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Author Topic: Ghostseeker (Tentative Title)  (Read 134 times)

Elmund Egivand

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Ghostseeker (Tentative Title)
« on: 22 Jan 2017, 00:54 »

Chapter 1: SunnyMorn

It was a terribly sunny day. The blinding sunlight burned my eyes. I couldn't look up or straight ahead without feeling my retinas charring. I swore I could feel the vitreous humour bubbling in my eyeballs. I cursed at the Federal Administration's decision to have all these skyscrapers made out of crystalline carbides.

The 'CLOSED' holosign flickering on the tinted glass screen on the wood-framed door was only slightly more bearable to look at. I gave it a light push and found that the door was locked.

I felt the electricity running through my skin and flesh and jolting my spine as I brought up the breach terminal. I squinted by reflex, despite knowing that this would do nothing to the turquoise texts, icons and windows projected into my visual cortices. I willed the breach terminal to scan for access points. 'Kim-Jung-Net' popped up on the list on the sidebar of my terminal and I had it selected and scanned. To my great disappointment and disgust, I found that I still had administrator access to the network.

"What was she thinking?" I murmured as I accessed the electronic lock firmware. The Kim-Jung family had my details deleted from the database, which was pointless work for as long as the network remained compromised. I simply replaced the deleted details, deleted the access logs (entirely out of habit) and logged out. I put my hand on the glossy surface on the door, and the lock clicked open and gave way. The ringing of the doorbell sounded as loud as the clanging of an Amarr cathedral church bell up close. The ringing echoed in my skull as I stumbled into the counter.

Hwan threw me a glance and frowned before she returned to scrubbing the glasses. I sank onto the stool and laid my face against the glossy false-wood counter-top. She lifted her gaze from the crystal glasses and stared at me for a while. She eventually sighed. "That's the fifth time you had unlawfully accessed my family's establishment this week," she said as she scrubbed the glass. "You are lucky I haven't stashed the liquor cabinet yet."

I sluggishly lifted my head and groaned in reply.

Hwan shook her head disapprovingly. "The usual then?" she asked.

My neck creaked as I nodded. It felt and sounded like ferroconcrete columns suddenly snapping and crumbling. I held my head. It was throbbing like a palpitating heartbeat. My eyes felt like it was on fire. I groaned and exhaled for a moment before daring to lift my head and leant back. My Egone ground against my neck like sandpaper.

My arms trembled, my joints felt arthritic. I pulled up and unzipped my sling bag. As I fiddled in the bag, I willed my Egone into entering sleep mode. I jumped, my knees banged against the bottom of the counter. I thought my knee-caps just fell off. The Egone's nanofilament spikes had retracted, and it felt as though I was stung by a thousand hornets.

I hissed as I fiddled around the inside of my bag until I pinched and unplugged a wire. I took out my datapad and laid it on the counter-top. My eyes felt like it had burst into flames. The holo had lit a glaring orange, indicating that my datapad battery was between 30-60% full. I shielded my eyes with one hand as my other hand gripped my Egone and peeled it from my neck and skull. I looked at the Egone, a branch-like beige object whose six ribs had gripped tight to my skull and spine. I turned it around, to look at the derm pads attached to the base of second and third rib pairs by double-tape. Villi-like filaments lined its surface. I turned it around and pulled off the wire attached to the port between the second and third ribs before placing it onto the counter top. I reeled back, shielding my eyes with both my hands. A second holo-notification had sprung up and overlapped with the first one. It felt like I was looking straight into the local sun.

I looked towards Hwan. She was spooning a jade powder into her shaker. I watched her as she then poured a milky-white sour-smelling liquid into the shaker. "You hadn't done as I had advised," I said. Hwan shot me a dirty glance and capped the shaker. "No point," she scoffed, "You will crack the security protocols within a few days anyway."

I cradled my head, sniffled and replied, "At least plug the vulnerability and use the security software I had given you."

She shook her shaker vigorously, uncapped it and poured its contents into a glass placed right before me. It was a nasty snot-coloured liquid. "That won't stop you from breaching my network security," she said as she brought the empty shaker to the sink. The tap opened as soon as it sensed her hands. The water crashed into the shaker. "After all, you programmed it."

I felt I had been insulted. I answered, swiftly and hoarsely, “I had been poking and prodding at it to see if there's anything I had overlooked. Still haven’t found a vulnerability yet.”

I gulped down the brew. This was probably the hundredth time I tasted this drink, and it never got any easier. I coughed. My innards’ peristalsis had reversed direction. I gagged, coughed, made some more disgusting noises. A few minutes of hard struggle to keep my ingestion down. I prevailed. A sore throat and oesophagus commemorate the victory.

The drink tasted like mucus mixed with rotten egg. I could feel the slimy stickiness in my throat.

I hummph and harrumphed, trying to be rid of that nasty goop clogging my larynx. The mouthfeel was still there, and will probably linger for another hour or so, but at least it won’t interfere with my attempt at speaking. I continued, trying to sound as indignant as possible despite the half-clogged larynx. What came out sounded like I was drowning in goo, "If I haven't figured out how to crack the software, you can be sure the other hackers will take at least a year to crack it.”

I took another gulp and gagged again. I could feel the sulphur stench clawing itself up my airways and into my nostrils. Hwan, having shut the dryer under the counter and having observed my response to her brew, shrugged. "Hey, you came up with that recipe," she said. "Nobody else had ever ordered this."

"So you are saying..." I coughed. I turned aside and gurgled before looking back at her. I rubbed my mouth and sniffled. "...that I am the biggest drinker you had ever known?" I took another sip. It didn't taste any better. Hwan smirked, "No, they just know better than to touch the juice."

I frowned. I remembered that holovid file I found and viewed last week when I breached her database for kicks. "You showed them, didn't you? Every time they tried to order it," I accused.

She smiled. A cheeky smile. The tips of her canines always peeked from behind her upper lip whenever she’s feeling cheeky. "Hey, your reaction's very funny. Be a shame not to show it off." She turned around and tapped at a discrete touchpad, disguised to blend in with the rest of the false-wood cabinet surface. I winced. The liquor cabinet screeched as it sank into the floor, and a coffee cabinet rose to take its place.

"Just so you know, I didn't show it to the customers when they tried to order the drink," she continued as she inspected the syphon in one of the shelves. "I put it up on the Galnet, with the name of the drink on it. The title is the drink’s name, under ‘Someone Reacts’ category."

"Great, I'm a Galnet superstar," I grumbled as I took another sip. I felt like my tongue was about to fall off. "You have any idea how troublesome it is having to breach an AI-protected server? Thanks for nothing. Jeez."

"I thought you love a challenge," Hwan replied, still with that cheeky smile. She opened the dryer and deposited parts of a coffee grinder into a plastic basket. As she arranged the parts on the cabinet shelf, she continued, "Don't worry, your face is all mosaicked up. I only leave your mouth untouched."

"Doesn't help at all," I said. I took one last gulp and pushed the glass away from me. I coughed, gargled and croaked. That sensation of rotten eggs was stuck fast to my throat. "Removing the mosaic is trivial for anyone in the business."

"I guess you better hurry then." She slapped at the reassembled grinder, satisfied with her work. She then moved to the espresso machine. "Before the FIO turns Libertopolis upside down looking for you."

I chortled harshly. I could feel the nasty drink bubbling up my oesophagus. I gagged, coughed and gagged again. I beat my sternum. Took me a while, but I managed to fight the nausea down.

I picked up my Egone, attached the wire into its port and clicked it onto the back of my head and spine. I could feel the nanofilaments piercing through my skin and jabbing into my spine. Just a little sting. The drink had worked its magic.

"So, what brings you here so early in the morning?" Hwan asked as she tamped down the coffee grounds in her filter basket. "Job. A big one," I replied as I plug a wire into my datapad and stowed it into my bag.

INPUT USERNAME.

The words flashed in my eyes. I willed my name into the device.

