I am outside and it’s getting dark. The alley is deserted but, humping two bags over my shoulder I am extra careful. I hear a noise at the very far end where the shadows bleed into deep darkness.
The Hub is not the kind of place where you want to take your chances when the deck is not stacked for you. I have a brief vision of Regulators with dark insignia on their lapels or maybe the Hub’s special brand of muggers.
I take off, the load of the bags weighing heavy on me and my boots striking the Hub surface beneath me with exaggerated force. Whatever was in that alley is soon left behind.
Running while being weighed down is never easy. I take care to pick my route so I don’t run into a crowd. I have the sense that I am being followed but think to myself that this is me being paranoid. If it was Regulators I’d have been picked up already and if it was muggers, well …
Out of breath and within reach of RIM Corp, Regulators HQ in the Hub. I used the time I was running to clear my head and formulate a plan. The easiest, I know, is never the best.
I could go in all guns ablaze. Create so much red dust that there’ll be more tales told about me, but that’s not really my style. There are Regulators in there who don’t deserve that. So here I am, hiding behind the last available cover, watching RIM Corp carefully through a pair of augmented reality binoculars that give me all sorts of telemetrics.
I think to myself that this must be partially what Reed felt like all the time. The thought of the hacker adds to my sense of sadness and drip-feeds my anger. I notice that I’ve used the past tense yet I have no evidence that he is, indeed, dead. The thought momentarily distracts me. Never a good thing to happen in the Hub.
“Daydreaming?” Spoken softly, off to my right and I get to my feet. Fast. My right hand is already reaching for my blaster when I recognize the voice through the whispered undertones.
The Regulator steps out from behind cover. Reed on his heels. I feel like hugging them both but the gesture would be out of place right now and I have not forgotten what I am here to do.
“Missed us?” asks the Regulator. He sounds matter-of-fact but I sense there is anger in his voice.
“What happened?” I ask.
“The Jackal happened,” he says. “We were clear of the Docks, Ellie and her uncle going home. Reed and thinking of getting somewhere we could spend a day or two figuring out what to do next. Jackals men intercepted Ellie, killed her uncle and his hired muscle. Took the girl prisoner. Reed here intercepted messages from across the intranet.”
I nodded. His words filled in all the blanks. “How did you find me?” I ask.
“Oh, that was Reed,” says Raynar.
I look over to Reed and the hacker looks sheepish. Then: “I put a tracer on you. Just in case.” he says at last. Looks down.
“You tagged me?” I am trying to remember how it could have happened.
“Back at Dock 17,” he says seeing me frowning. He understands I am thinking back. “All that melee with Tessa and those goons in black. I thought that if you took off and we needed you we had no way of finding you. Plus …” he pauses and shuffles his feet a little, looking at the ground. “All that Red Reaper stuff. There’s a huge reward out for you. I thought it wouldn’t hurt knowing where you are.” He lifts his head to look at me now.
My reputation is a burden as well as a boon. I understand why he did what he did. “Where? Where’s the tag?” He does that thing he does behind his eyes. The pupils momentarily unfocus and then, I feel the slightest buzz at the back of my neck. Just under the hairline. Clever. Hackers.
“It’s off,” he says.
I rub my hand at the hairline and it comes away with the thinnest of skin scales. Almost entirely transparent. No wonder I never felt it.
“Why are you here?” More to the point.
“We’re here to help,” from Raynar.
“Yeah, no way you’re doing this alone,” confirms Reed.
In my life, most times, I’ve operated alone. Sure I make and use friends and allies here and there but really, because they usually die, I prefer to work alone. That way the nightmares I have late at night are not populated with people I liked.
“No way,” I say and mean it. They have no idea what they’re getting into.
“Yes way,” says Raynar. Childish retort really. I shrug. Begin to turn away. I know I need to get rid of them both. “What’s your plan anyway?”
I turn back to look at him. He’s stands cocky, hands on hips. He knows now that he can’t really take me even if he tried his hardest but still. “I’m going to create a diversion. Infiltrate it and then clear the rooms, one by one until I find Ellie and free her,” I say. It sounds crazy, even to me, but I haven’t really had a lot of time to come up with a plan and now I am just playing for time.
“That’s insane!” says Reed. “How long do you think you’ll last in there?”
He has a point but then again they don’t quite know everything about me. I have survived some pretty tough odds in my life.
“If three of us worked it, wouldn’t it be easier? Improve the odds of getting Ellie out alive?” asks Raynar. It’s a reasonable question and I cannot fault the logic of his asking. While I was running I thought of a plan, a couple actually. My brain used the time to clear out its thinking. What I said to Raynar and Reed was correct. It is one of the plans that occurred to me, but only one of them.
