Off the Grid — Episode 04

A certain unease in the air


Peter is thinking as quickly as he can, something that doesn’t come easily given his current predicament. He feels angry, betrayed, scared, foolishly naïve, and for a moment he would just love to kick stuff around, smashing everything in his path and punching Wright in the face. But there’s no time to waste and he needs to focus. He looks at Wright as if to ask him something, but then he just starts thinking aloud: – It all boils down to two scenarios, the way I see it. One… I let you blast me with radiation to disable the tracker. The benefit: I get rid of the immediate threat, I could stay here with you for a while and plan my next moves (Wright nods). The downside: I’ll be on anti-radiation medication for the rest of my life— my certainly shortened life…

– I’d help you in any wa—

– Possibility two… I take my chances. I leave now and keep running. The benefit: well, no extra radiation, and theoretically I get to live longer. The downside: they’ll know where I am, they’ll track me down, and I’ll have to put up one nasty fight sooner or later. (Wright nods again, now with a guilty and saddened expression) … Unless…

– What are you thinking?

– How long before this isotope tracker stops working?

– A few days I suppose. Your metabolism has to break it down and absorb it fully.

– So I’ll just have to resist a few days… find a place to hi— No, no, what am I thinking? Even if I locked myself in a fortified area until the tracker stops working, they’ll just wait for me to come out.

He delivers a good punch to the nearest surface. That startles Wright. – Come on, mate, you must have a way to run interference. All this technology, all those hackers you’re in contact with, and you’re telling me you can’t… I don’t know… spoof the tracker’s signal? Or clone it so that I would appear in more than one location at a time?

– It has a unique signature, I’m afraid. But…

– But? I’m all ears.

Wright sits back at the workstation monitoring encrypted convo channels and starts typing something: – A transmission takes place between a transmitter and a receiver. In your case, we can’t do anything to prevent the transmitter from transmitting, but with some luck we could prevent the receiver from receiving. I’m asking a few entities here if they have a contact with knowledge of London State’s latest MILCOM protocols…

Peter looks at the cascade of random-looking characters and symbols on the screen, when he spots the handle &!048!834α1-1*.

– There! Ask her.

Wright is fascinated: – You know Bekah048!?

– I wouldn’t have made it this far without her help. Make sure to mention the expression 9117 to the power of 6405 in your convo. She’ll know you’re helping me and that your request is genuine.

– That an inside joke, I assume.

– Something of the sort.

Wright keeps typing. An intense conversation ensues among Bekah048, MatyasInk, and Wright. Peter is amazed at how these people can type in ’cryptscript so quickly. Wright reveals that usually it’s the machines that translate plainscript on the fly in RTT (Real-Time Translated) windows, but lots of hackers find it faster to learn to write ’cryptscript directly. After a couple of minutes, MatyasInk leaves the convo channel, and it’s just Wright and Bekah.

Wright grins.

– Good news? – asks Peter.

Wright nods: – She can help. She says she can propagate a shadow routine to prevent London State’s sat network from picking up your signal. I’ll simply need to send her the tracker’s transcoded signature.

– Brilliant. Ask her “How long before direct contact via mod cdv?”

– Aye. (A beat) She says Will operate UPN when safe. Wait, is she talking about an Untraceable Portable Node? How did she manage to get her hands—

Peter chuckles: – Knowing her, she probably built one in her spare time.

– I’m sending her the tracker’s signature.

When Bekah leaves the convo channel, Wright turns to Peter: – This must be your lucky day. If she can pull that hack, of course.

– I believe she can.

Wright stands up and adjusts his shirt and tie. – So… What’s next?

– I was thinking about staying here a few hours more, rest a bit, take some food for my journey, and be out of your way as soon as I can. If I’m detected despite Bekah’s efforts, I don’t want your communications station to be compromised.

– That’s quite kind of you, considering what I’ve done to you, – Wright remarks bitterly.

– Well, you were made to believe I was the bad guy…

An alert on the №14 display catches Wright’s attention. He rushes at the corresponding workstation and starts typing furiously. “It’s Soseki,” he mumbles, “Finally.”

Peter is curious: – Could I follow the conversation? I have a few acquaintances in Old York, forensic experts mostly, and I don’t know, perhaps I could be of assistance somehow.