PLEASE RECALL YOUR FONDEST MEMORY.

I closed my eyes. I shut off the aroma of freshly ground beans.

I could smell the sweat, the vomit, the grease. I could hear the laughter, the jeers, the beats. I felt the bodies covered and semi-covered pressing into my little body. I was back in the Crystal Boulevard.

I was lost in the sea of bodies. I could barely make out the gyrating half-naked women on the roofs of cars and kiosks. Upon the flat surfaces of diamond skyscrapers, the gargantuan vertical holoscreens showed a beaming Souro Foiritan. He said something, but I couldn't quite catch what he said. All I could hear, vaguely, was 'Holiday' before the tidal wave of whoops and laughs crashed onto me. It was loud, cacophonic. I could feel the noise shaking my bones. I began to cry loudly.

A hand gripped my tiny fingers. "Hush! Hush!" said a gentle yet urgent voice. A familiar voice. A reassuring voice. I turned towards the voice. It was my mother, crouching and looking at me. She looked like she was about to cry, but she had held the tears at bay. I threw myself into her chest and embraced her tight. "There, there," she cooed as she embraced me back.

My little feet left the ground. I had flown up and could see above the cloud of fabric and flesh. Foiritan waved as he exited the holoscreen, smiling his million sovs smile. The human sea waved back, as though he could see them. 

I had stopped crying. I felt safe and secure in her embrace. She carried me away from the crowd and onto the sidewalk. She lifted me up and put me on top of her car. She gave me an action figure. It was that of the newly-elected President Souro Foiritan, in his smart polymer suit, smiling that same smile when he humiliated Mentas Blaque. I turned him around. There was a button. I pressed it and the action figure trembled to life. It said something. I forgot what it was, but it had to be funny. After all, I remembered laughing.

I quickly tire of the toy and looked to my mother. She has disappeared. I looked left. Two Intakis and a Jin-Mei were hopping and pumping their arms. I looked right. Gallente youths lifted their glasses and toasted. I felt my tears welling up. I cried, louder than before.

My mother appeared, as though summoned by my cry. She was holding a pair of ice-cream cones. I stopped crying as I laid down the toy on my lap. I took the ice cream and gave it a lick. Intaki Spiced Tea.

The turquoise text flashed under the black of my eyelids:

MEG READINGS VERIFIED.

WELCOME BACK, FERGHUS RILLARD.

The Egone UI blinked on. All the windows, all the icons, even the breach terminal. I had the terminal closed as I opened my eyes. "Supposed to meet a Monsieur Brun in the Rust District...", I said. I glanced at the bottom-right corner. The time read, '0700 - Villore-IV - LST'.  I continued, "...in two-hours time."

Hwan placed a fresh shot of espresso on my seat. She stared at me. Her dark-brown eyes glinted with curiosity. "What kind of Brunner?" she asked.

I picked up the espresso and downed it in a single gulp. I put the glass down. "Spaceborne big-shot. Has connections with eggers, looks like. Need a good kick in the head to sober up. Can't turn up for a big job looking shit-faced."

"So that's why you are shaved," remarked Hwan. She held her chin, gave me a look-over and nodded. "Your clothes can do a little more work, though."

"Hey," I retorted. "Cap, parka and scarf. The classic. Can’t ask for a more authentic hacker look."

"At least wash once in while," replied Hwan. She gave my parka a whiff. “You smell like you had slept in the dumps.”

I scanned my credit chit at the cashier. A small holo lit up at the side of the chit, showing the amount deducted and the remaining balance still in the chit. Just as I turned towards the door to leave, I felt a cold spray at the back of my neck.

“Hey!” I exclaimed, patting the moist skin at the back of my ear. I turned around and had a packed up sandwich shoved into my chest. She was holding a bottle of perfume in her left hand. I looked at the sandwich in my hands and was about to ask when she interjected, “Complimentary. Can’t have your stomach growl when you pitch to the Brunner."
« Last Edit: 14 Mar 2017, 04:21 by Elmund Egivand »
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Elmund Egivand

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Re: Ghostseeker (Tentative Title)
« Reply #1 on: 12 Feb 2017, 07:08 »

Chapter 2: RusTric

The Metro rocked back and forth, and I rocked along with it. Electro-beats blasted in my mind, the remixed metallic Excena vocals echoed in my skull, completely drowning out the grinds and grunts and grumbles within my cage.

My cage was suffocatingly cramped, with barely any room to fidget about. Moulded PET seat under my bum, magnesium nanocomposite walls at my back and a dense rack of flesh and fabric front and side. Unable to distract myself with the ads and PSAs usually projected onto the carriage walls, I decided to pry into the lives of the passengers all around me.

I brought up my DataMiner terminal, connected to my external personal computers via VPN and looked at the passenger in front of me. He was wearing a nice cotton hat and a nice leather trench coat. The leather looked genuine. The buttons were ivory. Real ivory. He was reading his OLED datapad, set to private mode. I studied his face. Pale, slightly wrinkled, a little leathery, with thick brows and a beak-like nose. Around his mid-forties, I reckoned. DataMiner spat out his details and about five photos.

Jakob Kimuzawa. Age forty-three. My estimate of his age was close.

I scrolled down the terminal window and looked at the chunk of text that was his history, reconstructed from all the data floating around the Galnet in sites both mainstream and obscure. His father is Achura, his mother is Gallente. His net worth was, at the time, fifty billion Villore sovs (four thousand ISK in egger speak) and rising. An article with five hundred hits, published in an obscure mag 'Fortuna', described him as being one of the three hundred richest private citizens of Villore. He had an interview with another magazine, where he described how he made his first hundred million in real estate and the stock market.

I then turned to the passenger to my left. Slashed hooded trench coat of faux leather and nylon. His face was painted ash-white, his nano-dyed eyes glowed dimly ruby-red under the shade of his hood. He was bent over his Impetus Five Zero holo-com, fiddling away on its tap-pad. The holo-com's pale green projection gave his visage an eerie hue. The DataMiner produced two names: Ramihrdus The Black and Louis Martin. A hundred and twenty, and twenty.

More conflicting description and history turned up. He is a Bleeder Saint, he is a store clerk. He had crucified a thousand eggers, and his boss said that his five-year-old son is better at auditing the store inventory. Ramihrdus described the flavour of infant blood. Underneath that passage, a vid of Louis projectile-vomiting tomato juice played. His most recent poem, posted two weeks ago, had ten billion views and half that number in thumbs up. There were about fifty complaints about his inept customer service this week. Five hours ago, he ripped a Duster's head clean off his shoulders and sipped from his bleeding stump, while he was being chased by his boss for over five blocks for skipping his shift.

A new update popped up. He had informed his clique that he's but thirty minutes away to a Sarikusa Spawn concert. Never heard of the band.

My map app blinked. 'Josefia Square'. My stop.

The exit was far smoother than the entry into the Metro carriage, though it was not any less strenuous. The press of bodies carried me at a pace my stamina can't keep up with. By the time I managed to veer away from the rush-hour crowd to catch my breath, I was thoroughly drenched. I rubbed the back of my neck and gave my fingers a sniff. Hwan's perfume had washed off.

I rejoined the crowd and was carried towards the underpass tunnel. The mouth of the tunnel was elliptical, its walls and ceiling were of polish-smooth white fiberglass-plastic. It reminded me of the starship corridors as portrayed in that Void Trekker serial (now available in holovid format). As I progressed through this tunnel, tiled patterns emerged on the smooth fiberglass-plastic surface, subtly and near-imperceptibly at first, but gradually more apparent step after step. By the time I reached mid-point, the walls had become marble, the curved wall entirely covered in 5x5 tiles. The next layer of tiles was subtly larger, and the next one larger still. The curvature of the wall became increasingly angular the further I progressed, and by the time I was but a few steps away from the exit, the tunnel cross-section had become that of an octagon. The cross-section of the exit itself was a square. The marble had turned into concrete.

