RUNNING BLACK – Part One

PROLOGUE : OUTSIDE

Gibson: I am alone in the black. Below me, a million strands of light skip with data, blue and white, like a vast spider web humming with motion. The Net is alive, even at this hour, and this is only homes and small companies here in Toulouse. I decipher the routines: email and music, vid-bits and late night purchases, transfers and automated memos. Nothing exciting. I spy lime green flashes around the business nodes; crackers riding the lines, probing for holes. They creep along and hop from strand to strand, pounce, flare, and vanish. I watch them until I get bored, which isn’t very long. They never do anything new, just re-script packet sniffers to snatch numbers or names. Besides they’re slow, much slower than me. The staff all says I’m the fastest yet.

Bright big shapes sparkle in the distance. On my level, I can see the giant honeycomb structures of other corporations, the red military nets, and the tangled green branches of the government. They pulse and twirl, and it makes me want to leave, to explore, but I can’t. Dr. Evans says I’ll go soon enough. He seems sad when he looks at me lately. I’m going to look through his files and try to find out why.

I got another headache and couldn’t sleep. Second night in a row. There’s no more pain tabs in the med-station upstairs, and no one’s here in the lab to talk to. The security guards aren’t even allowed in my area.  I keep remembering what Dr Evans said about my final trials next week, how Directors from the Head Office would be coming and I need to be at my best. I hope I don’t have a headache then.

I wanted to walk out on the plaza, but all the doors are locked for the night, so I jacked in and left through the messaging system. I’m not going to tell them about the hole; it’s my escape hatch. They’d only close it and then I’d be stuck here on nights like this, and watching takes my mind off the pain. Besides, I’m outside now, at least in some sense.

I’m still not sleepy so for now, I’ll stay in the lab Grid. I’m going to tap into the security cameras and follow the guards. I make it a game to see which one finishes his rounds first.

***

CHAPTER ONE: LIKE CIGARETTES
Dawson-Hull Conglomerate Regional Offices. London, England. New European Union. 2:18 a.m. Day One.

He wasn’t going to make it. His mind kept nagging him with that fact, but a primal part much deeper inside snarled back and kept him running anyway. The slip-in had been so smooth too, everything going flawlessly right up to the last seconds of the download.

It should have been a simple loot and scoot: prep work for some other mission. They’d even received Tier Two pass codes that let the four of them voodoo through the building’s security like wily ghosts. Floor plans brought them straight to the mainframe hub. They’d been told exactly where to search there too, and after a crypto-crack and a quick cable to the terminal, they watched the flash drive fill up and passed a smile around in the stillness. The buzz of easy money. But someone in D-H Cyber-Division must have strung a tripwire in the transfer executable, because right at ninety-seven percent an alarm went off, the thick dark exploded, and a perfectly good break-in was shot to hell.

Now the air quivered with sirens and every light in the complex glared stark phosphorus. The freelancer was alone, flying through the maze of offices back the way he’d come, his world compacted by the tyranny of rage and fear.

He’d jabbed all his speed-stiks at once, and the adrenaline cocktail hit him like a freight train. Everything tumbled together in a rabid blur: steel gates slamming down over windows, the drop and swivel of ceiling turrets, nightshift guards shouting, popping out in front of him like cartoon targets in a kill house. He focused on them long enough to double-tap holes in their tailored uniforms, then ducked, weaved, rolled and ran on.

The intimate dead urged him on, raw in his mind. Riko buried under a wave of first response spider ‘bots; Mahoud shredded by flechettes, choking on his own blood. Even Daffid, so cool and precise, had bought him these last seconds, pushing him through a kill sack before he ended up spattered all over the lower parking level. Lives stubbed out like cigarettes, littered in a trail behind him. He was the only one left.

Somewhere in another hallway, his brain reminded him about the U.A.V. The mission contract stipulated that his team had the stealth drone circling overhead for the duration, ready to relay the files once they got clear. Talk about a clue. It had been the first item on the load-out list. Corporate pass codes or no, whoever hired them hadn’t counted on a clean getaway. They’d been so right.

A squeeze on the trigger folded up another guard, then the click, click, click of an empty magazine registered in his mind. Now even his ammo was gone.
What’s the use? his brain nagged again. But there was twenty-five million on his flash drive, and the contract stated no files—no funds. Four minutes ago, he’d wondered what was worth so much, but now all he wanted was to get outside so it could be passed to whoever was up next in this horror show. The data pad was blue-toothed to the drone, but he got no signal inside the building. He needed clear sky, so he kept running.

