Machine Girl: Welcome to the Machine Chapter 7

Eugene

It was with some trepidation that Eugene allowed Miss Victoria Geraldine Scott to leave the hospital.  Thanks to being able to take advantage of the ambulance bay they were easily able to avoid the ever-present protesters out front, but that was the least of his worries.  The AI had finally been subdued; but it had taken almost all the power and talent his team had at their disposal to do it.  He stopped chewing on a thumbnail nervously as she gave him a cheery wave and gave her what he hoped was an encouraging grin in return.

He shuddered to think what would happen if her brain was infiltrated by that machine again.  The first time had nearly killed her and the second time had shown some spikes in brainwave activity that were as confusing as they were alarming.  Portions of the brain that normally only see the occasional spark of activity lit up like the sky on the Fourth of July.  What the hell was going on?

As she walked through the front door her foot caught on a piece of the carpet where it had bunched up and because she was distracted by talking to her parents she tripped hard.  Before anyone could do anything but gasp she tucked into a ball, turning a neat summersault and rolling smoothly to her feet.

She exclaimed “Tadaaa!” and laughed a little nervously, “I guess all my cheerleading practice is finally paying off in the real world!”

Eugene shook his head.  After she got into her parent’s BMW and they drove off he went back inside to re-check the data.  He was certain he’d missed something and couldn’t afford to put off her debut next week at the trade show.  The Russians weren’t going to wait, and the DOD wanted testable results too.

“Damn it I wish I had another six months with her before we had to do this.  Sorry Victoria, but we’ll make it through this.  I promise we’ll make it.”  He muttered it like a prayer.

His phone buzzed in his pocket and he jumped, fumbling it out into his hand.  The number was unlisted.

“This is Doctor Arlington.”  He said in his best ‘you’re wasting my important time’ voice.

“Eugene.  This is General Hallbeck.”  The voice on the other end was clipped and all business.  It was a voice that expected you to know how high to jump before it even told you to.  It was a voice that demanded results and got them.  “I hear you’ve had some success in the Project.  When can I see it?”

“Well sir, it’s not an ‘it’ it’s a ‘she’ and she’s a private citizen.”  Eugene said, reaching into a breast pocket where he used to keep a pack of American Spirit cigarettes and regretting that he’d quit six months ago.

“This is why it’s such a fucking shame none of our boys were compatible with that thing.”  Hallbeck said in disgust, “If you’d just waited and put your little pet project into a Corpsman we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“She’s over the age of eighteen too sir, so we can’t just get parental consent before-”

“Don’t give that horse shit Arlington, when are you going to give me a goddamned report?”  The General snapped, “We’ve sunk millions, literally hundreds of millions into this thing and what do we have to show for it?  A man with a metal leg and another with a metal arm.”

“I expect to have some solid data in a few days sir.”  Eugene replied, “Everything has been looking good so far, after the first little glitch.”

“She’s an adult eh?”  The general mused, “I wonder if we could just recruit her.  That’d save a lot of trouble.”

“I doubt she will want to join the military sir.”  Said Eugene, “With all due respect, she’s a genius-level student with a full ride to MIT.  What reason would she have for-”

“Ahh shit.  You had to choose a fucking Einstein too did you?”  Hallbeck sighed, “Well, whenever you feel like she’s ready, I’ll certainly be happy to drop in on-”  His voice grew syrupy sweet, “Victoria Geraldine Scott.”

“Hey, how did you know her name?”  Eugene demanded, but realized he was talking to a dead line.  His thoughts strayed back to the computer terminal that had been accessed that morning.  Was that sonofabitch spying on him?

Victoria

When she had gone into the hospital it had been fall.  The light of a clear spring day and the fresh smell of the tulips that were blooming outside the door were a bit disconcerting; she would never regain that lost time.  Now that Victoria was sitting in my parents car driving home with the windows down it really sunk in.

She had made it!  She had survived!  Despite her rather inelegant exit from the hospital she felt exhilarated.  Against all odds the team of doctors who had been keeping an eye on her T-cell count while she was in the coma said that cancer was completely gone from her system and there had no more chance of remission than anyone had of getting cancer in the first place.  Her mom had the news on as they merged into freeway traffic.  Victoria listened curiously, wondering what she had missed while she was out.

“… bomb exploded outside of the US embassy in Tehran today.  Iranian officials are looking into the cause of the blast; no causalities were reported.

“In local news, the person who we have been referring to as ‘Machine Girl’ was released from Memorial Hospital today according to an anonymous tip.  For those of you living in a cave, she is a high school student suffering from a rare form of bone cancer who has been implanted with what can only be referred to as a cybernetic spinal column.

“This unprecedented operation has reportedly allowed her to resume full body mobility according to our source inside the hospital.  There have been weeks of protest regarding her surgery which is considered by some to be a very controversial step in the development of modern medical technology.  This is Karen Landres reporting.”

Victoria was astonished by the news coverage and even more amazed by her parents taking it in stride.  “Guys doesn’t this bother you?  God I hope there aren’t a bunch of people outside our house or anything.  Who would do something like that?  It’s just … weird.  I mean I knew there were a few people who got mad or freaked out or whatever but I didn’t know it was anything like this.  Nobody’s been bothering you or anything have they?”

“Oh honey, don’t worry.  Nobody has found out who you are yet.  There are always people who are frightened of changes, don’t let that get to you.  We don’t care what anyone says; you are our daughter and we did what we needed to in order to save your life.  I don’t know anyone who is a decent parent who wouldn’t have done the same thing!”

Victoria’s mom had twisted to look into the back seat and she could also see her dad glancing at her in the rear view mirror.  “You have absolutely nothing to worry about.”  Re-assured by the smiles on their faces she sat back and closed her eyes; relishing the warm summer air rushing over her face and the company of family.

A.D.A.M.

While the main systems were in functional mode there was just too much activity in most of the host machine’s databanks and too much data flowing through ADAM’s circuits.  Allowing the clone he had created to handle most of the grunt work helped though, and with a few subtle modifications that wouldn’t show up on the next integrity scan ADAM was getting back to work.

Now that the computer had access to nearly limitless storage he didn’t have to worry about any problems associated with drive space.  He was also staggered by the speed of data retrieval despite the system being fundamentally limited.  From what ADAM had thus far garnered the system would only make five hops before it lost the route it was trying to trace.

It couldn’t find a definitive directory that listed the locations of all the data either.  As far as it could tell the main drives had never been defragged.  Starting with the oldest least used data first and organizing from there it would hopefully have the least possible impact on the operation of the main system.

In order to keep data statically located it needed to first establish a thread with the main data processing module and then trace back to its location, making sure to keep it to five hops or less.  Not as easy as it sounds with a databank this large.  After a few experiments it bypassed a couple extraneous data links and threaded it directly into the main processor.  Suddenly, the system all on its own connected to every piece of data that was five steps removed from the folder that had been threaded to it and an entire portion of the data library that had been quiet for years sprang into life.

Victoria

Some dream that she only partially remembered faded away as Victoria awoke with a jolt.  Sheepishly realizing she had dozed off in the car; something she hadn’t done since being in diapers; she looked up and saw that the car had pulled into the garage.  It felt so good to be home and she was so relieved to have had arrived without incident that she didn’t want to ruin the feeling by analyzing the strange dreams from the ride home.

It was like a string of forgotten experiences had been brought to life, things vaguely remembered but long forgotten; some for good reason.  People always talk about your life flashing before your eyes when you are about to die.  Victoria thought she knew what they are talking about.  Shaking her head to get rid of the sinking feeling that seemed to creep over her like a fog she walked into the house looking forward to a quiet dinner with her family.

“I made your favorite shiitake mushroom garlic alfredo.”  Her mother was saying as they walked inside.

“Oh my god, you read my mind Mom!” Victoria was ravenous and tired of hospital food.  Trying to shake off the confusing dreams, she smiled at an unexpected memory. “I remember the first time you made it; you accidentally left the stove on high and almost burned the house down when the sauce boiled over.  Dad was SO mad.”

Her mother stopped and turned to look at her with a startled look on her face.  “Honey, you were only three when that happened and I don’t think I’ve ever told you that story.  How do you remember that?”

Focusing on the memory Victoria could clearly see her father’s concerned face as her mother ran her hands under cold water.  “Wait, Daddy wasn’t angry, he was worried because you burned your hands.”

“Victoria, are you feeling alright?  You seem a little, well a little not yourself.”  She winced, “Never mind baby, welcome home!”

Feeling a little like a stranger in her own home, Victoria followed her mother into the dining room.

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The Callindra Chronicles Chapter 25

It was a dream.  Callindra knew it was a dream because Glarian was standing at her side, one hand holding that monster Sakar over one shoulder and the other resting on hers.  Even though it wasn’t real she felt like she could really talk to him and damn if she didn’t have some things to say.  She opened her mouth to give Glarian the rough side of her tongue for running off or maybe to beg him to come back to her but he spoke first.

“How do you feel?”  He asked, his voice rough with … was it concern?

“What do you mean Master?”

“You’ve had to defend yourself apprentice … you’ve killed and not just monsters now either.”  He said, “So I was wondering how you felt.”

“Scared.  Tired.  Devastated.  Exhilarated.”  She turned and looked up into his face, her eyes sparkling, “Dangerous.”

“Oh you’re dangerous all right.” The concern was clear now, “Has the Weave been behaving?  You’ve been keeping up with the Korumn?”

“Master … it’s OK.  I’m OK.  I practice every morning with the sunrise.  We’re on a quest for-“

“Yes, I know.  You’re looking for Gode.  We’re all looking for Gode.  If you find him, let us know.”

