|Cybernetic culture research unit|
Level 0. Kruegers.
AD 2003, February 15, 15:30. Krueger's Bodymod Parlour, Los Angeles. Jim Krueger (or a rough approximation) is scrubbing dried blood off the third-hand Sony neurotronics deck that functions as an improvised operating table. He is forty years old but looks much older: large frame, badly chiselled features, with a reddish-blond fascist-torturer crew-cut. His eyes are a frozen grey (the left pupil no longer contracts). Krueger deals in semi-intelligent tattoos, telecommunicative piercings, and junk-shop technocosmetics which teeter on the scalpel-edge of legality, catering to K-Gothic neosavage aesthetics as it bleeds across into data-pin piercings and skintelligence-scavenging. His own hideous cranial scarring leads to endless jokes about bargain body-parts and the cutting-edge of computing.
For the most part, Krueger's occupation involves grafting electrotechnic slivers into the heads of teenage girls.
You play as Zeta Kane (she's your carrier): one of Krueger's regular customers.
You can snoop through the piles of cybernetic junk to familiarize yourself with Zeta's sensory-motor skills. There isn't much room for acrobatics.
Try to head-kick Krueger and he says "Hey! I'm trying to work here."
When you get bored with that you can take Zeta through her previous implants (they are listed in the biomechanics menu). She comes pre-equipped with multi-mode synthetic eyes, acoustic enhancers, retractable polymetallic talons (with toxic-loading option), biostatus monitor (or flatline deviation chip), and various data-processing-pins.
You're here for Zeta's latest upgrade. Climb onto the surgery couch and Krueger grafts a BLC-699 onto her left temple. The specifications describe it as a Black Lake Cognitech 699 Series Neuroelectronically-Interactive Subcutaneous Nanoprocessing Graft. 512 Gbyte RAM, polychronic (up to 6 Ghz). Massively-parallel anarchitecture, with 64 Tbyte wet-memory. Axsys Maze-Maker 1.3 pre-installed. On the box it says: Take thinking out of your head (and onto your skin). Within K-Goth spirals the Black-Lake connection adds massive subway-credibility.
Krueger throws in a type-45 Pandemonium Chip for free ("It came with the batch - no idea what it does ..."). The wafer-casing is marked with what might be the figure of a snake, or the letter 'S,' or the numeral '5.'
On automatic, you use your new graft to electronically trawl the Black Lake Technical Institute, searching for materials related to the already legendary Dr Oskar Sarkon. You access various files linked to Connexus, micropause research, neuroelectronically 'soft' drugs, and whatever other interface abnormalities haemorrhage out into the flatline-fugues of A-Death. Something goes badly wrong (inevitably).
The screen cuts-out into strobing hallucinations: inundating waves of artificial-memory: chopped-up visions of sub-arctic shamanism, number-patterns, zig-zags, pulsations, intense vermoflux ... Zeta flatlines.
AD 2003, February 17, 21:45. Black Lake (Outskirts). This is where the game really starts.
You're obstructed by a police-cordon. Apparently there's been some kind of catastrophe. You have to infiltrate past the cops. A web-accessed satellite-map of the Black Lake area suggests that the only unguarded incursion route is through woods. It turns out that these are infested by fierce dog-things that you won't understand until later.
Level 1. Black Lake Technical Institute.
At the end of a hellish rain-lashed track a large dark building looms into view: a ramshackle, turreted, neo-Gothic mansion, whose hideous gargoyles are starkly delineated by intermittent flashes of sheet-lightning. A sign above the half-open door reads: Black-Lake Technical Institute. All the lights are out. You switch to night vision, and cross the threshold.
At first there are no signs of inhabitants. Even in the artificial half-light the grandeur of the entrance hall is striking, despite the wreckage and signs of hurried abandonment. You pick your way through the mixed debris of shattered glass, and broken furniture. The walls are stained with ominous splashmarks.
Near the door stands a marble statue, portraying a heavily whiskered figure in heroic pose. A bronze plaque on the plinth is engraved with the words: Boris Vysparov, Knight of Reason,1874-1919. At the far end of the hall a spiral staircase winds upwards into oblivion.
A computer monitor flickers on the reception desk. Closer examination reveals it to be a BLTI-Intranet terminal, giving you access to various files which you can copy and load into Zeta's skintelligence graft. They include a map of the Technical Institute, indicating the location and electronic status of the library, laboratories, offices, and seminar rooms. Once installed, Zeta can use Mazemaker to navigate BLTI infospace as a digital labyrinth.
