Crossing the finish line

I finished my story, but I was a little
short of my 50k word count so I had to write
a little more get over that line. I'm not
sure where or how to fit this into the story
but it's a little bit of back story on the
main character and Leonard.

Official NaNoWriMo word count: 50,460

We laughed and cheered as we ran down the alley. The restaurant behind us was in a shambles – broken glass, overturned tables, walls with holes kicked in them.  Franco had tried to be polite – he’d tried to be reasonable. He’d explained how we weren’t asking for much. Everyone needed to eat. Times were tough and everyone needed to pull together, to look out for each other, to make sure nothing bad happened. But they hadn’t listened. The owner of the restaurant hadn’t listened. He’d looked at Franco and just seen another loser kid on the street. He hadn’t seen the group. He hadn’t seen the Marauders. He hadn’t understood – but he would now.

I ran with the others. My belly felt full in a way that it hand’t been for weeks. But it wasn’t a good full. It was a bloated full. Like I’d eaten too much and I couldn’t help but wonder at what we’d done. Franco talked big. His words made pictures in your head – they pulled you along, even when you weren’t sure you wanted to go.

I’d been running with the Marauders for two months now – since shortly after I’d left the orphanage. We’d done small stuff – boosted food, boosted cars – and it had been fun. There was a feeling of power – that we could conquer the world – but we’d never hurt anyone.

My mind flashed back to the image of the old man, the pool of blood, and I shied away from it like it burned. We were fed! We were happy! I felt like I was going to throw up.

I stopped running with the others. I paused to catch my breath – to get my stomach under control. Then, I looked up at the commotion further down.

There was a boy there. I’d seen him on the street but didn’t know his name. He wasn’t a Marauder. His hair was dark and messy and he wore big glasses.

Franco was looming over the boy. “What’s the matter asshole! Can’t you see where you’re going?”

The boy looked up at Franco and mumbled something I couldn’t hear.

“What? You didn’t see me? Oh, well maybe it’s those glasses. Here, let me help.” Franco reached out to grab the boy’s glasses and he reacted – swatting Franco’s hand away.

I shook my head, that was bad. Franco might have been happy to just push him around a little – maybe play some keep away. He’d been in a good mood, but I could see the mood slide into meanness. You had to respect Franco. If you didn’t respect him he got mean.

Franco shoved the boy, hard. He stumbled and went down on his back. Franco stepped forward leaning over him and shouting.

“Can you see me now, asshole!” Franco kicked him and I felt something inside me shift. This wasn’t us getting something for ourselves – getting what we needed to survive. This was Franco being an asshole. I stood up and walked down the alleyway towards Franco.

Franco reached down and snatched the glasses off of the boy’s face and threw them down on the ground. When they didn’t break he grew even angrier.

Franco stomped on the glasses, grinding them with his heel, and I could hear the lenses shatter as the plastic frames gave way. Franco’s smile wasn’t nice. He kicked the boy again. “Can you see me now?”

The boy on the floor was curled up around his middle hugging himself. The other kids had formed a ring around them. Some were cheering, some were quiet. This was new for them too – they didn’t know how to react. Franco commanded respect, but was this something to respect? We all understood being down there. Being below other people. We’d found our place, a fit in the hierarchy, but this seemed different. The kid looked like one of us, could have been one of us.

I pushed through the crowd, my mind racing like molasses. I saw angles, options, choices. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I felt hot and cold at the same time. I was madder than I’d ever been and I wasn’t even totally sure why. I didn’t know the kid, and Franco had taken me in, made me a member of the Marauders. But I did know that this was wrong.

“Franco!” it was practically a scream and my voice broke. “Leave him alone!”

Everyone shut up. No one moved – except Franco. He turned slowly to me. “What did you say?” his voice was quiet, lethal. I knew I’d crossed a line. Maybe I could have talked to him in private, but here, now, I was a threat. A threat to his position – to his respectability.

“I said”, I gulped, “leave him alone. He didn’t do anything to you.”

“Didn’t do anything?” Franco’s voice was rising, he sensed my fear, my uncertainty, but he misunderstood it. I wasn’t afraid of him. I hadn’t ever been afraid of him. I was afraid of what would happen next. Of what I might do to him or what he might do to me.

“Didn’t do anything! He disrespected me!” Franco stalked towards me.

He didn’t say, ‘and now you’re disrespecting me’ – that would have brought the disrespect into the open, reinforced it – but the undertone was there. We could both sense it, and everyone could sense it.

Franco came right up into my face and tried to loom over me, but he couldn’t. He’d expected me to shrink. To fall back. To cower and plead for my place. But he didn’t know me. I realized then that I was done with Franco and I was done with the Marauders. They weren’t a home anymore. The restaurant had changed that. It was time for a break – and something about the kid on the ground called to me. If I was going to make a break, I could do it with him. We could be family for each other.

I didn’t think, I just moved. My right leg flew up and my foot connected with Franco’s balls. He froze, his face a mask of pain and he tumbled sideways his hands groping the fury in his crotch. We’d none of us participated in much violence before today. We’d seen it on the trideo. We’d talked big but we’d never participated, we’d never authored it – and I’d never realized what I had over the other kids.

I was the only one who could read and I’d read a lot before I’d run away. When you read, you make your own pictures in your head. When you read literature, you are forced to think, to make your own connections, to understand. The trideo was passive, you could stare at it, and watch it and not take any of it in – not understand the lessons. And I’d learned lessons from my reading. I’d learned that if you’re going to fight you need to fight to win. And if you’re going to win, you do it however you can – and you do it fast.

I silently thanked Ender and looked around at the other kids. No one moved. They all watched me. No one was looking at Franco.

I didn’t say anything. I walked over and picked up the kids glasses, shoving them in a pocket of my jacket. Then I walked over to the kid and helped him up. No one had moved, they were still watching me. Like I was a dangerous beast – and I probably was.

The kid and I pushed through the circle, walking away – and I never saw the Marauders again.

###

His name was Leonard. He’d been on the streets for few days – trying to find a place. He had a little bit of money and he’d been using it sparingly for food.

“So how come you’re here?” he asked me later that day.

I looked up in surprise. Kids don’t ask that. You were on the street. It didn’t matter how or why or anything – you just were. I was quiet for a few minutes pondering the question. I knew why I was here – I could tell him. It’s not like it was a secret. But it was a hard barrier to break. I hadn’t told anyone else about the orphanage or anything else about my past. It was mine – my information – my secret. And I’d been on the street long enough to know that you hoarded secrets. A good secret could get you a meal. A bad secret could get you hurt.

“Why are you here?” I asked him, instinctively trying to get more than I gave.

He shrugged, “Micky kicked me out. Said he couldn’t support freeloaders.”

“Micky?” I asked.

“He was my mom’s…friend.” The last word was different – like he’d been going to say something else.

“Where’s your mom?” I wondered how a mother could let her child live on the street like this, what his mother was like. I’d never known my mother.

“She’s dead.” He spat the words. “She OD’d last week.”

I didn’t know what to say. Leonard looked at the ground and shrugged, “It’s not like she was much of a mother. Always either busy or sleeping it off. Micky kept me around because she was a good earner.”

I nodded in understanding. “Well, Leonard, I guess it’s us now. I know a place we can crash tonight. Near a restaurant where I can usually beg scraps.”

He nodded, but didn’t say anything. He’d had a spare pair of glasses in his coat – a good thing because he was pretty much blind without them.

Then he said, “So what about you?”

“Me?”

“Yeah, you never answered me. How come you’re here?”

I sighed. “I grew up in an orphanage. I never knew my parents. One day I’d decided I’d had enough – that I could do better on my own and I split.”

He looked at me curiously, “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” I sighed. “Anyway, let’s go try to get some dinner and find a place to crash. I don’t think that Franco will be coming after me, but I want to get far away from Marauder territory.”

###

We spent a few days traveling through the city – always on the lookout for a place where we could get some food and crash for the night.

One night we were at the back of a Chinese food place, going through the dumpsters, when we heard a horrible high-pitched squeal and loud cursing. I thought it was an alarm and I grabbed Leonard and started to run, but I was pulled up short when he didn’t move.

He just stood there, turning his head back and forth, listening to the sound of the squeal.

“C’mon, Leonard – let’s go!” I was nervous about getting caught. The other night at a Vietnamese place the cook had run out brandishing a cleaver to run us off. But Leonard didn’t move.

He slowly pulled away from me and walked towards the sound.

“What are you doing, man!” I followed a distance behind him, ready to turn and run but not wanting to abandon Leonard.

He walked up to the back door of the restaurant and knocked on it.