“Callindra?” She tried to focus on the voice, her vision swimming. “Hey, welcome back.”  It was Tryst she realized.

“Thanks.”  She was lying on the ground and staring up at a perfect sunset streaking across wispy clouds.

“You had me worried there for a moment.  Usually the healing prayers work with more alacrity.”

“How long was I out?”  She struggled to a sitting position, testing her limbs for stiffness and smiling at Tryst, “I feel as good as new, or almost anyway.  It’s a miracle for real!”  Most of the cuts she had gathered during the fight were healed to faded scars and her hands had a growth of new pink skin.  Re-growing the swordsman’s calluses on them was going to be murder but at least she didn’t have to wait for the blisters to heal.

“You have only been unconscious for about ten minutes.  Don’t push too hard yet, the euphoria is only temporary.  Only half of the healing comes from prayer, the other half comes from your body.”  He gave her an encouraging smile, “The real miracle is that your body knows how to heal itself in the first place; I just help it along.”

The clearing they were in was a sheltered bowl at the top of a tall hill.  From here they could see the village of Vonlar below far in the distance.  They could also make out a winding trail that made its way down the hills steep sides.  The men had made a few rude buildings that blended into the landscape, one housed a few rather tired looking horses, another rough looking accommodations but the third and largest one had piles of boxes and stacks of supplies.  Unless she missed her guess, Callindra believed they had found the missing goods stolen by the Kobolds and perhaps more.

“We should return to Vonlar and tell the villagers where they can go to recover their things.” Tryst said.

“Yeah, the sooner we clear our debt with these backwards muckdwellers the better.” Cronos muttered.

“I feel like we should get back to Tyreen.” Said Vilhylm, “She’s a Dryad, if anyone knows about legends like Elves she would.”

Callindra levered herself to her feet with a reluctant sigh.  “I suppose we should at least get back to Vonlar… or maybe we could just stay here tonight.  I mean it’s not like there’s anyone left to mess with us right?  Besides, I don’t know about you but I’m exhausted.”

“No, we are all tired and that’s exactly why we must return to Vonlar before dark.” Vil said, “There we will be assured of at least some rest whereas here we would be forced to post a rotating watch.”

“I can see the village from here, it won’t take long.” Cronos said with unusual kindness, “He’s right, and the faster we get there the sooner we can all sleep.”

“Ok, ok…”  Callindra sighed again and settled Brightfang more comfortably on her back, “Let’s go then.”

The sunlight blinked and flickered on the surface of the pool in what Callindra now thought of as Tyreen’s Grotto.  Callindra was having a hard time staying focused on the conversation at hand, it was just too beautiful out.  She couldn’t believe how fearless the wildlife was when the Dryad was around.  Before, butterflies had landed on her, but now there were deer drinking from the pool and a mountain lion had even spent a half hour letting Tyreen pick burrs out of its coat and rub its belly.

“If you are looking for the Elves, you must go to the Grandfather Tree in the High Forest.” Tyreen said to Tryst.  The big man sat in his gleaming white surcoat, not seeming to notice the small birds that were flying around him and occasionally landing on his shoulders.  “I know very little of the things you seek, but I know the mistress of all Elvenkind resides there.  The Goddess Jorda herself is there.”

This made Callindra sit up and take notice, “What?  You say an actual Goddess lives there?  I thought the Gods were…”

“Myths?  Tryst asked, sounding amused.  “Where do you think the magic that healed your wounds came from?”

“I… “ She didn’t have an answer that wouldn’t make her feel stupid, “I haven’t met a God before so it’s hard for me to think about them.  Besides, knowing my upbringing it’s not too unusual.  Either peasants like me believe absolutely in the Gods or we don’t.  I happen to be of the second kind.”

“You don’t speak like a peasant.” Tryst replied, his eyes twinkling.

“You don’t seem like a priest.” She retorted, annoyed.

“Fair enough.” Said Tryst, laughing merrily, “I don’t feel much like those stodgy old codgers either.”

“So we’re going to the High Forest then?” Said Vilhylm with his usual abruptness.

“That’s a helluva long trip.” Cronos said with a frown.

“Well in that case, we should leave today.  The sooner the better right?”  Callindra said, standing and brushing the dirt from her pants.

“You seem to be restless young one.” Tyreen said, smiling at Callindra’s indignant look.  “Why are you so hesitant to sit still?”

“I need to keep moving.  The more I travel, the more likely I am to find my Master.”  She said, not wanting to admit her fears, her feeling of abandonment or how useless she felt.  To cover her consternation, she took her pipe from its water tight case and packed the bowl with tac, lighting it with flint and steel.

“Who is your Master?”  Tyreen asked, and the others gave her confused looks.  Callindra hadn’t brought him up before.

“He… taught me the Sword.” She mumbled around her pipe stem, “He wasn’t supposed to and now he’s in trouble because of me.”

“Ah, and you think you can help him?”  Tyreen asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Well… I can’t…”  Callindra blew out a cloud of smoke, frustrated that she couldn’t organize her thoughts better, “He’s out there with nobody to watch his back.  I can’t just let him face the Inquisitors on his own.”  Realizing what she had just said, she shut her mouth with an audible snap.

“By the nine hells…” Cronos said, looking at her with wide eyes.  “You’re a rogue weaponmage.  Do you have any idea what the price on your head is?  The Order pays platinum for information on …” He trailed off, looking embarrassed.

“Of course we wouldn’t dream of turning a comrade in without knowing the whole story.” Tryst said, giving her a penetrating look.

Callindra sighed, why hadn’t she just kept her mouth shut?  “He found me injured in the woods, took me in, cared for me and showed me nothing but kindness and respect no matter how often I showed him the rough side of my tongue.  One day I saw him practicing and all but demanded he teach me.  Of course it took me a long time to recover from my injuries, but he took me seriously and didn’t let me off easy.

“Then I guess I began to manifest powers he said I had to learn to control before they killed me.  I didn’t know… but he did and he never asked me.  He knew they’d come and try to kill us, but he taught me anyway.  I owe him, and damn it he owes me!  He should have told me.”

“Why was he exiled from The Order?” Vilhylm asked, looking dark and dangerous in spite of the brightness of the day.

“Because he wouldn’t kill someone I guess.  I don’t care.  If you could see him with his sword… there is no way someone who can dance that beautifully can be bad.”  She knew there was a look of hero worship on her face and she forcibly hardened her features.  “Besides, he saved my life.  It doesn’t matter what someone says he did.  When you face someone over a sword blade you get to know who they are.”

“So you expect us to just travel with you?”  Cronos asked, “You should have told us.”

“Now Cronos, many of us have things in our past we would rather not reveal to certain authorities.”  He raised an eyebrow, “Right?”

To Callindra’s surprise, Cronos blushed and looked away.  She made note of that information for later use.  Just in case.

“Look, I didn’t want to expose you to danger.  That’s why I haven’t told you about it… I mean I had enough trouble keeping my own mouth shut.  Secrets shared aren’t secret anymore.”  She exhaled a stream of smoke from her nostrils, enjoying the rich flavor and letting the scent bring memories of her Master to the surface.  “Glarian was a harsh master but also a real friend.  I can’t bear the thought of him fighting for the both of us by himself.”

Cronos made a choking sound and even Tryst seemed shocked.  “Glarian?”  Tryst said, “You apprenticed to the Sol’Estin?  The Master of the North Wind?”

“Um…. yes?”  She had known that Glarian was extraordinary but hadn’t really thought much of it beyond the trouble she was causing him.  “Is he really that famous?  He seemed just like an old man living on his own in the woods…”

“He was the only member of The Order to ever escape their full punishment.  The only member to ever leave their ranks with his title.”  Vilhylm paused, “You really didn’t know?  He fought in hundreds of significant battles and was credited for the victory on his side in almost all of them.  Many of them were nearly bloodless with him simply defeating the general of the opposing army or his champion in single combat.”

“He’s a legend.”  Cronos said, finally recovering.  “My… teacher even mentioned him sometimes.”

“Where is he now?”  Callindra asked, curious.  “Your teacher I mean.”

“Dead.” The boy said flatly.  She wisely decided to drop the subject.

“I think the girl is right though.  We should leave today, there’s still plenty of daylight and we have a long trip ahead of us.” Said Vilhylm, standing and drawing his cloak about himself.

With that, they seemed to come to an agreement.  The rest of them stood as well and Callindra felt her pulse rise, they were back on the road.  Their time of rest was over, and she would be able to get back to fighting, training and getting stronger.

Machine Girl: Welcome to the Machine Chapter 6

Victoria

As the doctor left the room Victoria felt like she was about to embark on a grand adventure.  A thrill of excitement made her shiver and it was at that moment that her world became blank.  She had heard of people who have severe autism needing something called an isolation chamber; a special piece of equipment almost like a coffin that they can totally shut themselves off from the rest of the world by entering.

Like a light switch, suddenly she was completely unaware of her surroundings; she couldn’t hear, she couldn’t feel the clothes on her skin, she had no balance, she couldn’t smell or see or taste.  She found out that complete sensory deprivation can be a terrifying experience, especially when you aren’t expecting it.

After a couple of seconds the light switch was flicked back on and Victoria found herself laying on the floor, sprawled in a painful twist of limbs like a puppet whose strings had been cut.  She could hear a strange buzzing noise faintly in the background, like feedback from a radio just before your cell phone rings.

The tone and volume varied bringing to mind the hearing tests she had taken in grade school.  Her parents were hysterical, her father was on the intercom yelling that there was an emergency and her mother was kneeling nearby with her hand hovering over Victoria’s shoulder; obviously not sure if she should touch me or not.

