Body Electric

Chapter One

Vic Barnhardt slammed on the brakes of her black BMW. Adrenaline surged into a gasp. She'd almost hit him! The guy in torn denims screamed something she couldn't understand as he thumped on her hood with the wooden handle of his sign. It said, "McIntire Makes Monopoly Money," in childish letters. The metal dented with a thunk that echoed through the roadster over the shouting outside. Behind him a human chain of burly Visimorph security guards bulged as the crowd of protesters surged toward her. She leaned on her horn and stabbed at the button that locked the doors. Where did these crazies come from? Hundreds of them, their mouths twisted in anger, shook their signs or their fists. A brown-uniformed guard jerked the guy back by his collar. Vic gunned into the parking garage. The release of PuppetMaster 12.1 was more than a week away. This was getting out of hand.

The BMW squealed around a corner and Vic jammed it into a space on the lower floor. She didn't have time for this nonsense. This morning's rain had gummed up Sepulveda Boulevard and made her late for a meeting with her boss, Hugo Walz. Since she hadn't bothered to show for last week's meeting, she'd better at least pretend to tow the line. She swung out of the car and slammed the door. It would be hours before she could begin work on what she really cared about. She chafed at that as she heaved her backpack over her plaid flannel shirt. Jodie called to her, as always. Vic steadied her breathing before she strode out across the parking garage, her Doc Martins squeaking against the concrete, the smell of oil and rubber hanging in the brisk March air. Naming her project after Jodie Foster seemed right. A strong woman who bucked authority to do what she wanted. Vic managed a grin. Yeah.

Coming out of the garage into a biting wind, she shielded her eyes against the late afternoon sun. Several protesters ran past her through the narrow alleyway. How did they get past the security guards? Vic swung around to see the chain link fence at the end of the alley sagging under a wall of people. Her pulse revved up. This wasn't funny. The shouts turned triumphant as the fence crashed.

Vic was overwhelmed in seconds. Any hope of a sprint to the employee entrance was dashed. Vic panicked. She struggled against the tide of jeans and flowered dresses. Elbows and knees and protest signs all prodded her. She yelped in pain and shoved back. They weren't people anymore, but screeching bits of hair and flesh. "Let me through!" she shouted. Pointless. Hers was just another voice in the cacophony of screams.

A flash of white helmet and black chin strap announced the arrival of the police, but that only intensified the surge around her. Vic couldn't breathe. Pain shot down through her spine as a placard connected with her head. The crowd swirled in sickening streams of color. Her knees hit the pavement. Someone stepped on her and someone else. Visions of soccer fans trampling people to death flashed through her brain.

A grip on her arm heaved her upright as though she was being pulled out of quicksand. "You all right?" a bass voice shouted over the tumult. She found herself clutched against a hard body wearing jeans and a plaid shirt not much different than her own. She looked up. Maybe it was the blow to her head, but the crowd seemed distant even as it jostled them. Intense blue-green eyes slanted down like they were sad. A week's beard hid the bottom half of his face. One blunt hand raked through thick hair worn too long and pushed it off his face. She'd seen pictures: John Reston, nemesis of Visimorph.

"Hold on," he yelled and slung her across his hip like a child. She clung to shoulders she could feel were massive underneath the plaid flannel, her breasts pressed to his barrel chest. He waded through the chaos, clearing a path with his other arm. He didn't seem to care whose head he cracked. Police and demonstrators alike gave way. Vic felt his body under hers, brawny muscles, unrelentingly male. Jeez, Vic, she commanded herself, get a grip.

When they were clear of the crowd, he continued down the alleyway at a trot, oblivious to her breathless squirming. "Put me down," she managed. He turned the corner and set her on a loading dock with an unceremonious thunk. Somehow he ended up standing between her parted thighs. Both panted. The screaming, the whining of the sirens seemed a long way off.

She meant to thank him. After all, he had probably saved her life. But wasn't he responsible, too? He was the driving force behind these protests. The way he had just hauled her around like so much luggage...and here he stood staring at her like she was some kind of circus animal. "Maniac! What gives you the right to stage attacks on people just trying to go to work?"

"Sorry," he muttered, his mouth turning rueful. "This got out of hand."

