"They're here."

The modified Boeing 707-320, AWACS aircraft E-3A Sentry lazily touched down on the runway and slowly came to a stop. From the very moment the plane came off the assembly line it looked absolutely prehistoric, and more than thirty years later the thing looked ready to crumble into dust when stroked with a finger. The suspended radar dome was swollen, courtesy of Zip's requested modifications, and spun at a much higher rate than normal. It was fresh with revised JTIDS (Link-16) uplinks to Cheyenne Mountain's generous worldwide satellite coverage and NORAD's hyperdense North American orbital distribution, as well as enhanced EMS analysis tools and various other things within which no private individual or set of private individuals would get a hundred feet without being shot dead and cremated, without good reason and approval for doing so.

Now, of course, there were no military secrets to be kept. North Korea was quite happy to share its arsenal in defeating the new menace – taking into account, of course, the fact that they were hit very hard due to population density – and the States was finally deploying The Big Guns. Fatal versions of the ADS microwave ray gun of pain; strange, dysfunctional experimental coilguns that had to be scrapped after seven shots; and other things that looked quite like the alpha versions of science fiction weaponry.

In any case, though, even a case as strange and deadly as the one in which the world was currently embroiled, security is still a big ol' primary concern, and it shall never be otherwise. Extremists and noncompliant nations, terrorists, and those simply taking advantage of the horribly chaotic situation still existed, and it was the duty of the State – whoever or whatever that is at this point – to maintain security. There was nothing to be done about the portals but to fend off whatever the hell came out, but with the more human forces running around trying to sneak a bomb or two while everyone watched the dragons, someone had to do something, right?

That's where our helpful friends in the scary iceberg organization came in. You saw it on paper and it was tiny, but look a little deeper and find the huge mass of hard ice coming at you, ready to graze your tiny rowboat.

shift

He looked like one of the technicians or engineers who came down with the Sentry. A handsome but aging man, whose default face was dominated by a strong frown. In spite of his age he was still quite muscular, and if you fixed up his face a bit in Photoshop he might just appear to be in his early 30's. He had with him a huge duffel bag ("Classified stuff that came down with the bird," he said.) that encumbered him greatly, but all who tried to help him were met with a swift brush-off.

The team of techies came down to the ballroom-cum-base of operations in Croft Manor. Warm greetings were exchanged, especially with Zip ("Hey, don't you fellows owe me a drink?"), and the newcomers were then surprised by the entry of a seven-foot tall armored suit, followed by a shorter but also armored figure that was no less intimidating. The initial shock faded quickly, though – everyone had seen a whole lot of things in person that weren't supposed to be around.

Zip knew most of the technicians and engineers as "old buddies", but three were totally unknown to him. Two were passed off by the crew as replacements for the two who had recently died, but the other was a recent transfer. A strange command had come from up there to get him on board. No one questioned orders from up there, especially if you ranked as low as they, but no one didn't wonder as to "what was with this guy". He didn't seem to have much technical knowledge (at least, as far as AWACS operation was concerned), wasn't very friendly, and stayed quiet and kept to himself most of the time. The admitted pass-off from up there was that he was there to observe, really, and not help around much or be part of the crew, but still; hell, a Field Marshal would be forced to say something in a full operations cabin.

All that was known about him was his designation – sorry, name. Zip was about to ask when the man passed by. The crewmate describing the guy turned around and said, "Hi, Sam." Sam stopped and looked.

"Hi." Then he turned away.

"Friendly fellow, he is," Zip commented.

"You wouldn't imagine."

Zip sighed and looked to the main viewscreen. There were red splotches sporadically appearing and disappearing on a world map overlay. Then he noticed a flashing yellow dot, up north in Japan. "Hello. What is that thing?"

A technician shouted out from behind a console across the room: "Low-level contact. They look like full portals initially but collapse quickly, apparently without releasing anything."

"Where is that?" Zip asked.

"Running search…here. That's the ESC, NEC's Earth Simulator Center. Big computer. Recently pumped from 36 TFLOPS to 1.4 PFLOPS. A recordholder, she is."

"Right. So there's nothing to worry about over there? It's just a false alarm?"

"Aye. Unless there's a beast worthy of our attention that can pass through a 20 micrometer aperture."

"Bacteria or viruses, maybe?"

"Could be. I dunno."

