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1

The first movements are the most difficult. The small room, the table in the middle of it, computer wires from the UPS go to the computer, the thinner wire plugged into the phone jack. The sofa stands by the wall, under the luxury carpet, the small fridge is by the opened door to the balcony. The necessary minimum. Five minutes ago I checked what's in the fridge, so I'm not threatened by hunger for today.

I turn my head, to the left, to the right the light darkens in my eyes for the moment, but it's only a moment. Nevermind, it happens.

Are you okay, Lenia?

The speakers are set for the full volume, I frown and say:

Yes.. Lower the volume.

Lower the volume lower lower agrees Windows-Home .

Enough, Vika. { complete form: Victoria, never used in the novel } Good program, docile, quick-witted and friendly one. Not without too much self confidence, as any Microsoft product, but I have to put up with it.

Good luck, says the program, When should I expect you back?

I look at the screen: the woman's face is floating there, framed by orange sparks, the young and cute face but nothing special. I'm tired of the model beauty.

I don't know.

I'd like to have 10 minutes for self adjustment..

Okay, but not more. I'll need all resources in 10 minutes.

The face on the screen frowns: the program extracts the keywords.

Only 10 minutes, says Windows-Home obediently, But I must draw your attention one more time to the fact that the level of the tasks you set for me does not always correspond to the volume of my RAM. The desired extension is

Shut up. I rise. "Shut up" is a definite order, the program doesn't dare to argue after that. I pad to the fridge and get a can of Sprite. The liquid cools the throat. It's almost a ritual the deep always dries the throat. With the can in my hand I come out on the balcony, into the warm summer evening.

It's almost always evening in Deeptown. The streets are lit by the bright light of neon signs, cars softly growl scudding along the streets, and people move in neverending stream. Twenty-five million of permanent inhabitants: the biggest megapolis in the world. Faces can't be seen from the height of eleventh floor. I finish my Sprite and throw the can down returning into the room.

Not ethical mutters the computer. Ignoring it I leave the room, put on my shoes and open the door. The staircase is empty and brightly lit, very-very clean. While I deal with the lock, the tiny bug tries to fly in through the half opened door. Oh well, lamers are having their fun. With irony I watch the persistent insect the steady flow of air blows from the apartment pushing the bug back out Finally the door is closed, the bug knocks against it in the last effort, a short flash and it falls on the floor.

Should I file the complaint to the landlord? asks Windows-Home. Now the voice comes from silver clips on my shirt's collar.

Go ahead I agree. I always forget to explain to the program that the landlord is myself.

The elevator waits for me. Usually I use the stairs peeking inside other apartments along the way. Nobody lives there anyway but now I'm in hurry. The elevator goes down very fast. I pad out into the street, look around, maybe the insect lover is still near? But there's nobody suspicious nearby, everybody mind their own business. The bug was a passer by obviously, a serial work. These are being crushed on the streets, exterminated in the apartments but they keep coming.

I was having this fun too in my time, it was extremely seldom when those bugs managed to bring any interesting info.

Lenia, the complaint from tenant #1 was received by the "Polyana" company.

I mumble, Ignore it, watching the man that walks along the street. Gee, this is something! The mixture of younger Arnold Shwarzenegger and older Clint Eastwood. Very funny. The man notices my sarcastic look and walks faster.

I raise my hand and the yellow limo stops by the sidewalk in an instant.

Lenia, your complaint was ignored!

Nevermind

This can go forever, but I have no time for games now I get into the car, the driver, a smiling guy with the perfect hairdo dressed in starched shirt, turns to me. I prefer this type of drivers: well trained and brief ones.

Deep-Transit Company is glad to welcome you!

He doesn't say the name the program stopped the taxi anonymously.

How will you pay?

Like this, I say getting the revolver out of my pocket and hit the guy on the temple really hard. He tries to block me but it's too late. I look at his pale face, shook him by the collar and order:

Al-Kabar block.

This address doesn't exist says the driver. He's knocked out and conquered.

Al-Kabar. 8-7-7-3-8. the simple code opens the access to Deep-Transit's service addresses. I could manage without hitting the driver but in this case information about the ride would remain in the company's files.

You've got it, the driver is cheerful and helpful again.

The car is off. I look into the window: residence blocks fly by, packed with skyscrapers inhabited by Deeptown's small fry and huge luxury corporate offices. Long gray IBM buildings, splendid Microsoft's palaces, tracery towers of AOL, a bit more modest offices of other leaders of computer industry.

There are plenty of others of course: furniture, grub, real estate sales firms, travel agencies, transportation companies, hospitals even the least alive and kicking company tends to open its office in Deeptown.

It's this abundance that Deep-Transit flourishes on. Traveling on foot across the city is a long fun. We fly along the freeways, stop on intersections, enter tunnels and cross road junctions. I'm waiting. I could order the driver to go the shortest way but in this case he would need to contact dispatching office and I would leave the trace

The city ends abruptly like the wall of palaces and skyscrapers was cut off by the huge knife. The city loop road and the forest across it, the thick and wild forest that separates from the fuss those who doesn't want to make a show of themselves.

