by Steve Kramer and Michael Surbrook

The first thing Doc felt he had to do was wheel a comfortable chair up to the terminal, a well-cushioned one with a high back, suitable for dozing in if necessary. Cyberspace was an inert experience, and if he was going to be inert for some time, he'd better make it as easy on his body as he could. It was a frequent occurrence for Muldowney back in the old days to end up coming out of it with a stiff neck or sore back, which made the transition quite jarring if he'd been lying on a beach in a simsense somewhere. Worse were the times when he emerged to discover drool seeping out of one corner of his mouth. Unpleasant sensations such as these, together with the more pressing business of the present once he had determined that being a sarari-fighter for Mitsumi was not the way he wished to spend his life, gave Doc a disdain for entering cyberspace deeply, or for long stretches of time.

It didn't stop him from staying in for one particularly long period to craft his own personal net icon. The Net, he mused, was populated with an endless cabaret of glittering fantastic beasts, imposing physiques, and armored forms—ancient samurai armor was popular, of course. Each time Doc ventured out into the Mix, as some called the space between the icon-buildings, reminded him of venturing into some mad Christmas pageant. Winter Rose, the famous netizen and a source of information Doc found occasionally helpful, was the most ostentatious of all, with elaborate effects surrounding not only her immediate person but all icons and programs in the area, draping them with a make-believe rime of photons. Certain of the Net's older sections couldn't even tolerate her presence, as all available resources would be sucked up trying to render her. Of course, she had backups for such an occurrence; she'd use the maximum icon allowable in any situation. Even Avatar, who he respected deeply, shone like a collection of costume jewelry someone had gathered into human form.

In typical fashion, using the digital currency of cyberspace as his clay, Doc formed his icon in his own image. On the Net, Doc would look like Doc. The same casual clothing, the same lab coat, the same facial expressions, the same height and weight. By far the most involved part of the process was removing that annoying damned sheen which made him appear freshly waxed and buffed. It was something of an obsession, and Doc knew it himself; every few months, working off new videographs of himself, he'd painstakingly adjust the icon so the appearance was as up-to-date and realistic as possible. Winter Rose commented upon his icon once, and commended him on the work, the only person ever to do so, as the amount of detail that went into making something look so utterly prosaic on the Net was lost on most. Still, it was obvious she didn't understand.

Try as he might, though he bore no ill will against Rose, he couldn't shut out the reality of the present, the now, not even in contemplation. He calculated the amount of time Rose was online, and pictured her as vaguely underweight, with a poor diet, a muscle tone bordering on atrophy, pupils partially concealed behind her eyelids, and a tiny stream of spittle issuing from her lower lip and running down between her breasts... seemingly dependent on the umbilical dataline connected at her temple. No resemblance to the icy angel of cyberspace he knew from the analog of sight he possessed on the Net, and that, in turn, was something he could not understand.

He sensed nothing so heavily as the unreality of the whole situation as he made his way now, in electronic surrogate, through the preposterous neon world of information, towards the East Coast Hole, and a meeting with Shion Nys.

The Free State of California played host to a machine represented on the Net by the stately, distinctive icon-building of the West Coast Well. Its origins went back as far as the origins of the Net itself, a thought which the denizens therein at any given time would find absolutely fascinating—imagine, a world with no Net! The elite of Japan, California, and dozens of other places gathered there for the most impressive of discourse, entertainment, sex... all conducted as if it were the most high-level of all human interaction; beings of pure thought, unfettered by physical flesh, interacting in nirvana, the perfect state. The East Coast Hole was nothing like this. Intended to be the Well's counterpart in the UNA (for whatever reason, some UNA government functionary actually cared about the physical location of a machine enough to fund the Hole), it instead became the lesser cousin of the popular Well, eclipsed in depth and quality of information, personalities, services, presence, and what passed for civic high-mindedness. It began to acquire a seamy reputation—not very near the mark, in reality, but not wholly undeserved, either—and the Net's literati stayed away in droves. Eventually, it drew some support from netizens in the UNA who found it oddly quaint because of its numerous imperfections, and though the reputation never left it, those who knew the Net from more than the common user's standpoint grudgingly accepted it as a no-frills, take-it-or-leave-it spot for interactivity not often seen on the North American Net. It was these qualities, if they could be charitably described as such, which drew Doctor Kenwood Muldowney to the East Coast Hole. They reminded him very little of the rest of the Net.