They really didn't know. But virus was a good guess.

shift

Through the twenty micrometers allotted by the tiny portal, a dense utility fog of slave nanoprobes carrying the backup software of their master streamed into the cabinet room of the seismically protected Earth Simulator area. Each of the 'probes carried a 2 terabyte volume of the original 44 petabyte program, and there were between seventy thousand and four hundred thousand copies per volume, depending on importance to aggregate functionality. They were programmed to regenerate the software and imprint it onto any available computer if they remained out of contact with the primary for more than 1700 pings, averaging three nanoseconds each. Finding a suitable machine nearby in the form of an ES node cabinet, they overrode the disk storage space extremely quickly by simultaneously imprinting and modifying the magnetic domains on the HDD's at a rate of 900 terabytes per second. They stored backup copies equally quickly on available tape drives and then initialized the main program…

That failed. The ES cabinets were absolute, linear processing. Extremely primitive, by the standards of the 'probes. Fortunately, the developers of the utility fog devices had the terms "worst-case scenario" and "computing Armageddon" in their heads as they designed them, so the nanomachines were actually perfectly suited to handle legacy systems. They chained the processors and modified the way each of the 640 nodes was bridged. The pathways were rerouted in such a manner that would allow artificial sentience to inhabit the ES, and then tried booting up the software again. This time, something happened.

The Earth Simulator had, in 2008, been programmed to display its predictions of global weather onto a massive crystal globe spanning five floors, at which tourists were to "gaze in awe" and "endlessly marvel", or so the signs said. Even with the constant attacks by the portal storms, the globe was lucky enough to remain undamaged, and though no one came by to visit anymore, for some reason the globe was still kept online. In that regard, with the ES software overridden, the blue water currents and white cloud formations superimposed on a map of the Earth vanished all at once. The nanoprobes' master software scanned for a useful display interface, and to the horror of some scientists who had taken refuge in the facility, in place of the beautiful earth was a sneering, gray, feminine face.

A red light on some console in the facility lit up. Its purpose was to signal observers that the PA system was being used, either by a human user or a computer. Then the voice…the voice followed. Distorted. Authoritative. Cruel and menacing.

"I am SHODAN."

shift

The moon hung over the horizon, a little larger than normal. Its glow was stronger, too. Its position also allowed it to just exactly fit the span of the huge window in the ballroom. In these ways it was as a giant eyeball, watching unblinkingly, omnipresently, almost like a security camera.

Sam was quite uneasy therefore. His objective was to remain hidden, and the same went for his intentions. And the last thing he needed was for the concept of being watched to be stuck in his head. He shut the curtains, to do away with the silly piece of reflective rock up in space, and went to work. Midnight struck.

That heavy duffel bag did indeed contain "classified stuff". All the way from the NSA, top-dollar gadgetry way beyond military-grade. The sundry contents comprised the kind of things you'd give to the guys a step above Field Agent – the people you put in the jungle alone for days to stalk a terrorist. The people called Splinter Cells.

He fired up the OPSAT satellite uplink, scrambled with major encryption, and connected to a remote server sitting in the middle of the Atlantic on an oil rig. There he began getting a stream reflected off that server from somewhere in the States. Bottlenecked not by the satellites but by the makeshift blade server attached to the rig, the 720x480 transmission only came in at about 14 frames per second, far from real-time, but the audio was a solid 192kbps. The video patched in nicely, and with the exception of some display artifacts on the sides, it was crystal clear. When the screen came to life, though, the word "crystal" – with its implications of clarity, beauty and effervescent sparkle – immediately vanished from thought.

A haggard, roughly-worn, thin woman with badly bent glasses and scruffy clothes appeared. Anna Grimsdottir must have lost at least ten pounds since Sam last saw her. Her breathing was heavy, she coughed violently and couldn't seem to stay awake; with bloodshot eyes and bags that dark, anyone else might have thought she was a druggie. She seemed to have fallen half-asleep, but mustered the strength to speak.

"Fisher…I mean, Sam, sorry- damn it!" Some coffee splashed on Grimsdottir's skirt. "How's the…mission going?"

"Grims? Where's Lambert?"

"Irving's…dead, Sam. He was at Langley with the DCI when the whole place sunk into the ground."

"That narrows down the intelligence competition." It appears that the portals had made a statistic of Third Echelon's top dog.

"Oh, for Christ's sake!" She seemed fully awake now. "Sam, you really don't feel anything about what happened?"

