Off the Grid — Episode 05

And the night wings die

After punching the intruder in the face a couple of times to wipe that smirk off his face, Wright sits down, trying to compose himself.

– If they have my son, they’ll be able to find and penetrate this place, no matter the level of cloaking.

Peter doesn’t seem to react at first. He takes his backpack, rummages inside, until he finds what he was looking for — a small blue steel case. As soon as he opens it and takes out what appears to be a tape measure, Wright recognises the tool: – An Elastocable-26!? Do they still issue that to field operatives?

– This is a 35-calibre Elastocable, and no, they don’t, but I like to collect useful stuff.

After sizing up the guest, Peter releases the Elastocable, which quickly wraps the man in a sort of tight cocoon, leaving out the head and the legs from the knee down.

Wright stares at Peter for a bit, impatiently. When the two make eye contact, he says: – You seem strangely quiet, my friend. Y’do realise what’s about to happen?

Peter is evidently lost in thought, and just nods slowly.

– Will ya tell me what’s running in that head of yours?

Peter looks at the intruder, then his gaze meets Wright’s again. – I’m just thinking that maybe this kerel is bluffing.

– Go on.

– For starters, you were checking that helmet before, and said he has sent a distress signal. Can it actually get through your snowglobe? I’m no engineer, but from what you’ve told me, I’m assuming all digital transmissions have to pass through a firewall…

– You’re right. Let’s have a look.

Wright returns to the studio and sits at an isolated workstation. He types a few commands and the monitor screen fills with overlapping log windows. He performs a search restricted to the last 30 minutes of activity. – Aha, it would seem you were right. The broadcast request was rejected and quarantined.

A pause.

– …So nobody’s coming. For now, at least. But what… what about my son?

– I don’t know what happened to him, but let’s establish a timeline. When did he leave?

– Uh, three days ago, early morning.

– Okay, where did he go?

– Remember I told you that I designed the snowglobe with two other scientists? My son is working with one of them to improve the cloaking technology we’re implementing here. William Tyrrell, the scientist, has been living and working out of an abandoned AAR. Well, for security reasons Tyrrell hasn’t disclosed the exact location of his shelter to anybody but my son.

– Not even to you? Seems odd.

– Nae, Tyrrell and I… we had our, er, disagreements in the past. He’s not talking to me anymore. But trusts my son implicitly… They seem to work very well together…

The way Peter is looking at him makes Wright realise he’s starting to get carried away; he quickly recaps: – So, well… Robert, my son, left three days ago to visit Tyrrell. I don’t know how far away Tyrrell lives, so I don’t know how long it takes to reach his shelter. Peter always leaves on foot, and stays off the grid all the time he’s away.

Peter ponders, then asks: – How long does he usually stay away when he goes see this Tyrrell?

– Sometimes five days or so. Once recently he stayed for more than a week. He told me they were making significant progress with a new type of suit they’d been testing and— Wait a minute…

Fighting his repulsion, Wright moves closer to the intruder and examines the parts of the suit the Elastocable has left exposed. Then he checks the helmet again. Peter thinks he understands where this is going: – This is not the prototype, right?

Without diverting his gaze from the helmet’s HUD, Wright says: – It’s definitely the suit Robert had with him, but yeah, not the prototype…

Fok… – grunts the intruder as he looks away from Peter’s grin.

Peter then turns to Wright again: – So perhaps your son managed to fool these idiots. He’s certainly smarter.

– I wonder why someone like Covington would recruit people like them.

– Well, from what I know they’re good at hacking, but strategising isn’t exactly their forte.

– Right, Covington’s the mastermind. Or at least he fancies himself one.

A pause, then Peter gets up, approaches the intruder, crouches near him, slaps him in the face, and says to Wright: – Well, it’s time we make this fool talk, so we can find out where they’re keeping your son.

– That won’t be necessary.

The three men are startled by the voice, which doesn’t appear to come from any specific point in the room, and sounds slightly muffled and machine-altered. Before they realise where it’s coming from, there’s a faint crackle, and Peter notices little flashes of a dim, violet light, just out of the corner of his eye. Seconds later, the figure of Robert Wright appears, standing behind Peter.

Jeremy Wright can’t believe his eyes: – Robbie! You’re safe! …The hell happened!?

Peter adds: – And more importantly, for how long have you been here?

Father and son exchange a sort of forearm handshake that strikes Peter: it’s a brief but intense gesture, revealing a glimpse of deep affection between these two otherwise restrained men. Then Robert turns to Peter, his voice now normal: – I’ve been here long enough to understand a few things… (looking again at his father) They attacked me early this morning while I was getting back from Tyrrell’s place. This prototype suit still has some power issues and doesn’t self-recharge properly, so I was travelling using the standard cloaking of my regular suit, the one this dunce is wearing now. Anyway, there were three of them, and somehow they knew my position… they were probably using some kind of modded binoculars… and before I could even try an escape route, they knocked me out with a flash grenade.