Wright makes a peculiar grimace, and Peter can’t tell whether it’s annoyance or a sort of resigned why not?, but while waiting for Soseki to explain something, he says: – I’ll open a read-only RTT plainscript session on this other terminal. Anything you want to say or suggest, you tell me and I’ll relay it if pertinent.

Next to the workstation there’s an old Model 8900T terminal, with the label EXT-RL Dynamic Protocol Embd. Manufactured 2055-11 – Property of the Sovereign State of Éire. Its screen wakes and Peter can see a readable version of the conversation taking place between Wright, Soseki, and another entity called K0VACS:

K0: But what’s the holdup?

WR: Last I heard from nsk-21 is that she’s still with the 3Coin Group.

SO: Sakra! What for!?

WR: According to her last coded message, NNC needs to extend their comm network to reach Arslan. She has to crack a point of entry and the Group’s gone underground in Arslan’s Annexed Districts.

K0: That place’s a fucking blackbox.

SO: The op is time-sensitive, we’ve a small window to hijack the sat.

K0: The retasking routines are ready, but w/out nsk-21 it’s afn.

– ‘afn’?

– ‘All for nothing’ – replies Wright without diverting his gaze from the display.

– What’s this nsk-21’s speciality? And who’s NNC?

– She’s one of the best comm protocol crackers. NNC is Noegoa Nyom Corporation.

– I’m sure Bekah could help, but she has already too much on her hands.

Wright makes eye contact briefly: – Don’t involve her. These people are dangerous.

SO: I asked AnatolyK but he said it’s out of his league. Don’t you have your comm man?

K0: Our guy was taken & beaten outside Hattan by the Liberty H8ks.

WR: Utterly sorry.

SO: That sucks.

WR: Do you think the H8ks will run interference? They’ve been surprisingly aggressive lately.

K0: They want to control all network traffic passing through the remaining 3 active Externet nodes in Old York.

K0: They want to know what the normals are up to.

Peter remembers someone, and lights up: – Tell them to contact a man that goes by the handle 053!Watt.

– Is he reliable?

– He’s certainly a professional. He runs a forensic laboratory out of the Cape Cod shelters. He has collaborated with several governments in the Eastern American Municipalities and has done his share of RDRA—

Wright flashes a quizzical glance.

– Remote data recovery and analysis. I think he’s skilled enough to commandeer a satellite.

Wright nods and types:

WR: I’ve a trustworthy contact. Suggests you connect with entity 053!Watt. May be good enough to help.

SO: Rumour has it you’re in contact with LSF. What’s the deal?

K0: Really trustworthy?

WR: (K0) RLK trustworthy. (SO) I am. Let it be known he’s a war crimes TR. No thief or traitor. And if he’s a traitor, he’s betrayed a criminal government.

K0: OK. We’ll proceed with contact. Agree, (SO)?

SO: (K0) Agree. (WR) Send some proof, I can broadcast.

– So many acronyms here… – Peter shakes his head.

– Heh. LSF stands for London State Fugitive. You.

– And who’s RLK then?

– Nae, RLK stands for ‘real life knowledge’, which is a high degree of trustworthiness in this day and age. While TR means—

– Truth-relayer, that much I figured.

– Can I send Soseki a small part of the contents of your datastick? You need as much help as possible, and having the underground movements on your side is a good thing.

– Sure.

WR: I’m waving you a data burst, (SO).

SO: Great, thanks!

After some quick closing remarks, everyone leaves the convo channel.

– I hope your Watt53 contact is up to the task, otherwise…

– Don’t worry. If they mention my recommendation, he’ll do his best. He owes me a couple of favours, so…

They return to the kitchen. Peter feels restless. He sits down but keeps rocking in his chair.

– You hungry? That circadian stabiliser I gave you might also have made you a wee angsty, combined with the coffee.

– Actually yes, I wouldn’t mind a bite. Look, I know it must be hard to find stuff to eat in these remote locations—

– Oh don’t worry about that. As I said, there are some perks in maintaining a communication node. We receive a fair amount of supplies from different parties…

Wright shows Peter a fully stocked pantry.

– You have shortbreads! I probably ate my last like ten years ago…

Wright laughs, takes a can out and returns to the kitchen sink: – We shall have tea, then, like they did in the old country.

Peter notices something weird in the kitchen’s lighting. Or rather, in how the light seems to slightly change hue near the refrigerator unit. It’s barely detectable, but since taking that stabiliser, not only does Peter feel very alert, his natural powers of observation also appear heightened.