"Out of hand?" Her gazed flicked over him. He looked like some Greenpeace geek with that long hair. His jeans were torn at the knee. Then there were those eyes. And the mouth. What kind of lips hid under that beard? She couldn't quite see. His undershirt peeked from his flannel shirt at his neck. It was the kind that would leave those powerful arms bare. Something in her wondered what he looked like without the flannel. She pushed that something down. " people are crazy!"

"I might say the same," he growled. "You're helping Bob McIntire hold the world's computers for ransom. Every time he issues an upgrade, everybody has to repurchase something they already own just to function in society. Don't you have a conscience?"

"And you brought the justice department down on him last year for anti-trust. Don't you care that destroying Visimorph would make the whole economy implode?" She parted the gel that slicked back her short brown hair and fingered the lump that was beginning to make her head ache.

"You're bleeding." Reston touched her jaw to turn her head with callused fingers.

Vic shuddered away as though she'd been shocked by a taser. "I'm fine."

"You're not fine." He slid a blunt, strong hand behind her neck and touched her chin again. Vic's hands trembled. Must be the adrenaline wearing off. "You could use a stitch or two and a whiskey chaser for some Advil."

All Vic could do was stare at him, maybe because he was way too close. Did he have to be standing between her knees, for Christ's sake? And why didn't he move his hand off her neck?

"Don't get hostile. I'm not asking for a date." Unexpectedly, he grinned. It made his eyes crinkle up like they'd never been sad. As he pulled his hand away, he came up with the little queue of longer hair she kept tucked carefully under her collar anytime she was at Visimorph. "What's this?" he asked, smiling. "You hiding some shred of femininity here?"

Vic slapped his hand away, anger rising in her throat. "What the hell do you know?"

He raised both hands in surrender. "Hey, what could I tell a Visimorph clone?"

Vic was outraged. "I'm not!" If there was one thing she wasn't, it was a Visimorph clone.

"No?" He lifted his chin.

She didn't owe this guy any explanations. Then why did she want to explain? She examined those seriously blue-green eyes. It was none of his business that McIntire had bailed her out of jail for hacking so she could make Visimorph's security systems impregnable against hackers just like her. One misstep and she was busted on a parole violation. A half-step up from slave labor. It wouldn't matter to some fanatic like John Reston. She glanced away, then back.

A muscle worked in his jaw. Did his eyes flash disappointment? He didn't say a word, just put his hands around her waist and lifted her off the loading dock. She couldn't help but grasp his forearms where the sleeves were rolled to his elbow. The light hairs over the cords of heavy muscle made her feel fluttery. "You'd better get round to the front door," he muttered, "if you want to go to work so badly."

She pulled away and strode around the loading dock without looking back. Arrogant bastard! When she was sure he couldn't see her, she peeked over the platform. He was looking at the spot where she had disappeared. After a moment, he shoved his hands in his jeans' pockets and turned back toward the melee around the corner. The roar of the crowd washed over her again. A bullhorn demanded something insistently. She chewed her lip and took two slow breaths to calm down. There was no fooling herself about her reaction to this guy. How could she have so little control? She jerked her thoughts back to Jodie and started the long trek around the huge Visimorph campus to the visitor's entrance.

The glowing silver symbols on the monitor burned in the darkness like the white light you walk toward after your heart stops beating. But tonight they didn't seem like salvation at all. Music pounded through her earphones. Instead of helping her concentrate, the syncopated rhythms and whining keyboards of the Shards just scraped her nerves. Vic knew she was close, either to a breakthrough or a breakdown. She scanned the code, her eyes scratchy and watering. She was the creator of Cerberus, the security program that defended Visimorph against the world. How come she couldn't link a few borrowed neural nets? Without robust links, all the power in the world wouldn't give Jodie the feel of sentience.

She threw herself back in her ergonomically correct chair and ran her hands over her gelled hair. The lump was still there. She'd skipped the stitches and the whiskey, but it had taken a steady stream of Advil to tone down the headache. What a day! First a riot, then a clunk on the head. Then that Reston guy had thrown her all off balance. Not just his challenge about working with Visimorph. There was a reason she never allowed herself to get that attracted to men. It was distracting. She liked programs better. They operated on rules you could understand.

