With my goggles lighting the way, Jack, Alexander and I move through the black void of Etherspace. I lead cautiously, for I’ve no wish to stumble upon those creatures we encountered just a bit ago again. Lungscratchers? Yes, that’s what Jack called them.
We glide through the emptiness surrounding us, and find ourselves at the domain of Milplex 1112. It floats in the blackness before us, a bloated ball encapsulating the most sensitive secrets of the British Empire. I’ve heard tell that no one has ever broken into it, and lived to tell about it. I am determined to prove everyone wrong today.
I pull out the notes “Simone” gave me, and look for a certain page that had captured my attentions earlier. The chink in the armor of this Goliath. The Achilles Heel, so to speak. I smile, and Jack grips the page from my hand and whips it away to gaze upon it with a curious look on his face.
“Hrm, this doesn’t add up,” Jack mutters.
“What?” I reply incredulously.
I had thought I’d found the weakness, I have studied this hologram of the construct which was stolen from British agents by the CIA. How could this man so quickly disprove me with but a cursory glance?
“It’s all in the numbers, Michael. Just look at it, see. Add up 1112, and you get five…but there are three levels here, so I need to take that and account for it as well. I’d thought it five previously, which lead me to believe this monstrosity was created for some type of forward-moving event, action in the Empire’s inertia! But if you take five and add three it becomes eight. Eight signifies sacrifice, Michael. What does this mean?”
“What in the bloody hell are you talking about Jack? I’ve found the backdoor that the original architect of this place left! It’s right here!”
I jab my index finger at the map, pointing to the cleverly hidden passage.
“What, oh that old thing? Yes, yes, for certain, it’s a back door put there by somebody. Any simpleton could see that, Mikey. But what is the significance this change will have for us? What does it mean?”
“What are you talking about? The numbers crap you are spouting, are you daft? Shall we get on with this if you truly are here to help?”
“There’s a hidden meaning behind everything, Michael,” he says, looking very seriously at me, “You just have to study the relation of numbers to everything. Mathematics is the key, and numbers have a meaning far deeper than we ascribe to them.”
“Oh, Christ, you are one of those numberology blokes, are you?” I sigh.
I met one once, one of my co-workers, at a Christmas function for Building 203. He was drunk on Guiness and talking crazy, saying that numbers determined everything about a person.
Jack Sprat looks at me with something akin to consternation.
“If you understood the relations of numbers with all things, be it people, places, things, what have you, and how the names of these things can be broken down into their component numbers, you wouldn’t think I was so nutters, mate.”
“I’ve read Burroughs,” I warn him, “and I wasn’t impressed.”
“But he had it all right! At least bits of it, anyways. He needed-“
“Good lord, man, we’ve no time for a numero-philosophical mumbo-jumbo! I need to get this started. Can we cut the small talk and just break in here?” I say in exasperation.
Jack pulls the brim of his top hat down and covers his eyes. His silence is surely indicative of his displeasure with my scoffing at his numerology. I am not in the mood to deal with this, though, I just want to get this done and quickly. I haven’t much more time.
I watch as he moves to the cleverly hidden backdoor. He pulls something from his jacket pocket, and flicks it open to reveal a short, gleaming, ghostly silver blade. With care and precision, he moves the blade around the edges of the hidden door. As he is doing so, I pull from my bag the Etheric analyzer I’ve procured for just this purpose, and hook its resistors into one of the cracks.
“What’s that?” Jack asks curiously.
“Etheric analyzer, it’ll read the door’s structure and translate it into something human-readable, so that I can crack it. Much easier than your knife.”
“My knife’s faster,” Jack complains.
The code analyzer’s cathode turns green as he says this, and I begin to type on it’s keypad in response to what I am reading. The door cracks open, and I grin at Jack.
“You were saying?”
“Chaos,” he mutters.
“Chaos. Flux. Reaction. That’s you; Michael is 4, 9, 3, 8, 5, 3, 33, 3, and 3 all added together, and that makes 6. Change, lad, that’s you.”
“Dammit, enough with that shite.”
Alexander mews behind me, stressing his agreement with me.
As we stride in, I refer to the map one last time before folding it away in my coat.
“Put that up,” I say to Jack, referring to the gleam of his knife,” It will attract attention.”
“Oh, and I suppose you have thought of how to deal with that already too?”
“Surely, Sprat. Here, put this on.”
I reach into my bag and throw him the stealth mask I designed earlier while reading up on this place. I’ve found that Ether is a remarkable medium for my creative talents, and I seem able to build a construct here almost at whim when I desire it. The stealth mask will obfuscate our avatars from observers. Or at least that’s what I have designed it to do. I slip mine on over my face.
“Now, all you need to do is be quiet. And follow me.”
Jack’s face is covered by the mask now, so I can’t tell what expression he is wearing. But I am certain that it’s not pleasant. I can tell he does not take to instruction well.
Nevertheless, he does indeed comply with my instructions. At least for the first leg of our trip, anyway. Slipping through the first level is easy, and finding the conduit to the second very quick. The second is going to prove much more difficult, I soon realize as I assess the number of gremlin guardians and traps laid out before us.
I can hear Jack muttering a steady stream of numbers under his breath as we pause before the hallway which leads deeper into the second level.
“Shut up,” I mouth to him.
“‘52, the year the developer of this particular stretch of the Etherscope was born. Five plus two equals seven, which denotes intelligence, Michael. He’s a clever bastard, he is. We should be very careful upon proceeding.”
Looking ahead into the hallway, I see a chair along the wall, seemingly randomly placed.
“So,” I say to Jack, “Does ‘chair’ mean ‘death machine’?”