The squeal cut off and the door was thrown open. A large black man with a dirty white apron stood there, door handle in one hand and knife in another.

When he saw Leonard, his eyes narrowed. “What do you want, kid.”

I stood back and tried to look innocent. I was ready to start in with my regular spiel about needing food, being hungry, just a couple of lost kids – but then Leonard spoke up.

“Your radio.”

“Yeah, what about it.”

“It’s not working right.”

The man gave Leonard a funny look. “No shit it’s not working right. You think I want to listen to that whine?” He looked ready to close the door on us and go back to work.

“I can fix it.”

He paused, giving Leonard a curious look. “Yeah, you can fix it. Right. You’s just want to get in here and grab something and run off with it. Bah!” He started to close the door.

“No, really! I can fix it. Sounds like a capacitor came loose so the crystal isn’t oscillating correctly to line up with the radio waves.”

That made him stop – hell it made me stop. I gave Leonard a blank look and the guy said “What did you just say?”

“I said it sounds like a capacitor-“

He waved it away, “Nevermind, I wouldn’t understand it this time either – but you sound like you know what to do.”

He looked hard at both of us. “Ok, I’ll get the radio and give it to you. You stay outside and fix it. If you can.” The last bit was muttered under his breath.

He handed the radio to Leonard and then closed the door.

“Leonard, what the hell are you doing?”

“Relax, I can fix this. I’m good with electronics.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a multi-tool and proceeded to dismember the radio.

I watched in awe – I’d never seen anyone fix anything before. When something broke, you threw it out and got a new one.

Ten minutes later he had the radio reassembled. I’d watched him the whole time, but I couldn’t have told you what he did. As far as I could tell, he just took it apart, poked at it and then put it back together.

He knocked on the door again and smiled triumphantly, brandishing the radio when the guy appeared.

“It’s fixed!”

He gave the radio a dubious look but didn’t say anything. He just took it from Leonard and plugged it into the wall and switched it on. Music came pouring and his face split into a wide grin.

“Hey! You fixed it! That’s great! How’d you do it?”

“Oh, I just know how to fix stuff. When it’s broken, I just see what’s wrong and how to fix it.”

“Huh,” he looked speculative. “Hey, why don’t you kids come in here and I’ll get you some food – you look like you could eat.”

I looked at him warily, “Why? What’s in it for you?”

He chuckled at that, “Well, your friend here just fixed my radio – that saves me from spending 20 bucks to replace it. Plus, there’s a guy I want you to meet.”

 

Epilogue

I was sitting in my apartment, enjoying a beer and watching a movie a few days later when Miranda called me.

“Hey, Miranda, you feeling better?”

“Slowly but surely, thanks. Anyway, I heard something interesting – thought you should hear about it.”

“Oh, what’s that?”

“It seems that Lima Industries has initiated a hostile takeover of Kasei Technologies. Kasei had a nasty worm get into their computer networks and it’s been wreaking havoc with their financial and research subnets.”

I felt my blood run cold. Just a data snatch. He’d said it was just a data snatch.

“You there?”

“Yeah, sorry Miranda, just thinking. That is interesting. Thanks for letting me know.”

“Anytime, man. Hey, I’ll be getting out of the clinic next week you want to get together with Giles for a few beers?”

“Sure, sounds good.” I was feeling distracted. “Let me know when.”

“Ok, talk to you.”

We hung up and I sank back into my chair – the movie forgotten.

Our run had been a cover. I’m sure that Price had wanted the data we snatched, but his real goal had been the worm. The worm that had ripped Kasei’s network apart and opened them up for a takeover. I’d helped a megacorp get bigger – the large fish eating the smaller fish to get a little bigger. Who knew what we’d done? How would it affect our rep in the shadows?

I wasn’t sure. I’d just have to keep running and play it by ear.

Twenty Six

I hit the ground hard and lay there stunned for a moment. Falling six meters can take a lot out of you. When I’d collected my wits again, I decided to continue to lay there and consider my best course of action.

I heard Giles in my head, “You ok, mate?”

“Yeah, got the wind knocked out – let me think.” I returned.

I was still invisible – that was good. But I was near a mound of inflatable arch. First, get clear of that.

“Ok team, I’m shifting ten meters East. Get everything packed up and ready to leave. But do not – I say again – do not leave unless I tell you to.” Then I crawled.

Then I had a thought, “Kazumi, keep an eye on Franz.”

Giles chuckled, “The bleeding bastard is already unconscious. First thing she did when he got down was to tranq him. Then she cuffed him to a seat in the van.”

That made me smile – and worry a little less about the situation on the other side of the wall. Which was good because I had plenty to worry me about the situation on this side of the wall.

Once I was confidently clear of the arch, I paused again to think.

Since I was invisible, maybe I could just walk out the gate. I looked towards it and kicked in the image mag. Damn, it was shut tight – some kind of a wire mesh drawn across the opening.

I looked at the wall. Yeah, it was smooth but not that smooth – maybe I could climb it.

“Ok, I’m gonna try climbing the wall on the inside, you guys get ready to drive down here and get me. Don’t move until I call you, I don’t want to draw attention to the van.”

Giles replied, “Got it, mate. We’re all packed up and waiting for your signal.”

I stood up and faced the wall, then looked up at the top. One step at a time. I put one foot gingerly on the wall, then the other. Both hands were up and doing a mime impression. I shifted my right foot higher, then the left, then my hands.

Hey, this was actually working. I started going a bit faster. I looked up at the top of the wall again – and there was a giant (from this perspective) spider in front of me.

I let out a (manly, of course) yelp and slid back to the ground.

“Damit, Giles! What they hell are you trying to do?”

“Sorry, mate, I wanted the spider ready in case we had to haul you out.”

“The spider – oh. Damn. That’s a good idea.” I grabbed the line that the spider was dangling and hurriedly tied it to my harness while the spider scuttled back up the wall. It got itself set just below the top of the wall and started to reel me up.

I walked upright on the wall as I went, focused on keeping my footing and not falling.

I was at the spider and ready to scramble over the top when a thought occurred to me. “Crap, we’re on a new section of wall now. The laser sensor here isn’t locked out. As soon as I go over the wall, they’ll have a position to zero in on.”

Kazumi’s voice was calm in reply, “Yes, they will. But it cannot be helped. Break the beam and get your ass down the wall and we’ll get out of here. With any luck we’ll be able to get away before they close in.”

I grimaced. She was right. There was no other way.

“Ok, Ratface, keep an eye out. Let us know if you see any Kasei security forces headed towards us. Giles, as soon as I come over the wall bring the van up and spool the line from the spider as fast as you can. Kazumi, you be ready to engage any security.

“Here we go.” I heaved myself over the edge of the wall. Almost instantly, spotlights lit up the space I’d just been in.

I heard the tires squeal as Giles accelerated the van towards me and I rushed towards the ground – not as fast as an outright fall, but definitely faster than I was totally comfortable with.

I hit the ground with both feet and staggered, trying to stay upright. The line went slack and then fell from the sky. The spider drone must have cut the line and I looked up to see it racing down the wall towards me.

The van screamed to a stop next to me and the side door opened. I took two steps and was in the van and collapsed onto the floor.

I screamed, “As soon as the spider drone is in, go!”

Then I heard the sound of rotors in my hears and Ratface in my head, “Oh, shit. You guys have a problem.”

I looked outside and could see a helicopter gunship flying low to the street and rapidly approaching.

“Kazumi, I’ll draw it off! You grab the launcher and knock it down!” I jumped back out of the van and sprinted across the street away from the van. As I ran, I reached back and pulled the assault rifle from my pack.

When I reached the other side, I ducked into an alley for a little bit of cover, briefly wondered what the hell I was doing, then proceeded to engage a military gunship with a medium assault rifle.

I had a clip of APDS rounds in the gun so there was a chance I’d be able to do some damage. At the very least I’d get their attention and hopefully give Kazumi an opening. I could see my first burst stitch some holes in the fuselage – then the nose of the chopper rotated towards me and the gatling gun mounted there opened up. I ducked back into the alleyway for cover and raised my arms to shield my face from flying debris as the minigun rounds tore shards from the building.

When the thunder stopped, I poked my head back out and sent a couple white phos grenades flying towards the bird from the mini-grenade launcher mounted on my assault rifle. I ducked back behind cover and caught the streak of light from Kazumi’s launch and waited for the explosion of a crashing chopper.

The launcher that we had was really for engaging ground targets. It didn’t have the kind of sensor or maneuver capabilities that you need in a ground to air weapon, but it was all we had. And it was the only thing that I thought might be able to take down the chopper. I waited, but didn’t hear a crash.

