House of Cards: Chapter 2


There was a large black box on a rolling stand with wires running to her fingers.

There was a smaller box, red and gray, that had wires running to her heart.

There was a box that had a pair of electrodes on the crown of her skull. There was a catheter hidden under the sheets. There was a clear plastic tube of oxygen hooked below her nose. There was the snake-line of an IV drip going into the vein of her arm.

There were spotless white bandages covering her palms.

Rikk sat in the corner, watching Alisin and forcing himself not to cry.

His time with Alisin was temporary. He’d forgotten that, hadn’t thought about it in months. But it was true. Jones could talk all he wanted about virgin goddess extract, but if he couldn’t show the cure it didn’t exist. And he couldn’t show it, yet.

How could he have forgotten it? Alisin was dying. It was something they never discussed, at least not with each other. They both knew it was there, and between them, and they refused to mention it to each other; it was a tower strong as steel and transparent as glass, and it held Alisin aloft and Rikk could only watch from below, and if it couldn’t keep them from each other’s arms, it could keep them from each other’s lives.

Alisin was dying, and Rikk couldn’t do anything but watch. And not cry.

The door opened, quietly. Katherine slipped in, in a turtleneck and jeans, an overcoat on her arm and her eyes wide behind her glasses in the way that still made her look fourteen years old.

"Hi," she whispered. "I came as soon as I could." She closed the door, just as quiet as it had opened, and pulled a chair next to Rikk at the foot of Alisin’s bed.

Rikk swallowed, hard, and nodded to her. "Thanks for coming."

"I’m glad you called as early as you did," she said. "Ten minutes later and I’d’ve been at work." She looked at Alisin, chewing nervously at a fingernail. She looked on the verge of tears, almost, and Rikk realized that she must be as worried as he was.

Rikk turned back to the bed again. His girlfriend—his wife—was lying there, her skin pale and cold and a council of machines beeping her slow death.

They sat there a moment, neither one willing to say what the other thought.

"So—" Kath started, shyly, in a voice that didn’t sound like hers, "what did they…"

Rikk inhaled, a deep shuddering breath. "They don’t know what’s wrong. They took some blood, they started that IV—I mean, they haven’t had much time, it’s only been two hours." Two hours? he thought. Feels like a lifetime. "Pulse is steady, brain’s okay. Breathing fine. But she was in pain…she clawed her palms open and drew blood from her tongue." Rikk remembered and tried not to remember. "She was crying."

Rikk stood up, next to Alisin’s bed, and rested his hand on hers. It was just slightly cool, and the bandages around it were both soft and rough to the touch. He squeezed it, hard as he could, and a brief susurrus of activity fluttered the thin line on the pulse monitor. Alisin’s eyes spasmed briefly, randomly, under her lids.

Kath came to the other side of the bed. "It’s a good sign. She can still feel it, even if she’s not awake."

Rikk nodded. "I know. She’s still got feeling. It’s what she lived on for years."

Katherine didn’t say anything.

"I wonder, sometimes—I mean, she’s had it, the disease, since she was ten. But she was never, you know…sick." Rikk looked down. "Not like this. Never like this. This is…she’s…different. Inside, outside."

Katherine followed Rikk’s eyes and saw what he meant.

Alisin, at last, wore nothing, no mask, no mark, around her nose and mouth and eyes. Her face was normally obscured with layers of black and white, thick on her cheeks and eyelids and her lips, starkly outlining the landscape, framed by the dark cascade of hair around her ears, thinly striped with night-dark violet, giving no reflection. Now the death-shroud was gone, now it was the pale pink, beige, brown of life everywhere else, and the only thing left behind was the deep black frame which was like a hole, a void around what was, truly and forever, her face.

Katherine wondered, if she opened Alisin’s eyes, what color they would be.

"That’s what I thought when I saw her for the first time," Rikk continued, "I wondered why she put on so much makeup. She looked like death…and then I learned about her disease, and I figured it out. She wanted to look on the outside like she felt on the inside."

"She’s not dead yet, Rikk."

"So how long will it take? She says four years, Jones says they’ll have a cure in one, but in the meantime…from here…" Rikk traced a line on Alisin’s cheek. "From here it looks like now."

For a minute there was silence in the room, just the two or three of them, and then the door opened, and Will stepped in, a sympathetic quietude on his face, followed invisibly by Rumiko, moving shyly over the floor.

"Sorry we’re late," Will said, sounding strange with a quiet voice. "I’m afraid it’s just us two."

"Where’s Tim? And Shanna?" Kath said, slightly annoyed.

