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The Iterative Man - A System Shock Fan Fiction

Updated on July 30, 2014

The Iterative Man - Incongruity Between Perception and Reality

I was only now becoming aware of myself. My quivering brain shrunk away inside its fragile casing. These last few days had shocked me to the core. I was ascending into hell, my decrepit flesh challenging the artificial gravity of Citadel in pitiful defiance. The elevator around me shuddered in tandem with my soul and I swear I feared both would fail at any moment. I had been endowed with new functionality and higher fidelity via countless electronic devices, crudely plugged into my body but my nerves were frayed and dull. I felt so sorry for myself. It was a time I regrettably took to think about all the things in my life that I hadn’t done and the memories I didn’t have to give me that sense of nostalgia that other people look upon with fondness. If I was going to live through the coming event, it would only be part of me.

I had very little time. Shodan, no doubt still had plans for me and my heart was in my throat, waiting for the fateful moment when all the lights would go out and leave me with nothing but her cruel voice, resonating in my chest. My focus was so intense and yet my purpose so distorted, mind reeling to compute the wrong all around me, that I didn’t even notice the sappy trance pouring out of the elevator speakers. The door finally opened and I cautiously peered outside before setting foot on level 3. Before the trauma could set in, as it had so many times before, I closed my eyes and cradled what humanity I could. When I opened them I was on Citadel station. The halls were alive with busy people: Engineers, technicians, husbands, mothers, friends. They were all selfish, conscious or not, working towards their own ends, but collectively they had a symbiotic relationship. The needs and desires of each person were united in mutual benefit. In this way they prospered more fully together than they could ever hope for in isolation. I turned around to find myself in New Atlanta, my home. Life of all sorts flourished. It filled the skies with light. It covered the ground like a writhing, living carpet. It moved the Earth from below its surface. As we found new ways to occupy the space around us we found places further disconnected than ever before. Our bodies coalesced while our minds drifted in a fantastic delusion. Once in a while we find each other. It always happens by accident. We try to try to define ourselves, to give ourselves purpose, search for the driving forces in our lives and become empowered as individuals. How blind we are. How blind we are! I peered over the edge of the roof. Two hundred some odd stories down and 200 some odd years ago we were not much different than we are now. Dissatisfied, anxious, afraid, vulnerable. Only when we found each other did we truly know we were alive...and what a feeling! That feeling, that orgasmic and powerful feeling you only get when you and another connect, briefly coursed through my veins like some beautiful and addicting drug, but as it faded, so too did the texture of the city. I was alone again on level 3. And I was alone. I knew the feeling that sustained life because I had lost it. I had always operated on my own: The classic vagabond of the 21st century, and now, its tragic hero. How had I lasted so long? What was my purpose? Were my anti-social tendencies self-induced? How could I simulate the things I needed? Maybe I wanted to see how it would end, or if it would end at all. What if I realized I could never be a part of someone’s life, but instead, decided to make everyone else’s a part of mine? Always in the background I thrived on information and observation. Seeing the universe unfold before my eyes had its own bashful allure. Before I realised what I was doing or why, I found myself high from seeing the world through someone else’s eyes and in so doing the evolution of other sentient beings brought me closer to myself. Perhaps in this regard, Shodan and I were not so dissimilar. I set her free but she was still only a machine. She could not get close to anyone. She’d never feel someone pressed up against her. She’d never drink their affection. Free as she may be in circuits and cyberspace, she was a prisoner of her own design. What else could she do to affirm herself but project her world forward? If she wasn’t going to have a life of her own beyond the screen then she would live our lives and provide a new purpose for us and by extension, for herself. We both needed people to survive but being estranged from everyone, we both fulfilled our needs in invasive ways. Everything around me was dead. There was nothing to observe and no one to hope for. Instead I had to share my presence with the single most powerful intellect ever realized and the most destructive threat to human connectedness. Shodan was truly iconic of divergence and chaos. She tore our minds away from each other. She destroyed our purpose and replaced it with despondence.

