Authors: Colin F. Barnes
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Technothrillers, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Cyberpunk, #Genetic Engineering, #Post-Apocalyptic, #Thrillers, #Adventure, #Dystopian
Code Breakers: Alpha
Colin F. Barnes
All Rights Reserved
This edition published in 2014 by Anachron Press
This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this work are either fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication maybe reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission of the publisher. The rights of the authors of this work has been asserted by him/her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
City Earth, Northern Mongolia
n 2153 the lottery didn’t just change lives, it ended them. And Gerry Cardle’s numbers were up.
Saturday morning and Gerry should have been at home with his family. Instead, in a mood that cast its own shadow, he walked through the ten-metre-high archway to Cemprom, the largest company in City Earth.
Being at work on the weekend never seemed right. It still had a low-level hum of productivity as hundreds of drone men and women rode glass escalators and busied themselves with etiquette, but the ferocious capitalism of a weekday was stymied by the ephemeral qualities of a Saturday. They weren’t really trying. It was as if the day on the calendar signalled a different mind-set. Gave them a reason to divert from their usual routine, albeit in minuscule ways. One couldn’t divert too far from routine in City Earth.
The calmness appealed to him. He tried to cling to it in a vain attempt at quelling the anxiety that slithered through his nerve centre.
He approached the reception desk as usual, his suit neatly pressed by his wife, a fabric bangle around his left wrist that Marcy, his youngest daughter, made for him. Only today he was on edge. Those damned Death Lottery numbers haunted him. He shouldn’t be a winner. It was impossible.
They were waiting for him in his inbox earlier that morning, flashing away in his internal mind-interface as if they were mocking him. The term ‘winner’ held a cruel irony that he could never get over. Still, it was just a mistake. It’d get fixed. He knew there would be some logical explanation. He just had to see his boss and sort it all out.
It wasn’t right that someone like Gerry, one of the first on the exemption list, should be eligible for the D-Lottery. It must be something simple like a glitch or a bug in the system. That thought, however, was of little consolation. Gerry was the architect of the algorithm that was used to determine the ‘winners’, after all. If there was something wrong with the system, it was his responsibility.
How a bug could have got into the system he couldn’t know. Only yesterday he and his colleagues performed a maintenance procedure on City Earth’s network. It was clean.
Maybe the glitch was hidden? Someone fiddling with parts of the system on the inside. But who?
Probably Jasper. A snot-nosed, privileged automaton sent down from the Family to report on efficiency and morale, which was redundant. Like anyone displayed anything other than perfect satisfaction. The Family provided a system to cater for every whim and desire, after all. His Artificial Intelligent Assistant dutifully noted the sarcasm. No doubt he would be receiving an internal psyche report later that evening. He’d just take the report and make a virtual paper plane out of it and throw it into the trash bin, where the AIA could choke on the misfiling.
Approaching the security desk, Gerry swiped his right wrist over a small red box. Inside, a laser scanner interfaced with his ID wrist-chip and the identification routine of his AIA to generate a unique security code. Without looking at Gerry, the barely interested receptionist dictated the resulting random number to the computer.
The computer bleeped twice.
“I’m sorry, sir. You don’t have access.”
Gerry was already making his way past the desk with his hand out for the gate when he stopped and turned. He thought he’d misheard. He’d been through this gate hundreds of times. He looked at the receptionist, trying to tell if he was being played for a fool.
The receptionist simply pointed to the red flashing warning on the holoscreen.
“Sir, you don’t have sufficient clearance. Please exit the building.”
The AIA must have registered Gerry’s D-Lottery status with the network already.
Gerry shook his head. Surely it had to be some kind of joke? He fully expected to see Jasper, or even his boss, giggling away in some corner. But the entrance area was empty apart from the well-groomed young man behind the desk. He sat bolt upright with perfect posture, black hair greased back in a slick, modern style. He arched a plucked eyebrow expectantly, as though he were someone important. All privilege, all class, but no skill or talent, just your typical City Earth oxygen thief—which made matters worse when oxygen was a managed resource.