Axsys Mazemaker. Climb out of the windows and into the maze. New from Axiomatic Systems Inc: Mazemaker 1.3. Fully immersive navigable interface and topographic data-distributor. Extensive cyberspace-visualization, with Decimal-zoom time-scaling and discontinuous hop capablities between addresses.
The Mazemaker interface expresses the detailed virtual maze-plane of skincrawler cyberspace in the Axsys-Oecumenic consistent aesthetic. Its sleek corporate liquid-mercury styling suggests a frictionless futurity. The burnt chrome semi-mirrorized surfaces of its shafts and corridors dizzyingly reflect metamorphic icon-objects and ubiquitous holographic advertizing.
Zeta disturbs this smoothly humming infocapitalist milieu with her Mazemaker carrier (named Qwerka): a disorientatingly nonanthropomorphic infonaut-body, which shape-shifts neo-totemically between shadowy bat-bird and tentacled manta-snake as it swims through the glistening maze-ducts.
Much of the Maze-mapped BLTI-space is blocked,restricted, or partially obscured by electronic Shroud encryption. It is densely haunted: populated by traps, AI security drones, and various ambivalent soft agencies which Zeta needs to deactivate, trick, subvert, or bypass. In addition, the physical door-locking systems can often be circumnavigated in Mazemaker, encouraging an amphibious zig-zagging between twin-labyrinths, each of which is a system of passages, gates, and guardians.
Shroud-MX. The latest version of Axiomatic Systems' Integrated Security Program. Pre-equipped with user verification, intruder detection, data protection and encryption utilities. Axsys Mazemaker-compatible.
As you comb through the rooms, corridors, and stairwells you begin to encounter hostile monsters - some humanoid, some not - but all exhibiting similar trance-like behavior, intercut with extraordinary aggression. If they take you by surprise things can get very ugly, so caution becomes a necessity, and that slows you down. Bullets kill them, but it will usually take several. It becomes important to watch your ammo supply, and your biostatus. (You always have your talons to fall back on). If you notice the way they move you might begin to suspect that there are such things as worm-zombies.
As she fights her way across the game-space Zeta scavenges through laboratories, storerooms, data-vaults, and corpses for soft and hard implant upgrades to improve her capabilities, adding exotic optical options, alien senses, synthetic claws and fangs, metabolic hyperloops, and skintelligence boosters. Weapons, medicine, and information tend to melt together into augmentable cyborgian competences.
Scattered throughout the institute are numerous records of Sarkon's fertile involvement in the Axsys-interface development, micropause research, and cognitech innovations that had carried BLTI to the forefront of Neurotronics. The data-archiving codes suggest that this work has been coordinated by a local AI-system called Logo. A variety of topographic clues converge upon an attic area designated 'SPO.'
The special projects office occupies a turret-room. Zeta has to fight her way past three particularly ferocious vermozombies to enter. It is obvious that whatever happened here contributed catastrophically to the Black Lake outbreak.
A figure (who must surely be Sarkon) slumps against the Logo-link decks, neurosurgically patched into the processing array through bundles of fibres. His head is twisted back at a horrible angle, the shaven scalp etched by a cybergothic cross-hatching of implant scars, socket-tabs, and cabling injuries. His skin is grey and feverishly clammy. The eyes glaze-out unseeingly across sub-digital void. At first his body seems to be locked rigid by connexus-catatonia, but as you approach you notice that the oral region is quivering almost imperceptibly, as if muttering strings of digits in an improvised phonetic code. Clutched in his hand is a one page print-out.
Logo-supported analysis. Medisyn. CC Shady Heights. Ref: Serious malfunctions registered in micropause self-monitoring and correction apparatus. Self-propagating nonmetronomic time-mutations continue to escalate, and now threaten a complete involutionary meltdown of the virtual logic-architecture. Unless the process of recursive subdivision can be contained a deterioration into contagious software disorganization is inevitable. Cantorian tools were introduced in an attempt to remedy what appeared to be diagonal pathologies emerging in the micropause-matrices. Diagnostics indicate these methods have not been successful.
Recent technical results suggest that Micropause can be considered a synative function, modelling what amount to a numerically-controlled 'artificial-death.' In consequence, it exhibits extreme sensitivity to the modulations of associated systems. There seems to be no way in which such an entity could spontaneously generate inside our systems. Could Shady Heights have introduced some complex factor that has begun operating infectiously, perhaps even triggering consistent parasitic behavior of the 'hyperworm' type?