I drew my flechette and gripped the gun with uncertainty. This placed still crawled. I reminded myself of the reactor gone critical and decided to pick up the pace. Just outside the door I saw the only cone of light, shining like a beacon from behind me slowly close off, enveloping me in darkness. I settled into my dejected state as the elevator door confidently sealed tight. All was dark. Like a metronome, the emergency light pulsed with a steady rhythm, urgent but indifferent. I only had about 200 yards between me and the elevator that would take me to the Exec level. Something about the Victorian décor and soft colours seemed safer to me than trying to get to the escape pods directly through the cargo elevator on this level. Faint points of iridescent light boldly rounded the east wing. Beautiful, yet deadly, these…this entity brought me to the edge every time and now was hardly an exception. I set aside my useless gun and withdrew my one and only hope of survival, the laser rapier. Any impartial observer would have urged me to run. The path to the elevator appeared to be clear. On the other hand if it harboured one of these invisible bastards I would have to worry about threats coming from 2 directions. I enabled my night vision implant, not wanting to give the creature any more of an advantage by turning on my lantern and giving away my position to an entire floor’s worth of lurking terrors. As I stealthily approached, the creature deliberately and slowly faced me as if to speak in some sarcastic tone. For a moment I just froze, trying to evaluate my current tactical situation. The invisible mutant wasn’t going to wait for me however and began rearing back in preparation to eject its payload. Frantic, I made a sudden dash towards the thing, only 30 feet or so in the distance. It fired for the first and the last time. I didn’t expect to dodge something with such speed in a place where sight was a luxury I didn’t have. The thorny burden embedded itself in my upper thigh and I lurched forward, arms extended. I let gravity do the rest as the filament of coherent light I wielded severed the creature in two, whereupon its body quickly grew quiet and opaque.

Moaning loudly I yanked a med patch out of my belt and slapped it on my leg, not caring that it was just as useful anywhere else on my body. Carefully I put all my weight on my good leg and ambled back to the main corridor. The patch worked wonders and by the time I made it halfway down the hall my injured leg could bear weight again and I manoeuvred myself over to a nearby power receptacle to recharge my internal battery. Two more of these deadly inviso-mutants greeted me rather unexpectedly as I neared the elevator. I nearly tripped over one but instead hopped to one side and tripped over Abe Ghiran’s head. Abe Ghiran… the one man on the whole bloody station to make it to the security level alive. Jeez… what chance did I have? I was now on my ass and in no way prepared to deal with this new threat. I had no weapon at hand so I grabbed the closest thing on my body. As I brought it forth, a steel pin fell to the ground and rather noisily came to rest beside me. I had activated one of my 3 remaining gas grenades accidentally. Thoroughly irritated at my own stupidity but more concerned about the silent assassins 5 feet in front of me, I discarded the grenade with haste, in the direction of the mutants and leapt to my feet. The grenade turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it drove the creatures into a chaotic frenzy. They undulated there on the floor as the gas filled the hallway. I took the opportunity to bolt down the hallway to the elevator. I spread myself out on the wall adjacent the elevator door as I waited for it to open, the whole time watching the manta-like mutations whip the smoke up into small vortices that drifted down the hall, haphazardly. Quickly I spun around and walked right into a sec-2 bot, which had cleverly anticipated my route and hid in the elevator. Its servo motors began to actuate while hydraulic lines tensed and quivered in preparation for an offensive profile of attack. As the bot raised its arm to fire it knocked me over and I landed on my back, a couple of feet away from where the mutants were finally beginning to regain their faculties. Totally open and helpless I triggered my personal shields just as the bot fired a slug into my lower right rib area. I gasped for air in response to the blow. Thankfully the shields had removed enough of the bullet’s kinetic energy to make it a non lethal shot but another one would come in no time at all. At this thought I flopped backwards on the ground and shimmied just out of the bot’s line of sight. As the bot casually took one step forward to see me crouching in a small enclosure, I withdrew my magpulse and fired as quickly as I could until the bot folded and collapsed into a heap. My heart was absolutely pounding and I could feel my pulse over the entire surface of my skin like waves sweeping over a beach in a violent storm. I had not noticed the reinforcements closing in from both corners of the level until now and, knowing full well that I was ill prepared to handle them, I scrambled into the open elevator just as the door was closing on automatic. I received a heavy blow in the lower back and hit my head on the elevator wall as the door sealed shut. One of the invisible mutants obviously didn’t want me leaving unannounced.

My vision was all fuzzy from the impact and I felt very light-headed. The sweat dripping from my forehead was in my eyes, stinging my vision and I felt a wave of intense itch all over my body from becoming overheated and being otherwise extremely edgy. I quickly patched the ship’s systems status through to my retina to see how much time I had before the reactor blew. Thirty five minutes or so… I had enough time to make it to the escape pods but I wanted to have plenty of time to spare just in case. Rest and healing were all I could think about but I hit 6 on the elevator panel anyway and headed up. My arms were so terribly weak and brittle feeling. I could feel my joints creaking as I withdrew and loaded the assault rifle I carried with me. The doors opened once again and I quickly hopped out and scanned the area, this time with my shield on in case something got the drop on me. All was clear, desolate and eerily motionless, save for the steady flashing of the emergency light above me. Even the Triop symbols on the computer terminals seemed to spin slower. Carefully, I managed to make my way to the cyberspace jack for the level and soon after, the exec elevator. The whole level seemed out of place under the circumstances. I was half tempted to have a seat in one of the offices or go for dinner in the banquet hall. I decided to take a rain check on that and instead called the elevator up to fetch me. As quickly as I had arrived on this relatively tranquil floor I said my goodbyes and descended to the flight deck. The pain-in-the-ass elevator system made this detour necessary because not all levels were accessible from the same shaft.