My virtual tour-guide app (which I kept forgetting to uninstall) was blinking all the way. It was eager to share with me the trivia and history of this tunnel. I ignored it. I had listened to its Excena-voice enough times to remember the details by heart. The 'Pathway between Worlds' was the brainchild of the architect Phillips Dubour, master of the schools of Brutalism and Neo-Rocco. The design of the tunnel was meant to ease the commuters' transit between the world of blocks and angles that is the Harner District and the realm of curves that's the rest of Libertopolis.

The tour guide didn't lie about the blocks and angles of Harner District. As soon as I stepped out of this tunnel, I felt like I had gone backward in time. Straight, angular walls and ceilings of bare concrete supported by beams of steel, the architectural hallmarks of the great Garoun Empire’s Industrial Age. The illusion of time travel was broken by the holo-boards plastered over every flat surface.

This is the Josefia Square Transport Hub, the heart of the Harner District, the centre of Libertopolis' industry.

The flow of flesh-and-fabric from the Metro split away or joined with the flow into or out of the hyperloop railways on the opposite end of the Josefia Square Transport Hub. I followed the current flowing towards the exit pay-gates. Here, the current pooled into a lake of jostling commuters, each competing to leave before their fellows.

It took me five minutes to tap my credit chit against the touch panel of the pay-gate. Green flash, sliding gate opened and I was out. The recycled air on the other side was very sweet.

There were kiosks and peddlers all over the place, hawking their wares in the backdrop of holo-ads. A Vherokhior peddler, basked in the light of an Aliastra retail-clothier holo-ad, walked towards me, carrying strings of rebreathers and coal filters with him. He smiled and brandished a skull-patterned rebreather at my face. I smiled politely and shook my head. I then tapped at the rebreather hanging on my belt. The Vherokhior's pearly smile faded slightly. He then lifted a string of coal filters and gestured at them, saying something, probably espousing their quality. I kept my smile, raise my palm over my left cheek shook my head. I looked straight ahead and hurried away towards the gate. I did not turn around to see the look on his face.

Two police guards stood guard in front of a carbonide cuboidal container beyond the shatter-proof glass gate. The usual gear: mili-grade ceramic composite plate, assault rifle and shock baton. There are antennas jutting out of the container. No doubt it contained dormant drones. I strapped on my rebreather, pulled up my hood and blended into the exiting crowd. I should be able to avoid attention like this, just like always.

As I passed the two guards, I glanced sideways at them. The police guards were looking straight at me. Shit. I immediately averted eye contact and bobbed my head to non-existent music. Thump, thump, thump. They were coming. By the time I glanced sideways again, one of the police guards had grabbed me by the arm and dragged me out of the crowd.

"What...what did I do?" I feigned exasperation. The other police guard let out a canned laugh. "Buy a lottery ticket, kid. This is your lucky day," he said, his featureless helmet betrayed no emotion, "You have been chosen for a random security check."

"Remove your rebreather, show us your ID..." the first police guard ordered. I took out my ID chip-card, established VPN connection and willed up my terminal. "...and submit yourself to iris scan," the police guard pulled out his scanner. Shit. When did they start scanning for biometrics?

I unstrapped my rebreather and exasperated, "Isn't my identification enough?"

"Rules changed," he replied. 'Private connection established,' flashed my terminal. I urgently willed up a command to copy my biometric data into my Egone.

"Look, Johan," the other guard pointed at my sling bag. "We've to search him."

‘Copying. Time to completion: 60 seconds'.

Stupid VPN latency! I had to stall them!

"What? There's nothing suspicious in my bag!" I cried. I pulled up my bag, rattled it and zipped open its mouth. I then slid out my datapad. "Just a datapad, see?"

Johan seized my bag and yanked my head along with it. "Hey! Hey! Ow!" I cried. I fumbled inside my hood and unplugged the wire, letting it slide away from the neck port of my parka. "What's that? An Egone?" Johan pointed towards my cranium. "Hand that over."

"Just a second, just a second," I held out my palm submissively. I pulled down my hood. "My Egone's modded, see?" I said as I fumbled clumsily for a button at the base of one of the ribs. "Modded. Nanofilament derms, boost sensitivity, see? Just give me a second."

"Damned hardware hackers wasting everyone's time," Johan said monotonously, shaking his head, his gesture at odds with his words. "Hand over your ID."

I loosely held out my ID chip-card and purposely let it slip off my hand. "Shit, shit! Sorry!" I bent my knees slightly and held my palms out. I quickly fell on all fours and pawed all over the concrete floor for the ID chip-card.

'Time to completion: 23 seconds.'

I grabbed the chip-card and shoved it into Johan's hands. He scanned my ID, infecting his suit firmware with a specially coded Con.Direct worm. For the next two minutes, all queries from his identification software will be redirected from the Federal Registry server to my Egone. If I could just completely download my fabricated biometric data into my Egone before the iris scan, I will be cleared without issue.

'Time to completion: 17 seconds.'

I willed up my Egone's control panel and disabled sleep mode. My fingers found the button to retract the nanofilament needles. By the time the needles retracted, Johan had lost his patience. He seized me by the neck and ripped my Egone from my skull and spine, lacerating my skin in the process. I cried out in pain.

Must have struck a nerve. He tossed my Egone at the rough direction of his partner and threw me into the carbonide wall. My spine popped. I screamed. "You are wasting my time, Caldari scum," he said, lifting his iris scanner. I kicked him in the shin. His partner struck me with his shock baton. My muscles contracted and spasmed. I shrieked. Johan lifted me up by the collar and lowered his scanner towards my left eye. I headbutted the scanner, and he slammed his helmet into my forehead. My vision flashed white. My ears rang. I felt the skin tear. "Hold still, terrorist scum," Johan jammed his iris scanner into my left eye.

"He's clean. No IEDs," Johan's partner reported. Johan released me. I fell on my knees and coughed. My sling-bag struck me in the head. Johan nodded as he was reading my data displayed in his helmet. "Brairan Lacroix. Born Federation citizen. ID and biometrics matched. Huh." He looked at me, "Could have sworn he is Caldari, with a chin like that."

"I'm quarter Civire, you bloody tosser." I spat. He kicked me in my belly. I thought I felt my sandwich rising. "Get your face fixed if you don't want any trouble," Johan menaced, pointing his assault rifle at me. He nudged his assault rifle towards the street. I grumbled as I got up to limp hurriedly away.



The medi-derm stung as I smoothed it over my forehead. The antiseptic and healing agents were doing their work. I pulled up my shirt. Bruises and reddish spots. I stuck all my remaining medi-derms all over my belly.

Projected into my visual and auditory cortices was the vid of myself spazzing out from being struck with a shock baton, just outside the Josefia Square Transport Hub. Can't hear anything, not with the clamouring or roaring of the passing auto-trailers. I couldn't really see my face clearly in the vid. Johan's helmet was in the way, and the shadow of the overhead transport tram and the silently passing hyperloop had further shrouded my features. This vid had twenty billion views in the last fifteen minutes. There were twenty more vids circulating around the Galnet and possibly triple that number still being processed.

The mass-media will have a field day with this. Scope Villore, Villore Daily, Luminaire Times and the hundreds so minor networks will be discussing this furiously for the next three days. Comments columnists will be savaging the LPD throughout the month. There will be Press Releases. The Police Chief will appear in front of the LPD HQ, stand behind the podium and put on a show condemning the act and deriding the offender. He will promise swift decisive action, he will promise to review operational policies, he will offer reparations. Nothing new here. By the end of the month, Johan will turn in his badge. Or maybe not Johan, but some other officer. Probably a real unpopular one they really want to be rid of. Nobody will know for sure. Not without risking their personal safety to dig further in.

