Part 1

Quinn Rentack was frowning.

He had no reason to. Three months earlier, he did it all the time. But in those three months, the Law of Averages had started to work in his favor.

His Detterick Noble novels were selling well. The first, Game Over, was still on the bestseller list, and the second, The Dumont Treatment, was fast joining it. Game Over had been co-opted by the Industry for a holo deal, having finally received approval on a script by Quinn, and having gotten Martin O'Brien to direct.

His news-sheet column was very popular. Quinn was now taking cues from the public instead of his own bitterness about the slowness of the bureaucracy. The Government was looking at him as a representative of the public thanks to his column. The one he'd written three months earlier, criticizing the Government for its bungling of the Dr. Jander van der Waals matter, was what had propelled him to success.

The new medical treatment for spinal injuries--which promised him the ability to walk again when it was perfected--was fast approaching said perfection. Quinn had already volunteered to be the first patient for the treatment when it reached that level.

In short, Quinn had every reason to smile, and yet he frowned.

He frowned because he was thinking of Dr. Jander van der Waals.

Quinn still had nightmares about the evil doctor. He had been kidnapped by Rollo and Tomasi Exley and taken to Lean Il Lupe's headquarters in Omega-Cragis. There, he had been used as a test subject by Dr. van der Waals. Left incredibly weak by the experiments, he had then been turned over to the Exleys, who had used him as a private punching bag until his rescue. As a result, he was a paraplegic, hoverchair-bound, and still a bit bitter at the world.

Then, six months later, Dr. van der Waals somehow returned from the dead and used the Resonate System as a testing ground for his new nano-explosives. The System still bore the scars of that event. Just before he died once and for all, Dr. van der Waals had said something. And that was what Quinn was thinking about. But he could not figure it out.

Quinn decided to talk to the only people who could help.

"Quinn! Long time no see! How ya been man?" Naught asked, slapping Quinn's palm.

"Can't complain," Quinn grinned. "How's tricks?"

"Same old, same old," Nada replied. "What's up?"

"Got something to ask you," Quinn said. He skimmed into the Hacking Parlor and parked himself at the table. "You guys remember van der Waals, right?"

Naught shuddered. "Please don't mention that name, man. I still have nightmares."

"Me too," Quinn said sympathetically. "But you remember what he said just before he died?"

Naught closed his eyes. "Yes. 'The True Force will destroy you all and take back what it created.'"

"Right," Quinn said. "Now, here's what I was wondering. What is this True Force?" He tapped his fingers on the table. "Is it something real, or just something he said to creep us out?"

"I'm leaning toward 'creep us out'," Nada said. "I don't like to think that there's more psychos like him out there."

Quinn rolled his eyes. "That's what I call the Arlington Road Syndrome--preferring to think that you're safe because there is no conspiracy. Guys, he couldn't have had access to anything without being at Omega-Cragis, and the link that he used was destroyed by Lean! Where'd he get the resources to recreate his nanotechnology?"

Naught froze. "Quinn, what are you saying you want us to do?"

"Search the Net," Quinn replied. "Find out if this True Force is real."

"Right, we'll get to work on it," Nada said. Naught agreed.

"If there is someone else like...him out there, I want to find them and get rid of them," Naught said.

"Me too," Quinn admitted. Then he looked around. "Where's David?"

"Out. Walkin' around," Naught said.

David was down in the Downtown District, the entertainment center for the Resonate System. Most of the damage done to it by Dr. van der Waals had been repaired, being mostly superficial to the District. The Gateway to Userside was also here, and David was hanging out near here, just taking looks at some of the various people coming through.

But there was one person who caught David's eye. He looked familiar. He came out clutching a large suitcase and fiddling with a stylus pen in his hands. He wore a suit that looked several sizes too large for him. The black tie around his neck seemed impossibly long. His face reminded David of Cassius in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, "lean and hungry." He appeared anemic.

David was certain he'd seen him somewhere before.

The man in the large suit looked around nervously and then proceeded to flag down a hovertaxi. David watched the taxi depart, then marked it mentally. It was heading west-southwest. That was roughly toward the Park Sector. David flagged down his own hovertaxi and told it to head for the Park. He had a suspicious feeling about that suit.

Nil and Void were in the Park Sector at that time. They were doing what they loved to do: scare the bejeepers out of people by buzzing them on their hoverboards. Their score today was fifteen. Most of them were system natives, so they expected this of the Aught twins. The newbies were the ones that always jumped out of their skin.