Pretending to check his right boot’s zipper, Peter reaches for his pocket blade.

– Something the matter? – asks Wright, noticing how Peter has fallen silent and stopped rocking all of a sudden.

– I think your son has returned.

Wright seems confused: – I didn’t hear any vehicle. Did you—?

Peter takes a shortbread from the can and replies nonchalantly: – Come on, we both know he’s here…

The water’s boiling in the electric kettle. Wright’s expression now shows sincere puzzlement. Peter notices that the faint colour desaturation he perceived near the refrigerator has moved to the wall segment next to the studio entrance. He swiftly rolls down the table and hurls his knife towards that desaturation. As predicted, the knife hits something before the wall and appears frozen mid-air. Both men hear a faint grunt. Wright, too, reacts with surprising deftness: he takes a canister from a drawer and throws it in the same direction. On impact, the canister releases some kind of powdery dark grey substance. There’s a multicoloured spark and some smoke. The figure of a man clad in what looks like a modified 2Skin NBC suit is partially revealed. Peter immobilises him, while Wright removes his helmet and pushes a button on the left side. The man’s suit crackles and now his figure appears completely. Peter’s pocket blade is stuck in the man’s left thigh.

The man is still conscious, seething, but not saying a word. Wright looks inside his helmet and something he sees in the HUD worries him. Peter looks up: – What is it?

Wright turns and spits on the man’s forehead: – This piece of shite is a monitor, sent from good ol’ London State I guess.

Peter twists the blade in the man’s thigh. He growls and keeps the pain behind grinding teeth. His eyes frantically dancing between Wright and Peter’s faces. He finally hisses: – Y’bliks! Hul kom! 

Wright looks at Peter: – The fuck’s yellin’?

– It’s Semis4 slang. I think he said something like You bastards, and then They’re coming.

Wright nods: – He has sent some sort of distress call. I’ll see if I can trace it. … Wait, if he’s from Semis4…

– Yeah, he’s not Section 9 proper, but one of Covington’s mercenaries.

A new thought seems to stop Wright in his tracks. He tries to reactivate the suit’s cloaking, then reads a series of values in the helmet’s HUD. A terrible realisation makes him drop the helmet on the floor.

The man snickers, then speaks with a thick foreign accent: – Rekoknize zis teknologie, olt man? Vee got yer son!


Off the Grid — Episode 03


The path you tread is narrow


– Identify yourself, right now, or I’ll shoot!

There is really no time for planning any move. It’s unlikely that a shot from that kind of rifle could damage his vehicle, but it could make enough noise to attract unwanted attention, and he also doesn’t want that man to get hurt by his own bullets ricocheting against the front of the vehicle.

He touches the STM button on the console’s input slate. The vehicle decloaks. The man is startled by the unexpected size, and falls back a few steps. He then regains his footing and raises the rifle once more, though he realises he now may be not as threatening as before, and possibly outgunned.

– You’re from London State!? What on scorched earth are ya doing here?

Peter touches another button, and activates one of the external speakers. He clears his throat:

“Er, hello there. I’m Peter. I’m on a sort of reconnaissance mission—”

The man powers up the rifle, which emits the characteristic ‘ready to shoot’ whine.

– What do you mean!? Have you come for me!? I retired in good terms!

Peter realises he doesn’t have to act defensively, after all, and tries a bit of intimidation:

“Look, I can disable your weapon from here if I want, so why don’t you tell me who you are and what you’re doing here, for starters?”

The man hesitates, then makes a sort of Fair enough nod: – I’m Jeremy Wright, former Section 4 Technology Advisor for London State Intelligence. And… I live here.

Peter is puzzled: “Section 4? Never heard of a Section 4…”

Wright snickers: – Well, that means we’ve been good at our job.

“How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

Wright grunts and points again his rifle at the vehicle’s windscreen: – I’m losing patience here!

Peter thinks about his mission, and tells himself that he can’t just cave in at the first sign of possible complications: “You know what? I don’t like weapons, so I’ll just discharge an EM pulse here and see—”

– Wait! Stop! – Wright suddenly raises both arms, looking like a scarecrow in a suit. – You’ll flak up the snowglobe!

He puts the rifle on the ground and kicks it away from him.