Slow down, I order when we pass the mango growth and approach quite a type of the mid-Russian thicket, Stop by that next path.

It's still a long drive to Al-Kabar

I said stop!

The car stops. I open the door and make a couple of steps from the limo. The driver waits obediently. I wait too for the break in the traffic. Why would we want witnesses? Ah, finally

I aim to the car and shoot. The revolver is not very loud, the kick is slight, but the car takes fire in an instant. The driver sits inside looking forward. Several seconds, and Deep-Transit has one cab less.

Good. Let everything look like drunk punks having fun I enter the forest.

Not ethical mumbles Windows-Home from the clips.

Have you optimized yourself already?

Yes.

Okay, now I need help. Look for the cache, access code: "Ivan".

The glowing tree, says the program.

I look around. Bingo. Here it is, the huge oak tree, glimmering with the magic blue light. Glimmering for me only. I approach it, put my hand into the hollow and grab the big heavy package. Then I change into white linen shirt and pants, tie a patterned belt around, hang a short sword in a sheath on it, put several little things in pockets. I made this cache several days ago, illegally using one of the computers belonging to the Transcaucasian Railroad's transportation department. The programmers are weak there, they will not notice this little invasion for a long time.

Where's the stream? I ask.

To the right.

I bend over running water and look at my reflection, hit it with my hand several times, then start moving my finger over it, erasing. Now the blond stately robust fellow looks back at me from the troubled mirror. The face is good natured looking and plain to aversion.

Thanks, I say to the program and rise. Standing still I enjoy the forest, hell knows for how long didn't I get here out of the city's stench

Waiting for me, aren't we, Mr Nice Guy? the question from behind the back. I turn around the huge wolf, up to my chest in height, emerges from the bush.

Maybe for you, I answer admiring the wolf. Hell, he's awesome! He's really gray, and not simply gray but of exact blackish/grayish wolfs' color. The fur is felted here and there, a burdock is stuck to the right forepaw.

Shouldn't I eat you, Mr Nice Guy? asks the wolf and bares his teeth, his fangs are yellow like smoker's, one is missing totally.

I improvise mockingly, Why would thou brag emptily, run thouself onto my mighty sword? Better serve me well!

The wolf smiles and sits down, And what the payment will be, the mighty warrior?

Three grands each, I inform him.

The wolf nods, satisfied, rubs his muzzle with a paw and asks, Al-Kabar?

Good guess.

Mission?

Theft.

Who's the customer?

I just shrug. The answer is as rhetoric as the question. The customers don't like to disclose themselves.

Let's give it a try, decides the wolf, Are you ready?

Quite.

Let's go.

I scramble onto the wolf's back and he runs through the forest in relaxed pace. I instinctively duck the tree branches, the wolf snickers. Let him have some fun.

In a couple of minutes we leave the forest. The yellow sand is under the feet now. It's very hot, and wind blows make me to narrow my eyes. The chasm nearly 100 meters wide is ahead, and the Eastern styled city can be seen on the opposite side. Minarets, domes, everything in orange-yellow-green colors. Pretty nice. Not far away from us there's a well, let's call it the "bridge" across the chasm: the thread, thin as a string. One its end is on the city wall, the other is being held in the hand of the ugly stone statue around 10 meters high. The statue's face is quite terrifying.

Looks like a tough piece of work notes the wolf, don't you think you've sold yourself too cheap, Ivan The Prince?

God knows I answer examining the statue, I was warned about the bridge

What are you gonna steal?

Ripe apples

Oh, so this is the reason for all this masquerade snickers the wolf again, And what is inside the apples? { here is a reference to the Russian fairy tales of course }

I dunno, I spring down from his back, keeping my hand on his fur, Okay, gimme a second, I'll grab some soda and will be right back

Go ahead, agrees the wolf gazing around.

I half close my eyes.

Abyss-abyss, I'm not yours let me go, abyss

I shivered slightly and stood up; tiny screens before my eyes, the desert, the chasm, the statue and the city in the distance is on them, very nice drawing. Al-Kabar has good designers.

The virtual helmet is heavy, one of the most sophisticated models by Sony: with excellent color screens, great speakers and built-in microphone, with air conditioner producing the air of the necessary temperature. Now it's a desert heat I took off the helmet and put it on the table, by the keyboard. The familiar woman's face appeared on the monitor.

Lenia, are you interrupting the immersion? came out of the speakers.

No. Hold on.

In the real world my room is the same as in the virtual space. The difference is though: it's not a warm Deeptown's summer evening behind the windows but the rainy St. Peterburgh autumn. It's drizzling outside, the car honks in the distance. I opened the fridge and took a can of Sprite. Let's really drink I couldn't resist the urge to look from the balcony. Of course, the empty can that I threw out into the street in virtuality, is not there. Well, let's eliminate the differences.

