Volume Six: Con-Version

conversion_cover_small“I always wanted to be the brave hero who saves the world,” Nancy said.
“Be careful what you wish for,” the man replied.

Past and future collide in this explosive series finale, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. In 1972 Nancy and her husband discover that an old enemy is behind terrorist attacks around the world and must stop them before they destroy everything the two have sacrificed so much to accomplish. But this time, in order to save the world, the ultimate sacrifice may be required.

Excerpt from The Version Sequence: Con-Version
(c) 2011 Thomas F. Brown, All Rights Reserved.

This material may not be reproduced in any form without the expressed written consent of the author.

Author’s Note: Desperate to re-activate a crashed Deep Space Probe, Nancy
Madison uses a Virtual Reality program to enter the ship’s computer
in order to access its main controls.

Deep Space Probe 96,
November 8, 1972

I climbed into the first stasis pod and triggered the close button. Naturally, I couldn’t remove my spacesuit with the entire ship in vacuum, so I had to count on the machine being smart enough to compensate for that.

“Warning,” a sexless voice said over the suit’s radio, “Full autodoc facilities are unavailable while wearing a spacesuit. Do you wish to proceed with stasis functionality only?”

“Yes,” I replied, glad that the device was programmed to handle spacesuited users. But the machine wasn’t done nagging me.

“Scans detect military-grade body modifications. Do you wish to incorporate those modifications into your simulation?”

“Yes,” I replied automatically. I’d been expecting to lose the use of the computer in my head once I’d entered Virtual. Happy to be mistaken in that, I settled back in the white, coffin-like enclosure and waited for the machine to activate.

Stasis technology was in its infancy when Project Deepspace got started. Rather than build new stasis machines, UNISEA incorporated it into the existing autodoc units. Capable of treating any injury or illness using robotic manipulators, autodocs had already been around in one form or another for more than half a century when ships like the Ninety-six were built.

A human body is put into stasis (or suspended animation) by suffusing it with a very weak forcefield. All molecular motion stops, and, mathematically speaking, the body’s mass merges with the energy field. However, for reasons scientists still don’t understand, the mind remains unaffected by the process and continues to be fully active. But that active mind is deprived of memory in a form of sensory deprivation that is damaging to the psyche. To prevent madness, organic memory is copied to computer storage where it’s made available to the disembodied mind. Then that mind is supplied with computer-generated sensory input, which we call Virtual. Once the Virtual experience is finally terminated, the new memories gained from Virtual are written to the organic brain and the subject allowed to awaken. That write-back process can be very tricky. One wrong move and brain damage can result. Normally, if you simply pull the plug, the person emerges from stasis lacking a few memories and nothing more. But tamper with the write-back process, as Davis had done, and you could lose a whole lot more.

The lights inside the stasis pod went out, followed almost immediately by my own lights.

Program: Davis-LZ-PhillyWasteland.virt

The program’s filename flashed by almost too quick to see, but I noted the reference to Philly, which sort-of confirmed Davis’ UNISEA profile as being from Philadelphia. Having spent the last seventeen years in the city myself, I was hoping we had enough in common for me to get through his Landing Zone puzzle alive. At least, that’s what ran through my mind when I decided to take this insane risk.

A second notice flashed by, too quick to read: a copyright notice of some sort.

So, Davis took some off-the-shelf software and appropriated it for his LZ!

Now I was worried. Instead of writing something from scratch, which would reflect his own personal history and preferences, the man had used his favorite Interactive as the basis for this little test.

Crap and double crap!

But there was no going back now. I was committed.

Penndel, Pennsylvania
Davis-LZ-PhillyWasteland.virt

I found myself on my back, lying on a hard surface, like a table. Opening my eyes was harder than expected due to a hard crust on my eyelids. When I finally did open them, I found myself in a darkened room. Overhead, the peeling wallpaper was illuminated by thin stripes of dirty-yellow light. I turned my head to see the rest of the room, and was blinded by a stabbing pain that went from the front of my scalp to the back. Seventeen years of reflex made me call-up the health display on my computer. But instead of the normal data-dense graphic, I was instead presented with scrolling text.