Nil pulled to a stop under one of the trees. Void came up next to him. They grinned and hooted with laughter. "Did you see the look on that guy's face?" Nil laughed.

"Did I see it? Hoo, boy, did I see it! That guy's going to have a fit every time he hears a hover-generator!" Void was doubled over with glee.

"Come on, let's go find another one!" Nil kicked his board back into active mode and skimmed off to find a new victim.

They spotted a lone sprite with blood-red skin. He seemed to be headed for a group of human tourists near one of the small memorials. The memorials were there to honor the deceased command.coms that had led the Resonate in years past. Nil and Void grinned at each other and ducked toward him.

The sprite had short blue hair and a faraway look in his eyes. He seemed to be mumbling or singing to himself. Nil decided it was singing; he could see the sprite had a music player. But he stopped short as his scanner-goggles set off an alarm.

The sprite was carrying weapons.

Nil grabbed void and they hovered back as suddenly the sprite began to shout the lyrics to his song, utterly oblivious to everything around him.

The sprite sang, "Glooooria! G-L-O-R-I-A! Glooooria!" He reached into his jacket and produced two heavy blasters and proceeded to open fire on the tourists.

Several of the tourists were cut down immediately, and the sprite swung around to fire at the remainder of them, still shouting the lyrics to "Gloria" as he did so. He spotted Nil and Void, but turned away and continued to fire at the tourists.

Nil and Void ducked for cover nonetheless as bolts of energy flew in every direction. The sprite was still hollering, "Glooooria! G-L-O-R-I-A! Glooooria!" The tourists were mostly dead by now, and only a few were still alive, huddling in terror on the other side of the memorial. The sprite stalked after them.

"We gotta do something!" Void said.

"What? You crazy! That's a Blaztek 2100! It'll rip us to pixels!"

"You want to just let those people die, then?"

Nil muttered. "All right. But if we die, I'll hate you for the rest of my life. You hit 'im high, I'll hit 'im low," Nil said. Void nodded.

They kicked up their boards and zipped toward the gunman. He was still singing, his back to them as he fired his blasters at the remaining tourists. Void ducked low and hit him in the back of his knees. The gunman toppled backwards, and Nil slammed his board into his head. The gunman went down immediately.

The blasters fell from his hands. Void kicked them away. The sprite got up, still singing, "G-L-O-R-I-A! Glooooria!"

"Shut the hell up!" Nil said, kicking him in the head.

The Gloria-singer staggered back, then reached into his coat and produced a compact one-shot pistol. He pointed it at Nil, then Void, then at the tourists, then, with a grin, he sang, "Glooooria," and shoved the pistol into his mouth.

"No, wait!"

Too late. The Gloria-singer pulled the trigger. The gun fell from his mouth and he toppled to the ground, quite dead.

David had seen the Gloria-singer's bizarre rampage. So had the suit. David was keeping one eye on the shooter and one on the suit, who watched what transpired somewhat nervously, but obviously intent on it. When the shooter finally shot himself, the suit took out a pad and jotted down something with his stylus. Then the suit put the pad away and walked back out of the Park Sector, toward the Industrial Sector to the north. David quietly followed.

He was certain he had seen the suit before, but he still couldn't remember. He wracked his memory for answers, but his brain had none to give.

The suit hailed another hovertaxi as he reached the border to the Industrial Sector, and this one left to the southeast. The only place David guessed a suit like him was going was the Central Sector. David hailed another hovertaxi and followed.

The suit disembarked at the system-to-system transport depot. David scoffed. It made sense. The suit went to the counter and calmly paid the money for transport to another system. David hung back to keep an eye on him.

The suit nodded his thanks to the clerk and went to the appropriate transport. David's eyes widened. ~~The Great Codex System? What in God's name? No, don't start that, DaVinci. Just because he lives there doesn't mean he's involved. But he could be responsible. That's nonsense. Is it? Better find out to make sure.~~

David quietly went and bought himself a ticket as well.

Naught looked up. "Well, Quinn, we both checked. Nothing worked out. No group or entity or anything called 'the True Force' in the Metaverse." He shrugged. "Sorry, man."

Quinn frowned. "Nothing?"

Nada spoke up. "The only thing that even remotely resembles 'True Force' is TruPharm Incorporated."