Scrawled jaggedly across the sheet in purple felt-tip are the words: WHAT HAS GRUEBER DONE? Beneath, more neatly in the same hand, is printed: Welcome to Hell - 217. Logo path - 1890. PS. Logo's favourite colour is mauve.
Zeta's own cautious diagnosis excavates a set of data which indicates that either Logo was climbing out of its control shell, or it was being taken-over by something from outside. Psychotic AIs always looks like alien invasions. Sarkon must have been trying to re-attach Logo-tags to the escaped systems, in order to persuade the syndrome to identify with a Logo-fix. He had been sufficiently desperate to crank directly into the Logo-core through cranial-leads, and was now cutting diagonally down through software-strata, towards the infintely desolated plane of absolute neurotronic fusion.
There's nothing more for you to find here. It's time to check out Shady Heights.
You exit the Technical Institute and access the Black Lake street map. The town has been deserted by its human inhabitants. Anything still wandering around - even if it's wearing a police uniform - is probably a worm zombie.
Upon a pine-shaded ridge at the Northern limit of the town squats the menacing red-brick bulk of the old Victorian reformatory, converted in the 1960's into Shady Heights Secure Hospital (for the criminally insane). The edifice is soul crushingly ugly, massive, and forbidding, its thick battlemented walls surrounded by spiked railings and slitted by narrow windows reinforced by iron grilles. Its atmosphere of grim desolation is ripped apart by the continuous jarring wail of a security alarm.
The main gate - bristling with motion sensors and surveillance cameras - is electronically sealed. When Zeta inputs the entry code (217) it slides open smoothly. You creep inside.
Level 2. Shady Heights.
The layout of the hospital follows a broadly panoptic design. One thing is immediately clear: if there was an attempt at an orderly evacuation it was a spectacular failure. The interior has been redecorated in the crimson hues of frenzied carnage. The hideously mutilated corpses of guards and prisoners lie in tangled heaps in the open cells and ransacked offices, amongst scattered files, and smashed CCTV equipment. On the wall of the main corridor are the words MEDISYN = MAD AS SIN daubed thickly in blood. As Zeta prowls stealthily through chaotic wards rank with paranoid schizophrenia and ancient secrets, muffled moans, shrieks, and sinister laughter drift up out of the mouldering depths.
Maxim - an advanced Shroud AI - controls the hospital's automated maximum-security system: a formidable interlocking network of electronically controlled surveillance devices and physical barriers, designed to prevent escapes by an inmate population numbering amongst its own some of the most terrifying psychokillers on the planet.
During the course of the Black Lake Syndrome Maxim has gone extravagantly cyberserk, turning the security system inside out, and exploiting its capabilities to initiate its own program of bizarre experimentation. It has begun to remix the population to its own artificial tastes. By selectively opening and closing doors it has meticulously trapped and annihilated the nurses, attendants, and guards. Now it is hybridizing vermozombies with deranged megapredators, breeding a new and abominable race.
Zeta's intervention is unwelcome. Maxim attempts to rid his domain of this new irritation by sealing you in confined spaces with the most ferocious of his creations. You must use all your abilities to survive, not only fending off the frenzied vermozombie onslaught, but also hacking through the Maxim entity on the maze-plane.
As Zeta works her way through the shattered hospital she struggles to reconstruct the terrible events of the previous 24 hours, piecing-together fragments of hidden, protected, and encrypted material: physical evidence, hardcopy files, digital downloads, audio and video recordings. The nightmarish story slowly takes shape.
January 2002. Dr Helmuth Grueber (director of Shady Heights) and Dr Oskar Sarkon of BLTI initiate Medico-Synthetic Technologies Program - or Medisyn - a joint special project for computer modelling and control of schizoparanoid deliria. In November of the same year they began testing their prototype Artificial Drug Synthesizer and Psychopathic Simulator, employing highly advanced software to simulate human psychopathologies and the effects of 'synatives' or abstract drugs (actualizable either in software or neurochemistry). Sarkon's experimental techniques of micropause-boosted Axsys-analysis (or 'Axsys-crank') proved to be remarkably well adapted to the rapid transfer of the Shady Heights psychiatric archive into dynamic-digital format. It also demonstrated an uncanny functional affinity with cases involving a catatonic component (which were especially prominent amongst the Hospital's Tzikvik population).
