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But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. -Genesis 2:17 The interrogation room was struck silent by Westcott’s recitation. He allowed his hands to fall from Babel’s forehead and gasped for breath, brushing a sweat-soaked lock of hair from his forehead and resting his hand on the cable plugged into his datajack for a moment as if it pained him. He reached into the pocket of his white labcoat and withdrew a white handkerchief. Lanier noticed a small trickle of blood dripping from Westcott’s nose that he dabbed at with the cloth. “Is that all?” Dr. Lambert said, looking up from the sim-sense monitor. Westcott grimaced as he glanced over at Babel’s serene face with a look of profound distaste. “No… there’s more… but it’s buried very deep… very deep indeed.” “Then get it,” Lambert said, trying to draw himself up with all the authority he could muster. “Saigo-sama will want the report to the board to be as complete as possible. We need more than his conscious recollections of the transformation experience. We also need his subconscious remembrances and observations about the experience if we are to have any hope of reconstructing what happened.” Dr. Westcott tightly closed his eyes and pressed his thumbs firmly against either side of Babel’s forehead. Despite the mage’s terrific exertion, the technoshaman wasn’t showing any ill effects from the mind probe. He seemed serene, in a trance-like state… or a coma, perhaps. Lanier wondered if Babel’s mind had already been ripped away by the mage’s probes. Westcott whispered arcane words, and mystical energy flickered around his hands and Babel’s head. The simsense gear hummed counterpoint. “All right, Bab… I mean, Michael,” Westcott said in a low voice. “We’re almost done.” Lanier couldn’t tell who the doctor was trying to reassure more, himself or his subject. Babel seemed oblivious as Westcott continued speaking. “You are at the base of the tree, looking into the pool. The waters part and something begins to rise out of them. You look and see your destiny? What is it? What do you see?” “Would you like to know what I saw?” Babel whispered, without moving anything save his lips. “Do you want to know what I learned to do? Then look, and I will show you.” Westcott gasped. His muscles suddenly seemed to stiffen and lock up like a seizure as his eyes flew open wide, staring at something only he could see. “My god…” he whispered. “What is it? What… NOOOOOOO!” Westcott screamed, a high, shrill sound. He let go of Babel’s head and stumbled back a step, eyes still focused on a point just above Babel’s head before stopping dead still and silent, mouth still open in a silent cry. Lambert glanced down at the display on the simsense deck, then took a step toward the mage and shouted at him. “What is it, man? What’s wrong? Finish the damned scan!” Babel opened his eyes, turned his head toward the distraught Dr. Lambert, and smiled. “I’m afraid he can’t hear you, Doctor,” he said, violet eyes gleaming. “Doctor Westcott’s mind is occupied at the moment. In the end, we’re all just software, and I’ve just crashed his system. The restraints please, Doctor.” Westcott nodded somewhat dumbly and began to fumble with the straps holding Babel to the examination chair.