Stepping into the Hole's spartan, vaguely-spherical icon-building, Doc stepped past the mingling persons and programs and found a request board from where he could summon User Services. After a delay, the icon appeared to him—he couldn't believe it—as a net-shiny, curvaceous waitress, complete with a clingy, showy one-piece swimsuit, ludicrous bunny ears, and a pompom nestled just above the crack of her ass. Muldowney cocked an eyebrow, unable to assimilate this, and it was only after the User Serv asked twice that he requested a private room, with beta-level security measures, for himself and the user bearing Shion's SIN. The icon disappeared with an unprofessional crackle, and eventually ushered him to a featureless cube that was even somewhat room-sized. The bunny materialized right after he did, and Doc unsuccessfully attempted to find out from hir exactly which security procedures this space came programmed with. After some hemming and hawing in which the icon's controller showed off hir ignorance of the inner workings of a decent Net site, Muldowney dismissed the ridiculous User Serv with a wave, summoned a chair, and sat down. The Doc icon went almost completely inert in waiting; Doc, lost in thought, desperately tried to remind himself of the unpleasant feeling he had upon reading Takeda's briefing in an effort to summon the trappings of reality to this still-too-unreal place.

After a few, unmeasurable moments of waiting, Shion entered the room. Doc knew that Shion wasn't jacked in; she didn't have any implanted cyberware. Most likely she was using a VR simulator which would allow her to see and hear everything happening around her. A sophisticated controller allowed her to respond to events as they occurred, although not as smoothly and quickly as someone with a DNI jack like Doc's, giving Shion the appearance of someone wading through a swimming pool of jelly. It served it purpose, especially at times like these, but the fact that Doc accomplished something with more facility than Shion made him feel just a bit stronger.

Shion, Doc noted, looked almost exactly like he'd expected. She was dressed in her long cloak, complete with black jumpsuit and armor. The difference was that she had the standard metallic sheen of almost everything else in the net. Also, she seemed somewhat 'smoother' than in reality; her hair was too white and too straight, her cloak unwrinkled and unlined, her legs a little too long, her eyes slightly too large. She looked almost like the kind of character one saw in the better simsense games. Doc wondered who had made the icon—certainly not Shion—and if Shion knew or cared exactly what she looked like when in the Matrix.

"Hoi, Shion," said Doc, in a brittle way that belied its forced informality. "How's the arm?"

Shion paused and a gave Doc a long look. "Fine, Dr. Muldowney," she responded.

Producing a chair, she sat down. Although her icon was of very high quality, Doc could see where it 'jumped' slightly when she moved, an obvious sign of system lag. Where ever she was outside the Net, it most certainly wasn't on the East Coast. Doc found that both reassuring and disappointing at once.

Turning to Doc, Shion gave him a measured stare. "You wished to speak with me," she said at last.

"I did." He took a deep breath in spite of himself, and had the presence of mind not to duplicate the action online. "There's a young girl who's been around the 'Zone lately. A wizzer. Her name's Sonnet."

"So I have heard," Shion responded evenly.

"She"—Doc poised for the reaction—"bears a resemblance to you."

"So I have been told," Shion was acting amazingly calm, considering the nature of Doc's words. She wasn't giving up anything.

"I'd like to know what you intend to do about this."

Shion took a deep breath, and almost audibly sighed. Leaning forward in her chair, she examined Doc closely. "Kill her, Dr. Muldowney." Her voice was icily calm.

Sitting back, Shion smiled slightly, "Does this bother you?"

