Authors: Mr Mike Berry
‘That’s what that was flying round the club, then,’ said Sofi.
Tec nodded. ‘Familiar,’ he said. He turned to look at the drugged Tallen, noting at last the light blinking on the man’s head. He bent to the console again and his own lights went berserk with activity. He was trying to hack the familiar.
The dragon hit the armoured hide of the van like an express train and the team felt its structure tremble. A machine gun turret unfurled from the roof like an obscene flower in bloom and bullets began to rattle off the skin of the familiar like rain. The dragon was desperately trying to hold on with its four clawed paws to any minute chink or seam it could find in the skin of the vehicle. While it did this, its knife-ended tail darted and struck again and again with ferocious speed at the front of the van. Its stubby orange jaws were snapping madly at the air and its slit eyes, so like those of its master, flared with furious colour. A tiny lick of flame burst from its mouth, washing the vehicle harmlessly. The machine gun ripped a hand-sized hole in one of the robot’s wings and it wheeled away into the sky again. Clearly, the wings were only for show and it actually rode on a suspensor cushion. The turret weapon chattered one short burst of lead at the dragon’s retreating form as if insistent on having the last word.
‘Tec?’ Whistler demanded. ‘It’s coming around again. Can it get through the armour?’
Tec was lost in the net, hi-flo DNI cable twined around his shoulders like a snake. He crouched over the console, peering deep into the screen. ‘Police,’ he said.
‘Damn it!’ Whistler cursed. ‘Which police?’ She was aware that the machine gun was firing again.
‘This is going well, then,’ pointed out Roberts from where he sat passively with his arms crossed.
Whistler turned on him. ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ she shouted. ‘Help him! Tec – which police?’
‘Local rent-a-cop. They won’t catch us – take a left – not if you floor it.’
Roberts plugged in without leaving his seat. The dragon was on the side of the van now, Sofi snarling back into its fanged face. Its tail was starting to crack the armour and the van’s weapons couldn’t reach it. They were swivelling angrily as they sought in vain to remove the vicious parasite. Whistler tried to scrape the robot off on a wall as they whipped past. The dragon’s body smashed a massive chunk out of the wall and bricks rained down like confetti. It was still hanging on, its stupid metal face looking almost triumphant. Sofi was shouting at it, enraged and powerless.
Sirens could be heard in the distance now, warbling idiotically as the rent-a-cops scurried to give chase. Most of the local forces were covered by the harvesters’ immunity contract – some of them weren’t. Either way, Smith would be royally pissed if Whistler had to contact her asking for the dogs to be called off. Best not to let it come to that.
‘Shall I get HGR?’ asked Roberts, echoing Whistler’s thoughts.
‘I’m gonna climb out and blast that fucking robot,’ exclaimed Sofi. The familiar was climbing up onto the roof now, its tail switching like a cat’s.
‘Yeah, if you want a limb ripped off,’ replied Spider.
‘Ha!’ bellowed Tec triumphantly, and the dragon suddenly went rigid and peeled away into the road, lifeless. It bounced off in the wake of the van and was quickly left behind. Tallen’s body shivered as his familiar died. His arms and legs jittered briefly against their restraints, then were still. The light on his head had stopped blinking as his connection to the familiar was suddenly dropped.
‘It’s Universal Protection Contractors on us,’ said Roberts. ‘We’ve no contract with them – we’ll have to lose them the old-fashioned way.’
‘I’m on it!’ answered Whistler, swerving the wrong way up a one-way street. The sound of sirens, more concentrated and organised now, was getting closer.
‘Tec?’ barked Spider. ‘Can you do something, or is this gonna be another shootout?’
‘I’m trying, I’m trying,’ he answered. ‘The avatars can’t get through. There’s also the danger of backhacks from these fuckers. It’s almost as if they know what they’re doing.’