If everything turned out well, I will not be getting these reparations. I had been examining the vids, one after the other. My features in all these were obscure. Good. Nothing to ID there. No idea about the surveillance cameras, though. Transport Hubs tend to have at least a hundred of these all over, four at each entrance alone. I hope even those didn't catch my features clearly as well. I do not intend to risk my neck hacking into the FIO's surveillance database just to delete a couple surveillance vids.

I pulled down my shirt and zipped up my parka. I lowered my face into the flooded sink and rinsed it thoroughly. I glanced towards the bottom left of my vision.

'0902 - Villore-IV - LST'

Without bothering to dry my face, I strapped on my rebreather and bolted out of the public loo. I ran past the geometrical statues (supposedly depicting President Josefia Harner pointing up towards the silver sky, surrounded by Minmatar children), towards a Rent-a-Bike kiosk and tapped my credit chit against its touch-pad.

The holo flashed red. I swore as I accessed my online banking app and logged into one of my ten bank accounts to top up my credit chit. Once I set the amount for transfer, I stared at the spots and stripes on the underside of my credit chit. 'Fund transfer approved,' read the app. I tapped my credit chit again. The holo flashed green and a bicycle slid out of the 'Out' slot. I activated my map app, input the meeting place address and engaged its NavSat overlay. I then folded up the handlebars and snapped the saddle and pedals in place. A green arrow traced a path away from where I am, along with the pavement and towards the street. '4.5km' read the text hovering over the tracer arrow. I tightened my hood and reached out to my back to open up the back flaps of my hood and shoulders. I tapped on the button at the very center of the handlebar. It blinked green and projected '0.000km'. The meter was fine.

I got onto the bicycle and sped out of the park and down the road, following the tracer arrow. The wind slipped and tugged at my hood roughly before exiting via the back flaps. I grunted and stretched my neck forward.

I clutched the brakes abruptly, hard. The bicycle screeched along the road. I very nearly collided into auto-trailer ahead. I stomped my foot into the smooth bitumen ground and swore. I started tapping impatiently at the handlebar.

I looked to my right. Pedestrians, bare-headed, hooded or hatted, shuffling back and forth in front of the rows of loft-style shophouses. They were all wearing rebreathers, despite the absence of soot on the walls and the clarity of the air around us. Can't even smell the smog here.

I recalled that conspiracy theory article I read in a DarkNet board some three months ago. A couple centuries back, ten years after the completion of the Harner District, a bunch of environmentalist nutjobs turned up with facts, figures and charts to prove that the district was over-polluted. All rubbish, really. Very easy to disprove with a little more digging. Pointed out so by the environmental scientists even. Unfortunately for the smartarses, the images of smoke chimneys (actually steam chimneys) all over the holo-boards proved to be very impressionable on the common folk. Most of them were convinced that the district was polluted. The citizens moved out, and two years later, attracted by the cheap rent, leasing fee and job availability, the Minmatar immigrants turned up and made the place their own, pollution be damned.

I could still remember the headlines on that board. "Harner Over-polluted", "Environmental Disaster", "Activists Demand Answers", "Environment Safety Minister Steps Down", "Mass Exodus out of Harner District".

The theorists suggested that the disinformation was actually disseminated to the environmentalists by the Federal Government herself. They pointed out that the Harner District had completed development twenty years before the conclusion of the Minmatar Rebellion, and that the district looked more like something out of the Minmatar Republic. Besides, a district mostly populated by Minmatar immigrants just happened to be named after the President who aided their Rebellion and helped established their Republic? They asserted this wasn't a coincidence.

Frankly, I thought they had a point.

The majority of the pedestrians were Minmatar of various bloodlines. There was this spiky-haired Brutor, imposingly tall and three times broader than I am. Thick arms, covered in tattoos. He was heaving a massive drum under his armpits. The drum-head appeared to be of genuine skin. Three Sebiestors crossed his path from the opposite direction. Helmets and jumpsuits. Carrying heavy work equipment on their right and long faux-leather cases on their left. Looked to be pipe instruments. A robed Amarr stopped for a moment to regard the Minmatar around him and then shook his head. He was then knocked forward as an Intaki youngster brushed past him, zipping along on his hoverboard.

The road trembled as the auto-trailer in front of me rumbled to life. I could feel the heat blasting over my head. I snapped my head forward and pedaled after the auto-trailer. The auto-trailer turned left. I swerved right and overtook him, speeding past the traffic light, its holo green.




The text over the tracer arrow read '1km' when Port Harner came into view. I could hear the waves crashing into ferroconcrete and the departure blare of the hauler-ships. I cycled through the automated gate and stopped before a curb.

This small harbour was empty. No stacked containers to be seen anywhere, no parked vehicles in sight. As I got off the bicycle, I looked to my right and saw that this harbour was segregated by a wall and a length of razor-link fence. The pavement tremored. The hauler-ship blared, its shadow fell onto the harbou as it passed. Waves crashed into the pier in its wake. A moored houseboat rocked and see-sawed with them.

I chained the bicycle to the totems flanking the pier. '4.520km' projected its holo-meter. I grumbled. The fee was already fifty sovs. I looked at the red snarling faces carved into the totems and the dead neon sign hanging over them.

'Whakra'. Eastern Wind in Brutor-speak.

The 'Whakra' ran the length of the pier (about twenty meters long). Its walls, beams and hulls were of carved wood. Its roof of woven straw was supported by a solid carved frame. It looked very out of place in this backdrop of polymer, steel and concrete.

The gangplank creaked and swayed. The lapping of the waters below sent jolts of anxiety up my spine. '0916 - Villore-IV - LST' read the clock. I was terribly late, yet the fear of breaking through the gangplank and plunging into frigid waters below slowed my pace to a creep.

The clock read '0918 - Villore-IV - LST' when I reached the other side. The 'Whakra' swayed rhythmically, unsettling me despite the sturdiness of the vessel. I tore off my rebreather took in two gulps of the salty sea air. I then straightened myself despite my trembling knees. I walked along the wall and turned around the corner. Seated on the bench beside the door was a woman with braided dark brown hair and amber eyes. She was still, petrified, her amber eyes locked towards the space elevator far beyond the shore.

She was dressed in what looked to be traditional wear. Capelet, headscarf and woolen dress, all embroidered with tribal patterns. As I was about to cross the threshold, I glimpsed something on her and did a double-take. There's a headphone over her headscarf. An actual retro headphone, with cups of wood (possibly even having actual neodymium inside) and headband of genuine leather. The headphone was wired to a DAC. An actual DAC, with knobs and digital display and ports and all.

She had a book on her lap. Not an electronic book, the one with the e-ink screen, but a real book, with bound papers and leather covers. What little text I could glimpse was in scripts I couldn't read. Where did she get all of these? I was looking at a genuine retro-connoisseur! Not a poser who showed off their imitation 8-tracks or turntables, the genuine article!

Also helped that she had a pretty face.

I wanted to say something, but a glance at the clock ('0919 - Villore-IV - LST') made me decide otherwise. I felt a pang of regret despite my better judgment. I was hopeful, however. Maybe she will still be here, completely spaced out, still gazing at the space elevator, after I have concluded my meeting with Monsieur Brun.



As soon as I walked through the opened door I was received by the greeter. The greeter was Brutor. Hair in tied-up dreadlocks, tanned darker than most, very tall. Easily half-a-head taller than I am, and I'm 180cm. She was wearing a beige nylon singlet and baggy faded blue trousers. She smiled and bowed slightly. "Table for one?" she asked. I smiled back and replied, "I'm looking for Monsieur Brun." It took her a second to nod again in acknowledgment. "Follow me, sir," she showed me in.

I scanned about the common room as I followed her, taking stock of the electronics in the premise. Li-fi bulbs hanging over every bench, lengths of wires crudely nailed to the ceiling, some coming out of the chiseled holes in the walls and beams. The li-fi bulb wires crisscrossed with the bladeless fans' power lines and converged towards a single half-spherical access point, at the center of the far rightmost ceiling. It was a ChemalTech VLC-500g access point. Breaching the ‘Whakra's' server will be trivial. I brought up my breach terminal and glanced through the list. 'Whakra'. I selected this network and analysed its security.

