Euro-Cybernetics Integrated. Toulouse, France. New European Union. 2:59 a.m. Same night.

It was overcast, and we came in from a mile up. A moonless night, with our new drop rigs, the six of us were inside their perimeter like vampires in the mist. It was that clean. We hit the ground, dumped the packs, and waited. The security routines for the complex had just been raped blind, so we supposedly owned every null space and nanosecond, but we were now officially trespassing.

Not just anywhere either; this little research campus belonged to Euro-Cybernetics Integrated, the lead biotech division for the Dawson-Hull Conglomerate. Black contract jobs are always touchy, but this bordered on psychosis. No Geneva Convention for us. Get blown in the ‘Glom’s backyard, due process would be a bullet in the head. Tam held us back by a row of concrete planters and signaled me to confirm our Mitsubishi stealth gear was working, and that all three Whispers were overhead and online.

So far, nothing had exploded or started wailing, so I figured that was a plus.

I dialed up the frequency and got another bonus: the little remotes were squirting real-time video from their flight paths seventy-five meters above. I cycled through each one, getting a God’s eye view of the entire facility from three different angles in night-vision green. The only signs of our presence were minor distortions, six man-sized absences that quivered like heat demons over desert sand. Our equipment was working as advertised. For someone to get a bearing on us, they’d have to know we were on-site, and exactly what to look for. And if they knew that much, we were in deep kimchi already. I gave the thumbs-up. Tam motioned the Triplets ahead.

I watched them rise and do a little tactical ballet, synchronizing into positions further out on the plaza. Limited vocabulary or not, every time I saw them in motion I thanked the war gods they were with us.

When they’d settled, Tam’s voice came over the helmet radio. “Poet9, I want a splice in their surveillance net. There’s a node in that security station. Jace will go with you.”

I slipped out, and we ran towards the guardhouse. It was really a bunker, a thug-ugly shape trying to hide behind a couple of coiffed hedges and a manicured walkway. I could make out the thick poly-steel plating and the dish array on the roof, and from experience, I knew pop-up turrets were stowed behind the big flat screens that displayed the D-H icon. Their light threw a shifting glow on the lawns around the station. There was no other movement.

I checked the time and the stolen schedule. Perimeter patrols in this part of the facility weren’t due for another seventeen minutes. That meant all four guards were still inside, biding time against the night’s chill. We approached the double doors.

“Muy liso, Jace,”Poet9 whispered.

Crouched next to the slab mass of bunker, my hands started itching. That only happened when I was nervous. “Doesn’t feel smooth, mano, my Spidey sense is tingling.”

“Cálmelo. We’re como la seda. We’ll be gone in no time.”

Poet9 took off his helmet and zipped two cables from sockets in his C.I.U. to the door keypad. While he overrode the lock, I peered into the dark like something was going to snap. I caught myself squeezing the grip on my sub-machinegun, but that just made the flex stock clasp tighter. It made my 6mm Blizzard look more like an alien insect was trying to mate with my hand. My worry stayed with me.

Poet nudged me. “Jace…”

I brought the Blizzard up, flipped on the holo-sight, and nodded. He only grunted, put his helmet back on. Seven seconds later, the doors slid open and the first guard was dead at his desk.

We were in.


Multi-spectrum imaging, area denial, micro-drones, laser trips, smart mines… all ultra-tech, all lethal, all precise, all predictable. And predictable is good for freelancers like us. Hired to do nasty things, we are deniable, deletable, and disposable. Our only hope is to be fast and devious, to get in and get out without rippling the pond. Automated systems, however precise, can be hacked with hot codes, bounced with newer, faster tech, sometimes just unplugged. The intrusion/detection race is a fevered constant. We manage to stay one step ahead because we have to, and because Poet9 is one of the best hammerjacks alive.

Which brings me to people: people are the problem. No matter what the Maginot Systems sales rep says about their latest perimeter envelope, there’s no subroutine for suspicion. A good human guard, a veteran with training and combat experience, has instinct: that visceral feeling something’s just not right. Any security executive that forgets this basic rule of combat loses the ability to read the ground, read the moment, and if you fixate on the latest chromed out, automated defense network, it’s a sure bet you’ll wind up emptied out, or dead. There’s plenty of hardcore bush war leftovers who come cheap and can shoot, but that’s not the real reason smart managers keep them on the payroll. It’s intuition.

There’s only one countermeasure for that kind of primal radar: running black. That means more than buying mimetic camo-suits, or investing in the hottest I.C.E. breakers. It’s more than training day and night on how to ghost through a dozen of the most common security formats. It means going blank, void. It’s the ability to slow everything down and draw it all in so you null down your psychic profile. Someone running black becomes empty space. There’s no sense of person. It’s a monkey skill, some sort of primate stealth gear that can’t be taught or drilled into you. Either you have it or you don’t. I have it, and so does Tam. And that’s the main reason we’re still alive.

