarged, and the effect was that anyone moving to the far door felt as if he or she had somehow been shrunk and was now moving across a chessboard. After a quick examination, Felicia left.
The next door opened into a virtual representation of Byron's sprawling home. Certain features were different, but there were to many similarities for it to be coincidence. As Felicia moved into the foyer, a voice called out from the kitchen: "Home already?"
"I was expecting you to stay out all night, sniffing around other women." A woman, sculptured and blonde, flowed forward. She took a drag off a thin cigarette and watched a trail of smoke waft of the end of it before continuing. "So, did you meet anyone exciting?"
Felicia did not speak, but took a single, panicked step backwards.
"Byron, honey, the silent treatment is an old game," said the woman in an acidic tone. "We've been through this before."
Relief flood Felicia as she realized she was wearing Byron's ICON. Her appearance in the Net was created by chips in the deck she was using. At this time, she was borrowing Byron and thus would appear outwardly to be him. She was safe.
When Felicia did not answer, the woman became more irate. "Listen, I don't need this. Cherise was sent home from school today for throwing paint and the new maid we hired quit without notice. She must have realized you don't love anyone but yourself." The woman tapped ash into a nearby plant.
Felicia brought up the deck's menu and ran a check on the other ICON. The results were just what she expected: the woman was nothing more than a computer construct, a false skin. A little more work and she found and activated the subroutine that would disable the program. The woman and the wisps of smoke that floated about her disappeared.
The house became still.
Felicia spent the next hour exploring its gothic and sometimes overwrought depths. She discovered the master bedroom, the virtual study, and even stumbled across Cherise in the playroom. The cherubic girl looked up from her game when Felicia opened the door and smiled. Felicia quickly shut it and moved on. Eventually, she found the cellar.
She descended the stairs and found the light. A figure moved in the shadows and, despite knowing it wasn't real, gasped. When the Oracle crept forward to receive instructions, Felicia froze it in place with a command from the deck she was borrowing.
As she studied the program's make up and function, she frowned. It was designed as a kind of search engine, but was more. It would accept a set of parameters from the user, then find all data on its subject. But then it would correlate all the related data into whole, providing the user with a report based on small, disparate facts.
While the function was somewhat unusual, it was the program's appearance that bothered Felicia. A tattered, malnourished man would not be out of place in certain environment, but to have one living in the basement...Felicia shudder.
And knowing she had found what she was looking for, copied the Oracle's program into her internal memory. The process took a few seconds as the deck copied the data to itself and then into the chip in Felicia's skull. When it was done, she jacked out.
The physical world settled on Felicia's consciousness. Lily was standing above her.
Lily drove without speaking. She used her red Mitsuzuki Bushi as a sleek ram, aggressively parting the traffic around her, then when she was clear of the other vehicles, took the speedometer to the red line. The car sang over the road's ferrocrete.
Felicia pressed her palms nervously against her legs, willing the car to slow to a more manageable speed. When Lily brought the Bushi onto the interstate, sliding smoothly between the already present press of vehicles, without hesitating or releasing the accelerator, the young girl paled. Calming lines of text were scrolling through her memory and mind's eye.
Like a fever breaking, the silence between driver and passenger diminished and fell away. Lily opened her mouth, then shut it. She started to speak, then stopped. Finally, she said, "You had no right to go through his things."
The car slowed.
"I don't know what you though you were doing with Byron's computers, but you never should have touched them."
Felicia did not respond. Her eyes were on her lap.
Lily looked over at her. The sun rushed across the desert, pierced the passenger side window, and silhouetted the young girl. Instead of a pubescent Asian child, Felicia became a study of rays and shadows, her posture humbled, the desert an orange background through the window.
And for a moment, Lily saw her charge not as a trespasser, as an innocent who had been deprived of normal socialization and nurturing, development that would have taught her the morality of invading the space of others. For a moment, Felicia was an injured angel.
Then a low cloud severed the ray of sunlight. Sympathy fell to anger. "I can't believe you actually did that."
"What?" asked Lily.
There was a paused - a space filled with the sound of the Bushi's tires over the road - then the young girl said in a voice that was the birth of her assertiveness, "Byron is evil."
"Evil?" The car strayed into the opposite lane, then came back. Even as Lily was dispelling the idea, it began to root in her. Byron was cruel at times. And distant. But evil? "What do you mean by that?"