Then, I heard Kazumi over the comm mesh, “Shit, I missed. You keep on it, I’ll get the other launcher.”

The launchers we had were single-use models. And we only had two.

I shifted to engage the gunship again and saw that it was not pointed at me anymore. Time to change that. I took careful aim at the rotor housing and motor on top and sent all four of my remaining white phos grenades at it. Then, I started firing three round bursts at the same area.

At least some of my grenades landed and I could see housing catch fire. Then I turned my back on the chopper and sprinted down the alley. I had a feeling that the pilot wouldn’t be bothering with the minigun anymore.

I knew I was right when the building behind me blew up and the blast sent me sprawling. I picked myself up, shook my head, and retrieved the assault rifle that had been blown from my hand. Then I heard an even louder explosion from behind me and Kazumi’s shriek of success.

“We get it?”

“Yeah, boss, we got it.” I could hear the smile in her voice.

“Good, come pick me up and let’s get the frag out of here. I’ll meet you next street over.”

I jogged down the alley and emerged onto the street as the van pulled up. It didn’t stop, just slowed with the door open and I barreled inside. I spent a minute laying on my back there, feeling the adrenaline wash through my system and reveling in the fact that I was still alive.

###

We pulled up to the warehouse where we’d trained before the run. I jumped out and went through the man door, then opened the big rollup so Giles could pull the van through. Once the doors were closed again, I flicked on the overhead lights and looked around the space. I wasn’t entirely surprised to see Price and some Lima corpsec goons there waiting for us.

I had expected to be furious when I saw Price, but I wasn’t. I was just tired. Tired of the politics and tired of the doublecross.

I’d turned off the chameleoskin suit in the van and nodded at Price across the room, “Price. I halfway expected to see you here.”

He nodded back. “Your run was successful I take it?”

I gave him a hard look, “I’m still standing aren’t I?”

“Yes, there is that.”

Kazumi and Giles had gotten out of the van and were standing near it looking on.

“And, where is Franz?” Price asked.

“Who? Oh, your corporate lapdog.” I guess I wasn’t that tired. “He’s in the van, unconscious.”

I looked down at the ground for a moment, collecting myself. “Price, I don’t like you and I’m sure the feeling is mutual, but I thought that we had an understanding. We do a run, get you want you need, you pay us and everyone is happy.”

Price raised an eyebrow, “Isn’t that what happened?”

“No that is not what fucking happened!” I yelled. “You sent a rogue agent along with different objectives. Someone who, at the end of the day, wasn’t a part of the team. You meddled in the dynamics of my team and put all of us at risk! That is completely unacceptable!”

Price feigned ignorance. “I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about. You picked the team.”

“Yeah, I picked the team. But I picked from your deck. Believe me, it’s a mistake that I will never make again.” I looked over at Kazumi, “Wake the asshole up so he can give the data to Price and we can get paid and get the hell out of here.”

She nodded and went into the van. I heard the hiss of a chemical injector and then saw Franz fall out of the van, his hands still cuffed behind his back.

“Oops. He slipped.” Kazumi’s voice was syrupy sweet and I turned my head to hide a smile.

Price frowned and gestured for one of his corpsec agents to go help Franz up.

I turned back to Price, “You know, Price, life is not a balance sheet. The ends do not justify the means. You use a team like this and it has consequences.” He rolled his eyes. “Actions have consequences – and sometimes they’re unforeseen.”

I could see an odd twinkle dance in Price’s eye as he nodded, “Yes, actions do have consequences and I agree that they’re not always seen; but I have little to fear from the consequences of this run. After all, it was just a simple data snatch.”

The agent Franz to his feet and he gave Kazumi a dirty look and spit a gobbet of blood at her – the fall must have cut something in his mouth. “Bitch, you better hope I never run into you in a dark alley.”

Kazumi blurred into motion and in an eye blink, she was standing beside Franz, holding a knife to his throat. “I’d better hope?” she purred. “I don’t think so, dog. Go back to your masters and stay away from me.”

Franz paled at her speed and turned to look at me, his mouth opening.

“Don’t. Say. A. Word.” My voice was clipped. “We’re done.”

He shrugged and walked towards Price. I heard the low murmur of conversation and then Price looked back up at me. “It seems that all is in order.” I scoffed at that.

Price shrugged, “In any case, here is your payment.” He tossed me an envelop and I caught it in the air, hearing the clink of credsticks.

I glanced inside and nodded. “Ok, Price. We’re done here.”

“Yes, we are – for now. I must say, I remain impressed by your abilities and by those of your team. I feel confident that we’ll be able to collaborate on future projects. I’ll call you if I ever have need.”

I was torn. Part of me wanted to reject any future jobs out of hand – but the fault didn’t lay entirely with Price. I should have done a better job of vetting Franz. I shouldn’t have brought the rogue player onto my team. And I really hated burning bridges – you gotta eat.

I satisfied myself with a shrug, “Yeah, whatever.” And I turned towards the van.

Price spoke up behind me. “Oh, there is one more thing before you go.”

I paused and looked over my shoulder at him coldly.

He smiled at me, “The suits, the googles, and the beetle drone. All such were merely on loan to you and we do need them back.”

I sighed. I had completely forgotten about that. I gestured to Kazumi and Giles and proceeded to strip off my chameleoskin suit. I left the fabric puddled on the floor and Kazumi and Giles left a similar pile with the beetle drone sitting on top.

Then we all climbed back into the van and left without another word.

Twenty Five

The guy in the booth kept his eyes on his screens. I got past the booth and to a corridor junction where I felt safer for having a place to physically duck out of sight.

“Ok, Franz, you come on.”

There was no way to see his face but his posture looked scared. We’d gotten past the lab guy but this was different. If these guys twigged to us they could bring the whole Kasei security apparatus crashing down on us. It looked like Franz was watching the guy just like I had been.

I heard a door open and close behind me and I looked back. There was the other security guard – coming out of a bathroom. I crowded against the other side of the corridor to be out of his way and then looked back at Franz. I was really starting to get accustomed to the suits and wasn’t at all worried about being noticed – until I saw Franz. He was right in the path that this other guard would take, coming back to the booth.

“Franz! Get to the other side of the corridor!” I hissed.

No response, he just crawled slowly along, watching the guard in the booth.

“Franz! There’s another guard coming. You’ve got to get out of his path!”

His head shifted and I thought he was looking at me.

“I, what?” I could hear the fear in his voice. Everything on his sheet indicated that he could handle himself – but this wasn’t a straight-up run. This was a serious sneak. We felt exposed even though we weren’t and the pressure was getting to Franz. In the back of my mind I figured that he was probably feeling guilty that we even had to come this way.

The other guard was coming up quick. Franz was just past the door – the most probable path for that guard to take on his way back to the booth. And now he was frozen in fear.

I was too far away to be effective and if I moved this guy would probably see something.

“Kazumi, get him across! Against the other wall!” my voice was hard.

Before I was even done speaking, she was moving. A gray blur of movement, she sprinted low, dove, and grabbed Franz. Her dive turned into a roll as she twisted her hips and sent both of them thudding against the wall on the other side of the corridor. I held my breath and willed Franz to stay quiet – I wasn’t worried about Kazumi.

The guard in the booth looked up at the sound. The other guard rounded the corner and saw him standing.

“What’s up, Jim?” number two asked the first.

“I dunno. I just thought I heard something.”

“Like what?”

“I’m not sure, a thud or a fall or something.”

They both looked up and down the corridor, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. Then the first shrugged, “Oh, well, maybe it was just in my head.”

I breathed a quiet sigh of relief as the second guard went into the booth and they both settled down to keep watch.

“Ok, Franz. Crawl quietly towards me.”

He made it the rest of the way without any problems and I didn’t say anything about the incident. During a run is not the time for that kind of thing.

Kazumi joined us and we continued on our way.

We reached the lab door without issue. Franz produced his induction jack again and attempted to override the locks.

After six long minutes, I saw him take the jack off. The door did not open.

“Franz, where we at?”

“I can’t do it. The encryption. It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before. It changes too fast. I can’t get a handle on it.” He sounded wrung out. He’d been at it hard, giving his best – and it wasn’t enough. I knew how that felt, but it didn’t get us through the door.

“Try again.”

“But-“

“Try. Again. We have to get through this door.”

I saw his gray form nod and I opened a private comm link to Kazumi while he re-attached the induction jack.

“Kazumi, what do you think?”

“I think that we have big problems.”

“Yeah. I see two options; one is we blow the door. Two is that we try to get a key card from a guard or someone else in the building.”

