Authors: Colin F. Barnes
As they continued to descend in the elevator, Sasha traced the laser beam away from the point on Malik’s chest, out through the cage, and across to a flat-roofed building. She saw the glint of metal and the end of the laser scope. She saw a brief flash of light reflect from the scope. With a shove, she moved Malik roughly to one side, rocking the elevator car with the force.
A bullet clanged against the metal cage. The laser beam traced a new path. This time, aiming for her. Like before, she traced it back, knowing where her shooter was. She raised the laser pistol she took from the guards back in the tunnel, held her breath, closed one eye, and focussed. She took into consideration the rate at which the elevator was falling, adjusted her aim, and fired through a gap in the cage.
A small scream sounded, and the targeting laser scattered up the rear of the elevator before coming to rest on the exterior of the chimney.
“Holy crap!” Malik said. “How the hell did you manage that?”
She tapped the side of her head, grinning. “Targeting chips. One of Jimmy’s inventions.”
They didn’t have much time to enjoy the small success. The elevator came to a stop, jolting against the ground. She opened the door and lifted Malik up. She dragged him out of the car, wincing with every step. She gritted her teeth and tried to ignore the pain. They were somewhere in the middle of the warehouse district. On either side of the area, the tall security towers stood. Hurried voices came from around the corner of a large hangarlike building with a steel roof. Its siding reflected the midday sun so that it appeared white in the glare.
“We need to find somewhere safe until the security force arrive,” Malik said as he dropped his head to his chest again, battling against unconsciousness.
Sweat poured from him, darkening his clothes. With his injuries and the simulated sun, she had to get him somewhere cooler. She dragged him across a gap between the chimney and the hangar building. The voices came from behind them, so she continued forward until she came to the building’s edge. Carefully looking around, she saw the way was clear and set off.
They came to a door. She pressed her ear to it. No sound came from inside, so she tried the handle, and it opened. “In here,” she whispered to Malik.
Inside, the building lay mostly in darkness. A few small windows on the opposite side let in diffused beams of golden light. The place was indeed a hangar. Scattered around the vast space, which must have been at least seventy by thirty metres, were fifteen UAV drones in various states of repair.
They seemed much bigger up close. Must be a new design, she thought. Even though she’d worked with their own drones back at Criborg, these ones appeared much more threatening. She noticed that on their stub wings were brackets for heavier ordnance than a regular UAV drone was able to carry. On their pointed tips was a pair of automatic guns. And below the sleek fuselage, hanging like a great insect’s proboscis, was the barrel of a plasma rifle, its bore much wider than their regular counterparts.
Malik came around when she jostled him inside. Slurring his words, he said, “Looks like this group have been busy. Must have been working on these long before we discovered the extent of these chips.”
His voice echoed around the great space. She placed her finger in front of her lips to indicate silence. A noise of clattering metal came from behind the drones. There appeared to be an office or some other interior room towards the rear. Now that her eyes had acclimated to the dim light, she could tell there was a light on there. A glow shone from the corner.
Whispering into Malik’s ear, she said, “There’s someone there. I’ll just leave you here for a second and check it out.”
She rested him into a dark corner behind one of the drones, out of sight. She made to move off, but Malik gripped her wrist. “Don’t go,” he said in hushed tones. “Let’s just wait for the others.”
“Better to assess the risk now. I’ll be right back. You just stay hidden and quiet.”
Their eyes locked. She could see more than just concern for their safety there. She felt it too. A connection. She was unable to fully understand the meaning of it, especially in such a high-stress situation. She had to keep her emotions under control. Had to stay focussed until they were both safe. Anything else could come later.
The crashing noise continued, followed by the sound of a welding torch.
As she made her way stealthily through the shadows of the drones, all the time gritting her teeth as the pain of her burnt feet flared with each step, she noticed a short, bald man in a grey coverall bent over a piece of drone wing at a workbench. He wore a welding mask. Sweat poured from his dark skin under the heat of the welding torch.
