written by Sylvia LeungThis one is humorously for Alex A. who helped in the plotting and concepts. It didn’t occur to me that I had an Alex in here until after Dæmons Chapter 1. You’re a much nicer guy than Simone is, my love.

She was alone, her preferred state of being.

Her eyes were closed, yet she saw so much more without them. Lights flew in that darkness behind her mind as her physical eyes saw the afterimage they made on the back of her eyelids. She could feel the slight rising of heat generated by the zooming electric impulses in circuitry warming her frozen heart.

She turned around in the metal-framed, leather-upholstered swivel chair away from her console. She gazed dispassionately down at her own blue halogen lit desk with her machines perched on wall units. The ever-changing digital scanners and television monitors that surrounded her both illuminated the sterile room and inform her of the activities of the netizens of the world as well as the stock exchange and the latest political affairs from across the globe. Surrounded by disemboweled computer components, she stretched her long slender arms above her head in controlled motions of an exercise she had noticed Kusanagi doing.

All software generated and artificially modified, the various monitoring systems performed their tasks with the concentration only a machine could have. Much more reliable than a human, she confirmed mildly. Alex must be envious.

Leaning into the reclining back of the chair, she raised her gloved hands up to her skull, disengaging the latches that held the cranial e-net of her own design to the magnets imbedded beneath the skin of her temples and brain stem, and pulled the circuitry off. She set the spindly helmet onto the crowded confines of the top of her desk and shook her lightening blue mass of hair out, feeling the circulation of the air regulators chill the moist sweat underneath her choppy tresses.

Pushing back further into the soft springs in the spine of the chair, she gained the momentum of potential energy and volleyed herself to stand at her console situated in the middle of the monitoring room. Popping out a crick in her lower back beneath a wrinkled white cotton shirt, she reached over and typed out a simple command to the remote module on one of the satellite monitors. Flashing images of over one hundred channels at two per second, she gathered the information that it was a Sunday and that nothing truly entertaining for an intellect of her caliber was on.

She clipped off the last byte from a techno video and turned to discover one of her personal console monitors displaying the connection mock-up of an online service. Debating for a millisecond, she braced her palms on the edge of the desk and leaned into the monitor, shutting her connections to the outside cyberworld down to a mere blinking of the cursor in the programming module.

The Project is changing things, she commented to herself as she walked with the steady gait of an ice princess. Crossing her arms chastely under her under-developed breasts, she gazed upon the floating figures of fellow vampires in the rows of individual capsules, the gel-like liquid formulated to stimulate the electrodes across the cerebral cortex, centering and intensifying in that one last place of human mystery. Tubes ruthlessly breached skin and flesh to take physical information and provide essential nourishment.

She watched as another body was extracted from her tube, handled roughly by the assistants. She had been dead for a full day as they completed some tests on her. She would be disposed of in a dumpster or even directly to the city dump, if their contact in the city waste department could arrange it. Subjects came and went like meals in a high school cafeteria, and no one paid attention.

She took a few steps to a glass table where a meal had grown cold enough for her appetite. She reached for the tall glass of pulpy red liquid, drinking the stuff with slow deliberation as she watched her small but indispensable kingdom. The salty metallic taste melded well with small bits as she chewed every so often.

At that moment, she felt an inexplicable uneasiness about her. She raised her mental shields up, reflexively paranoid. The elevator doors opened with a faint swish and a tall, dangerous figure dressed in solid black stepped into the room.

“How is the progress, Songblade?”

She forced the hackles behind her neck to lay still as she impassively watched Damien Frette saunter across the room to her. If she had a warmer heart, she would have smiled in reflexive appreciation for his dangerous look and devious eyes. If her libido were still active, she would have had urges to see if his skin was soft beneath his clothes. Instead, he was just another animal to her.

“Everything is according to the schedule, Mr. Frette.” She reached behind her and retrieved a small electronic notepad with the day’s program. “We are just shipping out the last of the defects in Lot 2138,” she delivered in a clipped, stagnant voice with the faintest flavor of an Asian accent.

After almost five years in his service and his request for her to use his first name, she never complied. Everyone accepted that as another odd quirk of the hacker’s. “That’s good to hear.” He absently watched as a body was dumped into a plastic bag with bags of chemicals to staunch the scent until it was removed from the premises. “The current status on our other Simone?”

Holding back a bored sigh for conversation, she rested her weight on one leg and tucked her hands into her shirt pockets. “He has fallen in with your two pets, Shelby and Carmichael. He seems to be staying with Shelby in the face of Carmichael’s jealousy and suspicion. A lively performance is to be expected.”

Damien smiled, showing just a hint of larger canines. “An unexpected, yet pleasing development.” He stepped away from her and turned slowly around the basement that looked bigger than it actually was due to designer halogen lighting. It was all Damien’s idea, of course; he could never palate anything crude and inelegant within his domain. Medical equipment was stored into custom black furniture and most of the surfaces on equipment were painted black, if they weren’t special ordered that particular color.

The walls and ceiling had been painted solid black and light fixtures emerged from the obscurity to form rows that suggested a dome-like ceiling. The lights faced the wall, illuminating the room by reflection only. There were outcroppings of wires and electrical sockets cropping out every few meters along the wall at different heights. This large room had been built with flexibility in mind.