"He's evil. He's not right."
"How do you know?"
"I saw his other house and the program he had in the basement."
"What program? What did it do?"
Felicia's assertive fire died. She fell silent. After a moment, Lily prompted. "What house and what program?"
"Byron has a virtual representation of his house inside his computer. It's strange. There was a woman inside - not a real one, a program - and a little girl, too. I wandered around and that's when I found the basement."
"And there was a program running in the basement?"
Lily looked over at the girl. Afraid of the answer, she asked, "What kind of program?"
"It was a sifter. It sifted data."
The solo let out a breath she'd been holding. For a moment, she had expected to hear the program was a kind of sex slave. She'd heard about them from friends and did not think much of people who's partners were nothing but imagination and condensed light. There was also a part of her that expected something far worse.
"What was so bad about the program?"
"I'll show you later. I have it stored in memory."
"Okay, show me later."
Relieved, Lily pressed her foot down on the accelerator and the car, its speed renewed, dove along the road that led to the hidden offices of Dr. Michael Van Durham, street doc extraordinare.
The elevator that plummeted into Van Durham underground hideaway bristled with miniature cameras, scanners, and surveillance equipment. The sound tiny telephoto lens zooming in and out, each trying to capture a different detail, filled the enclosed space like the drone of an overly large housefly.
Lily wanted to pace, to root out the the less obvious cameras, but restrained herself. She stood near the back of the elevator, hands held in front of her, and willed for that image, something placid and innocent, to be transmitted to the monitors down below.
Felicia was still and complacent by nature.
Van Durham will be able to help her, Lily thought, or prayed, as she waited for the elevator to reach their destination miles below the surface of the planet. She had casually asked around about people specializing in nanites and Dr. Michael Van Durham's name came up a number of times.
But the recommended scientist was a recluse. As best as Lily could piece together, a lab accident years ago had shaken his sanity and left him phobic. He caught a glimpse of the terrifying potential of the tiny machines, created a hermetically sealed underground environment and now lived protected from all nanites but his own.
Lily couldn't blame him. There was a story in the screamsheets nearly every day about some poor fool who had gotten himself dissolved into a puddle of goo when his industrial nanites got loose and took his body apart cell by cell. Felicia was a living testament to their destructive nature as she rode down into the lab of a man who made them.
When the elevator finally stopped, there was a door, pressurized and made of a steel polymer, and beyond it, a room totally devoid of any features save another similar door on the opposite wall. When both Lily and Felicia were inside, the chamber sealed itself.
There was a long pause that made Lily's skin itch. Seconds past.
Then, crackling from a hidden speaker, a voice said: "Hello. This is Dr. Van Durham. Before you go any farther, I wanted to establish the ground rules. Hundred of thousands of nanites have just flooded the room and are entering your body as we speak. They will lie dormant there if things go as planned. If for some reason my vital signs should cease, a signal will be sent to the machines in your bodies and you will also die - in a spectacular fashion, I might add.
"But don't let me scare you will these necessary threats; please come in."
The door in the far wall opened with a hiss of depressurization.
Byron moved through the Net like a whisper, smoke drifting, or a hint of a memory that vanishes before it is caught. A masking program covered his ICON, reflecting the virtual world back on itself, and so he walked through it unnoticed.
In the physical world, his crippled body smiled where it lay on his couch. His ICON mirrored the expression, changing it to suit his perfect, digitalized form, but the grin's predatory nature was translated without distortion.
The Runner ghosted through the crowds that choked the street and vanished into a building. Once inside, Byron let his masking utility fall away. There was another ICON inside, waiting, expectant.
'You're late," said the figure, cloaked in a simulated overcoat, its face lost in the shadow of an almost cartoonishly large fedora.
Byron pulled up his deck's menu and launched another program. A shimmering, hollow ball formed out of an unimportant point between the two ICONs, then swelled until it encompassed them. When the privacy measure settled into place, Byron answered: "Oh, I had other business."
The cloaked ICON was frozen - checking out the nature of the program he had just activated, Byron imagined - then, waking from a fugue, it said, "What does that mean - other business?"
Byron waved the question away. "Did you arrange everything?"
"Of course." Pause. "Did you transfer the credit?"