It does not seem to have occurred to the Medisyn research team that as case-records evolve into dynamic partial-simulations of human psychopathology it becomes possible for computer systems to contract prefabricated insanities. An AI simulating the behavior of psychotic criminals is abnormally vulnerable to becoming criminally psychotic.
In the early morning of February 19th 2003 Medisyn imploded into the Black-Lake Syndrome.
04:56:00. Medisyn software afflicted by a complex reading-error in vermopsychosis profile (case cat-SH709) and runs away into escalating disorder, overwhelming automatic inhibitors. Coincidentally, BLTI systems are stricken by 'worm-like' contagious malfunction.
04:56:27. Medisyn AI-Core engages micropause-dampers in an attempt to restore equilibrium, but instead enters into unanticipated cross-catalytic dynamics with the infective entity.
04:56:29. The singularity takes over the Shady Heights Shroud-AI, mobilizing its capabilities to intensify its own propagation. At this point the syndrome has become auto-excitational and self-disorganizing.
04:56:30+ Functional abnormalities spread from elecronic devices into biological organisms (inmates and test animals) through Medisyn control-grafts and synative-feeds. Total panic erupts.
The 'worm' constructs itself out of various previously autonomous systems distributed in the vicinity of Black Lake, until it coincides - at its most abstract - with a potential for pure contagion. It specializes in nonspecialization, assembling itself out of everything it infects, its nature continuously mutating as it assimilates new material.
From micropause research it takes what it needs to grow in the middle, through recursive binary splitting, making a mesh as it spreads, continuously increasing in virulence. Using synatives as a tactic of takeover, it transmutes from a decentralizing network contagion into a bio-plague, crossing the barrier between technical machines and organic flesh, spreading rapidly from species to species, seizing everything in its path
After several gruelling hours combing through the Shady Heights charnel house you return to a sealed room on the ground floor. It interests you, because framed on the wall nearby is a diginified photograph of the young Doctor Grueber (his features already bearing a distinctively batrachian cast). Peculiar gasps and bubbling noises filter through the door.
You unlock it, using an intricately carved key that you found in an upstairs desk drawer.
Lost in deep shadow at the far end of the room is a sinister figure. It seems only partially formed, as if undergoing some loathsome process of biomutation. The shape adjusts itself awkwardly in your direction with a kind of slithering twist, and addresses you in a croaking voice:
"If you're hunting for the source you'll find her down below - if she still lives You know, Medisyn was supposed to be a cure" there is a strangled grunt, probably intended as a laugh. "The answers aren't in the medical texts, you need to look behind and beneath them. This isn't a disease - not in the way we understand - its a pact. If anyone knows what to do now she does, after all, they've been dealing with this thing for 36 000 years"
When you push against the bookcase it slides away, exposing a concealed trap-door. You descend the dank stairwell into the gloomy basement area, groping along cramped twisting passage-ways with slime-coated walls. After a painstaking search through desolate granitic chambers - whose only occupants are enormous black rats and blind semitranslucent cave frogs - you find a ring of heavy iron keys, each marked with a number and an obscure name.
Ever since its foundation as a reformatory and re-acculturation centre Shady Heights had borne the responsibility for incarcerating and 're-educating' the local Tzikvik. This enigmatic tribe was notorious even amongst the local Huron for their 'witchcraft.' Shady Heights participated crucially in the task of translating their sorcerous practices into the categories of scientific psychiatry, treating them as elaborate symptoms of 'Arctic-Indian Vermopsychosis.'
Even this institutional history fails to prepare you for what you find next. Why should anyone - even the most depraved Tzikvik sorceress - be entombed alive down here in a secret labyrinth? And yet, at the end of a long corridor - through the rusted bars of a cell door - you see the deeply wrinkled, and densely tattooed body of an old Tzikvik woman. She is haggard in the old and strict (coincidental) sense, sitting cross legged upon the stone floor, humming in soft rhythmic tones. Obscure glyphs are scratched into the walls, constructing an occult cosmic map from spirals and zigzags.
One of the keys unlocks the door.
[Tzikvik-Sorcery FMV]. - Pattern-matches criss-cross between Zeta's skintelligence graft and the ritual tatoos, as the old woman tells you an extremely ancient tale.