Songblade was not about to contradict anything he said or wanted. He had provided her with the means to achieve her happiness and goals in life, if she were to think in such romantic terms. She owed what she had become to Damien Frette, which earned him some extent of loyalty.

She nodded warily to his comment as she watched him pad around the room like a lion in his own den. He leaned down and casually looked over the shoulder of a doctor sitting at a high counter writing data in a clipboard. The doctor gasped at the sudden intrusion and looked even more pained as he realized whom it was. He looked at Songblade and just stood still as she watched him stone faced. She waited until Damien was through with his perusing.

“I have a task for you, Songblade,” he tossed in her direction as he breezed to the elevator doors. “Come to my office when you get the chance.”

She watched him leave with the stir of trepidation. He never took others into consideration unless the errand determined your future, either its extension or its termination.

She had screamed her voice hoarse to deaf ears.

She averted her eyes as one by one, they mounted her, panting deeply onto her neck as they slammed into her hips relentlessly. After the initial pain of entry, she groped for the numbness in her gut, the hope that it would be over quickly. She ignored the horrible throbbing between her legs, the rough hands that squeezed her breasts painfully, the dirty words they snarled at her. She ignored the burning of tears in her throat, pressing against the grit of hopeless cries.

“Come on, we’re almost there.” Some malicious pixie was haunting her mind, reviewing the game she never knew she had played into. It had been the first time of the few times he had been tender with her. She had been fool enough to fall for it.

“Almost where?” she had once innocently asked, valiantly keeping up with her first lover’s long strides. He was eating up the pasture of knee high weeds and wildflowers, sending up small clouds of pollen and petals. The brush was scratching at her bare legs and ruffled skirt, but she didn’t mind in the name of adventure.

“You’ll see when we get there.” He smiled back at her and she would have allowed him anything. He squinted his eyes in the bright sunlight, his hair brushed against his forehead at the occasional breeze. “It’s a surprise.”

It had been dimly lit barn in the middle of a balmy summer month. A gentle breeze rolled across the small orange groves on her family’s farm in central California. What few livestock her family owned were out in their pens enjoying the sunlight and fresh air. The earthy smell of hay and the rustle of clothing were part of a romantic sensory experience. She had spent her love freely and frivolously on a boy that had dishonorable intentions.

They didn’t stop until they decided they were through. As if to balance the stench and hot fluids flowing out of her vagina, they spat mucus and spread semen onto her chest and face. Existing bruises were covered with fresh marks and a few scratches of hate drew blood on her arms and wrists. Her hands wilted from the coarse rope bindings on her wrists and the warmth of her blood trickled down her forearms, past her ribs, forming small puddles beside her on the floor. She could barely feel her hands as the rope was tied to a large, strong hook on the wall. She distractedly wondered if this was what Jesus felt like; betrayed, bound, and broken.

Her legs were spread haphazardly as only her feet touched the ground. Her once pretty skirt that she had bought especially for J.D. was ripped and hiked up to her waist. A small stain of blood made gritty with dirt streaked its way on her inner thigh, evidence of her violent loss of purity. She shuddered once with the horror of it all before disconnecting her soul from her body.

A large rough hand caught her jaw and turned her head from side to side. She made no resistance, staring for the sky beyond the patched ceiling and yellow-stained walls. The cold dirt beneath anesthetized her back and buttocks; her tailbone was bruised from the violent episode.

“Wasn’t it a nice surprise, my love?” The voice that had melted her heart couldn’t penetrate her shock and trauma. She didn’t even shiver as he drew out a switchblade and brandish it in front of her face. Her eyes fixed on an old cobweb in the high corner of the ceiling, watching it flutter in the draft like a listless ghost.

“Aren’t you going to ask if you’re going to die?” a rather burly man who looked older than his real age demanded of her still form. Raising a repulsed lip, he drew a leg back and kicked her in the ribs. The air was knocked out of her with an empty expulsion of air, her body recoiled on the ground like a forgotten toy.

“She’s no fun, J.D.,” a scrawny man complained, cinching up his dingy pants by his belt buckle. “She didn’t cry for long and she didn’t beg or anything. Her screaming was goddamn annoying, too.”

“Thought you liked that sorta shit.” J.D. watched her empty eyes for a moment; frowning at the slight chill he experienced shimmering down his spine. Her eyes looked past him, yet he felt as if she were maliciously planning to take him apart piece by piece. “The pain and blood turned you on.”

“Usually does.” He shrugged a bony shoulder and attempted to saunter like an arrogant script-kiddy to J.D. “This bitch was different, dunno how, either.”

“A cunt’s a cunt,” J.D. spat over his shoulder, sheathing his small blade in his cowboy boots and rising to his feet. He refused to see her lifeless, yet breathing body again, telling himself it disgusted him rather than frightened him. “Get over it. Let’s just go, nothin’ left to do here.”

“You mean we’re just gonna leave her?” The burly man looked down at her doubtfully, one hand on his hip above his faded and patched blue jeans. “She’ll get the cops on us.”

J.D. turned to his companions one by one, eyeing them before turning to walk into the waning sunlight. “She won’t tell. Even if she does, who’d believe her?”

