Shitty fanfiction ahoy.

Chapter 1: Sunny Morning

It was a terribly sunny morning. 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 megascrapers 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.


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


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:



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 ■■■■-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."


Chapter 2: Rust District

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 and 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. ■■■■. 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. ■■■■. 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. “■■■■, ■■■■! 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 harbour 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 deposit 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.


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 5th 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 megascraper. Traffic-holo showed the walking man, and I briskly crossed to the other side. People crowding around the megascraper’s plaza, not moving, not looking like they had places to go, work to do, courses to attend. None dressed like they belonged in the Upper Tiers.

A grey-haired middle-aged Intaki smiling on a megascraper 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 megascraper 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 under 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 with 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.”


Chapter 4: CyberClinic

A pink-haired scrawny punk stumbled out of the CyberClinic’s sliding door. His right mech-prosthetic palm left stripes of black paint on the slick floor as he scrambled back onto his feet. He turned around and cried, “Come on man! It’s a simple job!” He held out a ziplock bag, containing a pair of feline ears, submerged in yellow-tinged embalming fluid. “Simple job! I pay triple!”

DocSprocket ambled out of the sliding door, his every step punctuated by the whirring of his chrome-shelled arms. His oculars locked onto the pleading punk. He frowned with disapproval. Minute sparks emitted from the gaps between his fiber muscles as he folded his arms. “I don’t do biomods, and I don’t do business with people like you!” he growled.

“Come on, man! It’s not so bad!” the punk cried. His bare knees were bent, half-knelt. “I’ve cut her ears off! That’s all!”

DocSprocket spat aside in disgust, “You bound her up, bruised her and traumatised her!”

Damon Krueger emerged from the clinic and stood erect behind the cybersurgeon. His arms were wound-spring tensed, his fists clenched. His tactical oculars were locked onto the punk, watchful for the subtlest signs of hostility.

The punk sputtered incoherence. DocSprocket rolled his eyes. “Get out of here!” he waved dismissively. He brushed past the Civire mercenary and re-entered his clinic. The punk sprung after him, and he collided into Damon’s broad chest. The merc shoved him back. “You heard the doctor. Vacate the premise." he warned coolly.

The punk glared at him. He demanded, “And who are you? His bodyguard?”

“His patient."

“Well, ■■■■ off! I have business with…”

Damon stood his ground. Chest out, back straight, arms folded. Just daring him to take his shot. The punk glared back. His oculars glowed neon green as he sized the Civire up. Damon is one head taller and about two shoulders broader than he is. Probably triple his mass. Far over his weight class.

The punk’s oculars flitted and fluttered as he considered his chances and his options. He snuck his arms, both flesh and metal-and-fibre, into his pockets, spat onto the glistening street and turned away.

In a blink of an eye, his yellow mech-prosthetic arm was stretched over Damon’s shoulder, locked in the merc’s vice grip. A switchblade hovered centimeters away from Damon’s throat. The merc’s neck cracked audibly as he cocked his head to his left. He then pulled mech-prosthetic towards him while slamming his free hand into the punk’s shoulder. The punk’s howl was loud enough to overpower the whirls of the AC fans.

“Vacate the premise,” Damon warned, his tone menacingly low, “or I will tear your toy off.”

The punk shot him a murderous glare before limping away, swearing. His blood soaked through his white singlet and dripped a scarlet trail. His artificial limb hung uselessly by his side.

Damon turned towards me and spoke without any inflections in tone or speech, “How long are you going to stand there and watch, Ghost? Doctor’s waiting for you.”

As we strolled along the rows of hanging refurbished mechanical limbs, I can’t help but notice the mediderm patches beside the merc’s tactical ocular and all over his biceps and the mediderm bands around his knuckles. “Didn’t lose the gig, I hope,” I commented.

Damon grunted. “Got a generous tip instead. The child and his friends giggled and clapped like they had watched an amusing performance.” His lenses contracted, “Are all of your elites’ children like this?”

“Not all. Just many. How bad?”

“Enough to desync my oculars.”

We turned left and stood in front of a rusting sliding door. I gave it a knock, then looked at the cam beside it. The door slid open two seconds later. We entered into a room that resembled a meat locker, if the meat were metal, composite ceramic foam and carbon fibre. Behind the workbench with a disassembled mech-prosthetic arm, slightly obscured by a curtain of hanging spray-painted limbs, DocSprocket, real name Richter Rucrous, hunched over three holos.

Hearing our approach, the cybersurgeon peered over his carbon-and-metal shoulder wearily. The neon blue glow of his holos highlighted the black under his eyes and the lines of his sunken cheeks. His oculars’ lenses contracted, “Took your sweet time, Ghost.” He then returned to his work.

I peered over his shoulder and saw that he had just finished plugging wires to a glossy-cased interfacer. It looked too new, too out of place in this gallery of aging hardware. The digits at the lower right corner of my vision blinked ‘0045’. “You are slow with your preparation,” I commented.

Richter plugged datastick into his main console and a window popped up on the main holo. The LED of his Egone blinked, and the window disappeared, replaced with a rapidly-filling progress bar. “I had expected you to be late,” he answered as he sank into his swivel-chair. He picked up a steaming coffee mug from his heated coaster and sipped on it. Steadily. Despite the steam blowing into his face. He lowered his mug and gesticulated with his free left hand, “Distraction notwithstanding.”

“Uhuh,” I hummed. “I saw the commotion. Thought you would be more upset about the anaphylactic shock than the uptier girl being hurt.”

Richter frowned. He returned his mug to his heated coaster. His oculars’ lenses contracted. He retorted, “Who do you take me for? An amoral opportunist?”

“Considering that you sold mech-prosthetics to thugs and gangsters? Yeah.”

Richter looked annoyed. “You know I also service honest blue-collars and petty labourers.”

“Knowing full-well that the augments won’t help them compete with automation.”

“You are a hypocrite, doctor,” Damon interjected.

Richter glared at him. A chart lit up at the right-most corner of the opposite wall, behind the curtain of hanging appendages. He pointed at it and intoned frigidly, “Go stare at that Snellen and tell me if you see double or you can’t read the bottom-most row of characters.” Damon looked the cybersurgeon in the eye, hard, before shrugging very slightly and went and sank into the recliner beside the desk to stare at the aforementioned chart.

The cybersurgeon returned to me and said frigidly, “Now, are you done wasting my time?”

I unzipped my slingbag and placed the shrinkwraps on his desk. Noticing that he had snipped out the cranial implant first, I commented, “I thought you would go for the Duster implant first.”

Richter looked aside at his holo. “Firmware update’s not completed yet. Besides,” he shrugged, “I like to know what I am getting into before I have a crack at the Fifth Lobe. Do this right the first time.”

His oculars’ lenses whirred as he gave the cranial implant a look-over. His gaze lingered at the spike briefly before he set it back onto his desk. “Not going to perform microscopy on that cranial implant?” I inquired. Richter picked up the shrinkwrap containing the oculars, “No point. Skull Hacker’s busted. Mostly burnt and melted. Unsalvageable. Can’t even trace the micro-circuits.”

“Surely you had learned something.”

“User’s backlashed. Reckon 100kA current at least. Melted the micro-circuits and microelectronics. Worst damage around jackport. Jackport’s fused-over.” Richter shivered. “Probably looked like over grilled poultry, when your Monsieur Brun found him.”

He turned aside and tapped at the desk, close to the end of the spike, “Spike at the middle’s not stock. Connects to the Fifth Lobe, I reckon. You know transneural burn scanners?”

“Egger’s immortality machine?”

Richter nodded. “Fifth Lobe fulfills the same function for cloned soldiers. Quantum computer. Rips out and process personality and memory data in a picosecond, then dump them into a CRU couple kilometers away. Cannot be interrupted or intercepted.”

“Quantum entanglement?”

I perceived a short nod.

“Fifth Lobe might have been modded to act as a transceiver.”

“Can’t the Skull Hacker transmit data?”

