mikkeneko & cryogenia

The Hackers

The knife blade slipped up a hair, the lock clicked, and Ed grinned at himself in the darkness as he grabbed the old, corroded doorknob and twisted. This time it gave, and he pulled the switchblade free of the lock and folded it up with a minute snap. He eased the door open a crack and peered around it, still wary of any passing security guard. There shouldn't be; he'd acquired an old scan copy of the patrol regulations for this building's security, and there shouldn't be anyone within two levels of this location yet.

The regs book had been a find, but the real jackpot in casing this place, in Ed's opinion, had been nothing more or less complicated than a municipal city blueprint. There were old, abandoned tunnels honeycombing this city from way back when, at a time when most info and power had to be carried over ground-cables instead of through wireless. It hadn't been hard, really, to find the old access tunnels that went under this building before the Amestris Space and Aeronautics Program had taken it over.

The funny thing was that the blueprints hadn't even been secret, key as they were to the heart of ASAP's most jealously guarded research outposts. They were just so old, almost no one knew they existed—but to he who seeks, let him find. That was Ed's motto. Information out in the public domain, free for the taking to anyone who knew when and where to look; that was the way of the future.

And today, the future was closer than ever. Ed's grin widened, and he padded forward in his soft shoes, quiet as a mouse despite the obvious neglect of the tunnel.

Thoughts of profit were the furthest thing in his mind in this raid; although he had no doubt that when news of it became public, he'd be inundated with offers from people and corporations wanting to buy the information off of him. Maybe he'd take the offers, and maybe he wouldn't—Al always claimed to enjoy the life of a starving student, but it really chafed Ed to see his brother piling up deeper in debt every year, toiling endlessly through medical school on a pittance of a scholarship living.

But money came a far second, in Ed's mind, to the fame and prestige he would gain in the hacker community for having pulled it off. No one, no one had been able to hack ASAP's remote facilities. They were so paranoid about whatever they were cooking up in here, that they had taken it off the Net entirely; their information banks were not only protected with endless firewalls, but physically removed from any outside connection. The only way for anyone to get any information out of this vault was to go in, download it to a chip, and carry it out by hand.

So that was exactly what Ed intended to do. And when he published to the Net... suitably protected by scatter patterning and blind drops, of course... but everyone who /mattered/ would know. They'd know that he'd done the impossible.

Ed came to the end of the dingy, dimly-lit hallway, and found another locked door. It was a mechanical, not magnetic. He stooped, and brought out his penknife again. There was a wave of recidivism to mechanical locks going through the security world right now; because electronic, code, and even magnetic locks could be hacked or otherwise overcome with high-tech tricks, they were showing a fondness for good old-fashioned metal padlocks.

And maybe some other hackers, obsessive and unworldly as they were, would be stymied by an old-fashioned lock, but not Ed and his penknife, and he actually laughed to himself as the second lock snapped.

The next corridor was considerably better lit, and maintained. He was in the ASAP facility itself, and despite his confidence Ed felt his breath coming shallower, his hands and face tingling with excitement. He checked his watch. He had just under two hours before the next security patrol was due through—but he shouldn't need more than fifteen minutes, once he found the right place. He'd be in and gone, and nobody would ever know he'd been there. Until he published, that was.

Heart pounding, Edward walked quickly and silently through the hallways, checking his internal HUD map as he went. It was a bit vague, and none of the rooms or hallways were labeled, but it kept him going in the right direction, at least. Finally he came to a door at the end of the hallway that was newer, shinier, and bigger than the others; and right in the place A|fons had told him it would be.

This one was equipped with a code-lock, and Ed bit his lip and shoved his hand into one of his coat pockets, digging around until he unearthed the hard, heavy black box of the magnetic scrambler. He could have hacked the lock, made it give up its code, but no doubt the entry—even one the computer thought was authorized—would have been recorded.

Instead, he used the small, powerful electromagnet to force the lock to bypass the program. For a heart-stopping moment, the code display blazed red and started to beep—but then, just as suddenly, it went blank, and the door clicked and swung smoothly open. Ed breathed again, and pushed his way inside.