She would never remember if she told anyone about the incident. As much as the event had scarred itself into her memories, the shock of it blurred out many details of that monstrous afternoon. She vaguely remembered the sun setting, its last rays burning the sky until it looked like an ocean of blood. The light filtered through the propped open window and shone in her eyes, slowly pulling her back to the present. She sat there, bound and bleeding, staring at the sun and wondered distantly why she felt so cold.

Eventually, she collected her body to herself and brought her feet to her buttocks. Inching painfully, she knelt for a while, shivering with cold and pain from dirt rubbing into her open wounds. A broken sob escaped from her dry throat and lips as she struggled to her feet to untie herself. Some of her fingernails had been scraped raw from scratching at the ties and made it difficult to undo some of the knots. Using her teeth, she got loose and stumbled out of the barn.

It was well past midnight and the full moon was out that summer. The sky was a clear eternity of silver dust on black-blue velvet. Small bugs and critters came out to play in the fields as she just stood there, brutalized and forsaken. She wouldn’t allow her family to see her like this; she couldn’t allow herself to bring shame to the old Chinese ways of kinship.

She walked slowly to the opposite direction from which she had come, through the rows of unripe strawberries and growing orange groves, walking away from lost innocence and the life that had died. The air was warm with a cold night breeze that rose gooseflesh on her exposed arms and legs. About half a mile away, a small water hole beckoned to her.

Slowly, the black mirror of the water came into view, hidden by straggly patches of weeds and wildflowers. The moon and stars reflected cloudlessly from its surface, in the glimmering speckles, she saw her future eternity. It promised her nothing but peace and tranquility, a strong balm of cold for her hurts on the inside and out. It promised that it wouldn’t betray her, it was the truth it promised her and it always kept its promises.

Without slowing her steps, she walked slowly into the small pool of dirty water that the livestock drank and bathed out of. Only deserved for a dirty girl like me, she thought. Only right, so apt. The water lapped sluggishly against her raw skin, the dirt and assorted muck scraping and sucking the blood out of her wounds. She didn’t wince at the pain as she made her way into the center of the pool where it was the deepest. Even there, the surface of the pool only reached her chest, so she bent forward at the waist, immersing her face into the water.

The cold of night had chilled the water to puncture whatever body heat she had remaining. She suffered one violent body shudder before calming into the numbness that the water evoked. Her eyes were closed and she spread her arms and legs onto the surface of the water, floating like she imagined an angel would over the heavens. Experimentally, she inhaled a deep draught of the water, inducing immediate spasms that fought with her will to bring her to the surface. She sobbed at her own body’s protest and inhaled again, only to feel faint and helplessly straggle to the surface of the waterhole.

She rolled onto her back to float aimlessly and opened her eyes to the filmy stars above. Her eyesight was shot as the foul water had irritated them, but her limbs were too weak to rub them away. Her lungs pumped out the water and begged for the night air with blistering pain. She breathed life in against her will, but tears would not emerge in her eyes. She coughed helplessly and gritted her teeth against the pain that shot out to her body from her chest.

She stared at the stars until they seemed to grow bigger in the sky, seeming to pulsate with a message only for her. She had her ears underneath the water and only heard the occasional echo of churning currents created by the breeze. She watched the stars, though, convinced that some were her friends and others her enemies and she counted more enemies than friends in their vast number. The moon was just a hanging flat circle of mindless creamy yellow glow before she heard it.

Must go away. Her body shivered and announced its rebellion against the cold prison, the words seeming to come from herself as well as the moon. Get out away. Go out and find.

Her thin body sloshed its way out from the water and onto the edge of the fields, first letting her travel only on her hands and knees until she had the strength to walk upright. Bitter clumps of rock dug their way into the bottoms of her bare feet, caking them with mud before she bled. Her remaining clothes stuck and chilled against her body, her heart pumping chilled blood through protesting veins. It was too much work to live.

That is why living is worth it. Living is pain.

Her blood and grit still stuck to her clothes and body, the crops still slapped her skin, but she moved on under the guidance of the moon. Barefoot, she stumbled onto the highway just as a large semi snarled past. The headlights illuminated a small sign that gave directions.

She stumbled to a stop before it on the side of the highway, tracing the letters with her eyes yet never reading it. Her arms hung lifelessly at her sides, two long items of indifferent flesh, her legs quickly becoming the same. Still, she stood there until she was done and walked past the green sign with white reflectors for letters.

This was not what she needed to find. She would know it when she met it.

“So I heard that you could do things.”

“Everyone can do ‘things’, sir. It’s called talent or ability, most the time it is skills. It just depends on how a body use it.”

He nodded, glancing at the diners behind her clacking their silverware on the heavy dishes in their hunger. The tinkling of an indoor fountain reached his ears from behind a wall division and several dangling chandeliers gently illuminated the five-star restaurant in high-class New York.

He looked down at his own plate and speared a steamed baby carrot with a silver fork. He eyed it for a moment, hoping he looked to be absorbing her words when he was really choosing his next words. Her merciless eyes made his back muscles spasm. “So, yeah, I’d like for you to do something for me.”

“Such as?” All business and calculating worth. Her placid brown eyes looked upon him without emotion, unwavering and intimidating in their unapologetic intelligence. He knew she would have no qualms killing him behind his back and he did not question how such a small slip of a girl could manage that. She seemed to extrude the aura of confident need; anything she wanted to get done, it would be completed without waste.