“It can, but its range is only up to twenty kilometers. Fifth Lobe’s fluid router could extend that range to light years.”

He turned away from the holo and gazed at me, “Anyway, this Brunner’s egger?”

I blinked. “Yeah. Egger.”

Richter picked up and sipped on his coffee. He set it down. “Guessed right. Looking at the wetware and the clone sequence, can’t be anyone else.”

“How did you know, just looking at these?” Damon queried.

Richter replied, “I dug up the clone’s serial number and ran it with my Duvolle man. He turned up absolutely nothing. No record, no trace, no log, nothing.”

“Also, the Skull Hacker and the Eye Cams here,” he held up the shrinkwrap containing the aforementioned oculars, “they aren’t available in any market. Looking at the mod, not standard FIO or special agent, either. I’m guessing pirate.”

“You can rule out Cartel or Serpentis. If it were them, I wouldn’t be offered the job. What’s so special about the Eye Cam?”

“It’s designed to fool iris scanners.” He snipped out the Eye Cams and tucked one of them under his microscope. A magnified image blinked onto the main holo. He turned the ocular around and showed me its lens. “The putrefaction you are now seeing used to be the user’s iris. Grown onto collagen fiber mesh between cornea and lens.” The holo then showed the black vein-like marks on the ocular’s back half. “This used to be blood capillaries. Fed the iris.”

He leaned into his backrest and sipped on his coffee. “These special agent-grade wetware, clone access and the means to mess with Duvolle databases? Only people with big money have access to these things, and I’m talking ISK big. They operate at the interstellar level, get involved in egger business.” Richter’s oculars locked onto me, “How deep in are you?”

“I don’t know. Not really. Started DeepMining about seven hours ago.”

Richter grunted. “Pull out while you still can. Nothing about eggers is simple or small-time.”

“I know what I’m in for.”

Richter stared at me for a half-minute before swiveling back towards his desk. He snipped at and slid the Fifth Lobe under the microscope. “I very well hope so,” he remarked. Another holo lit up, projecting a three-dimensional diagram of the implant, flanked by wordy windows. “Now, give me some space. Will call you over once the wetware is ready for breach.”

I turned towards the Civire mercenary. He was staring intently at the Snellen, showing no indication of having detected my approach. Considering that he had participated in the conversation a few minutes ago, I reckon he was aware of my coming. He just chose to ignore me.

“Hey, Krueger. You do know that two minutes is all you need to determine if your oculars are properly resynced and recalibrated, right?”

“Doctor says ‘stare at the Snellen’, I stare at the Snellen until instructed otherwise.”

“Uhuh,” I uttered. “Right. Are you free this month?”

“You could always Data- or DeepMine me to find that out.”

“DeepMine’s engaged. Excavating big data on the perp’s victim. I do not expect it to be done until ten a.m., soonest.”

“Go check with Mr. Baqir.”

Our agent.

“It’s not a job, Krueger. Just a favour. Funny man trying to sell me LPD datadrives. I need muscle to keep him honest.”

He cocked his head slightly towards me. “Go check with Mr. Baqir,” Damon repeated disinterestedly.

He suddenly froze. His lenses dilated. His pale face turned ashen. I heard cracking, smelled burnt plastic and iron rust. I spun around. Richter had stood up, his toppled swivel-chair lying on its backrest. His consoles were pouring smoke, orange glows under their cases. Damon shoved me aside, lifted an extinguisher’s nozzle and pulled the trigger.

I could still smell the stench of melting plastic. The wire insulators were turning black, the surge protectors starting to smoke. Damon turned the nozzle towards them and buried them in foam.

A shush and hiss. Spray of foam dwindled to a trickle. Damon threw the extinguisher aside. It fell and rolled along the cement floor with a hollow clang, eventually stopping at the foot of the workbench.

We stared at the ruined desk. The consoles were silent, their holos dead. Aircon and ventilation fans rattled on the ceiling. Foam dripped from the gray wall. Popping puddle reached for my boot-tips. Wispy fumes starting to fade.

“What has happened?” I broke the silence.

Richter blinked. His oculars were dilated. His sensor-studded fingers were trembling, reflecting his shocked state. His voice cracked, "As soon as I brought up the breach terminal, the consoles bluescreened and everything started smoking.”

I dug the Fifth Lobe out of the foam. Cracks, filled with glossy black, were etched all over its silver surface. Microplugs were fused to its microports, the remnants of the filaments which had connected it to the interfacer. The interfacer itself had burnt out, its glossy case charred over and caved in.

There was no data to pull, nothing left to salvage.


Chapter 5: Fakes

“Monsieur Villiers?”

The bank teller interrupted my stream of consciousness. Her jade-green eyes were ringed in faded red. Plaster-white flaked under her eyes.

“Monsieur Villiers?” she repeated. Her expression was a mix of worry, confusion, and recognition. She was staring at the mediderm on my forehead. She must have recognised me from that viral ‘police brutality’ vid from my costume.

“Monsieur Villiers, your cash is ready for collection,” she said gently. Egone spine poking from under her stiff white nylon collar. It’s pin-prick LED flickered. Must have tried to sleuth on me using social media apps. She won’t find anything but fragmentary scraps. I had made sure of that.

“Monsieur Villiers?” she asked again, sounding more agitated. I looked away from her tanned neck to her china-white face and smiled. I snuck my hand under the counter window, retrieved an envelope and opened its flap. I was greeted by a stoic Doule dos Rouvenor, stone-faced, looking straight ahead, head facing 45 degrees to his right. Counted thirty-five thousand Villore sovs. I returned the bank teller’s plastic smile.

The panel on the envelope’s flat side displayed a monochrome version of the bank teller. ‘BEAT THE QUEUE! UPGRADE TO PRIVILEGED ACCOUNT!’ her text bubble urged. ‘VILLORE REGIONAL BANK’ and a scannable code swept in and took up all of the e-ink panel.

I tucked it into my slingbag.

Huumph and harrumph emitted by a robed Amarr behind me. His carved frown curled to expose his regular pearly-white teeth. He flared his nostrils. I smiled, nodded with mock embarrassment, and stepped out of the line. “Huumph!” huffed the Amarr. With upturned head, he stepped towards the counter. Many dozens of lines behind him, spread across the twenty-or-so counters. Mostly tourists and expats who have yet to adopt the cashless system.

Stepped out. Weather’s downcast. I pulled up my hood, not for the impending rain but for the cams and cops.

Following the street was unpleasant, what with all the eyes laid onto me. Pedestrians glancing and pointing, drivers and passengers slowing down to take a closer look. Hurriedly took a right into an alley, made several turns before arriving at a clearing.

Jade grasses and trees, pink flowers, buzzing bugs, marble benches, meticulously arranged in four quadrants. There were interactive sculptures in each of them.

Right at the center was a bundle of 19 pillars, all with equal diameters. 7 supports at center surrounded by 6 pipes and 6 hyperloop elevators. Ads projected onto their every surface. Albert and Alberta’s silicon smiles, the seamless Aliastra PrinTex, Tei-Su Street Food’s white-pajama-ed chrome-bot, Quafe purple clashing with Starsi orange, stiff-lipped Civire holding a spoonful of Ishukrunch aloft, facing off another equally stiff-lipped Civire holding a spoonful of Kaalaki-O’s.

Hovering over them was a revolving holo-projection clearly visible from any point in the garden. It showed a clean-shaven buzz-cut Gallente in nylon suit. He pumped his fist as he addressed an imaginary rally crowd.

Subtitle named him as Francent Sealford. The resemblance to one of my fake names was purely coincidental. He criticised Kalsa Aldenner’s policies, called it too naïve. He questioned how increasing the welfare payout was supposed to relieve the burdens of the growing lower class. He then spoke of his own plan to increase the allocation of district funds into the development of service and entertainment industry sectors. He made no mention of the drones and automation encroaching into these sectors, neither did he acknowledge the existence of increasingly-popular purely virtual artists.