What the hell?

I brought up the computer’s diagnostic screen, and instead of the expected display, got yet another page of text.

Then I remembered: this wasn’t actually my computer, but a simulation provided by Virtual. I scrolled back to the top of the diagnostics screen and checked the operating system version of the faux computer.

Milspec Version 1.00 (Beta)

Dear God in heaven, not only was the software first-generation, but a test version! Granted, nobody would have expected it to be used – not on board a starship where none of the crew had a computer in their head, but still …!

Then I actually read that diagnostic text, and sucked in a startled breath.

Vision: Low-light and Infrared … online.
Hearing: increased sensitivity and extended frequency response … online.
Musculature: enhanced strength and endurance … online.
Skeleton: enhanced composition and structural integrity … online.
Nervous System: enhanced response time … online.
Medical: nano-bots … online.

Apparently, when the simulated computer had been added to my program, it brought with it the entire suite of state-of-the-art solider modifications as well. Or at least, the state of that art as of 2150 or so. No sensors, then, and some of the other “toys” I expected to see were missing, but I couldn’t complain. Maybe this mission would be survivable after all!

But surprisingly, while muscle strength and speed were available, no one had bothered to integrate them into a bonafide Accelerated mode. Not as such, anyway. But ThrAss, my Threat Assessment software, was there, and it did have such a mode, just not a stand-alone one.

Well, given a little time, I might be able to fix that. I’d spent the last seventeen years diddling with the copy of ThrAss on my own computer, so I knew my way around the program code. Of course, this version of ThrAss was primitive as hell (only version 1.00? Come on, guys!), so any changes I made to the software would have to be done carefully.

No time like the present!

I activated ThrAss, putting it on standby and dialing the sensitivity way, way down. I was running the risk of it taking control at an inopportune moment, but this sim hadn’t been intended as a vacation.

Next issue was the blinding headache. Knowing it was all a simulation didn’t make it hurt any less, but it was still distracting. I instructed the computer to filter-out those particular pain receptors, and was able to look around.

Medical devices and surgical instruments filled the room around me. It wasn’t as dirty as the yellowish light made it seem, but it was obvious this wasn’t a hospital.

“Good, you’re finally awake,” a harsh, elderly male voice said from my left. I turned my head in that direction and found a balding man with a scruffy salt-and-pepper beard standing next to me. He appeared so suddenly that I knew he was a part of the sim, and not a real person.

“Where am I?” I asked.

“Welcome to the village of Penndel. This is my home,” the man said. “It’s also where I see patients. But I must say it’s been years since I’ve worked this hard to save a life.”

“Why? What happened to me?”

“You got shot in the head is what happened. Bullet grazed your skull and you lost a lot of blood. Trade caravan found you on the side of the road and brought you here. You got lucky, young lady. You should have died out there. Any idea who done it?”

“Didn’t get a good look at them,” I replied, feeling that I’d woken up in an old episode of Gunsmoke. “They must’ve snuck up on me.”

“Well, consider yourself fortunate. Next time, they’ll be taking you to the undertaker instead of the town doctor. You got any family? Friends?”

“Nope. I’m by myself.”

“Alone, eh? A young girl like you? Hell, you must be crazy. There’s Muties and Bandits and Zombies out there just waiting to pounce on a sweet young thing like you.”

Sweet? Young? I hadn’t been called either one in a long, long time. I decided to sit up. The doc didn’t think that was a good idea and said as much. But I insisted, and in the end he lent me a hand. As I did so, I saw I had on a ragged pair of jeans with holes torn in both knees, worn hiking boots and a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up. From what I could tell, the body under those clothes was thin, almost emaciated.

At least I’m wearing underwear, I thought to myself irrelevantly.

“Hey, doc, you got a mirror?” I asked. “I want to see the damage.”

