All posts by Riccardo Mori

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.

Off the Grid — Episode 01

Silently, downwind and out of sight

After driving 25 kilometres into the forest, he stops the vehicle in a dense thicket. A radiation alert still blinks in yellow characters, projected on the top right corner of the windscreen. He puts his right hand over his left shoulder and activates his AR22-pump, just in case the vehicle isn’t properly airtight anymore. It was a bumpy ride, after all. Now it’s time to disable the trackers and the beacon. He disengages the passenger seat and opens the COM panel, revealing a system of cables each protected by a smart-sheath that can only be removed by hacking the vehicle admin software. He moves to the vehicle’s rear compartment and rummages his tactical backpack, looking for the datastick his friend Bekah gave him. He stops for a moment. He needs to, because one thing he hasn’t done for the past 68 hours is taking a break. He would love to let his mind wander a bit, then take everything in, and start devising a plan of action. But first, the datastick.

– Little bastard, where are you?

Then he remembers: the UV protection goggles. He opens a zippered side pocket and takes out a plastic red case. He opens it, and there’s the datastick behind the folded goggles. He returns to the vehicle’s front and looks for the right port underneath the main console. After a bit of fumbling, he finds it and inserts the datastick. The whole system shuts off instantly, and for 27 seconds all he can hear inside that soundproof space is his breathing. He looks outside. There’s a gentle breeze through the trees, nothing else. For a moment he thinks he can hear its sound as it whispers in conversation with the dying leaves, then the low humming of the vehicle rebooting overlays his imagination. Power in the cabin is restored, and a modified interface appears projected on the windscreen — the BKH extension after the admin system version indicates the hack has been successful. When the boot process is completed, a message appears on the console’s secondary display:

Peter, don’t worry about me. I’ll take care of myself. I’ve put a modified comdev in the MEM panel. It will turn on when I’m sure it’s safe to comm. Take care. —bk

Before checking the MEM panel, he looks again inside the COM: now the smart-sheath has retracted, and as he takes out his pocket blade, he repeats the mnemonic You Better Give Me One Good Reason, to cut the cables in the correct order (yellow, blue, green, magenta, orange, green, red), to avoid triggering the failsafe. As soon as he cuts the last red cable, the windscreen display flashes twice, then the COMMS status turns to OFFLINE and BROADCAST to N/A.

Now comes the hardest part — removing the subcutaneous beacon. He moves the AR22-pump and attaches it to his left leg, takes off the jacket, anti-piercing skin-vest, shirt, trousers, and returns to the rear compartment. Underneath the bench there’s a small orange toolbox. He takes it out, enters the standard combination, opens it, and takes out a mirror and a pre-loaded syringe. Since every operative gets a subcutaneous beacon installed in a randomly-assigned position, it’s necessary to use a reagent to locate it.

He sits on the bench, near the porthole, and looks outside while he waits.

He sees ochre smoke in the distance, and a series of quick flashes, like a dry thunderstorm. “Either someone’s launching a nanosatellite, or there are pirates in the Outer Areas. Or both,” he mutters. A purple stain starts showing on the inner part of his right thigh. He takes a laparoscopic extractor from the toolbox, rests its tip on the skin, roughly at the centre of the purple stain, then slowly pushes the probe two centimetres in. The extraction is another slow, painful business, but at least the process is designed to avoid blood loss as much as possible. He throws the beacon in a specially designed container, and quickly proceeds to close the small wound with the cauteriser. Then he puts his clothes back on, picks up the container with the beacon inside, opens the vehicle’s waste disposal unit and lets the acids take care of the pesky tracker.

He puts the orange toolbox back in its place, closes the COM panel, reattaches the passenger seat, and sits in the driver’s seat. He brings the console’s input slate closer and notices the different user interface: Bekah has given him direct access to some experimental features of this class of vehicle. Of such features, the most important for him at this stage is Stealth Mode, so he touches the STM button on the top row. The button changes colour, but nothing else seems to happen. He sighs and mutters “Only one way to find out, I guess.” He grabs the backpack, opens a large pocket on the back and pulls out an emergency rebreather mask. He wears it, connects it to the rest of the apparatus inside the backpack, stands up, wears the backpack, grabs the monocular, and ventures outside.

When he turns to the vehicle, he only sees the portion of the inside of the cabin that can be seen through the open door. The vehicle is completely cloaked. He looks around through the monocular. He points it in the direction of the smoke, zooms in, but a hill stands directly in his line of sight, so there isn’t much to see or make out. He goes back inside. He needs to rest. One last thing before closing his eyes a bit — updating the log.

He taps Log then New Entry, and starts speaking:

Operative: LSIS-Delta-F9117. Designation: Senior forensic analyst. Current date: uh, 16 June 2071. Location: heh… undisclosed. I’m keeping a record of my activity since what’s been called The Warren Incident. On 11 June, my team was called at the site of the bombing that killed Minister of Foreign Affairs Morgan Warren. We were told to process the whole site as usual. What was unusual was the involvement of Section 9. Section 9 shows up when there’s intel to retrieve at all costs. And the only thing to retrieve at the former Central Post Office… that’s where the bomb was set off… All we found there was debris, burnt body parts, two government vehicles cracked open like tins of beans. But the insistence of Section 9’s Chief… a Mr Covington, if it’s even his real name… his insistence was suspicious. After 14 straight hours of gathering debris, processing the vehicles, scanning pieces of corpses, we couldn’t find anything useful. At that point, it was clear to me that Section 9 was looking for something specific, something that could survive a blast of those proportions. 