"Shanna’s work phone was busy, had to leave it on her voicemail. And Tim was at his computer—said something about a major virus crash or something…you know how Tim gets, he couldn’t even hear us…" Will trailed off, staring into Alisin’s blank face. He rested his hand on the rail of the bed, wondering sadness in his eyes at her. "How is she?"

"She’s…" Rikk shrugged. "She hasn’t done anything since I found her. She’s still unconscious, but she’s breathing…her heart’s beating." He sat back down in his chair, heavily. He breathed once, calming, and looked to the other chair.

Rumiko was sitting there, perfect upright ramrod back, hands folded; her expression was unreadable, her face pointed directly down in prayer to her own self, the silk curtain of her hair, grown long recently, veiling her face completely.

"Rumy?" he said, softly. "Rumy…"

"Don’t speak," she replied in a nonvoice. "I…this is…" She gritted her teeth, painfully, unable to express anything.

Rikk bit his lip. "Look, Rumy, Alisin’s—"

"No!" she screamed, a torn-out syllable, and covered her face in her hands. "It isn’t me! It wasn’t me!"

And Rikk got it. She wasn’t mourning for Alisin, not for the girl dying on the hospital bed. Rumiko was mourning herself. She was thinking the same thoughts of that day in the desert, where she’d choked Alisin, beaten her: that this was her fault, her rage manifest, her jealousy of the woman raising welts and tearing her skin and driving out her blood onto the dusty ground in great droplets and pools; but now it was inside, it was the slow invasion, the fifth column of her own blood driven into action by the spite of this tiny girl, veiled face and shedding tears for the other woman.

Will and Kath stood by, knowing that they had no part in this. Rikk rested his hand on Rumy’s shoulder, but it may as well have been a lead weight for all her response.

"Rumy—" he said, but got no further, because then the doctor came in, and stopped short, because there was a lady weeping in the room.

Rikk looked at him, partly with anger for the interruption, but partly with relief, because even if he couldn’t admit it, there was nothing he—or anyone—could do for Rumy now.

The doctor waved a clipboard, motioned to the door. Rikk followed him into the hallway, leaving Rumiko silent and cocooned.

"We’ve finished preliminary tests," the doctor said, "and it’s—well, it looks to be good news." He peered at Rikk through his glasses. "You know about her disease, of course…"

"Of course."

"Well, it appears to be just a small fluctuation. This disease, it’s not AIDS, but it’s like that, where the body’s defenses haven’t any defense themselves because they’re what it goes for first. It’s a slow disease, slower than AIDS, and so she’ll be stable for several more years…"

"This was just a—fluctuation?"

"Yes. Her immune system can hold on for a while longer, rebuild what the disease takes apart, but the balance between disease and defense is constantly changing, and today—the scales tipped a little." He pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose nervously. "It’s just temporary, maybe a few weeks of bedrest."

"But—she was in pain. She was bleeding. She’s unconscious."

The doctor nodded, apologetically. "The pain was just a temporary spasm, in her brain. And the cuts were superficial." He consulted his chart. "The unconsciousness…"

Rikk’s heart jumped.

"That’s going to last, I’m afraid," the doctor continued, unaware. "She might be out for a week or more. There’s nothing we can do for it. It’s akin to an allergic reaction; her body’s automatically shut down while it fixes itself." He checked the chart again. "Now, how are you related to Miss Worthington?"

" Mrs. Worthington. I’m her husband."

"Ah. Well. We’ve already contacted her parents, as she’s apparently covered under their insurance…and there’s also a note here to contact a Mr. Jones, quote, ‘if anything goes wrong’. Do you know anything about that?"

Rikk was taken aback, and then realized that it made perfect sense. The F.I.B. had to keep tabs on all of them, particularly Alisin. They had to know about her disease… "That’s from a, uh, clinic she went to for her disease. About a year ago. I guess you should call him."

"All right." The doctor tucked the clipboard under his arm and smiled his most reassuring smile. "Don’t worry, Mr. Oberf. Your wife will be fine."

With that he walked down the hall, leaving Rikk standing there, Will and Kath and Rumiko, still mute, all of them bound to the woman lying in the bed by the peculiar orbits of their lives around Rikk, individual worlds tracing paths around a luminous sun.

"But she’s not fine," Rikk said to nobody. "She’s not."

* * *

"Good morning, sir."

"Morning, Johnson. What’s the good word?"

"We’ve had a number of bids come in, sir."

"It appears showing the demonstration was an effective bit of advertising, eh, Johnson?"

"Yes, sir. The Yakuza have put in a second bid, at fifteen million."

"Fifteen? They’re determined."

"We’ve had a call from someone representing something called the Society for the Freedom of America—they’re very impressed with the footage and wish to offer sixteen."

"They’re in the lead now?"