“Yeah, hold on.” He went across the room to a wheeled metal table and returned with a hand-held mirror. “Had to cut off your hair, I’m afraid. Couldn’t treat you otherwise. I made it as even as I could, though, so it won’t look too bad.” He handed me the mirror.

A stranger looked back at me. Dark brown hair, cropped so close on the sides that my head looked shaved. It was a thin face: a teenager’s face.

God, I’m sixteen again!

I almost said that out loud, but didn’t. No way to know how this simulated doctor would react if I said something unexpected. Nowadays, Virtual hardware scans the person’s face and body so you can look in a mirror without seeing a stranger. Maybe the ship’s crew had their own avatars pre-programmed into the system, but I didn’t.

Guess I’ll have to make do.

Still holding the mirror, I started to remove the cloth bandage wrapped around my head. The doctor tried to stop me. “Hey,” he said. “Don’t do that, you’re not healed yet!”

I ignored him and pulled it off anyway. He’d done a good job trimming my hair to the same length all the way around, but my eyes were drawn to the ugly red scar that parted that short hair down the middle.

“My goodness,” he muttered as he examined the injury. “Nothing heals that fast. Why … it’s improving even as I look at it. I’ve never seen such a thing.” He looked me in the eye and frowned. “Are you on any medications, young lady?”

“No,” I replied with a shrug. “I just heal really, really fast, that’s all.” My triggering the health diagnostics had also triggered the simulated nano-bot program.

New environment, new rules. This is gonna take some getting used to!

“Well, that explains how you survived out there with that injury. You have some Mutie blood in you, girl?”

“Maybe, I don’t know.”

“Ever get sick from radiation exposure?

Radiation? What the hell?

“Sometimes,” I replied, making a wild stab at a sensible reply. “I get over it, though.”

“You get over it,” the doctor said, shaking his head in exasperation. “Do you know how impossible that is? You don’t just ‘get over’ radiation poisoning.”

I shrugged again, which irritated him even more. Finally, I guess his irritation won out over his bedside manner, because helped me get down off the examination table.

“Your backpack’s over by the front door,” he said, pointing in that direction. “You be careful. I don’t mind patching people up, but I don’t like doing it twice.”

The backpack was heavy when I picked it up. Curious, I looked inside.

“Everything’s there,” the doctor said, insulted. “I don’t go stealing from my patients. Now good day!” He stormed off, so I concentrated on what was in the backpack: big combat knife, compact fire-starter, compact metal cooking pan, and a big old six-shooter. “I’m in a friggin’ cowboy movie!” I said aloud to myself. At the bottom of the bag was a bulky digital LED watch, complete with old fashioned leather band. But as I held the device in my hand, it came alive with a little tick-tick-tick sound.

A Geiger counter!

But why would anyone need a Geiger counter? More to the point, why would anyone wear a watch with a Geiger counter in it? Then I remembered the doc asking me about radiation exposure.

What’s going on here?

I searched the bag one last time, not wanting to miss the slightest clue. My hand touched a folded piece of paper, and I pulled it out.

Dear Traveler,

If you’re searching for the main control room, you’re not going to find it. Not easily, anyway. Should you be one of the crew, use your safe-word now to enter the system directly. However, if you’ve forgotten that safe-word (Charlie!), know that I have left a path for you to follow. Look up to the Founder for assistance.

The year is 2063. A hundred years ago, the Cuban Missile Crisis led to a much larger conflict that ended in global thermonuclear war. The landscape is littered with still-radioactive ruins that will kill you if you get too close. That radiation has led to a variety of mutations, such as the brutal Muties and the mindless Zombies. Thieves and robbers threaten anyone caught out in the open. Be aware that you are one of the few sources of food to be had in that wilderness, and they will not hesitate to invite you to dinner. You’ve been given a pistol and six bullets, but that won’t keep you alive for long. Be aware that should you die in this simulation, or attempt to exit using the standard verbal commands, the computer has been booby-trapped to kill your actual physical body in the real world. I hope you remember your safe word, crewman, because if you don’t, it’s a long walk to the exit.