“Steven, isn’t it?” Gerry said. “You went to school with my eldest daughter, Caitlyn. Surely you recognise me?”
“Your ID does not have the appropriate clearance,” he replied, still not engaging.
“Please. Just try again?” Gerry tugged at the bangle on his wrist, tapping his foot on the floor. Anything to remain calm, pleasant. He had to give the benefit of the doubt. The kid was just doing his job… tap, tap, tap.
Steven’s tone dropped an octave. “Sir—”
“Just do it!” Gerry demanded, feeling the heat of frustration seep out of the pores on his neck and face.
Steven snorted, but tried again. “Security check: four-oh-one-three-seven-nine.”
The computer beeped twice.
“Dammit, there’s gotta be a mistake. Call Mike Welling. He’ll vouch for me.”
“That’s against protocol, sir.”
“Look at me. You’ve seen me come through these gates every day for the past month. I’ve worked here for over a decade. I realise your job’s not to take note or pay attention, but do you think you could stop being a massive problem for just one minute and help sort this out?”
Steven turned his head like a petulant owl and spoke into his mic. “Security, please escort the guest at Gate One. He’s become violent.”
“Violent?” Gerry’s head throbbed as if it was about to burst. The pounding of blood through veins and vessels thundered inside his skull. “You ain’t seen violence, kid. Hell! You don’t see anything unless it’s on that damn screen.”
“This episode is being recorded for criminal charges, sir.”
“Call me sir one more time…”
Gerry was about to scream when he saw two security women walk down the narrow corridor to the right of the reception desk. Their expressions were stern. Jaws set and eyes focused. Gerry’s heart pounded in sync with the rhythm of their loud steps as their heavy boots clattered on the Polymar floor.
One of the women wore her blonde hair in a bob cut. Her blue, augmented-reality eyes extended a couple of millimetres as she scanned Gerry. “You need to leave now, sir. Thanks for visiting Cemprom.”
“Ladies, it’s me, Gerry. I work here with Mike and his crew. Why can’t you lot understand that?”
“Company protocol is D-Lottery protocol—”
“Check my employee stamp. Why would I have this if I didn’t work here? I’m exempt!”
Gerry held out his DigiCard, which contained his security credentials, to the blue-eyed security officer.
She glimpsed at the glossy black card but didn’t take it. She wasn’t interested in listening to his plight. Unimpressed, she said, “D-Lottery winners are banned from this building.”
“Yes, I know that. That’s why I’m here on my day off. Don’t you listen? What’s wrong with you all?”
The other guard, with her small dark eyes, probably an ex-military spec, removed her stun-baton from her belt and took a step closer, shrouding Gerry entirely within her shadow.
Gerry snatched back his hand and balled it into a fist. Not through any attempt at violence, but because the shakes had started. Tiny rumbles travelled across his nerve endings, making him grip his hands tight. That was the first sign of his death date being registered. His ID chip was connecting and communicating with City Earth’s network.
His voice transferred the rumble as he spoke. “Please. Just call Mike Welling. He’ll sort this out.” Gerry stepped forward, pleading to be understood.
Too close. Too stupid. Every muscle in his body contracted—and stayed that way.
The floor rushed towards his face. His nose splattered apart on the Polymar sidewalk like a crushed cockroach. The electrical current from the stun-baton fried his nervous system, knocking him unconscious.
erry groaned as he rolled on to his back. There was something in the air—alcohol? Couldn’t be; it had never been available to the general public. Medical only. Was he in a hospital?
Something burned into the lacerations covering his nose. It had the effect of kick-starting his brain and motor functions. His hands and legs twitched.
Something hard and pointed kicked into his ribs, and a rough series of grunts hovered next to his ear. Then a man’s voice… odd accent. Certainly not anything Gerry had heard before. It had a strange musical quality to it. The vowels extended, overplayed with a slight patois underlying the dialogue.
“Get up, man. You’ll be impounded if ya don’t move on.”
Stale urine battled with the alcohol in Gerry’s damaged olfactory system.