My hair were damp with perspiration, I wiped them with a shirt that was scattered on the chair, sat by the computer, checked the cable of the virtual suit that connects it with the computer's deep-board. The suit was working, slightly slowing down my movements as if I was walking on the sand. The left leg was slowed down a bit more than the right one: the program glitches again. Ah well, I'll fix it later.

Putting the helmet on is the same as to enter the hot oven. Those Al-Kabar's fouls surrounded themselves with the most uncomfortable conditions

Again I was looking at the virtual world, but it is yet too much like a cheap cartoon: a grainy image, a nice but rough drawing. Computers can't handle anything better.

And that's okay. What is the deep without the human after all?

I blinked once, relaxed trying to enter virtuality by my own and failed of course. I'm not in the desert, I'm at home, by the keyboard. I had to type the command:

deep [Enter] The multicolor whirlwind flashes out above the desert image. For one more second I could see the screens, the soft cushion inside the helmet, then the consciousness began to drift. The brain tried to resist, but no use, the deep program affects everybody.

But there are some people one out of 300.000 those who don't lose the link with reality completely. Those who can surface from the deep on their own. The divers.

People like me, for instance.

The wolf smirks to me, Got your whistle wet a little?

Yup.

I examine myself: is everything fine? My body in virtuality the simple drawing, translated to one or another point of Deeptown or its suburbs by the computer, but the sword on the belt and little things in the bag are not just simple pictures. These are shortcuts, program launchers which I'll need soon.

Here is the plan, I decide. I'll cross the bridge alone. Then I'll bring out the trophies and we take to our heels.

The decision is yours, agrees the wolf.

I walk on the sand, the hot wind doesn't calm down, it even seems that the grains of sand sting the eyes. This is not the helmet's merit anymore but my brain feels what I should have been feeling in the real desert..

The statue steadily comes closer and becomes more and more real. The horned head with grinning mug, the hands bulging with stone muscles. Some kind of evil genie possibly, I'm too weak in Arabic mythology. The thin thread is held by the monster's left hand.

The horsehair bridge.

I start climbing up the monster's leg. How ridiculous must my body look like now in the empty apartment shaking, pulling up by the air. don't loose concentration!

The last meter is the most difficult. I lean against the thorny stone knee, try to reach its hand and fail. Definitely, lawful Al-Kabar's visitors have some other way.

As for me, I have to climb the granite phallus of the monster first. I can hear the wolf snickering below. Shit. Isn't it really funny?!

I'm on the palm finally, trying the thread with my foot it shakes slightly. Very-very far below the cliffs and blue band of the river.

Use some courage, hero! shouts the wolf.

Common virtuality inhabitants can't cross this bridge something's wrong here.

The hand I'm standing on starts shaking and closing into a fist slowly, the thread bridge shivers, ready to tear. The awoken monster's grinning muzzle is over me.

Who are you? he roars so loud that my ears ache. In Russian by the way!

A visitor! I shout trying to free my feet from the grip of the granite fingers.

No visitor comes with the forbidden! laughs the monster.

His forefinger flies towards me as if to crush me flat. I duck forcefully, but the monster just points at the sword.

Yeah, right, this is not Deep-Transit's simple and defenseless driver program, this is an excellent security system with pseudo intellect, one degree higher than Windows-Home. How did it determine my native language?

The visitor doesn't come uninvited!

I was invited!

By whom?

I have to stake my all

You don't have the right to know this name!

I have the right for everything, informs the monster.

And the fingers clench.

Now the exit into reality is expected, as a result of the 'deadly impact', otherwise the brains can imagine the real pain shock, with all its consequences. Only those suicidal would turn off safety locks of the deep program.

Or the diver.

My battered body is scattered on the monster's palm, the skull is crushed, one eye looks into the hot dusty sky, another one at the stony nail. The genie laughs loudly, satisfied and shouts:

You who came as a wolf, remember his fate!

Bingo. This is how he figured out our language: he just heard us talking.

Though, he wasn't smart enough to understand whom is he dealing with

The monster turns into stone again. I wait for one more second, then stand up. The body assembles back together slowly. The ordinary user would now wake up in reality by the reproachfully chirping computer.

Does the security program consider the existence of divers?

The monster is motionless. I'm dead, long time dead.. I step on the hair bridge carefully

Who are you?!

Oh my, again Looks like it reacts to the touch of the bridge. Even worse.

The one who is not at your mercy! I reply.

But whose mercy you're at?

Something new.

Allah's, I answer randomly.

This time the monster just slams me with the free hand, so that I partially flow over the palm's edge and utters instructively:

It's not for you to mention the name of the Almighty, you thief.

The wolf rolls on the sand laughing maniacally. I can see it with the eye that stayed intact.

Well, the program's humor seems to be more American than Arabic I lie in thought, then stand up again. The monster is yet still.

Any detour, Vika?

This is the only external channel, informs me my computer immediately.

The voice is drifting and lifeless I really need to upgrade the RAM All other Al-Kabar's lines open by the order from inside only.