— Paul Davis, Science Officer, DSP-96.

Well, that explained where I was, anyway. Each member of the crew had been given a code-word. All I had to do was say that word out-loud, and Davis’ Virtual program would transfer me to the main control room. But of course I didn’t know that word, and the only ones who did were all dead.

So much for the easy way out!

Shouldering the heavy backpack, I opened the door and got my first taste of the Philly Wasteland. I doubt whether anything I saw was all that realistic. The trees that in the real-world version of Penndel were green and lush here were stunted and nearly lifeless. Grass and other foliage was sparse and straggly.

And then there were the buildings. Those few still intact were themselves ragged and unkempt. Even the road was composed of huge crumbling chunks of asphalt.

And this was a hundred years after the war? It was clear that the tale told in Davis’ letter was a complete fiction.

Wait a minute! What the hell am I saying?

It was all a fiction, no matter how real it might seem. This was an Interactive – a game the Science Officer used to while away the idle moment. He’d used that game as the basis for this … this flytrap. So the key to beating this test, this simulation, lay in that original Interactive program. But I don’t play games, and never did. When I want to relax, I meet with friends and we enjoy each other’s company in the real world, not use Virtual to meet simulated people. So I had no idea what this “game” might be. I certainly didn’t recognize it, nor did I have a clue as to its weaknesses.

And I wasn’t a data miner, either. Breaking into the underlying code and taking over the program wasn’t even an option. So I was stuck. I’d have to play Davis’ sadistic game. Yes, sadistic. This wasn’t a happy, peaceful game like chess or checkers. It was a security wall, meant to keep an alien away from the ship’s control systems. It was meant to be lethal, and normally I wouldn’t have a prayer of surviving.

But I had an advantage that Davis hadn’t anticipated. The space agency had used a copy of the same Virtual software created by the U.S. Military. Because of the limitations of that software, I now had the same abilities as a modified soldier. Well, a few of those abilities, anyway. So, yes, I was forced to play Davis’ game.

But I’d be cheating!

Interstate 95 (Southbound).
Davis-LZ-PhillyWasteland.virt

With no idea where this “exit” might be, I did the only thing I could think of: I headed south along the biggest North-South road I could find, Interstate 95. Now I know that in the real world, I-95 wasn’t completed – not in 1972 at any rate, but I couldn’t tell you where it was finished and where it wasn’t. But as this particular simulation was created around 2150, I was confident this version of the road would be finished. Why south? Well, the filename referred to the “Philly Wasteland”, so I figured the center of things would be the city of Philadelphia. The letter referred to “the founder”, so the answer had to be somewhere in the historic district. That still left a big area to explore, but maybe it’d be clearer farther along. In the meantime, I had the barrel of the six-shooter tucked in one pants pocket and the combat knife in the other. With only six rounds in the pistol, I thought I’d save the firepower for something big and nasty. Everything else would get a knife in the gut.

It’s not murder – they’re only computer programs. They’re not real people!

It wasn’t quite a mantra as I placed one foot in front of the other along broken and fractured slabs of roadway, but it was close. I’d always believed that nobody found killing fun, but here was the disturbing proof that I was wrong. One foot in front of the other. One foot in front of the other. While ThrAss used my super eyes and super ears to keep tabs on my surroundings, my mind was focused on my two feet, and the road beneath them.

I began walking faster. Soon I was running.

After several hours went by, I began to wonder why I wasn’t getting hungry or thirsty with all this exercise. Gingerly, I turned my mind inward and studied some of my computer’s underlying code. When I found the answer, I laughed out loud. In order to add soldier modifications to a participant, this early software bypassed certain “normal-human” functionality. When it did so, however, it accidentally disabled other functionality as well; functionality such as fatigue, hunger, and thirst! The error wasn’t deliberate, of course. Far from it. And if the space agency had actually waited for the military to finish testing that code, the error would have been fixed. As it was, the errors had been loaded into each and every Deep Space Probe.

