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.