"Not yet? What do you mean, not yet?"
Byron was smiling again. "Just what I said. Not yet."
"I ran across something interesting while researching your background." The other ICON's face betrayed a twitch before it's own entered a command that would disconnect its facial responses from his physical body's. Byron continued as the figure froze once more. "You have two birthdays."
"What do you mean?"
"You have two birthdays. Two different ones on record. Your birth certificate - properly filed - lists it as May 3rd, 2002. But your personnel file from CiberCystems, Inc. lists it as May 2nd, 2002."
Byron typed commands into his deck while his physical body's legs twitched in anticipation. The nature of the privacy screen changed as a subroutine was activate: it still shielded the pair from most kinds of Net surveillance methods, but now nearly invisible bits of it drifted towards the other man's ICON. As they landed on his skin, they mutated into tiny burrowing programs that would drift back along the man's access lines, jamming them open. In a few moments, Byron's prey would find himself unable to jack out.
"It's just a mistake," said the man. His ICON's electronically generated voice carried no hint of fear.
"That's right - a mistake. A fly in the ointment. An out of place brush stroke on an otherwise brilliantly forged Mona Lisa. A mistake." A signal from Byron's deck indicated his burrowing motes had done their work. "Of course, no one's perfect. Well, most folks anyway."
"It's nothing." The ICON was stony and calm, but Byron imagined - savored - the panic the other man must be feeling as he tried to drop his connection to the Net and found it was seared open. He was a captive of a virtual jungle and the predators it held.
"I'm afraid," offered the dwarf, "that it's enough for me to kill you."
The resolution of the other man's ICON fuzzed for a moment as the person on the other end tried desperately to sever his connection to the Net. And then the cloaked figure solidified. Byron knew he had to hurry; his prey might realize he could escape by risking brain damage and simply yanking his jack out of his interface plugs. That just wouldn't do.
So Bryon's ICON raised its hand as the dwarf hurried entered another command. A second subroutine in the privacy program woke and the great hollow ball collapsed in on itself. Now about the size of a fist, it hovered in the air between the ICONs for a moment, glowing white hot. Then it dove towards the cloaked figure's chest -
A man screamed in the real world as the ball made contact with his virtual self, the destructive program willing his machines to send a large current down thin wires that had been spun in zero gravity, through the ceramic, metal, and plastic, and into the delicate organic circuitry of his brain.
The chamber beyond the empty room was cavernous, sterile, and full of light. Patches of unsupported incandescence floated near the ceiling, reflecting off impossibly thin computer screens and stainless steel equipment. The walls were white and seemed to absorb the electronic noises that issued from a a circular desk with various computers crowded onto it.
"So this is the girl," said Van Durham, poking his head out from behind a computer.
"Yes," replied Lily. She scanned the room for anything unexpected and aside from haphazardously placed electronics and discrete surveillance equipment, there was nothing unusual. "This is Felicia."
"Hello, Felicia." Van Durham stood.
The solo and the girl slowly walked to the circular desk and once there, Dr. Van Durham looked Felicia over with a frown. He approached her and bent her head to expose the interface plugs buried in her hair. "She has plugs."
"Yes. The...man I told you wasn't too concerned about her health."
"What other modifications?"
"I'm not sure." Lily turned toward the girl. "What else?"
Felicia was examining the floor. "Interface plugs, internal memory chips, biomonitor, and Sandevistan speedware," she answered shyly.
Van Durham whistled, his expression full of horror and surprise. He looked at Lily. "You realize that all has to be removed. Why whoever did this decided to have her implanted before she had finished growing, I don't know. It's insane."
"He was a monster."
"I guess so," replied the doctor as he led Felicia around to the other side of the desk. She was pliable. Van Durham sat, Felicia at his knee, and began to assemble various pieces of electronic equipment Lily did not recognize. "Then there is the nanite cluster."
Lily swallowed a lump in her throat. "Yes."
The doctor held up a scanner, telling Felicia, "This isn't going to hurt at all," and passed it across the top of her skull a few times. A monitor on the desk woke to display a wire frame of her head and a dark mass within it.
The expression of horror returned to the doctor's face.
"What do you think?" Lily asked.
"He was a monster."
"Can you do anything?"