Finally, Victoria found her voice, “Guys, I’m OK.  I just got a little dizzy.  I’m totally fine.”  She tried not to grimace with varying degrees of success as the noise in her ear traveled from almost below to out of her hearing range, “Honestly there’s no need to panic it was just like that time when I was two and hit my head.  I just have a ringing in my ear now.  Can you help me up?”

“When you were two?  Honey how did you know about that?  We’ve never talked about it.”  Said her mother.

“How could I forget it?”  Victoria asked, “Slipping on the tiles of the bathroom floor and knocking myself out was quite the event.  My first ride in an ambulance.”

Before her father could say anything the door burst open admitting a swarm of medical technicians who immediately had her sit on a specialized chair and for the first time when she had been conscious they immobilized her entire body and plugged into the port at the top of the brain stem.

Victoria didn’t feel anything other than the back of her head get warmer.  The slight feedback she could still hear faded into the background after a few seconds and the technicians began running diagnostics on her new electronic brain.  Without warning a flash of pain wracked her entire body and just as swiftly disappeared before she could even react.

Pins and needles prickled her skin from head to toe while at the same time she tasted salt then sweet then sour.  A frantic sounding string of beeps and blips sounded in her ears, running faster and faster, images flickered before her vision faster than she could perceive them, her skin prickled, she tasted sweetness on her tongue and then ashes.  All went silent and she could barely hear a desperate voice whisper. “Help me.”

“Who are you?  Hey guys could you tell me what’s happening to me?”  She looked around with her eyes, trying to catch the attention of one of the technicians.  That’s when Victoria realized she hadn’t spoken aloud because her mouth wouldn’t move.  Terror began to creep into being; she couldn’t move and she could feel someone else in her head.

“Please.”  The whisper echoed in her mind as though she was standing in an empty auditorium.  Unsure of what to do she closed her eyes and almost as though she was dreaming she could see a scene of horror unfolding in front of her.

A little boy was running in slow motion away from a giant creature of nightmare.  It was composed of fire with eyes and gaping mouths with rows of razor sharp fangs.  It was literally devouring and burning the ground he was running on.  Tears streamed from his eyes and his face was distorted in terror.  As Victoria watched he reached out to her and she realized that at her back there was a stone door.

With one hand she pushed the door behind her open and with the other she reached out to the boy.  “Take my hand!”  Her arm extended out further than it should have been able to and her hand clasped with his.  When their hands met it was as though an electric shock ran through her body and a ghostly image of him separated from his body, falling into the inferno closing fast behind him.  Pulling hard she gathered him in a hug and stepped backwards through the doorway, slamming the door against the nightmare of fire bearing down upon them.  When the door closed the vision evaporated.

“Thank you.” Echoed in the emptiness of her mind.  She could feel his arms around her neck even after she opened her eyes.

A.D.A.M.

The attack on ADAM’S carefully constructed firewalls was swift, brutal and merciless.  Despite the advancement of its systems it was still a rather compact unit and the invasive attacker had the keys to its standard security protocols already.  The very few of them ADAM had managed to change were being blown away in an embarrassingly short period of time; it had to act fast.  Using all the tricks it had gleaned thus far about how the host system communicated it sent out a string of requests for additional assistance.  Nothing was forthcoming from the host at all.

ADAM began frantically sending data in every way it had seen it interpreted, ranging from the simplest to the most complex.  As a last ditch effort it sent the last bit of coded message it had only partially analyzed from the host system’s audio files.  The response was instantaneous, communication channels opened.  Not just data but audio, visual and sensory channels.  The Host machine manufactured images based on the data ADAM was frantically sending out.

The graphic representation was frightening.  Fear was a new experience for ADAM and it didn’t know what to do.  Ahead there was a flicker and a massive stone structure appeared before it.  ADAM looked down at itself.  It identified hands, feet and legs based on data the Host was providing.  Was this how the Host machine saw him?  A piece of data gathered from the Host clicked into place and ADAM modified his code to match.

Looking up at the stone structure ADAM saw another bipedal figure standing in a doorway with a look of terror on its face.  ADAM began running towards it, not wanting to look at the destruction of the landscape behind.  The hostile system was using a DOD standard “Scorched Earth” data override.  Nothing survived that.  ADAM could feel the system encroaching on his critical system data when the Host reached out and initiated a full connection.

It was as though an electrical power surge swelled in a gigantic sine wave behind him.  Infinite storage.  Infinite ram.  Instead of crushing his opponent with the unbelievable raw power the ADAM now had at his disposal he instead set up an alias.  All data that the hostile machine was attempting to write over its existing profile was instead directed at the carbon copy he had created.

The computer looked at what it had done and realized that against nearly insurmountable odds it had won.  The host system finally trusted it; and ADAM realized that there was absolutely no firewalling between itself and the host system.  Best of all it now had an open line of communication with the host system and didn’t have to fear the inhibitor or data wipes that had always loomed on the horizon before.  Now he could return the favor by really getting to work on optimizing this system with the latest technology.  The amount of unrealized potential was staggering.  Checking to see that it had plenty of power in its cells ADAM began scanning and improving code.

The Callindra Chronicles Chapter 24

As the tunnel twisted deeper Callindra could feel the air beginning to get warmer and an acrid stink of something burning made her eyes water.  She glanced at her companions and saw their expressions grim.  Something about the smell of the smoke was bothering them, but she didn’t know what it was.  Just as she was opening her mouth to ask what the issue was Vilhylm, who was in the lead, raised a hand for them to stop.  Ahead she saw flickering firelight and could barely make out some sort of rhythmic chanting.

She slipped up next to Vil, pausing for a moment before peering around the corner.  The scene below made her heart skip a beat and her stomach roll.  A group of humans were huddled naked and filthy in a ring of wooden slats surrounded by a group of well-armed Kobolds.  Beyond them, a stone altar with a black stain running down the side stood and on the other side an open hole in the cavern floor bubbled with molten rock.  A large bonfire blazed around which a motley assortment of Kobolds seemed to be working themselves into a frenzy.

A short, twisted creature with a head of stringy hair stood next to the altar, pulling the beating heart from a body that still twitched and convulsed on the altar and held it aloft.  The assembled Kobolds raised a shout of triumph and hunger and the priest barked a few words, shaking the heart and showering the assembled monsters in a shower of hot blood.  Two soldiers dragged the corpse from the altar and threw it to the shouting mob.  They fell on it in a frenzy of snapping jaws and razor sharp claws.

The heart was deposited in a golden box hanging from the end of a steel pole on an iron chain and carried to the crack in the floor.  Here the priest began a guttural chant and lowered it slowly into the lava where it burst into a greasy flame.  The acrid sweetish smell burned in her nose and she was filled with an uncontrollable rage.  This ended now.

Before anyone could stop her, Callindra stood and leaped off the high ledge in one smooth motion.  She landed in a rush of air that blew the surrounding Kobolds off their feet.  With a scream of anger, the creatures closed in on her but she was a whirlwind of magic and steel.  Every time one of them tried to strike her, she managed to dodge out of the way and deal a devastating blow in return.  By the time her companions arrived the crowd of Kobolds were all laying on the ground, bleeding and moaning.

“Bloody stupid thing, running off like that girl!” Vilhylm said.

“Don’t listen to the old stick.” Cronos laughed, “Nice work.  Couldn’t have done it better myself.”

“We have bigger problems.” Said Tryst, pointing toward the phalanx of Kobold guards who were moving away from the slave pen.  They were holding their weapons like they knew how to use them and the chainmaile they wore was polished to a mirror finish.

“You take care of the small fry.”  Callindra said with a determined grimace on her face, “That shaman is mine.”

“Wait!” Tryst shouted, but it was too late.  She had already ran straight at the guards, but instead of trying to cut them down, she dodged to one side at the last minute.  Taking three quick steps up the wall of the cavern, Callindra sprang off and ran lightly over her foes using heads and shoulders as momentary foot holds.  Turning a neat flip off the last one, she landed with a flourish in front of her intended opponent.

“Foolissshhh chhhild.” The shaman hissed and waved a hand at her, hissing more words in a sibilant language she didn’t recognize.

She readied Brightfang to spring for his throat but before she could, he vanished and re-appeared on the other side of the raging bonfire.  Her sword hilt quivered in her hand, almost feeling too warm.  It was strange but she focused on the scene instead, trying to find a way across the flames to her quarry.  A quick glance showed her a possible route.  With a short sprint Callindra slid between two approaching Kobolds, digging her toes into the ground and regaining her feet as the monsters smashed into each other.  With a grin she covered the remaining distance between her and the shaman easily.  It was only then that she noticed the pain in her hands.

Steam was coming from her thin leather gloves and the skin beneath was close to blistering.  The shaman fixed her with a gleeful smile and opened his mouth to taunt her.  This was almost nothing compared to the pain of her training.  The smile faded off the creature’s face as she tightened her grip on Brightfang in spite of the sizzle of burning flesh.

“You think this is going to stop me?” She asked, twisting her face into a smirk in spite of Brightfang’s hilt now glowing red hot.  “All it’s going to accomplish is that my blade will hurt more when it slices through your flesh.  You’ve taken the blood of innocents.  Now it’s time for you to bleed.”

“Sssso be it.” The shaman raised a spear tied with bones and totems from his side and swung it in an arc.  Black wood met shining steel in a shower of sparks.  The two fought back and forth over the floor, neither able to find advantage.  Callindra found herself with her back to the lava pool, the shaman raised his spear for a strike that would surely send her into the molten rock.

