Chapter Nine


42 days before Face’s arrival at Mukhya

“Where are you? Where are you? Where are you?” The soft words were more of a chant than a question. Xandra wiggled her way between cables, under desks, and around chairs. She was in a technological jungle, hunting.

She spotted a niche behind one of the holo rigs. Could it be hiding her prey?

They recently moved the rigs into the conference room. It was more convenient that way. Even now, Xandra could look up at the wallscreen beside the big table and see Myrodyn’s avatar. The man’s cloaked figure was walking with a robotic dragon in what appeared to be a giant hedge-maze. Here and there were fountains and various marble features, reminding her of something out of Alice in Wonderland. Meanwhile, in meatspace, Myrodyn stood suspended by various straps and haptics in the rig to the right of the one that Xandra was headed for.

She wormed her way over another set of cables and an empty can of RocketFuel™. While there was a convenience to having everything in one room, it also made the space inconveniently crowded. Especially as they kept bringing in more and more equipment.

“Gotcha!” she exclaimed, pouncing on the nook behind the rig where she was sure she’d seen some motion. But, alas, there was nothing there.

“Betsy, please be quiet. I’m having a very important conversation with WIRL,” said Myrodyn in a quick burst.

She looked up at the man, then at the wallscreen, then said “Name’s Shadowcat. Has been for ‘most a week.”

“Well, whatever your name is, please go in the other room if you’re going to be loud.”

Xandra could see the dragon saying something to Myrodyn on the screen, so she didn’t bother apologizing. Myrodyn wasn’t the sort to actually care about apologies; he just wanted to focus, and for good reason.

Xandra stood up and looked over the room. It was just her and Myrodyn at the moment. Where could her prey be hiding?

She opened one of the two doors in the conference room. The far door led to a bathroom and connection to the cellar, while the door she opened led to the rec room. It was about the same size as the conference room but seemed vastly larger because of its relative emptiness. There were a couple places where someone could hide, but she’d checked them already.

Suddenly there was a growl and the feeling of teeth biting into her ankle. Xandra yelped in surprise and kicked her foot forward, turning the motion into a hopping-tumble-somersault. Thankfully the bite had been nothing more than a playful nip, and Major let go quickly.

The doggie chased her into the rec room and pounced on her, still growling playfully. In seconds the growls turned to licks, and Xandra found herself having to contend with a barrage of wet kisses from the black and white face.

“That’s not how play hide ‘n seek, doofus!” she said between giggles and hugs. “S’posed to let me find you.”

Major barked in response.

“Shh!” she shushed, remembering. “Myrodyn having a meeting. Gotta be quiet.”

The doggie’s eyes seemed to say that he understood. He didn’t bark anymore. Instead, he pulled himself off Xandra and ran a couple laps around her, wagging his tail.

Xandra was bored of hide-and-seek. Major was too good at it. He always seemed able to find her, and it seemed he was just as good at hiding. She wanted to ask what Major wanted to play, and so she stood up and moved to close the door to the conference room. They’d moved Major’s console down to the rec room just after Christmas at Xandra’s request. Since they were all down in the basement so much nowadays, it seemed right to let Major speak English without having to go all the way upstairs.

“Hey pumpkin, you ready to do some serious work?” Daddy came around the bend in the room that connected to the staircase.

Xandra, eager for something more interesting than listening to Myrodyn discuss endless technical details with WIRL snapped up into her best salute and said, “Yes, sir!”

Major bounded over to her and sat to her right, raising one paw in imitation.

Daddy smiled warmly and waved her over as he walked towards the conference room. He was dressed up and seemed to be in a good mood. “We’ll be talking with Lee in a moment. He’s finally set up again.”

“Know where he is?” she asked, stepping in beside him with Major falling in behind.

“Not a clue. Well, it’s probably somewhere in Asia, but otherwise we’re just as in the dark as we were before. At this point, I think he’d deliberately hide his location from himself if he could.”

Xandra nodded. The man was fascinating, but absolutely paranoid. Even communicating regularly as the mouthpiece of Acorn they’d learned almost nothing about Lee himself. He never appeared except in holo, and always distorted his voice. WIRL’s attempts at back-tracing his internet address had led to nothing but a spiderweb of obscure proxies.

“It’s what I’m hoping you can help with, actually,” continued Daddy. “I’ll be so focused on leading the conversation, that I won’t be able to listen as much as you can. If you use that big brain of yours, you may be able to pick up some clues about him. We may be working together at the moment, but…”

Daddy let the word hang there as the three of them entered the rec room. The cloaked wizard and dragon were still conversing up on the wallscreen.

“Wrap it up you two! I have Lee ready to talk again and waiting for us to get set up on this end,” said Daddy as he plopped into the center chair opposite the wallscreen and poked at his com.

