I had snuck into the General Motors system through a back door a friend had given me, looking for the payroll node. GM had stiffed me for a little money a couple jobs back, and I was finally getting around to collecting. Because that's the kind of guy I am, I decided not to bother the upper echelons with my petty gripe, and would just take the funds owed me myself.
I started to notice the weird lighting after entering a data line junction. Instead of the sharp lines of gold and white light common to the GM system, a definite purple-orange tinge had started touching everything. Curious, I waved my computer generated tricorder around, running the appropriate sensor programs, but got no anomalous readings. Shrugging, I stepped onto a datapath.
The moment I entered the node - an SPU - I was approached by a cadaverous looking figure, dressed in a style that had gone out over a century ago, despite an attempted comeback in the early 20's. I didn't bother trying to sleaze my way past it, instead pulling out a white bag filled with brightly colored candy, noticing absently that the strange lighting had given them a somewhat unappetizing complexion.
"Hello, can you tell me where I am?" I asked pleasantly, offering the figure the bag. The ice took a jelly baby, ate it, and answered, "Finances." I let out a contented sigh, both at the success of my program, and the discovery of my objective. The sentry, meanwhile, faded away. I tucked the bag back into its pocket, and unlimbered the tricorder.
A few moments later, I located the files I was looking for. I quickly began the process of transferring several thousand nuyen to a bank account that would exist only long enough for me to get the money on a certified credstick.
I don't know what went wrong; maybe I wasn't being as careful with the transfer as I'd thought, or maybe my deception program hadn't fooled anything but me. In any event, the unusual lighting started to pulsate in the middle of the transfer, and I began to hear some weird noises, like some sort of chanting. I didn't want to abort the transfer, so I did my best to ignore the sounds, silently urging my deck to hurry up.
Something suddenly materialized in the node with me. I was pretty sure it was ice of some kind, but it matched none of the standard images for attack or blaster, and I didn't want to believe it could be black ice. It was humanoid, vaguely, but with feelers covering it's face, absent only on the octopus-like beak. It had no hands, but rather tentacles waving at the end of its arms. And it was huge, twice the size of my own icon.
I aborted the transfer, and ran my scanner. If the tricorder hadn't been part of my icon, I would have dropped it. It *was* black ice, and it was coming right at me. I immediately kicked my deck up to full power, and had the satisfaction of watching the ice slow slightly as my added processing power started to overload the node. Then I ran, diving for the datapath, loading all the attack and defense programs I could carry.
I entered the junction, and felt like I'd run into molasses, my deck's presence overloading the node almost to the point of immobility. I watched with morbid fascination as the attacking program entered the node after me. The chanting was much louder now, and I could distinguish words in it, though none of them made any sense to me. Over and over it went, "Ya, Ya, Cthulhu Ftagen!" Before it had a chance to attack, I ducked down another pathway, emerging in yet another SPU.
Things were a little faster here, and my attack program finished loading just as my pursuer caught up. I jammed my hand into a pocket, pulled out the phaser I found there, and let the beastie have a blast. The blue beam lashed out and dealt the ice a solid hit, which seemed to do no damage. I ran it again, putting everything I had into the coding, trying to find a weakness in my attacker's programming. The beam sizzled towards the ice, hitting it, and producing a minuscule burn mark. Before I could try it a third time, one of the ice's tentacled hands lashed out and grabbed my wrist. I let out a scream of pure agony as fire flashed through my nervous system. Frantic, I dug into my coat pocket, searching for the rectangular shape that was there no matter what programs I had loaded. As the ice reared back to strike again, I pulled out the small black box, flipped open its gold lid, and yelled, "Beam me up, Scotty!"
I found myself back in the real world just in time to see Raven yank the plug connecting me to the phone jack. I felt awful. My throat was raw from screaming, I was covered in sweat, and my head felt like every single piece of cyberware it contained was white hot. And that's a lot of cyberware.
"Thanks, Raven," I croaked as the mage turned anxious eyes on me. And I meant it. If I hadn't been able to jack out, Raven's more direct method would have saved me a lot of grief, though it would have given me a really nasty headache.
"What the hell happened?" she demanded. She pointed at the portable EKG. "Your brainwave patterns almost broke the machine a few seconds ago, and that scream didn't sound like you were in control."
"I ran into some black ice," I muttered, reaching for the glass of scotch I'd left on the table. It had been meant to toast my success--now I just hoped it would help cool off my head. "Hey, is there any smoke coming out of my ears?"
"Not this time," she retorted.