Force solution? I touch the sword's handle. The local virus is tiny, I even don't need to download it from home. To unsheathe the sword, to make one blow and

The channel will be destroyed.

Oh sure. Not for nothing does the monster hold the bridge in his hand. If the security program is destroyed the hair above the chasm would break.

Fuck.

I can't understand

Shut up.

I examine the monster. The stone eyelids half closed, little drool stalactite hangs from its mouth. Just a fake, entourage for nervous virtuality people. Just an ordinary security program on the server gateway. Somewhere inside the hair is the communication channel with Al-Kabar block. The signals circulate along, ordering to let pass or to crash the uncalled guest

Hey, Ivan The Prince, I'm in hurry! shouts the wolf.

Right, it's high time to act. So far the program hurled me back independently, but the next time the real Al-Kabar's programmers might take over, both 'virtualists' and conservative ones

Animate the Shadow, I order.

The dark silhouette on the palm stirs, gains the volume, stands up, fills with color. I make an ugly face to my copy, it grimaces in return.

Move the Shadow. Look for the password, I order again.

One second the computer 'moves' its HD, loading everything known about Al-Kabar into the shadow's memory. Then the copy steps on the bridge. Of course, it'll yield nothing, except some time.

Who are you?! roars the monster, grabbing the shadow. I hardly manage to avoid its moving fingers, crawl along the clenched fist, jump on the thread

And who are YOU? I hear from behind. Then the right hand's blow knocks me down to the monster's feet. I break into tiny pieces, lie supine looking up at my twin that wallows on the palm.

Yeah right Great job.

Who are you? asks the monster again.

The one not on your mercy, the twin keeps distracting the guard.

Whose mercy you're on then?

Only mine.

Interesting, how many more different deaths did the monster save for the thieves? Just look at his teeth horns.. well, even the phallus might do too..

Why did you come here?

To find the power over myself.

Go ahead and find it.

The palm opens, the monster turns into stone. The twin stands on the edge of the palm motionless.

Vika, where were the shadow's answers taken from?

From the open Al-Kabar's file: "Virtual job request procedure".

The wolf pads closer, whispers, What happened?

I explain.

Hey, Ivan The Prince, aren't you Ivan The Stupid by chance too? { yet another folklore hero ;-) } I can't beat that. Of course I HAD to look through ALL files, not just through the stolen data about the inside organization of the block.

Vika, merge.

I'm kinda being pulled into the shadow, now this body is the main one.

The one already allowed to step on the bridge.

The victory is Pyrrhic though. The guard reported about the visitor that tries to cross the bridge. This means I'll be warmly welcomed there.

The single that tries to fight the crowd is doomed, in any space, even virtual one.

Well, nothing else to do. It's time to go along the hair bridge.

Honestly, this procedure is almost impossible, even for the professional rope-walker. This bridge is just that: the thread above the chasm. The towers of Al-Kabar are alluring and unreachable in the distance.

Abyss-abyss I'm not yours

I closed and opened back my eyes. The picture is before me: the chasm, the thread, the buildings in the distance. Just funny Looking where I step, I started to shift my feet along the thread carefully.

It's just a picture. It's no gravity there, the drawn body can't have a center of gravity. Just step on the thread and everything will be okay Funny thing, as it turned out, the bottom of the chasm is not drawn at all, meaning that it was me, my mind which added the mountain river down there. Somebody else could see trees or lava flowing.

Now, when my subconsciousness doesn't take part in the game, the distance is covered fast. Half a minute and I'm over there.

The thread ends at the crest of the city wall. The crest is wide and there's already a couple of people, obviously waiting for me. They're drawn pretty well kind of pot-bellied robust guys with swords on their belts, one in the turban, and the other just bald. Stepping on the wall "bricks" I whisper:

Vika, turn the deep on.

Fiery sparks before my eyes. Yes, do I abuse turning the subconsciousness on-off today. Severe headache, heartbeat and general feel-down are guaranteed tomorrow. Nevermind. Good if I manage to live until tomorrow at all.

And here are the welcomers now in the normal human form.

You reached us quick, guest, says the bald one. He has a friendly face of an Arabic guard from the production of "Sindbad The Sailor" done for kids. The second one looks grotesquely Arabic too, but is much more sinister, he flashes his eyes and holds the sword handle tightly. Oh great, the only thing I ever missed is the battle virus in my computer.

The others were slower?

Nobody ever crossed this bridge before, kindly informs me the bald guard, It's impossible for the human to keep balance on the horsehair.

It means that the heaven stays empty, I sigh. Looks like it's not me who leads the events anymore but they lead me. I don't like this turn

Well, but the Hell does always have plenty of space for everybody.

Nice promise.

Move it.

Nothing else to do but to obey. Let's be submissive and polite. When in Rome, do what the Romans do.

The wide steep stairway leads down from the city wall. We descend. The good-natured guard before me, the wheezing ill-wisher behind me. I ignore him carefully, looking at the bald patch of the friendly one. He has a big wart exactly on his cinciput. Interesting, is it really drawn or my subconsciousness tricks me? It's not reasonable to leave the deep just to check such a trifle though.