Peter suits up again, takes his backpack, re-cloaks the vehicle and gets off. He immediately realises why Wright was talking very loud. The air is filled by a continuous low-frequency hum which, albeit not painfully invasive, has a sort of oddly overwhelming feature that makes Peter uneasy and slightly nauseous. As he approaches the old man, the man looks at his rebreather mask with mild bemusement:

– You can remove that. There’s really no danger here.

– This— This sound…

– Ah yes, at first it can be a bit much. I’m used to it. … Come on, take my rifle and follow me to the house. You’ll feel better there.

Peter picks up the rifle and points it at Wright. – Lead the way.

– Ah, I see. I thought you didn’t like weapons.

– I don’t. But I don’t know you, I don’t know if you’re really alone here, who you work for, and whether I’m walking into some kind of trap or not, so you’ll excuse if I’m a bit paranoid at the moment.

Wright chuckles as he starts walking: – Oh, I know the feeling, laddie. Experienced it too many times in my career, even if I wasn’t a full-time field operative. … This way.

The dirt road turns slightly to the right. They come to a moat with no visible way to cross over.

– Now what?

Wright turns and grins: – Now you pay attention.

The man walks straight towards the moat. Peter lowers the rifle and tries to catch Wright by his jacket: – Wait! Are you ins— oh.

Wright appears to be walking on air. Peter puts his right foot forward and feels metal where his eyes see nothing but the water below.

– The bridge is cloaked.

Wright laughs: – I invented the technology!

Once they’re on the other side, Wright touches his glasses near the right hinge, and the noise of sliding metal panels can be heard behind them.

Peter remarks: – I wonder what or who else is cloaked around here…

Wright makes a dismissive wave that turns into another ‘this way’ gesture: – Nae, it’s only me and my son. And he’s away presently.

– Uh-huh.

Wright stops, clearly frustrated by Peter’s wariness. – Look, hav’ya got some optical device with infra-cloak sight?

Peter points at the monocular attached to his jacket.

– Good. Which issue?

Peter passes the rifle from his right to his left hand, unclips the monocular and inspects it.

– It says here Model 02071/1N.

– Good. Look through it, and rotate the innermost ring on the barrel counterclockwise till you see the letters ‘ES’ in the viewfinder. 

– Okay. Now?

– Now it’s doing an Environmental Scan. You’ll be prompted to do a manual pairing shortly.

– Ah yes. It’s asking me to enter the pairing sequence.

– Turn the outermost ring to 272, then 90, then 108, then 74. When you’re finished, take a look around through the scope.

Now Peter can see the bridge they’ve just walked on, another bridge in a different point of the moat, a small Class 3 electric car parked under what remains of a dilapidated outhouse, and an old looking comms tower attached to the house they’re approaching — all these objects appear as light green ghost shapes.

– Satisfied?

Peter nods quietly. – I’m sorry, but you have to put yourself in my shoes…

– Yea, you’re alone reconnoitring an area you’ve never seen before.

– It’s actually more than that. You see… I’ve kind of… gone rogue.

As soon as Peter utters the word rogue, Wright’s attitude changes and he starts warming to Peter, speaking in more sympathetic tones: – In that case… I can offer you shelter, if that’s what you’re looking for. But you must tell me your story. I need to know what’s going on, you understand… Let’s get inside.

Once Wright closes the door behind them, Peter notices it’s much thicker than what it appears from outside, and that it completely shuts out the hum, thank goodness.

– Airtight, reinforced, antiblast, – explains Wright, his voice lower and much more normal-sounding.

Peter looks around. The place is soberly furnished, in the typical mid-century rural Norman style, which visually clashes with the several technological upgrades added over time to keep the place secure.

– This is a local safe house.

Wright invites Peter to sit at the kitchen table. Then he opens a cupboard and fetches a sealed cylindric container with the letters KF stencilled on it. Peter squints at it suspiciously. Wright chuckles as he takes two cups from the draining rack over the sink: – You’ll thank me for this. I bet you haven’t drunk it in years. – He sizes Peter up for a moment, then adds: – Hell, you probably have never drunk this.

– What’s that?

– Coffee. The real kind. Our contact in the Westphalian Conglomerate sends us a few containers like this every now and then. It comes from an abandoned fallout shelter he found beneath a restaurant in the old Dortmund.

– Whoa. No, I managed to drink some when I was a boy. I’m not sure I even remember how it tastes.