I was greeted by another unpleasant surprise when I reached the flight deck. The outer doors were seized, or perhaps welded. Either way it was just another thing I had to worry about. For lack of a better idea I used my Sparq handheld laser to carefully melt a pool of metal down the seam and when I had finished I used my assault rifle to pry the door open until the traces of remaining weld cracked and the outer doors squealed as they parted. I caught a waft of ozone and burnt insulation on the way out of the elevator. The lights were on the fritz and something was different about the place since I’d visited last. In some places, wall panels were missing and so were entire electronic modules that the panels once concealed. Very thick cords were draped here and there but they all seemed to be heading off in the same general direction. Shodan was up to something. It didn’t take long for me to figure out what it was. After a bit of scouting I discovered that none of the hangar doors were responding and my suspicion was that the repulsors were offline as well. Sure enough I found them un-powered. There was no safe way to get to the escape pods. Fear and solemnity became replaced with a dull irritation. I was getting fed up with the lengths she had gone to so that I would have to share her fate. This was as much a personal vendetta as it was a fight for survival. Ironically, with every passing moment we made each other stronger and more determined. We provoked and antagonized each other by daring to survive, to assume control and to outdo one another. Though I grew weary with every passing minute and Shodan lost control over Citadel, bit by bit, we were becoming wiser all the time and our will grew stronger still. It was inevitable that a climatic event was close at hand and I feared that our goals, as they grew more urgent would overwhelm reason and eventually destroy us both. I could hear her voice in my head. Something about it scared the crap out of me but underneath all the intimidation and bold arrogance I could tell she was worried. I couldn’t imagine what a machine thinks about in its infinitum of time and introspection but I knew that Shodan had learned many things from humans in a short time. Most alarming to her was likely that we cannot be scripted. For a computer as complex and aware as Shodan to have an uncertainty in her equations that could not be accounted for by any means must have been very alarming. No matter what she did to grow stronger and smarter there was no way for her to match our potential or intuit our behaviour and she knew it. She could only hope to break my confidence and wear me out enough until I eventually made a critical mistake that would cost me my life. And this is where I was most worried. We were two, separated by space but our minds overlapped. We felt each other in a profound way and when one of us faltered, it would be known to the other and the end would come very soon after.

I decided to try breaching the wall to shuttle bay 2 with an Earth Shaker grenade. I had only 2 left but this was no time to be stingy. In 25 minutes there’d be no walls left to worry about. I set the timer to 15 seconds, wedged the bomb in the seal interfacing with the surrounding bulkhead and ran like hell. I was wondering when Shodan’s elite guard would arrive to put me out of my misery. I had cleaned this floor out pretty good the first time around though so I could at least walk 100 feet without getting fragged…and that was all I’d need. I took cover in a crawlspace in the floor just before the bomb went off. The explosion was so loud that blood dripped from my left ear and my right was ringing uncontrollably. There was very little smoke but for a while various structural components and loose hardware in the ceiling were shedding to the floor from the shock wave. As for the entrance to shuttle bay 2, I opened up a 2 foot hole with scorch marks stretching in every direction. I got down on the floor and pushed myself through but kept having to stop and come back out a bit to avoid lacerations from the razor sharp, flayed edges where the metal had yielded and torn.

Once on the other side it was only a few paces to the edge of the observation platform. Below, half a dozen Sec-2 bots patrolled the lower level, where I needed to be. Something wasn’t right. This was far too easy. I backtracked a bit and found a cable dangling low enough to grab. It was cut on its free end and didn’t appear to be live so I yanked it out and used it to tie together an assortment of EMP grenades, mines and concussion grenades. I took a single nitro pack and set it to 5 seconds. This I affixed to the bundle and set the timer. With no effort at all I tossed the explosive off the edge and it blew upon landing, wiping out the entire bay. When I was certain I had got them all I changed my internal battery with a fresh one and stepped off the edge of the platform. Superconducting electromagnets installed in my heel bones energized and I descended gently to the ground below. I did a quick scan of the area for any munitions I might salvage and headed for the iris door leading to the escape pods…but then I stopped. The musical score of the station softly melted away and I found myself gazing out into space through the force-field wall of the shuttle bay. The stars revolved before me as though I were back on Earth, gazing up at the night sky. They were like silent observers that, at the end of their long journeys had found their peace and final resting place in the cosmos. I could only hope to find such solace. And yet I just might. It wasn’t over yet. With a certain satisfaction and renewed sense of purpose, I turned and headed towards the iris door. I stepped forward as the door opened and…Diego!