Lambert rushed to the side of his colleague. “Douglas, what are you doing? Stop it!” Westcott ignored Lambert’s protests and stiff-armed the doctor with a powerful shove, sending him stumbling backward. Lambert windmilled his arms for a moment before falling to the floor with a thud. Lanier felt all of the security people in the room on edge as they tried to figure out what was happening. He might have his chance. “Stop him!” Lambert shouted to the security guards, and they snapped out of their shock at the strange scene and moved to restrain Dr. Westcott. But the mage was already muttering under his breath as Babel rose from the chair and stood over the simsense console sitting next to it. The guards rushed forward as Westcott waved his hands. A dome of crackling energy now englobed him and Babel. The guards ran into it like hitting a wall and bounced off the shimmering, translucent surface. They took another run at it strong enough to take a door off its hinges, but the glowering force dome resisted their efforts. Lanier knew an opportunity when he saw one. With great speed, he lunged at the corporate guard nearest him and seized his weapon. With a savage kick, Lanier sent the guard to the floor gasping in pain. He snapped off the safety on the stubby H amp;K 227 and spun on the other guard, firing a burst of 9mm rounds into him. The rounds slammed into the guard’s chest and he fell back, his own weapon flying from his hand and clattering to the floor. The other security personnel and Dr. Lambert realized what was happening as Babel sat cross-legged beside the simsense console. He took the cable from the console and plugged it into his own jack, then closed his eyes and rested his hands on his knees, going into a kind of trance. Dr. Westcott stood where he was, still jacked into the simsense system, in silent concentration on the magical barrier, mouth and chin red from the blood dripping freely from his nose while his lips worked in silent speech directed at something only he could see. Lambert picked himself up off the floor and shouted to the security guards. “Sound the security alarm! Stop him and bring that wall down. I don’t care how you do it!” The two guards near the force dome drew their sidearms and took several steps back while a third went for the red panic-button near the door of the lab. The guard reached the panic-button and slammed his fist against it, but nothing happened. He did so again and again, but no alarm sounded in the complex, “That won’t work. Please don’t try it again.” Babel’s voice came from the speakers in the room, the intercom, the analysis equipment, and even from the guard’s own radio units. The guard by the panic-button slammed his fist into it one last time, then turned his weapon toward where Lanier crouched behind several pieces of lab equipment, squeezing off a burst that cracked and pinged against the metal and plastic consoles. Lanier proved faster as he darted out from behind cover to stitch a line of bullets across the chest of the guard, leaving red blossoms on his uniform. The guard fell against the useless alarm button and slid to the floor in aheap. “What are you waiting for?” Dr. Lambert cried, almost hysterical. “Shoot them!” The two remaining guards near the magical barrier split their attention, one turning toward Lanier and the other concentrating on the dome, covering each other while Lambert cowered behind a console. The guard near the dome was smart enough to shoot at Westcott first. Whatever the mage’s condition, he was responsible for the magical barrier. If he was taken down, the barrier should follow. The rounds from the guard’s SMG only whanged off the glowing barrier like rain pattering off a rooftop. Neither Babel nor Dr. Westcott moved or reacted, both of them locked in a trance state. The other guard fired off several rounds in Lanier’s direction, shots intended to keep him under cover. Lanier sent a burst of return fire that stitched along the floor. He did not hit the guard, but made him realize how exposed his current position was.

When the gunfire ceased for a moment, Babel opened his eyes. He pulled the cable from his datajack and let it drop to the floor, then turned to Dr. Westcott and touched him gently on the shoulder. “Look there, Doctor,” he said, his voice slightly muffled by the glowing force dome. Westcott’s head spun to the side and his eyes widened in horror. Once again, Westcott began to chant, arcane words rolling off his tongue and echoing strangely inside the barrier. He held his hands close together in front of his chest and a glowing sphere of energy began to form between them. Westcott raised the glowing sphere over his head as it grew brighter. Lanier knew what the mage was doing. He looked quickly around the room and spotted a crate that had probably held some of the sophisticated sensor equipment in the room. It was heavy construction plastic more than a meter tall. Without hesitation, he made a break for it. One of the guards opened fire, and rounds ricocheted off the walls and floor as Lanier dived behind the crate. A split second later Lanier heard Dr. Lambert yell “No!” There was a faint crackle of energy and a feeling like static electricity raised the hairs on his neck, followed by the sound of men and weapons clattering to the tile floor. Lanier poked his head up over the crate just in time to see Dr. Westcott’s glowing barrier flicker and fade. The doctor’s eyes rolled back into his head and his knees buckled. Babel caught him under one arm and lowered him to the floor. Westcott continued quietly muttering under his breath, a litany Lanier could barely make out. Instead of the arcane words he’d chanted before, Westcott whispered, “One one zero zero one zero zero zero one one one zero zero one zero zero zero one one one zero zero one zero zero zero one one.” Over and over again. All of the rapid-fire spellcasting he had done had clearly exhausted the mage, added to whatever had happened during the mind probe. The remaining two security guards and Dr. Lambert were sprawled out on the floor with not a mark on them. The guards’ armor had done nothing to protect them against the power of Westcott’s spell. Lanier had been able to get out of Westcott’s line of sight, gambling that the mage was casting a spell intended to take out everyone in the room. What a spellcaster couldn’t see, he couldn’t affect, so Lanier, concealed by the packing crate, had been spared the effects of whatever Westcott had used to take the guards and Lambert down. Babel stepped over to the nearest unconscious guard and picked up his sidearm, checking the slide and the clip. Then he turned to where Lanier stood behind the crate with a faint smile on his face. He was breathing heavily and his brow gleamed with sweat, like he had just run a race, but his movements were steady and sure. “If you want to get out here, Mr. Lanier, you can come with me. We have a better chance working together. Otherwise, you can stay here and take your chances. Your choice.” Without waiting for a reply, Babel turned and headed for the door of the room. Lanier hadn’t made a successful career in the mega-corporate world by ignoring his opportunities. He walked out from behind the crate to accept the offer. Babel stopped in front of the sealed door of the lab and said “Open.” There was a click, and the maglocked door hissed open. Lanier and Babel calmly walked out of the laboratory, leaving the unconscious Renraku personnel behind. “Nice trick with the crate,” Babel said as he looked around the corridor. “Thanks. Did you know I was going to do that?” At this point Lanier would believe almost anything about this set-up. “No, but I’m glad you did. I can use your help.” “My help? After what I did to you?” Babel just shrugged. “No worse than what they wanted to do to me.” The facility was quiet. No alarm had been raised, and nobody was in sight. “And like I said-” Babel scanned the corridor as he spoke “-I figure we have a better chance of getting out of this together than separately. I’m kind of new to all this shadow-ops stuff.” “Could have fooled me. What did you do to Westcott?” Lanier asked.