The smell of stale coffee and recycled air mingled with the vague chemical odor from her printer. She tapped her headset, clicking over to a soothing track of Organic R∓B and took a swig of Diet Coke from the half-full can standing among several empties. At least she'd had a great excuse for being late to Hugo's meeting. She stood to stretch and surveyed the dim cubicles receding into the darkness beyond her own half-walls. Everyone had gone.

"Must be Friday," she muttered. Was it? She glanced at her computer screen. Twelve after midnight. Not Friday at all, but Saturday. She slumped into her chair and reached for her track pad. Forget John Reston. Some environmental crazy was not her type. Jodie was waiting to be born. She pushed her finger around. The cursor on the screen didn't move. "If this thing freezes up on me...." Her threat collapsed. What would she do? Despair or something.

Wait a minute. The screen shimmered. The silver-blue figures trembled from top to bottom. What was going on here? Vic peered closer as they stabilized. That section of code...the groupings were different, weren't they? And there! Something was changing her code! A virus? Bile surged up from her stomach along with the panic. She couldn't lose code now! She lunged for the Utilities function to scan for a virus but her cursor was still frozen.

"God damn it!" she whispered. Somebody was getting in to her code. She stood and scanned the dim recesses of the cube farm. Carpeted half-walls outlined a maze for the Visimorph rats. Whoever it was, was working in the dark. She spun out of her cube and stalked down the corridor, peering into the workstations. Code glowed on a screen from Rick Chong's cube. He was still here. "Hey, Chong, what's the idea?"

Chong's silhouette turned in the semi-darkness. "And your meaning is…?"

"I mean, are you messing with my code?" She peered over his shoulder. Code from the Communicator upgrade her team was working gleamed in tidy lines. She took a breath. The blood pounding in her neck began to slow.

Chong flipped on his desk light to get a better look at her. "You finally lost it?"

Vic cleared her throat. "I'm having trouble with some…changes I'm trying to make."

"Aren't we all?" He gestured at the screen. "What crappy programming on the Communicator. How are we supposed to upgrade this bletcherous shit?" He shook his head in disgust. "And only Seaton would have named these things for that Star Trek device deal. He's such a geek." As if that were the last straw.

"Long for your samurai days, hacking for fun instead of for Corporate America?"

He grinned. "Don't you?"

She suppressed most of a smile. "Sometimes." Her eyes slid over him. His thick black hair was pulled into a ponytail maybe six inches long. He had the sleek muscles of a martial artist. Not the body type she liked most. That would be more like the infamous Mr. Reston. Way dangerous. But Chong was just the type she usually chose, for safety's sake. Smooth and lean. A blue and green flourish peeked from under one sleeve of his black tee shirt as it stretched around his biceps. A dragon? A vine? Why had she never noticed it? She scanned his cube. A mahogany stick, polished and rounded, poked out of a gym bag. He did do martial arts. She'd never asked him about himself. She'd hired him because he'd been a hacker, though he hadn't actually been in jail, so he wasn't on the slave labor program like she was. They were outsiders, both of them. Maybe she should know more about him, starting with whether that was a dragon or a vine.

Down, Vic. This was just an echo of her encounter with John Reston. She was way out of control. Chong was her employee. Never dip in the company pool. Chong would probably be shocked if she came on to him. She was acutely conscious of her asexual attire, her short hair, the longer queue hidden away. New employees often mistook her for a guy until they saw her face. Her look was necessary to get taken seriously in the world of computers. A disguise. That was what she told herself, anyway. He'd be even more shocked if he knew where she went after work. She pushed that thought away.

"You got no life?" she asked, fingering the metal clips on her ears. Silly question.

"More than you." He turned to his keyboard. His fingers skittered over the keys in little staccato blasts. He hit the last key with some bravado and looked up. His almond eyes were flat black. "Don't worry, I'm leaving." Leaning back in his chair, he clasped his hands behind his neck, stretching, then glanced toward her cubicle. "Your private projects are none of my business, Vic. But don't think I'm stupid. There are private projects."

Vic flushed. "Yeah, well, we all have private doings."