Myrodyn didn’t respond. Xandra could see the dragon saying something and looking at the camera that was capturing the scene.

“We can’t hear you,” she said.

“Oh, sorry,” said Myrodyn, gesturing in both meatspace and up on the screen. “Should be unmuted now.”

“We are Node Twenty,” bellowed the great metal serpent with startling volume. “You will allow WIRL to observe the exchange.”

Daddy nodded impatiently. “Yes, yes. Of course. Just keep tapping the line and stay hidden. Last thing we need is to spook the guy.”

The dragon nodded. “As you say.”

And just like that, the hedge-maze faded out and was replaced with a stone chamber with swirling multi-colored portals all around Myrodyn who stood alone in the center.

“Should I get unstrapped?” asked Myrodyn.

“No need. We’ll just do a group call with you in holo.”

While Daddy worked to get things set up, Xandra climbed into one of the office chairs next to him. Major padded around by her bare feet, his fur occasionally brushing up against them. She folded her legs underneath her so she wouldn’t be distracted.

After a minute of fiddling with the security settings, Daddy managed to get a split-screen view on the wall with Myrodyn’s avatar on the right and Lee’s avatar on the left. Behind both of them were bland backdrops, as though they were calling from in the middle of having their portraits taken.

Lee was wearing the avatar he normally wore: a lion-headed angel with brilliant-white fur and feathers. His body was covered in heavy plate armor that glinted with computer-perfect mirror surfaces, and his eyes shone with a pure gold light. When he spoke, his voice was a semi-synthetic growling boom.

“Acorn tells me that you’ve been in contact while I was unavailable.” Lee’s words made Xandra’s heart pound. Her fantasies about marrying Lee had only gotten more intense as they’d been in contact. He had a kind of raw power to him that she liked a lot.

Xandra tried to sit up straight and look presentable. She knew the camera could see her, and she hoped she looked pretty. Daddy always said she was pretty, but he was biased.

“Straight to business, then? No ‘Merry Christmas’?” asked Daddy with an edge of sarcasm.

Lee folded his arms but didn’t respond.

Still half-distracted thinking about her appearance, Xandra tried to focus on Lee, looking for clues in his reaction to who he was and where he lived.

“We exchanged a couple emails but nothing more,” said Myrodyn. “And even those were nothing serious. Logistics and requests for information from WIRL.”

The lion looked towards Myrodyn and nodded. “You’ve been busy, nevertheless.” His voice, as always, had the hint of a Chinese accent, but it was very faint. “I take it the countermeasure has been generally effective?”

“We’ve been out of touch with WIRL since our handler went on vacation just before the holiday,” lied Daddy. “But it seems like the info Acorn gave about Neurotoxin’s coordination mechanism was enough to really make progress.”

Lee waved a gauntleted hand and a third view popped up on the wallscreen between and bellow the two figures. It was a world map composed of green coastlines on black. “Let’s start by talking about the eradication of Neurotoxin, then.”

Sharp yellow dots sprayed out from India in a quick time-lapse showing neurotoxin’s progress. Bangalore had been ground-zero, though London and Chicago had quickly become secondary hubs for the supervirus. It was soon swarming over every continent, with a density matching computer use. At the very end of the animation, a huge chunk of the dots faded to a darker green, probably to signify those infected systems had reported themselves clean and immune.

It occurred to Xandra, then, that Neurotoxin, as coordinated and intelligent as it was, had done something extraordinarily foolish by getting so big. If it had stayed small and focused on adapting around detection mechanisms, it could’ve survived for… years? Decades? Rare diseases still existed where smallpox, polio, and malaria had been systematically brought down because they were the focus of the world.

“Before we get into that,” said Daddy, “let’s talk about your sudden disappearance and whether you’ll be able to actually stay in contact moving forward. I don’t think I have to tell you just how big of a deal Acorn is, and it seems to trust you more than anyone else.”

“That’s because you’re planning to kill it,” said Lee, leaning back in a way that somehow conveyed contempt.

“We want to work with Acorn, not destroy it,” said Myrodyn with just a bit too much enthusiasm.

“If you say so.” Lee’s voice had more than a touch of sarcasm. “Regardless, I doubt that Acorn will let you near its server banks anytime soon.”

“Does it let you near its server banks?” chimed in Xandra.

Lee’s scowl made her want to turn invisible. The silent tension that followed was nearly unbearable.

The lion’s golden eyes shifted to Daddy and he said, “My location is none of your concern. The spies that found me before… There’s no way that whoever found my old residence was able to follow me, so I should be able to operate unhindered here indefinitely.”

“Still no idea who it was?” asked Myrodyn.

Lee growled. “My privacy is my concern. Let us talk about the…” There was a pause. “Sorry. One moment.”

The lion avatar darkened to show Lee was away from his interface.

“Using facial scan, but not a body rig,” observed Xandra.