A proximity warning pops up on the windscreen display. Aural analysis: hybrid Class 5B vehicle.

– Our investigation continued. We were ordered to search a wider area around the blast site. Nothing valuable turned up. Covington was furious and started accusing my team of withholding evidence. Well… I told him he was withholding information, and he used the typical “You don’t have clearance” excuse. Then, on June 13, my colleague (operative LSIS-Delta-F6405) approached me after work and told me she had found something just half an hour after arriving at the blast site on the first day… A data diamond that got embedded in one of the wheels of Warren’s vehicle. She told me she wanted to take a look at it before giving it to Section 9. Then she told me that after examining just a tiny fraction of the contents, she felt compelled to hide the diamond and secure its information. When I asked her why, she took out a comdev and showed me a few things she’d copied from the diamond. What little I saw was shocking. Apparently it’s a series of classified materials proving the involvement of certain members of London State’s government in war and post-war crimes against citizens and refugees. I will be more specific when I have the chance to analyse this information more thoroughly.

He opens the external microphone. He wants to hear that vehicle’s engine. Class 5B might mean a small private transporter or a law enforcement patrol. But patrol vehicles are retrofitted with boosters that add a sort of whine to the low humming of the engine.

The vehicle approaches, but it’s still out of sight. There’s no whine in its engine sound, though. He’s relieved, but curious nonetheless. Who would come to this forsaken area? Certainly not a place for a picnic, considering the radioactivity. Maybe someone got lost?

– So… The decision was easy to take. I took an armoured Class 10 reconnaissance vehicle, packed a bag and a backpack with some basic supplies and left. I’m currently on the run, and completely off the grid as of now… I hope so, at least. My objective is to protect the data diamond at all costs. I fear for my life, obviously. I’ve had a bit of a head start, but they’ll be out looking for me now. I believe Minister Warren wanted to present his findings at the Western Conglomerates Summit, and that the ‘incident’ was an assassination organised from within the government. The truth has to come out, but I can’t do this alone. That’s why I want to apply for asylum to an understanding foreign conglomerate or city state and ask for their help to publicly disclose the information in my possession. The London State citizenry deserve to know what’s happening. I thought that World War III had taught us all a lesson, but evidently there’s still a group of people out there interested in maintaining the old ways. … End of log entry.

The vehicle stops. It’s in the nav system range, so he can see its position on the secondary display and use the bioscanner to know the number of occupants. Three signatures. Thanks to Bekah’s ‘upgrades’, the system is also able to detect the presence of a portable EMP device on board of the vehicle. Which means these guys could be rovers from a hacker collective. Which means they might be a nuisance. He needs to act quickly. He can’t risk that EMP device to go off and give away his position (his vehicle, once inoperative, would lose its cloaking). He either needs to destroy it or steal it. He’s also outnumbered, but hopefully he has had more field training than those three hackers. If they’re truly hackers and not pirates, that is.

He puts on the backpack and the rebreather once again, takes the monocular and mounts it on a dual-magazine mini-rifle, checks both magazines then turns a side switch to Stun. He looks in the monocular and the words Stun // Mag 2 appear on the top right of the electro-optical viewfinder. He opens the vehicle’s rear door and jumps out.

He takes cover behind the undergrowth, then follows a line of trees for approximately thirty metres, heading NW.

He points the rifle towards the small clearing where the hackers’ vehicle is parked. The three occupants are still inside. He looks through the monocular and zooms in. They’re arguing. He finds a more comfortable position among the bushes. Luckily his clothes are all mostly dark green, but that won’t help if those guys, too, are scanning the area for bio-signatures. Still, they appear to be too busy quarrelling. He waits a few minutes. A crackle and lightning in the distance. The air is still.

The guy on the passenger side kicks the door open in anger, and once outside he moves towards the rear of the vehicle. The driver gets off as well, shouting something like “Wattefok doen ya?”, basically meaning What the fuck are you doing? in Semis4 urban slang. The two guys are both approaching the rear of the vehicle from their respective sides. He aims at the driver first. Target locked. The rifle hisses a stun bullet. Guy 1 hits the ground. Guy 2 looks confused and starts turning around when. Target locked. Hiss. Guy 2 falls down. Guy 3 opens the rear door and gets off. A tall, thin bespectacled twenty-something in an orange suit, wearing a wireless comm headset. He’s momentarily blinded by the sunlight in his face and shouts “Gebor?” (What’s up?). Target locked. Hiss. He falls back, hits his head on the vehicle’s door, and the headset falls on the ground near him.

There appears to be nobody else around, but he approaches the vehicle very cautiously all the same, frequently crouching and taking cover where possible. He unlocks the vehicle’s rear door. The rear compartment is crammed with equipment of all kinds and ages, but fortunately he spots the EMP device right away, thanks to it being transported in its characteristic cobalt blue anti-shock case. He takes it, then goes checking on the three hackers. All still out cold. He’s about to leave, but decides to take a look inside the cabin for useful tools or supplies. He sees two bags of prepackaged food, and takes a few rations out of one. He also takes a comm scrambler, always useful, and just as he’s leaving for good, he notices a digital dossier displayed on the console’s secondary screen — number F9117/01X. He taps on Images and there it is, a photo of him.

The buzzing alert of an incoming communication startles him:

“Maartens, come in. … Maartens? Where are you? Antwoor’my, you idiot!”

Covington’s voice. Time to get moving.