“The word around is that you know about computers,” he continued nervously, looking at the flower vase full of orchids that sat on the marble seat division behind her shoulder. “A hell of a lot, according to some people. I need you to do something for me that involves…” He hesitated, eyeing a passing waiter nervously. “It involves some hacking. Into a very uncharted terrain…”

Despite his obvious patronizing, she failed to have any inflection in her voice as she efficiently asked, “What kind of service would you like me to provide?”

He looked at her then, in a straightforward manner. His face was serious and intense, but his eyes flickered with desperation. “I would like you to take this machine down by any means possible. Money is not an issue, I must have this machine down by this week.”

She looked at him and idly noticed a bead of sweat on his upper lip. A grown man about to sell his soul to her for the price of a machine and she could not care less. She skewered a cut of her very rare steak on her fork, examined it impassively for a moment, and then slipped it into her mouth delicately, fluidly like a poem. She chewed methodically, not even pondering her next question. “What do you know of machine?”

“It’s called the Kieru.” He nervously picked up his goblet of wine and took a hurried sip. “I don’t know much… but what exactly do you need? I could try to find out…” Even to him, he sounded helpless and unconvincing.

She watched him a few moments more, seriously doubting he knew such specifics as what the IP address was, or the technical name was for this “Kieru.”

“My initial fee is five-hundred grand.” She reached for her wineglass and took a long sip, seeming to savor the quality red. “After that, you pay for any other expenses this job entails. If you have an issue with the money, then our dialogue is terminated.”

“No, no, Ms. Songblade.” The businessman had jumped at the price tag, but visibly panicked at her ultimatum. “Five-hundred thousand… is feasible.” He took a very wrinkled handkerchief from his jacket pocket and dabbed at his forehead and upper lip, mentally saying goodbye to his personal savings as well as risking his own employment. He would have to skim a substantial amount of money for this year’s profits, but this new machine was worth it. If it launched into operation on the internet, his own company was well as investments in stocks and bonds, would dissolve into industrial jokes around the coffee machine.

It would also send the corporation after his very life.

He looked up at her and shivered from the inner cold she extruded. His eyes had the look about them of a mongrel about to be put to sleep, but not without taking a few handlers after him. If things were perverse, he would have been seen as a hero. As the physical world stood in her mind, he was just another unwired animal.

“Then I will give you my account number for you to transfer the funds to.” She set aside her wine and stood up from her chair, the designer down shimmering and flowing about her body like weeping willow branches. “Once the funds are in place, Mr. Stalkton, I will contact you to confirm the delivery.”

They all sat so high up on their pedestal of sovereignty that they had left their server without ardent guardians.

In the days of old time hacking, when Mitnick and Roscoe were underground heroes to the very few internet deviants, the public barely knew about the system of wires and information known as the internet today. Former phone phreaks now swarmed into BBS’s and other new social systems. These days the real hacking was done alone, in silence, and in perfect anonymity.

What stood before her was a giant monolith of the most advanced software and hardware available to the wealthy few corporations in the world. It towered over her vision, a glowing construct of faster than light data transmissions and the hum of power. She sniffed around and realized that the security was quite impressive, consisting of the latest firewalls, traps, and trace programs. She was a cybernetic treasure hunter standing in the face of the most powerful pharaoh’s mastaba. It demanded her recognition, respect, and fear.

Instead, she felt excitement thread through her physical body, making her gasp and tingle in near arousal. She wanted this machine, this beautiful work of art, this potent hit of her personal drug. Watching its processes work before the thin membrane of her eyelids, she felt its power stroke her skin. An image of working with this machine as her body made her smile.

Alas, it was not hers to command and envy and spite lifted a corner of her lips into a snarl of disgust. Her cerebral id lusted for its downfall and her complete self suddenly followed. It was impulsive, but suddenly essential to destroy this prototype machine. It was a newborn that could either revolutionize the world or be dusted under the carpet like so many others. To have the power to decide the fate of an information system was the only elation Songblade knew. In these fragments of time, she acquired a spirit, a passion to live and to destroy, and a greed that told her she was alive.

The interface between her computer and the target machine wavered in her vision, waiting to start its real work. With a flicker of her mind, she sent the commands to let her inside, using the login and password from her client. The information bounced from her connection to his home’s connection, allowing her access to the basic files of the operating system. She hunted down a hidden file with the eyesight of an owl for a field mouse, descending on the shadow file and exposing its viscera in a matter of seconds. She emerged from the file covered with its scented blood and the root powers over the server.

Songblade smiled with her rudimentary skullcap of wires and sensors strapped over her forehead, temples, and base of her neck. With this contraption, she was simultaneously connected to her moderate powered computer and to the phone jack in her small studio apartment and joined to the world in which she had complete control over. When she closed her eyes, her field of vision was the monitor, her mind the place of keyboard and mouse. In the place she experienced, she no longer had a body or one true surrounding. The infinite existence was her reality with all the possibilities she could make exist by mere imagination and all existing truth could be changed or destroyed by the same power.