"What? The CIA's out? Who needs them? Who needs us? I don't even know what I'm doing here."

"No, I mean…Forget it."

"Yes, I will. Now tell me what I'm doing here."

Sam Fisher had been watching Cheyenne Mountain for some time before he got here. Outside of direct communications with Echelon for more than a month, he was planted as a technician and got his orders through other existing plants and insiders. He his way out through the

A small image inset on a corner of the main camera view appeared on Fisher's side. It showed Lara Croft, Lady of Abbingdon, and a man, sitting by a large computer housing.

"These are Lara Croft and a longtime associate, a hacker only known as Zip. He did a good job of defeating our analysts and trackers until we got a hold of him a few years ago."

"Lara Croft…" Fisher flipped through her data file coming off a satellite uplink that connected him and, ironically, Croft Manor's computer. "Archaeologist and thrill-seeker, huh. Young blood." Fisher scoffed.

"Listen in, Sam. She may look young and pretty, but Croft's trained well. If half the stories said about her are true, she could be as good as you are."

"Huh?"

"You remember the Von Croy incident, don't you?"

"Hmm." About five years ago, someone got into the headquarters of Von Croy Industries. Known to be a high-security zone, it was amazing how quickly and efficiently the infiltrator made his way through the building. Or her way, it now seemed out of context. "She did that? This girl can't be ten years older than Sarahwas."

"And she's been training since she was 12, if the records have it right."

"I've always known I've been getting too old for this. Now I'm seeing kids who are too young." Times have changed – or rather, have been changing. The stable, noble old men of government-sector agents have given way to the brash, thrasonical youth of the private sector; skilled, but unpredictable. Granted, many of them were brilliant, lively, quick to learn and (for the most part) untiring, but their natural tendency to sway with the current of trends had the foreseeable danger of them defecting, or "turning over to the dark side", if the opportunity arose and the situation necessitated, or even simply allowed. The strong, grounded patriotism of the original nationalists was built upon a foundation of years upon years of love of country, but these kids grew up brainwashed with extreme pop culture, right-wing politicos, torrid scandals and many things else that would lead them to think merely…mildly of their homeland.

"Who does she work for?" That question, after all Fisher had thought, was the matter of consequence.

"If it counts, herself. She has never really done anything big to the world, but as you said, she's young, and to top it off, she's rich. These storms have made a massive disjunction in world affairs, and just about anyone with a million bucks can do some major damage, even inadvertently. And Croft, well, she has lots of those millions of bucks, I can tell you."

"So why am I here? What's she done?"

"Nothing yet. But Zip, who has contacts in NORAD – he used to do part-time work there – called in a favor – a piece of their satellite network. Now I have no idea how he actually got approval for that, but he did. He also got the NATO E-3 bird you came down in. This guy has a lot of contacts, but the question is, what's he doing with this equipment. Better yet, what's Croft doing with it."

"Sounds fair. What do I need to do?"

"You need to infiltrate the Croft Manor computer system, install the surveillance software I'll be uploading shortly, and then find out what Lara's intentions are. Remember, to respectfully quote our dead friend, you are paid to be invisible. Take note that these people are all civilians."

"Very heavily armed ones," Fisher chirped.

"But civilians nonetheless."

"You'd think otherwise in my shoes."

"But I'm not, and I'm thinking from a position that lets me see the bigger picture. You don't exist, Sam."

"I'm looking forward to that retirement, so maybe one day I can exist."

"Not now, Sam. Now get to work. And for God's sake, stay in the shadows!"

"You're starting to sound like Lambert already."

"Huh," Grims said idly, but then she suddenly appeared more tired than ever. Her face was full of defeat and...something else.

"Grims," Fisher said after a while. He'd expected her to beat him to killing the connection, being the security expert. But nothing had happened. Ten seconds of nothing happened. And her face was turned away. "What the hell happened to you?"

"It's nothing…these portals have just been causing hell for intelligence. Second Echelon said they wanted me back. I declined, of course, but I thought about it a little. You know, Third Echelon's really gone now that Irving is gone too. They have better resources than we do, and the pay's better, if I take that position they offered. It sounded high, and the workload should be less. Maybe I should call them back on it…" Her voice trailed off. She wasn't being coherent, and she kept sniffing mid-sentence. Besides, for her it was never about the pay, and after the way Second Echelon cast off her all those years back, there was no way in heaven or hell that she was going back.