– Now, judging by your eyes, I guess you haven’t slept properly for a while. I also guess you still don’t trust me enough to just go upstairs and take a nap, so I’ll give you a good cuppa coffee and this tablet, a circadian stabiliser. The combination of the two will give you wakefulness while eliminating most of the side effects of sleep deprivation.

– You expect me to swallow a pill I never saw before just like that?

Wright takes out a small plastic box from one of his jacket pockets, opens it, and lets two tablets roll down in his palm.

– Here, I’ll take one too. These have been tiring days for me as well, and I need the same kind of boost. Cheers.

He puts one of the tablets in his mouth and swallows it. Peter lets the coffee brew, then takes the other tablet. Its taste reminds him of a blueberry-flavoured energy drink he used to gulp at his forensic lab. As he takes the first sips of coffee, the strong flavour acts as a potent, pleasant trigger of old memories and vivid scenes buried by years of work and routine. It only takes a few minutes to start feeling better, more relaxed, more focussed, his migraine quickly receding. He decides to tell Wright his story.

Once finished, there’s a brief silence, but Wright doesn’t look entirely surprised. He finishes his coffee, then invites Peter to follow him in his studio. The ‘studio’ is actually the largest room in the safe house, taking most of the ground floor and even part of the upper floor, and is filled with computer equipment of different vintages. Some units gathering dust, others in various stages of disassembly, but most of the machines are up and running. Several displays, hanging from the ceiling, are mounted in rows and provide different satellite feeds, encrypted audio communications, local system status updates, transcripts of law enforcement exchanges, and many other types of data Peter can barely recognise.

– Wait, is that convo channel from the Outer Areas?

– Aye, directly from an Externet relayer. … As you may’ve guessed, this was once a listening station for the Liberation Front. My son and I have turned it into a communication node for different underground networks. We’re the only providers of secure comms in the whole area. We also offer occasional refuge to stranded operatives. In return, we’re left alone by the local resistance groups and by most foreign intelligence organisations. Of course we still need to protect ourselves from those parties whose interest is to sever communications and cripple the network. That’s where the snowglobe comes in.

– Yeah, about that…

– Do you know what an atmo-bubble is?

– Yes. It’s a sort of sealed dome containing a perfect mixture of nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide. I saw such domes being used mainly for flora and fauna preservation. Some of the richest conglomerates also use them so that people can live safely near areas with residual radiation without resorting to fallout shelters…

– Yes, well, the snowglobe currently surrounding us is a sort of upgraded atmo-bubble. I designed it with two other scientists, and my son helped us implement it. We managed to eliminate the physical dome using electromagnetism. The atmosphere is preserved inside a magnetic field — I’m simplifying here — and it turns out we can also add a cloaking layer on top of it.

– So… this whole place can’t be spotted by satellites?

– No. It looks just like your ordinary radioactive forest. But back to your story… There’s already chatter on the networks about you. And of course, details and accounts vary according to whom you talk with. When the perimeter sensors detected your vehicle, I thought you were either someone looking for, well, the London State fugitive… you. … Or some operative from London State looking for me.

– But why would they look for you? I thought I heard you say you’ve ‘retired in good terms’ back out there.

Wright is checking a monitor and doesn’t resume eye contact with Peter: – Well, I did. At the time. But after a few months alternating boredom and research, I came here and this— project (He makes a sweeping gesture) became very important to me and… well, let’s say that a lot of what I’m doing here wouldn’t elicit a benign response from London State’s current government.

– Yeah, you could say that.

– Speaking of our good old government… D’ya have the data diamond with you now? I’d really like to take a peek at its contents. There must be something extremely threatening in it if they got Section 9 to drop everything and pursue you with all available resources.

– No, I don’t have the diamond on me, but I dumped a small portion of the files in a datastick if you want to look.

Peter opens a zippered pocket on the top of his backpack and rummages the smaller compartments inside. Meanwhile Wright mutters: – And that Covington… He’s a damn loose cannon.

– Oh, you know him?

– I was his tutor at the Gravesend training centre.

– Anything in particular about him I should know?

– He never gives up. Stubborn as ’ell.

Peter hands him the datastick: – It’s about 245 gigabytes.