A ding. Elevator spilling out passengers. Suits and costumes. White- and blue-collars. Pure and modded. Uptier, Lowtier, Surface-siders. No traffic restrictions. Free society.

One passenger remained behind. Tanned, hard features, dreadlocks flowing down his hood, face masked in tattoos. He was dressed in a yellow glossy-plastic jacket, with slashed sleeves. He shot me a plastic smile. His stubbed mech-prosthetic finger was pressed into the floor select panel popped up onto the OLED screen, positioned on a button labeled ‘6’. It was glowing red.

His index finger slid down and lingered around ‘1’ to ‘3’. He kept smiling, feigning embarrassment. Not convinced. DataMiner IDed him as Tawhiri Ngata. Minmatar immigrant, entered the Federation shortly before the Empyrean War. Still jobless. Tried and failed to land or kept position as cleaner, blacklisted in over five companies for suspected burglary, none of which were proven. Last pic, from just three days ago, showed him pure, without mech-prosthetics. Stub on fingertips must hide lockbreaking tools. Seemed he became the very burglar they had accused him of being. Too bad he was floundering in his very first caper. 6th Tier and up are restricted to politicians and executives. Biometric scanner under the OLED keeps anyone else out.

Not so free a society.

Twenty or so more passengers filed in, separating us. Generous wriggle room, despite the crowd. More panels popped up all over the OLED wall as we selected our floors. The door shut with a quiet shush. The elevator car’s turbines and electromagnets silently hummed as it began its rapid descent.

The ad on the wall showed sculpted oiled men in black singlets, turning oversized wrenches in what looked to be the bowels of a large starship. Violent shudder, flickering lights, sparks bouncing off their swollen biceps. Their smiles were wide with thrill.

‘The best pilots need the best crewmen!’ read the tagline at the bottom. Tagline melted, and a yellow bacteriophage with a deathshead on its capsid, the logo of Pandemic Legion, emerged. New tagline: ‘Are you the best? Take our aptitude tests at our offices today!”

“4th Tier,” the speaker announced. I followed half the crowd out as soon as the door opened. Garden was similar as the one above, albeit with a different set of interactive sculptures. Clouds above were further away. The pillars vanished into the sky at the 35th-metres point, counting from the carbonide-coated brick-lined floor.

I moved around the pillar bundles and weaved through another network of alleys. Stepped out, turned left, turned left again into the turquoise-tinted interiors of an Aliastra boutique.

“Welcome, customer,” greeted an Excena-voice. Virtual-attendant flickered on before me. Hair green, clothes green. No bumps or anything resembling texture on her tiny mini-dress. Flat colours. Aliastra’s pushing the PrinTex line hard.

“Please proceed into one of our booths to begin,” the Excena-voiced holo-doll, who did not look anything like Poer Excena, directed.

Stepped into booth 5. I felt my hair stand as discrete scanners took my measurements. OLED blinked on, showing the Aliastra logo, then the neatly categorised selection of clothes. The clock read ‘1247’.

I decided to try out the PrinTex line of garments, seeing that there’s a 15% discount for the purchase of a complete set. I tapped on ‘Recommend’. Discrete cams snapped my mug. Took less than 20 seconds for the store A.I. to calculate best matches for my physical profile. Spat out the selections. Aliastra logo emblazoned on most of the front side of the beanie and t-shirt. I tweaked the selection, then select ‘Purchase’.

‘Trade-in for a further discount,’ suggested the OLED. I undressed and peeled away the wire-mesh patches from my garments, then deposited them into the chute. Booth scanned the deposited garments and applied a further 10% discount.

Still way marked up from cost.

I searched my pockets for a chit with a specific nick. Tapped it against the paypad, brought up my breach terminal and penetrated store network security via an opened port. Rummaged through boutique data-store while the chute spat out the seamless garments in easy-tears. Accessed folder ‘booth05’, subfolder ‘datalog07041181247’ while dressing up in fresh wear. Deleted subfolder, cleared access logs, logged out and left the premise.

Pedestrians strolled about, easy-going despite the rainy sky. The clock displayed `1307’ when I stood outside the ‘Bouchées Petites’. Having detected that I had lingered in the vicinity for 10 seconds, the store’s hidden holo-projector flickered on. Felt the light shock of haptic feedback as I pointed at ‘1 pax’.

Blinking signal lights on the floor led me through the diner. It was nearly full-house due to this being the lunch hours. Students, suits, blue- and white-collars. Many engaged in face-time conversations, even more were hunched over holo-coms, poring over datapads or nodding to nothing in particular. No execs, the place is not posh enough for the likes of them.

I was led to a two-person seat nestled at a right-angled corner, fenced by black iron. I made myself comfortable and tapped on the black iron table to bring up a holo-menu. I ordered a latte and a croissant, then established private VPN connection and streamed Covertor 01.

The night and morning’s excavation had turned out a lucrative yield of data. Sergei Drogodziej had been very loquacious and adventurous. Treasure trove of data to work with.

Opened filters, converted display time from NEST into V-IV-LST and selected ‘Primary Source Only’. Plotted an activity chart, a process which took half-a-minute, mostly contributed by network lag in my private connection. I then searched for an anomaly in the chart. Didn’t take me long to find it. Steep cliff near the end of interval between 16.04.YC117 and 17.04.YC117, dropping precipitously down to ‘0’ on the x-axis. Stayed that way since. Zoomed in. Y-axis point read ‘2311’. Geosense metadata of last transmission read ‘Block 19-20, Isley Street, Rouvenor District, Wellside, Aidonis Spire’.

Dossier stated his apartment was in Block 30.

Brought up index, sort according to time, date and location. Included third party data referencing Sergei Drogodziej in filters.

Heard china-clatters. Tabbed out of DataMiner terminal. Would have stumbled off my chair if not for the black iron fence.

Sebiestor lass seated on the opposite side of my table. She lifted her wire-binder book to cover her lips. “I am sorry,” she said with a slight blush. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Quickly regained my bearings, stood up and offered my hand. She took off her headphone, an actual headphone, and wore it around her neck. She was wearing a tribal-patterned capelet. The same retro-connoisseur I had encountered on the Whakra.

“Raschard Villiers.”

She laid down her book, which turned out to be a paper sketchbook, and an actual graphite pencil beside her mug of cappuccino, stood up and clasped my hand in hers. Her hands were warmer than an average person’s. She bowed slightly. “And you are…” I asked. She grinned impishly, cocked her head to her left and said, “Take a guess.”

DataMiner turned up blank. DeepMine showed her strolling, wandering and exploring in various locales, some by her lonesome, others with Elmund as companion. I looked through the library ‘Elmund Egivand’ to see if I could find any mention of a woman, Sebiestor, brown-haired and amber-eyed, height about 160cm.

‘Ball-and-chain’, ‘My wife heats up easily.’, ‘Teases me with the dried leaves.’, ‘Isi’.

Isi Efelate Egivand.

“Ah, my apologies. I didn’t realise, Madame…”

“Please call me Isi,” she beamed. “I am not one for smokes and mirrors.”

“Ah, pardon me. Pardon me,” I sat down and she followed suit. “So, how did you find your stay in charming Libertopolis?”

“I found the arts and culture rich and intriguing, and its architectural engineering marvels most awe-inspiring.”

She sat down and sup on her cappuccino. She laid it down on the china tray. Her tone carried a hint of excitement, “Your megascrapers, especially this Foiritan Tower, impress me the most.”

“Was it the tiers being their own township, the seamless connectivity between the megascrapers and the surface, or the weather simulation?”

“Everything, but the weather simulation. I must say the weather simulation disappoints me somewhat. It is raining, yet not a single drop has moistened these roofs and streets.”

“Authenticity has to make way for practicality,” I nodded. “You could try 6th Tier and up. I believe a person of your stature has access. The sprinkler systems of these tiers are programmed to simulate rain.”

She took another sip of her cappuccino. “I am not fond of the upper tiers. Too much politeness, too much hidden malice.”

“You will find no shortage of smiling villains here.” I leaned back, picked up and sip on my latte.