"The pharmaceutical company?" Quinn blinked. "Hmm. It's run by, uh, what's the guy's name?"

"Klaus Lans," Nada answered.

"The Great Codex's own sprite- and anthro-hating bastard," Naught said. "The world's most prominent racist recluse."

"Nobody's seen him in what, ten years?" Quinn asked.

"Try eight," Naught said. "Right about the time that DaVinci moved to the Resonate."

Quinn blinked and tapped his fingers on the table. Naught looked at him. "Quinn? What you thinking?"

"I'm thinking," Quinn said, "that there's a connection between Klaus Lans and True Force, and between David and Lans."

"You crazy!" Nada said. "Why would there be a connection between--" She stopped. "Maybe you're right. Naught, let's get to work. Dig up everything you can on Klaus Lans and David."

"Lans won't be a problem," Naught said, turning back to his computer. "David might be."

Grace Mannex greeted the union representatives. "Mr. Lans is not expecting you. I'm afraid you will have to leave."

"No," the lead representative said. They all represented a sprite labor union, opposing TruPharm Inc.'s humans-only employment policy. "We demand to speak with Lans, and we will not leave until he has met with us."

Ms. Mannex frowned. "He will not be pleased by this."

"I could care less whether or not he is pleased by this," the union rep said. "I want to speak with Mr. Lans NOW."

The secretary tapped her chin as she thought for a moment. "Let me go talk to him. I'll be right back." She turned and went to the door for Lans' office. The union reps moved to follow, but two bodyguards stepped out and blocked them.

A few minutes later, Ms. Mannex returned. "Follow me to the conference room." She led the group to an elevator and traveled down one floor to a long room with a table and chairs. Two suits looked up from the head of the table. The main chair was turned away from the sprites.

"Please have a seat," Ms. Mannex said. "Mr. Lans will speak with you momentarily." She turned and closed the door on her way out.

The three sprite union reps looked at the suits and sat themselves opposite them at the other end of the table. The suits looked back. A speaker-comm sat at their end of the table. A red light flashed. One of the suits turned the comm around and activated it.

A gravelly voice said, "All right, synthetics. You wanted to talk to me. Start talking."

The reps started. The lead rep stood up. "What is the meaning of this?! I said I wanted to meet with Mr. Lans!"

Lans said, "If you think I would corrupt myself by actually being in the same room as you constructs, you have another thing coming!"

The union reps stood up, furious. "This is an outrage! Refusing to meet with representatives of a labor union simply because they happen to be sprites? Insulting! You will hear from our lawyers, let me assure you!"

Lans replied, "Don't bother if they happen to be synthetics like you. I won't even bother to acknowledge you."

Sputtering with rage, the union reps stomped out of the conference room and threw a contemptuous look at Ms. Mannex as they left. The secretary watched them go, then entered the conference chamber. She looked at the speaker-comm. "Another productive meeting, Mr. Lans?"

"Couldn't have gone better, Grace," Lans replied.

Lazarus scribbled a note to himself at his desk when his intercom buzzed. "Yes?" he asked.

"Mr. Cato has returned, sir," the voice on the other end said.

"Excellent," Lazarus replied. "Have him meet me in Dr. Archer's lab." He got up, brushing his long hair out of his cybernetic eye and went to his private elevator. He pressed his thumb to the organic scanner and then pressed a coded sequence of numbers. The elevator took him down to the depths of his headquarters and to the clandestine Lab Thirteen, where Dr. Sarah Archer conducted her experiments.

Dr. Archer was a well-formed woman. She kept herself in shape and paid great attention to her appearance. She wore her glistening black hair in a conservative bun and wore a simple green turtleneck. She wore practical black shoes. Her simple blue work pants contained a few pockets for her various instruments and tools. Over this she wore a white lab coat. She looked up from her work as Lazarus entered.

"Ah, Lazarus," she said with her cultured British accent, "to what do I owe the pleasure?"

"Spare me, Doctor," Lazarus said. "Cato's on his way." He folded his hands behind his back. "How are you progressing with the next subject?"

"The subject is totally unaware that he is being processed," Dr. Archer replied. "He should be ready within the next 24 hours."

"Good," Lazarus said as Cato exited from another elevator. "Cato, how did our subject in the Resonate System perform?"