It occurs to me, as I’m about to open my mouth, that I may be handing out death sentences. I pause. Mouth open.
“Is a sound going to come out some time?” Raynar asks. His sense of humor is insufferable at times.
“Well?” even Reed is impatient.
Why do people rush in to die but fail to apply the same haste in living a life? The thought has preoccupied me before. I have no answer to it. Not yet.
“There may be a way,” I say. “We might be able to pull something off without killing anyone or dying ourselves.”
“That would be a trick worthy of the Red Reaper,” Raynar says.
“It will take all of us. And a lot of running and climbing.” I say.
“We can do it,” says Reed. He really doesn’t know what he is letting himself in for.
I begin detailing my plan. Reed is the first one to understand it. He pulls up a schematic from a Hub databank. It shows the RIM Corp from the top down, in 3D. We begin to carve out our roles in this, look at each part we have to play in detailed, think of alternative scenarios.
Ping. Time’s up. I know that sound.
“Well, are you there?” The Jackal’s voice is all choked up with barely suppressed rage. We momentarily all look at the comms device at my waist and then we all silently nod.
We are on!
I raise the device to my lips and answer: “I am here. The girl?”
“Let me see you.” the Jackal has a sense of humor then.
“Not a chance. You think I am stupid?”
“You killed my sister. That was a really stupid decision.”
“Your sister had it coming. Besides, I saved her first.” I don’t expect the Jackal to understand this. But he doesn’t have to. All I need to do is keep him talking long enough for Reed to work his magic.
On cue. Reed and Raynar take off. They run hunched over. Each holding some of the toys I got from Snug’s little toy shop. Telemetry beacons, 3D projectors, some really advanced satellite imaging stuff. They are busy running like hell, setting up an electronic perimeter around RIM Corp as they run. It’s going to be funny. I don’t think a Regulator HQ has ever been under siege before. This one is going to be one for the history books.
I am counting on the Jackal to do two things: First live up to his name and try and hunt me down quickly and take me alive. And second, double-cross me which means that Ellie is not anywhere easy for me to get to.
RIM Corp follows standard Regulator protocols. It is offices and admin on the outer layer, followed by training suites, living quarters and, finally, in the innermost layer. Holding cells.
“Are you coming in or not?” the Jackal’s voice comes in again. Tense. Angry.
“Yeah,” I am.
I hear the first siren going off. Reed and Raynar must have now completed putting all the gear in place. On the far side of the RIM Corp building. The side I cannot see because it is furthest away from me I see flares going off and what looks like smoke. It started.
“You’re dead!” the Jackal hisses through the comms link and then the device goes dead.
I use the time to run as fast as possible to the far corner of the RIM Corp building.
Normally it would be covered by sophisticated electronic surveillance but the equipment I bought from Snug are designed to piggyback on current electronic networks. The AI system governing them sets up a parallel echo that mirrors what is going on around a specific perimeter but then scrubs it clean of intruder data.
The RIM Corp would be hardened against something like this, of course. But I am counting on them not knowing quite the level of sophistication I have brought to bear plus Reed.
Reed, actually, in my revised plan, became the ace up my sleeve.
AI systems are not as smart as most people think they are. They have heuristics that guide them and there is a learning algorithm at their core that helps them adapt to their environment. But they still need to learn new things every time and when time and data are not on their side, they can actually be pretty dumb. But they are fast.
With Reed guiding it the system would receive training data right from the second we deployed it. Plus, Reed would fine tune the parameters. Right now, as Raynar, Reed and I ran to the RIM Corp building and started climbing up one of the steep walls that had no windows, the system rendered us invisible. All the surveillance equipment, looking down at us, were being overridden and told to scrub us from their memory.
To confuse the system further the AI would be throwing up false flags. Setting off perimeter alarms in areas we were nowhere near.
Carrying some extra equipment still the climb up a steep wall is not easy. I use grapplers in feet and hands, old-school ninja style. There is no electronic signature and because there is no powerpack either I can guarantee they will not run out and strand me.
I work up quite the sweat and then Reed’s voice crackles in the intercom in my ear: “Ellie’s on the twelfth floor, not the basement,” he says.
My guess is that he’s been interrogating the smart system that runs the building. I do not ask how he knows or if he’s sure. I take it that if he says so, he is sure. “Ok,” I say. I keep on climbing.