As intoxicating as her world of wires was, she never forgot her purpose in the years since she had heard the moon. It haunted her at night as she stared out her window. She never drew the blinds or curtains closed wherever she slept and she could never fall asleep without watching the dark sky. It gave her a reason to keep on living, drove her to take risks, but also tranquilized her into a peace she likened to death. It promised her a forever once she found what it wanted her to discover. Unaccountably, she had faith that she would be guided to this ultimate mystery and lived in complete patience.

Quickly, but with single-minded thoroughness, she masked her identity by bouncing her signal from server to server around the world, impossibly keeping her connection clear. Satisfied with that part of feinting any tracking programs, she gave a fierce shake of her mind, she scrambled her IP number and slid into the directory she needed.

Pretty, she thought as she scanned the interior boot files and deleted the single file needed for operation. It was almost a shame to bring the creation down, but she watched as the progression of its erasure reach 100%.

Suddenly, her mental screen blinked blank and she gasped at the break in connection. She snapped open her eyes in time to see one line blinking into existence on her computer monitor, frozen in white text on the blue screen of crashing death.

Peek-a-boo. I see you.

As soon as the message disappeared and her computer shut off automatically, she felt a draft behind her in the room and a chill of awareness licked her spine. Before she could react, a blinding lance of pain lanced through her skull and she blacked out slumped over her keyboard.

Start program 0827. Connected at jseo.calkrulnex.net:5550, port 16.

Session start: Wed Dec 12 08:05:27 1997

*** Now talking in #default

* Eozarth blinks.. we get the whole range of swears on our tv

<Eozarth> are your countries really all that anal???

<Dark_Wolf> Quebec is pretty good for uncensored swears :)

<Eozarth> ...

<Argor> eoz.. yep :)

* Eozarth grins.. good to hear it dw

<Sylver> Eoz, yes, we are the epiphany of rectal dysfunctions.

*** SBX (69120@slbne16p24.fxaxrx.com.ca) has left #default

*** Now talking in #110380

#110380 created on Wed Dec 12 07:05:27 1997

*** DeAtH (user@unknown.com) has joined #110380

<SBX> What?

<DeAtH> Hello, Songblade. So very nice to meet your acquaintance.

<SBX> You have five seconds.

<DeAtH> Let’s play a game.

<SBX> No, thank you. Good day.

<DeAtH> Not so fast, Ms. Songblade. How did you like your flowers?

<SBX> Some people would call them nice. Time is up.

<DeAtH> Do you remember Sanger? Lovely little town, wasn’t it?

<SBX> I would not know.

<DeAtH> A small story that I have learned in my travels, if you will. A little over five years ago, a woman was reported missing by her family. A girl, actually, a teenager. A few truckers that drove though that small farming town reported a girl fitting that description walking on the highway, yet oddly making no signs of wanting to hitch a ride.

<DeAtH> She remained undiscovered and her family soon gave up the search and reconciled with the loss of a beloved, innocent girl. The town mourned the loss of a life just barely begun. All so tragic, all so typical, all so humorous and trite.

<DeAtH> The excitement wasn’t over for the little town of Sanger, though. About a month and a half later, three men were found mutilated out on some cornfield near the outskirts of town. It was a very bloody scene, all three of them had been so horribly maimed that the authorities had trouble identifying the bodies. Some wild dogs had already investigated the corpses so they were partially eaten in the sun.

<DeAtH>  But some wounds indicated that blunt objects did the damage, almost resembling human fingernails in the wound size and shape. Ripped apart, it would seem by someone with an odd amount of strength.

<DeAtH> Two of the men were barely worth mentioning. They were bachelor truckers who spent more time on the road than in a home. Losers. The other one, though, was apparently the vanished girl’s boyfriend.

<DeAtH> The locals wrote it off as some Hollywood love story gone awry. It was the talk of the town for quite a few weeks, the tale of love, lust, jealousy and blood. The town ladies swooned at the romance and shuddered with the gore. It’s surprising that the story wasn’t novelized into fiction and turned into a television movie.

<DeAtH> Heard enough, my little Songblade?

<SBX> Hm? Oh yes, you were talking.

<DeAtH> Point is that she is you and you are her. I can and will broadcast your identity to any who will listen and your high and mighty days will be over.

<SBX> Do as you wish. It will eventually be useless.

<DeAtH> You wouldn’t still be here if what I said wasn’t the truth. I still have even more information. I know who you are working for. I know better than to fuck with them, but I think I’ll just fuck with you. For now. I would like to talk to you about monetary compensation for you later, in exchange for my silence.

<SBX> Just to inform you, those things never work out like they do in the movies. For now, I have tasks to perform. Good day.

“I need to see Frette.”

The secretary looked up, startled by the demand. “Sir? There is no one by the name of Frette here at—”

“Don't hand me that bullshit, lady.” The man puffed on the cigar held by his teeth. His paunch stomach pressed against the heavy steel reception desk, his old tailored suit barely holding his proportions in line. Huge diamond rings glimmered on his fingers as he pointed rudely at the woman. “I know who he is and I demand to see him.”

Beneath the desk, the secretary pressed a little red button, setting a small alarm off at security and in another room. “I'm sorry, sir, there really is no one by the name of Frette in this building. If you will please wait a moment, I can —”

A fist the size of a ham smashed onto the higher level of the desk, sending a ripple through the woman's mug of coffee. Leaves on a large potted plant shook on the top as well, sending a flower petal fluttering to the ground. “You can call someone who knows what the hell they're doing. I'll report you for this, bitch, and you'll lose this job so fast, you—”

“Excuse me, may I help you?”