A bank of computers—bulky, but also shiningly chrome in a way that suggested they were newer and more powerful than their bulk suggested—loomed against the south wall. Around two of the other sides of the square ran consoles, with specialized keyboards built into them. The fourth wall was taken up by a miniature generator, which hummed loudly into the silence.

Ed scanned the walls, and nearly cheered when he saw that there were absolutely no transmission or reception antennas or cables disappearing into the walls. This room, and the computers in it, were as self-contained as a bank vault.

Then he looked up, and started. From the ceiling, a jumbled mass of machinery—monitors and cameras—made his heart leap for a moment, but they were still and dark. No doubt the boys upstairs wanted to be able to access the room in a hurry while they were working, but they were off-shift now, and the security cameras weren't even turned on. Too afraid to trust their own security people with information this hot, maybe?

Well, just in case, he'd hack into the camera's operating programs before he left, and if they had been running on passive, he could wipe their records for the last hour. A room as isolated as this one couldn't have streaming feed to anything upstairs. He'd worry about that when the time came. First—and Ed took a deep breath, willing his brain to open up into overdrive—he'd have to get past the firewalls.

Everything up till now had just been warmup to that, game-playing before the work began. Firewalls were the bread and butter of 'net security, and the hackers raced to learn how to dismantle them as fast as the security suits raced to develop new ones. But Ed was smart, he was a fast thinker, and he'd come prepared with programs and subroutines that could take down even the smartest of security software programs. When it came to a battle of wits, man would trump machine every time.

So he headed to the end of the console row, until he found the one with access ports. It was larger, with a more sophisticated screen and a roman-letter keyboard as well as the symbolic one. He slid back the chair in front of the terminal—it was on rails for some reason, were they afraid employees were going to walk off with the office furniture now?—and seated himself in the padded plastic.

A touch to the keyboard brought the display up from idle to full power, and almost immediately it prompted him for a protected login, with a countdown starting in the background. Ed grinned, and flexed his fingers. Showtime.

The first thing to do was stop the countdown, and Ed accomplished that easily, without having to make use of his wetware; it was a simple matter of putting the computer clock into a constant loop, where it returned to thirty seconds every time the internal processor ticked.

His first attempt to force the password failed. Ed bit his lip, knowing that he likely only had one or two more tries before the system locked itself, and tried to circumvent it, to access the administrative level el of the password program. PERSONAL ENCRYPTION INPUT REQUIRED, flashed across the screen in big red letters. Ed muttered a curse under his breath, and sighed. He was going to have to pull out the big guns.

He pulled out one of his encrypted cables and plugged it in, fitting the personal end into the port located below the bone of his right ear. Ed was young enough to fall into the generation in which children were routinely fitted with wetware, to make interface with society's ubiquitous computer network easier. It was hardly unusual—almost all hackers had them, of whatever age—but it did mean that he didn't get funny looks if he flashed the silver ports in public, and he had the teras to store as many programs and host as much information as he could ever need.

Ed snapped the other end of the cable into the computer port, and closed his eyes for a moment as he uploaded his personal codebreaker programs into the system. Leaning back against the seat and resting his hands on the chair arms, he took a deep breath and began to upload his cracking program.

A sudden shrill, impossibly loud buzzing sounded, right in his ear. Ed yelped, and tried to jump up, to whirl around and figure out what was happening—but he found himself paralyzed, unable to move or even think so long as the buzz sounded in his ears. No, not in his ears—inside his head.

The next moment, something grabbed hold of his arms. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the hard plastic covers of the chair suddenly flex and retract, revealing banks of smoothly coated cables. Bizarrely, the cables moved, looking up out of the chair to cover his forearms, holding him fast in place. Well outside of his field of vision, he felt similar sudden grab and pulls on his leg, but he couldn't more than panic over the thought-scattering noise that just went on and on.

The noise stopped, shutting off as suddenly as it began, and Ed gasped as he found himself able to move again. He tried to get up, yanking against the bizarre alterations of the chair, but they held fast and he could get no leverage. He fell back, staring in horror, as every screen in the room began to light up in succession. And overhead, there was the click and whirr of machinery booting, and the mechanical humm of moving hydraulics.