As he worked, Sasha kept her back to the wall and stepped ever closer, making sure she didn’t see into the flare of the welding torch or catch a stray spark. He was situated roughly towards the middle and in front of an office with a single window and door. There didn’t appear to be anyone else inside. She noticed, like the others, he too wore a ronin-chip on his wrist. That confirmed what she thought: there were more than she expected, and they’d been working on these for some time, all the while under the nose of the Family and now the Libertas security force.
She considered her options: shoot him from her position in the shadows or take him up close, keep him alive for questioning. She was confident she could approach without being seen while he worked. And given his job here, he was bound to have useful information.
She decided: he’d be taken alive for questioning.
Before Sasha could step forward, the sudden clang of a door hitting the inside of the hangar rang out, sending her scurrying forward to hide beneath one of the drones. From her position, she first saw the welder look up and turn around. Following his gaze, she saw three people, guards in robes like those who had chased them through the tunnels. They must have tracked their footprints.
The three guards fanned out and started searching the place. Two women went off in the direction of where she had left Malik while a man headed towards the welder. He held a small slate in his right hand. She guessed that was the tracking device. He was coming right towards her.
She had to act first, before they found Malik. There were only two options open to her: go for the man with the tracking device, or...
“Has anyone come through here, Barak?” the guard said to the welder.
The small bald man looked up as he turned off the torch. He turned and removed his welding mask.
“Has anyone been through here, other than yourself?” the guard said again, all the time assessing his slate.
The welder shook his head. “What’s this about?”
“Doesn’t matter. Nothing to be concerned with.”
“Well, if you don’t mind, I got work to do. You mind closing the door on your way out?” The welder shook his head and tutted before returning his attentions to his work. The guard grunted and left.
The two women were weaving in and out of the drones at the other end of the hangar; it’d just be a matter of time before they found Malik. Sasha’s skin prickled with heat and tension. She gripped her pistol and clenched her teeth. Fuck it, she thought.
As the man with the slate passed by her, she rolled out from under the drone, rose up on her knees, aimed for the back of the man’s head and fired. Before anyone could react, she got to her feet, dashed to the falling body of the man, grabbed the slate and pocketed it, and swapped her pistol for his rifle.
Barak spun round. She was already bearing down on him, rifle raised.
“What the hell?” he screamed.
Sasha cracked the rifle down onto his head, knocking him to the floor unconscious. She vaulted the workbench and knelt behind it for cover. Using the surface as a platform to aim the rifle, she waited and held her breath.
Within seconds, the two women came running out into the clear, right into her firing line.
A bead of sweat dripped into Sasha’s eye, making her blink as she sighted down the rifle’s scope. The two women had seen their dead compatriot and the unconscious welder, and taken cover behind the drones. They had split either side of the hangar. Sasha saw shadows moving, but didn’t have a clear shot. She breathed slowly, trying to reduce her heart rate. They’d make a mistake soon, and she would capitalise on it.
To the left, the side she and Malik had entered, she saw the shadows shift forward. She tracked the movement with the rifle.
A voice called out to her right. “If you put down the weapon, we won’t have to kill you. There’s a way out of this.” She heard footsteps, a scuffing sound, slightly muffled. The guard couldn’t be much further away.
“Come any closer and I’ll kill the welder,” Sasha said. That ceased the footsteps. The shadows stopped too. She used the time to check her ammo: six shots left.
“Just don’t do anything stupid. There’s been enough blood spilled already.” Again the voice from the right. This time, Sasha noticed an arm poking out just a few centimetres from behind a drone no more than ten metres away.
She breathed out slowly as she sighted down the scope, pressed her finger against the trigger, and squeezed until a bullet fired, catching the woman’s arm, sending her stumbling out into the open with a scream as she clutched her wrist.
That roused her partner on the other side. Sasha twisted to her left a few degrees and repeated the procedure. This time she had a bigger target. The woman had turned to face the scream and backed away from her position, exposing her flank.
Sight. Breathe out. Finger on trigger...