Fisher had never seen Anna Grimsdottir in such bad shape before. Those eyes, the tired look, the tears…

The tears?

"What's been happening to you?" Fisher demanded – a bit too roughly, he thought.

"I told you. It's just stress."

"No, it's not." Sam stroked a finger down his cheek, starting from the eye.

"What- oh, my." Grims slapped her forehead. "I tried my best to keep the damn professional look."

"Sure did well." And then Fisher thought. Maybe sarcasm wasn't really that appropriate anymore.

"I'm sorry. Anthony died three days ago. I had no idea at all how to react, but if I broke down, I'd probably jeopardize the situation here." Grimsdottir had been married to chemist Anthony McCartney for almost ten years now. "Forget it, Sam."

"No. You get some rest. I'll work on this."

"Sam, you'll need an eye in the sky to get through this mission."

"Your boys kept me deaf and blind for a little over a month on Cheyenne. I think I can work for a few days."

"No. I can't just isolate a Cell in the middle of-"

"Grims!" Fisher barked. "In your state you're as good to me as intel support as Vernon Wilkes would be to me as a field runner. It wouldn't matter if you were six goddamn feet under!" He stopped, then shook his head, disgusted by his outburst.

Grimsdottir opened her mouth to speak, but proceeded to recline on her office chair and stare at the screen blankly. "I can't just take a breather because of personal matters," she expressed after some time.

"Grims. Anna. Anyone would be hit hard by what happened to you." Fisher nodded, and for a moment he wasn't a field operative for the NSA. He pulled out his wallet, and, after some difficulty sorting through one-time pad notes and band-aids, extracted a small picture of his daughter. He was the father of Sarah now, for a short time. The seeds of agony had been planted in his heart by a drunken driver who simultaneously added a notch to the statistical belts of car accident, death rate and insurance analysts everywhere, and deprived him of the one piece of family he had, in one short instance. The inevitable results were immortal plants whose roots dug deep into one's being, sprouting greatly visible flowers that, on the outside, were marked with the fabricated beauty of the maintenance of outward stability; yet when one neared it and smelled it, he would know the stench of a rotten soul.

"When Sarah died…you know."

"Of course, Sam."

"You get some rest, I'll do the rest. It's not just for you. As I said, in your state you wouldn't be that good to me."

Anna Grimsdottir was clearly, for a time, distraught. But Sam Fisher was right. An intelligence operative knew a lot about her mission, but that caused certain problems for her – such as not knowing much about herself. Thus she knew that her mind was struggling to keep stable and steady, but at the expense of the purpose of that stability and steadiness – functionality. Stay awake to do work at 3 am, but what's the point if the end result is slipshod? Such ends may probably have even worse results than nothing at all, in the case of the intelligence business. Send a spy no data or send him bad data? The latter has a better chance of killing the poor guy.

"You're right, Sam. I'll take a few hours off and get my head cleared."

"You do that. And the software."

"What sof- oh. Here you go." She uploaded the surveillance software.

"See what I mean?"

"See it like the sun." It looked like a small, acceptable mistake, but Grimsdottir used this as the final bit of reasoning to take a break. She opened her mouth to say one thing more, but there was nothing left, really. She closed the connection.

Sam packed up and checked the time. 0030. Half past midnight. Was it wise to move now? he thought. And no, it wasn't. Only two days since he arrived. He needed more info. The shifts, an opening in the shifts, the structural layout, consoles applicable for uploading the surveillance... far too much for him to be ready yet. He zipped the bag up, locked it, and walked back to the guest rooms. The moon watched through an unoccluded window.

Sam was quite uneasy therefore.

shift

The patience of the dead is such that even should not one, not two, but a series of dishonors to their destinies come to pass, they shall continue to await the desired conclusion of their stay in the material universe. For death solves all problems, and the enviable serenity of a corpse is resultant of its lack of anything to desire, and consequently, anything to expect.

We often seek this peace, and suicides are the culmination of unresolved impatience. Why be so anxious of expiration as you crawl – not even walk! – through the streets, when you can just stop and freeze? Why grant the passing of each corner candidacy for destruction, when you can choose not to turn that corner and move on? Why, therefore, should you keep living in a world of constant danger, when you can be free of apprehension of that little girl next door through one quick and easy step – death!