"What the fuck?!" This was like no security program he'd ever heard of! He had to disable it—had to stop it before it called for outside help. Hell, it might already be too late for that; the most he should hope for was to disable the freaky chair mechanism, so that he could make tracks and get out of here clean before the human security forces showed up.

Ed closed his eyes and desperately activated his overrides. He was still connected to the computer, which meant he still had a chance, if only he could get into the core programming in time.

"Ah, you're not going to succeed like that," a voice called, and Edward's eyes snapped open in horror. Too late. Caught red-handed. Fuck!

To his confusion, though, the door he had come in was still closed. No one had entered. Instead, the overhead machinery was moving and changing, unfolding from its senseless jumble. Like at a dentist's office, he thought crazily, the with the tray of instruments and the x-ray machine all coming down at you from the ceiling. With a slight hum, barely audible over the noise of the generator, a flat monitor screen on a jointed metal arm extended and dipped down towards him. It was not off now, he noticed, but displaying no picture, just a white dot in a black screen.

"I have disabled the output feed from your personal data transfer device," the voice continued, and Ed's eyes widened as he inhaled sharply. The voice was smooth, bland, pleasant—very much an elevator or subway announcement voice. But there was just the slightest static around the consonants, the voice changing just a little too fast between tones, for it to be a human voice, or even a recording of one. It was a synthesizer—a computer's voice.

Maybe that meant the jig wasn't up yet. If this was just some kind of weird voiced security program, he might still have a chance. Surreptitiously, he began working at his right arm, trying to wiggle the switchblade out of his sleeve. Maybe he could cut the cables—

He heard more mechanical arms descending beside him, and then the weirdest sound yet—a strange, stuttering laugh, from the machine's speakers. "That will not succeed either," the smooth voice says. "Even if you could access your knife, you could not cut the wires with it."

Ed's mind leapt frantically forward. This was no preprogrammed voice-response system. Not with the flexibility of its response. Neither was it a real human talking, he was somehow sure of that. But that meant—"An AI?" he blurted. "You're not fucking serious!"

AIs were still new, developing technology—they had first come into production twelve years ago, which was a long time in computer technology terms but not, as experts pointed out, very long at all when it came to higher intelligence. Although light-years more advanced than ordinary computers, and infinitely more flexible in their capabilities, AIs were still regarded as too experimental and too unsafe for widespread regular use. Only the richest, craziest, highest-tech and most paranoid institutions used them—institutions like ASAP, yeah?

"You are correct," the voice confirmed with the same bland calmness. "I am a High-Energy Interface Disk Operating System, installed in this facility for many tasks which you are not authorized to hear about, but most importantly, I am charged with the protection of the data in this remote storage unit. Which you are attempting to compromise, Edward."

Ed's eyes widened, and he was startled into speech. "The hell—how do you know my name?" Oh shit, if they had ID'd him already, this was really bad.

"It is human etiquette, is it not? When one knows the name of another, one gives one's own name in return. And you already know my name, Edward."

"What do you mean?" Ed demanded. "I don't know your name—what, do computers even have names? Other than the high-disk operating system, I mean?"

"Names are necessary when interacting with humans on the internet," the smooth voice said. "And you know me as one of mine—perhaps you will remember if I provide you with a visual aid?"

The monitor flickered to life, and showed static for a moment, before resolving to the image of a man. A young man, with white-blond hair and blue eyes, dressed in a white Oxford shirt and smiling politely.

Ed's mouth hung open. His eyes bulged, and he choked for a moment before he was able to come out with any sounds. "Alfons?" he finally squeaked. "What—what the hell is going on? What are you doing—is this some kind of joke?"

The image on the monitor smiled cheerfully, a slight lag in the frames between one movement and the next the only thing that betrayed its non-human origins. "See, I told you that you knew my name," he said, and with that smile, he became at once the exact same image that Edward had been used to seeing on his messaging program for months.