I break through a skylight window on the twelfth using a heat charge to melt a hole in the glass. It’s efficient, quiet and fast.
“I am going to find you,” the Jackal’s voice comes through the comms device on my belt. I dial down the sound. Last thing I want is to have him give my position away when I am inside.
“I thought I was dead,” I say deadpan. I want to enrage him further.
“We shall find you,” he yells back. This time I kill the comms. He’s angry which means he’s not thinking clearly.
“Reed, Raynar, you guys OK?” I whisper.
Reeds voice comes in first: “Peachy.”
Then Raynar: “They can’t spot us and we’re not out in the open. We’re cool.”
Relieved I push on.
Inside the building I stop to get my bearings. Reed’s schematics that showed me the layout come to mind. There are strobes flashing ahead and the building is partially in darkness inside. My guess is this is their lockdown mode. There will be cameras everywhere but thanks to Reed and Snug’s clever toys I am invisible to them.
I run down a corridor, find a door, drop half a floor on a flight of steps and then find another corridor to get through.
By the time I find where Ellie is being kept I am out of breath. A semi-permanent condition for me this run, I think to myself.
The room she’s in is old-style on purpose. Door with heavy lock. No electronic access. The claxons calling emergency in some other part, deep inside the building have drawn everyone else away. Reed’s work is genius.
I give the door a few heavy kicks -
- and watch the lock buckle. The door swings open with a thud, against the wall. Ellie’s inside, curled into a tight ball against the far wall. Even in the low-level lighting of the room I can see the bruises on her face.
“Sef!” she looks up, surprise showing on her face.
“Yeah, I know. I didn’t expect to be here either.” I tell her. I help her up. She grimaces. “Can you run?”
“OK, then. Let’s go.” To the device in my ear I murmur: “Reed, we’re heading back. Can you make sure Ellie doesn’t show?”
“Got it.” Reed is in working mode. His words sparse. Ellie will be scrubbed from all devices just like we are.
We run like mad.
I have my blaster out but we don’t meet anyone else. It makes me wonder at just the quality of the cyberdiversions thrown up by the equipment Snug supplied and the scenarios being boosted by Reed and Raynar. We get to the melted window without having to kill anyone.
The climb down is harder. I am supporting Ellie this time and she’s heavier than she looks. I am glad for the strength training I’ve done in the past.
“Once we hit the ground we shall have to sprint to the perimeter. Then arrange to meet up with Raynar and Reed.”
“They’re here?” Ellie looks up. Despite whatever pain she’s in, she seems in good spirits.
I nod. Notice how she lets a smile flit across her face.
We sprint to the perimeter and then crawl the last few hundred yards to the very edge of the cyberprotection offered to us.
We both get under cover. When we can both safely look back at the RIM Corp building we see the magnitude of the cyber attack and I then realize just why the building was so empty inside.
There are groups of armed men running in several directions outside. Plumes of smoke and flashing lights are coming from several points of the massive building itself. Internal systems and false alarms. System malfunctions and false readings. RIM Corp were just never ready for that.
I wonder whether I should send one last message to the Jackal but I hear steps, just behind us and turn. Reed is coming towards us, face flushed with sweat. “Their comms are down too,” he gasps, “can you believe it? The poor souls are isolated. Completely.”
He waits for Raynar to join us before he explains what he’s done. The heavy duty AI of the system I brought broke internal encryptions and overwrote all attack and defense algorithms. The RIM Corp building, in effect, started fighting with itself. It still is. “It’ll take them hours to sort this stuff out. By then we shall have long gone.”
“And Ellie?” I ask.
“Well,” Reed says, “The building reports her down in one of the heavy security holding cells in the basement. One that’s destined to blow up as a gas main adjacent to it explodes.”
It is almost an anticlimax. We see Raynar and Ellie to a launch pad. Quick tickets out of here are purchased.
It feels easy. Too easy but I know that’s only in retrospect.
“Where will you go?” I ask.
“My uncle’s house. Look for my dad.”
“We’ll make sure she gets there safely.” says Raynar. He puts out a hand. I take it. “You?”
“I shall go too. Shortly.” I say. I am lying. I have a few loose ends to tie up first.
They both nod.
“Shall we see you again?” from Reed.
“Doubt it. You shouldn’t even have seen me the first time.” He and Raynar exchange smiles.
I hang about long enough to make sure that they make it safely onboard and their flight takes off. I then leave, melting through back streets and dark alleys. Taking the longest route from the launch pad back to Hub Central.
Running so as not to use transport and avoiding meeting people whenever I can.
There is something still left for me to do. Before I go.