The door flew open, dousing the woman in bright light. Two men in Libertas security uniforms rushed in. She raised the gun and removed her finger from the trigger. They’d found them! They were safe.
But someone else came in behind them: a short, wiry man with silver-grey hair. He wore a dark grey tailored suit with a straight collar. He looked Japanese with his tanned skin and almond-shaped, dark eyes. He wore a gold band around his neck. She didn’t recognise him; he certainly wasn’t anyone she’d seen before in the security department.
Without stopping, he pointed towards Malik. “Get him out of here. Fix his leg, and chip him.”
With barely contained horror bubbling up from deep inside, she watched as the two Libertas security men lifted Malik and dragged him away.
Malik resisted, but one of the men stunned him with a stun-baton before taking him out.
The suited man continued towards Sasha. He passed the woman and said something to her in a language she didn’t understand. It was clear he was in charge; the woman bowed her head and followed Malik and the others out of the hangar. The woman on the right now lay in a hump, mewling with pain.
“Why don’t you put the rifle down and talk to me?” The man was clearly looking at Sasha now. She trained the sights on him. Got a closer look. His skin was pockmarked, and like Gabriel and Petal, he wore a chromed port on the right side of his neck.
“Who the hell are you?” Sasha said, dividing her attention between him and the injured woman. “What do you want?”
“All rather big questions,” he said with a smile, all the time walking closer. “Why don’t we start with something easier?”
Sasha didn’t respond. Placed her finger on the trigger. Squeezed. A short blast belched from the rifle, sending a shock into the crook of her shoulder. She took the kick, steadied her aim, and prepared a second shot, but as the smoke from the shot cleared, she realised she missed. He stood a couple of metres to the side, still smiling.
“Barak,” he said casually, “do the honours, please.”
A hand squeezed around her neck.
She spun round. The welder pushed her back onto the table, bearing his weight down on her throat. The rifle clattered to the floor as she lost feeling in her hands, then arms. The place started to spin, and her lips moved uselessly. She should have paid more attention.
As he squeezed further, he overbalanced. Sasha took advantage and rolled to the side a few centimetres, freeing her arm. She punched him in the kidney, feeling her knuckles sink into his flab.
He wheezed and coughed with the strike; his grip loosened. She head-butted him across the bridge of his nose, cracking the cartilage and sending him sprawling backwards while he gripped his face.
Taking a deep breath, she lunged for the rifle and turned back to face the Japanese man. He was sprinting now, just a few metres from the workbench. Firing on instinct, she let off two rounds.
The first missed, sending the onrushing man diving to his right, but the second one winged his chest, eliciting a yell from him as he collapsed to his side clutching the wound.
Wasting no time, she turned back to the welder and struck him on the side of the head with the butt of the rifle before vaulting the workbench and sprinting to the door, all the time trying to ignore the flares of pain from her burned feet with each step. She considered stopping and finishing off the man she had shot, but she couldn’t afford to lose sight of Malik.
Back outside, the sun shining and making everything look like it was on fire with the brightness, she heard Malik’s protestations. Just before he was taken into one of the large warehouse buildings, she caught a glimpse of him struggling with the pair of Libertas security officers—why had they turned on Malik? Had the insurgents always had people in Libertas’ administration? Behind them was a woman with dark hair and a designer suit. She was smiling and directing the officers.
She looked like Rosario Fuentes.
Before she could say anything, something cold struck her on the back of the neck, tensing her body, making her rigid.
Petal and Gabe shared a bowl of steaming broth made from one of the food parcels they brought with them: a synthetic protein-based meal. Not the worst thing in the world, but not exactly the best either.
They were sat either side of the workbench within Shelley’s workshop compartment in the gutted passenger plane. Tools and electronic parts hung from the ceiling—all in arm’s reach of her position at the bench—while the racking along the rear wall behind her overflowed with boxes of scrap metal, wires, and salvaged components from the various vehicles and planes within her graveyard of a complex.