Daddy raised a finger to his lips and mouthed “Might be recording.”

Xandra blushed and nodded. She’d really messed up asking him so bluntly about Acorn’s servers, and the last thing she wanted was for Lee to stop working with them because of something she said.

She bent down and gave Major, who was lying down by Daddy’s feet, some head scratches while they waited.

After a minute, Lee came back. There was an odd sound in the background, and his voice sounded more distorted than usual. “Where were we?”

“The fate of the world,” said Myrodyn, seriously.

“Oh, right,” said Lee. “There’s a lot to catch up on. Especially since we have WIRL’s data. You do have WIRL’s data, don’t you?”

Xandra closed her eyes and tried to imagine what was generating the odd noises. Was Lee… distracted?

“Yes. Whatever you need,” responded Myrodyn.

They started by talking about Neurotoxin. As it turned out, talking with Acorn had been exactly what WIRL had needed to do. Acorn had been working on a countermeasure to the virus that used its decentralized nature against it, injecting noise into the encrypted packets that local sections of the virus sent to its larger body. This noise in its nervous system made the virus sluggish to respond to threats, and WIRL had been successful in using the technique to isolate chunks of the virus and coaxing it to mutate into a form that would pressure the rest of the virus into deleting itself.

Of course, any given mutation that caused mass-deletion was only effective until Neurotoxin evolved a new encryption mechanism, and old back-doors in compromised systems were still vulnerable, but the fight was on in force now.

One side-effect of WIRL’s newfound strength, for good or for ill, was that the global media and broad public support for the organization was at record highs. The virus, which had already done trillions of dollars in damage, was seen globally as a menace, and multiple governments, including the USA, had pledged support (and funding) to WIRL in combatting it.

“WIRL is trying to pivot and use the attention to set themselves up as defenders of humanity in the case war with the nameless breaks out,” grumped Daddy.

“Acorn wants to emphasize not to underestimate Neurotoxin,” warned Lee. “It may seem like you’re winning right now, but it’s possible that we’re all just being drawn out so that the jaws can snap closed on us. It’s the sort of thing that dr—” Lee seemed to catch himself in the middle of a word. “That we need to watch out for,” he finished.

“Yes, well, as much as I agree with that,” said Daddy, “we need to track the other players in the game.”

Cyan dots were added to the map to reflect WIRL’s points of power. The collective wasn’t giving them all the data, but certain things were obvious when tracking the news. WIRL was a semi-public organization, and places like San Francisco, Mumbai, Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Berlin, Sydney, and Zürich featured public figures and communities that were known participants. It was an interesting feeling seeing Houston show up on the map, and knowing that it was because of them.

They discussed Las Águilas next, peppering the map with red, especially in Central and South America. The USA was also littered with red, though not nearly as densely. Much of the color was in Florida, the Southwest, and the more rural areas of the country, with battlegrounds between red and blue in California, the Carolinas, and around the great lakes. If she ignored the yellow and green dots, it was remarkably similar to political maps she’d seen, and she wondered about the connection.

“Phoenix is also moving in India,” said Daddy. “She didn’t say anything outright about her plans, but it’s not that hard to read between the lines.”

“You two still in touch?” asked Lee as his avatar fiddled around a bit. A moment later a red, hand-drawn circle appeared around India.

“No. She dropped us the instant she caught on that we’re working with WIRL.”

“Phoenix is an idiot,” muttered Lee.

“You’ve worked with her too, I see,” laughed Daddy.

“No comment,” said Lee, suddenly cautious again.

Xandra finally figured out what was going on. Before he’d gotten up, Lee’s avatar had been doing facial tracking and mapping his expressions onto the lion. Afterwards, his facial features were more neutral and keyed to his tone of voice. The sounds he’d been making were him eating, and the interruption was therefore likely to be a delivery of some kind, implying that either he had someone preparing his meals (a girlfriend, perhaps?) or he lived in a city where meal delivery was a thing.

It seemed odd that he wouldn’t just use an autocook. Surely he had the money to afford one for himself. That seemed to favor the girlfriend hypothesis, but perhaps it was just because he’d recently relocated on account of “being spied on.” There were just too many variables, but it was something. Xandra looked for ways to tie the bit of information to the other things the man was saying.

With Neurotoxin, WIRL, and Las Águilas plotted they turned to the Divinity gang, which became a fat splatter of purple across the USA and Canada.

“How were you able to plot this? My understanding was that Divinity keeps a low profile,” asked Myrodyn.

“This is Acorn’s work. I’m not entirely sure what algorithm it used, but I know it involved back-chaining from known incidents through Tapestry to find people whose social media behaviour changed in a way consistent with exposure to Zen—” There was an audible pop in the background and Lee stopped talking. «The fuck was that?» he swore under his breath in Chinese. «It’s not even dark yet…»