Van Durham sighed. "I'm not sure. Maybe. At the very least I can disable the nanites that are currently in place."
The wire frame image wavered. The doctor pulled a keyboard closer and a brought up a diagnostic. When it was complete, he turned to Felicia. He touched her arm, saying, "Honey, you can't access your memory while we're doing this. It's causing interference."
Felicia's expression shifted.
"What is it?" asked Lily.
"It's where I have the program. You're erasing it."
"What program is that?" asked the doctor.
Lily answered through the girl's silence. "She downloaded a program into her memory, some kind of Net search utility."
"Oh. Well, we can store it in one of my computers while I run my scans, okay?" Van Durham searched his desk for a set of cables and attached them to a computer not in use. Felicia expertly transferred the program.
A moment later, the image of the Oracle - skeletal and wild - appeared on the computer's screen. It rotated there, an inanimate shell. "What the hell is that?" Lily pointed to the image as Van Durham put away his cables.
The doctor's frown was in his voice as well as resting on his visage. "That's the way the program looks in the Net." He tapped a key and the Oracle stopped rotating. Another command replaced the grey flesh colored skeleton with scrolling codes of routines and subroutines.
"Why would it look like that?" asked the solo.
"I don't know," replied the doctor, distracted as he explored the programs code. A moment later, he said, "There are parts of it missing." He turned towards Felicia, who shook her head.
"What exactly does it do?"
Van Durham called up the main routines, freezing them on the screen, and pointed out code for the solo. "It's just what you said it was - a search type program. It...No. No, it's all here. But this is...strange."
"He was a monster. My god, he was a monster."
Lily gripped the doctor's shoulder, leaning over him to look at the screen. "What?"
Van Durham's hand rested on the keyboard. He took a deep breath. "The parts that I though were missing, they're not. The program was designed to have something like holes it in."
"Because it was designed to be used with an interface. An organic interface." Van Durham glanced back at Lily. "The holes are places where the program receives direction and input from an outside source."
The doctor's voice was low. "That source...my god...was a human brain. This isn't an automated program, but a kind of merger between code and a mind to direct it. It is run by someone's brain."
The room was swallowed by silence. Then, "Are you saying someone runs this program?"
"No, not a person. A brain."
Lily's hand went to her mouth and her eyes teared. She wanted to deny it, to wipe a mental hand over the conversation and set everything the way it had been, to steal her brother back, but a current of revulsion and anger shot through her and she could not turn away.
Evil. Felicia had said Byron was evil and now it was true. Undeniably true. The image of Byron resting in his crib, baby fingers gripping his malformed feet, wrestled with the mocking horror of the Oracle as it stared out of its computer monitor.
Byron was sick. He was sick. Lily clung to that thought. He was sick in mind and body.
His birth had been a miracle, a triumph of surgery over the chaos of a chemical mistake. Lily remembered ease dropping at her parents door at night and asking them over breakfast what fetal restructuring was. Your brother is sick, her mother had told her, very sick. When Byron was born, after hours of sweat and blood, slipping grey-faced out of the womb, she had touched his tiny, twisted feet and cried.
But now Lily's brother had moved beyond the ravages of prenatal exposure to a toxic chemical soup. He was born a dwarf but became psychotic. He was sick. He was, as Felicia had dared to say, evil.
Lily choked back tears, whispered good-bye to her brother, and grieved.
Felicia, ashen, watched her from behind the doctor's knee.
"Do you have any 'trodes?" the solo asked Van Durham.
"Then add them to my bill. Felicia and I will be back tomorrow."
The doctor handed over the thin headset without a word and walked Lily and Felicia to the door. They rode the elevator to the surface, the solo too lost in sucking eddies of thought to notice the cameras had been switched off, then walked to where they had hidden Lily's car in the underbrush.
"I know where we're going," Felicia said as she opened the passenger side door.
Lily's mind ran as smoothly as her car did over the asphalt. It glided empty along with the scenery. She had put the ramifications of her brothers actions, the under lying diseased state of his mind, and drove in shock.
Felicia sat quietly, alternately watching the desert slide by and the driver. She had not spoken since entering the car. Lily could detect a tension in her still face and dark eyes, an expectancy peeking around her usual mask.