And as the morning dragged on, I realized I had yet another advantage: nobody sleeps in Virtual. Of course, I’d probably crash when this whole thing was done, but for the moment I was a machine in human form.

As simulations go, my body was a fairly accurate one. While a bug in the software prevented fatigue from setting in – in point of fact, I wasn’t burning calories – all that running didn’t do squat about body heat. I was running at a fairly good clip – I estimate around six kilometers per hour on a good unbroken stretch of road. It wasn’t my top speed by any stretch of the imagination, but without sensors I’d run the risk of tripping and falling if I went any faster. Still, combined with the strong sun, it was fast enough to get me overheated.

I stopped long enough to drop the backpack and remove the heavy flannel shirt. Stuffing the shirt in the backpack, I was glad to be wearing underwear. My nudist days were far behind me.

Although, just look at these flat abs! There’s something to be said for living in Virtual.

Donning the backpack again, I resumed running. Before long, I was soaked in sweat, but didn’t care. There was a freedom in running so effortlessly, so mindlessly. All my worries just vanished.

Then a roar from behind brought all those worries crashing in on me once more and I skidded to a stop. Turning, knife in my right hand, I located the source of that terrifying sound: a huge lumbering creature crashed out of the woods to the left and stumbled a couple of steps on the broken asphalt.

A large mouth full of sharp teeth opened wide and roared a second time.

What the hell is that?

The creature was taller than a man, and nearly as wide as it was tall. At one time it might have been completely covered in fur, but that fur was missing now in places, replaced by ugly scabs and bloody slash marks where the beast had been scratching. And given the sizeable claws at the end of powerful paws, it was a wonder the creature hadn’t bled to death with its scratching.

All that sweat didn’t help me keep a grip on the knife, but there was no help for it except a tighter grip. The thing stared at me and roared again.

My God, it’s a bear!

Not a mutation with two heads and four arms, but dangerous all the same. The gun would be useless against this massive creature. Certainly I’d need more than six measly bullets to bring it down. But the knife wasn’t any better.

“Time to earn your keep,” I whispered to ThrAss, and handed over control of my body.

As the computer software took over, I felt my body change its stance a little as weight was shifted into a more advantageous position. Unlike in the real world, this ThrAss found all the resources it needed. Rather than feeling like a prisoner in my own skin, I found myself merging with the program. I wasn’t just a fragile human being with a machine assistant. I was suddenly … bigger. I was supremely powerful and completely confident. In my mind’s eye, this dumb beast diminished in both size and importance until ceased to be a threat. Giving the bear a feral stare of my own, I opened my mouth and screamed my defiance. Was it my imagination, or did the creature seem … intimidated?

“Come on, asshole,” I growled. “Give it your best shot!”

The bear advanced on me like a freight train, its four legs pumping in a blur of activity. It leaped for my throat.

I Accelerated.

The beast seemed to suspend itself in mid-air, mouth open, fore-paws extended and claws ready. Without thought or hesitation, I ran up to it and began hacking and slashing at it with the knife. I had no idea of the thing’s anatomy, but ThrAss made shrewd guesses and guided my aim.

Once again, the simulation proved to be flawed. In the real world, Acceleration doesn’t stop time, it merely speeds up your muscles and nervous system until you move and react faster than your opponent. Here, the software used the more expedient solution of stopping time for everyone but me.

Hey, I wasn’t complaining!

When I was finished, I stood back and Decelerated. The bear continued along its original trajectory and crashed to the roadway. If it wasn’t quite dead, it would be shortly with its tendons and major arteries cut. Satisfied, I walked up to the soon-to-be corpse and wiped my knife clean on a tuft of fur.

“Remind me never to try that in the real world!” I said to myself as I resumed running. Let’s face it, that bear was the sim’s most basic encounter – not even a Mutie (whatever that was) or a Zombie (what, like in the movies?). Without the “cheat” of my soldier modifications, I’d be dead right now. Game Over.

Running was, physically anyway, no different than before. But somehow, I’d lost the Zen of it all.