– Ta. Listen, while I check this, could you do me a small favour? Before you arrived, I was keeping an eye on two convo channels over at that workstation. I received information that a hacker who goes by the cryptonym Soseki would pop up and try to communicate with a hacker collective operating outside Old York. I need to chat with both parties and warn them that another hacker they need for an op isn’t ready yet.

– What do I have to do?

– Just watch the two channels and call me if Soseki shows up.

– Sure.

Peter sits at the workstation and adjusts the chair. When he looks up at the screen, all he sees are random characters, numbers and symbols scrolling at an irregular pace. Wright inserts the datastick in an input slate connected to the machine before him. A cascade of classified documents and reports appears in the workstation’s viewer. He mumbles as he reads a few pages that catch his eye, then follows links to audio/video documents. There is no sound, so he takes a wireless earpiece and puts it in his ear.

Peter clears his throat: – This is all encrypted. How do I recognise—

Wright is visibly mesmerised and horrified by what he’s looking at, and just utters: – Look for the string &505341*.

Time passes, but still no sign of Soseki. Wright gets progressively appalled and upset until he can’t read or watch anymore: – Are they out of their minds? I thought this kind of experimentation was a thing of the past century.

– Right? Now you understand why I did what I did.

– I do. And… And— oh dear. I made a terrible mistake.

– What are you talking about?

Wright draws near and puts a hand on Peter’s shoulder: – You have to understand, I was astutely misled. They… They contacted me. Through a trusted third party… They don’t know where I am… They said you were involved in the Warren assassination and that you stole state secrets…

Peter jumps out of the chair and grabs Wright by his shirt: – What did you do? Do they know where I am? Are they coming? I knew I shouldn’t trust you.

– C-calm down Peter… You’re not in danger— yet… The… the tablet I gave you contained an isotope tracker but—

But what!?

– It takes time… before they can pinpoint your location.

Peter releases him: – How long?

– Oh we have… a few hours.

– What about this snowglobe of yours… can’t it act like a shield?

– Yes, but not with this type of tracker I’m afraid.

– Shit! (He pushes Wright away)

– I’m so sorry… I didn’t know…

– Well, can you do something about it!?

– I can… It’s not going to be pleasant though.

– Surely better than what Covington will do to me if I’m found…

Wright’s expression disagrees. Peter pressures him: – What, what could be worse?

– I’ll… I’m afraid I’ll have to expose you to a nasty dose of radiation.

Off the Grid — Episode 02

Coming through in waves

The effect of the stun bullets should last at least thirty minutes, he thinks, and that’s all the head start he has. He puts the food rations and the comm scrambler in the backpack, removes the monocular and slides the rifle inside the scabbard strapped to the backpack, grabs the EMP device case and heads back to the vehicle trying to be as stealthy and quick as possible. Once close, he pushes a blue button on the monocular, then looks through it. The message Retinal pairing initiated appears in the viewfinder, then Done, and the light blue ghost shape of his vehicle is suddenly visible through the monocular. He finally opens the rear door and gets in.

Where to, now? Fetching real-time satellite map and entities data is out of the question, of course. He turns on the vehicle and switches to full manual drive. The first thing to do is to put some distance between him and those hackers. He immediately regrets not having disabled their vehicle in some way. Hearing Covington on comms was unnerving and distracting, and he should have kept calm. He decides against investigating the origin of that smoke behind the hill, and turns the vehicle in the opposite direction. Now that he’s cloaked, he deems unnecessary to proceed through the woods — the path is getting narrower anyway, and he can’t risk damaging his precious means of transportation and survival — so he skirts around the large tract of thick forest ahead and enters a wide-enough dirt road. The nav system accesses the local database and identifies it as D1314, but warns: Data last updated: Recon033 – 29dic70. The road looks deserted, but since he’s keeping the vehicle’s cloaking on for the moment, he needs to make sure no one is coming from either direction. If he switches on the radar system for continuous long-range sweeps, he’ll be detected by his pursuers, since they’re surely looking for any radio emissions generated by a Class 10 reconnaissance vehicle. So he resorts to another navigation hack devised by Bekah and himself just a few weeks before the Warren Incident, when they were building a forensic rover prototype — a Basic Echolocation Mode, using sound waves instead of radio waves as a way of detecting any kind of still or moving object. He touches a BEM button on the console’s input slate, and specifies a two-kilometer radius. In the bottom left of the windscreen display a wireframe map of the surroundings starts being drawn and updated every 15 seconds.