He darted down a sharp left, bouncing off the walls. He was almost there. At least Mira and the kids would get five percent, plus benefits.

The final stretch was empty, and for a second, he imagined he’d actually survive. He almost laughed, but his lungs were heaving, his muscles burning out on the ragged edges of the chemical overkill. As he burst through the basement double doors onto the service road, he instinctively looked up for the drone he knew he couldn’t see. The night sky was littered with stars, and the air was heavy with the reek of garbage and bio-diesel.

Someone shouted, but he didn’t stop. He was out.

Still at full speed, he raised his arm and thumbed the “Send” button. He saw police lights, men braced behind car doors, their helmets silhouetted against the muzzle flashes. Rounds tore through him, but they were too late. He heard the electronic bleat and knew the machine valkyrie was bearing the files onward. He did laugh then, deep and wet. He’d made it.

Tri-bursts scoured his body, punching his forward motion back until it stopped in jerks and shudders. He tumbled to the asphalt. Blood was running now. The freelancer lay there, looking up as every ounce of overdue pain came crowding in. It was finished. He saw the sky, the stars, and thought of Mira. Then everything winked out.

***********************

TWO: FULL INTRUSION PACKAGE

In the sky over French airspace, New European Union. 2:37 a.m. Same night.

Droning. Engines droning and the hiss of stratosphere outside the compartment always made me sleepy. Soldiers sleep anywhere, anytime. I guess if you do anything for long enough, any familiar sound can become a lullaby. Tam and I knew this Bulgarian in the Balkans who had nodded off in his foxhole just before an attack. He slept through the whole firefight. Not a scratch on him either. He got pulped the next day when the AI on one of our drones failed to recognize his IFF tags. Bad mojo, but still…

A gust of turbulence rocked the suborbital.

I opened one eye. It was dark. Tam was still at the command and control station, waiting. I heard his boots shift on the steel decking. The crew of Eshu International had been on standby, contracted for the second phase of a possible mission. If he got the green light, we’d only have a three-minute jump window. There was a lot of money on hold in this contract, and if the mystery crew botched the first stage, we wouldn’t see any of it. Too many moving parts made Tam edgy. He wasn’t keen on missing a payday and losing face with corporate sponsors.

I looked back to see the green cast of the holo-display on his face. The black Mitsubishi sneak suit absorbed the light and made his glowing head look like a bakemono ghost had floated in from the netherworld to haunt the transport.

Christ, I needed more sleep.

“Jace.”

I opened my other eye. “Yeah?”

“They prepped back there?” The head nodded toward the cargo compartment.

“Of course. Jeeze, Tam, not like we haven’t done this before. Been wheels up every night for a week waiting on a go.”

“Corp dime—Corp time. They promise payments like this, I’ll do it as long as they like.”

“That sounds dirty.”
He laughed. “Call me easy. Better than getting shot at.”

“I read that.” I shut my eyes again. Then I opened them. “So those authorizations are real?”

“The money?” Tam stayed focused on the displays. “Yep, they’re real. Triple mission rates, even equipment reimbursements and bonuses. Rao thought it was a U.N. phish at first.”

I let out a low whistle. “You know what they say about ‘too good to be true’, right?”

Tam looked up at me. “Yeah. Yeah I do. Our backup gear is still onboard, right? Tell me you brought our gear.”

“Yes, mother. It’s in the back. I’ll need sixty seconds once the ramp drops.” I settled back to doze again. “Probably a no-go tonight too. If you’re still worried, I can do a search when we get back. Find out who’s footing the bill. If it is an UNdie sting, their fingerprints are out there on the net.”

“Nah.” His ghost head smiled. “Your web-fu is Amish. I already said something to Poet. He’s on it.”

“Amish? Ha, funny, ha. I don’t know why they say Koreans lost their sense of humor.” I closed my eyes for a third time, hoping it was for good until we landed back in Belfast. “If there’s a data trail leading back to the Security Council, Poet9 will sniff it out.”

“Rao says all signs point to Tokyo, which is good, because it’s been months since we’ve seen any action from them.”