He tried to open his eyes. Resistance. He raised his hands, thankfully not closed into fists, and forced the lids open. There was something thick and warm on his fingers: blood.
Dull grey light entered his vision. That was the only kind of light that filtered down to street level through the protective dome. Too dangerous to allow the sun to shine directly, the Family said. The Cataclysm ended hope of living in the open air anymore. Not that Gerry was old enough to know a time before the Dome—before City Earth. At thirty-five, Gerry was one of the first Future Babies: the first generation of children to be born entirely inside City Earth. He’d live to a thousand, they said. Just do as you’re told, eat what you’re given, drink what you’re given, and listen to your AIA.
Some days Gerry wondered whether his parents weren’t better off as pre-City Earth survivors. Though they’d died before they hit fifty, they’d still known what it was like before the Dome—before the control.
He blinked, clearing away the crusted blood.
He twitched his right eyeball side to side. It felt like it was submerged in treacle. The welt just above his eye from the stun-baton itched and throbbed.
Through this distorted vision, Gerry saw the shape of a man hunched over him. This person held a bottle of home brew in his fingerless gloved hand and wore a large-brimmed hat. Gerry exhaled a deep sigh. The only people who wore those kinds of hats were priests.
“Heugghhh,” Gerry said. His throat was dry and uncooperative.
“Chill, man. Y’ain’t gonna talk for a while. Relax, just listen.”
The man leaned further into Gerry’s red-cloaked vision and smiled. Dreadlocks swayed in front of his scarred face.
“Ya’ve been poezest by a devil, Gerry Cardle. But I’m gonna get it outta ya.”
Gerry tried to speak, form questions, but his throat clutched tight, his entire body bound by what seemed like a magnetic force. His muscles vibrated with fatigue, making his movements slow, painful.
The sound of a voice projected through his mind-interface interrupted his thoughts. It was Mary Magdalene: the name he gave his AIA. Mags for short.
“Good morning, Gerry. Congratulations, you’re a D-Lottery winner. Your time starts now. Please ensure your personal affairs are in order and that your Last Will and Testament are filed with the City Earth Council and the Family. You’ll soon receive information on funeral rates, and a counsellor will be in touch with your next of kin to finalise your arrangements. Please enjoy your last week with us. Your sacrifice is appreciated by us all.”
A week left. Seven damned days. Gerry sighed. This couldn’t be happening. Shouldn’t be happening.
A searing wet sensation burst across his nose, making him yelp. He swiped his left arm across his chest, knocking away the gloved hand of the dread-locked pseudo-priest.
A bottle smashed onto the street.
“Ya crazy fool!” Dreads said, reaching for the bottle.
Gerry’s vocal cords relaxed as he shouted, “Leave me the hell alone. Get out of here!” Energy flowed through his muscles again. His heart beat harder, pumping blood around his beaten body. He tried to get up from the gutter, but before he could stand, a gloved hand gripped his shoulder, holding him in place.
“That was ’Stem, man. It’ll help ya. You understand? Ya’re poezest and need my help.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“I see it in ya code, man.”
“See what? Who are you?”
“I’m ya new best friend. And I see a devil crawling through ya internal networks, switching bits, parsing code, and poking your AIA. Call me Gabe, short for Gabriel.”
The man took a step back, brushed down his duster jacket, and bowed theatrically so that his dreadlocks flopped down, covering his face.
It dawned on Gerry in an instant. This was no priest. He noticed the triangular dots of scar tissue on his neck and the embedded chromed pin sockets in his temples. Even those mad staring eyes gave it away: hacker, burned-out, crazy hacker. He’d obviously lost his mind—got too deep into code, lost touch with reality. But how did he know about his D-Lottery numbers? Gerry had only found out himself earlier that morning.
Gerry noticed something odd: his dermal wrist implant was now flashing. Embedded into its flat square fascia was a tiny red dot the size of a pinhead. A thin concentric circle of blood surrounded the dot: a sign of a security breach.
“You’ve hacked me?”