Some of the underpasses had collapsed, forcing me to climb over the rubble. Again it would have been difficult without the modifications, so I lost little time there. Now, Interstate 95 at that point was separated into two broad ribbons: one for Northbound traffic and another for Southbound. From time to time, one would prove difficult going, so I’d switch to the other. In this fashion I was able to avoid the worst of the damage and run pretty much full throttle.

Then the road ended. Both roads ended, Northbound and Southbound. It was about two hours into my trek, and I didn’t want to backtrack and try U.S. Route 1. For all I knew, it was just as bad as 95. Walking up to the edge of the break, I looked down at rushing water. A river! Looking up, I could see the road continued on the other side. But the water was rushing pretty quickly, so swimming wasn’t a good idea. But directly beneath me lay the remains of the roadway that had collapsed. Big chunks of concrete poked out of the water in places. In others, rushing water was being funneled across flat sections of roadway. It looked like a dangerous game of leap-frog, but it seemed the best way across.

I had to backtrack a little ways until the elevated roadway met the ground. From that point, I had to fight through the woods and underbrush until I reached the river. I setup a simple estimate-and-jump routine in my computer and began jumping. After the first couple of leaps, I managed to get the hang of it, and the crossing became uneventful. Once on dry land, however, I was forced to cross to the Northbound lanes to climb back up to the roadway. Finally, I was able to resume running.

Reaching the edge of the city itself, I resisted the temptation to look at the neighborhoods as I passed. I knew full well what I’d see: burnt-out buildings and crumbling ruins. I concentrated on running; putting one foot in front of the other. I still didn’t know precisely where I was going, but this was the right direction. I just knew it!

Then I saw something up ahead: a crude barricade of burnt-out cars laid across the road. ThrAss identified three men in ragged clothes guarding that barrier.

I’ll be damned if they’ll force me to go around!

I slowed my pace to a more human jog and thought of how I’d deal with these three. The only weapon I could see at this distance – even with enhanced vision – was a rifle in the hands of the man wearing a baseball cap. The way he was holding it, I thought it unlikely he knew how to use it.

But even an amateur can get lucky!

The man on the right with tattoos all over his face was wielding a pistol not unlike the one I carried.

Moving quickly, I removed the pistol from its makeshift holster and inserted it into the waistband of my jeans – against the small of my back where it wouldn’t be seen. I’d use it if I had to, but I’d have to get close for it to be effective. I did the same with the knife.

Behind the barricade were three men, none of whom had been with a real live female for quite a while (or so I hoped). And here I was: a frail, helpless, shirtless sixteen year old waif walking right into their … parlor. A plan started to form in my mind and I grinned.

Easy pickings!

“Stop right there, sweet cheeks,” the man in the middle said, pointing the rifle at me. “This here’s a toll road, see? You gotta pay up if you wanna get past.”

I put on my best terrified little-girl-lost face, and pleaded with them. “Please don’t hurt me,” I said, continuing to approach. They didn’t tell me to stop, so I didn’t. If I was content to walk right up to them, they certainly weren’t going to stop me. I was clearly unarmed and my skinny frame certainly wasn’t a threat. I managed to get close. Real close!

“Here, take it,” I said, removing my backpack. My fingers shook as they pulled the straps off my shoulders. It appeared to the naked eye that one of those straps caught on my bra, and pulled it down my bare arm.

So there I was, left breast partially exposed, and skeletal left arm holding out what appeared to be an empty backpack (there was just no way that arm could support anything heavy, right?). With all that attention being drawn to my left side, I figured they wouldn’t notice where my right was headed.

I took one more step, and the guy in the middle wore a lecherous grin as he reached out with his right hand. For the second time that day, I merged with ThrAss.

I Accelerated.

Once more, time was stopped for everyone but me. I threw the heavy backpack as hard as I could. The moment it left my fingertips, though, it stopped moving and hung in mid-air.

Crap! Do this the hard way, then.

I Decelerated.

The backpack continued flying through the air until it struck the left-hand Bandit on the side of the head. That head went backward with the “crack” of a snapping neck, and the man dropped like a stone.