“Ever hear of psychotropic ice?” Babel said. “I used something similar. I subverted the simsense recording equipment through the link they had me jacked into and created a feedback loop between Westcott and me so I could download some reprogramming straight into Westcott’s brain. Similar to the stuff you used on me, in fact.” The last was uttered with a trace of sarcasm. Lanier chose to ignore it. “I didn’t know that was possible,” he said. Babel smiled a ragged grin. “Neither did I for certain, but it worked. Ol’ Westcott obviously never tried to hack into a brain with its own intrusion countermeasures before.” Babel turned and moved down the corridor like a man with a purpose. “Where the hell are you going?” Lanier demanded. “The way out is this way.” Babel turned to look back over his shoulder. “I’m not leaving. Not yet. There’s something I came here to do. You can do what you want, but if you want to work with me, we go this way.” He headed off down the corridor, and Lanier struggled for a moment over whether he should go for the possible escape route or stick with this enigmatic kid. The moment passed, and he turned and hurried down the corridor to catch up. “Mind telling me where we’re going?” he said. “Or how you’re planning on getting out of here alive?” “I need access to the Renraku network,” Babel said. “The lab system is too isolated. I was able to deck into the building’s security system, though. I placed one of my spirit-helpers in the system to make sure no alarms get raised. With a little luck, nobody will know we’re gone until it’s too late.” “Spirit-helpers?” Lanier said. He noted that Babel had made no mention of any plan for getting out of the facility… alive or otherwise. “One of my little helpers in the Matrix, like a program frame or an expert system, only much more… aware.” “You’ve been planning to do this all along,” Lanier said as he fitted the pieces together. “You wanted to get back to Renraku so you could get access to their system. Why? To feed them false data?” Babel paused at a cross-corridor before choosing the left-hand branch. “Nothing so calculated,” he said. “I didn’t even know exactly what I was supposed to do before you forced me to start to remember in your little… playroom.” Lanier noted the trace of bitterness in Babel’s voice again. He doubted that the young man was as forgiving as he pretended to be. “I was given a mission, to bring… something back into Renraku when they recalled me. Bits and pieces of it have been coming back to me since you started your interrogation.” Babel paused at an intersection to check the other corridor. There was no one there, and he led Lanier past it. “Do you know how a retrovirus works?” Babel asked, but didn’t wait for an answer. “It subverts the host’s DNA code, so the replications of the DNA also reproduce the virus. I’m like that, a single cell of Renraku Computer Systems, made into a virus and sent back to infect Renraku’s body.” “But why betray Renraku?” Lanier was genuinely baffled. “They would pay handsomely for what you know. They wouldn’t have chosen you for this job if you weren’t loyal to them.” Babel paused and turned to look at Lanier with his strange violet eyes. “I was. But you heard what happened to me in the Matrix. I wanted Renraku to know about it. I was loyal to Renraku because the company was all I knew all my life. When I was in the Matrix that night, I found something else I never imagined I would ever have. I found magic, and I’ll do anything to protect it from being controlled by a soulless company the way I was.” Babel turned and continued to lead Lanier through the complex. Lanier wanted to get out of there, so he went along for now. But, as always, he was just waiting for his own chance.

Don’t think your “magic” is going to protect you from the corporate interests forever, kid. A lot of people are willing to kill for what you and your otaku chummers know about the Matrix. And I’m one of them.

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