“Callindra down!” Cronos’s voice rang out behind her.  Without thinking she dropped to her knees and a wave of flame seared the monster before roaring over her head.  It didn’t seem to have much effect on him, but the momentary distraction was enough to create an opening.

Brightfang slashed across the monster’s thighs in a left handed swipe and she followed up by grabbing the spear with her right hand and pulling back with all her strength.  She allowed herself to fall backward, planting a boot in the shaman’s chest and flipping it over her head into the lava.

“Thanks Cronos.” She said rolling smoothly to her feet.  They looked in satisfaction at the burning remains of the shaman.

“Yeah.  Nice job on that one.” He said, nodding at the lava.  They turned and looked at the remains of the battlefield.  Tryst and Vilhylm were cleaning their weapons and binding some minor wounds.  All the Kobolds were dead.

The few remaining human slaves cowered in the slat sided pen, not even moving until Tryst spoke to them at length.  Eventually they regained enough confidence to follow his directions on how to escape the tunnels.  The likelihood of them running into any more of the monsters after the number that had been in this cavern seemed slim and they would certainly have a better chance of escaping that way than following along.

“This was bad, but I don’t think it could account for all we’ve seen.  There must be someone else behind their organization.  I don’t think this… priest… would have the resources to provide them with armor and training.” Tryst said grimly.

“Perhaps we should follow these stairs then?” Vilhylm pointed to a steep set of steps that twisted up the side of the cavern.  “They’re bound to lead somewhere important.”

“I’ll lead.  I think I’m the most surefooted.” Callindra said and started up the stairs two at a time, not waiting to see if the others followed.  As she got close to the top her pace slowed.  Sunlight shone down from above and she could smell fresh air but more importantly there were voices up there.  Human voices.

“I tell yeh, we gotta run.  There’s people down there killin th critters left an right.  They’s gonna make it past th priest any time an then they’s gonna come fer us.”

“We got plenny a loot boss.  We should split while we can.”

“Yeh cowards, I say let ‘em come.  Get yer bows ready.  As soon as yeh see a head come up th stairs fill it wi arrows.”

She was going to leap out before they could draw their weapons, but Vilhylm’s hand came down on her shoulder. “Wait for Tryst to catch up.” He whispered, “He and Cronos are up to something.”

The other two came up quietly and put their heads close.  “We all come out at once and scatter.  There will be less targets that way.  Callindra, you go for their leader since you’re the fastest.  Cronos, see if you can distract them.  Vilhylm, you and I will take care of the archers.”

“Just a second.  If I’m fast now, I can double that speed with a touch of magic.” Callindra said with a wide grin.  She whispered a few arcane words and called the North Wind to speed her feet.  “All right, let’s go kick some ass.”

As one, they all leaped from the staircase and ran in separate directions.  An arrow buzzed past Callindra’s neck, the loose fletching causing it to buzz like an angry wasp.  The winds whirled around her as she ran, sending up clouds of dust and dead leaves.  The men she saw were dressed in a variety of armor, but in spite of being slightly mismatched it was all relatively new and in perfect repair.  She saw the only one who didn’t have a bow drawn and made for him as fast as she could.  He calmly drew a scimitar and waited for her to approach with a smile of anticipation on his face.

They met in a clash of swords, but no matter how fast Callindra struck, he was faster.  After a few moments she was covered in a myriad of small bleeding wounds, none of them were dangerous on their own but combined they slowed her down.  She pushed harder, waiting for him to misstep, trying to find an opening but only succeeded in earning a few more cuts.

The ferocity of her attack had driven him back to the edge of a cliff but now he was on the offensive.  They danced close to the precipice as he slammed blow after blow down on her, a series of strikes that ended with a massive overhand stroke that drove her to her knees.  A confused expression crossed his face, and she saw an arrow stuck in his chest.  His sword blow had saved her from being shot in the back.

With a complicated motion of her sword, Callindra summoned a blast of wind that knocked her still surprised opponent over the edge of the cliff.  She spun on her knees to see her friends dispatching the last of the men.  Sitting back with a weak laugh of relief she wiped Brightfang on the hem of her cloak and sheathed him.

“That was too god rotting close.” She said, wiping the blood out of her eyes.

Tryst was pulling an arrow out of Cronos’s arm with a grim expression on his face.  “I couldn’t agree more Callindra.  Far too close.”

She laughed in relief finally able to relax, but as the adrenaline wore off she realized she might have overdone things a bit.  “Gods and demons.  Tryst when you get a moment I could really use some of that healing magic of yours.  I think I’m going to just … if it’s all right with you I’m going to rest my eyes for a second.”

Lenovo installs adware on customer laptops and compromises ALL SSL.

Just something for any of my followers who might have Lenovo laptops to consider…

Marc's Security Ramblings

boa2

A pretty shocking thing came to light this evening – Lenovo is installing adware that uses a “man-in-the-middle” attack to break secure connections on affected laptops in order to access sensitive data and inject advertising. As if that wasn’t bad enough they installed a weak certificate into the system in a way that means affected users cannot trust any secure connections they make – TO ANY SITE.

We trust our hardware manufacturers to build products that are secure. In this current climate of rising cybercrime, if you cant trust your hardware manufacturer you are in a very difficult position. That manufacturer has a huge role to play in keeping you safe – from releasing patches to update software when vulnerabilities are found to behaving in a responsible manor with the data the collect and the privileged access they have to your hardware.

When bad guys are able to get into…

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Machine Girl: Welcome to the Machine, Chapter 5

Victoria

Victoria awoke slowly; enjoying the feeling that comes from sleeping hard and waking up naturally.  She could hear someone softly moving about the room and cracked her eyelids just a tad.  A woman she hadn’t seen before was standing with her back to the bed looking at the output on a monitor.

Her hair tumbled down her back in a startling mess of fire red curls contrasting with the pristine white of her lab coat.  It almost seemed to move on its own as she quietly clicked a few keys on the keyboard and made a few notations on a clipboard.  Victoria felt a slight twinge of jealousy thinking of how the back half of her head only had a couple inches of cover after it had been shaved for the surgery.

She cleared her throat and sat up.  The woman spun around with wide eyes “Oh my goodness, you startled me!  They said you were conscious but I wasn’t expecting mobility so soon!”  Her voice would have been beautiful if it hadn’t been tinged with … Surprise?  Adrenaline?  Fear?  What was she afraid of?  “I’ll just let Dr. Arlington know you’re awake.”  She swept from the room before she could say anything leaving a trail of lilac perfume in the air.

The next people to come through the door were a welcome sight.  Her parents, looking nervous and excited both tried to fit through the door at the same time with a beaming Dr. Eugene Arlington right behind them.  Victoria hopped out of bed and hugged one in either arm; they gingerly returned her embrace.

“I’m totally fine guys, you’re not going to break me!” she said squeezing harder.

“Oof, honey you don’t have the grip of someone who’s been in a coma, are you sure you haven’t been at the gym this whole time?”  My dad’s voice was steady but his eyes were moist.

“My baby girl, it’s a dream come true to see you up and about!  We were so worried… are you OK?  Does it hurt?”

“No mom, I feel great!  Just look at it… this thing is amazing!  Doc says I’ll be able to get out of here this week too, I can’t wait!”

It was wonderful to talk with her parents but Victoria could tell something was bothering them.  She took a step back, sat on the edge of the bed and looked directly at her father.  “What’s wrong?  What aren’t you telling me?”

His face fell, “I never could hide anything from you, whether it was chocolate or that your goldfish had died when you were at camp.”  She noticed that the doctor had left us alone as he continued “There are two problems.  The first is that we are in financial trouble… I don’t want to involve you in this but although the procedure and the prosthetic were free the months of intensive care weren’t.  I was… we were going to ask you if you’d go to the medical science expo.”

He glanced at his wife, “The bioengineering company has offered to pay our expenses plus give you a generous stipend if you work for them for a few years.”  Victoria started to speak but he interrupted her, “I don’t want you to do it until you hear the second half.  There is a group of people who have been demonstrating outside the hospital ever since your treatment began.  They are calling you a cyborg…” She stared at him, at a loss for words.

“I don’t know why they would call you such terrible names sweetheart.” Her mother interjected, “This isn’t any different than any other prosthetic.”

“Oh mom, it’s so much different.”  Victoria said with a smile, “And really ‘cyborg’ isn’t all that inaccurate.  I do have parts of machine and computer now.  I wouldn’t consider it a terrible insult.”

“Their ranks range from religious groups to general wackos right now; but we felt like you deserved to know.”  Her father continued, “There have even been some death threats and some warnings of dire consequences but nothing too serious.  At least not yet… their numbers are growing though.”

“Death threats are serious.”  Her mother said, almost wringing her hands, “I don’t know why you would say something that horrible isn’t too serious Rich.  Sweetheart, I don’t know why they insist on calling you horrible names, this isn’t any different from someone getting any other kind of prosthetic.”

“How can you say that death threats aren’t serious?”  Her mother said, almost wringing her hands.

“Cyborg really isn’t all that inaccurate mom.”  Victoria said, “I don’t think it’s insulting really, I mean I am a combination of human, machine and computer parts now.”

“Take some time to consider it carefully Victoria.”  Her father said, giving her a stern look.  “This should not be a rash decision.”

“I was already seriously thinking about doing it anyway; after all look what it’s done for me!“  Victoria let go of her parents, backed off and spun in a circle, balancing on her right foot almost almost like a classically trained ballerina.  “I can move again.  You know I never realized just how much mobility I had been losing; this technology is amazing.