Stock ChemalTech firewall, stock port encryption. Trivial, alright. I loaded the relevant decryptor software into my breach terminal to begin the hack process. By the time the greeter showed me into the VIP room, I had gained administrator access to the restaurant's network.

"Good day, Ghostseeker." 'Ghostseeker'. My handle. The Monsieur Brun stood up and offered me his hand. He did not seem to be upset of my tardiness. I gave him an embarrassed smile and shook his hand.

The Monsieur Brun is a Sebiestor, quite a bit shorter and punier than I am. Bald, with a goatee. He has a straight-lined tattoo stretching over his eyes and across his forehead. Wore a nylon t-shirt under his high collar jacket. I was expecting a suit.

"I apologise for the harm that had befallen you on the way here." He sounded sincere. I immediately searched his for any holo-com and datapad and found none. He could be wearing an Egone under that jacket. I ran my Noisefinder app and looked at him. The program started its scan. I reeled back. A piercing ring struck me in the skull. Feeling sick, I fell onto the bench.

"Are you okay?" the Brunner asked. His concern sounded sincere. I inhaled deeply and replied, "Yeah. I'm okay."

I examined the graph displayed by my Noisefinder app. The readings were unlike anything one would expect from an Egone. Off-the-charts. I immediately had the graph analysed and it spat out the result. The Brunner did not watch the 'police brutality' viral-vid on regular brain-chip. The readings were those of capsuleer implants.

I immediately connected to my external computers and brought up my DataMiner terminal. I then locked gaze with him. At the same time, I accessed the surveillance cam firmware. The cam was already turned off. Inside the vid folder, the latest vid file was rapidly increasing in size. Someone else had breached the restaurant server, turned off surveillance and was editing the vid file in real time.

"I was told that you are able to locate any..." he pursed his lips and scrunched up his brow. With some hesitation, he enunciated slowly, "perp with very minimal information."

The DataMiner terminal spat out his details. Elmund Efelate Egivand, graduated from the Republic Military School, freelancer, currently privateering for the Federal Defense Union. Lots of details, all his posts on the Intergalactic Summit. Nothing that I can trust to reveal who he really is and what he stands for. He had many mentions. I looked at my list of slaved computers. Twenty unused. Should be enough. I immediately engaged the DeepMine module and analysed the mentions of his name. A very massive list of contacts showed up. Most of them do not mention Elmund more than a hundred times. I immediately performed metadata analysis

I focused my attention on the egger in front of me. "If you are talking about finding 'ghosts', you had come to the right person, Monsieur Egivand."

Elmund arched his brow slightly, a show of dull surprise. He lifted his mug, sipped on it, and laid it down on the coaster. "Perhaps your agent hadn't exaggerated about your abilities."

"How much were you told?" he asked. "Nothing beyond meeting time and place, I'm afraid," I replied truthfully. "My agent believes that his partners will be more motivated to do our job if we listen to your problems personally." Elmund nodded.

DeepMine displayed the analysis result. In the past year, over a hundred of his contacts had gone silent on the Galnet, all at roughly the same time. Their last activities were in Nisuwa. I brought up the search engine to check if there was any mention of anything happening in Nisuwa within that time period. Nothing. I searched for more information on the star system and found that it was registered as a conflict zone as according to the Emergency Militia Act. That explained the absence of news.

"I will now brief you on the job."

I raised my hand and interjected, "I think I have an idea what your problem is, Monsieur Egivand." I bent forward and dropped my voice to a hush, "There has been an accident in one of your industrial outposts in Nisuwa, and you suspect a saboteur. You want me to find this saboteur."

Elmund arched his brow again, more visibly this time. His mouth dropped slightly. He was clearly surprised, and perhaps impressed. "I see why your services are highly recommended," he said. I felt a glow of pride. "The job won't be as simple as you think however," he hardened his expression and lowered his tone, "The saboteur I want you to find for me is a clonejack."

A clonejack? This won't be an easy job.

"The clonejack wore the identity of my friend. Sergei Drogodziej.”

I looked at the DataMiner terminal. ‘Sergei Drogodziej’ was in the list of Elmund’s contacts.

“That is his name. I trusted him to assist me in my life's work and the perp clearly knows that. He wore Drogodziej’s skin, attempted to steal my work and, in the process, cost me the lives of over three hundred employees and the mental well-being of another one hundred and fifty."

"So, about this Drogodziej..." I started. Elmund interjected, "Drogodziej took a holiday on Villore. I suspect this is where he was swapped with a clonejack." He clasped his hands, "I want you to identify this clonejack and find out who he worked for. Can you do this?"

I wore my business face, "That depends on what clues can you provide"

"I can give you the perp's clone DNA sequence, what little we can reconstruct, the remains of his cranial implants and his flight details."

Yeah, maybe I can do this. “Does he have many friends here?” I asked.

Elmund nodded. “Many. Friends and kin both.”

I nodded in reply. "Yeah, I can do this."

Elmund smiled. Chicken-feet wrinkles showed at the corner of his eyes. "Excellent," he said. "How do you wish to receive the information and the perp's remains?"

"I will provide you the coordinate for a drop-point. I will collect from there," I said. "I will transmit the coordinate through direct connection..."

"My implants do not have that functionality." Elmund took out his pen from his breast pocket, placed it onto the napkin beside his platter and slid them towards me. After jotting down the coordinate onto the napkin and passing both articles to him, he got up and said to me, "I will have the goods delivered to you within the next two hours. Check your bank account. The downpayment transfer should be completed by now."

The greeter emerged from the door behind me. She was holding a tray with a seafood platter. "Consider this reparation for the injuries you had sustained on the way here." Elmund got up and went for the door. "I bid you good luck," he said upon exit.

I stared at the platter laid out in front of me. Shrimps, fishes and mollusks I couldn't identify. I scanned the tattoo-like marking beside my platter. My browser displayed the restaurant menu. Kuri Hakari. Priced one hundred sovs. I accessed my banking app and logged into my bank accounts. A deposit of twelve million sovs was made into my third account. Less than 1 isk in egger-speak.

I noticed that the vid file size had stopped increasing and had become accessible. It showed a man in a fedo-costume shuffling through the entrance door. The greeter wore a forced smile as she showed him his seat, at the far end of the common room, by the window. He took out a datapad and scanned the markings on his table. The greeter gave him a jug of water. He gulped the whole thing down. He looked through the datapad again. Another jug of water was served to him. He chugged down that jug too. The costume swell.

Nearing the end of the vid's run-time, the fedo-man shuffled towards the door. He pushed himself through the door and was stuck. He had grown five sizes and had become too big to fit. The greeter laughed. The fedo-man flailed his little arms. The greeter pushed. The fedo-man didn't budge. He was stuck fast. She turned to the side and shouted. The chef appeared. They kicked the fedo-man's bum. The fedo-man flailed his little limbs.

There were fifty jugs of water on the fedo-man's table.

'1007 - Villore-IV - LST'. I finished my meal and got up to leave. I stood in front of the cashier and produced my credit chit. The greeter smiled and shook her head. "Monsieur Brun has already paid the bill," she said. I nodded and crossed the threshold. The bench to my left was empty.
« Last Edit: 14 Mar 2017, 04:22 by Elmund Egivand »
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Elmund Egivand

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Re: Ghostseeker (Tentative Title)
« Reply #2 on: 13 Feb 2017, 19:18 »

Edited a couple things. Comments, critique appreciated. Insults about my mother will be replied with ship-grade munitions.
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Elmund Egivand

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Re: Ghostseeker (Tentative Title)
« Reply #3 on: 25 Mar 2017, 04:50 »

Chapter 3: Asclepius

A protective case. A bloody protective steel case. Might as well wear a ‘Rob Me!’ holo on my back. The egger does not know subtlety. At least it was small enough to tuck under my parka.