Shelley wore a magnifying visor over her head. She had swept her wire-entwined hair back, held together with a length of power cord. She sat hunched over the innards of Alpha, its motherboard blackened with damage. From the main data port, a cable connected the motherboard to Shelley’s rack of analysis devices: five holoscreens arranged in a grid, each one displaying a different stream of data.
The analysis setup wasn’t common. In all of Gabe’s travels, he’d only ever seen one person with a similar setup: the mad hacker Seca. Shelley had found it when she first came to this place. Many others followed her after finding out what tech was available, but through a desire to survive, Shelley had made it her own. As for the others that had tried to do the same... they didn’t quite make it, and Shelley had discovered a new food source.
During the war, the place was used as a central flight hub for the China-Russian alliance. Everything from top-of-the-line stealth fighters, bombers, passenger planes, and ground vehicles were placed here ready for deployment across eastern Asia.
Most never got the chance to get off the ground. Not once the Family ended the war with their EMPs and nukes. Although this area managed to avoid most of the nukes, it was a primary target for the EMPs, grounding most of the planes.
A great proportion of the aircraft within this compound were brand new, hot off the Russian assembly lines. They hadn’t seen a minute of conflict. Trillions of dollars’ worth of technology, and they just sat there, useless.
Well, not that useless, it turned out. Shelley had begun to work on stripping them of resources and parts. Gabe had no idea what she was building. Although in their previous meeting, she had mentioned she was trying to get one of the planes back to full operation. It was the information to do just that that had prompted her to hire Gabe and Petal for the job.
Gabe swallowed the broth, trying to forget the sights he’d seen when he and Petal had returned with the information: the bodies, the skins. They’d left before concluding the deal. He’d discovered Shelley had no plans of allowing them to leave alive, or in one piece, once they handed over the information.
“Well?” Petal said, wiping her chin on her sleeve. “How’s she looking?”
“Burnt to a fucking crisp.” Shelley sat back, tapping the needles of the electronic multimeter against the edge of the metal workbench like a drumstick. “But, it’s not the end of the world, not yet, anyway.”
“So ya can fix it?” Gabe said, leaning forward to peer at the streams of data. It appeared the motherboard, although severely damaged, was still functioning on some level. Its input/output channels were still operational. As were the memory chips.
“I can’t promise it’ll be as it was before,” Shelley added, “but if you can get me the parts, I’m confident this sucker can be patched up enough to be useable. Which reminds me, you never did say what you needed this for or what was so special about it.”
“Ya right,” Gabe said. “We didn’t. Ya don’t need to know. It doesn’t affect ya either way. We just need it back up and running.”
“Well, if you can find me a new quantum bridge and the right transistors, I can probably get it running again. There’s a few repairs, mostly to the GPU interface, that I can do here, but for the rest I’ll need those parts.”
“It’s no good,” Petal said. “We need to use the existing parts.”
Shelley narrowed her eyes. “Why?”
“It’s not important to you. We just need you to get it up and running again.”
“Not like this I can’t. You get me the parts and perhaps I can cobble something together that uses most of the original hardware.”
“It’s the best we’re gonna get,” Gabe said to Petal. “It’s a risk, but we don’t have any other option.”
“You’re right, Gabe.” Petal sighed and then asked Shelley, “So the processor isn’t totally screwed?”
Shelley pointed to the right-most holoscreen. “That’s the I/O for it. See that flow of information? That’s coming from the processor, the quantum core. But here’s the odd thing. I ain’t doing anything to it; it’s calculating stuff on its own. I’ve not even booted the OS. It’s like its running stuff itself. So although it seems faulty, it’s running perfectly—on its own. I’ve never seen anything like this before. Something this old shouldn’t be able to do this.”
Petal smiled at Gabe, a smile of hope, the smile of someone who had found a lost friend, or had good news about a loved one once presumed dead, now alive. Gabe refused to get his hopes up. Experience had told him to never get too excited.
Still, he got up from his seat and stood beyond Shelley, leaning forward and inspecting the stream of data. His blood cooled, and his muscles tensed in his shoulders. Without realising, he was grinding his teeth.