The Al-Kabar block is not big, not more than a square kilometer in virtuality. It means nothing though. Some companies, like Microsoft for instance offer whole palaces for their employees to work: it's cheap and effective. Some others do with such puny little rooms that one can wonder what is virtuality here for at all.

Obviously Al-Kabar is one of those. I peek into the window of the low stone building that we pass by.

Equipment too unfamiliar one to identify, several people by the tables. One of them holds a test-tube in his hands. Ha, chemical experiments in virtuality! Something new. It's worthy only if they work on some very poisonous substances or bacterial environments. Okay, let's note this.

Where are you taking me? I ask the guard. The Bald Patch doesn't turn around, but answers:

To the Director of the corporation.

He doesn't name him, but it's said enough. Al-Kabar is an international corporation that specializes on pharmaceuticals, telephone communications and oil extraction if I'm not mistaken. Despite all Arabic entourage, it is managed from Switzerland. Friedrich Urman, it's director is the person important enough to not talk with just any visitor.

The warmest welcome is being prepared indeed

We stop before the little wooden grape twined arbor, I'm pushed forward from behind and enter. The guards stay outside.

The lodgement looks much more spacious from inside, the huge pavilion, the pool in its center where shining sleepy fish floats slowly. The table with two armchairs stands nearby, lots of flowers, I even start feeling scents.

And nobody.

Well, let's wait; I sit down in the armchair.

A slight fog before my eyes, an expected one. My communication channel is being examined. They try to determine where I came from, the volume of data I can receive and transmit per second, the programs that I have with me

Go ahead, do your job Six routers, rented for one single use that transmit the signal, and each of them tough enough to break. And in the end

the commercial Internet gate in Austria through which I entered virtuality.

I'll leave the trace but it'll lead to nowhere.

They can break my connection at any moment, kick me out of the block, but this will give them nothing all thingies-programs that I have will be invoked immediately. A little will remain for examination. But I'm very interesting to them, no doubt

The first router is traced, informs Windows-Home.

Pretty quick. I shake my head and at this moment the opposite armchair is not empty anymore.

Mr Friedrich Urman neglects Arabic coloring, he wears blinders, variegated shirt; an aged, lean and serious man.

Good afternoon diver, he says. In Russian. The voice sounds unnatural, filtered through the interpreter program.

So this is the reason for such an honor.

I'm afraid that you're mistaken, Mr Director.

When we created the bridge half a year ago, we pursued the single goal, Mr Diver: to detect you. The person being in virtuality could never cross it, Urman smiles sparingly, For the first time in my life I can see the real diver.

One-zero not in my favor.

Well, for the first time in my life I can see the real billionaire.

So you see, our meeting is fruitful already.

Windows-Home whispers,

The second router was traced

Urman frowns looks like he's informed about something too. Then inquires:

Excuse me, how many servers did you pass through to come here?

Unfortunately, I don't remember.

Urman shrugs.

How may I refer to you?

Ivan The Prince.

Brief pause, then he smiles, Somebody have explained him.

Oh, the Russian tales' hero! Are you Russian yourself?

Does it really matter?

You're absolutely right Well, Mr Diver, as far as I understand, you penetrated our block illegally

Oh really?! I'm in shock. To be honest, I just was looking for a job. I saw your ad, crossed the bridge obeyed those strange guards

One-one.

Friedrich Urman clasps his hands:

Oh, sure! We have no complaints whatsoever, Mr Diver. Except maybe those odd things that you have with you.

Slowly, demonstratively I empty my pockets: a comb, a handkerchief, a small mirror.

Here. Do you want me to give you my sword?

Urman waves his hands:

Geez, what for? We surely aren't gonna fight, are we? Let's just talk

Third router was traced.

It's such a pity that less and less time remains for our talk, I sigh.

Yes, it's never enough time. Well, Mr Diver, I have the reasons to suspect that some persons would like to obtain some of our technologies, and even managed to hire a diver in order to reap where they have not sown.

The apples, I add.

Exactly. We have a good Russian programmer working for us, he created a nice design for data storage Urman claps his hands and the air dims between us, becoming dense. One moment and the small tree appears, all sown with the fruit. I suppose that the most interesting thing among these is that small green apple on the lower branch.

I look at the desired fruit. It's small, not ripe and wormy.

How do you think diver, how much could our competitors pay for this file?

Around ten grands, I raise the price somehow.

Urman looks at me surprised, makes it more exact:

Ten thousand dollars?

Yes.

To be honest, even 100 thousand would be not enough Okay. Let's assume that I offer 150.000 to the person that tries to steal the file, on the condition that he agrees to work for us for the regular, very good salary.

What is that, cure for cancer? I ask.

No. In that case it would be priceless. It's just a cold reliever, but very, very effective. We're about to start its production but only after the less effective medicines are sold out. So, what do you think about my offer?

I'd hate to let you down, I say trying hard not to think about the offered amount, But the divers' code explicitly forbids agreements like this one.