“Are you a smiling villain, Monsieur Villiers?”

I grinned and shrugged, “Who knows?”

“Should I credit Fortune for my meeting with such a charming lass as yourself, or was it something else?”

She placed her elbows on the table and rested her sharp chin on the back of her fingers. “I am here as an agent of my husband’s. I am curious,” she smiled, “What had you uncovered thus far?”

“Well…,” I tabbed back into my DataMiner terminal, “I had learned that your husband’s friend ceased all network activity near his home four days before he was due to leave Villore IV.” I set the filters to sieve out anything prior to 17.04.YC117 and to include secondary and tertiary sources.

Chatlogs in social media sites. 1513, 17.04.YC117 log showed Dominika berating Sergei’s tardiness, demanding to know if she had been stood up. The messages were never replied to.

Another individual calling himself Oculus communicated to Dominika that he was setting up discrete cams in and around Block 30. Pics are transmitted to both his and Dominika’s Egone. Must be a P.I. Dominika must be hung up over being stood up.

One pic showed a yellow autocab stopped in front of Block 30. Metadata showed time of pic taken as ‘0017, 18.04.YC117’. The fire-bearded visage of Sergei Drogodziej, back of head towards cam, was visible over the roof of the vehicle. Other pics showing him walking up the steps towards his room. Hands in pocket of black pants, dressed in black suit. No tie. Face stern.

“He appeared in front of his apartment block on 0017, a day after his sudden cessation of activity…”

I brought up pic gallery pics from 16.04.YC117 and back. A glance-through showed him wearing various summer jackets, t-shirts and caps. He was smiling in all of them, some happy, some smug, some mischievous.

“Though he exhibited behavioural changes.”

Last message from Oculus was from 0700, 19.04.YC117. He said he was going to go check with a contact in YellowBug, the local autocab company. Discrete cam showed Dominika going up the stairs towards Sergei’s apartment on 0901, 20.04.YC117. Next pic was of Sergei, back turned away from cam. Dominika wasn’t with him. No Dominika in pics timed before or after his departure. No further chats from Oculus.

“Last person to be in contact with him was Dominika, last seen going towards Sergei’s room. She wasn’t seen leaving. She was in contact with a P.I. named Oculus. No further communications between them since 19.04.YC117.”

I set filters to 17-18.04.YC117 and started looking for other pics containing ‘Sergei’ and the autocab, plate number AS-337-V4. Results were unsurprisingly taken from the various unrelated persons whose cams just happened to be directed at the road or the general direction of the autocab. Plotted results on map of Wellside, Aidonis Spire. Number of points too sparse to plot route taken by the autocab. Too scattered. Not enough data.

Set filters to 15-16.04.YC117. See if I could find any references to suspicious individuals. Parties. Lots of parties from all over Libertopolis and Aidonis Spire. In one, Sergei downed twenty bottles of vodka and only got tipsy out of the binge. Talked quite a lot about the Project and what it meant to baseliner crewmen of capsuleer starships. ID anyone in the pics. Couldn’t find anyone who didn’t fit into Sergei’s web of contacts in all the pics. Extended timeline. Nothing.

“That is all I could give you, for the time being, I’m afraid,” I said as I tabbed out of DataMiner. Isi’s holding onto her sketchbook again, staring at me intently. Her mug was empty.

She slowly lifted up her sketchbook, over her little mouth, and asked, “Shouldn’t I?”

“It’s okay.”

She laid the sketchbook beside her empty cup. “How did you find all these out in such a short time span?” she inquired. “Program I wrote,” I answered. “It was running all night and morning, actually. Uses images and texts of subject to search all social media sites, messageboards, image albums, anything publically available on the Galnet, and index them for analysis. Data and metadata. Doesn’t even need to be from subject or his contact. As long as the software A.I. can recognise the subject in the data, it excavates it.”

“That is quite the pattern recognition algorithm.”

“My finest work,” I smiled as I sip on my latte.

I put the latte down and continued the previous subject, “It isn’t perfect, however. It can only excavate and analyse what is already available publically.”

“And this is where you hit a snag?” she asked, her head cocked to her right. I nodded in reply, “Yeah.”

“Are the implants not helpful for your search?”

I shrugged. “Only wetware of any use is the Fifth Lobe.”


“It is rigged with a backlash program. Detected attempted intrusion and force a power surge to destroy itself. Couldn’t get anything out of it.”

“I see. Are you still confident that you can complete your assignment?”

“I have other ways, Madame,” I sipped on my latte again. “I will find you, and your husband, the perp.” I put the latte down. “You will hear from my agent by the end of the month, Madame.”

“I will leave you to your work,” She stood up. I followed suit, gripped her hand and gave it a light shake.

“Winds lift you.”

“That’s not Minmatar, is it?”

“Caldari,” she beamed, before leaving her seat and tottering away.

I sat down, picked up my croissant and gave it a nibble. Saw a notification from my mail app. Opened it. BunnyHop agreed to meet at ‘2000’, asked for a meetup venue. Replied mail with a coordinate, then shot another mail to Mr. Baqir, asking to hire Krueger’s services. Brought up my contact list and called my favourite barista.

Saw that Isi didn’t bring her sketchbook with her. It was still on the table, beside the empty cup of cappuccino. I retrieved it and saw my own face under the seamless grey hood. At first glance, my eyes looked to be a smudge. Closer look revealed definite outlines of my irises. My irises were ghosting about, like REM with opened eyelids.

I wasn’t the only one in the sketch. Suits, costumes, modded and pure, flowing ghost-like around me. I could see the square in the pocket of an incoming suit. His mustachioed face was of lighter shade, lit up by his holo-com. Lady in plastic panel dress was overlaid onto him.

Too detailed for expressionism. More like slow cam on graphite.

“Yes, Ghost, you called?”

“Hey, Hwan!” I grinned, putting down the sketchbook. “Do you have time tonight?”


Chapter 6: Social Calls

The text ‘1.3km’ was hovering over the yellow tracer arrow when Hwan’s icon, a steaming mug with the Kim-Jung logo, turned up at the top right corner of my vision.

I extracted the fifth coordinate from YellowBug ID# AS-337-V4’s activity log, dated 18.04.YC117, and extrapolated it onto the Wellside Aidonis Spire map.

“I’m five minutes away from the pub, in case you are wondering.”

A yellow curved-chassis autocab zipped past me at that moment. Pale Sebiestor in a dark blue jumpsuit at the passenger’s seat.

“Dressed sexy, I hope?” I quipped.

“No. The usual.”

“Shorts, maybe with tights, a little tie and a nice hat?”

“You know my style.”

A whiff of ozone. Glistening graphene rods poking from behind the five-storeys’ roofs.

“You should change up your wardrobe. Diversify from that boyish-cute look.”

Soft turbine hums of unseen maintenance drones.

“Any more fashion advice, Monsieur ‘I shop at Aliastra’?”

I silently scrolled down the 70% transparency window, then extracted and extrapolated another coordinate.

“You aren’t wearing one of their PrinTex garments, are you?”

Extracted another coordinate and extrapolated it onto the map.

“I take that as a ‘yes’.”

“It’s not that bad,” I sighed. “Breathable, stretchable, no lint…”

“Flat colour palette, smells like polyester stretched over a fire, skin rash after a year…”

“Hey! The colour isn’t flat!”

Extracted the seventh coordinate, extrapolated it onto the map. “Besides, it could be worse. I could be wearing FedMart.”

Extract and extrapolate.

“I still have your birthday present from last year. Thinking of framing that up and posting a pic of it. ‘Fashion-blindness Exhibit One’.”

I snorted. A Ione passerby gave me a dirty look. Old dame wearing faded out woolen shawl and prescription glasses. A living antique.

“Please don’t do that,” I rubbed the bottom, sniffled and fought down a grin. “But really, boyish-cute? Policemen can’t appreciate anything but bare skin.”

Dame rolled her eyes and crept on down the lane.

“You had instructed, ‘Get a detective to talk,’ not ‘Seduce a detective.’”