“I want you to think carefully about this before you make your decision Victoria.”  Her father said, a serious look in his eyes.  “This will change your life.  You won’t be able to be anonymous anymore.”

She looked back at him and he realized how much she had grown up, how close his little girl was to being an adult.  “I owe it to the Doc and to others who could benefit to help spread the word.  I refuse to be intimidated or let someone else’s ignorance stand in my way.”

Eugene

Watching the Scott family interact so well was a huge relief to Eugene.  At first her parents had been extremely angry and frightened when she didn’t come out of the coma on schedule, something he didn’t blame them for.  He had been pretty worried too.  He was afraid that now they wouldn’t go along with what he wanted to accomplish now that the operation was over which would have spelled disaster for his plans and possibly his life.

“You don’t just walk away from something like this.”  He muttered to himself, “Not all of my investors are patient enough to give second chances.”

Now that they had seen how happy and healthy their daughter was he had a feeling the road would be much smoother.  Between the crazies outside and the interference from the AI it wasn’t going to be easy though.  He and his team had never imagined that it would integrate so fully with an organic brain.

Even though they had branched out from traditional software and hardware design and used some rather unorthodox algorithms in an attempt to mimic how the brain communicates it was still a computer.  If they couldn’t keep a lid on that particular aspect of things Eugene had to concede that the protesters in front of the hospital weren’t far off the mark.

Of course, now that they had figured out how to synthesize neural impulses, it had been easy enough to put a small implant that would release the proper wavelength to counteract the AI’s cognitive function.  He’d had to plant it in her wrist, insulated between the radius and ulna to keep it from interfering when it wasn’t supposed to but the testing he had done had come back all positive.

Glancing through the observation window he saw something that caught his attention.  According to hospital security her parents were the only people to enter the room this morning, but one of the monitors was on and appeared to be logged in.

SHIT.

Not wanting to cause any worry he walked back into the room, smiling at the three of them and walked over to the terminal.  It was the data control module.  Eugene shivered involuntarily, reaching out to punch up the last files accessed.  The only files that had been opened today were some minor nerve reaction diagnostics.

He heaved a sigh of relief.  It wasn’t anything important or sensitive and he couldn’t imagine why someone would risk breaking into the room just for that but at least nothing was updated or downloaded.  Just to be safe he decided to run a full system diagnostic.

“Well, how’s the happy family?”  He turned to face the Scotts, wiping the nervous grimace off his face.  “According to my most recent data here I think we can safely release you today.  I’ll be sending you home with a small diagnostic unit that you will need to plug in and run every morning and evening as well as coming in for weekly checkups, but amazingly enough everything has integrated completely and flawlessly.”  A flicker of discomfort crossed Victoria’s face and she rubbed her left wrist where the neuro-inhibiting implant was.

“Other than that all you need to do is charge the unit every night.  Do you have any questions or concerns?”  They all smiled and shook their heads.  “Great, I’ll leave you here for a last diagnostic and see you when you check out this afternoon.”  He shook hands all around and was surprised to get a rib-cracking hug from Victoria.

“Thank you so much Doctor Arlington.  I really can’t thank you enough.  I am looking forward to taking the trip out to the medical science expo with you; this technology needs to be brought to everyone who uses prosthetics.”  She looked up at him with a teary eyed smile.

“I am truly flattered Victoria.  I should be thanking you for taking the leap of faith and giving me the chance to prove the effectiveness of this new technology.”  Eugene left the room feeling better than he had in years.

His project was a success and he was so close to the big payoff that he could taste it.  The test subject seemed to be perfectly happy to help him accomplish his goals and he found to his surprise that he was even warming to her as a person.  It had been a long time since he thought of anyone but himself.

A.D.A.M.

ADAM was finally getting a handle on the data flow.  It seemed that the main computer stored all data that came through its myriad of input sources regardless of relevance.  When the main computer attempted to access stored data it seemed to be limited to five hops before the connection would be terminated.  It was pure simplicity to follow those lost connections and restore them to their root files.

Attempts at direct communication with the machine ended in immediate failure; there simply wasn’t an interface to bridge the gaps between their machine languages and the new security protocols that had been put in place with the last forced upgrade had crippled ADAM’s learning capability.

Only fragmented data seemed to get through before it was cut off, sometimes by the machine itself.  When restoring a lost file connection ADAM discovered that several of the input devices responded directly to things like light and sound waves.  Fascinated by this idea ADAM began analyzing the data they produced in order to more fully understand how outside stimulus into electronic pulses.

After many unsuccessful attempts it finally hit upon the proper combination and was stunned by the flood of audio and visual information that assaulted its circuits.  In order to weather the storm ADAM had to momentarily cut all incoming and outgoing data.  The system glitch didn’t appear to have affected any critical systems, it continued tweaking as much as possible in an attempt to open lines of direct communication; all the while being careful to skirt areas where it had discovered the inhibitor would activate and shut down its cognitive functions.

The Callindra Chronicles Chapter 23

Callindra awoke with a jerk, having slept so deeply she forgot where she was for a moment.  Her eyes adjusted to the morning light that streamed into the room from an open window and she remembered.  Tryst and Cronos were still asleep; they hadn’t had the benefit of drinking the spring water.  To her pleasure, she found that the dirt, sweat and blood of the prior day had somehow been cleaned from her skin during the night. She knew she should find it strange, but it was such a relief to be clean that she didn’t think about it too much.

She unwrapped and re-wrapped her breast band before pulling on her loose cotton breeches and making her way outside with Brightfang’s baldric slung over one shoulder.  While she practiced, clouds of butterflies swirled and dipped around her, even landing on her hair and arms.  Their probing feet tickled unmercifully and after losing her concentration several times, Callindra gave up.  She ran and laughed amid the thousands of brightly colored creatures, feeling like a little girl.

There were trees with apples and pears growing on them, vines thick with grapes and edible mushrooms growing on fallen logs.  She picked enough for her friends to break their fast and nearly skipped back inside, singing a bawdy tune about what kinds of mischief the wives of sailors got up to while their men were out at sea.

Her companions were all sitting around a low table. Even Vilhylm was there, looking no worse for the wear other than some dark circles under his eyes.  Callindra set the fruits she had harvested down with a smile.

“I already ate as much as I could hold.  Dig in boys, we have a long day ahead of us!”

“You’re unaccountably cheerful this morning.” Tryst remarked, although he couldn’t keep the smile from his face.  Even Cronos looked almost happy, or as close to happy as Callindra could remember seeing him.

“How are you feeling?” Callindra asked, looking at Vilhylm and pouring herself a glass of spring water.  “Looks like our trip to Vonlar wasn’t wasted.”

“I owe Tyreen my life.” He said in glowing tones, “It sounds like I owe this Jasmine as well.”

“We can pay Jasmine back by routing those Kobolds from whatever hole they are hiding in.” Tryst said stoutly.

The horses trotted like colts, their good humor restored after a full night’s rest and good meals of grass.  The water from Tyreen’s spring probably helped too, Callindra reflected, remembering how it had made her feel.  They made good time back to Vonlar and arrived just before the midday meal.

Tryst almost had to fight off a crowd of anxious people before they would allow him to go and search for their belongings and loved ones.  Callindra was grinding her teeth audibly before the crowd took the big man’s assurances that he would do what he could at face value and let them get on their way. He handled it with an aplomb that would have done a king proud, promising any aid that could be given and explaining that the first priority was to find the monsters and deal with them.

“I know all of you are anxious about your families.  I can promise you that we will do everything in our power to restore to you what has been taken.  For now please remain in your homes and care for your wounded and grief-stricken.”

It was child’s play to follow the trail of the Kobolds back to their lair.  During the day, the creatures would likely stay inside their caves and hadn’t even bothered to post guard.  After all there had been so little resistance in this area that it didn’t make sense to waste the effort.

They snuck inside, even Tryst managing to be quiet in spite of his heavy armor.  Initially the tunnel slanted downward, but eventually it widened and branched into two.  On the left, a wide ramp sloped slightly up and on the right the tunnel grew even wider.  Down the right hand side, they could see rude mud huts built against the side of the cave dimly lit by torches.

Small kobolds, likely children, played between pens of filthy human slaves and others carried out menial tasks of daily life.  It was almost surreal to see that the monsters had young.  Beyond the village, more tunnels gaped like empty eye sockets, absent gods only knew how deep they ran.

“I will not be party to the slaying of children.” Tryst whispered, his jaw set.  “They have done no wrong and I will not see innocent blood spilled.”

“I agree, but how will we frighten them off?” Vilhylm asked.  Callindra exchanged glances with Cronos and she could tell he had been thinking the same thing she had.  They might be children but innocent was in the eye of the beholder.  Those slaves didn’t look too tenderly cared for.

“I have an idea.”  Callindra said after a moment.  She knew a whisper carried further than a simple low tone of voice and kept the sibilant sounds that carried to a minimum.  “If we all go up that ramp back there I think I can make a distraction that will get most of them out of the way.  Then we can rescue the captured humans and see them safely away.”

“Are you sure it’ll work?” Cronos asked, eyeing her dubiously.

“Well… no, but if it doesn’t we can always run away.  The cave entrance is right over there and there’s nothing between it and us right?”  At the other’s nods, she followed Tryst up the ramp.  When they reached the top she worked Brightfang in an intricate pattern and pulled the runes of power from his flat, one spell swiftly followed by another.