Very well, Urman rises, I expected such an answer, and I respect your position.

He pads to the tree and plucks the apple with some effort. His lips are moving: he obviously says the password. Take it.

The apple is in my hand. It's very heavy: two Megs at least. It's useless to try to copy it, the only way is to bring it out with me. I put it in the pocket I mean, attach it to my virtual 'shell', then look at Urman.

I stake all, says Urman seriously. I sacrifice an extemely perspective technology. You can give it to Mr Shellerbach and convey my personal kind regards to him. There's one single thing I'm asking for please, return here after that and let's discuss the permanent cooperation. I wouldn't hide from you the fact that right now we are in a desperate need of diver's services.

Fourth router is traced fifth router is traced alarm! Alarm!! Alarm!!!

Okay, I rise too. So sudden.. I never suspected that the serious businessmen are able to make such generous gestures. I promise to come. But if you'll excuse me now

No Mr Diver, now YOU please excuse me. You'll easily leave our territory, but not before your real address is determined, in order to guarantee the validity of the promise just given.

The trellised pavilion's walls darken like being covered by thick cloth. I make a step it's really difficult. Urman starts moving jerkily, everything flows in my eyes, the apple in the pocket draws me to the floor with great force, Windows-Home's voice dims and loses any tones:

Alarm alrm

So that's how it goes. Billionaires are good players. Meaning, their servants to which number they try to add me.

Vika, drop the details! I whisper trying to reach the table. I wish the program would understand and obey without more questions

The pavilion changes. Ornaments are gone, the flowers lose buds and some small leafs, the texture of Urman's shirt becomes rough. But I manage to reach my toys on the table and grab the handkerchief. These personal hygiene thingies are very useful.

One wave of the handkerchief, slow as if underwater, and the shiny plane of light cuts through the falling asleep pavilion's little world. Some people call this program "the sticker", others "the road". Both definitions are true. The program searches for someone else's communication channels and starts using them for its own benefit.

Very-very new, rare and almost faultless program.

A part of the wall ruins, opening the exit out to the street. Obviously, I utilized Urman's personal channel. I grab the comb and the mirror and run.

The sharp ragged spears start to emerge from the wall: Al-Kabar's security program. I jump forward in a desperate attempt to pass between the spears.

Abyss-abyss, I'm not yours

The air conditioner blows icy air out. A slowly moving strip is on the screens percentage of transmitted data, and the gap, contracting rapacitly under it the comm channel being tightened. This is how the beauty of the most intense virtual fights looks like in reality. Stripes, characters, digits. The battle of the programs, modems, bytes of data.

Hell no! It's too disgusting and dull.

Deep! I ordered.

The head responds with pain I don't care. I storm between the spears, fall on the floor. The shiny band flows along the street crashing everything on its way. The buildings crumble, the wall blows up with a thunder-like sound. The band flies across the chasm. Now full speed forward!

Those two guards run to intercept me, both with swords, but I've unsheathed my own already. Whose virus is faster and more agile?

Mine.

This is the gift from Maniac, my friend a computer virus specialist. The deadly gift the air under my sword takes fire and hits the guards with a dragon belch. They burn in an instant turning into charcoal black carcasses.

Maniac really does love cool effects. Now the guards' computers are completely busy with an extremely important task of calculation of PI number with a million digits precision. They even have no resources left to eject the operators from virtuality. Very good, let them lie in the deep for a while instead of changing the computers.

Not ethical mutters Windows-Home dolefully.

I rush along the band. The channel is excellent, I'm above the wall in a couple of seconds. The band under my feet pushes me forward. I laugh loudly and look back.

Wow!

Just look what's going on in Al-Kabar! The streets are flooded with people, the other guards already run along the band, and something huge, snaky and unpleasant crawls out from one of the buildings. It's better not to look longer.

Faster

The band jumps over the monster genie and sets itself against the ground. The guard is alive again, it shakes, outstretches his paws up so that the hair bridge breaks but can't reach me. Neither can he move from his position: it's fixed firmly on its comm channel.

On the last meters the band starts shaking suddenly and tries to kick me back: Al-Kabar's programmers have restored the control.

But it's too late, I'm on the ground already and the Wolf rushes to me:

Jump on me NOW Ivan, time to scarper!

I leap on the wolf in an instant, look back for the last time. The guards jump down from the band and the winged shadow soars above the chasm.

Sux!!! I mutter the favorite virtual folks' curse. 'Sux' means a 'frozen' computer, a glitching program, an acescent beer, a trolleybus that had left the stop just at the moment you arrived In this case such an intense pursuit. We don't have time to copy the data from the apple comfortably and to dissolve in the thin air afterwards. We must run and tangle our traces.

My partner in the wolf's hide can do it perfectly.

We rush across the desert, then turn into the forest. The blurry shadows run behind the guards sacrifice their scary images for speed.

Is the pursuit close, Ivan The Prince? asks the wolf .

Very close! I confess.