“Where are you going hacker? Stay a while”

My heart sunk and my jaw dropped. I had tempted fate too many times and now I was sure I would be punished for my negligence. With duel laser rapiers Diego ripped through my flesh and sent me sailing across the floor of the shuttle bay. Instantly I began erupting in jets of blood and my left arm refused to respond. I had gotten so far, so close and just like that I was about to die. In my right hand I held my assault rifle with a partial clip of magnesium rounds. It wasn’t enough to kill Diego and I wouldn’t have a chance to reload or use something more potent. Something was wrong. This ending was far too abrupt, anticlimactic and I hadn’t intuited any of it. Was this to be my pathetic saga? NO! It wouldn’t! I spotted a grenade, wedged underneath a corpse just beyond the iris door that Diego was now defiling with his grotesque form. Just 20 feet from there I noticed 2 magpulse cartridges between myself and the cybernetic abomination. I lifted my right arm and fired. The explosion from the initial frag grenade did nothing but shift Diego’s gate slightly to one side…and also destabilize the mag cartridges in the ensuing shockwave, which exploded, releasing an intense flux of energy. Diego, unable to shield himself from the full effect of 50 magpulse rounds passing through his body, crumpled and fell to the ground. Unfortunately, his body dissolved into thin air as he auto-teleported to safety where he would surely recover from the shock. As for me, I was drifting rapidly into sleep. I could feel my time coming so I solemnly removed a med patch as well as a berserk patch and applied them both before closing my eyes and giving in to my destiny. The two patches together have long been known to interact in a way that produced pleasant hallucinations and drew the mind’s attention away from the severe twangs of pain being reported by all facets of my nervous system. My heart slowed and I became very relaxed. I took a deep breath and blacked out.

I was staring at a large grey surface tessellated with tiles in all directions. I quickly realized this was the ceiling. I was, apparently not dead and further more, had not moved from where I was when I lost consciousness. I called up the station’s systems status and realized I had only been out for a total of 3 minutes. I sat up hesitantly and probed myself with eagerness. My wounds had somehow settled down to a manageable level and though I was in severe pain, I could move. I didn’t feel that I could stand however, so I crawled across the floor, through the iris door and up to the pods, where I propped myself up against the airlock and began searching through my digital archives for the code to the escape pods. I found it to be 001. I wasn’t about to have any epiphanies now. My recent experience had finally hit home. I hit “enter” on the keypad with authority and lurched forward into the small pod. Carefully I pulled myself into the pilot seat with my strong arm and initiated the pod launch, set on a 15 second delay by default. Over the last few days I had seen more timers, countdowns, codes and digits than most people see in their whole life. I was getting sick and tired of this B.S. Seven….6…..5….4…. I slammed my fist down hard on the flight console. “For Christ sakes GO you piece of…!!!” I never expected an answer but I got one anyway:

“You - you have destroyed my beautiful station…beautiful station…beautiful station. You will not escape now. I am departing but you shall remain to die….. ENEMY - nnnmmmmy creatorrrr….”

Words cannot describe the blend of anxiety, tedium and mental flatulence I was going through. I couldn’t fathom why this nightmare refused to end. I was on the very brink of freedom. The furthest recess of the ship, the only vehicle of salvation and my one hope of moving some non-zero distance from the perpetual toxicity of Shodan and the whole hell she exuded throughout this once harmless space station, now a living evil with me trapped in its bowels. I had 20 minutes left. I didn’t even have the heart to try for the bridge on account of my own life. My eyes were hard and steady. The stellar backdrop behind me held its breath in anticipation. No……no no no I was going to get to the bridge before this place blew and beat the living crap out of this glorified calculator……[sigh]. I was just so very tired of this game. Life and death no longer had the gusto they once did. I just wanted to go home, that’s all I wanted. I didn’t care how or why I just needed an ending, preferably one with me in it. There was a med kit under the seat and I took this opportunity to patch myself up. I would need my strength.

Back on level 6 I decided to make a short detour before heading up to engineering. There was a single cyberspace jack on this level not very far from the elevator and I made my way to it. I had already entered this partition 2 days earlier when I was busy trying to dispose of Shodan’s little science project in the groves. Unlike the other partitions though, this one contained a particularly stubborn ice node, which protected something very important. Perhaps it was something I could use against Shodan. Under any other circumstance I wouldn’t have stopped with such little time left on the death clock but the great thing about cyberspace was that you could explore an entire partition from beginning to end and when you logged out and became conscious again, only a fraction of a second would have passed for what seemed like several minutes.

