Tag Archives: Off the Grid

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.


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.

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!


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.