Kazumi’s voice was level when she replied, “Three is that we walk.”

I grimaced, “That’s a non-starter. Absolute worst case.”

“But, right now we’re in the best possible position for breaking off. As soon as we blow the door or engage a guard our chances for a clean, silent break go way down.”

“Yeah, I know. Let’s give him a few more minutes.”

I closed the private comm link and we continued watching the corridors. Two minutes later I heard a quiet, verbal “Yes!” and looked back to see the lab door click open.

I grinned, “Nice job, Franz,” and we darted into the lab and left the door slightly ajar behind us so that we wouldn’t have to go through the unlock cycle again.

This lab was different from others I’d been in. There were no hardware stations – just a few computers and some boards on the wall with cryptic (pun intended) notes.

“Ok, Franz, grab the data and let’s get out of here.”

Franz started in on each computer in turn and he hit paydirt on the third one. “Found the data, copying now.”

After two more minutes, he jacked out, “Got it, we’re set.”

I smiled. This was good. We had the data, everything was quiet – now we just had to get out. It was all going (mostly) smoothly – which made me wonder when it would go south…

The lab didn’t have any windows so we couldn’t tell if anyone was in the hall. The three of us clustered near the slightly open door and paused there, listening for any sounds of people approaching. Everything was quiet.

I opened the door all the way and we crept back out into the hallway. Since the locks on the other doors were inbound only, we didn’t have to sneak past the guard booth again and I led off on the route out.

###

The door was ahead on the left. I reached and paused, looking back at the grey forms of Kazumi and Franz. It was odd not to be able to see their faces. I hadn’t realized how much I used that visual feedback of a team’s mood before.

They both reached me and Kazumi stopped. Franz didn’t.

“Franz, where are you going?”

Silence met my reply. He just kept moving down the corridor.

“Franz!” I hissed. “What the hell are you doing.”

Still silence.

What the hell was going on? “Kazumi, you stay here – keep an eye on the door.” I took off after Franz.

I caught up with him inside of 20 meters, grabbed his shoulder and slammed him against the wall.

“What the hell are you doing?”

No response. An empty gray face looked back at me.

I drew my tranq gun. “Franz you answer me right now or I’ll tranq you and carry you out.”

When he spoke, I could hear the sneer in his voice. “Carry me out? And how will you get past the doors?”

“What the hell do you mean get past the doors? They’re only locked on one side.”

“Maybe they were before, but they’ve been upgraded. You have to badge both ways. If you tranq me, you’re never getting out of here.” The sneer was more pronounced now.

I started at him, feeling stunned. Locked both ways? That hadn’t been in the data from Price. Shit! What else had he lied to me about? I put that aside and gritted out “What. The. Hell. Are. You. Doing?”

“I’m hitting the secondary objective. Just like Price said.”

“What secondary objective? We were here to get the quantum crypto data and get out.”

“Well, that was your run, and I was there to support you. Now we’re on my run and you need to support me or you’ll never get your data out.”

I growled at him, “This is not the way to execute a run. When we get out we’re going to have another conversation.”

I was barely controlling my rage and it must have leaked out but it didn’t seem to faze Franz, “Yeah, whatever, man.”

“So, what the hell is the secondary objective?”

“I’m gonna steal Kasei’s financial data.” The sense of entitlement in his voice stunned me.

I let go of him and stumbled back, incredulous. Their financial info? That was sacred. It was going to be so well protected that even looking in its general direction was likely to set off alarms.

“You had a hard time getting through some door locks! How the hell are you going to cut the security protocols to get their financial data?”

“The door locks, faw” he waved it away, “Those were nothing. I just wanted us to go past the manned booth. You told Price this would be a good way to get a real-world test of the suits and I wanted to make sure we did. I’m getting a major bonus for this – it’ll pay for my next deck upgrade.”

All of a sudden my rage at Franz melted away. He wasn’t the architect of this situation. That was Price. Franz was in this for the money. Franz thought he was on easy street, that he held all the cards and could call the shots. That scared me. Was he really as good as the thought he was? Had is problems with the locks been faked? Or was he just covering it up now – putting on an air of bravado that was so strong even he believed it.

I opened a private comm channel to Kazumi, “Kazumi, thoughts?”

“I’m gonna slit his belly open and strangle him with his own bloody entrails. Then I’m going to cut his fucking arm off and beat him to death with it. Then I’m going to-“

“Stow it.” My voice was hard. “Focus. Mission.”

I heard her sigh. “For now, go with him. Keep him safe. Get him out. As soon as we don’t need him anymore, cut him loose.”

“I agree.” I closed the channel.

“Ok, Franz” his name was a sneer, “Lead on. We’ll get through this and settle up outside. But hear this. If I even think you’re going to screw us or more or run out on us or anything – I’ll cut your arm off and leave you to bleed out on the floor here.”

“Whatever.” He was already turning away from me.

I reached out for him, then stopped myself. It wouldn’t accomplish anything. I had to stay focused on getting us through and getting us out.

###

I didn’t know where we could access the financial network but Franz seemed to. He jogged forward effortlessly, taking turns without appearing to stop for consideration. I tracked our location on the map kept considering evac routes in the back of my mind.

He went through two locked doors with barely a pause – a fact which seemed to reinforce his claim to an act earlier.

“Ok, just ahead on the right is an office. In there I can access the network and get what we need.”

I checked the time. 3:35 AM. I really wanted to be out by 4 when the shift changed. “Ok, hurry.”

“Chill, man. It’s all under control.”

Everything about Franz’s demeanor had changed. This wasn’t the man who we’d talked to before. There’s no way I would have let this egomaniacal asshole on my team.

He quickly beat the lock on the door and rolled into the office, “You guys stay out there to keep watch.”

I ground my teeth and didn’t reply.

But we stayed in the corridor.

Two minutes later he was back out, “See, that wasn’t so hard. Now we can get out.” His tone was extremely self-satisfied.

“Ok, follow me.” I ground out. While Franz was in the office, I’d finalized our best route out. It would take us through three locked doors but avoided any manned guard booths.

I checked the time and saw that it was 3:45 – this was cutting it seriously close. I led off at a fast jog.

We didn’t have any problems with the first two doors – Franz opened them almost as fast as the ones on the way to the financials. I slid up to the last door and watched Franz reaching to connect his induction jack when the door opened from the outside, hit Franz, and knocked him backwards.

I acted without thinking. My hand flashed into the suit pocket where the tranq gun was holstered and I put two darts into the neck of the guard that had opened the door. Before I saw his combat armor.

The darts glanced off the ceramic plate and I saw his eyes go wide behind the visor. For an instant I considered what he must be seeing and it made me smile. He’d felt the door hit something and now he was seeing part of a gun (the part not in my fist) floating in the air. Then I saw Kazumi’s grey form fly past me and heard a soft crash as she shattered his visor and then a soft crunch as her fist shattered his face.

“Kazumi, go.” I reached back to help Franz to his feet (there was no way I was leaving him behind when we were so close) and we sprinted after her.

The time had come to trade stealth for speed. We’d still be hard to see but that guard would likely be missed soon.

We covered the distance to the arch in 30 seconds. Then the alarms went off.

“Kazumi, you first.” She didn’t hesitate, just hooked onto the motor assembly and started up. Franz had the data but there was no way I was going to send him over first. He’d probably deflate the arch and leave us.

“Franz, now you.” He clipped in and followed Kazumi up.

I took a last look around the compound, clipped in, and grinned tightly. We’d all but made it. Both Kazumi and Franz were over the wall and I was on my way up.

I was five meters up when I heard the whine of the gatling gun spinning up. It drew my vision and filled me with horror when I saw it pan towards me and stitched the wall above me with a stream of death. Some guard must be driving it on manual – if it were on automatic I’d be dead. I looked up – two meters to go. I willed the drive to go faster.

Then I heard a small explosion and I was falling. Back into the compound.

Twenty Four

###

3 AM. It’s a good time of night. Most bars are closed and folks have made their way home. The night guard shift is getting close to being done and looking forward to it. The streets are pretty empty and someone working in the shadows is least likely to be disturbed. 3 AM is my kind of time.

Giles pulled his van up to a remote edge of the Kasei wall and parked it right beneath a street light. Then he flipped a switch on his dash and the left front tire went flat. He could flip the switch back the other way to re-inflate, but this gave his stop the appearance of legitimacy. That’s why he stopped under the light too – if you had your choice of where to stop with a breakdown, you’re going to go for the lighted area so you can see to deal with it.