So far, we hadn’t reached into that bag of tricks. Between our tech-toys and training, we’d weaseled inside the facility’s defense loop undetected. Now all we had to do was stay that way, fetch the item in question, and go. Easy.

I left Poet9 in relative safety at the desk while I moved down the hall for the last three guards. He’d have to jack in uninterrupted in the station’s control room, so there was no skipping them. Schematics put the armory just down from a break room, and with a patrol due, I figured that’s where they’d be. I dropped a blade into my left hand—just in case—and I moved with the Blizzard straight-armed and sighted.

Sure enough, two of them were suiting up, half-dressed, with helmets, shotguns and radios all neat on a table. I closed the door with a click, and they turned, looking for their partner. The Blizzard coughed and they crumpled, disappointed, on the floor.

I switched off the light and slipped back out into the hall. One to go. Where was he—sleep or food?

I radioed Poet9. “Two more down. Desk monitors got eyes on the fourth?”

A few second later, “Nothing on screen. Find him fast, mano. I need access before the next rotation. Want me to call Tam?”

“Just be ready. I’m on it.” I slipped right, towards the break room and kitchen. Call it instinct.

He was eating, an older guy with a rank badge and cold eyes that said “veteran”. He was definitely modded because he was up and moving at warp speed the second I spun in through the door. He crash-flipped a table for cover and dodged left towards the communication panel on the wall. I put a burst of three shots where he’d just been.

I moved to cut him off, the Blizzard making rapid spitting noises as it put lines of holes into the tabletop, but he came up on my right with an ugly snub carry piece. Definitely a vet. Two shots roared in the small room, and the panel splintered next to my head.

My turn to dodge.

I tumbled, slid into some chairs, and came up hosing the area until the breech locked open. As my thumb hit the ejection and the empty magazine slid down out of the grip, he came up again with those eyes and that backup piece lasered in on me. I didn’t even think. My left arm whipped around and the knife sprouted from his neck. He went down and backwards and out of sight.

Just in case.

Suddenly, Tam was in the doorway with his visor up and a sliver of a smile on his face. “You finished?” He yanked my knife out, wiped it and tossed it back. “Poet’s in their Grid, and we have to move on the labs now.”

We entered the control room. The opposite wall was stacked with monitors showing grainy black and white exterior sweeps with thermal views winking in at random. It was enough to give you seizures. Poet9 was spliced in at the desk, cables from his interface unit running into the station terminal. He was talking off hand, distracted, trying to keep focus on two worlds.

“We’re still clear. No increased traffic on their nets. Over in the lab, there’s no staff, just guards, two, three, total—yeah, three inside… He closed his eyes for a moment.”Campus patrol is three bots and six guards. All right where they’re supposed to be: doing routine sweeps in overlapping eights. There’s one Cerberus-’bot and a single guard doing the walk around the lab buildings.”

He jacked out and his eyes cleared. “I’m not quite done. I’ll set this terminal to give its standard ‘all clear’ to the next system security query. They’re every thirty minutes, and next ping is in just over nine. According to the schedule, we have eleven minutes until this station’s guards have to be out on fence patrol. My patch will bluff once, but not twice. We have to be gone before the second check.”

Tam lifted his helmet visor and nodded at Poet9. “We can do that as long as we move fast and stay subterranean. We’ve got floor plans and key codes for the lab building, but I want you to access the defense network in the lab area itself. Sift the system to see what’s online in there. You know how I hate surprises.” He glanced at the station terminal. “Can you crack it from here?”

“Not in a half-hour.” Poet9 said. “Their intranet has centralized control, but each building is separately zoned. With the time we’ve got, I’d have to splice at a specific site to mess around with its local grid. The only way is through a terminal in that building.” Poet9 squared off in front of Tam and patted the oversized Walther 11 holstered on his hip. I’d swear he even lowered his voice a bit. “You want it down, boss, I’ll have to go in with you.”

“Stop with the machista grande. You’re a data rat, not a slum gunner, remember,” Tam sighed. “Jace and I will clear the way. Scan the bodies and dig out their chips, then have Flopsy and Mopsy walk the fence. That’ll keep the alarms quiet. Make sure they prep some EMPs in case those ‘bots show up. You hang back and only come in the lab when I say it’s clear. Got it?”

Poet9’s eyes gleamed as he coiled up his data cables and tugged the knit cap back over his misshapen head. He unsnapped the pistol holster at his side.”Sure thing, boss. We’re good.”

Tam and I headed for the door. “Machista Grande? What is that, a coffee drink?”

Another faint smile.”Don’t even start.”

“He’s got a name for that hand cannon, you know,” I whispered.

“I’m not listening.”

A minute later, Poet9 was carrying two bloody RFID chips from the guards’ hands. Tam re-deployed the Triplets, and I checked the feed from our drones. No sign of a response. The action inside had bled off some tension, but something still gnawed at the back of my mind. I looked to see if Tam felt it, but he’d gone into mode and was all crisp. The Triplets were moving, so I sprinted towards the tangled geometry of the labs. We were running all the way to the end.

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