An intense silence followed during which Tec’s fingers flew over the keypad and Whistler heaved the van left and right further into the warren of side streets. Few other vehicles passed them. Tec’s eyelids were fluttering as his mind whirled with the data-stream. Roberts, too, was deep in the net. Spider was assembling his mag-rifle with calm composure. Sofi was sat with her hands in her lap, grinding her teeth, hating her impotence. Sirens screamed like banshees behind them.
The van burst from an alley into a wide junction and the police were there ahead of them, their gravpods and riot-vans arrayed in a semi-circle like a fishing net. Whistler hit the brakes but knew they couldn’t stop in time. The vehicle’s computer saw the danger, also, and steered itself for the too-small gap between two police wagons.
‘Brace!’ screamed Whistler.
The van hit the police vehicles, driving into the gap like a wedge. They lifted into the air and the nose of the van dug into the road. For a moment, it seemed as if it would flip. Spider’s gun flew out of his hands and hit the windscreen, the noise lost in the roar of impact. Already, Roberts was manually firing the machine gun turret into the scurry of navy-clad figures who scattered, fleeing from the somersaulting vehicles. The van swerved under brakes and skidded sideways. Whistler, who hadn’t even noticed when her head hit the dashboard, was trying to reverse away from the roadblock to bring more weapons to bear. Spyflies swarmed around the vehicle like gnats round a horse, filming, cataloguing. Scrambler-baits lured them in and fried them in clouds.
Something boomed on the roof of one of the police wagons and the top right corner of the van’s armoured windscreen shattered, scattering the harvesters inside with glittering shards. Police were popping up from cover, bringing small-arms to bear. The second machine gun turret and the poison ice gun joined in now, the weapons chattering like teeth. One of the streams of lead, guided by Tec, found the magazine of the police unit which had fired the cannon at them. It erupted, its armour bursting like an inflated paper bag. Human figures were briefly illuminated as they cartwheeled away through the air in a shower of limbs.
‘Not fucking cool!’ yelled Whistler, somewhat unnecessarily, as the police began to concentrate their fire on the torn corner of the front wall. Several bullets ricocheted around inside the van, burying themselves in the seats, miraculously hitting nobody.
‘Let’s just go!’ screamed Sofi. Spider was climbing out of the sunroof with the mag-rifle in two of his massive claws. ‘Spider – no!’
Whistler, needing no more encouragement, reversed, swinging the nose round and smoothly engaging forward mode. Spider tottered and ducked back in as a stream of bullets sought to scrape him from the roof. Aiming for a main road, Whistler opened the throttle all the way. The van took off like a missile, small-arms fire rattling off its rear wall in showers of sparks. Sofi craned to see out the back.
‘Are they following?’ asked Whistler.
‘…Yeah,’ replied Sofi. ‘Maybe they haven’t had enough.’
‘Maybe not,’ agreed Tec. ‘Look – let’s kill the net-link. Satellite, radio, all of it.’
‘And be left flying blind? No calls, no satnav, nothing? Fuck, no.’
‘Listen, I can’t disrupt their tracking system – they’ve clearly bought a high priority. The avatars can’t get in, I’m constantly fighting backhacking from all sorts of defence routines – sooner or later one will get through. I…’
‘Shit, okay, do it. And launch minissiles when we round the corner.’
Whistler heaved the van round a corner and Tec released the small autonomous missiles, which rapidly spread out to cover the entrance to the road. Sirens screamed behind them. The minissiles, guided by internal computers, began to patrol the air in tight patterns. They were not connected to the net or to any radio or microwave network, and could not be controlled once released. On the up-side, this meant that they could not be detected by any comm-signature. This, together with their all-plastic construction, made them very hard to spot for a rapidly pursuing enemy.
The van sped away from the minissiles as the first police pod rounded the corner, lights swirling madly. A second joined it in close succession. One of the weapons had already sniffed out the first pod and darted towards it eagerly. The harvesters flinched in unison as the mouth of the road was engulfed by a fireball that grew to fill it like expanding foam. A dark, shattering twist of metal could be seen in silhouette against the brilliance of the flame for an instant. Glass disintegrated in the fronts of the surrounding buildings. There was a momentary silence followed by a roar so loud that it drowned out the music inside the fleeing vehicle.
