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.