As the car rounded the curve that would end in the fringes of the city, the cellular phone rang. As Lily's hand fell to answer it, she saw the number of the caller flashing on it's display. Byron. She hesitated.
"Hello," said the solo, holding the phone to her ear like a black plastic snake.
"Hey there." Byron's voice was unchanged. Lily thought, through the filter of her recent discovery, that it should be. It sounded like Byron, but the old Byron had been killed, slain by the newfound monster inside him.
"Nothing. I was just checking in to see how things went."
A pause, dead air. Then, "Van Durham says there's hope. For Felicia."
"That's good to hear. Did he say how much it will cost?"
"No. I didn't ask."
Byron chuckled. "You sure are a bleeding heart." When Lily did not answer, holding the phone in a stony grip, he continued: "Listen, something's come up. One of my old friends from the Net is in trouble and I promised I'd help. So I won't be home for a few days."
"What does this friend do?"
"He's a runner. Why do you ask?"
"Well, anyway, if you want to leave Felicia at my house, go ahead. Just remember there won't be anyone home."
Pause. "Are you feeling okay? You sound...odd."
"Okay, if you say so. Well, I have to go. I'll see you in a few days."
"See you in a few days," Lily answered and mechanically hung up. The car slide into the city.
Whatever restrained and smoothed Lily's emotional responses as she drove to Byron's house faltered, disintegrated, as they searched it. Images of decaying corpses paraded through her mind as she had opened the front door and now it seemed as she there was a nest of skulls waiting to be found in every shadow. The solo's hand shook as she disturbed dusty papers, opened cabinet and closet doors, and wandered into darkened rooms. At times, her face was wet with tears.
Whether through chance or subconscious design, the last room Lily and her ward searched was the study. The solo could feel it's oak door watching her like an eye, its vision powerful enough to pass through intervening walls. It waited for its turn, content in the center of things. The study was, Lily knew, the most likely place to find damning evidence.
Did she need evidence beyond what she already knew? Lily shook away the thought.
"The computer is in here," Felicia said. Her hand was on the door knob.
"I know." The girl waited. "Go on in."
It took a kind of mental rape to crack Felicia's dispassionate shell, Lily reflected as the girl timidly entered the study. The studied deference was falling away from her personality in pieces and the solo wondered what Felicia would be like when it was completely gone. Intelligent, inquisitive. Angry.
The solo squared her shoulders and entered the study. The leather couch and computer sat in the middle of the room like squat conspirators. Lily stared at the plastic of the computer, wondering if it's housing was big enough to hold a human brain and the nutrients needed to keep it alive. She wanted to think it was too small, but couldn't tell.
Felicia untangled the 'trodes and plugged them into the deck. It was powered up and Lily could feel it humming. A green light was flashing on its display. Felicia lay back on the couch, jack already snug in her hidden interface plugs, and Lily sat at her feet. She fit the 'trodes over her temples and the last thing she saw before the world went black was the young Asian girl's solemn, dark eyes.
Felicia eyes swallowed her and cast her into darkness.
Lily panicked. The utter blackness was confining. It trapped her arms at her sides and kept her legs from moving properly. She struggled as it smothered her. Lily screamed, but that too was futile.
Then a light flared and a voice whispered in her ear. *Calm down. It's okay.*
*You're just experiencing some disorientation. You'll feel better in a minute.*
*Felicia. It's me.*
Lily gushed relief. *Oh, my god! Thank god!*
Lily's body moved without her willing it, walking in the darkness. She could not stop it. The light brightened until Lily could see a door. Her arm rose, an independent automaton, her palm up, and a second patch of brightness formed around her fingers. It flashed towards the door, which opened on contact.
*Relax* said Felicia. *Stop fighting me.*
*I don't know how* the solo wailed. The darkness and betrayal of her own limbs ate her confidence and resolve. It was too much. She had to get away, find a way back to the real world. Her breathing was rapid and shallow.
*Just relax. Remember that I am in control. You're experiencing the sensory information secondhand.*
The virtual entity that was Lily and Felicia moved into the chessboard room. Felicia took a long, slow look around it to let her passenger take it in. *Is this...is this the Oracle?* the solo asked.
*No. I don't know what it is.* Pause. *Let's move on.*
They passed into carpeted halls, Lily reeling as she saw how much they were like Byron's physical, real world home, then Felicia took them down the sweep of the main staircase. A program rezzed at their approach and Byron's unreal wife turned to regard them with a sneer.