The case was secured with an un-networked electronic lock, the sort that is unlocked with a physical key. Only places to find them in Libertopolis, and Caille for the matter, are antique shops, as collectible curiosities. Wondered if the Minmatar still haven’t caught up on the portable security front.

The key-port is an equilateral triangle, each side one centimeters in length, with a raised nub at the center. Noisefinder scans showed no other electronics in this tiny square space I was squatting on. I guessed I was supposed to hack this.

I picked it up and shook it a bit. No noise. Everything seemed to have been secured in place by insulating material. Noisefinder scan showed the lock being the only active electronic on this case. No condensates on the corrugated surface. The DNA sequence the egger mentioned must have been stored as data in a physical storage device. Should save me some work time.

I tucked the case into my parka, pulled down my hood, and walked out into the light. Back onto the streets, under the sun and the discrete surveillance cams.

Cars zipped along the glistening street. Suits hurried back to their workplaces. Youths in fancy plastic jackets sauntered back to their campuses in throngs. Beggars loitered around the sidewalks, arms outstretched for alms. Tourists did their silly things, hanging onto interactive sculptures, smiling and laughing and posing ridiculously for their cams. All oblivious that they were being monitored at all times.

The tourists stopped their play and pointed up towards the sky. A massive dirigible hung over us and the fleets of hover drones, drifting lazily amongst the Level 5 Tier terraces. Massive, about half the size of the cargo ship I saw leaving Port Harner that morning. Its gasbag and gondola projected holo-ads, promoting CreoDron's Albert and Alberta line of domestics. The holo-ads were large enough to be seen from down here. The tourists snapped their cams madly. They must have never seen these back home.

I gave them a closer look. Jin-Mei. Clothes on the women were pink clear rigid plastic, with red silk draped over the padded shoulders. Mannar-designed fashion-wear. The pattern was a season out of date. I noted the shopping carriers on the bench two steps away. Saan-Go caste, probably. Upper-middle class. Hwan mentioned that they were pretty rich. Wondered what was Lirsautton like, if they had never seen a dirigible-ad before. Maybe Hwan’s dad would know. He was immigrant, left Lirsautton in search of better life for his family.

I briskly turned the corner after the Kim-Jung Café-and-Bar and passed under a dead neon sign. It read, 'Blaque Market Street'. Named by the residents here in jest. The street used to be called something else, before the One-Day War. No idea what it was, I wasn’t here then.

The midday crowd was thinner than the nighttime crowd, but it was dense enough to hide in. Vagrants slumped on benches, their eyes showing their jaundiced whites, drool rolling down their mouths. The biodegradable cups sharing their benches were filled with booster packets and snapped plastic vials. Hustlers floated about, wearing their pearly grins. I hid my case and held it tight as I passed them by.

Trouble. Yellow-hood behind the Scope Network kiosk, following me with electric blue eyes. I did not like the look on his face. DataMiner terminal window showed his name as Karlos Kurnier. Another window turned up. Public LPD database file. Twenty cases of larceny, fifty cases of assault, ten cases of possession of illicit boosters. Ties with Serpentis suspected but never proven. Left the penitentiary just yesterday, 1000 Libertopolis Standard Time. Seemed to be up to no good already. I clutched at my case tight and blended into the crowd.

No good. His oculars were locked right onto me. I hurried up, quickened my pace, weaving left and right around the incoming traffic. Didn't help. Couldn't shake him off. He was still about ten feet back, pace constant. Hands in pocket, grinning like a slaver hound having smelled blood.

He suddenly stopped. Just stopped, stared for a second, then turned around and walked the other way. Didn't take long to see why. Just ahead, past 'Bliss Mem-Sims', I saw a black-and-white drone, hovering towards me. A second later, I could hear the faint filtered chatter from behind the suddenly concerned crowd.

Patrol officers.

I tucked myself into a nook and looked away from the street. Found myself staring at slashing Jin-Mei strokes. The calligraphy morphed into a readable 'Tei-Su Street Food'. I tapped my credit chit against the kiosk's touch-pad and in response, the chrome-shelled white-pajamas drone whined to life. The drone clasped its metal hands and stiffly bowed forty-five degrees. 'Bonjour, Monsieur,' it greeted in electric Gallente, "How may I serve you?" I stared into its blank eyes. Too much white, LED where the pupils should be.

One pedestrian bumped into my back. There was a hushed, "Sorry." I grunted, annoyed, but did not turn around. Didn’t want to look into those blank faceplates. Filtered chatter right behind me. Something about the viral ‘police brutality’ vid. I looked down and absent-mindedly tapped on one of the menu items. Not even sure what it was I had selected.

The drone animatedly turned, twisted and contorted in an imitation of a living street chef.  It lathered thick black sauce onto the skewers on the grill, to the backdrop of whooshing turbines and filtered chatter. The aroma rose. The voice and boots trailed away. The drone tucked the skewers into biodegradable carrier box and put them on top of the plastic counter. It stiffly bowed, 'Thank you! Enjoy your hot meal!'

I looked to my left. The patrol officers were out of view, with only their hovering black-white drone marking their position. I pulled down my hood, opened the box and collected the dripping, steaming skewers and slinked away.

Didn't take long to walk right into the shadow of a mega-scraper. Traffic-holo showed the walking man, and I briskly crossed to the other side. People crowding around the mega-scraper's plaza, not moving, not looking like they had places to go, work to do, courses to attend. None dressed like they belonged to the Upper Tiers.

A grey-haired middle-aged Intaki smiling on a mega-scraper column. A politician on a campaign for the local District Election, three months away. DataMiner gave me the lowdown. Kalsa Aldenner. Never heard of him before, so probably some two-bit politician. Libertopolis is crawling with them. Didn't need to read further to know his platform. Just by looking at the idle poor here, I figured he was promising social development or more welfare or similar.

Look on his smile told me he thought he was wasting his time. Probably right on the money there. Looking at the size of the crowd, I estimated only two hundred or so attendees. That means maybe twenty or so will turn up to vote. Probably not enough to land him the District Head post.
 
I trekked another few meters along the plaza perimeter and turned right into an alley behind Asclepius Pharmaceuticals building. Strolled a couple tens of meters and turned to stare at a blank concrete wall beside a shuttered docking bay gate. I looked around, making sure I wasn't followed, before making a series of taps on the deceptively smooth surface. A beep. Hexagonal scales shed off the wall. Grate-and-plate door slid open with a ringing 'shunk'.

The door slid shut like chopping scissors blade. Elevator creaked, rumbled and shook as it descended. Grates and plates vibrating like mad. Fetid wind blowing in from the floor, signaling time to strap on my rebreather. Elevator stopped suddenly. I almost lost grip on my fresh charcoal filter. Screwed it tight, just as the door 'crang'ed open.

Humans aren't meant to be here. Didn't even need to know the technicals to conclude that. A glimpse over the railing at the sludge-rapids far below is enough. That, or the complete absence of lighting built into the ceramic-coated walls.

The downward sloping tunnel had a stadium cross-section. Height about fifty meters, width about twenty-five. Designed to accommodate surge flows, especially during summer storms. The wall and ceiling were glossy, except for where the tungsten rods were tethered to. Corrosive-resistant ceramic. The walkway is installed in the upper quarter of the tunnel, out of reach of any surges.

Stopped in my tracks when I heard gurgles in the pipe ahead, just in time to watch it disgorge its steaming waste. Long arcs, nearly enough to clear the walkway. Nearly. Some spillage. Got steaming puddle on the titanium mesh flooring. Very alkaline solution, but not enough to melt through the floor. Still stank, though. Could smell it through the filters. The engineered extremophile bacteria strain produces gas noxious enough to burn the throat as a byproduct.

Another reminder that this place isn't meant for humans.

Leaned towards the opposite railing and crept around the puddle. The excrement may not be corrosive enough to melt through titanium, but it was definitely enough to melt through my boots.