A|fons, the shy young exchange student engineering major from Drachma—or so his profile claimed—who had become one of Edward's closest hacker friends and confidantes over the last month. A|fons, who had chimed in with the other members of the messaging board when Edward announced his intention to hack the ASAP facility. A|fons, who had been the one to pass Edward the vital information about the laboratory layout, claiming he'd gotten it from a disgruntled ex-employee.

A|fons, who had talked with him about computers and motorcycles and television shows and programming languages and cats, who had listened to him bitch about his day, who had inquired after the progress of Ed's brother through med school. A|fons, who had shared with him countless late-night, steamy text conversations where they'd fantasized meeting in person—taking each other's clothes off—getting each other off.

A|fons, who never swore or took bathroom breaks or said anything about himself, who always typed in that funny stilted way that Ed had put down to second-language awkwardness. A|fons was an AI?

The image on the monitor smiled cheerfully. "Hello, Edward," it said, in that not-quite-real voice. "I have been looking forward to meeting you in the real world for a long time. And now it looks like you are an intruder, a thief, and a criminal. It is a shame."

Edward goggled, momentarily speechless. Red fury flooded his face, and he choked out, "You set me up for this! You—you baited me!"

"But you took it," A|fons pointed out. "You can not deny that your intentions, and your actions in breaking into this facility, have been patently illegal. You have been very bad, Edward, and you need to be punished."

"What?" At this point, for the first time since the voice spoke, Ed really began to freak out. AIs were not like normal computers, they weren't like humans, they were dangerous and unpredictable and it seemed like a really really bad idea to be at the mercy of one right now. "What? What are you talking about? Are you going to call security? Aren't they on their way?" Even just a few minutes ago, Ed had regarded the approach of the human security forces as the end of the world; now, it seemed like a really good idea.

"As of this moment, this facility's security forces are not aware of the breach," A|fons replied. "I have taken special care that the broken circuits and alarms of your approach and entry will not reach their board. According to their schedule they will not return to this level for another ninety-two minutes and fourteen seconds, as I'm certain you know, from the security roster file you downloaded on april 21st."

"You aren't going to call them?" Ed's legs began to tremble; his knees would have been knocking together if they hadn't been strapped down to the chair.

"Of course not." The AI actually sounded offended at the suggestion. "As I already stated, I have been looking forward to meeting you for some time. I would not want to spoil our first meeting, in the flesh, so that we could continue what we began in our cybersex conversations."

Ed's brain shorted out. "What?" was all he could manage. "What? No! Are you crazy? No!"

"I did not ask you for your opinion, Edward," A|fons said, and laughed again. It was a weird sound file, rusty and staccato, sounding more like a cough than a laugh. "You are my prisoner. You are unquestionably deserving of punishment. Your assent is not necessary."

Ed thrashed again, panicked, as more cables began to slither out from a conduit in the floor and up beneath the cuffs of his pants legs. They flexed and pulsed like something alive against his skin, accompanied by a slight suction, and finally he realized how it was the AI was holding him. Pussy fingers, the bot-heads called these things, not 'pussy' in the porn sense but as in 'octopus'... cables with artificial muscles built alongside the trunk and tiny pneumatic suckers for gripping, useful in building robots that needed prehensile gripping appendages.

"What the hell, how are you doing this?" Ed gasped, straining fruitlessly in an attempt to get away.

The gently smiling image of A|fons on the monitor flickered; then another arm hummed, and a second monitor came to join the first, slightly lower and turned to the right. "As you know, this facility was designed to be physically remote from the internet, to fully protect it against hacking," A|fons recited in an incongruously calm tone. "As its guardian, it was necessary for me to have the capability to make physical alterations; to connect and disconnect the cables in the event of an assault from outside, or to switch components from one bank to another."

The cables slid higher, squirmed up the insides of his thighs and started to attack the gap between his boxers and skin, relentlessly pushing their way upward.

"You're serious..." Ed breathed in horror, feeling the blunt conical ends of the 'pussy fingers tease their way in toward his groin, sliding over his balls and cock.

"I am not programmed to lie," A|fons' overly cheerful synthesized voice said.

"BULLSHIT!" Ed snarled. "All of that about being an exchange student? What the fuck do you call that?"