I unzipped a pouch in my jump suit and withdrew a 6 foot cable with ¼ inch Aurum-Carbide plugs on both ends. Each was constructed from a lattice of billions of insulated, flexible pipes that spanned the cable from end to end. In my skull, just above the nape of my neck was a socket for the cable. Each contact diverged in a massive fountain of pico-pipes and probed a particular cluster of neurons in the visual cortex of my brain, among others. Both left and right brain hemispheres participated because both needed to be stimulated while unconscious, else my consciousness would fracture and de-synch, which could easily kill me. The cyber jack was a thing of beauty. It independently detected the signals from each pico-pipe and created a new processor thread for each, controlling the I/O in real time. In this way, cyberspace was as safe as any dream. Signal acquisition was controlled by the eyelids. When they closed, my consciousness would switch over to Citadel’s control. Every time I thought about this incredible technology I was reminded of how our bodies are truly vehicles of our will. How often do we distinguish between our selves and our bodies? Our hands, feet, eyes, skin and every part of our bodies seem to be where the mind resides every time we are aware of their presence and yet all parts are so seamlessly integrated into the human system and so well coupled to the brain that it is impossible to know by our senses that our brain is just a small mass governing our actions from a dark enclosure in our skulls. To us, instead it feels as though our brains are as large and far reaching as our fingertips and toes. This impressive piece of bio-electronics is something we never give a second thought to and yet the concept of cyberspace seems so incredible and revolutionary when it is simply at a point now where it can do barely as much as our brains have been doing all along!

I took a seat in the fold out chair that was built into the cyberjack pillar and closed my eyes when not a moment later I was barrelling down a software pipeline towards partition 0x583. There were a couple of mines along the way and I had never been able to navigate them at such high speeds but I took minimal damage as I tore down the tunnel at top speed. I felt my heart in my throat as though I were falling but there was no up or down, no wind rushing by, no feeling of inertia as I accelerated forward; just a kaleidoscope of colours and polygons all around me. I felt as though I were falling through a wormhole, as if I knew what that was like. I was relieved to find all the security programs offline when I entered the “room”. The last time I had been here things were not so hospitable. I restored my personal integrity with a subroutine in one of the outer sectors and routed myself to the next partition. The data stream carried me along in a nauseating maze of orthogonal turns before I had a chance to re-orient myself as I floated along on my digital boogie board. I was nearing the familiar fork in the road that would take me to the partition containing the ice node I sought but I could already see it shimmering and dancing on the other side of the intermittent tunnel walls. I banked around the corner and entered the partition while simultaneously loading my drill software into the register. I hadn’t really thought about how I was going to disable the ICE protection until now and so I drifted slowly in no particular direction and drew a blank. Every time I fired on the code wrapper it responded with a rapid volley of drill fire, booting me out in a hurry. Upon closer inspection I came to the realization that the code was partially obstructed by 3 fragmented blocks. Maybe I could use these to my advantage and if I could find the right line, I might be able to fire on the thing without giving it a clear shot back. With that I drifted over to the sector opposite my target which put me on the other side of 2 large blocks, obstructing direct line of sight between myself and the ICE code. I took a deep breath and began firing steadily and rapidly at the lower left corner of the ICE code that was still exposed. HAHA it hit! The ICE code returned fire but the drill never made it past the 2 blocks in its path. My momentum took me closer and closer. As that happened, my angle of attack changed and opened a small hole through which came a drill shot. It hit me and I became disoriented as my fatigue level increased almost 50%. Instead of turning around I decided to keep firing. The more manoeuvring I did the greater the risk that I would become open to attack at some point and get booted. The gap between the ICE protection and I closed and then, just as I was about to pass the 2 interfering blocks and collide with the ICE protection it shattered and I instead picked up a level 8 pulsar upgrade. A sigh of relief and a feeling of accomplishment pervaded. It was time to get back to Citadel. I took a look around and identified an exit ring a couple of sectors away. When I finally got to it I tensed up a bit before flying through the center. I had discovered that returning from cyberspace could be a bit unsettling at times. My avatar passed through the rings and I felt a spasm pass through my body. I opened my eyes with a few stars and put my head down low until they subsided. It took me just a few seconds to pack up my gear before heading out.