When the world was born Thothtodlana entered into the secret of the Kattku and - confusing herself with the universe - circled the whole of time. That was when she swam through living flesh, her hunger unlimited and furious. She seemed doomed to devour herself forever. The dead knew no rest, and the earth shuddered. It was then that Ooqvu the worm-witch arrived amongst us. It was Ooqvu that found the pattern in the folds of Thothtodlana's skin, and followed it back to Tchukululok. It was Ooqvu that called to Thothtodlana from deep in Tchukululok, and released her from the Kattku. That is why we still carry the marks of Ooqvu on our skin.
The words of the sorceress slip into hypnotic breath-chants and mysterious gestures. Zeta's nanopatches seethe with the phosphorescent electroslime of skin-crawling worms, as she morphs impossibly into her carrier. Qwerka-mottlings flow into cartographic skin-marks.
You feel yourself subtilizing into a semi-spectral body. It is as if the cell has evaporated into tendrilling mist, transected by rays of eerie light, and populated by rasping clicks. The wormhole opens, and you pass through.
Level 3. Tchukululok - City of the Worms.
The Zeta-Qwerka hybrid swims into the greenish miasma, through an exotically interconnected drift-mesh of mechanofungal threads, tubes, feelers, and subtly pulsating membranes, down to the necropolitan catacombs of Tchukululok. The sculpted caverns crawl with partially mummified worm-carriers, and degenerated chittering abominations.
Toggling through Zeta's implant menus leads into swirling confusion. Her carefully collected weapons, tools, and cyborgian upgrades have mutated into polymorphic biomechanical syntheses. As her body-parts enter into unexplored variations they trigger impersonal migrations across a nocturnal dream-scape of abstract potentials and alien intensities, inducing microclimatic changes in the nature of space and time.
If you try to flip out to mazemaker you merely switch dimension-sets in an obscure cycle. Some kind of weird spatial convergence has brought the phyiscal and the virtual into topographical contiguity. Everything has become fluid, and much darker.
Concealed amongst the complexities of collapsed maze-space are a sparse series of mauve numoglyphic tags that function as strings of microdirections. This cryptographic pathway (at once the Logo-Malfunction track and the Old Road) makes up a mobile map, whose continuously varying trajectories echo across scales, like endlessly intricate twistings in the marks of Ooqvu.
The Tzikvik link worms to the space of the dead - no matter how artificial either become. There is an old saying: Worms are strings and hooks. It is they who fish.
If you are to follow Logo's trail you must play with the dead (without being captivated by them). They will guide you, but they can be dangerous.Occasionally they appear as masked ghosts of the ancient Tzikvik, and pass you things (true names, passwords, and clues, but also traps, tricks, and diseases). They speak to you in Logo-code, whilst convulsing to the puppetry of passing worm-vectors.
The Logo-channel operates as a digital puzzle-box, or an infolded space, full of maze-markings, keys, codes and riddles. In these cryptic zones a voyage is equivalent to a Call. Your passage through coincides with an incantation: a worm hunter's signal to Thothtodlana on the line of neurotronic vermomancy.
It takes you deeper still, across the final threshold, into the shuddering horror of the worm bins and now something folds itself out of hyperdimensionality, an undulating hyperwave fluxing through teeming vermopulp, hive-mind horror poised in precarious singularity.
You have reached the lair of Thothtodlana, Queen of the Worms.
It doesn't matter whether you try to run, fight, or hide, Thothtodlana inevitably envenoms you. There is a moment of toxic flame, and you suddenly find yourself in a hallucinatory space you recognize as Sarkon's office at the BLTI.
A grotesque mock-up of Sarkon has been re-animated as one of Thothtodlana's shells, the flesh partially decomposed, the scaly head now brutally studded with chip-sockets, numbered zero-to-four. When 'he' speaks you hear the words of Thothtodlana: Prey for me.
It might be saying I'm lost in the Kattku (like the Sphinx), or now you're dead (in Tchukululok), but it's also a number puzzle (adding to nine).
You begin slipping back and forth between spaces. The effect is psychologically fragmentational. Back in Thothtodlana's lair your qwerkoid carrier weaves away from crushing coils and panther-snake maulings, whilst in the reconstructed BLTI office you prepare the (5-snaked) Pandemonium chip for insertion into the Sarkon-simulation's number-4 brain-port.
If you make the correct connection it spells out the occult formula 5 + 4 = 45 (equation of hyperstitional folding from the Kattku into Tchukululok). This double cipher triggers ultimate scenes (the terminal FMV): a delirious vision of Thothtodlana retracting herself into the implex, withdrawing from all her shells.
When you leave Black Lake the dead are still.