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!