– Did they hurt you, son?

– Just a few punches, to intimidate me. Nothing I can’t handle. They told me that if I didn’t give them my suit and brief them on the new cloaking tech I was developing, they would publish the coordinates of this place and Tyrrell’s shelter on all the underground networks. I was pretty sure they were just bluffing about this location, but it was entirely possible they’d found out about Tyrrell and I couldn’t risk exposing him…

Peter continues: – …So you gave them your regular suit and had them believe it was the prototype.

Robert nods: – While the real prototype is this I’m wearing. See? It looks like a plain undersuit.

Jeremy Wright is fascinated: – It’s really thin. But what about the helmet? Does it work without one?

Robert removes his glasses, and touches a sensor on the right hinge. A bare-bones HUD lights up on the lenses. – Rather inconspicuous, don’t you think?

His father is visibly proud. Peter wonders: – How did you trick them into thinking that your regular suit was the prototype? Didn’t they ask for a demonstration?

– They did. (Nodding towards the intruder) He grabbed the suit from me and put it on. I was being restrained by the other two blokes. I told them I needed to show them how to access the hidden features still in development, and as soon as I had my hands free, I activated the undersuit and got away as fast as I could.

Peter remains concerned: – Good for you, really. But the fact that this guy has managed to find this station and enter undetected makes me think they actually knew where to find us, and that means this whole place is compromised…

– He’s right, Robbie.

– That may be my fault, actually. The suit’s helmet was storing mapping data in its cache… (He turns to Peter and explains) It’s what allows me to move about in poor visibility conditions without losing track of my path, and also helps me to avoid the strongest pockets of radiation that remain in the region. (He stares at the floor) They must have figured out this location by dumping the data and comparing the paths I took at different times in the past. I’m sorry, father, I didn’t have time to delete the cache before they took the suit from me.

Jeremy Wright isn’t really worried: – Nae, it’s okay lad, I think we can still contain the situation. There were three of them, you said? Chances are they uploaded the new mapping data to the helmet, and sent this joker on his way… But it’s unlikely they broadcast this station’s coordinates before receiving confirmation from him.

Robert nods: – And the snowglobe’s preventing any unauthorised outgoing comm, so that leaves us with two hackers who may have some idea as where this place is, and one who’s actually found it.

– So we set a trap to lure the other two somewhere nearby and we eliminate the problem.

Peter cuts in: – Sorry to interrupt, but—

But a loud alert coming from one of the workstations interrupts Peter and attracts everyone’s attention. Robert is quicker than his father and sits before one of the largest displays in the room, showing a map of the area with faintly illuminated overlays and a few dots scattered all over — some of them blink at a very slow rate, others don’t blink at all, and one dot is currently blinking rapidly and in a different hue. Robert inputs a few commands, and the map’s magnification increases. His father and Peter are standing behind him. He strokes his chin and grins as he points to the blinking dot: – We won’t have to lure them after all. They’re coming down the D1314, approaching the old Serqueux sanitation complex.

– Oh, that’d have been a great site for an ambush, – remarks Jeremy Wright.

Peter puts his finger near the screen and draws a segment in the air: – Yes, this section here is all dirt road and dead trees, and they’re going to reach it soon.

Wright gives his son a gentle pat on the shoulder: – So, what’s the plan now?

– We need to keep them near the complex. Then we’ll return their friend there. And then we’ll, um, send them on their way.

Peter draws close to Jeremy Wright and holds his forearm gently but firmly: – Any news for me, from Bekah? Can you check if she got in touch while we were all busy with that fool over there?

The man approaches the workstation monitoring encrypted convo channels, wakes the display, and checks for unread private hails. Nothing yet. This makes Peter antsy again: – I’m worried for her. If Section 9 investigators figure out just how much she’s helped me so far, things are gonna get ugly for her.

Robert Wright joins the conversation: – You’re not giving your friend enough credit. Bekah048’s reputation in the hacker circles definitely precedes her. From what I’ve understood, you are close colleagues, but I bet you didn’t really know about her hacker status until this situation broke out.

– No, not really. I mean, obviously I knew she was passionate about everything related to technology, past and present, but that she was actually involved in hacking activities…

– You see? That’s because she’s smart and careful and paranoid about not leaving traces. She knows time’s of the essence. As soon as her hack’s ready, she’ll activate it.

Peter is slightly surprised at the amount of details Robert seems to know: – Just how long have you been here, cloaked?