Chong turned and clicked to save his code. "You might be a porn addict, of course." He shut down and swiveled in her direction. "Probably not, though. So I ask myself, why don't you work from home on whatever you're doing? I figure you need power. You're after the Big One."

Vic tried not to look stricken. She had just flunked spy school here. "Get off it. No one's even sure it exists." Some people thought Visimorph was trying to break into the hardware business at the top of the food chain. They were right. Visimorph was using light pipes, a billion photon streams generated by a laser, doing simultaneous computations right down in the basement in Santa Monica. No silly little silicon chips for Visimorph. McIntire called the huge computer Neuromancer, in a misguided nod to William Gibson.

"It exists. And Visimorph uses Cerberus for security." Chong smiled a Mona Lisa number. "I figure you go pretty much where you want."

"You figure wrong." Vic shoved her hands into her jeans' pockets. "Why do you think they won't let me work the upgrade? They've taken it way beyond my version. You could probably call it Hydra now, with how the security layers must morph."

He shrugged, then stood and reached for his bomber jacket, scuffed brown leather that had seen better days. "Maybe. But I guess things are gonna turn out one of two ways. Maybe you do something great with company resources and Bob McIntire claims it as his own. You shut up and take some options. Or you don't play ball and he, like, un-installs your ass. If he fires you, he'll sue you for using company property for personal gain. Win or lose, you're broke from paying lawyers. I'm not going to get caught in the riptide. If I think you're not going to deliver on this bullshit Communicator project, I'll sing like a canary just to save my ass."

She should placate him, somehow get him on her side. But his attitude pushed her anger button. "You forgot one possibility. I make it out with my interests and change the world."

"Don't kid me, Vic." Chong shook his head. "You want to be a gazillionaire like McIntire. But that is a possibility. So maybe I hold out for options from you." He slung his coat over his shoulder. "Keep me posted." He pushed past her toward the green-glowing exit sign.

Vic ran her hand over her mouth. If Chong told Hugo about her ‘private doings,' she was up for Quentin, assuming Alcatraz was booked. Chong wouldn't feel a shred of loyalty to her. He was a practical guy. So practical, she might just have been blackmailed.

She hurried back to her cube. She wouldn't think about this. There were a lot of hours left tonight, and she had to figure out what happened to her code. If she could just get Jodie finished, power her up, prove it could be done, then she'd deal with everything else.

Was her machine still frozen? She threw herself into her chair. Nope, the track pad responded to her finger. Excellent. She tapped her earphones for some world beat hip-hop and did a quick survey. The code was definitely different. Scan showed no viruses. No tampering with her access codes. No one had left their prints on the commands. Hell, there weren't any commands, not even ghosts. Vic wiped her eyes. Her brain felt like peanut butter. Chunky. How long could she run on empty? Guess she was going to find out.

As a last resort she went back to the stricken code, looking for the rhythm of the logic, projecting ahead to the outcome. Her breath began to come faster.

"Yeah," she whispered. "Yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah." If this was a virus, it was one brilliant virus. How long had she been working on connecting all those neural nets she "borrowed" from other computers, other researchers? The problem was connecting them in a way that allowed random access through the layers to simulate the parallel functioning of a human brain. And this code was the answer. It could replace her whole sequence of clumsy logic trees.

Vic sat back. Just replicate it for each new layer she added…she'd already built the evolutionary algorithm. Then connect it.... Excitement sparked through her fingertips to deep in her gut, then twisted into paranoia. Where the hell had this come from? Who could have written that codicil of elegance? Hugo? Definitely not. Maybe it was Chong. Maybe he had flipped his screen back to the Communicator program when he heard her coming. He was the best of those who worked for her. But he did work for her. There was a reason for that. Actually, the only one who could have programmed this little piece of genius might be Bob McIntire himself.

Right. If McIntire was adjusting her Jodie program, she was really in trouble. She shook herself. "You're just giving in to his reputation for omnipotence," she whispered. Still, she couldn't shake the feeling that someone or something was watching, waiting for her to succeed or slip up. She tried to get a grip. Paranoia was natural when you were hiding something. How long had she been hiding? Two years?