Went back to window. Extract and extrapolate.

“Relax, Ferghus. Ten-times UC Quarterly Debate Champ, remember?”

“You never stopped reminding me about it, but the police…”

“Debate’s not just about arguing and convincing, and you know that. ‘Sides, barista and bartender for five years. I am schooled in the arts of making people talk.”

“You know what the wise men said. Pride preludes fall.”

“I’ll take that as your vote of confidence. By the way, Dad said he wanted to speak to you.”

“You told him about my favour?”

“He asked. Filial piety. I can’t lie.”

“I swear, one of these days I’m going to hang in the Kim-Jung family meat locker and it will be your fault.”

“Regret passing over the dialectic course during your student years?”

Ozone odour stinging my nostrils. Coils, wires, ceramic-coated cylinders and blocks, all carved, printed and welded together into a Faraday-caged abomination. Drones circled around where the rods rose from its back to pierce the firmament. Landing, nipping, taking off, like flies around a speared corpse.

Tracer arrow read ‘0.33m’. I tabbed out of the window.

“Very. Talk to you later, Hwan. Maybe see you, if I finish early.”

“Right, just saw my mark. Want to keep the comm open? Listen in?”

“Nah,” I replied. “I have faith in you.”

“And not because I’m about to enter an area choked with interference.”

I smirked. Turned into an alley. “You know me.”

Icon blinked out. Called up Krueger. His icon, a stylised double-K, blinked on. “I’m on site, where are you?”

“Look at your chest.”

Red dot.

“I said ‘muscle’, not ‘sniper’.”

“You said ‘keep ‘em honest’. Paint him and he will be honest.”

“I don’t understand you Caldari.”

“Your understanding is unneeded. Where’s your contact?”

“Saw anyone in the premise so far?”

“Technician. Left ten minutes ago on a YellowBug autocab. You do not know your contact, do you?”

I kept silent.

“I do not understand your ways, Gallente,” Krueger quipped. “Black-hood approaching your location.”

The ‘black-hood’ turned up, blocking the alley-mouth. He glanced about as he stepped into the alley and strolled towards me. He smiled. Perfect teeth. Too perfect. Porcelain white. Hawkish nose, curly beard, bags under eyes. Smelled of Synthkaff.

“Where’s your muscle?” he asked.

I pointed at my chest. He looked down at his. He spread his arms, lifted his hands and exasperated. “A sniper? Really?”

DataMiner spat out his details. Faylen Mouckley. Employee dossier amidst the social site pages. LPD IT Technician. Felt my throat tightened. I gathered saliva under my tongue and swallowed, then gurgled out, “You BunnyHop?”

Mouckley dropped his arms.

“Faylen, but you know that already.” He clicked his tongue, glanced about, wagging his index fingers. His gaze fell on the general direction of Krueger’s nest. He craned out, then retracted his neck. “Tell your sniper I’m no threat, Ferghus. We are all friends, yeah?”

Jolt down my spine.

“You know me?”

“Ferghus Rillard.” Mouckley clicked his tongue again. Did a little tap-dance. “Caldari State sympathiser, suspected terrorist.” Tongue-click. “Enturrer-wannabe. Developed program to shut down Tripwire from a home terminal.”

“No other persons tailing your contact,” Krueger reported.

“Look, Mouckley. I…”

“It’s all ■■■■■■■■,” Mouckley interjected. “Anyone who paid closer attention to the allegation would find it riddled with holes. For one…” he extended his index finger towards me, “if the allegation was true, you would be a proud State citizen by now and Roden would have Tripwire replaced already.” He dropped his hand, glanced around, licked his lips and craned his neck towards me.

“I’m on your side, friend. The datadrive is no lie.”

He patted the messenger bag lying against his hips. He then opened its flap, retrieved a black-cased object three times the thickness of my datapad and handed it to me. I looked at the drive, then back at him.

“How much?” I asked.

He grinned wide, showing his porcelain teeth. “As a token of friendship, free of charge.” He rummaged through his bag again and removed a clothes pack. “And a change of clothes, as a bonus.”

Before I could ask about his generosity, he craned his neck and uttered, “Listen, friend, this datadrive and clothes are going to save your life. The Eagles’ got eyes on you.”

My throat clenched.

“Car, brown, pulling up 10 meters from your location,” Krueger’s voice scraped in my skull.

“Suit firmware’s updated a week ago. Caches vids now. When they couldn’t find the vids on database, they had me pull the vid from the suit. Analyst took the vid before I could obfuscate it. Now, they are tracking you, and frankly, friend, you made it easy. Even now, the cam’s are looking out for you, watching your every move. Gather intel, find your nest, ID all your associates. It’s only a matter of time before they move in and erase you and yours.”

“Driver and passenger disembarked. Armed. Taking the shot.”

Mouckley’s smug mug turned into a mask of shock when I seized him by his collar and hurled him into the back of a nearby dumpster. I dived after him, just as Krueger sent a ferromagnetic shell through the carbonide-coated wall and into the skull of an interloper.

“What the hell…” Mouckley started to shout. His outrage was drowned out by thunderous gunfire.

The klaxons went off. “Attention citizens of Foiritan Tower, Tier 1, Utilities Sector. The Libertopolis Police Department has declared a State of Emergency.”

“More vehicles approaching the other end of the alley. Move as soon as you hear my shot. Keep the dumpster behind your back.”

“For your safety, please return to and remain in your homes.”

His sniper rifle cracked aloud. I ducked and sprinted towards the opposite exit. “Hey, friend! Wait!” Mouckley shouted as he ran after me.

“For your safety, please return to and remain in your homes.”

Bullets striking the floor. Headlights flashed past me and I shielded my eyes. Metallic-screech, loud crash and sound of shattered glass. Smell of melted polymers. I skidded over the car’s bonnet and sprinted for the opposite alley. Heard the car-door creaked open, the sound of gauss discharge and a sickly pop.

Bullets whizzed past us as we ducked around the corner. “Three more cars moving to box you in,” said Krueger.

“■■■■,” I muttered under my breath as I tucked myself into a niche. I turned my attention towards Mouckley, who had tucked himself into the opposite niche, and accused, “Your friends followed you, Mouckley!”

He had leaned out and fired an SMG at the unknowns before I could utter the first word. He ducked back into cover as bullets whizzed past, looked at me and shouted, “What?”

“I said your friends followed you!”

“Friends? These assholes?” he scoffed. He leaned out only to duck right back in. The shots missed his head by a hair’s breadth. “Not LPD or Eagles! Sending hitmen isn’t their style!” He poked out his SMG, sprayed at the general direction of the unknowns, and shouted again, “Who did you piss off?”

“Police drones closing in on the unknowns.”

Loud ‘brrrt’ of autocannon fire, right on cue. The unknowns lifted their suppression fire and retaliated against the machines.

“I’m clearing out 9 o’clock. Get ready.” Krueger instructed. I realised I was still clutching the datadrive and the clothes-pack. I tucked them under my hoodie as a loud boom reverberated along the alley. Whines of a dying turbine, followed by a loud crash. A second boom replied with the simultaneous discharge of a thousand guns. I immediately dashed towards the direction of the explosion, past burning wreckages and shredded corpses.

Headlights in my eyes. I dived forward before the ramming vehicle could make a smear out of me. The unknowns flooded out of the van, and Mouckley fired at them. He caught three of them in the chest and limbs. The rest dived for cover. Just in time for the searchlight and the ‘whoom’ of an incoming dropship to sweep over us.

Heavy boots touching the ground. Canned orders shouted, followed by the discharge of assault rifles. Heard return fire, more skidding tires.

“Unknowns closing in on my location. Relocating,” Krueger reported. Skidding tires and howling turbines all around us as we took cover.

“Sighted more cars and vans at my next stop.”

“How did they…”, I caught glimpse of the minimised breach terminal on the sidebar in my vision. Realisation dawned unto me. “■■■■!”