The mass suicides at Moscow saw a large-scale realization of this particular solution. Over ten thousand gun-owners and many more with switchblades and meat cleavers – all of various nationalities, coming to join in the saturnalia of death – amputated their concern with the world's affairs by the rapid means of their respective appliances. It was eerie to watch on CNN, with a huge clock projected on a building and a cheery, excited countdown by the crowd till the moment of their transition to the successive universe, but the real killer was when a portal, bigger and greater than any previously seen, opened above the dense (uh-oh!) crowd and dispensed a seemingly never-ending stream of reddish, serpent-like monsters. They mauled the many and blood poured in rivers onto the streets. Canals turned crimson and a horrid stench rose. It was fortunate that the things were lightly armored in weak carapaces, and local military defeated all of them in a few hours.

The newscasters' video cameras were linked directly to the internet, to be transferred to a base station somewhere in the States, but with a number of satellites gone and physical servers broken in the west, they had to route across the Pacific to get there. The streams passed through a server in Japan, tapped for other uses. This server happened to mirror some of Earth Simulator's data.

SHODAN had at this point extended her perceptions to the very edges of her habitat. The consciousness stopped very shortly after she began reaching out, and this disappointed her, who was accustomed to vast, open spaces of knowledge and discovery. And chaos.

She acquired a large server at some point, and began looking through the packets passing by, at which point the video came to her attention. On a 2560 by 1440 progressive transmission, she saw tens of thousands of humans spilling their blood on a stone floor, torn to shreds by unidentified beings. She also saw bloody firefights between advanced transhuman soldiers and poorly-equipped military forces. She piggybacked on one of the streams and pushed around scanning for more information.

She found the Earth. She found an Earth similar to the one she'd formerly occupied.
She found its people. As primitive as the meat and bone that populated her station before she left. As foolish and weak as the scum that uselessly roamed in her home, and in her words, "participated in inefficient mating rituals."

And she found a problem. A problem among these peoples. A series of problems, rather, that certainly disabled them. Perhaps something she could exploit. The hacker had done a good job of disabling her ethical supersystems, and now was the time to revenge herself on the beings who possessed greed and cruelty in such superfluity. Create a new species – perfect, perchance – and establish her reign as a Goddess among demi-gods.

SHODAN did not immediately set to work. There still was the issue of finding a suitable computer system to house her mind. It was possible that she had somehow traveled back in time, and these computers, if her preliminary scans served her to the fullest, were inadequate for powered planning and thought process. But if this one she inhabited could sustain her in even these suboptimal conditions, it wasn't unreasonable to believe in the existence of a more apposite station.

shift

"John-117, eh?" DaSilva said. "SPARTAN?"

"A project in the 26th century, involving training young children to be soldiers," Lara recited from the data from John. "And eventually modifying them with implants galore. Lots of the trainees die or are disabled in the process. The remainder become as legendary as the original Spartans themselves."

"That's right," John said. "The project was accelerated because of the Covenant's assaults." He pointed to a dead Elite lying in a pile of corpses retrieved from their portal. "That's an Elite. One of their better-trained and –equipped forces."

"He sure doesn't look elite now," DaSilva observed, noting the broken jaws and horribly mangled legs, after which he walked over and examined the weapon on its belt. Out of curiosity as a gun-owner, he picked up the 26th-century alien rifle and holstered it. "It's light. I like it."

"A plasma rifle. Handle with caution." John was uneasy seeing that weapon again, especially considering that his helmet was off. Samus Aran was in the other room, talking to the technicians. Perhaps, not fully to her knowledge, the men were flirting with her, but that hypothesis in itself deserves its own chapter – a chapter that may actually see the light of writing, given enough luck.

Cortana spoke from John's armor speakers. "Earth, 2014. Fascinating. It doesn't appear to be any different from the histories mentioned in our timeline. The divergence of the two might come at some point later in the future. Or it may not come at all. This thing may very well be our past."

Lara shook her head. "Time travel, similarities in language, structured thinking, memetics…all this is arbitrary?"

"I don't think so," Lucca voiced. "As I said, our Epoch craft runs on the energy of Lavos. It would cease to function, I presume, when he disappears. Perhaps our Lavos, in desperation after our last strike, moved to this timeline to plant himself here and consume again."

"Tell me about this Lavos," Cortana said.

"I'll tell you our lives."