It didn't. The realization of this was followed by a hint of scolding conscience: *you are attempting to bring order and justice where there is none; be bothered by this.* Instead, Muldowney looked up, as if he was pondering the question. "She's threatened a member of my team," he said finally. "Takeda Johnson. Shima Takahashi. Whatever the hell he's calling himself nowadays. I know that Takeda has no interest in killing Sonnet."

"So he says."

"He doesn't," repeated Doc, matter-of-factly, "and Takeda is one of us. We have larger things on our agenda than personal vendetta." He paused, then finished, "we'll probably meet the situation with as much force as necessary."

Shion simply smiled politely, as if enjoying a private joke, and for the first time, still refusing to be intimidated, Doc gave a tight-lipped smile in return. "I don't trust you enough to tell me if that bothers you."

"Are you trying to get a rise out of me, Dr. Muldowney?" Shion looked at Doc narrowly. "I suppose I should feel honored at the implied response level in your statement. But, I would remind you that although Sonnet may be my clone, she is not me. If you wish to make her fate into an object lesson for my benefit, you are wasting your time. I fully intend to be the one who finishes her. Not Takeda, and certainly not your... Kazei 5 team."

There it was. The armor cracked. The woman who was Shion was visible, moving, like a fish below the ice. All of the neticons, the posturing, the carefully-crafted exteriors that they both wore... all of it was starting to come down, to crumble in glittering shards on the all-too-real floor. Muldowney felt himself to be on familiar ground now, and he felt himself—his real, flesh-and-blood self—loosen and settle into the cushy, fat chair he'd chosen earlier, before his sojourn into the Hole.

Without a trace of irony or sarcasm in his voice, he asked Shion, through his neticon, softly, "Why?"

Shion glanced idly about the room, biding her time before replying, struggling to contain the emotions the question conjured. Finally, she turned back to Doc, her gaze icy once more, and said, "So that she may serve as an example to others. I am the Empress after all."

"Like hell!" Doc growled, loud enough now that the sound distorted a bit within the confines of the Matrix. "You don't even believe that drek; don't try to pass it off on me. Quincy couldn't give a damn about the fragging 'example' you set, and neither could I."

A flash of anger crossed Shion's face as she rose swiftly to her feet, "Doctor Muldowney, I fail to see any point in continuing this conversation further. So, unless you have anything worthwhile to add, I shall be leaving." Turning away from Doc, Shion headed for the door.

"No, there's one more thing," Doc added, certain that if looks could kill they'd already have the pine box measured for him now, neticon or no. "You needn't worry about what we do to Sonnet serving as an example to you—no more than anyone else in the Zone does. Right now, no one stands for justice there. We intend to be the first in a long time to do so, and that's bigger than the wishes of any one person. That includes me, Takeda... and that includes 'The Empress'." The way he said it, you could hear the quotation marks. "And in answer to your next question, that isn't a threat, unless you'd like it to be."

The icon's unnaturally smooth lines remained motionless as Shion considered Doc's words. Finally, after a period in which Doc wondered if Shion had managed to jack out without removing her neticon—an unnerving experience, considering what he'd just said, she spoke. "And what do you intend to do to Sonnet?"

"I made it clear. She'll be met with as much force as necessary."

"So you will kill her if need be? Or, " Shion amended, "You'll try to?"

"Yep," said Doc, ever the weary soldier, now regarding Shion absolutely neutrally. "But it sure as hell won't be for 'appearances' if we do."

With a swirl of her cloak, Shion turned her back on Doc. "Then I shall see you in the Zone, Dr. Muldowney." She paused before exiting the meeting room's narrow confines. "You'll forgive me if I ensure that your planned meeting with Sonnet never comes to pass, won't you?" The mocking tone of her words was most evident.

"No," answered Muldowney flatly. His eyes, dead as a doornail even in this lifeless, artificial place, stayed on her as she rose to go. "Goodbye, Empress," he added, slowly and deliberately, after a pause. Though his tone was even, he paid no deference to her chosen title with the farewell.

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