The round man spun around to meet the hard black eyes of a taller man. His face held no expression as he assessed the shorter businessman at his leisure. The tall gentleman's dark blonde hair was combed ruthlessly back against his skull, revealing a high forehead and strong jaw. A thin pair of glasses perched on his elegantly long nose and reflected the slight hesitation in the bully's demeanor.

“Yeah, you can. Tell Frette that I need to see him now.”

“And you are...?”

“Stalkton, George Stalkton from Stalkton & Company. I know he's here so don't even try to--”

“This way.” The tall man turned smoothly on his heel, making Stalkton furious by not only interrupting his tirade, but also giving Stalkton his back. Without much choice, Stalkton followed the gentleman.

He led the portly man down a short corridor of elevators, the walls subtle pink granite. The sense of elegant style and financial power set Stalkton’s teeth on edge. With the bottom eyelid twitching, he watched the man in front of him, the easy grace and underlying ferocity that he wanted for himself was unconscious in this man. It made people fear him, and Stalkton hated being intimidated.

The man stopped at the last elevator and pushed the up button, his fingers sporting manicured nails. Stalkton's own hand started to twitch.

“Who are you?” He assumed his pompous stance, standing stiffly with his shoulder back. Unluckily, his gut rolled forth and strained the top button of his trousers.

The gentleman found Stalkton unworthy of a downward glance. He bided his own time before replying in a flat tone, “I am Simone.”

Stalkton almost growled. “Simone what?”

The gentleman simply stared forward as the elevator chimed and the reflective metal doors slid open. “That is all you need to know.”

“Don’t even play with me, buddy,” Stalkton said as he unconsciously followed the gentleman into the elevator. “All I need to know is where Frette is waiting for me.”

After depressing the button for the twelfth floor, Simone finally looked at Stalkton's glaring eyes in the reflection on the door. Even though Stalkton felt like squirming under the inquisition, he held his ground, willing himself not to lower his gaze to the man's impeccably knotted tie. Simone remained silent. Stalkton shivered, the man’s detached gaze reminding him of another stare a few nights past.

The tableau ended when the elevator halted and the doors opened into a mildly lit foyer. On the right side of the elevator, a security guard in black stood at attention, surprisingly trim and alert. Simone nodded faintly to the guard and the man relaxed, not even acknowledging Stalkton with a look.

The twelfth floor had the same layout of the main lobby, except private office rooms cut into the main foyer, making a long corridor of homey wooden doors with small gold plated name plaques. Set in front of and a little to the left of the long corridor was a semi-circle desk with a prim secretary sitting behind it. She looked up, her eyes widening in a small signal of fear as she saw Simone stalking towards her.

Simone stopped in front of her desk, asking her a short, simple question underneath his breath. Stalkton strained to hear him, but was too far behind him. Instead, Stalkton took darting glances at the dim, but efficient surroundings he was in and was startled to note that the offices were quiet. Phones were not ringing, people were not talking, even the air conditioning did not hum, but people seemed to be working industriously behind desks.

Sounds are just muffled here, he thought rationally. Irrationally, the thought did not comfort his nervousness.

The woman nodded, glancing nervously at Stalkton before lowering her eyes quickly. “He’s waiting for you in conference room 3, sir.”

“Thank you,” Simone replied, impeccably polite. “This way, Mr. Stalkton.”

Stalkton’s leather dress shoes clunked without echoes down the long corridor along with Simone’s as they made their way down to the very last room. With every step, every dead thump of his step, his bravado leaked from his chest, leaving his heart beating wildly with fear.

He had merely used Frette’s name as a scare tactic to find out what happened to the Kieru machine. His partners in sabotage had grown nervous at Ms. Songblade’s lack of correspondence in the week since she was hired. They sent Stalkton into the lion’s den and he belatedly realized he was being set up as a scapegoat staring at Simone’s tailored back. They had only gotten the name of “Frette” through corporate head ghost stories about the Fader Corporation. In all truth, Stalkton thought that Simone was the true CEO of Fader and he experienced a strong, panicked urge to run down the corridor and back into the elevator no matter what charges his partners would throw at him. Unfortunately, his legs lacked the survival instincts and continued to follow Simone.

They approached the double wooden doors at the end of the hallway and Simone rapped against it once before opening it without an answering call. He swept the door behind him and gave Stalkton a look to enter ahead of him. Stalkton remained in his place, taken aback by the dark interior of the room. Simple waist-high lamps with blue shades stood sentry at each corner of the room, leaving the conference table without light.

Stalkton hesitated long enough for a chuckle to emerge from the darkness of the conference room. “No need to fear, Mr. Stalkton. I don’t bite.”

The voice was soothing enough, but the prey in Stalkton squealed in terror at the scent of its predator. A strong hand fell on Stalkton’s shoulder and he jumped into the room, allowing Simone to ease behind him and close the door with a firm latching of its lock. Stalkton twisted around to see Simone staring at him with bottomless black eyes.

A soft slithering sound of silk filled the quiet and Stalkton turned back to watch a shadowed figure move at the end of the conference table. There was a small click and a desk lamp blinked to attention.

