I sensed I had saved Ell in the underworld of my cyberdreams, but I had no idea how I had done it. What I could feel was that the dream was a metaphor for a very real attack by a powerful hacker at MicroByte working in tandem with the Cyberspace Information Service. Waking up from this cyberdream and interpreting what had happened provided a jolting reminder that my reality had been stretched like a sheet of rubber.

I recovered from my dream to find myself lying in the brush on a hillside above California highway 101, north of Sausilito, a hundred miles from the smoldering remains of our rebel camp. My outer clothing was ripped and torn from having run many miles through the underbrush. The carbon nanotubes embedded in the new lightsuit had saved me.

I wasn't sure where I'd been the last few days, I must have made my way up from Monterey on the coastal highway and over the Goldengate Bridge, traveling at night. Among the few things I knew for sure was that I was being hunted and that I must stop Gilbert Bates from destroying Ell.

I could see Ell's image in the backplane of my mind, she was torn and beaten and in just as sorry a state as I was; she'd obviously gone through hell. We were in trouble up to our eyes, chased by human bloodhounds in the physical world and cyber demons from MicroByte and the Internal Information Service within.

I was damn hungry, but more pressing was that the microturbine that recharged my fuel cells and provided power for the satellite information downlink from Ell was running on reserves. We didn't have much chance of surviving.

I viewed the highway below from my vantage point and could see the flashing lights of highway patrol cars and the drab green of military vehicles filling up both lanes. Down a ravine to the south I could hear the curses of FDAP agents moving up the hillside, taking positions for my final capture - they must have me satellite fixed on infrared. As my focus returned to the real world, I realized all was lost, but I refused to let them take me cowering like a frightened rabbit.

I moved up the hill to a clearing at the top, preparing to fight to the death.

FDAP agents reached the clearing just as I did, and I expected to be cut down by fire from their automatics rifles. Instead, they engaged me in hand to hand combat, obviously ordered to take me alive at all costs. The fact that American units were being directed against a citizen of their own country flashed back to Waco, Ruby Ridge, and the Herndon massacre - times when agents had been turned against our own.

The weapons I'd picked up from dead FDAP agents were spent, but I still had my sword. I succeeded in dulling the blade on the rifle stocks of my attackers. One agent was lucky and caught me with a blow behind my knees, buckling me to the ground. Another agent's rifle butt glanced against my forehead making the stars shine and I thought then that it would soon be all over.

I knelt vanquished in the middle of a ring of FDAP agents, but they didn't pursue their advantage and it became apparent their commander was receiving directions. From above could be heard the sound of a heavy-lift helicopter beating its way in our direction, the thump-thump-thump competing with the tinitus in my ears. It was a V22 Osprey, a Presidential Marine transport.

Then, brrraaapp!!!, heavy caliber machine-gun fire from the tilt-wing chopper ripped through the clearing, followed by the yells of opposing Presidential Marines cutting a path towards me. The FDAP agents circling me beat a hasty retreat to the other side of the clearing, only to be crosscut by fire from other Marines.

The big chopper set down at the edge of the clearing, its blades cutting a swath through the higher foliage. I expected a Marine general to step out, but Laura Silvan instead jumped down from the platform and ran my way, her arms outstretched. Behind her came Clint Williams, dressed to the "T" in designer Khaki.

"Oh, Steven, we didn't think we would get here in time," Laura sobbed as she hugged me. I was in dazed confusion. "This is all Mahdi Ahmadi's fault! His FDAP guard is out of control!"

"What?" Was damn well all I could reply. Deja vu, Laura had also saved my life the last time we met, but I still didn't trust her.

"No time to waste here," Clint Williams added urgently, uncomfortable with his proximity to live ammo. "We've got to go!"

They loaded me onto the chopper like a sack of potatoes. After we were airborne and I had plugged into the electrical recharging system, Laura began to explain what was happening.

"Vice-president Alberts, Mahdi Ahmadi and Gilbert Bates have joined forces. They're attempting a coup against Clint's presidency."

"So, how does this affect me," I asked cynically, more in shock that I was alive than surprised that the piranha were attacking their own.

"We need your help, Steven. We need you to stop the Mahdi and Gilbert! The vice-president is a maniac!"

"After the way you've treated me? After the chaos the two of you have created in the world?"

"Steven, you may not agree with our tactics, but you know we've acted with our hearts. There are much worse threats to the world than Clint Williams and Laura Silvan."

"And what might that be?" I had trouble contemplating a world worse than the one stretched before us.

"The Chinese have always been xenophobes," Clint broke in for the first time coherently. "They'd like nothing better than to have their middle kingdom become the center of the universe. Mahdi Ahmadi has always been a Chinese nationalist, he controls the production of the virus. Gilbert Bates is a megalomaniac, he controls the information network. In combination with the vice-president, there's no telling what they'll do. Dr. Heller, take your choice, Clint Williams or them."

Not a very inspiring choice, my first inclination was to tell Clint and Laura to both go to hell. I opened my mouth to tell them just that.

"They have Ell, you know," Laura added before I could blurt out my answer. "I've talked to her. She's being tortured."

"I don't believe you," I spluttered.

"Think Steven," Laura commanded. "Feel deep inside of you."

I closed my eyes, trying to sense the inner pulse of information that connected me to Ell. Sometimes I could sense her even when I wasn't in a trance state. We'd both been through hell, but in my heart of hearts I could feel that Ell was indeed still under siege, tortured. I had not cured her in our battle with Gilbert Bates, I had not protected her. She was still bleeding internally, probed by Gilbert's software tentacles that stung and retreated and then stung again.

"What do we have to do," I asked opening my eyes slowly after what must have been five minutes of meditation.

"It's simple," Laura said, looking deep into my eyes. "You must kill the traitors." Then she whispered to me, "I'm still in love with you, you know. Do it for me."

I looked in her eyes and I swear she meant it.

"It's not as impossible as you think," Clint began to brief me. "We designed you from the start for this kind of counter-strike role on an digital-electronic battlefield. We made you the infantryman of the future."

"What do you mean we?"

"All of us, your friends. For example, you probably still think it was Sapphire who shot you."

"She didn't?"

"From that range? High on Black Orchid? No, Liddy shot you from behind, those were blanks that Sapphire was shooting."

"I don't believe you! Liddy wouldn't. . ."

"And why couldn't Sergeant Dillon find Sapphire, as conspicuous a target as she was." Clint drilled in.

"Don't tell me," I followed the drift. "He's a Internal Information Service agent." It all fit into place now, my worst paranoia realized. "But why me?"

"You were the only option. The only one smart enough to make the software link work. What we hadn't counted on was, how shall I say it. How attached you became to your software as if it were human. We also hadn't counted on Mahdi Ahmadi and Gilbert Bates creating an alliance with the VP. That's why we're all here now, all the cards are on the table."

There was a pause as I mulled this over. "I need to rest," I said quietly, and fell into a fitful sleep as the chopper beat its way north towards the stronghold of Gilbert Bates.