Kazumi, Franz and I waited in the van, while Giles got out and looked at the tire. We knew that the external cameras on the wall weren’t watched very closely because the guards relied on the machine learning algos to catch anything out of the ordinary – but we were playing it as safe as we could here.

While Giles was out looking at the tire, he also released the Beetle Drone and let fly up to the wall. Then he got back into the van as if to wait for help. Once he was settled back into the van he maneuvered the Beetle to the nearest sensor node and connected to the network and looked back at us “Ok, Franz – you’re on.”

Franz reached up and socketed the jackmount. He shifted to the front seat, craned his head around a bit and gave every appearance of going to sleep. While Franz did his thing, I setup the secure comm mesh.

We waited for a couple minutes and then Franz’s eyes popped open. “Ok, we’re set. I’ve got a loop in the laser net to make us a hole here and I looped an earlier piece of footage for the street camera.”

I nodded, “How long?”

“I’d say we’ve got 30 minutes or so before anyone starts to catch onto it.”

“Great. Let’s go people.”

Kazumi, Franz and I burst from the van. I quickly got the inflatable beam arranged and Giles had the Spider start taking it over the wall. Kazumi kept watch both ways and Franz setup the compressor. As soon as the Spider was down on the other side of the wall, Giles hurried over to us with a utility laser.

This was the chanciest part of the perimeter penetration. We had a screen to erect around the laser work, but if anyone was looking our way it would seem awfully suspicious.

“Ratface, you got anything on cams?” I asked.

Ratface had penetrated the local traffic cams and we were using them for general area overwatch.

“I’ve got a lone car a couple blocks away from you, parallel, no danger. Looks like you’re good.”

“Got it.” Franz and I raised the screen and I nodded at Giles to start.

The utility laser was soundless, but out a bright red glow. Giles had on dark goggles to protect his eyes but both Franz and I were relying on the brightness limiters built into our cybereyes to protect us.

Giles drilled five holes, each about 30 cm deep in two minutes. Once the holes were done, we lined up the holes in the arch foot with the holes in the ground and Franz kicked on the compressor to inflate the arch.

I pinged Ratface again while the arch was inflating, “Ratface, we’re inflating the arch. Anything on cams?”

“No, all cle- wait.”

I waited, tensed. 10 interminable seconds later Ratface came back on, “I’ve got a hobo approaching, looks drunken. Came out of an abandoned building one block north of you.”

“ETA?”

“2 minutes.”

Nuts. We didn’t want anyone stumbling onto us and there was no way we’d be over the wall in two minutes.

I looked at Kazumi, “Put him to sleep. Quietly.”

She nodded and sprinted North.

As soon as we had the arch fully inflated, Giles squirted a dollop of two part epoxy into each hole and dropped in the spikes to hold it.

While the epoxy was setting up, I attached the motor assemblies to the arch and double-checked my harness. After that I reached over my shoulder to make sure I could grab the assault rifle and heavy pistol in my pack and then checked the draw of the tranq pistol on my hip. Each chameleoskin suit had an integral backpack with pockets and holders that could be arranged for whatever you needed to carry. Given the nature of the suits, you couldn’t carry an external backpack.

Kazumi came back right as Giles gave me a nod that the epoxy had set.

I clipped my harness to the motor assembly, took a calming breath, and started up the arch.

I slowed, then stopped as my head cleared the wall. I wanted a good view of the compound before I went in and I wanted to give the rest of the team a chance to see what was coming.

While preparing for the run, I’d worked with Waters and Hernan to setup a rudimentary video feed from my cybereyes onto the secure comm mesh. This feed was patched into a small vidscreen that the team below me were watching.

My blood ran cold and I heard Franz utter a quiet oath when one of the anti-aircraft emplacements twitched. I zoomed in on it and briefly wished I hadn’t.

The weapon was matte-black, with seven barrels and an ammo box that I knew could hold 3,000 rounds. There was a white dome on top that housed the radar assembly and the gun was mounted in a two-axis gimbal which let it traverse to fire on almost anything that the radar could detect.

The compound itself looked similar to when we’d been here before. I could see that the mortar damage had been repaired and the beefed up entrance security was obvious. There were no obvious guards on patrol but I was sure they were out there.

I glanced down at the team below me, “I’m activating my suit. Please verify.” I pulled the cover over my face and hit the activation button.

Kazumi’s voice came over the mesh, “Activation verified, you’re dark.”

“Copy. Going over.”

The arch cleared the wall by about 40 cm and my back was practically dragging against it while I went over. As soon as I was clear, I rotated to put my feet towards the ground and drove the motor assembly down. I reached the bottom and quickly detached my harness from the assembly – dropping back against the wall and scanning the immediate area.

The gatling gun remained pointed towards the sky and there were no flashing lights or whooping sirens. So far it looked like we were doing ok.

“Ok, we’re clear, come over.”

Both Kazumi and Franz rode over the arch on their own assemblies as quickly as they could. Once we were all down, I opened the comm, “Ok, we’re down inside. Heading towards the building. Giles, keep an eye on the outside. Ratface let Giles (and us) know if anything untoward approaches.”

We’d decided to not chance Ratface breaking into Kasei to ride overwatch from the internal network. I didn’t want to chance setting off intrusion alarms and he wouldn’t have been able to see us on any of the cameras. Plus, with Franz along, hopefully we could handle any hacking locally.

I signaled Kazumi and Franz to follow and then broke into a quick jog for the door we’d chosen for building penetration. We kept our weapons holstered because they wouldn’t have been hidden by the suits. Price had warned me about the weapons and that the suits worked better at slower paces. They could manage a jog, but an all-out sprint would cause background leakage – the chameleo-fibers wouldn’t be able to keep up with the necessary color changes and you’d appear as a blur or heat-wave effect.

I reached the door and put my back to the wall, again scanning the compound for any movement or other signs that our presence was noted. Kazumi did the same and Franz went to work getting the door open.

We hadn’t been able to get entrance codes to the doors so Franz was going to half to do this the hard way. He used an induction jack to attach to the card scanner port then hacked in and overrode the lock protocols. Thirty seconds after reaching the door, I heard it click open and I turned and darted inside.

The lights inside were dim, but anyone looking our way would see the door open so Kazumi and Franz followed quickly behind me.

Once we were all inside, I took a moment to bring the map up and orient myself.

We were on the north-east corner of the facility and our target was near the center. We would have to go through several locked doors and our route was circuitously planned to avoid any encounters with known guard posts. There was always the chance we’d encounter a roving patrol but I was really hoping that wouldn’t be the case. If this run went south and we ended up having to shoot our way out it would be very bad.

I set off, once again at a quick jog. I was leading with Franz in the middle and Kazumi keeping watch behind.

It took us 10 minutes to reach the first locked door and we didn’t see anyone. Once again Franz jacked in and overrode the lock protocols. This door took longer – probably because the security was getting tougher. It slide open and I led the way inside.

We were near the cafeteria and I could hear the low murmur of voices ahead of us.

“Forward. Slow.” I communicated to Kazumi and Franz. My subdermal mic let me speak to them without saying anything aloud.

Now we crept forward slowly, single file, hugging the edge of the corridor. This was likely to be the toughest section in the facility. I’d hoped that the cafeteria would be empty, but I guess someone needed a late night snack.

A door opened ahead of us and we froze. A man came out, looking back over his shoulder. He was wearing a white lab coat and I could hear him saying “-check on my experiment. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Then he turned to walk towards us.

I’d seen the chameleoskin in action on the street and Kazumi and Franz had seen me in it so we were all fairly confident that the guy couldn’t see us. But being fairly confident doesn’t keep the chills from running down your spine when someone walks within 30 centimeters of you.

We all held our breath and didn’t move. The guy kept walking. Once he’d turned a corner I let out a sigh and continued on.

“I guess this stuff really does work,” Franz whispered over the comm mesh.

“Yeah.” I breathed back.

We passed the cafeteria and soon reached the next locked door. Franz came up and hacked into it while Kazumi and I kept watch.

One minute. Two minutes. Three minutes. I felt my palms start to sweat. I glanced at Franz and he looked like he was asleep. I hate to bug a guy who’s working but I need to know what was going on.

“Franz.”

“Wait.” His reply was curt.

I waited and I was ready to ping him again when he unjacked. The door did not open.

“Franz, the door.” I hissed.

“I can’t get it open. The encryption is too tough, I can’t break it.”

Crap. Once we were through this door, we still had to get into the lap where the data was stored. If this door was too much for him, what would that door be like?

I thought for a moment, reviewing the map then said, “Ok, new plan. Here’s our new route.” I zipped them a map over the comm mesh. It would take us past a manned checkpoint, but there was no way around that. And I really hoped that Franz would be able to get past the lab door when we got there.