Stalkton stared at the casually dressed man in surprise. Dressed in a black silk shirt with his hair tousled around his shoulders, Frette appeared as nothing more than a rebellious youth. In truth, his pale complexion, stark features, and brooding demeanor gave Stalkton the impression of his own son, an online role-play nut without much attachment to the real world.

“What is this? Some kind of joke?” Stalkton regained a measure of his daring and turned to glare at Simone. “I demand to see Frette!”

“You disbelieve in what you see then, my dear Stalkton.” The man beneath the glow of the lamp gave him a smirk for his bullying. “I am Frette.”

Stalkton had the audacity to guffaw; his old fear nothing but a faded memory. It was all some sort of joke put upon him by his co-workers, he thought with contempt. “You are a boy, not a businessman. I’m not going to waste anymore of my time here time here.”

He turned again to Simone, expecting the man to move out of his way. Instead, Simone raised a manicured hand to Stalkton’s chest and shoved him backwards. Hard. Still, the fear did not return, only a righteous indignation.

Before Stalkton could attempt to browbeat the man, Frette rose up from his chair and returned to the shadows. “I can see you never were a threat, Stalkton. Just another worm in the woodwork,” he said, a soft voice in the darkness. Casually, he continued, his voice coming ever closer. “By the way, your attempts to hack into our computer failed. Admittedly, it wasn’t very easy, but we stopped it.”

Stalkton paled, but remained composed aside from a thin layer of sweat underneath his hair. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Frette chuckled, moving behind Stalkton and passing to his other side, a disturbing presence. “It’s funny how many times that denial has been flung at me. Too bad it has never worked.”

“Are you going to press charges?” The fear came back in full force; thoughts of playing the innocent flew from his head, replaced by images of jail and musty prisoners. Stalkton was well ensconced into his life of luxury and leaving it was as close to a death sentence as he could imagine.

“No.” Frette returned to his seat under the light, his eyes flashing more yellow than green for one moment. “But you can expect to be in my service for quite some time.”

Before Stalkton could respond, an Asian woman dressed in dark blue surfaced from the shadows behind him and grabbed Stalkton from behind with surprising strength. Anticipating a struggle, she tightened her arm around his neck, cutting off his air enough for him to lose consciousness. With a nod from Frette, Simone and Kusanagi disappeared into the shadows, the soft click of a hidden door signaling their exit.

Without further ado, Frette turned to the wall opposite the hidden door. Merielle emerged from the shadows, her two hands resting gently on Songblade’s thin shoulders. He smiled and calculated correctly. “Our newest acquisition, Merielle?”

Merielle stood like a pillar of dubious support next to Songblade as the girl looked passively at Frette. “Yes, sir. She just arrived this morning. I believe Mr. Simone wrote a full report and placed it on your desk.”

Frette nodded. “The hacker without an age, real name, or history,” Frette remarked offhandedly as Merielle stepped away to allow him to look his fill as he addressed Songblade directly. “There had been very few pictures of you, and even those were grainy or faded to a blur. You can be as invisible as a spy, yet you use no physical means to control your identity; it is done all through the wires. Even the real sex of Songblade was even debatable until we tracked you down. How are you, m’dear?”

She eyed him silently with dead eyes. He chuckled deep in his throat, sincerely amused. “Ever the antisocial butterfly, I see. Not even concerned about your welfare?”

After a short pause, she replied, “You want me for something, otherwise, you would not have caught me and brought me here.”

Her blunt statement brought a small smile to Frette’s lips. “You have proven my theories about you correct, Ms. Songblade. May I interest you in a business proposition?”

“5544 Settler Street, you’re five houses south of it now.”

Songblade watched through a small infrared camera mounted on Kusanagi’s ear as the assassin parked a block away from the target and lipped out of the unmarked vehicle. It was the time of early morning when the moon had set and the sun was still shy of peaking his head from the horizon. The streetlamps had just flickered out from above and Kusanagi melted into the sudden shadows.

A veil of melancholy settled over Songblade as she watched her fellow Dæmon perform her specialized task. Envy slowly emerged from Songblade’s heart for Kusanagi’s vigor and single focus of will in her task. She was willing to wager that Kusanagi never felt sad. How could someone be depressed over being such a powerful physical force?

Kusanagi also had Trevor. Trevor devoted what time he had between visions and the quality crack to Kusanagi. Songblade was not exactly sure what they did in their time together in Trevor’s apartments, but a form of communication was definitely evident. Songblade had absolutely no one to talk to for humans were too emotional to trust. With her special skills, the only thing she could call her friends were machines and the wires that connected them.

Tool again. Always was, always will be. Are we not, Kusanagi-san? She imagined her thoughts could reach the mute assassin as she quickly made her way silently over rooftops. The camera barely shook as the woman landed and leapt and Songblade, again, wanted Kusanagi’s physical freedom.

“Always tools for men,” she unconsciously whispered into the dark empty room of the laboratory. A hulk of metal and circuitry barely resembling a helmet covered the top half of her head, sensory nodes suctioned to her temples and neck. Her equipment had certainly improved since she had begun her search for meaning. It was her payment to be the information whore for the Fader Corporation.