"No, sir. The current high bid is from the Blood Circle ring, out of Hong Kong. They’ve offered twenty million."

"Interesting…Hong Kong. Hard to imagine where they’d use it. Anyone else?"

"Well, the IRA has expressed interest, but wish to see it in person before offering anything. They’ve asked for permission to bring in one of their higher officers, with a guard of seven."

"Two bodyguards. No more. Tell them it’s for security reasons."

"Yes, sir."

"Isn’t this fun, Johnson? Just think—very shortly our little group will have more money than most of the world put together, and some lucky group will have bought the greatest thing since the atomic bomb."

"Makes a man proud, sir."

"Pity we have to do it so secretly, though. I’d just love to see what the F.I.B. would do if they actually knew about us. Well, perhaps not—they do tend to overcompensate, don’t they?"

"Happens to them quite often, sir. Just look at that alien invasion they handled."

"Exactly! A peaceable species, wishing nothing more than concepts—and they couldn’t hold back the army more than ten minutes."

"Damned shame, sir."

"Well, Johnson, I think I’ll take another visit to the vault. How many guards have we got today?"

"Eighteen, sir."

"Order double shifts. I want to put on our best faces for when the IRA man comes."

"Excellent, sir."

"Entrepreneurs, Johnson. We’re entrepreneurs of the new economy. And very soon we’re going to be the new economy. Whether the world wants it or not."

* * *

Tim Mitts, as far as most people know, is a simple man.

His wants are limited to food, sleep, a computer, and pornography. Caffeine also ranks high, and in fact takes the place of sleep at most times. He prefers to spend his time in realms which are not real, whether they are animated, computerized, or hallucinatory.

What they do not know is that he is a genius.

Tim has, since his birth, most carefully practiced the usage of the computer, a mastery of its language, a technical knowledge of the global internet down to its bits.

He has found himself, on more than one occasion, dreaming in binary.

His mind has tuned itself to the computer, so that the faces of webpages don’t mean a thing to him, any more than the waves on the ocean belie the depths below, vast gulfs of data, schools of ones and zeroes moving like great flocks. He may spend hours in front of the screen, tracking particles and flows, streams and strings, swimming in the seas of information.

Of course, it’s not a coincidence that most of the pages he visits during those hours are pornographic. But it’s still impressive to watch him work.

Currently Tim was searching.

At approximately 3:27 am (PST) that morning, 6,114 servers had simultaneously gone offline, totally and completely, shut down in one massive sweep. Most of the servers had no direct connections between them. The servers were in the US, Greece, Japan, Australia—twenty-four were in South Africa, and nineteen were in Sweden. The sites which had forced offline were unconnected in any conceivable way; some were search sites, others corporate, others personal pages, and some, like the one which Tim had been on when the attack began, showed young ladies in interesting poses without any clothes on.

Tim had been watching when it happened; he could see the code crumbling like sand sculptures. It was not so simple as flooding it with pings; this was something much deeper, much more complex. It—whatever it was—actually destroyed the source code itself, erased it in moments.

This intrigued Tim.

Any news site which had information on the attack was calling it the work of a hacker or hackers. But Tim knew hackers—Tim was a hacker—and this was not their work. This was random, undirected, without any center. That immediately pointed in the direction of a worm or virus.

But a virus that struck so many servers, all at the same time? It would have to be exceedingly complex, a staggeringly large file. And anyway, the way the servers were taken off was unlike a virus.

So that pointed to something else. Something centralized, not an indiscriminate worm. Something based in one location, which had connections to all the servers and could kill them all. But something that chose its targets randomly.

Tim took a sip of Pippu. He kept coming back to the random aspect. Which meant—chaos-logic? Possibly.

It hit all the sites within seconds. It swept them all. Which made it like a search.

A chaos-logic search function. Something centrally based, but connected to the web, which looked for something common to all the pages.

Tim searched his memory. Look at the site. Look at the code. Sift the code.

Will came in the door, started to say something. Tim waved him away. This was important.

Find its weaknesses. How does it run?


Internal flaws. Overly structured. Vulnerable to chaotic patterns, chaotic functions. Tim tried to remember what he knew about the other sites, what he’d seen before the crash. They were all weak like that.

So. A single system, doing a search patterned on chaos-logic, looking for weaknesses and exploiting them. It probably used an algorithm as its base, something which could identify and discard sites too well-built in an instant.

But a single system? Hitting six thousand servers in the space of ten seconds? Only in Wonderland. Even if you had a billion processors, all parallel, super-cooled, it would take days for an algorithmic function to hit six thousand servers, no matter how well it was designed.

Not even the fastest computer in the world could do it.

Tim picked up the can again. Drank. Empty already.

Too long a night.

The fastest computer in the world…

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