Tec’s net panel was dark now, and for a moment they drove in silence as well as isolation, the towers of the city looming ominously around them, rubbish floating like silent ghosts in their wake. The sound of sirens faded as Whistler drove down increasingly narrow streets, bearing off to the east and then folding back on their course, heading back to the Undercity and home. She had time to notice her throbbing head now and risked raising one hand to check the source of the pain. It came away with blood, but not too much of it.
Sofi exhaled heavily, as if she had been holding her breath. ‘That was close,’ she said. ‘Too fucking close. Thank the economic recession that UPC don’t have access to ’copters.’
‘Everyone all right?’ asked Whistler. There was a murmur of acknowledgement. ‘Check the product – if we’ve broken it, all this was for naught.’
Tec, unplugged now from the isolated console, moved to examine Tallen. There was a small wound in the man’s left arm – a graze from one of the ricocheting bullets. ‘He’s had a scratch,’ said Tec. ‘Nothing more. What is…’ Tec reached out a hand in disbelief, but stopped short of actually touching the wound.
‘What?’ demanded Whistler.
‘What is…’ he repeated.
Blood was seeping from the graze on Tallen’s arm in a steady, slow trickle. But another fluid was also escaping the wound. The two streams clearly came from the same source, but they separated to run two different courses down the biceps to drip onto the floor of the van. One stream was red, the other a deep, glistening green.
Debian interfaced with the computer control of his flat and let himself in. The room, like the building that contained it, was old and well used. The walls were covered in paper of an indeterminate colour. A stainless steel bed frame supported an unclothed futon mattress. A wooden chair was tucked beneath a vast wooden desk upon and under which sprawled a computer rig that a government lab would have been proud of. Liquid nitrogen-cooled quantum processors hung in glass boxes around the desk like party decorations. Bunches of hi-flo cable – faster and safer than wireless – were draped between pieces of equipment like jungle vines. Despite its austerity the room was clean and orderly.
Debian went first to the window and, parting a corner of the sun-bleached curtain, looked out into the street. A few bedraggled figures crept past far below but he could not detect anyone lingering around. Infrared showed several people in adjacent flats all going about their day-to-day business. He knew them all, all their details, even though he never spoke to any of them if he could help it. He continued to watch for several minutes and then, breathing a sigh of relief, he went to the coffee machine on the kitchenette counter.
The machine, primed by the flat’s control system to expect the demand, supplied strong white coffee almost immediately. The stats of the machine flickered across the back of Debian’s mind – water, coffee, milk, sugar levels, internal heat, usage pattern. Debian took the mug that it produced and went to the desk. He sat achingly in the old chair. He had walked a long way before daring to return here.
One hand reached out unconsciously to touch the plastic box of the hi-flo data router that stood on a smaller table alongside the desk. The computer, aware of his presence, booted up. He read the power-on self-test report over wireless, making sure all was well. Then he plugged in. The data coursed through his head like ice-water and he relaxed back into the chair as far as was possible with such an inherently uncomfortable piece of furniture. Faintly, the disseminated processors were humming around him, talking to the large data storage unit under the desk. Debian was unaware that he was humming, too – matching their pitch perfectly.
Once in the system, he ran through a long series of diagnostics, checking processor load and ping speed with a variety of programs and settings. He scanned every corner of his system for viruses. He then started a security test, sending his own avatars out to attack his system remotely. They were unable to get through the complex defence protocols, and of course the avatars would be on his side of the battle when he started for real.
There was no slowdown indicative of a parasite program running in his system, no lag. The avatars moved unseen through the net, testing attack scripts on the defence systems of a small bank, which they chose in accordance with the profile of the neural simulation that formed a part of their code. They moved with perfect stealth. They wheedled their way into the mainframe of the bank autonomously. At this point Debian could easily have gone further – maybe made a payment into an orbital account – but what was the point? He had been there and done that in the past, and eventually it had become boring – his present work was not about the money.