Kusanagi alighted on a tree that stood in the middle of a large house’s back yard. In the dark, the white exterior of the house glowed a dull blue, the windows reflecting the crescent moon hanging in the sky. An abandoned plastic swing set sat in a corner of the back yard, a portable large fountain rested with still waters on the other side of the yard. She made a slight signal with gloved hands before the camera, indicating that she was at the designated house.

Songblade called up the building schematics of the house from the city’s housing department. It was quite fortunate that upgrading information systems also meant connection to the internet. Songblade spoke into the headset’s microphone. “Upstairs to the left of you. The bathroom.”

A black, gloved hand came into view on Songblade’s screen as Kusanagi lifted the small window of the bathroom and slid inside like a snake. She made no noise as she landed in the tub, closed the window again, and crouched, listening to the house for movement. It was well past three in the morning and the only thing audible was the wind blowing between houses on the block.

“Out the hallway, second door to the right. He sleeps with it slightly ajar.”

Kusanagi moved forward into the hallway. She was so trained that every motion she made, she was conscious of. Her clothing skimmed against each other without a sound. She seemed to control the very air around her.

Knowing that Kusanagi was close, Songblade leaned back into her chair, closed her eyes, and sunk into the video and audio input from Kusanagi. She could almost feel that her hands were Kusanagi’s hands, so vivid was her equipment.

With the video, she noticed that the boy’s room was much like any other youth’s. The walls were covered with posters from rock bands and action movies. The floor was littered with soiled clothing and candy wrappers. His own window was shut and locked, the central cooling system vent surfaced next to his door. There was a large corner desk near the window, his bed laid right across the other wall.

As done many times before, Kusanagi moved over to the desk first. Luckily, the computer was already on. Kusanagi dislodged the mouse with a finger, prompting the screen saver to blink off and reveal an active screen. Songblade chuckled under her breath, the boy had remained online to download cracked software and music files onto his computer.

This is too easy. “Go to the flower in the corner, click it. In the user information, it will have his IP number. Let me see it.”

Seconds later, Songblade disconnected briefly with Kusanagi, weaving through his inadequate firewalls and accessing his hard drive. She searched through his directories and programs, hunting down how and where he got his information, her probes quick and unsettling.

Upon breaking into the program histories, though, she knew he could not have hacked anything. He obviously held as much computer skill as the starting newbie, getting hacking scripts from the internet and cheating, learning the absolute minimal code.

She looked closer at the base lines of code, murmuring to herself as threads of commands had been deleted only a few hours ago. Someone else had been in here and covered his or her tracks very well. The data would not be missed until the next boot.

She finally set a chain of commands in his windows registry files, deleting all logs from all his program files. Satisfied, she flicked a mental finger and his system crashed, all traces of her presence would be erased, but the files would be permanently gone.

Songblade popped out of the dead connection, it jolted her like the finale of a roller coaster ride. She held onto the thin connection she had with Kusanagi and thickened it. She dived immediately, feeling at ease with a connection than without.

Kusanagi had just stepped across the room to the boy’s bed, watching him for any signs of wakefulness, Songblade’s part of the mission complete in a matter of seconds. The boy was sleeping quietly and the moonlight shining from his windows illuminated his face in perfect light. He was no more than seventeen; pimples still pocked his cheeks and nose, an eyebrow ring shone on his forehead, and the top part of his hair was bleached orange-blonde. The usual appearance of a wannabe hacker or a punk, but to have compiled so much information about her…

Kusanagi reached down, gently turning the boy’s head to the side, exposing the tender flesh of his left temple. Fortunately, he grew his hair somewhat long, the darker strands of hair whispered over his ears. Both Kusanagi and Songblade observed him sleeping for a moment before Kusanagi reached into her belt pouch.

He let out a soft breath of air before Kusanagi plunged a long razor sharp needle into his temple. His body jerked once, a gasp choked within his throat, but his eyes remained closed, shut tight against the intrusion. As soon as his body stilled, Kusanagi rotated her hand gently, feeling slight resistance as she twisted the needle around his skull, cutting more and more of his brain. Soon, his breathing stopped and his face relaxed into the pose of sleep.

Carefully, Kusanagi removed the long needle from his skull, leaving just a drop of blood at the surface of his scalp. Morbidly, she eased the thin blanket over his shoulders and stepped back, giving Songblade one final picture of a boy who got caught in something bigger than him.

Songblade disconnected with the assassin as Kusanagi made her way back out of the house. Songblade removed her cranial e-net and closed her eyes, clearing her mind of emotional concerns to concentrate on the enigma.

There had been vast amounts of data about her as well as her history on the boy’s hard drive that he had not revealed to her during their chat, but she was sure that he was not the one who tracked her down. His other logs showed conversations with other internet juveniles, all of them boasting about fictional exploits and using typing symbols as letters. Most likely, it had been someone else that was “DeAtH”. The boy simply was not up to the professional it would have taken to track information she deleted.

Songblade sighed softly, faintly weary, remembering the boy’s peaceful death pose. “Just another deletion.”

Author's note:
November 1998 to July 19, 2000. I start things really early and jump around a lot. Much thanks to my friends Justin and Mark for giving me a look into computers.

Book Inspiration: Hafner, Katie and John Markoff. Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier. Touchstone Books, 1995. Pb. ISBN # 0684818620

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Coven of Angels copyright (©) 2000 Sylvia Leung. All rights reserved.