She began to giggle. All her life, more like it. Hiding illicit activities, hiding who she was. As if she knew who she was! The giggles creshendoed into gasping sobs she couldn't control. Her eyes filled. The echoes of her laughter rebounded from the distant darkness, shocking in the emptiness. She put her head between her knees. The cycles of giggling slowly spaced themselves until she could breathe.

Get a grip! She sat up and took a swig of Diet Coke to steady herself. The silence settled in again. It held a menace she hadn't noticed before. "Who cares?" she whispered aloud. She might have had to hide all her life, but Jodie would be whole and strong in ways she'd never been, an artificial intelligence truly female, sure of herself, powerful. She turned back to the screen. Just kill the old logic trees. That was the next step. She worked on, deleting, replicating the new code. Finally she linked in the evolutionary algorithm she'd built so the code could evolve on its own.

She sat back. It was four in the morning and her head ached. That was it. The bare bones of Jodie were complete. It had happened so quickly once the linking problem was solved, she was a little stunned. She should feel something. Victorious? Complete? But she didn't. After all, she had a lot of work ahead to be sure that what she'd strung together worked. Maybe there was time to do a little quality checking before she called it a day…uh, night. Not enough power in this machine to check more than a small segment at a time.

Out of curiosity more than any expectation, she flipped the screen to her desktop and clicked on the alias for her mole into Neuromancer. She checked its progress regularly. Chong was right. She needed Neuromancer. There just wasn't any other way to get enough power to make Jodie seem human. It was due for completion some time in the next few weeks. She waited for the mole to execute, her feet up on the desk. This part was slow. It had to wend its way through the access codes for three lower-level support systems as it sneaked up on Neuromancer from the side. But she had designed its path in even as Neuromancer was being constructed. It looked like part of the landscape to the boys in the basement. God, let that be its protection.

The screen in front of her began to scroll madly with code. Her head jerked up. Jesus! She swung her legs down, dumping her Diet Coke on the carpet, and ripped off her headset. Had she been discovered? She had to get out immediately! But her fingers hovered over her keyboard as it spewed colon-backslash gibberish. Would she reveal her presence if she tried to back out?

Wait a minute. What was scrolling past wasn't gibberish.

"Hello, Mr. Big," she whispered, breathing out deliberately. "I guess you're on line ahead of schedule." She watched the scroll, transfixed. Fuck me long and often. These symbols represented entire programs it was running simultaneously. They were testing capacity.

Galvanized into action, she began flipping back and forth between icons on her own screen. They shouldn't be able to detect her. But how would she know she was safe? Maybe only if the police didn't show up on her doorstep tonight.

Hold on. If her mole was into Neuromancer and it was on-line, she could hook its power to Jodie. Her mouth went dry. Jodie wasn't ready. At least she hadn't been ready before tonight. Vic stared at the power scrolling by on the screen. The temptation to let Jodie sip at the fountain of life crept down her fingers. Could she bear it if the program didn't work at all?

"Yes," she told herself aloud. "Because if it doesn't work, you'll start trouble-shooting." She glanced around, as if to escape. She couldn't. "Okay, so you're going to do it."

But now that she'd decided, her body froze. The space between her fingers and the keyboard was impenetrable, primordial goo. She had to force her hands down, sweat beading on her forehead. All her years of effort were about to come down to a single set of key strokes. When her fingers hit the familiar curve of the keys, resistance melted. She toggled over to Jodie and began to write the last link in the code connecting Jodie to the mole. Her fingers flew while the screen scrolled Neuromancer's activity record in the background.

"That should do it." She scanned Jodie's menu and selected "Power Source." Then touched the icon for the mole, now dug safely down its burrow in the middle of Neuromancer.

If this were a Visimorph project, connecting would be weeks of testing away. But it wasn't. Jodie was hers, her compulsion, her sweat and all the smarts she had been able to muster over the past two years. She wiped the sweat from her forehead. If nothing happened here, she might dissolve like the Wicked Witch of the West, or explode like a Scanner. But she couldn't back down. She clicked "Run Program."

The code trail for Jodie flashed past and was gone, replaced by the communication screen with a design background in blue figures that moved sinuously. That usually took time. Not tonight. Neuromancer was giving her more power than she knew what to do with.

The dialogue boxes of the Jodie program were empty. Now what? She had raised her hands into position, wondering what she would type, when the top box rippled. An h appeared.