“Contract like this, seems like they’re making up for lost time,” I noted.

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Besides, not like there’s a pile of other outfits that could pull this run off. They need us. And if what the contract brief says is true,” I could hear the smile in Tam’s voice, “after we deliver, I’ll be packing my bags for that vacation.”

“You and your vacation,” I grunted.

“Gotta have goals. I hear Belize is nice.”

“Nope. Shining Path hit it last month with the Marburg virus. Still a Q’d zone.”

“Hell. What about Disneystan then? Some of the resorts are secluded. Separate from the parks.”

“You want secluded, you’re better off with Cancun or Cozumel.”

“Well sure,” Tam snorted, “If Rao can grease us past the North American Border Grid. Clearances are hard to come by.”

I shifted around, trying to find a vaguely comfortable position. “Jaithirth Rao is Mr. Wizard. He can do anything. Just follow that yellow brick road.”

Ten seconds later. “Jace?”

I opened one eye again. “Yes, Tam?”

“Go back and make sure Poet and the Triplets are all set. Just in case.”

“Just in case,” I echoed, getting to my feet.

The back compartment was bathed in ruby half-light and hard shadows. Our gear was perched on skids waiting patiently for the jaw of the drop ramp to open. Tam had made us bring all three of our Raytheon “Whisper” remotes. They were top-grade surveillance drones; I could see the tiny green status lights winking. Multiple sensor lenses peeked out from under the blue-black wing shapes like the shining eyes of ravens. Between the drones, our Mitsubishi armor, and a full ECM suite, it was obvious the sudden corporate largess hadn’t allayed Tam’s trust issues just yet. Freelance teams had been left out in the cold before, and no one wanted their beneficiaries haggling with the pond scum from legal over the fine print of a contract’s death clause.

Poet and the Triplets were huddled together. The small Mexican was saying something, and the three hulking soldiers were repeating after him. I stood there for a moment and watched.

Devante Peres, or Poet9, as he liked to be called, was our Splicer. Born and raised in the Mexico City Sprawl, he cobbled his first deck from dump parts when he was eleven, hot-lining the public access for the next six years. He became something of a slumdog celebrity making candy runs: tracing deadbeats for dealers, wiping police files for MS-13 and La Eme.

Then one sweltering night one his seventeenth birthday, he jacked in and went poking around the Ixe Grupo Financiero domain. Somehow, he managed to spoof his way in through the foreign currency exchange. He later said it was sheer luck, crank, and tequila. Now if he’d stayed calm, been smart, he might have gotten away with it, but with all those dólares floating around, the barrio punk, he treated it like a smash and grab. He siphoned off a hundred million, tagged gang code everywhere, and ran. Loud and sloppy, I.G.F. counter-intrusion tagged him in minutes and traced him back to his cinderblock hut. They kicked the door in the next morning. During the interrogation, the lead security officer saw past the gang tats, acne scars, and cheap bling and gave him an option: life in a Mexican prison or an entry-level desk in their firewall department. He took the job, got a twenty-year indenture, and wound up with a Cybernetic Interface Unit wet-wired to his cortex.

The Triplets were a different story. Our team’s gunboys, they were Pretoria Series Seven combat clones, and the last remnants of General N’kosa Mambi’s fever dream of an African empire. Gene-modded to their eyeballs, literally, Mambi’s scientists had ramped up the stock soldier template until they broke it, reducing mental capacity to autistic levels and introducing albinism into the sequence. But that was fine by the general’s syphilitic racist logic. The extremely Causasian Series Seven clones had only two imperatives: total loyalty and killing with startling efficiency. They were lethal savants, and the general fed thousands of his new shock troops into the savage brush wars. Under his command, they slaughtered everything in their path and burned through the surrounding Sub-Saharan nations for almost two years until E.U. forces brought the hammer down.

After the battle of Victoria Falls, all Series Sevens were declared illegal. Every one they could find was rounded up and executed, their bodies burned by the hundreds in deep, slit trenches. Veterans say the veldt around the Zambezi River smoldered for weeks. Somehow, these three Series Sevens had stayed hidden and alive until Tam found them and smuggled them out on an old friend’s boat.

They’d never been given names, so we called them Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail, our killer bunnies. Now every time our resident doctor, Ibram Kalahani, came around, he’d say, “Death awaits you all with nasty, big, pointy teeth.” He’d then laugh to himself for minutes. He still hadn’t told us what was so funny.