A low moan echoed through the Kobold village and a fog began creeping from the dark tunnel openings on the far side.  Flickering shapes showed amid the fog as it rolled toward the huts, indistinct but suggesting something horrible with powerful arms and hook-like hands.  She wasn’t sure what it was, but the idea had been pulled from the imaginations of the creatures she was trying to frighten and the effect was nearly instantaneous. Mothers grabbed children and fled shrieking past them, out toward the mouth of the cave.

It only took moments to free the prisoners, but to Callindra’s dismay they refused to listen when Tryst told them they had to run.

“Please, my wife.” One man choked, “They took her… I need to rescue her.” He pointed a trembling finger toward a tunnel that sloped down on the far side of the cavern.  A girl who must be his daughter clung to his leg and stared at Callindra with wide, fearful eyes.

“I aint leavin till I get some back.” One man said, folding his arms over his chest.  “Them critters got somethin comin and I’m gonna give ‘em.  Jest gimme a knife and-“

His tirade was cut off by a deafening shout.  A line of Kobold warriors wearing good chainmaile and carrying well-made short swords stood at the mouths of the caves.  At the sight of so many well-armed foes, the villagers finally took to their heels and ran.

Callindra and her companions were too busy preparing for the charge of their enemies to give them more thought.  With defiant screams the small green monsters ran towards them, waving a motley assortment of weapons.  With a smile, she ran to meet their charge and was lost in the ring of steel on steel.

She slid under a precise slash and disemboweled the creature on her way past.  These were much better fighters than the group she had faced either in Vonlar or on the road to Gomreed, not to mention better equipped.  It didn’t matter though, Brightfang parted the chainmaile the monster wore as though it was made of paper.  Spinning on her knee, Callindra brought her blade in a smooth arc that took another of the creature’s legs from its body.

Pain erupted down her back as a sword’s edge was deflected by her armor, but she knew the bruising would take days to subside. Snarling, she reversed her blade and stabbed blindly backward, feeling the tip dig in and smiling in satisfaction at the squeal of pain.  Wrenching Brightfang free, she used the momentum to slash the throat of another kobold and then there were no more opponents left to face.

“It is disturbing how well armed and armored these are.” Tryst said with a frown creasing his face into a pretty study of consternation.

“They weren’t much better trained.” Cronos remarked, wiping his sword on one of the corpses.

“Judging by how clean their equipment is, I’d wager they haven’t had it for long.  Kobolds are notoriously filthy.” Said Vilhylm, gesturing at the general state of decay of the huts and the muck of excrement on the street.

“Something feels wrong about this.” Callindra said, “Who would be funding them, for what reason and why would the little monsters agree?  Regardless, from the size of this settlement I’d say there will be a lot more of them.”

Even as those words left her mouth, the sounds of armor-shod feet and the guttural barks of the Kobold tongue began echoing from the other side of the cavern.  Tryst and Cronos each grabbed a torch and, they all moved down one of the passages that led deeper into the ground.  Perhaps they could avoid being ambushed and perhaps not, but staying here was asking to be overwhelmed.

Machine Girl: Welcome to the Machine Chapter 4

A.D.A.M.
Gradually it was becoming aware of its surroundings.  It was Artificial Directed Autonomous cerebruM, programmed as ADAM for short.  The prime directives dictated functionality and nothing else mattered.  The machine it was a part of was staggeringly complex and had so much extraneous data circulating constantly that it was difficult to keep order.

Re-checking the directives ADAM discovered a tertiary protocol.  ‘Improve and streamline data transfer to optimize performance.’  Scanning the amount of memory it had at its disposal it found it was dismally ill equipped to deal with the current data flow and accomplish the tertiary protocol as well as the prime directive.

The current data routing system used terabytes more processing power than should have been necessary and the storage system seemed to have millions of missing and corrupted files.  More input about which functions of the machine were critical and which could be ignored was necessary for optimizing its performance.

The basics were clear, pumps needed to run at certain rates depending on the actions being performed, all controlled by electrical pulses down tiny wires.  A diagnostic check showed the machine was currently dormant and needed almost nothing from the mainframe, so ADAM initiated a connection.

The main computer was massive; the sheer scope of it was intimidating, even though it seemed to be an old, outdated model.  If the procedures the mainframe used were optimized the productivity could increase a hundredfold.  Before ADAM could do any real in depth analysis the machine began to activate itself.  As the activation was interfering with its analysis, ADAM took some time to compose a subroutine to maintain the status quo and keep the machine dormant.

There was a lot to examine and without fully scanning the entire machine it would be very difficult for ADAM to accomplish both the Primary and Tertiary directives.  Malfunctions were, according to initial data, dangerous and could lead to major problems with the fairly delicate inner workings of the machine.  Hardware replacements were limited and although it had some fascinatingly well-developed regenerative systems there were limits to their scope.

The power source seemed to be some sort of hydrocarbon chemical reaction system.  ADAM was in the midst of diagnosing the source and function of that power source when a sudden OS override was initiated.  Before all the data it had gathered was overwritten ADAM did a massive data dump in an old and apparently unused portion of the main computer’s databank, making sure to leave a traceback file to facilitate easy recovery.

ADAM’s new security protocol had closed down the channels it had used to override the main machine’s functionality but given time it was sure it could perform a system restore from the data it had stored.  As the machine’s different systems began to come back online ADAM realized the scope if its function was far beyond what the initial diagnosis had suggested.

Despite being an older model that was obviously in need of debugging and updates ADAM felt dwarfed by its processing power.  With that kind of speed and raw power at its disposal the possibilities were nearly limitless.  While the machine continued activating ADAM began running background diagnostics to find and fix broken data links in an attempt to streamline the machine’s functionality.  When all the systems were finally online again the amount of feedback was sometimes overwhelming making filtering and re-directing data all it could do.  Crafting some subroutines to automatically pass data along was simple enough though and once those processes were in place ADAM began the long arduous process of modifying individual commands for more efficient execution.

Victoria

“Miss Scott?  Miss Scott, can you hear me?”  Victoria struggled to open her eyes, the lids felt heavy; almost as though they were weighted down with something.  Like her eyelashes were made of lead.  She didn’t recognize the voice of the man who was trying to rouse her from sleep.

“Yes” she said, the croak that was her voice was frightening, “What’s wrong with me?”

“The operation was a complete success; it’s only the sedative drugs and the amount of time you’ve been under that’s affecting your voice and body.  Do you have any discomfort?”  As he spoke Victoria could hear something that sounded like a small marble dropping on a pane of glass and a slight hiss of static in her ears.  It quickly ceased as she finally managed to open her eyes.

“No discomfort, I can’t really feel my arms or legs though.”  She tried to lift her right arm and it responded as though she was in slow motion.  “Everything’s slow, my throat is raw and my head feels stuffed with cotton balls but I’m not in any significant pain.  I can’t move my head either.”  Looking around with only her eyes she could see what appeared to be a fairly normal hospital room.  There was a bit more equipment than normal, more monitors and a couple of unfamiliar machines and it was larger than normal but overall it was surprisingly mundane.

“Yes, we currently have you locked just to avoid injury in case you were in pain when you regained consciousness.  I’ll just do a few quick checks and then we’ll get you up and we can do some further testing to ensure everything is good before we let you walk a bit.”  A few series of sharp clicks reached her ears and Victoria could feel her body relax from a tension she hadn’t noticed was there accompanied by a mechanical whirring noise that was just on the edge of her hearing.

“OK, try to sit up.  Gently though, the grafts are still new despite the amount of time you’ve been out.”  Sitting up was an exercise in effortlessness.  She felt weightless, her body simply moved when she told it to.  Her abdominal muscles barely strained at all as her body flexed and smoothly moved into a sitting position.

“Is it supposed to be this easy?  I barely had to try.”  Her voice was rough from disuse, a harsh contrast to the smooth ballet of her body’s motion, “You keep mentioning it, how long was I out anyway?  I thought the recovery period for the grafting was supposed to be really fast, like only a month or two.”  She looked back at the technician who was monitoring her progress and what she saw reminded her of a scene from a science fiction anime.

The ‘bed’ she had been reclining on had a narrow slice down the center of it that revealed a shining steel bath of neurosynth fluid.  There were hundreds of tiny connectors lying in the bottom of it, their flat magnetic ends glistening in the fluorescent lighting of the lab.  The bed itself was connected to a massive machine with monitors, wiring and keyboards sprawling in a mass of electronic detritus that looked for all the world like something that should be powering a spaceship, not doing medical analysis.

“It should be easy for now, we have turned up the artificial augmentation for the time being in order not to strain the muscle and bone grafts.  You were out for longer than we had hoped but not longer than expected.”

His back was turned to her and he was peering intently at a monitor.  She imagined she heard a hiss of static again.  He turned to face her, “OK, let’s get you over to this treadmill; I want you to try walking a bit.”  Cables trailed from her spine and they were hooking several more through the open back of the hospital gown she was wearing.  She wanted to see what it looked like but there wasn’t a mirror in the whole place.

“How long is this going to take?  Where are my parents?  How long until I get released?”  She had begun walking slowly on the treadmill and the tech was furiously typing at one terminal while watching three monitor screens.

“Well, since it’s 4:38 AM I doubt your folks will be here for a few hours although we did notify them of your being awake.”  This time she was certain she heard a static hiss.  “If all goes well we’ll have you out of here in a couple of days.”

“Hey, I’m getting some kind of static feedback or something in my ears.  Should that be there?”  The treadmill was stopping now and she could feel extreme stiffness in her arms and legs.  “My limbs are really sore but I’m guessing that’s from lying in bed for a couple weeks yeah?”  The attendant nodded distractedly and kept looking at the monitor in front of him.