Gee, I'll never get you outta here Ivan! roars the wolf .

I take the comb and throw it behind my back. A deafening crackle, the comb's teeth scatter around, fall on the ground and start growing turning into huge trees. Guards' movements between them become slow as if they're falling asleep the space is overfilled with the unexpected objects and the enemies' computers are jammed by the mass of junk data.

Unfortunately, this is an old trick and there's plenty of methods to fight it. Most guards manage to narrow the field of vision or to drop image details, passing the dangerous place successfully. To be exact, not the guards themselves did that but their deep-programs. Those stopped were mostly enthusiastic amateurs pursuing us just for fun.

Oh Ivan, my strength is exhausted! screams the wolf. I can't understand whether he's really worried or plays the fairy tale so recklessly.

It's the mirror's turn now. When I throw it back, my usually restrained Windows-Home screams:

NOT ETHICAL!

Sure it's not! This is not an innocent prank with quick growing baobabs anymore, and even not the local virus sword but a logical bomb of extreme power.

Where the mirror fell, the lake appears and starts widening. Some guards run into it and 'drown', disappear without a trace. Others stop on the bank helplessly. All comm channels are blocked completely in this area of virtuality. It'll be impossible to pass here for at least two more hours, then the lake will dry.

Where have you got these thingies? asks the wolf.

From Maria The Skillful, I answer after a second of hesitation. Honestly, it was that nickname that gave me an idea of today's masquerade. The wolf won't betray, he might need the similar programs too one day.

I'll note that, says the wolf gratefully, glances back quickly and asks, What is your third entree, the mighty warrior?

The dragon flies after us the battle interceptor program of the highest grade. The dragon has three heads obviously three human operators plus the usual weaponry: claws, teeth and flame. A hundred of various viruses and tough protection. It slows down just a little above the lake.

The third was used the first, I confess.

Couldn't you take more?! Play fairy tales too much, just three items and that's it? growls the wolf. He isn't right of course, one can't carry too many viruses, but we both start losing the nerve.

The wolf decides something and turns aside sharply, running even faster. Then he stops by the big mossy stump, so suddenly that I fly on the ground over his head, examines me intently and jumps over the stump.

I prefer to use the water to change my image: a stream, a river or at least a pot full of water. The werewolves are conservative though.

The wolf capsizes and turns into human: a young man in modest gray suit and patent-leather shoes. My diver friend is as elegant as always. As soon as landed, he stands, jumps again and turns into my exact copy.

Vika, the stream, I order getting his idea. But the former wolf already grabs me by my shoulders and throws over the stump shouting, No time for this bull!

It's a small pleasure to be affected by the foreign morphing program. I just have time to say: "Vika, freeze" to prevent the careful Windows-Home to resist the change.

For a long time wasn't I in the wolf's hide, since when virtuality just appeared and everybody had fun with morphing. Luckily, I don't have to stand on all fours, I change only visually. I take off the sword, give it to the new Ivan The Prince, he grabs the weapon and jumps onto my shoulders.

Come on, you lazy sack of bones! he shouts hitting my sides with his heels. I dash forward, and just in time: the dragon appears above the trees. It swoops on us and releases three flame streams. The fire flares up right on our way.

Run! screams my partner and adds in a whisper, See you tonight, at the usual place

I jerk sharply, throw him down from my back and flee, hurled by curses.

The dragon circles above for little longer, then lands by the fairy tale hero. The cowardly partner doesn't interest him. Just as expected.

I run away, whispering:

Vika, copy new files!

The fight rages behind me. Not for long though, the werewolf just has time to hit the dragon with his sword once, but the virus is harmless to the armor of the interceptor program. The white snowy cloud arises around the werewolf and he ceases to move.

Freezing. It's over. My friend have left the game he's at home already, takes off his virtual helmet, and his exact copy stands before the dragon with all stolen programs in case he had any, of course.

The dragon hits him with his paw gently and it scatters down in icy fragments. All three heads bow down to him, searching for the stolen apple.

I'm running away.

The apple in my pocket becomes lighter and lighter the data flows into my computer. I dodge between the trees, then stop so that it'd be easier for Windows-Home to download the file. The dragon's roar reaches me, it haven't found the apple and understood what happened. Who is faster?

The dragon flies up again. It will find me easily movements in virtuality leave traces. I just stand still and wait.

File transfer completed.

Yes! I won!

Exit, I order.

Really? asks Windows-Home.

Yes.

Exit from virtuality, informs the computer. The colorful sparks flash before my eyes, the world loses its bright dyes, turns into the pale and flat picture.

You successfully exited virtuality! cheerfully informs Windows-Home. The voice from the headphones is sharp and too loud. The deep blue color with a small figure of flying or better to say, falling man is on the helmet's screens, the well known emblem of the Deep, the Abyss, the virtual world.

After taking off the helmet I looked at the monitor, blinked several times. The same picture there.

Vika, thanks.

No problems, Lenia, answered Windows-Home. I taught it this small courtesy a week ago, it's always nice when the program looks more humanized than it really is.