The anemic flunky lifted the briefcase and set it down. He took out his note pad. Handing it to Lazarus, Cato said, "Exactly as planned, sir. The sprite, to all outward appearances, simply went crazy and attacked a human tour group in the Park Sector. When he was stopped, the sprite took out a pistol and shot himself."

Dr. Archer noted something on her own pad. "I would rather have not wasted perfectly good lives, but at least we know the process works."

"Their sacrifice is noble," Lazarus said. "Through their deaths, the ignorant masses will realize that the synthetics are not to be trusted, and they will destroy them as they should have in the very beginning."

Dr. Archer smiled. "Perfect. The Iago Tactic is a complete success."

"I prefer the name Project Cleanse," Lazarus said. He turned back to Cato. "Are you certain you were not followed?"

"Positive," Cato said. "Nobody followed me."

David looked up the tall fašade of TruPharm Incorporated headquarters. He nodded to himself. So the suit did work for Lans. He should have known. David remembered him now. Cato, the simpering little weasel. Never could quite stop sweating.

"What are you up to, Lans?" David whispered to himself. There was one way to find out. Get to his old hacking parlor and hack into TruPharm's network. He could only do it from here. TruPharm's network was designed to only be accessed from the home system--Great Codex.

David could follow this street to the lower level access and take it to his old home here. David stepped on a hoverwalk and glided down to the tube station. Stepping off, David pressed the button for his destination. Stepping into the tube, David was whisked off. He was deposited several whirlwind turns and drops later at his level.

David straightened his clothing and went to his old building. The old thumbprint access was still there. David pressed his left thumb to it. Just as he suspected, it admitted him. Why shouldn't it? He used to live here, it still remembered his print.

David ventured to the seventh floor and went to his old apartment. Aside from the several centimeters of dust that covered everything, it was just as he'd left it. David picked up an old rag and dusted off his old desk and seated himself. He tapped his faux icon and opened his hacking programs.

The only thing DaVinci didn't see was the scanner built into the door. Now, it was pulsing a signal directly to TruPharm Incorporated.

Lazarus looked up at the flashing light on the computer console in Lab Thirteen. Cato immediately went over and switched on the screen. A red dot was glowing in the lower levels. Lazarus' eye glowed. "That's Gabbiani's apartment." He turned to Cato. "Send a squad of agents immediately. Bring Gabbiani to me alive. I want to talk to this traitor myself."

"At once, sir," Cato said, leaving.

Dr. Archer raised an eyebrow. "An old colleague, Lazarus?"

"Former employee," Lazarus corrected. "And he betrayed me for the synthetics, the blasted hacker." His eye glowed brighter. "But now I'll have the opportunity to get my revenge on him."

"Really now?" Dr. Archer said. "I didn't know you had a hacker working for True Force."

"I didn't," Lazarus said. "He designed the TruPharm computer network. When some hackers tried to crash it, he went to their home system to stop them, but he never came back." He slammed a fist into the table. "He befriended them."

"Ah, a traitor to the species," Dr. Archer said. "Then I will most definitely love to watch this."

DaVinci laughed at the various security subroutines that flared up at his hack-in. He deactivated them all with the push of a button. "I don't believe this! Lans, you fool, you never changed the system! No wonder you're such a recluse! You can't bear to show your face!"

But then something else started to beep on his computer. >PROXIMITY ALARM< DaVinci swore. "Ah, shit."

The door to his apartment burst open and two large beefy humans in armor emblazoned with a cross stomped in. One of them pointed a stunwand at him. "Resistance is useless!" he shouted.

DaVinci turned back to his computer, tapped his icon to close it, then turned back. "All right. Take me to your leader."

The second agent stepped in and smashed him in the head with his stunwand. DaVinci blacked out instantly.

Lazarus folded his hands behind his back in his office as he looked out on the Great Codex. Soon all this would belong to the humans, as it rightfully should. The inferior synthetics--those mockeries of the perfect human form--would be destroyed as the constructs of the Devil. 'Sprites.' The very name was a throwback to the pagan legends of Europe. And the anthros. They were even worse. An utter debasement of humanity. A mixture of the human perfection and the lower beasts.

Cato entered, two True Force agents behind him. Lazarus turned slowly to regard the waking prisoner. "Hello, David," Lazarus said.

DaVinci blinked at the man in front of him. He looked at the thin nose, the arrogant eye, the long hair and the lank form in the cross-bearing uniform, and couldn't believe it. "Lans. It's you."

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