That was a relief. The last time she'd sat with me, I had taken a nasty hit from some blaster ice, and had had to get my internal cyberdeck surgically repaired. Fortunately our Mr. Johnson had set me up with a cybertech who could handle the job. He'd even picked up the bill, but then, I had gotten the data, fried chips and everything.
"That's the beauty of black ice," I sighed, sipping my Glentivet. "It doesn't do anything to your deck, just the deckhead using it."
"Well, in your case, that's the same thing," Raven retorted, pulling out a fetish. "You're the perfect combination of deck and deckhead. Now hold still, and I'll try and fix up the damage."
I closed my eyes and tried to relax as the mage went to work. As her soothing chant filled my ears, I turned my attention back to the ice I'd encountered. What the drek was it supposed to represent? Usually the programs represented some easily recognizable symbol of death--a samurai, the Grim Reaper, a Sherman tank, that sort of thing. But this had looked like something out of an old monster flick. It wasn't beyond the realm of possibility that GM had gone in for the monster look, but it didn't really fit in with their corporate image. Maybe it was meant to scare deckers. Of course, it hadn't scared me, outside of the fact that it had been black ice, but then, I'm the Highlander, decker extraordinaire. Nothing scares me. I allowed myself to be lulled to sleep by Raven's murmuring voice.
I was back in the system, trying to download the money. Suddenly the chanting started again. Cursing, I aborted the transfer, and headed out of the node. If I could lose the program in the system, I could double back and finish the job. I made it to the data line junction, and froze. The black ice was already there, waiting for me. I lunged by it, and dove through a datapath. I dodged through several nodes, trying to shake my pursuer. But the chanting continued, growing louder and louder until it was deafening,
"Ya, ya, Cthulhu ftagen! Ya, ya Cthulhu ftagen!" I whirled around, and saw the huge figure approaching. I dug in my pocket for the communicator, pulling it out as the ice swung. Dodging to one side, I flicked my wrist, the motion that would open the gold lid. It stayed down. I stared at it. This wasn't actually a box with a lid attached to hinges that could freeze up--this was an icon that was supposed to perform a function when given the proper commands. I tried again. Still nothing. Dodging yet another attack, I tried to pry the lid open, spewing Gaelic invectives at the defective programming. As the unnatural horror reared back for a third strike, I got it open. I screamed "Beam me up, Scotty!" and jacked out just as the tentacles descended.
I was back in my motel room, heart pounding, breath rasping. Raven was nowhere to be seen. Where had she gone? I hadn't sent her away. Unplugging the cord from my datajack, I staggered to my feet. I went into the little bathroom and splashed some cold water on my face. As I was drying off, there was a noise from the living area. Thinking Raven had returned, I stepped out, ready to chew her out for leaving her post.
I froze. Raven was still gone. Nobody had come. The noise was coming from the datacord still plugged into the wall. As I stared at it in mounting terror, it writhed back and forth, as if possessed by some hideous intelligence. Then, as I watched, paralyzed, the end attached to the wall started to swell, and the swelling moved towards the unplugged end of the cord, "as if something was traveling through it and was trying to get out! That galvanized me. I dove across the room to where my coat was, and dug out my Colt Manhunter. Not even bothering to plug in the smartgun link, I fired at the phone jack, sending heavy slugs into the plastic plate and the wall surrounding it. One shot even severed the cord. The swelling vanished instantly.
As I stood there, panting, I noticed a noise, a chanting, coming from the ruined phone jack. As I stared in disbelieving horror, a tentacle emerged from the wall, then an arm, and a head, until the black ice construct I had seen in the General Motors system, the computer coded icon that could only exist in the virtual reality of the matrix, was standing before me. The chanting filled my ears, covering the sound of the Colt being fired in an utter frenzy of terror, covering the sound of my screams as my gun clicked empty and the creature stood unharmed, almost covering the sounds of my name being called...
"Highlander! Tom, can you hear me? Tom, wake up!" I was in my chair in the motel room, with Raven shaking me so hard my teeth were banging together. I sat up, wildly looking towards the phone jack. It was undamaged, the cord lying where it had fallen after Raven had yanked it out.
I heard liquid being poured, and turned in time to see Raven thrusting a glass full of scotch at me. "Drink this," she ordered, and I was only too happy to obey. It was only after I had downed a couple gulps that my hand stopped shaking, and I noticed my headache was gone.
"Thanks, for the drink, and the heal," I said. "How long was I out?"
"The healing took an hour, and I finished about fifteen minutes ago. That must have been one mother of a nightmare: I couldn't wake you, and I thought you were going to rupture something. Are you okay?" Her face and voice showed her concern as she looked me over.