Terminal.

The blue changed into the terminal's panel. I manually connected to the sixth router, the last one to remain intact and canceled my access. Then I canceled my temporary address in Austria.

The main threads are broken. Try to find me now Al-Kabar guys, filter all files in search for Ivan The Prince. The diver have broke free from the trap.

Not using the voice control anymore, I shut Windows-Home down, entered 3D Norton's table, opened disk D: where all my virtual trophies are stored together with a small viruses collection. Here it is, my apple: 1.5 Meg file. Looks like the simple file for Advanced-Word. A couple of smaller files are attached to it though security programs? I launched the scanner, especially developed for these types of surprises.

Yup, just as I thought: identification programs which are supposed to destroy the file if it gets to somebody else's computer.

We know this far too well And are insured against it for a long time already: identification programs simply can't see my computer. It's these dangerous things that I always store on D: disk. The scanner located some surprise inside the text file itself too a tiny program, supposedly starting in response to an attempt to read the file. Just as should have been expected. I copied the file to the magnetic diskette, then to the optical one and started to disembowel the fruit of Al-Kabar's orchards.

It turned out to be impossible to kill the security programs without destroying the file. I had to just knock them out, disable them. Then I got busy with the inner surprise. I cut the file into twenty pieces, extracted the guard program. It turned out to be an absolutely unfamiliar polymorph virus which (and it was most unpleasant) have managed to stick to my computer. After two hours of intensive work, interrupted only twice to take an aspirin tablet and to visit bathroom, I became convinced that I'll not be able to disable the virus.

It was late evening, the time when hackers just start working. I packed the virus with a text fragment and called Maniac.

I had to wait a couple of minutes until he picked up the phone. I was lucky: he easily could hang about in virtuality, indifferent to any calls, fires, floods and other annoying trifles of life.

Yes?

Maniac, it's me.

Hacker's voice softened a little.

Hi Lenia, what's up?

The new virus for your collection.

Toss it here! said Maniac, hanging up instantly.

I started the modem and sent Al-Kabar's surprise to greedy hands of the virus creator, then opened the fridge, took out bread and sausage and moved to the kitchen to set the teapot on the stove. It'll take Maniac at least half an hour to examine the virus. For the first ten minutes he'll break it, then for 20 minutes more he'll admire its structure, will laugh looking at unsuccessful solutions and frown finding some ideas he missed himself. Right since the Moscow Convention that resigned with the inevitable and legalized the production of nonfatal viruses, he specializes in making them. His viruses are excellent, capable of freezing any computer, but never destroying the data.

But Maniac called in three minutes.

Visited Al-Kabar, huh? asked he in a honey sweet voice.

Yes. it made no sense to lie, You managed it so fast?

I didn't manage it. This is my virus, buddy.

I couldn't find anything better than to mumble, "Well sorry about that"

Maniac, in the real life just Sasha { Alexander }, was deadly serious:

You what, have stolen a program from them?

Not exactly But in general yes, this was hidden in the file

Have you contacted anybody via modem? I mean, since you received the file.

No.

Lucky you, informed Maniac, You see, this is not just an ordinary virus, it's a postcard.

I didn't understand and Maniac explained:

A postcard with return address. If the virus detects the communication hardware on the computer, it attaches the second letter to any of yours: a tiny, invisible one a postcard. Without any text but with your return address. The letters leave together but later, already from the other computer, the postcard is forwarded directly to Al-Kabar's security department.

I froze inside.

I've killed the virus on the computer

You've killed not the virus itself, but its false 'reflections' created by it especially for distraction. Commonly used programs don't detect the postcard yet, it's still too rare.

What should I do?

Treat me with beer, smirked Maniac, Now you'll receive a special 'cure' from me, the special antivirus. There's no hints in it, you just start the .BAT file and it checks your machine. Note that it'll work for long, this is not a commercial product, just my personal insurance from my own virus.

Thanks.

Um-hm.. Lenia, you've nearly got into really big trouble.

Too many hackers were bred, I growled out, Shit, why haven't you ever tell me about this thing?

But how could I know you are so deep in computer burglary? reasonably objected Maniac, Next time let me know when you are about to break into cool places. Okay, start your modem.

In a couple of minutes I launched antivirus.. It was really slow, informing that a postcard is detected every minute. The polymorph have plagued the whole computer.

It was really close.

Glancing at the screen, I've built a huge sandwich, poured a hot tea into the cup and came out to the balcony. It was already dark outside and raining slightly, the air was damp and cold.

It's overconfidence that kills divers. We don't fear the virtual world's dangers and this lulls our vigilance.

But the most annoying thing is that we are all amateurs. For some reason, no divers shape out of hackers they percept the virtual world as the real one.

Though it was me, the so-so computer artist from the small computer games company that went broke three years ago and who got an old computer as a dismissal pay, who DID become a diver. One of the hundred on this planet.

I was lucky.

Possibly, I was just lucky.


| Labyrinth of reflections | c