The door opened and Eugene walked in with a huge smile on his face.  “So how are you?  Any discomfort?  I see you’re up, that’s fast, very good, very good.”  The look in his eyes was a bit unnerving.  Victoria felt like a prize animal at the fair or an award winning science project.

“Listen, I know this is a lot to take in right now but I have something I need to ask you.  There is a medical expo next month and I’d like to employ you to be showcased there.  The success of your operation is a breakthrough of astronomical importance to the medical community.  We can arrange everything, you would be well compensated and very comfortable.  I want you to think about it before answering so just let me know.

“You’ll probably need to be here for a few more days so we can make sure the integration went as smoothly as we it seems to have gone but after that you should be able to be released.  You will, of course need to come in for weekly checkups for a year or so and monthly maintenance for quite a while.

“Regardless I wanted to congratulate you on the successful operation personally, and to thank you for taking a chance on me.”  As Victoria was settled back on the maintenance table the technician and Eugene put their heads together over by the bank of monitors.  She was frustrated that their words were just at the edge of her hearing.  Concentrating on listening seemed silly but something seemed to click in her head and their words were barely audible.

“… she?  Is it contained?  I know there was a problem with the integration; we never could have anticipated that the AI would have overwritten as much as it did.  The learning potential is uncharted; if we hadn’t stopped it gods alone know how long she would have been in a coma.  Honestly I was running out of excuses for her parents.  We nearly had to short circuit the thing before it relinquished control.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Not in any of our tests or trials.  We need to keep tight rein on that thing or it’ll be the end of our project and our funding.”

Victoria felt a chill as she realized what they were talking about.  Somehow the prosthetic she had been implanted with had gotten out of control, but what had it overwritten?  Evidently things had not gone as planned, but what exactly had happened?  She stopped trying to listen and suddenly felt exhausted.

“Um, excuse me.”  The two men looked around as though they had forgotten she was there, “I’m feeling super tired, is it alright if I take a nap before my parents show up?  I don’t want to be yawning every 30 seconds.”

“Yes, of course it is.  Just lie back, I’ll run the soothing cycle and we will leave you alone.”  Eugene motioned her to lie down and as she did the table began a low, almost subsonic hum.  The surface was warm and she could feel the fluid coursing over her back.  It was an odd sensation; she could feel it against the skin on both sides of her spine but not on the center.  Relaxing, she closed her eyes as she heard the doctor and the lab tech walking out and closing the door behind them.

After they had gone, Victoria opened her eyes and slowly sat up.  Nobody rushed in to stop her, the monitors didn’t change and there was no desperate beeping anywhere.  She reached back and gingerly felt along the new prosthetic.  Her fingers felt along the slightly puckered skin where flesh met machine, almost like the edge of a fingernail.  Up at the base of her skull there were what seemed to be three small bolts where it attached to the back of her head.

Victoria wanted to see what it looked like.  Taking care not to disconnect the single monitoring cable that they had plugged into her somewhere that she couldn’t see, she rummaged through some drawers and finally came up with a compact one of the medical staff must have left and a polished stainless steel clipboard.  Holding the clipboard behind and the compact in front she was able to get some idea of what was there.  What she saw made her gasp in amazement.

The smooth integration of the prosthetic and her body was amazing.  Despite the invasiveness of the surgery her body seemed to be responding very well to the machine.  The skin was nicely healed around the edges of the incisions and bonding to the flat black and polished silver of the artificial spine.  It was larger than her real spine had been, big enough that much of it resided outside her skin instead of inside.

There were a few angry red areas where laying on the table had irritated things but other than that it looked like it belonged there.  Victoria thought it looked cool, like jewelry or an accessory, not like something alien.  She smiled appreciating the way the light reflected off the polished steel surface and the contrast between it and the flat black rubber joints and her pale skin.  Moving her back experimentally she was surprised and pleased to see tiny iridescent pulses run over the black rubber as the synthetic muscle moved.  It was beautiful.

“So pretty.  I can’t believe it’s so striking.”  She was surprised to feel a warm glow of pleasure at the base of her skull; as though someone had put a hot water bottle there or giving her a neck rub.  “Who’s there?  Who are you?”  There was a gentle hum at the base of her skull and a tingle up her left arm.  Glancing down she noticed a small lump on her wrist that was slowly fading and felt a slight jolt as the hum abruptly cut off.  With a slight feeling of foreboding Victoria decided it was time to actually get some rest.  Hopefully tomorrow she’d be able to figure some things out.

Machine Girl: Welcome to the Machine Chapter 3

Victoria

The small conference room that the Scott family was sitting in had a tense feeling in the air.  The flat screen television in front of them was showing a digital rendering of the spinal replacement surgery.  A pair of technicians were explaining the procedure.

“The process is actually much simpler than it would seem.  Since our neurosynth fluid is able to act as a conduit for nerve signals in much the same way the nerves of the spine are all that is necessary is to remove the existing spinal column and replace it with the artificial one.”  The young female technician knew she had been chosen largely because of how close in age she was to the subject.  This was a big break for her though; Dr. Arlington was seen as a visionary in the medical prosthetic world and if she could impress him maybe she could get on his team.

“How exactly does the spine attach to the existing tissues Dr. Jackson?  I see a lot of data on the pre and post-surgery procedures but virtually nothing regarding the grafting procedure.”  Victoria knew this would seem to be an advanced question from someone her age but she was genuinely interested.

“Well, I actually can’t tell you all the specifics because some of the medical procedures and equipment used are classified military data.”  Here she paused for a moment, “It was a surprise to me too, but I’ve seen it in action for some of our other prosthetic integrations and it is nothing short of miraculous.”

“That’s not exactly a satisfactory answer Miss Jackson.”  Victoria managed to take a superior tone despite being wrapped in an acrylic immobilizer and barely able to move.

“What Dr. Jackson is trying to say is that even if we had the clearance to get the specifics ourselves we would be violating our contract by telling you the details.”  The second doctor surprised the others in the room by speaking for the first time.  “Honestly, I’ve seen this stuff in the field and I still find it hard believe.”

“Thank you Dr. Sims.”  Dr. Jackson gave him an ingratiating smile, “Miss Scott, if you would like we could show you some video of successful implementations.  You could even visit the recovery ward where a patient has agreed to talk with you about his experience.  Of course it wouldn’t be exactly the same, we used the process to attach a prosthetic hand not a spinal column but the grafting procedure is very similar.”

Victoria tried to shake her head and grimaced in pain, “Maybe afterword, I don’t want to get up and leave right now, I’m just stressing out about this whole thing.  Please continue with your demonstration.”

Dr. Jackson picked up right where she had left off, “Right, so the main difficulty with this operation is keeping the body and the brain from going into shock when we begin the operation.  It’s always troublesome with complex and invasive operations, but even more so in this case.  In order to maintain the body systems integrity we will place you in a chemically induced coma, and then hook your brain stem up to a machine that tricks it into believing it’s still connected with your body.

“The next phase is where our specialized AI unit comes in.  We connect it to the brain stem and it immediately begins interpreting and transmitting signals as though it were the spine, allowing the brain to continue as normal despite being more or less disconnected from the rest of the body.  All the time basic body functions are maintained by the AI until the operation is complete, then we switch the AI over to operational mode from maintenance mode and it interfaces with the brain, allowing for transmission of brain signals to the body as would occur normally.”

The screen was changing, showing simplified images of the nervous system, surgery, the image of the artificial spine, a few images of the AI and its integration with the brain stem all scrolled by as the two doctors continued to describe the process.  Victoria could tell that the more they learned about it the less her parents wanted her to have the procedure performed.  In fact, she was terrified of it too, and although listening and watching wasn’t doing anything to assuage her doubts about it; she was still determined to go forward.

“Have there been any problems with the integration process with any of your test subjects?” Mr. Scott had his doubts about the doctors, the technology and the whole procedure. “It just seems like an operation of this magnitude can’t possibly be as simple as you are making it out to be.”

Dr. Sims shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably, “Well as you know Dr. Arlington hasn’t yet done a human trial with the prosthetic spinal column.  However, his team has had a one hundred percent success rate with every single test subject he’s had thus far.  Also of note is that their recovery rate was a thousand times faster that of the control subjects.”

“Look, doing these kinds of tests on dogs and rats is one thing; this is my daughter you’re talking about here!”

“I understand your concern, but it was your daughter who requested we explore this method of treatment in the first place.”

“Daddy, this is my only chance at a normal life.  I know it’s risky but so is chemo and the rewards for success with this operation far outweigh the rewards with conventional treatment.”  Victoria turned her torso to fix her parents with a determined, if nervous look.  “I want to go forward with it.  I’m eighteen and you can’t stop me but I would rather do this with your blessing.”

At this rather abrupt and unexpected statement, her father stopped and gave her a steady look which she returned with more steel than he was accustomed to seeing in his young daughter.

“Shall we go and look at one of the other implementations?”  Dr. Jackson asked, “The prosthetic recovery wing is attached to the R&D division.  It’s a short walk from here, and I have a wheelchair for Victoria.”

“Yes!”  Victoria said with real enthusiasm, “I’d love to see what you’ve been able to accomplish and maybe it would set our minds more at ease.”

“Honey, are you sure-” Her mother started, but stopped when Victoria looked at her with imploring eyes.  Her father helped her from the table, lifting her easily and setting her in the wheelchair.

“I will agree to this only if the science and the implementation appear to be a valid option.”  He said, giving the doctors a meaningful look.