No moving object in sight. After twelve kilometres, he finally sees a road sign: Route désaffectée // Disused road D915. That’s interesting. He might try to proceed southward and find some shortcut to get to the AAR-08 — the closest local Demilitarised Fallout Shelter Zone (DFSZ) — a place where he could stay out of sight for a while, rest, and plan his next moves. Rest is definitely something that’s been on his mind for a while. Taking stimulants and interspersing some short naps can’t be sustainable for much longer.

A blip from the console snaps him out of his thoughts. Something is coming his way. Distance 1.86 km and approaching. It’s not fast, but it’s not sluggish either. Distance 1.32 km. He slows down. The red dot is following the road, and it’s moving faster than a human being on foot, so it has to be some kind of vehicle. Distance is now 892 m. He turns and parks the vehicle on the side of the road, waiting for the proximity scan at 750 metres. Distance is 779 m. The red dot stops. 5 seconds. 15 seconds. 45 seconds. Then resumes at a slightly faster pace than before. Proximity warning – Aural analysis: Class 1A electric hovercar. That’s suspicious. Unlike the previous situation with the hackers, now there’s a rather clear line of sight, so he activates the vehicle’s front scope and zooms in.

– Aw fuck! I knew it.

A thermal imaging drone. Now he knows that the smoke he saw earlier was indeed produced by the launch of a nanosatellite, to then activate and guide who knows how many unmanned assets Section 9 has scattered in the Outer Areas.

He has to think fast.

If he lets the drone get too close, it’ll send his thermal print and coordinates back to Section 9. If he knocks out the drone, they’ll know something’s up. He needs to buy some time. Distance is now 371 m. The comm scrambler! He jumps out of the driving seat and goes for the backpack, takes the scrambler out and hooks it to the vehicle’s power. The scrambler’s display comes alive: Initialising… 

– Come on, come on!

He turns to the windscreen display. Distance is now 224 m. He looks at the scrambler: Active. Charge: 18%. That should be enough. Now he needs to hack that drone. And again, he wears the rebreather, takes the backpack and the scrambler, and ventures outside. Now that communications are scrambled, the drone is idling in standby mode, waiting for commands. In a world that has lost a reliable global communications network, a ground drone like that is expected to lose contact every now and then, but again, five minutes offline are an entirely suspicious interval. He has one minute and a half at most. He sets a timer on his wristband as he approaches the drone, still not knowing exactly what to do. -01:30.

First, he might find useful to retrieve whatever data the drone has collected since activation. He frantically searches for an empty datastick in the small inner pouches of the backpack. -01:07. Ah, there it is. He opens the drone’s side panel. Manufactured in London State 2070. Approved for use by GD#016(f)-2068. They didn’t even bother omitting the information. -00:50. He has worked with similar equipment before, and knows there’s an unlock code one must enter in the keypad before being able to access the local data cache. He punches the default *7410## and hopes for the best. -00:41. An indicator light above the keypad turns green and a datastick port becomes available. He connects the device, and the data dump starts immediately. -00:35. He needs an idea right now. He looks at the sky, past the trees and the eerily silent countryside. Flashes again. This time it really looks like a thunderstorm is building not very far from there. -00:25. Flashes. Light. Heat.

– Of course!

He takes one of the four flares from the emergency kit, sticks it near the drone’s fore sensors, and lights it up. The mini-display reads: Copy complete. He removes the datastick and closes the panel. -00:08. As a final touch, he takes a white marker and scribbles the initials FLIF on the drone’s side, so as to blame the Front de Libération de l’Île de France for any tampering. -00:02. He switches the scrambler off. The drone gets moving down the road without even pausing near the parked vehicle. He feels relieved, and really tired, but he can’t stay there. He had read there were a few abandoned safe houses in the Bray sector used by the local resistance during the 2050s, but in twenty years everything can happen. Still, looking for one in the area couldn’t hurt.

Back in the vehicle, he takes another pill to stay awake and alert, and before getting back on the road, he takes a look inside the bag he hurriedly packed a few nights before, and finds something he thought he had misplaced — a small vintage radio, retrofitted to use modern power outlets. He smiles. There’s still the occasional automated radio station playing music 24/7, and that can keep you a bit of company, he thinks. He connects the radio to the dashboard, puts the vehicle in motion, then pushes the AUTO-SEEK button.