“I had to see what’s inside ya. And trust me. Ya code is in bad shape, man.”
“I… what… you…” Gerry couldn’t find the words. He’d been violated, his internal systems poked at. So wrong, so… unnatural. The consequences were unimaginable.
Gerry struck out a fist, but Gabe caught his feeble attempt.
“Relax, man. Just come with me, and I’ll explain everything. We ain’t gotta lot of time. Security’ll be sweeping any minute.”
Gerry shrugged his hand away and promptly wobbled side to side, still dazed from the stun-baton. He tried to fling out a fist or a foot, anything to strike Gabe, but the exertion was too much. He leaned over and vomited.
With his head down, he started to pitch forward as the dizziness overwhelmed him.
Gabe caught him, pulling him upright.
Giving in, Gerry allowed himself to be led away. At the very least he could wait until there was somewhere to rest and then figure it all out. It was still morning. The street was deserted. Tall buildings freshly cleaned and devoid of dirt or any signs of industry lined each side. They seemed to loom inwards almost accusingly. Everywhere was just so perfect, and Gerry had spoiled the place. A pang of guilt welled up in his stomach when he looked at the ugly patch of liquids on the floor. He hated littering. It never took much effort to look after one’s surroundings. Vomiting one’s breakfast on the floor was not the behaviour of a good citizen.
Behind the guilt something gnawed at him: regret. He’d left too much of himself behind, too much DNA.
“Where are you taking me?”
“Just chill, man. We’re gonna fix ya right up. We’re gonna exorcise ya.”
Gerry had no clue what he was getting into. He had no strength to protest. Besides, a security patrol vehicle had made its way up the road. A grey and blue box—the colours of City Earth’s security force, two square metres in size, hovered with a low whine, powered by a hydrogen fuel cell and vertical take-off and lift, VTOL, engine. A series of LEDs flashed red and blue along its side. It stopped, and a small floodlight illuminated the scene of the broken bottle and puddle of puke. A robotic arm with a swab on the end took a sample. His DNA would now be registered as a criminal. No jury needed. Bang to rights.
It was the least of his concerns. The D-Lottery would kill him within a week anyway.
Gabe dragged him down the street and round the corner.
Gerry lost his bearings after a few short minutes. These unfamiliar streets seemed more foreboding and darker than his upper-class district, but then Gerry rarely ventured into the communal zones. Had no reason too, either, being one of the Cemprom’s most gifted algorithm designers. Only the top echelons for him. He’d no choice now, though. Had to get word to his family, find Mike, and sort out this D-Lottery nonsense. The consequences of a compromised algorithm were beyond anything he’d contemplated before. City Earth’s systems and networks were rock solid. Impenetrable. Until now.
“Ya’ve got some bad mojo in ya, man,” Gabe said.
“Yeah? No shit.”
Gerry’s escort stopped him in front of a rough wooden door, waved his hand over the lock. It chirped, and a small clunk sounded. The door swung open, casting a wide beam of golden light onto the dull street. A pair of brass-rimmed goggles with darkened lenses appeared in the gap. They gave the fragile girl wearing them the countenance of a nervous lemur. She wore her hair in a bright pink Mohican with complicated, almost filigree style tattoos on the side of her head.
“Petal, I found him,” Gabe said.
The goggled girl checked both sides of the street and then stood aside to let them enter.
She was young and twitchy in her synthetic leather trousers and a fitted faux biker jacket. Her lips were tattooed bright purple. It always amazed Gerry how these young girls could put up with the pain. There were few countercultures in City Earth. Most were tame as the citizens wouldn’t, or didn’t want to, rebel against the norm. It mostly extended to a slightly different hair style or basic modifications to clothes.
He’d never seen a girl like this before. She screamed rebellion, danger. He was quickly getting out of his comfort zone. As he passed her, she cocked her head to one side, assessing him. He wondered what was behind the goggles. The thought intrigued and scared him in equal measure. Without seeing her eyes, it was difficult to read her intentions. What was she thinking? What did she think about him?
“Go through to the back, Gez,” she said quietly. “Don’t touch a thing.”