We set off again, moving quickly and quietly. Soon we reached a corridor junction right before the manned guard post.

“Ok, I’ll go first. Once you see me past, Franz, you follow. Once Franz is clear, Kazumi, you come on.”

They both commed understanding and we crept around the corridor.

Ahead of us a security booth was built into the wall. I could see marks in the floor and ceiling where a security door would extend, cutting off the hallway in case of an emergency. There was one guy in the booth. I could see that his feet were up on the desk and he seemed to be watching a bank of cameras. There should have been two. Where was the other guy.

I waited briefly then decided to go for it. I crept forward slowly, once again hugging the wall – trying to pretend I was just a hole in the air.

 

Twenty Three

###

Price came through.

I was standing in large warehouse (not within the Lima Industries compound) looking at a replica of the Kasei perimeter wall when Giles called me. “Hey, mate, we’re outside that address you gave me.”

“OK, let me open the door.” I walked over and hit the button to open the large overhead door and Giles drove in. We’d spoken over the phone a few times but this was the first time we’d met in person since my operation.

Both Giles and Kazumi were watching me, somewhat warily, when they got out of the car. I chuckled at that and said, “Don’t worry. I’m not a Lima Industries boogie man or anything. They didn’t turn me to their righteous cause. This is just a job.”

“And, how’s the leg?” Kazumi asked.

I grinned at her leapt ten feet into the air off of my left leg, then spoiled the effect by stumbling on landing.

Giles laughed, “It’s just like my first groundcar – more power than you know what to do with.”

I grimaced a bit, “Sometimes. It’s good. Healing well. Integrating with my body. Better than the alternative.”

Kazumi nodded, “Yes, I’m sure it is that.”

“Anyway, come over here you two and take a look at this.”

After a few minutes study, Giles whistled, “Bloody high wall, mate.”

“Yes, it is that,” I mimicked Kazumi. “But I’ve got a good idea on how to get over it.”

“Here, take a look at this,” I gestured at a pile of equipment on the warehouse floor.

Giles wandered over and poked through it with his toe. “A compressor, a bunch of plastic, harnesses, motors… What the ‘ell is all this?”

“‘All this’ is our way over the wall. Let me show you.” I picked up the (weighted) end of the plastic tube and tossed it over the wall – only to have it hang up on the other side and not go all the way to the ground. I walked around and frowned at it.

Giles followed and looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

I sighed, “This is why we’re testing it out. I’ve got two problems that I haven’t solved yet. One – how do we get the plastic over the wall cleanly. Two – how do we anchor it on the other side.”

Giles continued to look at me with a raised eyebrow, “And once the plastic is over the wall, how does that help get us over the wall?”

I turned to Kazumi, “Could you please get that the rest of the way down?” The plastic was hung up about four meters up. “I’m not totally confident enough in my leg to try to scale it.”

She nodded and seemed to flow up the wall, finding easy purchases for her hands and feet in its rough surface. Once she had the plastic, she bounded back down towards the floor.

I took the plastic end from her with thanks and set it down on the floor, then we went back around to the air compressor. I hooked the compressor hose into a fitting on the plastic and flicked on the compressor. A quiet hum filled the air and the plastic started to puff.

Five minute later, I turned off the compressor and poked at the plastic. Now it felt like a hard steel rod about 2.5 cm in diameter.

I could see understanding dawning on their faces but I didn’t say anything. I just put on a harness, attached a motor assembly to the arch, and clipped the assembly to my harness. Then, flipping a switch on the assembly, I rode quickly and quietly about four meters up. I could feel the arch starting to tip so I came back down.

Giles nodded, “Nice. Looks like a good, smooth entry and exit – but I see what you mean about needing a solution to those two problems.” I watched him walk around the wall, looking at either side.

“On the outside, we’ll be on pavement, right?” I nodded at him. “Ok, then I think that we can do well with a utility laser and some fast-acting epoxy. We’ll need a different shape to the arch here – some kind of a foot.”

“I think I know just the thing!” I grabbed a tablet off of a nearby table and paged through the security catalog. “How about this?”

I held the device out to Giles and he carefully studied it then grinned, “Yes, I think that will be perfect.” The shape was disk, one meter in diameter and 2.5 cm thick.

“I thought so. We can get tools to make holes in it.”

“Right,” Giles picked it up again, “We’ll use the laser to drill holes in the pavement, stick spikes through the foot and expoxy the spikes into the ground. On the other end, we’ll just need a big enough foot and this thing will be as stable as we need.”

I was excited, “Great!” Then I remembered the other problem. “But, we still need to get it over the wall.”

Kazumi spoke up. “What about a stronger arm?”

I shook my head, “No, we have to stay within half a meter of the wall.”

Giles cocked his head and asked, “Why?”

“Because Kasei has several anti-aircraft units in the yard. If they detect anything coming over the wall, they open up.”

Both Giles and Kazumi stared at me slack-jawed at this. “They have what?” Kazumi blurted while Giles just took his head in his hands and shook it.

“Yeah, apparently they went a little overboard on their defenses after the last run. We need to stay within half a meter of the wall when we go over.”

Giles lifted the tablet and muttered, “Maybe I’ll find some inspiration in here.”

“Oh, while you’re looking, check out the Beetle Drone. It’s designed for network intrusion and I figure we’ll use that to hack into the perimeter network and disable the laser sensors.”

Giles tabbed through the catalog while Kazumi and I looked at the harnesses and motor assemblies.

“So, once we’re inside, there’s still a lot of ground to cover,” Kazumi commented.

“Yep.”

“And do you have a plan for getting across it unseen?”

“Yep.”

“And are you ready to share that plan?”

“Nope. I’m waiting on some final details.”

“But, you do have a plan?”

“Kazumi, I always have a plan.” my tone was light but there was worry in the back of my mind. If Price couldn’t get the chameleoskin suits I really wasn’t sure how we’d get across the compound without being seen.

“A ha!” Giles’ exclamation pulled us away.

“What did you find?” I asked.

“The Spider Drone. It’s got an internal spool of Dyneema thread and can climb almost any surface. Once it’s anchored, it can pull up to 250 kilos using the integral winch. It weighs about half a kilo and can fit inside a 30cm box.”

“Hmm…that looks promising, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get Price to give us one – he’s already providing the Beetle Drone.”

“Oh, no worries there, mate. If Price can get his hands on one, I’ll buy the bloody thing. I can think of several runs where this thing would have been handy.”

“Sounds good to me. So, you’re thinking that the spider just climbs up, over, and down the wall, dragging the arch behind?”

“Yep, then we inflate it and Bob’s yer Uncle.”

Feeling confident in our plan, we discussed a few more details then I sent Price a note about the additional inflatable beam material we’d need.

###

Now that we had the our intrusion path planned, it was time to find a combat decker. I’d been in touch with Ratface and he was strictly a remote action guy – no interest in going onsite. He’d be providing overwatch for the run but I still needed to find someone to go in.

It was time to look over the sheets that Price had provided. Two looked like wannabes. Two looked decent. I had a brief voice call with both of them and Sven rubbed me the wrong way. He just seemed like a loner – wouldn’t fit in well with the team. The call with Franz went well and I decided to setup a meet with him, Kazumi and me at the Five and Dime.

I’d decided that Giles should stay outside and monitor us as best he could. That would limit our exposure inside and give us an outside resource on hand if we needed heroic measures.

Kazumi and I were already at a table when Franz showed up a few minutes early. That was a point in his favor in my book.

He was a short, swarthy man and I watched him cross the room with quiet, self-assured grace. He didn’t move nearly as smoothly as Kazumi, but there was an economy of motion that spoke of years of practice as a gymnast or dancer. I stood when he reached the table and we shook. His hand felt oddly rough and when he spoke his voice matched it. “So, you’re looking for someone who can go onsite and hack a system.”

I nodded, “Yes, the target is on a private network in a fortified compound. Plus we need to circumvent a perimeter sensor network.”

Shauna came up and we ordered drinks.

Franz shrugged and said, “I can do all that.”

“I know you can do that. This is more of a get to know each other meeting. Check for team fit, find out a little more about you. But, I would like to describe the opposition a little more – make sure you’re comfortable with it.”

Shauna returned with our beers. Franz took a sip of his stout and gestured at me to continue.

“The goal here is to get in and out without them even knowing we were there. There’s a lot of defensive equipment in place and it would be very bad to engage it. Also, we have a very narrow insertion window. How big is your deck and how do you carry it?”

At this Franz cracked a big grin. “You must have had an old sheet.” He held out his left arm and pulled back his sleeve. The arm was obviously cyber and had a jackpoint embedded in it.