"Hiding again, dearest?"
*oh my god oh my god oh my god* whispered Lily.
"No," said Felicia, determined to assume her ICON's role this time.
"Really? I thought intimacy scared you off."
*What is this? What is this?* demanded Felicia's ghostly passenger.
*His fake wife. He has a girl, too.*
The perfect Byron ICON descended the stair. It took the cigarette out of Amanda's slim hands and crushed it on the carpet.
"My, we're feeling bold today," said the wife. "Is there a new woman in your life?"
"Should there be?"
Amanda laughed and Lily cringed as much as she was able. "Always being evasive. It's one of the things I like about you, my darling husband."
"What are the others?"
Amanda ran a hand along the ICON's jaw, the sensation transmitted to Felicia and Lily. "Oh, I like it when you are coy. When you are strong and persuasive. I like it when you teach me how to be your wife..."
*STOP IT!* cried Lily. *Just stop it!*
The ICON's hands grasped Amanda's arms and held them to her sides. *We can't go now.*
*Yes yes we can*
*We have to see the Oracle. It's not far.*
*Felicia, I can't.*
"Are you going to stand there all day or are you going to be a husband to me?" the Amanda program demanded as the Felicia-Lily entity clasped it.
Amanda's comment caused the shy Felicia to let go of her arms and the virtual woman used her freedom to step into the ICON's arms and put a hand behind its head. She drew closer, her lips slightly apart, her breath rapid and sweet.
Felicia scrambled backwards, falling onto the stair. Before Amanda could react, the girl triggered the subroutine which shut her down and Byron's imaginary wife winked out of existence.
*Why didn't you do that earlier?* said Lily in an exasperated tone.
Felicia did not answer. The ICON wiped its mouth with the back of its hand.
Feminine distraction gone, the Felicia-Lily constructed headed for the cellar stairs. Lily asked to go back once again, half-hearted, before they descended the dimness below. A naked bulb rained a blurred circle of illumination down upon a packed earth floor and rough hewn wooden support beams.
*Where is it?* asked Lily, hoping the Oracle was gone.
A moan drifted out of a dark corner. There was movement, something lighter then the shadows moving forward. Then the Oracle, hideously gaunt, broke into the circle of light. It squatted near a beam, muttering to itself.
Despite having seen its image before, Lily gasped. *my god my god*
"Oracle," said Felicia, masquerading in the Byron ICON.
It groveled, not answering.
"Oracle," said the girl again, more forcefully.
"Describe your nature."
"I am the Oracle."
*Ask it what its function is* prompted Lily.
"What is your function?"
"I sort. I assimilate. I report." The Oracle held a hand over its eyes, afraid of the light bulb's glow, as it looked up at the ICON.
"How do you perform these jobs?"
The program was still. Then, "Rephrase the question."
"Do you use a brain?"
"Are you a person?" Felicia pressed.
The Oracle's mouth hung open. It's eyes grew wide, it began to shake where it crouched. Then it shook its head, waving its arms wildly. "No, no, no! No! No!" it screamed. Then, wrapping its arms about its head, the Oracle wavered and disappeared.
*What happened?* asked Lily.
*I'm not sure. It shut itself off somehow. Hang on, I'll restart it.*
A few seconds passed as Felicia relayed commands to the virtual environment via her borrowed deck and then, slowly, reluctantly, the Oracle appeared again. It was still sitting by the beam.
Its hollow face was a caricature of pain. "What is your question?" it whispered.
"Did you used to be a person?" Felicia demanded.
"Don't," it cried. "No. Pl - " It did not finish.
*Felicia, no. Let's go. Let's just go.*
*But it hasn't told us yet.*
*Honey, I think it has. Let's not make it suffer anymore. In fact, let's go find a way to put it out of its misery.*
There was a pause, then. *If you think that's best.*
*Oh, yes, I do.*
The cellar was plunged into darkness. Then the cellar was gone, leaving only the empty black. But that too faded and Lily found herself looking at the study's ceiling. She had fallen off the couch while she and Felicia explored Byron's virtual fantasy. The solo sat up stiffly, working the circulation back into her hand and arms, then wiped twin wells of tears from her face.