“Actually,” Jack’s face brightens, “No, if you break down ‘chair’, it comes to 3, or neutrality. This must be a safe point!”
I merely sigh, and approach the construct of the chair.
As I do so, two gigantic gremlins in the form of great cyborgs begin to walk towards me down the hall. I stand against the wall, stock still, hoping that my stealth mask will perform as I expect. Jack slips into the seat of the chair, crossing his legs and sprawling restfully.
He’s trusting in his numbers. I don’t trust anything. My breath catches as one of the cyborgs push past the chair, it’s leg brushing almost against Jack’s. But it does not, and the cyborg does not seem to detect his presence. I flatten against the wall, and they pass by me. I turn to look for Alexander, but he isn’t there. Turning my head back towards Jack, I see he’s picked Alexander up, and the cat is lounging on his lap.
I release my breath as the cyborgs pass through the conduit to the first level of this domain.
“You see?” Jack beams.
“Christ,” I say under my breath in response.
“Look, I am telling you, it’s all got bearing.”
“I don’t want to hear this, let’s keep going.”
"Take, for example when someone says someone else is "the sh*t"...sh*t is a four letter word, and when you take the numbers behind the letters you get 19, which reduces to 10 and then further to 1, 8, 9, 20, which reduces to 2; add them up and you get 20, which again reduces to, well, what do you call sh*t? Number two! But it also means someone who is highly individualistic and aggressive at pursuing their goals as well! Thus, "the sh*t"!
“So what does ‘f*ck you’ mean?” I mutter, exasperated.
“Hrm, 24, which in turn reduces to 6. I’d say you are being reactionary, and very stubborn in not accepting the numerological truths that face you.”
I hadn’t thought he’d heard me. I pull my lips in a tight grimace, trying to contain myself.
Quickly, I move through sensors designed to detect intruders. I grin. The masks were designed to broadcast a broad-range spectrum of neutralizing Etheric emissions which I had found would conceal an avatar’s Etheric pattern, after I discovered that the system used here relies largely on pattern sensors.
We slip into the long series of transport tubes which lead to the third level. Avatars which are visiting access the highest level of Milplex 1112 here, and the scanners run along the lengths of them.
I plant a series of flash-bombs in concealed locations along the side of the tubes, then hand some more to Jack to plant along the other side. And then I let Alexander work his magic with his claws on the cabling of the transports. We are ready to go up now.
The trek to Records is almost boring. My creation is almost too good. We slide like ghosts in through the doorway. Immediately my senses are on alert.
Instead of the security I’ve expected to face, Records is empty of gremlins. My gaze swiftly shifts across the room, only to meet with that of Grigson.
The Head Scrivener stands before us, protectively over my goal. A locked chest is at his feet, containing the documents I secured here.
“Well, well, boy. I have been expecting you to arrive,” he says with an air of superiority.
“How did you know, Grigson?” I question, stepping into a defensive posture.
“The broad spectrum radiations I’ve been seeing here gave it away. They have a masking effect, but who was it masking, I asked myself. No coincidences, my boy.”
Grigson takes up his stance, ready to once again punish me for my transgressions. He doesn’t know that I have learned since my first venture. I recognize his stance, even more so than I did when first I saw it. I recognize it, and I mirror it. His eyes narrow.
With a martial cry, he launches himself towards me. I step aside as his fists move towards my chest, narrowly dodging his blow. It is the same attack that sent me sprawling the first time we met in Etherspace, and the same attack that dealt my avatar a slow death.
“Grigson equals 8; power…be careful!” I hear Jack Sprat call out.
I grin, and deliver the killing blow to Grigson’s avatar with the heels of my hands planted firmly into his solar plexus, up and shattering sternum and piercing lungs and slicing heart. Just as he had once done to me.
His eyes are a mirror of his shock as I look down into them while he falls to the ground gasping.
“In your own words, it also means sacrifice,” I say as I look back to an astonished Jack Sprat.
Grigson’s avatar falls into a pool of its Etheric components. I reach down to open the chest, my mind running through the means to disable the security I had placed upon it.
“Don’t open that yet,” a familiar voice calls from the doorway.
Without turning, I greet my visitor.
“Hello, Cassius. I thought you would come for this, sooner or later.”
He is the real reason I am here, after all. He’s destroyed me, ruined my life. Now it’s time to make him pay. I look back to Jack, whose face is white as he looks upon the man at the entrance.
“You are Cassius?” Jack says in a small voice.
Cassius nods to him with a slight smile.
I move into a defensive posture.
“This is it. You tried to steal this, and I killed you in your attempt. As your avatar died, I sent a tracking gremlin to find your personal domain, where you log in, based upon its algorithmic translations of the signal from your avatar and your Scope jack’s connection. I win. I get my life back. And Jack here witnesses it all.” I say to Cassius with a cold smile.
“What about Grigson?” Cassius asks with a smile of his own, though it is oddly warm and almost seemingly friendly.
“I know where his personal domain is. Elle is headed to the place where he’s jacked in from. She has a present for him, and soon I won’t have to worry about him at all.”
“So you have really thought of everything, then, haven’t you, little brother.”
“Yes, you asshole, I have,” I spit at him.
I watched him too, the last time I encountered him. I watched him kill Grigson’s avatar. I know his moves as well.
“You can’t win, Michael!” Jack shouts at me.
I rush towards Cassius, on the offensive, with death in my eyes.
“Cassius; 3 + 1 + 19 (10) (1) + 19 (10) (1) + 9 + 21 (3) + 19 (10) (1) = 10 (1), equals one; absolute, the All!” I hear Jack shout again, rapidly, as he backs out of the door of Records with terror in his eyes.