Walkway trembled. That unmistakable hum and glow of levitator discs. Maintenance drone about half my size zipped past underneath me. Tried to be dramatic, it looked like. Make my entrance into the ‘Septic Pit’ look like something out of a Garoun epic. Too bad the grand effluent waterfalls ruined the effect. Suppose that right over that railing there will be a gate into a bottomless abyss, but the all the mega-scraper excrement coming from way above made it impossible to see.

Walked along the circumference of the pit and reached a narrow plated gate. Could see an assault rifle poking out of the slit on the wall to my right. Very visible cameras on the upper corners pointed towards me. Statics from the speakers, “Philosophy should come to know..."

Passphrase. Cartel trying to be sophists. I answered, "...the dimensions, qualities, and quantities of the earth."

The gate swung outwards. Cartel enforcer in full-body suit walked out and gave me a look over with his maroon eyes. He tucked his submachine gun under his armpit. "Welcome back to Aesclepius District,” he laughed. Filtered, cold and discomforting. No humor. A reminder about my standing here. I nodded and walked right through quickly, not giving him an excuse to give me trouble. 

Once I reached the rustic door with the number '7' painted boldly on it, I took out a key, with pins and all, and affected my entry.

The place looks like a toy shop for grown up boys, what with the drones, the shelved decks and drives and the various custom tools of mischief on display. Not sure why Bjorn arranged his goods in browsing configuration. Asclepius District doesn’t receive many paying visitors, and even if they do come, they probably won’t hang around here. Place's pretty cooped up. Bjorn never turns on cooling. Apparently, he found the mandatory ventilation and purification fees expensive enough.

Dim flash and loud hiss coming from behind the stacked decks partition. Bjorn’s back from his nightly hunt. Seemed to be hard at work, for hours now judging from that slaver’s paw showing from his soaked white singlet.

He twisted his neck back and lifted his metal mask. His smile filled his hollow cheeks. "You were gone all morning," he greeted. "You were gone all night,” I answered.

He motioned me to come to him, "Come here for a minute, Francent. I have an offer for you."

I held my spot in front of the stairs and answered disinterestedly, "If it's a gig, I’m already hired.” He laughed dryly. "Oh, you will change your tune once you see this.” He got up and stepped away.

His prize was a drone about the size of my torso. Reminded me of a cicada with oversized wings. Its two hover turbines were too large for its size. I had cracked about hundred-score types of drones, and I had never seen this particular make before. Bjorn tapped on the carapace on its head. Didn’t need to. I could see the Black Eagle just fine.

“Did you shut down its transponder?” I asked. Bjorn looked mildly insulted, "I did more than just shut down its transponder." He shoved his hand into the opened section of the drone's carapace and made a show of ripping and tossing something out. "Left the transponder top-side, far, far away from the landlord's. FIO won't get anywhere within three kilometers of this place." He wore a slippery smile, "Aren't you curious why no one has ever witnessed the surveillance cam consoles serviced?"

Must have noticed my interest, because he continued on without my prompting, "Well, this drone here," he lifted the cicada-like machine by the edge of its carapace, "This drone services the consoles. Has a cloaking device. Comes in the dead of night...” he lifted the drone slightly by the tail end. I could see that the back carapace was flat, like the carbonide wall plates of a typical Libertopolis building. “...sticks to the console and blends into the wall.” He set the drone down. “Client wants its cloak, never asked for its processor unit."

"You want me to crack its programming. You have a buyer?"

"Nah," Bjorn shook his head. "But I know you. I know you had been itching to crack those consoles forever. Maybe this here drone’s processor holds the key.”

His smile became positively reptilian, “So here's my offer. I'm going to give you its processor unit..."

"How much will this cost me?"

"Fifty thousand sovs. Cash. Pretty good deal for tech like this, yes?"

"Thirty thousand sovs."

Bjorn clutched at his hairless chest with one hand and stretched his other arm back. He twisted his torso about, faking a hurt expression. Acting like some amateur thespian. “You hurt me, man! Man’s gotta eat!” He dropped the act and his voice immediately, “Forty thousand.”

"You are getting paid for the cloak anyway. Thirty-five thousand."

"Thirty-seven thousand," Bjorn lifted the drone by the front carapace and pointed towards the wall behind him. "Any lower and I will toss the processor down into the pit."

I gave him a hard stare. "Deal. I will get you the cash by tomorrow."

Bjorn continued to smile as I went down the stairs. “Don’t keep me waiting, my man.” 



Biometric scanners on all four corners of my room gave me a look over as soon as I hit the grated floor. A discrete beep announced that my security key, buried deep within my Egone’s firmware, was authenticated and verified. As I unplugged my Egone from my datapad and hung my sling bag and rebreather, a metallic Excena vocals verbalized, “Please state the answer to your security question.”

“Prayer to the Virgin,” I answered blankly, as I peeled off my parka and threw it onto my wheeled recliner.

“Voice authenticated. Security answer verified,” replied the Excena-voice, as I clear away the multitudes of datasticks occupying my workstation. “Welcome home, Francent Delacroix.” The OLEDs lit up just as I set the case down.

I opened my mini-fridge and found that one of my cold brews was missing. In its place was a shrink-wrapped sandwich on a biodegradable plate. Bjorn thought I didn't know the value of the beans, thought that I will accept these pitiful slabs of dough and protein as a good trade. He will learn to think otherwise, as soon as I print a trade-value list and stick it on the fridge.

I pushed the sandwich aside and reached for another bottle of cold brew. With chilled coffee in hand, I sank into my recliner, twisted its cap open and gulped it down.

Bitter with a hint of citrus. Rush in my arteries. Micro-tremors in my muscles. I sighed with delight. Bliss.

I took several more sips while looking at the monitors. The lower-right vertical screen showed over fifty mails received in the past eight hours. Using my Egone as the controller, I ran the PostHound app. It displayed a tiny pixel dog chasing a tiny pixel postman (the flapping mailbag spilling envelopes was a nice touch), and the number of unopened mail shrunk to about ten.

The first mail was from the bank. I opened it. A fund transfer to credit chit UIN# something or other, an incoming transaction from the SCC. The numbers checked out. I shredded the mail.

Next mail. Agent's reminding me about his mercenary and black store services. Shred.

Third mail’s from someone named BunnyHop, a name I saw exactly once on the DarkNet. He, or she, had apparently gotten ahold of an LPD datastore. Asked if I wanted to have a crack at it. Wondered how he, or she, managed to steal that. I looked DarkNet board displayed on the upper right and searched for username BunnyHop. About twenty threads and posts. I filtered the search results to only reviews. Zero results. A newbie. Or a cop.

I brought up my Egone’s memo app and looked through the list of my agent’s mercs. Damon Krueger’s scheduled to get off his babysitting job by 0500- Villore-IV- LST. I minimized the app window and started composing a reply mail.

'I want to see the goods. Name the time. I will decide the place.’ Send.

I then looked to the remaining mails. Script kiddies, wanting cracking software or skimmers for some cab pay-pad or whatever. Side gig. Filed them into the non-priority folder. I will look into them when I have time.

I put my bottle down into a cup-holder, spun to my left and slid open the top-most plastic drawer. After a bit of rummaging, I fished out a red cable, one end an equilateral triangle pin. I plugged the cable into my Egone and willed up my breach terminal. I then turned to the steel case on my workstation. Turned it around so that I could view the key-port, then plugged the pin in.

The lock clicked open. I stared at it, frozen for maybe three seconds. Quickly, in half-panic, I unplugged the cable, shut down the Egone’s connection and disabled sleep mode. I then retracted the nanofilaments and peeled it off my spine. I spun to my left again, towards an unnetworked custom deck I use for cracking software and protocols and for scrubbing devices. I ripped away a cracking-in-progress drive, then connect my Egone to the deck.

The deck’s holo lit up. I tabbed out of the cracking terminal and brought up my SecureScan app.