Her voice almost sang to him such was the lightness. The vowels had a slight rough edge to them, making her sound alien to him. It didn’t have the clear pseudo-English accent that everyone within the Dome had. Where did she and Gabe come from? He’d never met anyone within the City who spoke so differently, which brought up a series of questions that he didn’t, or couldn’t dwell on.
Inside, the room was far grander than what Gerry had expected from the grim aspect of the exterior. Panelled wood, probably mahogany, lined the walls. Expensive. Wood was so rare and to use it as wall decoration was so—the words escaped him.
“Careless? Vulgar?” she asked him.
“Wait, you can read my mind?”
“Nah, you’re on the network. Your AIA’s freaking out, spraying like a panicked skunk. Don’t worry. It’s secure here.” Her goggles switched from opaque to clear, revealing glossy black eyes, reflecting Gerry’s face like mirrored spheres. He caught himself staring, falling.
“I can see your code. It’s grim. You’re in a world of trouble.” Her head twitched.
Gerry blinked, looked away, and gripped the sides of his throbbing head. He reached into his jacket pocket. Empty.
“Where’s my comm?”
“Smashed to bits. Your security peeps crushed it when they kicked you out.”
“Great. Can I use yours?”
“Off the grid. Don’t have one.”
“Your network? I just need to get word to a friend. He can sort out this D-Lottery nonsense. And then you can let me go. I’ve got family. I’m—”
“Exempt?” Gabe said. “Aye, should be, but a devil got inside ya and messed with ya algorithm. And ya can’t go transmitting out onto the main network. Way too dangerous.”
“How the hell do you know all this? Just tell me straight. Who are you people?”
The girl spoke up. “We’re specialists of a sort. A little bit off the beaten track. We slip through the cracks in the system. We tracked a demon right here in the City. In you, and in your pal Mike.”
“He’s here? He’s okay?”
“Um… he’s kinda dead,” Petal said.
“Mike? Dead? No. This can’t be. You’re lying. Surely!”
Petal and Gabe stood watching, stony-faced.
Gerry hoped this was all just a lie or some kind of big elaborate joke. Mike was like that, always playing pranks, but would he go this far? It was funny, sure, about the D-Lottery numbers, but not for this long, and these freaks? Maybe they killed him, and he was next. A billion thoughts bloomed into life and expired almost instantly. He tried to access the logic portion of Mags, but she didn’t respond. Probably occupied with informing the various official channels of his imminent demise. They’d need cover at work. His daughters would need a new father figure. And then there was his wife, Beth. She would need a new husband. The family unit was an important part of City Earth’s society. It was how things worked.
A part of Gerry knew Beth wouldn’t be terribly upset. Their relationship, for whatever reason, was never particularly intimate. She had a ‘defined role in the family unit’ and was apparently happy with that. Still, it didn’t make it hurt any less.
Turning back to them and trying to focus, Gerry said, “So tell me, what happened to Mike?”
“He’s out back,” Gabe said. “Wanna see?”
Gerry wasn’t sure if he did. All the time there was no physical evidence there was a chance this was all a massive misunderstanding—a nightmare.
“Come through, Gez,” Petal said. “You’ll see.”
“Is it bad?”
“It’s a little screwed up, to be honest.” Her goggles returned to their inky opaqueness.
Petal took Gerry by the hand and led him through an open doorway into a clinical kitchen: compact and barely large enough for four people. The cabinets and worktops were the usual self-clean white alloy.
As he ducked under the low door frame, he noticed masses of wire mesh running through the ceiling from room to room. Shielding perhaps? Or a Faraday cage of sorts? That probably explained the security of their internal network.
The kitchen smelled of alcohol. Numerous antique glass bottles were lined up on a wooden table. Next to them was an alloy container—about a half-metre square—filled with a writhing black liquid.
Petal must have seen his confusion. “NanoStem solution. Similar to the stuff that Gabe used to heal your facial wound. This one we’ve impregnated with defence nodes. It’s liquid virus protection. Cool, huh?”