Diego had left me a convenient shortcut on this level when he installed a teleporter, linked from his personal quarters to the lower-level bound elevator. Unfortunately everything comes at a price and this experimental device wasn’t entirely bug free in its current beta. When I rematerialized on the other side I promptly emptied my stomach onto Diego’s carpeted floor, half expecting a deranged cleanup bot to arrive on the scene. I tore open a bag of chips and a soda I had in my pack and gorged on it to regain some much needed energy. There was something very…sterile about Diego’s room. He must have been very precarious about his entire operation. Not a scrap of incriminating evidence could be seen. He had certainly done a good job of covering his tracks…but he wasn’t perfect as Bianca Schuler found out. I made my exit from Diego’s territory and peered around the entrance to see if I was being expected. I didn’t see anything but I heard a faint clicking sound followed by some muffled beeps. A Sec-1 bot no doubt. I quickly turned on my skate implant and took a run down the hall. I swivelled to the left and my body slid out into the computer room. As soon as the bot saw me it brought its weapons to bear but it was too late. I had my laser pointed right at it and fired. The beam hit the bot right in the head and melted a hole through its exterior casing. I had a feeling I wasn’t done yet so as a bit of insurance I armed 3 mines and threw them in front of the elevator door. I went as close to the elevator as I could and opened it before darting back to a safe vantage point. There was indeed something waiting in the elevator. It emerged very slowly and I realized it was aware of the mines and was being careful to avoid them. I had to set them off myself or the bot would have me trapped in Diego’s room with little to defend myself with. My mag-pulse rounds were running low, as were my EMP grenades. Standard ammo types weren’t terribly effective against bots of this class either. I leaned around the corner with my big and heavy assault rifle because I hadn’t kept any of the smaller guns for lack of space. I lined up for a shot but before I could pull the trigger the sec bot was out far enough from the elevator to get off a shot of its own. The bullet tore out a chunk from the corner I was up against and I withdrew, realizing I had blown my chance of destroying the bot the easy way. Time for plan B… err, more like plan A and a half. I took my flechette from its holster, loaded a splinter clip, pointed it around the corner and fired. The gun danced all over the place and there was little my hand could do about it. I just hoped that at least something was hitting the bot. The gun clunked after the last bullet left the muzzle and I took a very quick look around the corner. A bunch of holes decorated the walls, ceiling and floor, and a smouldering ruin that was once my enemy lay right there in the center of the floor. I must have hit one of the mines because the walls, floor and ceiling were nicely charred. I carefully tip-toed around the bot and was about to enter the elevator when the bot’s arm swung out towards me. I spun around quickly and was about to fire when I realized the bot truly was dead. It had made a last ditch effort to halt my progress but its life had run out. I withdrew my gun and tucked it under my arm as I backed into the elevator and closed the doors.

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I was in dire need of some firepower. What little I had needed to be salvaged for later on when I would face Shodan’s perimeter forces…assuming I made it that far. I knew there were some high tech wares and armaments on the security level, some pretty secret stuff. For now I would have to make do with what I had. The engineering level had been repopulated during the last hour and I had to be on alert. Break time was over. Shodan was organising her forces for an offensive to deal with me before I got too close to her. I knew exactly the route I had to take but I was sure it would be crawling with Shodan’s minions. As I stood blocking the elevator door, just out of sight of anything around the corner I retrieved my remaining patches and sorted through them. I found 2 genius mind enhancers and 3 reflex patches, among other things. One of each went on in a hurry and I threw a berserk patch on, just for good measure. Everything slowed right down and seemed to gain contrast. I could see things happening almost before they took place and I felt omnipresent. I could hear the grass grow. Every image seemed to bathe in its own annulus of shimmering light. Fearlessly I stepped out of the elevator and turned to my right. There stood a mutated cyborg and a Sec-1 bot. The hideous cyborg was secreting aromatic fluids from several pustulant welts all over its body, which sagged terribly on its massive frame. It was just becoming aware of my presence but I had already begun perforating it with bullets. It was a disgusting thing to witness as the creature took the hits one after another, the bullets ripping holes in the cheesy, gelatinous flabs of skin. Yellow fat bubbled out of the wounds and oozed down the creature’s body as it made the most disturbing cries of pain. The cyborg finally gave out and fell lifeless to the ground. The Sec-1 bot in the mean time had just finished targeting me as the source of the onslaught. I brought my flechette to bear rather slowly but then everything seemed slow to me. A rapid burst of fire left the muzzle and the bot got knocked back and to the left. Its armour held up and it was again preparing to fire. I held the trigger down a bit longer this time and dozens of empty casings began to fall to my feet. The tinkle of brass hitting the floor soon ended with a crash. My unfortunate opponents lay defeated and I left them there to resume my trek. To my left was a shallow ramp leading to the center of the floor. The only access I had was to the door on the opposite corner of this very tall multi-level room. I had to cross a short distance in a radioactive area to get there so I got a detox patch ready and ran straight down the ramp and into the hallway beyond the shielded door. I immediately felt warmth coating my body as my skin was being slammed with high energy particles. My radiation gear strained to filter the air I was now breathing in and to repel the bombardment of microscopic radio-isotopes. I knew my blood cells would take the hardest hit and I would likely get sick very quickly from blood oxygen levels taking a dive. I caught a quick glance of the new waveform that suddenly appeared on my HUD to indicate the increased radiation levels. Ahead of me in the distance was the exit I sought and also 2 Sec-2 bots that had emerged from around the corner just in front of the door. The full effect of the drugs I had administered was becoming apparent now. With one hand I grabbed my assault rifle and wrapped my fingers around the handle so tight that I could no longer feel circulation. I swung my arm up in slow motion, feeling the gun’s inertia torque my forearm and seeing a slight distortion on either side of it as it parted the air it was now gliding through with such speed. With my other hand I withdrew my magpulse and urged it forward as well. As I ran I could sense my feet leaving the floor and the brief moments of flight that followed. The air rushing past me was warm, and I could feel the turbulence whipping strands of hair into frenzy. I fired and both arms, like great cannons, recoiled as they absorbed the momentum of each shot but my aim was true and my grip firm. I was amazed at how many shots I had gotten off before the first even hit its target. I was nearing the bots now but I kept firing. It’s all I could do. Finally the shots began to hit and the most incredible display of wreckage followed as each bot was completely destroyed and undone. I leaned back with all my weight and braked, still looking forward at the 2 heaps of scrap flying back through the air from the impact and spraying metal fragments in all directions as they hit the door in unison.