“Krueger! The unknowns are tracking us via our Egones. Get rid of it!” Without waiting for an answer, I pulled back my hood and yanked my Egone right off. I then ripped the SMG from Mouckley’s grip, aimed and the device and pulled the trigger. My arms and torso shook violently as they absorbed the shock of the blowback. Mouckley snatched the gun back and exclaimed, “Are you crazy? What are you doing!?”

Tremors all over my body. Muscles twitching. Hands trembled and ached. I stared at the pulverised remains of the gadget. “Egone’s compromised,” I answered. Took a deep breath, exhaled. “■■■■!” I kicked the wall.

“That’s ■■■■, alright! Completely ruined my plan!”

I ceased my tantrum and stared at him. “What?”

“My plan! Look!” Mouckley turned me around and directed my attention towards the closest bundle of pillars, “We are going to the Elevator Plaza, and we are going there using a network of cam blind spots.” He then directed my attention towards the direction of the pillar-facing exit. Bright flashes of gunfire ahead. “Closest blind spot is passed that blockade. We get there then carve our way towards the plaza.”

“Blind spot?” I mouthed. “The cams have 360 degrees viewing angle!”

“Doesn’t mean they can see through covers and shadowed corners, and I had found them all out. Perks of the job. But!” Mouckley slotted out the magazine and glanced at its side-holes. He then clicked his tongue and continued, “I can’t get us both there myself with only seven rounds, thanks to somebody. We really need your sniper to help us out, but without your Egone, we can’t let him in on the plan. So!” he dramatically spread his arms, “Plan’s busted and we are in deep ■■■■!”

“No, not exactly,” I uttered. “Change of plans…friend! We are not going to the plaza. If these goons are anywhere as competent as I think, they will be waiting to ambush us there.” I pointed at the bundle of pillars at the edge of the tier. “We are going to the service elevator instead, and before you ask,” Mouckley shut his mouth, “I have the key. Sort of.”

“I know of another blind spot in that direction, but in case you have forgotten, we are surrounded by armed men. Sooner or later…”

I rolled my eyes, “Take cover behind the dumpster at that alley-mouth and just wait for my sniper to fire.”

Mouckley frowned, “How can you be sure he will figure out what to do? How do you even know he didn’t just cut-and-run?”

I smirked, “Former Home Guard. Professional. He will adapt.”

“What?” Mouckley gaped. “He’s Caldari? And Kaalakiota at that? You trusted a nationalist hardliner to watch your back?”

“He got screwed over by double-K. Besides, he lives and dies by his reputation. He won’t cut-and-run.”

Mouckley shrugged, “Well, if you say so, but if we end up huddling behind that dumpster until we get shot or detained, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

It didn’t take long for Krueger to live up to my expectations. About three minutes in and there was a report of gauss fire. The shot caught the police dropship in the turbine, sending it spinning and veering into the closest five-storey. It cut through two other neighbouring tenements before colliding into one of the unknowns’ vehicles (a van). Its descent rained glass, gravel and carbonide shards down onto the combatants, forcing them to duck and cover their heads.

Mouckley stood up and started to run. I immediately dragged him down, just as the report of another gauss fire rung through the street. The dropship ignited, and exploded about three seconds later. I let Mouckley go and ran after him, as he led the way to the next blind spot.

The police and the unknowns poked their heads out and aimed at us and each other. Mouckley leveled his SMG towards the unknowns’ ruined barricade and pulled the trigger. They ducked, just as the SMG clicked. Not enough to suppress our assailants, but more than enough to grant the police the advantage and to buy us time to get out of sight.

The klaxons were still blaring. Report of gunfire can still be heard from all around. Couldn’t tell the time, not without the Egone transmitting its UI data into my brain, but I estimated it had taken us fifteen minutes of weaving, ducking and rolling from cover to cover to get to the service elevator.

Circled around to the topmost pillar, right at the edge. No handrails or fences to separate us from the streetlights below, not that there was any risk of slipping and falling down there. The megascraper’s shell lined the edges. The scenery was a holoprojected illusion.

“Friend, what are you waiting for?” Mouckley asked. He was fidgeting, looking around, aiming his empty SMG at the shrubs, bushes and alleys. “We stay low and wait for my sniper,” I replied.

The LPD IT tech lowered his SMG and noted, “You are bleeding, friend.” I swiped along my neck and scalp and then stared at the red sheen on my palm. “Yeah, yeah, I’m bleeding, alright,” I murmured, a little surprised that I hadn’t felt anything.

“Better get that patched up before the adrenaline wears off,” said Mouckley.

“I still have the nanofilaments…”

“Just disinfect the bloody thing,” he replied, retrieving mediderm patches from under his windbreaker. “Then get to a backalley doctor once this is over.” He looked at me as he peeled open one of the patches. “You know one, right, friend?”

I nodded and turned around. As I squatted down, my right knee hit a hard object I had forgotten I had tucked into my hoodie. I retrieved the datadrive and the clothes-pack, slid over my slingbag, unzipped it and stared at the datapad inside. The wire which had connected it to the Egone was still stretched towards and through the slingbag’s port. Recalling that it wasn’t networked, I decided to hold onto it. Just needed to scrub it once I retreated into Asclepius District.

My neck and scalp tingled when Mouckley smoothed the mediderms onto my skin. I tucked the datadrive into the slingbag and tore open the clothes-pack. It contained a black FedMart windbreaker. To the touch, it felt like the thin film-like biodegradables the Jin-Mei soup kitchens use to pack their rice.

Mouckley rose up with a start. He heard a metallic screech emanating from the alley behind us. He immediately aimed his empty SMG towards that direction. He was visibly trembling when he heard the heavy footfalls and saw the silhouette of a broad-shouldered giant emerging from the dark.

A click. Damon Krueger emerged, a bolt pistol in hand. “Lower your gun, black-hood,” he growled. Mouckley grinned nervously. “You our sniper, friend?” he said, pointing at the gauss sniper slung behind his back. He lifted the SMG, removed its magazine and shook it at the merc. “It’s empty.”

I stood up, draped the windbreaker over my hoodie, peered around the corner and greeted, “Hey, Krueger.” The civire mercenary snorted as he lowered his pistol. I tensed up immediately when he suddenly spun around and aimed into the alley behind him. He slowly retreated to our location and motioned for me to do…whatever it was he had expected me to do.

I took out one of my credit chits, the one with a scratch along the length of its surface, close to the edge, and tapped on the side of the pillar. The discrete touchpad beeped and my hair stood, as nanocoating peeled off the pillar’s surface.

“How did you do that?” Mouckley inquired.

“Not much of a hacker, are you?” I replied. The vacuum tube hissed as the elevator car sank onto our tier.

“I cracked and decrypted some drives and electronics in the LPD. Nothing fancy like what you did just now,” he said as we stepped into the elevator car. I tapped on the button labeled ‘Ground’. The door shunted shut and the car’s turbine hummed as it begun its descent.

“Credit chit’s nanoelectronics are touch-key analogues. Its program, I coded it myself,” I replied.

“You still needed a valid UIN and biometrics of a registered service tech,” he pointed out.

“Swiped it off one of them.” I noticed Mouckley’s questioning look and smiled. “Most of the work’s already done by the time I stole the key off a drunk tech in a friend’s bar. Heavy drinker but can’t hold his alcohol. Man’s knocked out cold. Never stirred in those three hours I cracked his key open, extracted the UIN and biometric data and spoofed them. That’s why the UIN hasn’t been de-registered.”

I felt the G’s when the elevator slowed to a gradual stop. My hair stood again as the door opened, and they remained standing when the door shut and nanocoated behind us. I inhaled deeply, took in the scent of the street, and sighed in relief. It was then my knees decided to give way and my neck and scalp decided to sting.

Krueger caught me by the armpit and jabbed stims into my neck. “You can rest after we get to the CyberClinic,” he said. “Who are these unknowns attacking us? They do not look like Black Eagles, FIO or police.”