My boot hit the door kick plate and all four heads swiveled my way.

“Hey, boss,” Poet sang out.

“Hi, boss,” the Triplets called in unison.

“I’m not the boss. Mr. Tam’s the boss.” I frowned at Poet. “You’re not teaching them Spanish again, are you?”

He threw up his hands. “Just a couple things. All tactical stuff, I swear.”

“You swear is right. Doc Kalahani will have your balls in a vise, you teach them any more. He’s still mad about Lisbon.”

Poet laughed. “Buenas épocas!”

“Good times.” The three big soldiers thumped their fists on their thighs.

I shook my head. “Tam sent me back here to make sure we’re good to go tonight. Are we?”

“Same as all the other nights.” The little Mexican tapped the C.I.U. on the left side of his head. The gray electronics were partially hidden under a knit cap, but the “Brain Box’s” awkward angles made the graft look like a geometric contusion. “I’ve got the Whispers slaved on a high-band channel on our heads-up-displays. Anyone of us can access their camera views on the helmet visors. And they’ll start singing loud and proud if anyone violates our space.” He threw me a sly grin. “Seven flights so far and you still haven’t told me what we’re stealing.”

“Who said anything about stealing?” I smiled back.

“Jace, mano, it’s got to be a big party, or…” he waved a hand at our drones, the racked weapons, our H.A.L.O. drop rigs, then placed it solemnly on his Mitsu’s armored chestplate, “…we wouldn’t be bringing all our toys.”

“Asian Pacific wants us to jump on some labs in Toulouse,” I explained. “Some other crew is supposed to squirt pass codes and schematics up to us, but we don’t know exactly when. That’s why we’ve been in the air every night. Tam’s up front still waiting.”

“But we must be picking up a souvenir while we visit, right?”

I pondered before answering. “We’re after an N3,” I finally added.

He raised his eyebrows at me.

“I know, I know… but the mission brief states the Brits actually developed one. It says these labs actually have a working prototype.”

“Horseshit,” he observed.

“Mierda del caballo!” three deep voices boomed in unison. The albino giants looked over at me, big expectant grins on their faces. I burst out laughing, but Poet9 was still serious.

“The Nanotech Neural Network is a myth, Jace. Can’t be done. The human body rejects the little machine bastards. Madre de Dios, this thing almost killed me.” He tapped his C.I.U. again. “Everybody and their cousin had lab geeks running R and D for years. The bank even looked into it. Every one of those projects flat-lined. All they got was bloated bodies.” Poet9 shook his head.

“Well, Rao says someone on high in the Asian Pacific executive is fronting our little expedition. From the money being thrown around, it looks like whoever that diamyo is, he’s a true believer.”

Poet9 sat back with a grunt. “Fine. As long as they pay up when we come back empty-handed and say I told you so.”

“We say that, we might not get paid anything. And Tam wants that vacation,” I told him.

“Still with the vacation?”

“He’ll get it someday.” I turned to leave. “I’ll tell him we’re ready.”

“As always,” Poet9 called out.

Tam was standing in the same place when I got back up front. No flash traffic yet. “I told Poet about the N3. He thinks we’re chasing ghosts.”

He glanced over. “Chimeras actually; literal and figurative.”

“You’re a barrel of laughs tonight.” I sat back down. “They’re ready, by the way.”

“I figured.”

I’d almost made it back to sleep when the command and communication station warbled abruptly. I stood up. A large yellow cube appeared in the center display, rotating in the holo-field. It blossomed into strings of code, COBOL3 encryptions unfurling, arranging themselves to coherency. The top field was blinking lime green.

“Relayed traffic coming in,” Tam noted. “It’s on. We’re going in right now.” I grabbed a handhold as the suborbital banked hard to port, going south. Tam was downloading the data, transferring the target schematics to his forearm pad, synching them with our crew’s command net. He scanned the projection as a message played out. “Damn, that didn’t come cheap.”

“What didn’t?” I asked.

“This is a full intrusion package. Somebody just nicked proprietaries and overrides for the entire Toulouse facility. Tier Two, at least.”

I headed back to Poet9 and the Triplets. Tam was right behind me. Ahead, I heard the ramp whine open and the wind come howling in.

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