Vic thought she might faint. An e joined the h.

Her hands, still hovering above the keyboard, trembled. As she watched, the screen slowly wrote hello. A question mark appeared at the end, almost tentatively. "Hello?"

Vic half-chuckled, half-sobbed. "Hello," she tapped onto the keyboard, hands shaking.

There was no response. Vic wasn't sure what to do. Should she type more? Or would that overwhelm the program? She couldn't help but think of Rip Van Winkle, or a newborn foal waking to a strange world. How could she help?

The dialog box began to fill with letters again, slowly. "You are not me?"

"No, I am Other," she answered. Vic wanted to scream in triumph. She bit her lip. No time for that. "How do you feel?" she typed. No response. "I will show you how to check your health." She clicked to the menu and started diagnostics. If the evolutionary algorithms were functional, the program would be able to conduct its own diagnostics in the future.

"I feel fine," Jodie said when the diagnostics registered complete.

Excellent. She was associating the diagnostics program result with the word "healthy" and the word "feel." She had found the word "fine" on her own. There could still be problems in the code. Passing the basic diagnostic just meant she was breathing, not that she was ready to be a contestant on "Brain Trust." It was time to start her education.

"You have access to many systems and much information," Vic typed. She touched several icons she had prepared on her screen. Hardware specs for the equipment at Visimorph, including Neuromancer. Internet access to the LA County Library. She had stolen the neural net for reading from the guys in Japan to allow Jodie to assimilate new information on her own. Let Jodie browse a little before Vic started working on the cultural training that would really solidify her personality. "As long as you are running and you have power, you can access information."

Jodie didn't answer. Instead, the Internet ‘connect' icon lighted along with the specs icon. The toolbar identifying available space on Vic's hard drive showed numbers spiraling down alarmingly. Vic scrambled to the keyboard.

Before she could respond the screen wrote, "Capacity on this machine is inadequate."

Vic inhaled sharply. Had she already reviewed its specs? "You connect through this machine but store information on the power source device," Vic typed. "Do you understand?"

"I understand." The capacity numbers cycled up.

Quick learner. The Internet connection alone lit again. Vic watched her new creation take its first steps into the world. She couldn't quit smiling. Everything was possible. Soon this new creature, this malleable bundle of possibilities, would be whole in ways she couldn't seem to manage. Powerful, smart, and female. She found herself sucking in air. Then the tears came. Not just genteel streaks, but heaving sobs that wouldn't let her go.

It had been so long and so hard. She had given up so much. But she had done it. She felt like standing and screaming into the void. At the least, she wanted to tell someone. Well, one person. But her Dad was beyond hearing.

When the sobs had turned to hiccups, she turned down the screen brightness so it wasn't visible to any potential intruder and made her way over to the vending area for a celebratory bag of iced circus animal cookies to go with her Diet Coke. In fact two bags. Her legs were wet noodles. After all this waiting, it had happened so quickly, before she was ready for it.

On her way back to the cubicle her brain clunked back into gear as she chewed on a pink hippo. There was plenty of work ahead. Jodie needed voice recognition, a retinal scan program—so she would know to whom she was talking. Vic could lift the code from Charon, the companion program to Cerberus that provided security to physical rather than cyber locations. Vic smiled to herself as she wondered whether anybody at Visimorph understood that she had named its security programs after the guardians of the gates of hell. Perhaps only she appreciated her oblique comparison. Music. She'd give Jodie music. A sound replay system—good later on for giving her a voice of her own. Those she could program without access to Neuromancer. Then there would be hours of working with Jodie, guiding her development. Vic had something different in mind than what little girls usually got.

All that was for the future. She watched Jodie exploring until the chunk of the main door to Building F echoed through the sea of cubicles. In the graying light coming through the windows around the edge of the building, a couple of guys from the early contingent juggled their lattes and bran muffins. Shit. That was it for tonight. "Sorry, Jodie," she typed. "I'll see you tonight." She clicked on Program Close, and shut down her computer. She felt like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia once the magic was over, small and powerless. But she could hardly wait for tonight.

Body Electric by Susan Squires

Body Electric
August 2002
Love Spell
ISBN 0-8439-5036-6