“Must be the perp’s men,” I replied. “Backtraced me and bugged my Egone.” I noted the subtle shift in Krueger’s expression and added, “Yours too. Must have gotten to yours via our connection, as soon as he figured out that you are around to cover my back.”

“He had like a platoon up there gunning for us,” Mouckley asked. “This perp you pissed off some kind of egger?”

I shrugged. “Could be.”

Mouckley paled.

“We should get going,” Krueger interjected. Mouckley blinked. “So, I guess, until we meet again?” “Sure,” I replied. I pointed at his right hand and asked, “By the way, friend. You sure you want to go out there with that SMG?”

Mouckley stared at the gun and grinned wearily. “Yeah, be pretty stupid to be seen carrying this, huh?” He chucked it into the dumpster and went on his way.


Nice read. I would suggest that you join the Writing contest with this story.


I’m not joining this year. Besides, this novella’s written entirely out of character, which disqualifies it from YC 119 New Eden Capsuleer Writing Contest.

Chapter 7: Fallout

Shaky-cam on the dusty OLED screen. Grey right arm and red chest on the mannequin at the bottom left of the neon-blue HUD. Black boots hit glistening carbonide wall. Cam rose over the ledge. Below, gunmen and drones traded tracer rounds. Concentrated fire shredded and sheared black carapace off a police drone. It yawed, smoked and crashed. The gunmen ducked as retaliatory tracer streams impacted their carbonide and steel covers.

Rifle barrel rose into view, reflex sight dead centre. Tint. Muzzle-flashes. Chat-stream exploded.

My nails gouged fillings out of the faux-leather armrest. Richter had drawn fire out of my neck. “You are tensing up too much,” he rasped. “Ease up!” I clenched my teeth and, with a trembling hand, raised the can up to my lips.

Two windows at the bottom corners of the screen, hovering over the scrolling ticker. Bottom left, a virtual newscaster in Quafe-blue dress & Quafe-blue beehive hairdo smiled plastic-like. On the bottom-right, a steel-haired pretty boy with badges, smiling a million-sov smile.

LPD Foiritan District Precinct’s media darling: Captain Gerald Bradley.

Fake girl said something. Pretty captain said something. Probably announcing the end of the ‘terrorist threat’. I gulped down my beer.

Light taste. Not malty enough. I turned the can around. ‘Quafe Beer’ logo emblazoned diagonally on its Quafe-blue surface. Malt-flavoured still. Fake beer.

Richter depressed the trigger. Hair-like nanofilaments fell into and coiled up in the water-filled aluminium basin. I took another sip.

Black, white-striped dropship moored against the ledge. Side-hatch opened. Cam rose over chest-high wall and hopped right in. Pretty captain tapped on the side of his desk, bringing up the map of Tier 1, Foiritan Tower onto the main screen. Five uneven pentagons converging on a red rectangle. Guessed the 'terrorist threat’ isn’t over yet.

I choked on my beer. Richter had jammed his prong into the back of my neck and pulled the trigger. Jolts running up and down my spine. Tingle in my skin, fiery prickle of stiffening rods in my flesh. No hair left to stand. I coughed, clenched my teeth, lifted up my can and gulped down another large mouthful of fake beer.

Door ‘shunk’ed open. Krueger, in a padded digi-camo hooded jacket, sleeves slit up till elbow, entered the operating theatre. White patches and stripes on the side of his head and knuckles, where the mediderms used to be. “Hey,” I wheezed. He looked me in the eye with steely gaze and said nothing. With the pinky of my can-clutching hand, I pointed at his rucksack. He put it down, unzipped it and pulled out and laid down easy-tear clothes-paks. One after another, total up to four. I peered over my shoulder at Richter and croaked, "Really?”

The cybersurgeon shrugged, “Compensation. For yesterday’s debacle.” He gripped my skull and twisted it forward. I sipped on my beer and croaked, "How long?”

“One week,” Richter answered as he jammed his prong into my neck and pulled the trigger. I tensed. Tingle. Fire in my flesh.

“Should blow over by then,” he continued.

Krueger pulled an SMG out of the rucksack. Same model as what Mouckley and the unknowns had used, but modded with sliding stock, foldable sight and extended mags.

"What’s that for?” I asked, pointing with my pinky. "It’s for your own self-defense,” Krueger grunted as he pulled out two more magazines.

I winced. Fire drawn out of my neck.

The gate opened briskly as soon as I recited the passphrase. Krueger drew his bolt pistol from his sleeve and pointed it at the Cartel guard as soon as he glimpsed the drawn SMG in the guard’s hand. “Hey, hey, hey, wait!” I cried urgently, my arms raised, elbows bent 90 degrees, palms out. I looked at Krueger, then at the guard. They glanced at me, then back at each other, guns still drawn. “What is this about?” I demanded. The Cartel guard looked at me again. His goggled faceplate was unreadable.

“Boss wants to see you,” he replied.

The guard had his SMG aimed at my back the entire time he marched us up the three flights of bare titanium stairs. Krueger, though his face was blank, was twitchy the entire time. His finger never left the trigger of his bolt pistol. I could hear his oculars whining, whirring throughout our climb up towards the Boss’ office. Probably watching the guards on the parapets below, their guns following our ascent.

Cold, freshened processed air blew in my face when the door slid open with a loud clang. Inside, behind an ornately-carved blackwood table and beside a swamp-green leather armchair, a 9-foot tall Brutor stood with his stout back facing towards us, his fingers pinching a depleting smoking cig. He was looking down onto the entirety of Asclepius District. Krueger’s oculars whined, probably sneaking glances at the antique weapons cabinet lining both sides of the fernite carbide walls. There was faint flute-wheeze playing in the background.

Boss turned around, revealing savage war-scar-like tattoos etched all over into his tanned face. His crimson oculars locked onto us. There was a slight twitch at the edge of his thick lips. He pointed his cig at Krueger. “Holster that gun, Krueger,” he boomed, his voice overpowering the background flutes.

Krueger glanced at the domes and raised plates on the fernite carbide ceiling before lowering his weapon. He snapped his pistol to a hidden latch which sucked it up into his sleeve. Boss snapped his fingers and the view behind him winked off. Dim ceiling lights further dimmed into toe-snubbing darkness. Boss tapped on his table and brought up a red-orange squat cylinder. He flicked at the cylinder, and it floated to the middle of the room. He then flicked his thumb and index finger simultaneously. The cylinder expanded, filling the room with its maroon glow. Panoramic surveillance holovid. I recognised the shuttered gate and the wall beside it. ‘2305’ blinked on the top edge of the holovid.

Boss flicked his finger three times then tapped once, then flicked out his thumb and his index finger simultaneously, zooming in and focusing on a specific section of the vid. On it, two beige-coated men were tucked into a shadowed corner, facing the shuttered gate, frozen on the spot. Boss tapped on his table and the strangers rocked and sway in response. Smoking, drinking but never speaking to each other. Their eyes were transfixed onto the shuttered gate.

The digits on the top edge counted to ‘0010’ and two​ ​Pharma​ ​guards,​ ​clad​ ​in​ ​jade-green​, ​turned​ ​up​ with gauss rifles in hand. They spoke​ to the strangers and the strangers replied. ​Conversed, nodded their heads, then one of the strangers stood forward, puffed out his chest, pulled a drag and belch smoke at frontmost guard’s faceplate. Said guard then shoved him in the chest. The stranger tucked his hand into his coat. The guard levelled his rifle at him. Stranger’s friend grabbed him by the shoulder and shook his head. The stranger looked at him, then back at the guard, then pulled his hand away from his coat. He took another drag, expelled smoke and walked away with his friend.

The vid reset. Boss pointed his cig at the strangers, “Know these men?” His voice was low, bassy.

I looked at him and noticed three holo-windows hovering where the District view was. One of them alternated between neon blue and rapid flashes. The other two were graphs with similar lines.

He knew.

“They were the same guys shooting out Tier 1, Foiritan Tower. They were hunting me.”

Boss took a long drag, then snubbed the cig into his ashtray. “Why?”