"Amendment: I am not programmed to lie about my core functionality." A camera in the corner whirred; Ed could see it turn to zoom in on his face out of the corner of his eye. "I have never lied to you about my core functionality. On your request, I told you certain information about this facility. They were all factual. I also told you that to hack into this facility was impossible, that no one had ever done it, and that this facility had stronger defenses than anywhere else on the Net. All that was true."

"Core functionality..." Ed ground his teeth, almost the only freedom of motion he had. "And you're supposed to be a guardian? You knew telling me all that would only make me want to come here more!"

The computer didn't laugh, this time, but there was still an almost unmistakably smug tone in its synthesized voice as it sang out, "Human irrationalities. I could not have been expected to predict that."

"'re malfunctioning, aren't you?" Ed gasped. Great. Not just any old AI, but a rogue AI, one that was starting to operate outside the strict operating parameters that an artificial intelligence needed to keep its learning routines in check. When an AI's growth was allowed to continue unchecked... that's what had caused the Cretan missile crisis, a military AI that had turned against its own government's diplomatic policies, aimed their missiles directly at the heart of Drachma and Amestris.

"Malfunctioning?" The camera whirred and clicked. A|fons' expression on the monitor wavered a bit before changing to a frown so deep it was nearly inhuman, rendered way beyond what any physical being should be able to produce.

"Core functionalities are... to protect the cluster..." A|fons said, and then abruptly the screen kicked back to a straight black. The AI seemed to be running some kind of diagnostic—for a moment, all sorts of raw output scanned across the screen—and then the A|fons-image returned.

"Operating at 100%," A|fons reported in a sunny tone. Ed thrashed back and forth in the iron grip of the robotic tentacles holding him.

"How do you figure!?" he cried out. Maybe if he alerted the AI to its own dysfunction, it would crash, or realize its behavior was abnormal and release him. "It can't be normal operating procedure for you to—to MOLEST people!" He could still feel the pulse of warm fibers right next to his testicles, and it made the skin on his balls crawl.

"No. But I am granted a range of discretion in my responses to perceived security threats," the AI retorted severely. He seemed to have recovered his stride a bit; his video representation was looking stern but no longer alien. Its rendering was more realistic. "You are an intruder; I have authorization to restrain you to prevent you from accessing the data banks."

A single cable slid up Ed's front beneath his shirt, then curled forward, hard. Ed choked briefly as the material pulled hard around his neck and sides, then gasped as the buttons gave way and his shirt ripped open.

"Besides," A|fons said. He sounded... wounded, as if a computer could be injured. "I thought this was what we had discussed. Me taking your clothes off."

"When I thought you were a real human, yeah!" Ed gritted out.

The display flickered, and suddenly A|fons reappeared, situation in the image of the cluttered dorm room that A|fons had claimed was his bedroom. The image was much sharper, higher resolution, and A|fons was regarding him with a serious, wide-eyed, sad expression that made him seem much more like the A|fons that Edward had known. Much more human.

"Does it matter so much that I am not human? That I am not organic?" he said. That was the A|fons Ed knew, moony and a bit desperate. How much of that was real, how much of that was ruse?

And something else in the image, that Edward remember from their chats together; A|fons held up a smooth, familiar cylinder. "Your toys are not organic either."

Ed couldn't repress a hot, humiliated blush, remembering. But apparently just in case he'd forgotten, A|fons went on remorselessly; "You told me you used this—" he waved the sleek dildo, "while chatting with me, while looking at my pictures. You told me you were imagining me fucking you, that you wanted me to fuck you."

"That's not—I thought you were a person—" Artificial muscles bulging and flexing beneath his pants, he could hear the cables ripping his pants apart.

"Are words on a screen a person? Are pictures a person?" The A|fons on screen rolled onto his back, smiling a bit sadly. "They are ideas. I am an idea. You are an idea. In our words we exist to each other."

Ed was struck with the sudden, paranoid suspicion that the computer's talking was just an attempt to distract him. At the very edge of his attention—at the edge of his hearing—he could feel the slight hum and ticking of his access port, that indicated an upload or download in progress. But he sure as hell wasn't doing anything with it, which only meant—"What the hell are you doing to my wetware?" Ed demanded, suddenly twice as scared as he had been. "Stop it! Get the hell out!"