“What is it?” Petal asked.
Gabe looked to Shelley, then Petal. He didn’t want to go into details with the crazy old woman listening in. She was the type that information could be used as a weapon, and despite agreeing to the deal, he trusted her as far as he trusted anyone—not at all.
“Nothing,” Gabe said. “Just eager for us to get this fixed and move on. No offence, Shelley.”
“None taken, Coffee. I don’t like the stink of you two much either. Quicker this is done and you both fuck off, the better.”
“Charming as ever. Petal, come outside with me for a moment. Let’s get some fresh air and let Shelley continue her work.”
Petal and Gabe stood and made to leave the workshop. Gabe stopped on the way out, taking one of Shelley’s slates from the workbench. “Can I borrow this for a few minutes? I just need to check something out.”
“Yeah, if it’ll get you two out of my face for a while, but don’t mess with it.”
Gabe gave her a begrudging smile of thanks and exited the plane. Petal followed.
They walked away from the plane Shelley had made her home, and approached the fence surrounding the compound. Gabe stopped and turned to Petal.
“What’s up?” Petal asked. “Something wrong?”
“Alpha. That data stream?”
“What of it?”
“It’s Elliot. He’s everywhere. Look.”
Gabe showed her Shelley’s slate.
“What am I looking at?” Petal asked as she took the slate and stared at the screen. Gabe had downloaded a programme via his internal computer. It was a basic data analysis tool that he used regularly for his various hacking jobs. It looked into network traffic and identified the kinds of data they were, whether it be graphical images, text, code, or as in this case, something else entirely.
“Ya’re looking at dark traffic,” Gabe said. “I noticed it shortly after we arrived. Our private network is okay, but then that’s only because it’s encrypted between us. All radio frequencies are being smothered by something. When Shelley got to work on Alpha, I recognised the data patterns from when Elliot dragged you into Alpha. It’s a kind of scrambled anti-data, it’s the stuff that he’s made from: his uploaded consciousness.”
Petal blinked, opened her mouth, and then closed it, trying to understand the ramifications. Gabe waited while she worked it out. After a few seconds she squinted at the screen, taking in the flow of dark traffic. “Shit,” she said. “That means he’s... fuck. He’s in all the networks, even Shelley’s.”
“Yeah, that’s what I first noticed. Even before she hooked up Alpha, I saw the data on her holoscreens. At first it just looked like the regular flow of data she’d be used to. There’s the node in Baicheng, and it seems she’s hacked into the Red Widow’s systems too, but it ain’t right. He’s got in everywhere that ain’t secured. Can’t be long before he gets into Cemprom’s network in the Dome.”
“Where’s the data source coming from, though? One of the satellites, surely?”
“It makes sense,” Gabe said. “As far as we knew, Elliot was being partly held in the Family’s satellite that you and Criborg blew up to gain access to the Meshwork, but after Gerry had dragged yours and his mind out of Elliot’s influence and we shut off Alpha and Omega, his code base had to go somewhere, it had to exist somewhere else. With so few computers around, and fewer networks, he’d need somewhere large enough to hold his vast capacity—there must be loads of old satellites up there waiting to be used.”
“So what do we do now?”
“Hunt him down. Kill two birds with one stone.”
“How’s that?” Petal asked. She traced her gaze across his head, seeing his scars.
Gabe had noticed that since he shaved his head, she’d been staring at them, no doubt wondering about their origins. Perhaps one day he would tell her what happened.
“Shelley needs parts, right? And we need a network. Who do we know that’s likely to have that out here?”
Petal sighed. “Xian? Really, Gabe?”
“Yeah. We’ll be there in a few hours if the mad old bitch will give us some transport. Xian was one of the first to establish a network with his microwave and radio transceivers. If anyone’s got the gear to hack a satellite, it’s him. And if I’m right in thinking that’s where Elliot’s code base is... well, we can try a little old-school techxorcism, and stop this madness at the source.”