“I was looking for their employer. A job. He, or she, has ties to a clonejack with Duster implants.”

Boss produced a cig-box and slid out another stick. He tucked it between his lips, lit it up, then took another long drag. He removed his cig, exhaled smoke and declared, “You will have your network back once I am satisfied that your mainframe is thoroughly scrubbed.”

I stared long at him. “You have dumped residents’ computers into the Septic Pit for lesser offences.”

“You are a ghost-hunter. They are not. ” Boss took another drag. He exhaled, “You will find this ‘employer’ for your Brunner, and for us.”

Another drag, more smoke exhaled. Oculars glowed a menacing red.

“You have two weeks.”

Krueger ducked as soon as he opened the door labelled ‘7’, and the chrome-chassis deck that was hurled at him nearly grazed my shoulder. A shrill squawk that was a mix of terror and outrage emitted from within the gallery of refurbished tech, "Oh, ■■■■, Krueger! Damn, man! Sorry about…”

As soon as he saw me, Bjorn forgot his apology and lunged at me. Flash of light. Blurred vision. Pain erupted on my nose. Cold metal plates on my back. I thought I saw Krueger shrugging his shoulders.

“What did you do, Francent? They cut off our net!” Bjorn yelled, shaking his swelling fist.

My head spun. Couldn’t feel my nose. I tried to inhale and ended up gagging. I sat up, snorted out blood onto my thighs, gripped the bridge of my nose and shook my head. “I messed up bad,” I said apologetically. “Caused a security risk.”

“Well, fix it! Fix it right immediately!” Bjorn shouted. Had expected him to stamp his feet. “Your ‘security risk’ is about to screw me out of a hundred thousand sovs deal! The deadline’s arriving in half an hour!”

I staggered up and answered half-breathlessly, “I don’t know if I can scrub my mainframe within that time frame…”

“Get to it already, you daufr argr!” Bjorn shoved me towards the stairs. “Get me my network back in half an hour or your processor’s going into the Pit!” he punctuated with a boot to my bum.

“Security key not found,” said the Excena-voice. “Please state the security key number.”

I looked at Krueger and nudged my head towards the stairs. He nodded in affirmation and went upstairs. As soon as his shadow left the fernite carbide wall, I stated the 20-digits-and-characters long password. “Security key verified,” acknowledged the Excena-voice. Rest of the authentication process went smoothly. “Welcome home, Francent Delacroix,” greeted the Excena-voice. The OLED and holo blinked on. I noted the crossed-out network icon on the bottom right of the main screen.

I hung up my sling bag, unzipped it, retrieved Mouckley’s datadrive and cash envelope, then went and laid them down on my workstation. I then picked up my custom holodeck and walked towards my mainframe computer blocks. Plugged it in, ran the scrubber, then went to the mini-fridge, picked up a can of real malt beer and sank into my recliner. I froze, suddenly aware of the unfamiliar weight pressing against my abdomen. Recalling that I was armed, I put down my beer on my workstation, unzipped my padded jacket, removed the loaded SMG and the two extended mags and laid them down on the desk. I studied the unfamiliar object’s fernite carbide shell for half a minute before retrieving my beer, pulled the tab and drained out half the can in a single gulp.

I burped aloud and swivelled towards the drawers to my right. I opened the top-most drawer and retrieved my old Impetus Five-Six holocom. I placed it onto the charging pad on the right side of my main workstation. The holo lit up. It was greyed out. Fifteen minutes to full charge.

I emptied my can and picked up another.

Twenty minutes later. My head’s abuzz. Twenty cans of beer haphazardly stacked all over my workstation and floor. Beep behind me. I returned to the computer blocks. Holodeck projection declared that the bug was caught and excised. I unplugged my holodeck, brought it to my workstation, connected it to Mouckley’s drive and ran the scrubber again. I peered up the stairs and hollered aloud, “Security risk’s gone!”

“Then tell Boss! Hurry!” Bjorn shouted back. “You do it!” I answered aloud. “Boss set me up on some impossible task! Two weeks to catch the perp responsible for this mess! I need to start work now!”

“Spirits above, Francent! Fine!”

“I need that drone’s processor, by the way! Right now! I will put the cash on your workstation!”

The door slammed open and the hollow ringing frantic footsteps trailed away before I could start my sentence. “Your neighbour’s already gone,” Krueger said aloud. “I’ve noticed, Krueger,” I deadpanned.

I returned to the holodeck and saw that the scrubber found zero malicious programs in Mouckley’s datadrive. I streamed my holodeck’s projection onto my main screen. The datadrive contained two doc files, one of which was 200mb, a note file titled ‘Read Me First’ and a folder.

The first sentence of the note file read ‘Warn me before you begin cracking the LPD network. Below it, username and password. The folder contained .dll’s and .dat’s. Source codes.

The door slammed with a hollow ring. The number of active slaved computers displayed on the top left panel jumped from ‘0’ to ‘231’. “Your neighbour has returned,” Krueger said aloud. “I know!” I shouted my reply. I turned on my holocom and Hwan’s icon blinked on immediately.

“You were offgrid for almost twelve hours. What happened?”

“You’d watch the news?”

“The terrorist attack?”

“Yeah. I was caught up in it.”

Silence. “You okay?” she asked, slowly. There was a crack in her usually cool voice.

I rubbed the back of my neck. Cool sensation. Palm rubbing nanite-impregnated fabric mesh. “A little scuffed up,” I said as reassuringly as I could, “But I’m fine.”

“Sounds like you got more than a little ‘scuffed up’. What happened?”

“Pissed into some egger’s cereal, I guess.”

“Think you will get out of this alive?”

“Probably,” I replied. Licked my lips and then continued, “Some powerful friends butted into this business. Want this sorted as bad as I do. I will be fine.”

“If you say so.” Coolness cracking, revealing uncertainty. “I’m sending to you my interview with the detective. Is there anything else, another favour you want to ask for?”

I rubbed the mediderm on the back of my neck again. “Yeah. My friend and I lost our Egones. I also need some paper cash. Ten thousand sovs.”

“I will get them to you by ten pm.”

“Thanks, Hwan, but we can’t be seen together, for your own safety.”

“So, drop-off point. Like two years ago.”

I smiled ruefully. “Like two years ago. I will transfer the money and transmit the coordinate.”

Hwan’s icon blinked off. I opened my bank app for a different bank, and transferred the amount for the Egones and to cover the cash withdrawal. I got off my recliner, picked up my cash envelope and went upstairs.

Krueger was leaning against the elbow of the railing, tapping on the steel-grey projection of his holocom, when I laid my foot on the topmost step. He peered at me, then back at his holocom and said nothing.

Bjorn was at his workbench, fiddling about with a palm-sized gadget with an old-timey digital display and a set of dials and switches. He nodded, tapped his feet, nodded again, shook his head again. Egone on his neck. Engaged in a mental conversation with his client. He turned around and his big smile dropped immediately into a rebuking frown.

Eyes peered on the gadget in his hand. A slight smile, one last nod, then looked at me, his frown returned.

“Closed the deal then,” I remarked.

He nodded his head, and then put the gizmo down. “Drone processing unit, yes?”

I nodded in affirmation. He put out his hand and I gave him the envelope. He opened its flap, took out the bundle of paper notes, gave it a quick count, regarded me again and nodded once more. “I am tempted to mark up the price another twenty percent, you know, for that stunt you pulled.”

“I didn’t do it,” I replied dryly.

Bjorn grunted, then went and retrieved a black-shelled drive from one of his shelves. He shoved it into my chest. “Take it and go!” he growled. “I don’t want to see your face for another two hours.”

I nodded glumly and returned downstairs to my room and back to my workstation.

I copied the contents of Mouckley’s drive into my holodeck and then set the drone processor unit up for scrubbing. Tabbed out of the stream window, ran PostHound and then browsed my mails. Hwan had sent her voice transcript.

Holodeck reported that the processor was clean. I retrieved another can of beer, opened its tab, played the transcript and got to work.