I looked at the arm, then looked at him. “You mean, it’s in your arm?”

“Yep, a lot easier than slinging a pack around and much easier to upgrade than having it in my head.”

I sat back and considered this. At first glance it seemed crazy but after some thought it made sense. The deck itself wouldn’t take up much room and it certainly would be easier to manage upgrades and tweaks if it’s just in your arm than in your head (a location that I shuddered over).

“Yeah, that makes sense.”

We made small talk while we finished our beers. The usual getting to know someone deal. Franz seemed like he’d be a good fit. He seemed decent, had a sense of humor that meshed with ours and didn’t set off any red flags.

“So, Franz, I’m curious about your voice.”

“It’s a lil rough, ain’t it?” He grinned. “I used to be a thrash metal singer. Real bad idea to do that with natural lungs. After a few years of it, I damaged my vocal cords pretty good. The way they are now, the can’t be healed. All I could do is replace them with an electronic voice box. I know they can make it sound the same, but it wouldn’t be the same. I like having these old, scarred cords. Helps me remember that just because I can do a thing – maybe I shouldn’t always do it.”

I chuckled at that and agreed. “Well, this seems to be going well. How about you meet us at this location tomorrow.” I passed him a card. “Say about 2pm. We’ll go over the run in more detail and you can meet the rest of the team.”

“Sounds fab. See you then.”

He rose and departed. I settled back into my chair and turned to Kazumi.

“Well, what did you think.”

“I think he used to smoke too.”

“Not about his vocal cords, about him. Overall?”

She shrugged, “I think he’s competent and will fit well with the team.”

“You catch the texture on his hand?”

“Yeah, it’s on his face too – probably all over. That’s why his skin looked tight, not super-responsive.” I raised my eye brows at her to continue. “Duraskin. Probably he was burned or was in a bad accident. Duraskin is tougher than real skin – resists abrasions, tougher to cut – but it’s organic so it can actually repair itself. It’s just slower than real skin.”

“Huh, wonder why I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s pretty new. Popular in Europe, but hasn’t really caught on over here yet. From what I hear it itches like crazy when you get your initial graft and any time it’s re-growing. But, if you need a whole-body re-tread, it’s definitely something to think about. If you’re hurt that bad, a little itch is likely the least of your worries.”

I nodded in agreement and we rose and headed out.

###

I was standing in front of the wall with Franz when Kazumi and Giles came in.

“That is a really big wall.” Franz repeated.

I said, “Yeah, but we’ve got a plan for getting over it. Giles, did you get the drone?”

“Oh, yeah.” The smile almost split his face. “This thing is awesome.” He glanced at his shoulder and I jumped when I realized that the drone was crouched there. Then the spider scuttled down his arm, dropped towards the floor and raced towards us.

Franz uttered a low oath and drew his pistol to blow the creature away.

“Easy, man.” I gently caught the arm with the gun. “It’s a drone and we need it.”

Franz shuddered and stopped bringing the gun up. “Sorry. I really don’t like spiders.”

I agreed, “Yeah, it gives me the heebie-jeebies too, but we really do need it.”

Giles had stopped the drone when Franz drew his gun and, now that it wasn’t moving, it was easier to tell it was artificial. Then, he walked it towards the wall and we watched it climb gracefully up and over.

“See!” Giles sounded ecstatic, “It sticks like you wouldn’t believe.”

“I’m glad you’re happy. Let’s do a dry run – everything except epoxying the spikes in.”

I’d described the approach for getting over the wall to Franz when he got there and he was curious to see it in action. To be honest, so was I.

Franz, Kazumi and I all got into harnesses while Giles got the far end of the arch hooked up to the spider.

“Ok, this first time through, we’ll just get it done – let’s not aim for any speed records but keep an eye on how we can make it smoother or faster. We’ll work on speed after we’ve got the general process down.”

Giles sent the spider scuttling up the wall, dragging the arch behind. Up and over and down. As soon as the spider was down on the other side, I kicked on the compressor to inflate it. Once the arch was fully inflated and hard, I hooked on the my motor assembly and went over. Since it wasn’t fully anchored, we took it one at a time.

Everything worked perfectly.

We ran through it a few more times tweaking things here and there but the whole thing felt solid and Franz commented on it. “This is good. I’ve never seen this approach before but man, it’s slick.”

I nodded, “Thanks. It should let us get in and out quietly. Now, let’s talk about the perimeter network. Giles, go get the Beetle Drone, would ya?”

While Giles was getting it, I turned back to Franz. “We’re borrowing a network intrusion drone for this. Tiny thing – looks like a beetle. It gets next to a network and uses an induction connection to hack into it. Then it sets up a LOS network with the decker, you, to give you access. We’ll need you to disable the laser sensors on one stretch of wall before we can deploy the arch.”

Franz was nodding, “Sounds smooth – but how do I interface with the LOS network?”

Giles came up carrying a small box. He opened it and handed Franz a stubby jackmount. “With this. It’s made to plug into a standard data jack and has the optical port necessary for communicating with the beetle.”

Franz turned the small electronic component over in his hands and then socketed it.

I said, “Ok, we’ve got a similar network setup over here for testing on. That will give you experience working with the beetle drone network interface. Once you’re in, it should just be standard hacking.”

“Ok, sounds good. Let’s try it out.”

I had Giles and Franz go through the process a few times, navigating the beetle and interfacing with the network. Everything seemed to be going smooth there too. While they worked through it, I went into another room and changed clothes.

Once Giles and Franz were happy with the process, I pulled everyone back together. “Now, we can get over the wall – that was the first big hurdle. The next is moving around in the compound without anyone seeing us.”

Kazumi crossed her arms and gave me a level look – she hadn’t been happy about my evasion the other day.

“As some of you know, Lima Industries has been working on some advanced chameleoskin suits.” Kazumi’s eyes immediately grew wide. “They’ve agreed to let us borrow a few for this run. Let me show you.” I reached up and pulled a hood up then drew a cloth across my face. Once the fabric was all settled, I pressed a small button on the collar of the suit – and disappeared.

“See,” I said my voice coming from a different area than where I’d been standing. “The suits are almost totally invisible.”

Neither Giles nor Franz had seen the chameleoskin in action before and they were both blown away.

Kazumi said, “That’s cool and all, but how do we see each other?”

I picked up a pair of goggles from the table and tossed them to her. She fitted them over her eyes and I hit the button again.

“Ah, your grey forms.”

“Yep. The goggles come from Lima Industries too – they’re designed to identify the chameleoskin suits so that teams can work together. Follow me. I’ll you you both your suits.”

We went into the back room of the warehouse and I handed suits to both Kazumi and Franz. They each changed and Franz put on a pair of goggles.

Suitably attired, we returned to the arch to practice going over the wall.

Giles didn’t have a pair of goggles and he said, “That just looks creepy. I see the motor assembly going up and over and I see the rope that goes from the assembly to your harness – but you’re totally invisible.”

“Yep, that’s the idea. Let’s run through this a few more times and then I think we’ll be about ready for the run.”

Twenty Two

It was dark when I woke up. I was in a nice bed, soft sheets. I switched my eyes to low light and looked around. It was a fairly standard hospital room. There were a couple frames on the wall and a chair next to the bed. I could see a call button hanging near me. I tried to situp and the door opened.

I say, I tried because my left leg didn’t move.

“Oh, you don’t want to be trying to move any yet, mister.”

I looked up at the voice. An orderly had come into the room when the door opened. He was a big guy and as he moved across the room, I could see that he knew how to carry himself.

“Yeah, I can tell.” I said with a note of concern in my voice.

“Oh, don’t you worry none. The doc, she always leaves the cyberware turned off after surgery. You’ve got to get used to it. If it was enabled when you woke up, you’d likely tweak it and hurt yourself and damage the ware.”

He approached the bed and gently helped me up to a sitting position. There was immense power in his arms and he had no problem getting me arranged.

“I’m, Ogre, by the way.”

I looked at him in surprise, “Ogre?”

He grinned, “That was my street name. Don’t rightly recall what name I was born with. Ogre serves.”

I nodded in understanding and was about to ask him about his life on the streets and how he ended up here when the doc came in.

“Thank you, Ogre,” she said and he nodded and left the room.

Then she turned to me, “And how are you doing this morning?”

“I’ve been better. I feel rested but I’ve got this big ole dead chunk of metal attached to me.”

She approached the bed and said “Well, let’s see what we can do about that.”