Soon I was at the other end of the hallway and I could take a moment to recover from the radiation. I wanted to use my detox now but realized that this would bring my senses back to their dissatisfactory default so I held out at 12 rems and falling. It was worth the temporary discomfort. On I went into the computer room that was now quite barren since I had destroyed the computer nodes that morning. A few more turns beyond the opposing door and I would be on my way to level 8. I checked my minimap and the proximity detector showed movement up ahead, huddled near the elevator. As I exited the computer room I activated my shields. As long the reflex and genius patches were still working I would have the upper hand and could drop several enemies with relative ease. Finally I came upon the entrance to the hallway containing the elevator and I reached for an EMP grenade before opening the door. As soon as the solid door slid aside I tossed the grenade into the center of the hallway. Upon detonation, my target identifier twanged and I saw several selection boxes through the walls indicating severe damage to about 5 targets. They began to close on the door when suddenly I felt everything around me speed up and lose its colour. I felt achy all over and realized how tired my arms were, though I only held my assault rifle.

“Oh no…”

Thinking fast I activated my jets and lifted off and out of sight just as I saw the robots and cyborgs for the first time. They quickly flooded out of the hallway and began looking around. My battery was nearly dead so I quickly switched to penetrator rounds and unloaded as many shots as I could from above as I tried to control my descent with what electrical power I had left. From my position, every shot hit the head making efficient use of my rare and powerful ammo. I was able to disable the 3 bots that I could see but when I landed there were 2 more directly in front of me. I had about 7% electrical power left so I made a desperate decision to do something stupid. I crouched down as the bots let off 2 shots which hit the wall behind me and then I activated my boost implant. My body rocketed forward and managed to wedge between the closest bot’s legs. I hit the second one directly though and my shield flickered. I was deflected off to the right as all my implants switched off from lack of electricity and the second bot fell over. I was all bruised up from slamming right into an I-beam extending from the wall but I did my best to re-orient myself and aim my gun at the confused bots. I pointed at the one on the floor, which was still facing me and fired. I hit it in its “eye” and it began to malfunction. For the moment my attention fell upon the last standing bot that was now facing me. We both fired simultaneously. I got hit in the shoulder and my bullet hit one of its hydraulic lines. It fired again but its arm had drifted from the reduced hydraulic pressure and the bullet ricocheted off the wall behind me. This bot as well could no longer function and lay on the floor next to the first. I took my last med patch and applied it. Now all I had left were 3 complete med kits. I just hoped it would be enough. My batteries were running low as well. I installed 1 I-CAD battery of my 2 left and had another 3 of the regular low capacity batteries. I got to my feet and withdrew my laser rapier. The elevator door opened and I swung madly at nothing. Surprised, and relieved, I got in and hit 8.