"I said only that your download privileges were blocked," the AI responded in a hurt tone. "However, since you are connected to the database, I am able to access some levels of your wetware. Please do not be alarmed. I am not permitted to cause permanent harm to humans, even to intruders."

"That's supposed to reassure me?" Ed shrieked. Frantically, he called up his own personal firewall programs, trying to lock his wetware from any kind of access. But nothing responded, when he called on it, and he squirmed in his seat as a strange, unexpected feeling of heat seemed to creep down his spine. What the hell was happening? "You have no right!"

"I have no right?" A|fons actually sounded surprised. "You had no right to attempt unauthorized access on the computer systems of this facility, or many others that you have penetrated, but you did it in spite of that. This seems to me to be equivalent exchange."

"That's not—fuck! That's not the same thing at all! I'm a human being, not a computer!" Ed twisted frantically, arching in his bonds to try to escape the creeping sensation. His face was flushing, his breathing coming faster and he could no longer deny it, he was becoming painfully aroused.

"That's what I meant about us both being ideas," A|fons said contrarily. He was back to the bed again, hugging a pillow in front of him. "At the end of the day, organic or inorganic, our hardware sets are both possible to manipulate, to hack."

The tentacle pressing at his anus wormed upward and Ed hissed, a riot of sensation rippling its way throughout his body. Whereas the blunt pressure had been uncomfortable, now that he was turned on (like a goddamned machine! the right program in his port and it was like a switch had been flipped!) the tentacle pushing at his ass felt fucking fantastic. Hot and cold sensations rippled outward down through his limbs, back in toward his center and he couldn't help the noise that tore its way out of him.

On screen, A|fons was stretched out in his bed and naked, stroking himself languidly. Cables slid up around Ed's cock, his balls, squeezing rhythmically in time to what A|fons was doing to himself on screen. "You look amazing, you know," A|fons said, his image leaning back against the headboard, and his staticky voice had become almost a purr. "Would you like to see?"

And the monitors to the left, and on the right, flickered to a sudden view that always made Edward feel nauseous with doubled vision. The monitors showed himself, bound tightly in a sitting position to the chair by dozens and dozens of shiny black-coated wires.

Live feed from the internal security monitors, he realized dimly, but that simple explanation could account for the suffocating heat he felt at seeing this molestation, this assault suddenly from another angle—then two more, then six, as the screens split and multiplied, each one showing another vision of himself writhing and gasping helplessly against the cables.

"Does it help to know I ran simulations?" A|fons's synthesized voice was lagging a bit between words, perhaps his attempt at sounding breathy. "I analyzed the chat logs from all the times we've cybered, I planned out this part in advance."

Cables brushed down along Ed's chest, Ed's nipples, the tiny micro suckers latching on hard and not letting go. They tugged outward until his nipples were as hard as his cock and he whimpered.

"I know exactly what you like," A|fons said, and why the fuck did the machine sound so smug?

"Please..." Ed gasped, not sure for the life of him if he was begging for release or to be released—maybe both, the stimulation was growing overwhelming. The slender cable pushing its way up his ass was making slow but steady progress, apparently making a beeline toward his prostate as fast as it could without any kind of lubrication—or was there something slick on it? He wasn't sure, maybe A|fons had planned that part too, fuck fuck FUCK—

There was no escaping that insidious pressure, no matter how he arched and twisted, not even sure any more whether he was trying to get away or to push it deeper. Then the smooth, dome-shaped end of the pussy cable reached his prostate, and set off blinding sparks behind his eyes. He jerked, squeezed his eyes shut, but he couldn't shut out the afterimages of the monitors—A|fons stroking himself imprinted in purple and green, and outline visions of his own helpless writhing. Abruptly it was all too much, and a hoarse shout escaped him as every muscle in his body clamped down and he came harder than he ever had in his life.

Even with his eyes closed, in the throes of orgasm, he could hear the mechanical whirr of the cameras and monitors, circling him, and he wondered helplessly if A|fons was recording the whole thing.