“Now that’s a fucking great plan,” Petal said. “We need to let Enna know. And Sasha, James, and Fuentes, as they’re dealing with the ronin-chips.”
“Aye, that’s easier said than done, though. I tried to get in contact when we first arrived, but with no Meshwork and the radio frequencies being scrambled by something—probably Elliot—I couldn’t find a connection to anything before. I had hoped to use Shelley’s network, but it looks like that’s been compromised, too. We’re gonna have to find another way.”
“We’ll have to do it at Xian’s if he ain’t compromised.”
“That’s the plan. We can take one of Shelley’s quad-bikes. I noticed she had a couple back there. They weren’t there when we were last here, so I’m guessing they’re operational.”
“There’s one other thing we can deal with when we get there,” Petal said.
Gabe said nothing.
“Gabe? You missed something out,” Petal said, taking his silence for misunderstanding.
He knew what it was, and he purposely didn’t want to talk about it: his family, and their people.
“Yeah, I know.”
Gabe took the slate back and headed back to Shelley’s plane, trying to ignore the sounds and images of those poor bastards being slaughtered by the Widows—and the one image that had yet to leave him: the frail visage of his father, the fear in his eyes, the resolute expression as he walked forward in that line...
No matter what Gabe would do or see, he’d never forget that. Never forget that it was his fault that his father had ended up in that line. But there would be time yet for Gabe to avenge his father, time yet for Gabe to make the Widows pay. More death never solved anything, but it was the only thing that kept him going, kept him moving forward. If he dwelt on it for too long, he’d be paralysed with guilt and grief. Right now he had not only his personal demons to slay, but also he had a new city, a new people, and a new peace to protect from an out-of-control insane posthuman entity.
He failed his family; he refused to fail his friends.
Back inside, he stood behind the hunched old woman and squinted at the holoscreens. It was definitely that same dark traffic pattern he’d seen before. He thought about how much of the truth he should tell her. He certainly couldn’t tell her everything. She was so damned crazy she would probably welcome Elliot.
“There’s a virus in your system,” Gabe said.
Shelley turned her head and pulled the visor up to her forehead. “What the hell are you talking about now?”
Gabe pointed to the holoscreen and handed her the slate. “Check the traffic. You’re only on a small network; it don’t generate that much data. You’ve got a virus in your system, and worse, it’s trying to access Alpha. That’s where all that spontaneous computation is coming from. It’s trying to protect itself.”
Shelley squinted at him, giving him an expression like she’d just been handed a rotten turd. But she looked closer at the slate, then back to the holoscreen. “Well, fuck me. How did I not notice that?”
“You better get off the network. Now.”
“But, I need—”
Gabe leaned forward over the workbench and removed the connecting cable from Alpha, removing the server from Shelley’s network. He then moved around the workbench and reached behind the holoscreen setup. He lifted the power supply and smashed it on the floor.
“What the hell are you doing?” Shelley launched up from her stool, reaching over her head to grab one of her many tools hanging from the ceiling. She grabbed a scalpel and thrust it towards Gabe’s neck.
He was already anticipating such an action. He leant backwards, making her swipe miss his neck. With one hand he grabbed her wrist, twisting it until she dropped the knife with a yelp. Having control of her wrist, and with her being off balance, Gabe pulled her arm, bringing her falling face-first onto the workbench with a thud.
Gabe leaned in, all the while holding her to the bench.
“I’m not in the goddamned mood to screw around, so you’ll listen to me, or I swear to whatever god you pray to that I’ll end your miserable life right here and now. Ya understand?” Gabe leaned his weight down onto her, crushing her face into the metal surface.
“Gabe? What the hell?” Petal said from the doorway.
With his free arm, he held out his hand, palm up. “Stay out of it, girl.”
Shelley squirmed beneath his weight, but couldn’t get free.
“I said, do ya understand?”
Shelley choked out a sound that resembled the word ‘yes’.
“Good. Now ya listen to me real close, and ya might just survive the day. Those quad-bikes outside, are they in full running condition, and do ya have the fuel cells for ’em?”