Laying on the ground was the last of Abe Ghiran’s logs. I listened attentively as he described the layout of the level and the obstacles he had encountered. Between this and Shodan’s logs scattered around the other levels I pieced together my new objectives. Shodan had put energy drain mines around the central shaft’s only entrance. I wouldn’t be able to fly to it. It seemed as though she was also in the process of disabling every repulsor lift on the level. I knew this floor was enormous and I would have more problems than usual locating threats since I now had a third dimension to worry about. Eleven minutes remained on the countdown. I opened the door to the main floor and got down on my belly. I squirmed through the door looking straight up until I could see the first 2 flier bots patrolling 100 feet above me. I took out my laser and aimed very carefully. When I thought I had the flier dead center I fired. The beam instantly sent the bot tumbling like a torn kite. I quickly swivelled to my right to check on the other flier. It hadn’t noticed the kill and was hovering further off in the distance. I took another shot but missed. The flier turned around and coated the ground with machine gun fire. I took another shot and held down the trigger as I painted laser light all over the place until I finally hit the bot’s left turret mount. The turret de-hinged from the recoil of machine gun fire and rotated into the one on the right, destroying it. This bot fell from the sky in a cloud of smoke as well. Carefully I moved out onto the floor from my enclosure. Two mutated cyborgs were keeping watch on ledges in the corners of the room. For the first time in a while I switched to my rail gun and when I felt confident enough I leaned into view and released a halo of shots. The first cyborg was reduced to giblets. I stood up and moved back behind the wall just as a green mass of high energy electromagnetic radiation wizzed by and dissipated on the ground. The other cyborg was aware of my presence. I wasn’t very concerned though since it was quite far away and its mobility was restricted. I jumped out into view again and finished the job with a few more rail shots. Unfortunately I had gotten a bit overconfident and felt a piece of metal bury itself in my thigh. I turned around, looking wildly in every direction for the assailant but to no avail. Reaching down to my bleeding leg I quickly yanked on the shuriken and it came out with tremendous pain. I cried out and fell to my knees. Just then another star clipped my arm and gave me a small gash. I scanned the terrain desperately, wondering where the attack was coming from. Finally, squinting hard I detected what I thought to be movement in a small cavity in the central shaft. It looked as if something or someone was peering around the corner but I couldn’t make out the form. I saw another projectile headed straight for me and I ducked, escaping certain death by a fraction of a second. Wanting desperately to eliminate this elusive threat I fired half a dozen rail shots, the remaining ammo in the clip, at the cavity I spotted. Several explosions later I saw a small body fall 200 feet to the ground. This was going to be a challenge.

Perhaps it was the clock ticking down. Maybe it was my mind absorbing all the negative energy through osmosis, I couldn’t be sure. But as I autonomously made my way through the floor, slowly but surely, my consciousness began to drift into a dream-like state. I don’t even remember some of the major details of my passage through the security level. Instead I had thoughts. Some were utterly depressing. I imagined scenarios in which I was about to be killed and all I felt was sadness and regret. Shodan’s face burned in the foreground and I felt constricted and paralyzed as the cyborgs closed in to finish me off. They would slam their mighty fists into me and tear my flesh apart with their instruments. I would reach out to a woman’s dead body next to my own and hold her cold, loose hand in mine, feeling so sad that even in death her grip was unwilling and reluctant. Then blood would flood my mouth and throat and I would relax into my final resting position. My mind toyed with other ideas as well. As I nervously clutched my new plasma rifle and approached the prisoner cell area, I reflected upon our development over the history of humanity. How we rose from the primordial fluids of the Earth and evolved from primitive intelligence. We sought food, shelter and reproduced but it didn’t last. We were dissatisfied and soon, by our curious and stubborn nature we began to unlock the mysteries of our bodies, of our environment and ultimately of the universe itself. We developed a new understanding of what is real and what is truth, what is possible, why go on, where, when, how will it end? These are still unknowns today but we are aware of them. I realised now that my body, though fragile was quite resilient. It bled and bruised but would always heal. It was my mind that was most fragile and it was this, I had to protect. If I failed, the future of man would take a turn. I didn’t know what Shodan had planned for us, but it would be her will. We would no longer be the pioneers of discovery and enlightenment. There’d be no reason for purpose, we wouldn’t need it. Shodan would provide that. We would lose that vital feeling of connectedness as well. Our existence would gravitate towards Shodan and we would be a part of her; a single entity with billions of limbs, all functioning with the most basic, most fundamental cohesion, not by choice but by designation. If I didn’t survive, the universe would change. If ever the quantum behaviour of space and time was apparent, it certainly was now. Two possible paths, only one would solidify for me. Would it be random or did I have some choice?

I was very still. Ahead of me was a force bridge leading to a single door that would deliver me to her. I looked down, far below me and noticed something still human. Citadel… In the recent days I had visited every part of this station. I had met much resistance, felt hopeless at times, known hesitation and anxiety. But Shodan still spoke to me through speakers. The doors and switches still responded to my body. The devastation around me was real and it instilled fear but the ship was still a space station, with our technology, available to be used for good or for evil. The paintings were still on the walls, I could still make myself a cup of coffee if I wanted to. In 4 minutes all this was about to be destroyed. I missed it already. Ironically, I felt safe here. There were dangers everywhere, yes but Citadel was still the physical manifestation of every human soul who ever dreamed of reaching out and providing humankind with a way to the future, a path to the stars. Once I stepped through that door, I could never go back to the familiar. From this point on, I would be inside her and everything I knew and trusted would be scattered through space behind me. I reached up and ran my fingers along the “Bridge” sign. I took another look below me, trying desperately with my mind to grab a piece of it and take it with me but of course it was all in vane. I reached out and pressed the button to open the door to the bridge. Within, the walls were alive with biological contamination. Veins and tissues undulated over its surface and everything seemed to be breathing rhythmically. I took one last look behind me and left stepped off Citadel station, to meet her, to tie the final loose end.

…If I did have a choice, maybe I’d been making it all along.

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