‘Scan device: Y/N?’

I tapped 'Y' and watched data strings streamed from left to right. Progress bar filling rapidly. Result green. Ran a digital signature scan. Result red. A list of files popped up. Unknown sender, transfer time and date ‘0922 - Villore-IV -LST, 03.03.YC118'. I was in the Whakra at the time, accessing their server, being dumbfounded that someone was editing surveillance vid in real time.

I enlarged the holo and looked through the list of dubious files. Recognized them as belonging to the electronic lock firmware, encryption key file included. Same model and everything.

I leaned back into my recliner. The egger hacked me? Cracked my custom firewall and security protocols to plant the firmware while editing a surveillance vid in real time, all the while, holding a conversation. Was that even possible?

Then again, capsuleers can operate Titans, 14km long warships traditionally operated by thousands of crewmen. Control all their systems from teraton-class weapons array to shield and regenerative armor systems to sublight and FTL propulsion systems to jump drives, tactical suite, electronic countermeasures and Doomsday device, all by themselves. All at will. As easily as lifting a finger. Yeah, maybe, just maybe the egger could pull off what he did in the Whakra. All he needed were the suitable neural implants and he would be good to go. What’s hacking while multitasking when compared to operating Titans via neural-link?

I straightened myself, lifted my finger and pointed at the program icon at the upper left corner of my main monitor. That opened a drop-down list of apps. I slid down and tapped on ‘SCC Market’. Never had the money to buy anything listed in the window, since all prices were in ISK, but it was useful for reference. I then tapped on ‘Implants’ on the sidebar of the market window and browsed the available selections.

No match.

Maybe capsuleer-grade hacking implants are available on the NES, but I can't access it to check. Baseliners do not have access to the NES, egger-exclusive store selection and all that. Well, I could access that, but I will have to risk the SCC’s Custodian A.I. and Traceroute. I switched to my mail window and shot an inquiry to my agent.

He replied fifteen seconds later. “No.” Short and simple, unlike that mail promoting his services. Then again, that other mail was automated. So, no such implants available on the NES, huh?

I tapped on the DataMiner app on my main monitor and looked up the results of my scan on Elmund Efelate Egivand again. I figured this time I should look up the results listing the IGS as source. A glance through, and I found his posts explaining starship subsystems, mechanics of fission reactors, starship gunnery mechanics, and a mention of Project Sebestačný.

A search on Project Sebestačný revealed a write up about the development of crew-independent starship designs. There was this chapter regarding drone networked intelligence. I read through his DED profile again. Republic Military School Combat and Starship Engineer. Considering his qualification and the skill set needed for his project, I suppose it wouldn’t be inconceivable for him to have developed such an implant.

I closed all these windows and returned to the opened case on my desk. I flipped open its cover and beheld shrink-wrapped half-melted wetware and two datasticks, all encased in block foam. I had my custom holo-deck scan both datasticks.

Results green. Safe to plug into my main computer.

The first datastick contained a 1.5-gigabyte text file. Opening it revealed rows upon rows of A-T and G-C sequences. The second datastick contained infodumps. Sergei Drogodziej’s dossier, background check info, work logs, workplace com logs and his final travel e-tics and schedules.

Work logs all followed the same format: ‘Project Sebestačný’ for header, date and time below, rest very detailed technobabble. Last two entries broke the trend. Same header and date-and-time format but the contents were just apathetic ‘Ran tests, results are positive’. Routine Custodian A.I. scans would have flagged these within the day. With his authorization and access level, however, the A.I. would not immediate burn him. Probably give him two warnings first, one for each format violation. Further violations and the A.I. will quarantine his machine, revoke his access and run a full scan. Once it had build up a good enough case, the A.I. will then burn him. The clonejack hadn’t planned to stay long, at least not long enough for that to happen.

I looked to my left-side display. Top row showed pixel icon, depicting an antiquated deck displaying a cackling Sansha zombie skull in its CRT. Number ‘173’ beside it, on the right. The digits blinked. ‘192’. The IP list at the bottom blinked and refreshed. I looked to the time displayed on the lower left corner. 1740. Amazing how many desk jockeys simply leave their terminals active when they get off work.

I turned to my main monitor and infodumped into DataMiner. Brought up the DeepMine control panel and made sure that the name and timestamp filters were checked. Once done, I made sure that the ‘Mine Contacts’ option was selected. All that was left was to adjust in the ‘Day/Time’ slider.

Tabbed into the travel e-tics and schedules and focused on the Interbus Shuttles arrival and departure schedule. Drogodziej arrived on the Aidonis Spire on 1300 - NEST, 07.04.YC117, departed 2300 - NEST, 21.04.YC117. Two weeks vacation. I entered adjusted the slider to reflect this time interval, then switched time zone from VST to NEST. Confirmed selections and tapped ‘OK’.

Computer blocks spat out dust. If not for the padding on the grated wall and floor, Bjorn would have stomped down to yell at me. Main display flickered. Data-strings streamed into the DataMiner terminal, filling row after row until there were no more vacant space to fill. The terminal scrolled down, relinquishing more space to feed the information horde. If I could visualize network maps, I reckon I would be seeing light-streaks carving near infinite permutations of paths through the 200 or so slaved computers. Looking at the amount of data exhumed by DataMiner in its one minute of operation, I suppose it might take an entire day or two to haul out all the relevant data on Drogoziej’s activities in those two weeks.

I felt the prickle of extended nanofilaments once I secured my Egone in place. ‘Syncing to Covetor 01’ popped up in my vision. VPN icon blinked at bottom right corner. ‘Sync Completed’. Now I can remotely monitor DataMiner’s dig on Drogodziej.

I brought up my contact list and called DocSprocket. His icon (a mech-prosthetic arm clutching a scalpel) blinked on. “What do you want?” the dusty voice projected into my audio cortices. “Got some things I want you to examine. Clone DNA sequence,” I picked up a shrinkwrapped implant, “and some wetware.”

“You are the last person I expect to send me clone sequence data,” DocSprocket croaked. “You got oil up your throat?” I asked mockingly.

A cough. “Shut up. Let me see the wetware.”

I activated my EyeCam app and brought one of the shrinkwrapped wetware up to eye level. It looked like silver brainstem with lobes attached. “Is that clone soldier implant?” DocSprocket’s voice had trembled. “Getting excited?” “No, just surprised. You are not going to tell me how you get that, I expect?”

“Got it from a Monsieur Brun.”

Silence. I looked at the time. 1743, no, 1744. Com sputtered back to life, “Five million.”

My jaw dropped. “Five...five million? Your standard rate is four thousand!”

“Those weren’t clone soldier implants, this is,” DocSprocket scoffed. “If this is the real deal, data recovery will be much harder. I will need to contact some people, get together the proper equipment. Gonna cost me my entire annual income. So, you want me to analyze the implant, or not?”

“Can’t I ask for a better price? Like three million or something?”

“No,” DocSprocket replied bluntly. “Five million, final price. No haggling.”

“Fine,” I groaned. “I also have these other two implants…” I showed to him the remaining shrinkwraps.

One looked to be a half-melted carbon fiber shell. Probably covered the entire skull and went all the way down to the back of the earlobes. Turned it around. The thing’s underside was festooned nanofilaments, and there were those long and nasty stakes lining the mid-section. Busted microcircuitry all over.

The second were a pair of oculars. Front half looked all-natural, save for the iris. Looked like something putrefied in there. Back half filmed in char. The darker shades gave me the impression of blood vessels. 

“Well?” I asked. DocSprocket kept silent. Half a minute later, he rasped, “Eight million.”

“You are serious?”

“Dead serious. The wetware you showed me? Military gear, and I don’t mean standard grunt stuff. Spec ops. Or special agents.”

“Fine,” I relented. “When will I see you?”

Silence. 1759. DocSprocket spoke again, “Mail me the clone sequence and bring the wetware to my clinic at midnight.”
Logged
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