One down!

My right came out from behind my back holding the knife. The rifleman was holding his weapon in an awkward position, having intended to grab my breast rather than shooting me.

Big mistake!

Even without Acceleration, my right hand snapped out and sliced his throat wide open. The surprise on his face was a joy to see as he collapsed to the ground.

Two down!

Bang!

Something small and hard hit me in the gut, and the computer immediately shut down the pain receptors in that part of the body. The man with the tattoos was about to fire a second time.

He didn’t make it.

Anger fuelled my response. In an instant, I was standing in front of him and took a brutal swipe at his neck, and the force was so great it nearly decapitated him. He fell at my feet, and I kicked his corpse for good measure.

With the crisis over, I relaxed, fixed my bra, and prepared to continue my journey. Then I looked down and saw the blood. Fortunately, my nanobots were on the job and were able to staunch the flow, but there was still a lot of it. I’d gotten careless, and let Mr Tattoo get off a shot. I should have killed him first and then the rifleman. Feeling invulnerable doesn’t make you so, after all, and having combat software doesn’t make you the perfect soldier. The wound itself would be healed in no time, but there was still the matter of a lead slug in my gut. I couldn’t chance leaving it in. That slug would have to come out, and as there were no doctors or hospitals nearby, that left only me.

And to think I used to wince when Joe cut his hand open to render first-aid with his nanobots!

Activating some relevant computer software, I lay on my back on the ground, and began cutting. Fortunately, my skin must be as tough as a soldier’s, because the slug hadn’t penetrated very far. Still, if it hadn’t been for the computer guiding my hand, I doubt very much I could have managed the operation by myself. Feedback from the nanobots help the computer pinpoint the slug, while subroutines normally used by ThrAss took control of my knife hand and dug it out. I did more damage with my impromptu surgery than the bullet did going in, but that was okay. The nanobots could fix that, too.

I estimated I had at least an hour before I was healed enough to continue running, so I took the opportunity to check the three bodies for supplies. The first disappointment was the rifleman. Not only was the rifle he was carrying unusable, but his pockets were empty of ammunition. It was a similar situation with the tattooed man. His pistol was a piece of crap, and he’d been lucky to get that first shot off without the thing backfiring on him. He did have extra bullets in his pocket, but they wouldn’t fit my six-shooter. Finally, I checked Mr. Broken-neck. I didn’t find any firearms or ammo in his pocket, but I did find a combat knife, a twin to my own, right down to the notches etched on the handle. That last wasn’t really a surprise. Both knives were probably based on the same software template. So now I had a knife for each hand, and was better equipped to handle this Philly Wasteland.

But the recent battle taught me a very important lesson: don’t bring a knife to a gunfight! It was an old joke and an older saying, but I needed to heed the warning if I expected to survive this thing.

So where the hell do I get a rifle or something? Shotgun at the very least?

I wracked my brain searching for some memory that might be of use, always keeping in mind that this wasn’t the real world, but a game written two hundred years after the fact by somebody more interested in thrills than historical accuracy.

But that game had to be based on something; it’s always easier to base fiction on at least a glimmer of fact! So what did I know about Philadelphia that would help me get my hands on a weapon? I’ve been living here for nearly two decades. So what did I know?

Then it hit me: a trip along U.S. Route 1, and the heavenly smell of fresh baked cookies that permeated this one neighborhood. Somewhere close to that smell, I attended a trade show with friends from the University. It was in a place called the “National Guard Armory”, and an armory meant weapons. Surely, in a simulation based on the aftermath of a global thermonuclear war, such a place would exist.

I couldn’t remember where the Armory was, exactly, but the smell of cookies – ah, that I remembered! And I knew exactly where to find that lovely smell.

Continue the adventure in The Version Sequence, a six-volume science fiction series by Thomas F. Brown, now available from Amazon in the US, UK, France, Spain, Italy and Germany for the Kindle family of eBook readers.

Click here to purchase Con-Version from Amazon for the Kindle

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