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.