She pulled the sheets down and I could see my new leg. It was a nasty looking amalgamation of metal and plastic. I don’t mean nasty like a sewer, more nasty like a loaded weapon pointed at you. It had a lethal look to it, a poised power, waiting to be unleashed. I found the site oddly pleasing and I found that pleasure powerfully discomforting.

Linda took a tool from her pocket and leaned over the leg. She prodded the leg in a few places with her tool and all of a sudden I could feel it. I could feel  the bed underneath it. I could feel that its weight was pushing it further into the bed than my flesh leg. Without thinking I bent my knee to draw the leg up – but it didn’t respond.

Linda, watching me, saw my look of concern and assured me, “Don’t worry, I’ve only enabled the sensors. I haven’t enabled the actuators yet. We need to take this slowly.”

What she said made sense but didn’t even begin to hint at the tedious effort over the next few days, learning how the leg responded and how to control it. The hours re-learning to walk, or run, or kick a ball. It was an enormous effort, but there was also great reward at the end of it.

###

Price came to see me a week after I’d woken up. I was jogging on a treadmill and the leg now felt like a part of me.

“I’m glad to see you’re feeling better, he said.”

I nodded at him and said “5 more minutes. Doctor’s orders.”

I smiled internally when he grimaced. I was perfectly happy ignoring the Doctor’s orders and stopping whenever I felt like it. The leg was working and I was comfortable with it – I just wanted to piss Price off.

When he saw that I wasn’t going to stop, Price shrugged stepped aside and pulled out a tablet to get some work done.

When the five minutes were up, I stepped off the treadmill and mopped my self with a towel. Price glanced up at me and said “Give me a few minutes.”

I chuckled, wondering if he really wanted to play this game, “Ok, I’ll just go grab a shower.” I wasn’t the one with a busy schedule.

Price sighed and closed down his tablet. **Ha, I win**

“Please come with me. I’d like to discuss your run against Kasei.”

I followed him to a nice office and he indicated a seat for me. I took it and he settled in behind the desk.

“Kasei beat us out for a government contract to provide the next generation in battle field communications. Waters was a big part of their research in this area and losing him has really hurt them. We’ve been talking to him, getting him settled in here and debriefing him on Kasei’s efforts. Waters has told us about another project they’re working on. Something that would push us to the forefront of military communication for the next decade when we combine it with our own internal efforts.”

I nodded at him to continue, “Quantum Cryptography. A completely unbreakable, high-bandwidth communication channel. That sort of a mesh combined with Waters research would give any small fighting force such an advantage that they would be nearly unstoppable.”

“And, you need us to go in there and get it?”

“Exactly. It would be inconvenient for Lima Industries to be seen taking an active role in attacking a competitor, but if we were simply buying the data – that’s just business.”

“Ok, what can you tell me about the target facility?”

Price chuckled, “You won’t need the full info, just an update – since you’ve been there before.”

I groaned, “The same place where we extracted Waters from?”

Price nodded, “The same facility – but they’ve upgraded the security somewhat.” He reached into his desk and pulled out a tablet and handed it to me. “This contains all of the latest security and schematic information we have on the compound. In addition, there’s a copy of our latest security catalog. I’m willing to provide some equipment to facilitate the effort – within reason.”

I took the tablet and asked, “Anything else?”

“Yes, the data itself is likely to be in a hardened computer system – totally isolated from the external network. It’s likely that you’ll need to penetrate fairly deeply into the complex in order to access it and you’ll need to bring a decker along with you.”

I grimaced at that. Your average decker wasn’t interested in getting any closer to the run than their couch.

Price continued, “If you don’t have any qualified individuals in mind, I can provide some CVs.”

“If it’s all the same to you, I don’t think I want a megacorp shill along on the run.”

If he took any offense to that, he hid it well and went on, “It’s your run to plan. I’m just here to provide information and resources to facilitate its success.”

I nodded and stood, then Price spoke up, “Oh, one other thing.” I paused, “We do require success. Lima Industries has made a significant investment in you and it would be… detrimental… to our future relationship if this run were to fail.”

I gave him a hard look and said, “You don’t need to worry about failure. I’ve never failed yet and I expect if I do fail, I won’t be in a position to worry about any future relationships.”

Price nodded, “Good. I’m glad we understand each other.”

I simply turned and left.

###

Price’s plans and schematics were very complete. They were a lot better than the data I’d had to work with when I planned the first run and it made me wonder how I’d pulled the first run off. Kasei’s security went a lot deeper than I’d realized – though part of it had been added only after my run.

The walls were still tall – about 8 meters – and topped with security cameras and laser sensors. Plus, they weren’t straight up and down. The tilted out slightly so any attempt to scale was entirely out of the question.

They’d added several mobile anti-aircraft installations where Gatling guns were slaved to active radar – questionable legality but definite lethality. It seemed like any kind of arial insertion would be difficult to the point of impossibility.

Given the details on the improvement of guard protocols and the way they up-armored the entrances I didn’t think we could sleaze our way in again.

Sigh, this was a tough one. I wanted to get in quietly and hopefully get out again quietly. I didn’t want another round of rehab and recuperation and I didn’t think I could afford another cyber limb.

I decided to take a look at the security catalog.

Oh, man, now I know what a kid in Santa’s Workshop felt like. Weapons, armor, tools, vehicles – this was the kind of resource that made you think of elaborate plans just to use the equipment. I knew that we’d have to interface with the perimeter electronics and override the sensors. Problem was that they were on their own internal network and the only way to access was to physically tap into it. While flipping through the drone section I saw an entry for a new insectoid drone. It looked like a small beetle but was purpose made for electronic insertion. You could fly or crawl the drone up to a protected network and tap into it. Then, as long as you were within line of site of the drone, you could access the network through that hackpoint. I made a mental note to talk to Giles about that.

Now that I had a good handle on the sensors, it was time to figure out the wall. If we went too high over it there was a chance that the anti-aircraft installations would kick in and that would be very bad news.

The equipment section ended with some kind of inflatable beam. Special, super strong plastic – you inflated it to about 20k PSI and it was as strong as steel. It came in rolls and you simply cut a beam as long as you want, use a special epoxy to weld pieces together and attach a valve, then inflate. Once I saw that they also offered select shaped fittings I knew we were in business.

I could make an arch, get one end over the wall, inflate it, then use silent motors attached to harnesses to drive us over the arch. Near silent, near undetectable – it would be perfect.

That just left getting us across the compound and into the building – but I had an idea that Price could help with that too.

###

“You want to what?” The incredulity in Price’s voice was painful.

“I want to borrow some chameleoskin suits.”

“That technology is a very closely guarded internal secret-” he began.

“Which has never had a real-world test.” I interrupted. “This would be a perfect test of the technology in a hostile environment.”

This caused Price to sit back and consider me. “Hmm…I can see that you’ve actually thought this through. That’s actually one of the best arguments for me to agree that you could come up with.”

I grinned, “I knew you’d be intrigued. If the team that came up with the chameleoskin technology is anything like Hernan, they’ve probably been clamoring for real-world tests for weeks.”

“Months actually. I’ll have to discuss it with the board. I’m inclined to support the request – with some protective measures in place.”

I narrowed my eyes, “What protective measures?”

He waved offhandedly, “Oh, time delayed micro-explosives in the control units. We definitely do not want this tech to fall into Kasei’s hands.”

I cringed inside, but understood his concern. “What about vision?”

“Eh?” Price seemed confused.

“I can see the active suits, but how will the other members of my team?”

“Oh, we have goggles, that’s not an issue. Is there anything else you need?”

I grinned, “Yeah, I’ve got a list.” I held up a tablet and zipped him my shopping list.

Price spent a few minutes perusing it. “Interesting. That’s a use for the inflatable beams that I hadn’t considered before.” The material I had listed made my thinking obvious. “Quite clever actually. The drone will take a little bit of doing but I don’t foresee it being a very big issue.”

I nodded, “Good.”

“Now, have you found a combat decker yet?”

I’d discussed the matter with Giles who had met with Miranda. Neither of them had been able to offer any suggestions for a decker who was willing to get into the thick of things.

“Not yet.”

“Here,” Price held up his own tablet and gestured at mine. When I raised mine, he zipped some data files to me. “Here are a few that we’ve worked with in the past and been very satisfied with.”

“I don’t want-” I began.

“Not to worry. They’re all outside contractors – no one actually a Lima employee.”

“Ok, I’ll take a look and let you know. How long do you think to get the equipment together?”

“I’ll meet with the board tomorrow and discuss the suits. The rest we can have assembled in about a week.”

“And how about a location to rough out a wall – so we can practice going over?”

“I’m sure we can provide a place for that.”

I nodded and left his office without another word.