All that comes up in the next fifteen kilometres is a dull patchwork of static, punctuated by garbled, distant tunes and maybe even voices, though those could simply be auditory hallucinations, ghosts of a past that’s losing its recordings. Then, out of the blue, a broadcast that is as unexpected as it is clear:

“[beep] [beep] [beep] [female voice] … Zero … Two … Scatter … Square … [male voice] Offset, forty-three … [female voice] Henry … Ariel … Yvonne … William … Ariel … Robert … Daniel … [tone] … Five … [tone] … Three … [background noise] … [beep] [beep] [beep] … Zero … Two … Scatter … Square … [male voice] Offset, forty-three …”

He catches a glimpse of a byway just after a clearing, makes a sharp turn, and stops the vehicle. The broadcast loops as before. He hops to the rear compartment and grabs his portable slate. At the following iteration, he starts recording, just in case. Then removes the pen from the side of the slate and transcribes the message, thinking aloud:

– So, we have three long beeps, then zero-two scatter square, offset forty-three, seven people’s names— no, six actually, Ariel is repeated, then… [hums] five and [whistles] three… then noises. Come on, three long beeps… let’s try good old morse code.

He searches the database.

– Three long beeps is the letter O. So, it could be O-zero-two… Scatter… Scatter what? Light? Radiation? People? Scatter as in distribute randomly? Or repeat at intervals? Offset forty-three. Offset can refer to a distance… something that… hmmm… doesn’t align. By forty-three… metres? Imperial miles? Nautical knots? Degrees? Positions?

He throws a punch at the passenger seat: – Or maybe it’s just a load of rubbish from an old numbers station for all I know!

He stares down at his notes. He’s written the names as a list, one below the other: – Wait. Henry, Ariel, Yvonne, William, Ariel, Robert, Daniel… Their initials together are HAYWARD. Then the five and three. … Hayward. Why’s that familiar? Oh shit I’m so exhausted.

The broadcast repeats its sequence, now getting progressively haunting. He just wants to close his eyes. He stares at the radio, as if an answer could come out of it, all the while thinking hard about that name, Hayward. The radio’s display shows 8191 kHz. He blinks.

– Offset forty-three. Let’s try changing the frequency to 8191 minus 43… 8148 kHz.

At 8148 kHz all he hears is a low rushing sound with three high-pitched notes repeating every five seconds or so. He then tries 8191 plus 43, and when the radio reaches 8234 kHz, he hears a second broadcast, just as clear as the first:

“[5-note rising scale] [beep] [beep] [beep] [female voice] Henry … Three … Ariel … Four … Robert … Six … William … One … Yvonne … Three … Ariel … Two … Kimberly … One … [5-note rising scale] [male voice] … Zero … One … Scatter … Xray … Offset, forty-three … [female voice] … Eight … [tone] … Seven … [tone] … [background noise] [long pause] … [5-note rising scale] [beep] [beep] [beep] [female voice] Henry … Three … Ariel …”

– Okay, there are the same names as before, but in a different order, and with numbers thrown in the mix. [jots down] The string is H3A4R6W1Y3A2K1. If I separate the letters from the numbers, I get HARWYAK 3461321. Doesn’t ring any bell. … And why am I doing this, anyway?

He’s about to turn off the radio, but the different tones associated with the numbers keep teasing him. That, and the name Hayward. He inputs a general query in the LSIS field database, to see whether there’s any mention of that name in the declassified documentation. The system returns two results: a Hayward, Thomas Gillies in the personnel files, a retired Section 7 intelligence officer; and Hayward System, a mapping code that was in use until 2064 to deliver logistics instructions to covert operatives on foreign soil. He brightens up — that was the Hayward bugging him. It’s possible that those messages could contain coordinates, then. But if the system was discontinued in 2064, any information he manages to decipher could be seven years old, at best.

Just as he’s beginning to go down a new rabbit hole of conjectures, a loud thump against the vehicle is an instant shot of adrenaline.

– What the—

He returns to the front of the vehicle and looks out of the windows. There’s someone outside. A gray-haired man dressed in an old suit, probably in his sixties. His figure may be skinny, but he doesn’t look frail at all. The way he holds that vintage 2039 Berlin semiautomatic rifle suggests military training. A quick glimpse at the console display: the cloaking is still active, so how does that man…

– Get out! I know you’re in there.