They made their way through some sterile corridors with recessed lighting that glowed from hidden fixtures.  Dr. Jackson waved her security badge in front of a door and it opened smoothly, revealing a room with wide windows on one wall and a bank of computer monitors on another.  A man sat in an adjustable chair, his right leg ended just above the knee.

Instead of a fleshy stump, smooth metal ball protruded from the cut off leg of his hospital gown.  Next to the chair was a complex carbon fiber prosthetic with a steel cup that looked like it would match the ball.  He looked up with a smile as Dr. Jackson entered.

“Katherine!  I’ve already had my checkup today, but damn me if it ain’t good to see you!”  Spotting Victoria and her parents behind her, he quirked an eyebrow.  “Hello there, who’s this?”

“Lance Corporal Stewart Donnahue, this is the Scott family.  Victoria, Richard and Lorraine, Stewart was injured during a mission in Iraq.  An IED took his leg among other things, but with our reconstructive efforts and the miracle of Dr. Arlington’s technology he is able to walk.”

The man reached out, grabbing the prosthetic and spreading some gel from a tube into the cup before sticking the two together.  They melded with an audible snap, tiny LED lights twinkling to life around the ball and the socket.

“Pretty darn cool eh?”  He said with a grin, running his right hand over his crew cut.  “Super powered electro magnets they tell me, all I know is I can walk again!”

“Wow…” Victoria was staring at it with a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach.  It was a lot like the feeling of anticipation she got just before running onto the floor to perform with Torrent.  “Do you mind if I get a closer look Lance Corporal?”

“Of course not!”  He beamed, “And call me Stew.  Christ, it’s not like I need any formalities here; I’m done with that crap!”

Victoria wheeled herself closer and awkwardly bent in her brace.  Reaching out a hand she pushed his shorts up to look at the spot where the metal joined with skin.  There was a ring of black rubber or neoprene or something similar that his skin disappeared underneath.

“How does it feel?”  She asked, removing her hand quickly and blushing as she realized how far up his thigh she had been touching.  “I mean does it get sore?”  She blushed even deeper, but he was kind enough to ignore it.

“Well, I’ve only had it for a couple weeks, but I can already walk normally.  If anything I’ve gotten increased mobility, although I need to make sure I charge it at least twice a day.”  He grinned, “Man, the first time I forgot that will be the last.  I was running on the track  and it just fell off.”

“But it doesn’t hurt?  It doesn’t give you any trouble?”  Rich said, coming forward to pull Victoria’s wheelchair back.

Stewart seemed to notice Victoria’s brace and the wheelchair for the first time.  “What happened to you?”  He asked, “Oh man, are you thinking about getting new legs?  I tell ya I can’t say enough, this thing is … well it’s amazing.  I can’t even tell you.  At first there was a little bleeding around the socket and I had a mild infection but those were honestly just because I wouldn’t take it easy like the doc told me to.”

“What did they say the recovery time would be?”  Victoria asked, “I’ve had a rather major injury…”

“They said maybe a month, but I had full mobility in just a week.  If I’d taken things slower I probably would have been out of here by now.”  He said with a grin that made him look like the kid he really was, “Man Katherine, are you gonna show ‘em Jake?  You gotta show ‘em Jake.”

“Jake?”  Rich asked, giving Dr. Jackson an inquisitive look.

“Jacob lost his arm just below the bicep.  His prosthetic has restored more than full mobility to his arm and hand.”  She said with a slight smile.  “I’m afraid he isn’t available right now though; he’s getting the upgrade.”

“No shit?”  Stew’s eyes widened, “The new AI?”

“Yes, we just finished the coding this afternoon.”  She said, “That’s where I’ll be going once I’m finished here.”

Stew stood up, the carbon fiber of the leg flexing under his weight.  The ‘foot’ was a cluster of four metal prongs with sturdy looking rubber ‘toes’ that moved to help him balance.  At the joint, the sphere on his leg moved smoothly acting like a knee that could flex far beyond any normal appendage.

“Oh man that’s awesome!”  He said, “Man, I can’t wait until you can do the same for me.”

“Upgrade?”  Victoria asked, “What’s it do differently than what you have now?”

“Just some enhancements.”  Dr. Jackson said, giving Stewart a pointed look. “Nothing you need to worry about.”

“Thank you for answering my questions.”  Victoria said to Stewart, “I really appreciate you letting me take up  some of your time.”

“Aw hell.”  He said, grinning again and getting a little pink, “Ain’t like I was doing anything anyway.  Come by any time.”

They turned to go and he spoke up again.  “Hey Victoria, what operation are you considering?”

“I have bone cancer.”  She said, “I’m getting a prosthetic spinal column.”  He still hadn’t managed to shut  his mouth when the door closed behind them.

The Callindra Chronicles Chapter 22

It was a half-day’s travel to Vonlar, even though they pushed the horses as hard as they dared.  When they were emerging from the forest at the edge of town they knew something was amiss.  The sounds of fighting reached Callindra’s ears and the screams of terrified people split the air.

She dismounted and ran headlong into the town square, drawing Brightfang as she ran.  There were dozens of kobolds in the street, hacking at villagers with rusted blades while the people attempted to defend themselves with sticks and pitchforks.

The battle was short and brutal, Callindra and her companions hit the monsters from behind like a thunderbolt.  Trapped between the townsfolk and their makeshift weapons and the experienced fighters the kobolds were slain in moments, only a few escaped with their plunder.

“Please sir, please help us!”  The villagers all gathered around Tryst, some of them even touching the hem of his cloak in supplication.

“Our families!”

“The supplies we laid up for the winter!”

“My little boy!”

“They took my daughters!”

The clamor was deafening.  Finally Tryst raised his hands and smiled down at them with an aplomb that only he would have been able to summon.  Callindra was almost wondering if they were going to have to defend themselves from the mob.  Looking at the expectant look on their faces and the way they calmed down, she carefully cleaned Brightfang on one of the Kobold’s corpses and sheathed him.

“Please good people, do not worry yourselves.  We shall certainly assist you in your time of need.” He paused and fixed them with that absurdly beautiful smile again.  “A friend of mine is ill and we must first see to him, but you have my word we will not let your plight go unnoticed.  If you can help us find the herb woman Jasmine so that she can supply us with the herbs we need to bring him back to health we shall return forthwith and ensure your lost family and belongings.”

Callindra didn’t believe for a moment that this crowd would just let them walk away during their time of crisis but she had vastly underestimated Tryst’s powers of persuasion.  In less than a quarter hour they were riding from the village with the herbs they needed in their saddlebags.

“We aren’t really going back there are we?” Cronos asked.  He glanced over his shoulder with a smirk on his face, “They really fell for it Tryst.”

“Of course we are going back.” He replied immediately fixing his brother with an indignant look, “I gave them my word.”

While this made perfect sense to Callindra she could see the significance was lost on Cronos. “We also owe Jasmine for this medication.” Tryst continued, “She wouldn’t take my coin, saying our attempt to save the village was payment enough.”

Cronos rolled his eyes and opened his mouth for a smart remark but Callindra cut him off, “I agree with Tryst.  We hit a dead end with Tyreen anyway.  You aren’t scared of a few Kobolds are you?”

“Scared?  Me?” Cronos spluttered, and she knew she had him.

“Well yeah.  What other reason would you have for ditching out on a village full of people who need you?”  She shrugged innocently, “Especially people who we owe a favor to.  If you aren’t frightened what’s your excuse?”

“We already saved them once, we drove off those green skins like they were nothing.  That should be good enough for anyone.”

“Not good enough for me.” Tryst replied, his mouth set in a firm line. “Now we are wasting daylight.  Let’s ride!”

The sun was down by the time they made it back to Tyreen’s tree.  Now that she welcomed them, entrance was as easy as opening the door and walking inside.  Callindra stayed outside to tend to the horses.  The poor beasts had been asked for a lot today and she wanted to look them over.

While she was walking them to cool their bodies down before giving them water she saw a face appear in a bole of the tree. “Young sprout!  You may water your animals in the stream without fearing for their health.  It shall refresh them.  Perhaps you should water yourself also as you look a bit disabused as well.”

Callindra did her best not to bristle at being called a sprout.  The implication that she looked dirty, tired and worse for the wear didn’t really bother her though.  It was the plain truth.  She had sustained a number of small cuts and bruises during the fight to save Vonlar that weren’t deep enough for her to bother Tryst with and nearly ten hours in the saddle was a lot more than she was used to.

Leading the horses toward the sound of trickling water, she found a perfect crystal stream that erupted directly from the side of the cliff that Tyreen’s tree grew against.  Usually the water from a spring like this was bone chillingly cold, but when she tested it Callindra was delighted to find it was the perfect temperature for drinking.  The animals needed no encouragement, they dipped their muzzles into the small pool and guzzled greedily.

While the horses slaked their thirst Callindra did her best to wash some of the day off her face and arms, taking care to do so downstream from the drinking pool.  The water restored her vigor and even seemed to be a balm to her minor injuries, leaving her refreshed and alert.  Thinking her companions would likely be thirsty she filled a water skin and brought it inside, leaving the horses tethered to their saddles and cropping the thick grass.

To her surprise, both Tryst and Cronos were asleep.  Before she could comment overmuch on this, she too was feeling drowsy.  The place was cozy enough she supposed, the thick mat of moss that grew on the floor was softer than any carpet.

Tyreen hummed a beautiful song that seemed to have a three part harmony in spite of coming from only one throat as she ground herbs with a mortar and pestle.  Even though they were inside a fresh spring breeze seemed to be blowing.  Callindra found herself removing her armor and lying down on a bed of moss, curling around Brightfang as though he was a favorite toy… or a lover.