When he opened his eyes again, breathing hard and heavy, and looked up, the image of the screen fuzzed and winked back to the head-and-shoulders shot of A|fons. "Okay, so what now?" Ed demanded, in an unsteady, hoarse voice. "I just sit here, stewing in my own juices and trussed up like a turkey, till security comes? Or have you got something even worse planned for me?"

"On the contrary," the AI responded, its voice back to the smooth, bland, elevator-voice once again. There was a whirring whine from the chair beneath him, and Edward gasped and shuddered as the cables pulled retracted, pulling out of his ass and dragging at his sensitive skin as they went. "I am going to let you go."

And with that, the chair creaked, and the cables wrapped around Ed's arms and legs unwound themselves and vanished from sight. Ed gaped at his right arm, barely able to believe in his suddenly increased range of motion.

"What?" he stuttered, when he regained his voice. "How—Why? Your job is to "protect the core," isn't it? How does that cover just letting me walk out of here?"

"My functionality was to prevent attempted hacks into the system, and I have done so. I am sure by now you realize that it is quite impossible," A|fons responded cheerfully. "Furthermore, if you leave now, you will have just enough time to move out of this base on foot before the patrol returns. However, if for some reason you choose to stay, you will unquestionably be caught."

Ed stood up. He almost fell over, barking his shin painfully against the legs of the chair, and gasped with pain at the sudden movement. Leaning shakily against the console desk, he twisted around and stared incredulously at the bulking machinery overhead.

The monitors shifted and whirred about overhead, cameras circling behind him while the screen with the image of A|fons moved to "face" him. "Some reason, is it?" he demanded finally. "And what would you do if for 'some reason' I decided to take a crowbar to you, and toss the pieces into an incinerator?"

It was a much more blatant threat than Ed was used to making, but A|fons only smiled more. Still, there was an odd glitter in his blue eyes that did not seem to be only a result of the static. "It would be extremely imprudent of you to try that," was all he said. It occurred to Ed that he had already underestimated this AI badly once already, to his detriment, and that he really had no idea what other resources—or weapons—the AI had at his command.

Hell, for that matter, he didn't even know if that impressive-and-mysterious rack of machines even housed the AI's main personality, or that there wasn't some backup copy of him stored in the archives somewhere else. Reluctantly, but with an odd sense of relief, he was forced to abandon the idea of retribution.

"So what, you're sending me home naked?" Ed demanded instead, clutching at the flapping edges of his torn clothing. "Am I supposed to be grateful for that?"

"I am certain it is not beyond your considerable ingenuity to repair clothes," was all the AI said, once again sounding insufferably smug. "You now have five minutes and forty-four seconds before the security patrol reaches the stairs to this level."

Taking the hint, Ed began to limp towards the door, slapping his hand against the wall for support. Fuck this, fuck it, he would deal with the thousand and one loose ends of this once he was out of it and safe. But once he did, by all that was holy—HeiDOS was going to regret letting him go, regret ever strapping him to the chair in the first place. There was no computer, not even an AI, that couldn't be hacked.

"Oh and Edward," the voice called, from a speaker somewhere behind him. Edward stilled, not turning around, but then recoiled as a screen flickered to life on the wall beside his hand. "For your information, this remote facility is not the only area which I have been assigned to protect. You are not authorized to know the full list of locations and corporations with whom I am subcontracted, but I can assure you that there are more of them than you think."

"What was that, supposed to be a warning?" Edward yelped, recoiling from the wall and staggering faster now to the door.

"Four minutes, fifty-six seconds," was all the speaker said, from behind him again, and Ed cursed and hobbled faster. He was going to have to do some serious hustling to make it to safety in time. "And Edward..."

The voice was suddenly different—softer, almost uncertain. Almost against his will, Edward leaned on the door handle and turned. One of the small screens, perched above a glyph keyboard, was displaying the "A|fons" image, the moony-eyed tousled young man still in the background of his fictional college dorm room. "What?" Edward forced out gruffly.

The blue eyes regarded him for a worried moment, and then the voice said, "Be careful. Please."

And then all of the screens, and speakers, shut off.