– You had just arrived. When I escaped, I didn’t run straight here. I know this experimental cloaking is practically undetectable, but I took precautions just in case the suit’s power system failed and left me exposed. When I passed the old shelters in the razed area of Gournay, the HUD started displaying the coordinates of the standard suit, so I knew that dunce was coming here, and I followed him.

Peter shakes his head and nudges Jeremy Wright: – See? We were here sharing stories, and we didn’t know there was a fucking cloaking party going on… (A beat, then to Robert) Hey, I could’ve hit you when I knifed our ‘guest’!

– I was behind you when that happened, don’t worry.

Jeremy Wright cuts in: – Lads, we have to go out there and figure out a diversion to keep those two hackers close to the Serqueux complex.

Robert sits at another workstation. What Peter thought was an old, inoperative mini-mainframe, comes to life, the admin console on the small 18-inch display loading obsolete protocols. Robert explains: – With this, I can tap into the old war emergency network and issue a biohazard alert for the areas in the vicinity of the complex, urging anyone there to stay in Serqueux until further notice.

Peter raises an eyebrow: – Isn’t that going to sound a little too suspicious? Maybe they’ll think it’s just an old warning and dismiss it.

Robert grins as he turns his attention back to the workstation’s display. His father explains: – Here in the continent, biohazard warnings are still taken very seriously to this day, especially in the areas surrounding abandoned medical facilities. Old containers storing waste or toxic chemicals may break with age or radiation, and create unsafe pockets that need to be quarantined. The emergency system we’re tapping into was designed to be nuclear-proof, so it’s still considered reliable.

– Well, I hope they know that.

At the warning broadcast prompt, Robert types: Attention, please. A Level 3 biohazard has been detected at warehouse E6 of the Serqueux sanitation complex. For your safety, it is essential you remain confined in either Building 3 or Building 5 of the main complex until further notice. 

That’s what the automated message over the PA system will sound like. When he gives confirmation, the console start autotranslating the warning before the final, bilingual broadcast: Attention, s’il vous plaît. Un risque biologique de niveau 3 a été détecté dans l’entrepôt E6 …

The three men now go back to watching the radar display. Shortly after, the rapidly-blinking dot stops, then proceeds towards the Serqueux complex in the straightest possible line.

– Good, – mutters Robert.

Peter glances at the injured intruder again, and suggests they should try to extract some information out of him before delivering him to his mates.

– What could he possibly know? – asks Jeremy Wright. – And d’ya think he’s gonna tell us anything anyway?

– It’s worth a try. For starts, he could know how many Semis4 mercenaries are working for Covington…

As they approach him, he’s already shaking his head. – I vont tel ya niks… nothing!

Peter scoffs and speaks to Wright, without breaking eye contact with the stranger: – These guys crack me up. They’re geeks who receive an even more basic military training than we forensic scientists in London State, but they love to act tough. (To the stranger) What’s your name?

– …

– I don’t even get to know your name? Come on. Let’s try it again.

Peter takes out the Elastocable’s steel case, and touches a button on its lid. The Elastocable’s grip tightens. The man struggles and gasps for air. Peter touches another button, and the Elastocable relaxes the grip.

Reddy, Reddy! (inhales) Name is Reddy.

– Okay, Reddy. Another question: who else knows about your location?

He snickers: – Ya’ll know fery soon.

– This piece of shite isn’t taking us seriously. I think I’ve another canister of acid powder around here.

Again, fear appears to be a good motivator: – Vait! I tel ya.

Still sitting at the radar workstation, Robert says: – For being someone who didn’t want to reveal anything, this bloke is surely chatty!

Reddy continues: – Only 822 ant 416 know.

– What?

– I dont know teir names, only codenames.

– Your mates, are they those two entering Serqueux? – asks Peter while vaguely pointing in the direction of the workstations. Reddy hesitates, then nods.

– How many are out there looking for me? How many did Section 9 recruit?

Robert gets up and moves away from the workstation.

– I… I…

How many!? – yells Jeremy Wright in Reddy’s left ear.

– Dont know exact number! Meself, 416, 822… I know of anoter unit in anoter region… Six men… ant…

Reddy looks paler and weaker.

– You all must have kept in touch via comms. Coordinate the search, divide the area in sectors to cover, and the like. Reddy!? Come on! (Peter slaps his face)

Reddy struggles and starts mumbling in Semis4 slang; then, louder: – Dont know, dont know, Mr Covington—

His eyes wander off. When they see Robert enter the kitchen, they widen in horror. – Vait! Mr Covington koordinates! Operatifs, information, evry-ting kompartementalised! Vee merely receive orders, ek sweer!!

As Peter starts turning to see what’s happening behind him, he hears a soft, low-pitched whine.

Hiss.

A dark blot stains Reddy’s forehead. His figure remains still for a second, then slowly sinks to the floor. The Elastocable releases and retracts.