preloder

Book 1 / defrag

Chapter 2

Wind stirred up smells of exhaust and whatever chemical cocktail they used to scour the oil from the landing pad. Glitch fell in step with Jones. N4n0bytes hovered at her elbow uncertainly, trying to guess if she was mad at him or not. Glitch scanned the shadows until she found the maintenance panel she needed. She tapped N4n0bytes on the arm with the back of her hand and pointed.

Glitch crossed the roof, feeling her steps sync up to the rhythm of the job. Unyielding ground sent little shocks of force through her rubber soles into her heels. The breeze stung her eyes and stole the heat from every inch of exposed skin. The acrid smell of the city was worse here in the corners where the rain hadn’t washed the synthetic cleaner into the gutters or the walkways below. All were details of meat-space she savored only when she was about to leave them behind. Even the tightness of her shoulders and stomach – what was that? Anxiety? Apprehension? – were interesting sensations.

Glitch put her back to the maintenance panel and slid down into a crouch. The metal casing was cool to the touch but the poured cement still remembered the heat of the day. From the back of her neck she unspooled her jack-in cable – a slender bridge between biospace and cyberspace thinner than her little finger.

To her left, N4n0bytes mirrored her. His cable wasn’t built in – he fished one out of his pocket and pulled back his hood to plug it into the metal plate on the side of his skull. Jones came to stand watch over their bodies while their minds were away, gun in hand. Wingz joined him, twirling a pistol like some kind of a gunslinger out of a videogame. N4n0bytes gave Glitch a confident nod.

“I’ll handle security,” he said, “you get the climate control system. If… so like, if you run into any trouble just like give me a call, ok? I’ll come bail you out.”

Glitch stared at him for a beat. She had dozens of runs to her name and he was giving her instruction. Offering to come to her rescue. Implying that she’d need it.

Unacceptable.

She knew her own skill, and that she could handle both systems on her own, without his help. But that competence didn’t matter until she jacked-in. Out here in biospace though, perceived competence was everything. It was a teammate’s trust. It was the chance they’d call her for the next job. It was the reputation Fixers staked on her whenever they recommended her. And those jobs were the off-the-books pay that let her keep surviving free from the chains of a wage-slave. He was posturing, trying to appear strong, playing into his image of himself as the hero of his story, and it was costing her.

Unacceptable.

She pushed back her hood so he could better see her scorn in the darkness.

“Nano, if I ever need you to come bail me out of anything, the situation is already so far fucked you will need an army of hackers to come find me,” she told him. “Get a grip on your savior complex. Just do your job.” She turned to Jones, stolidly watching the interplay. “I’ll be done inside three minutes,” she told him. “If I’m not back in five, pull the plug.”

Beside Jones, Wingz frowned.

“Doesn’t that hurt like a bitch?” he asked.

Dump shock felt roughly equivalent to waking from a deep sleep by slamming into the ceiling and free falling back down. Not the worst thing in the world, sure, but it took a while for your brain and the rest of your biology to sync up again, so you spent a while feeling the input of your hands through your feet, or smelling your tongue.

Glitch gave Wingz a flat look. “Less than a piece of ICE burning through my brain, one neuron at a time.”

ICE – Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics – were nasty little programs, capable in some cases of doing lasting damage to a hacker’s mind, while the dump shock just left you stupid for a little while… usually.

Wingz didn’t reply, but his lip-shrug was assent enough.

Glitch closed her eyes and pressed the cable into the access panel.

For the briefest moment, she felt her body go limp as her mind dropped away from it. Then all bio-space sensation cut out, and she was inside the Matrix of the building. The wind, the roof, the chemicals, all of it dropped away. Even fear – that’s what that feeling had been, fear – faded away without her biology’s sweating palms, stiff muscles, and pounding heart to reinforce it. A little black house-cat avatar with purple eyes in a constant state of pixelated glitch sprang into existence.

People didn’t often ask what it was like to be jacked in.  Computers might run the world, but a shocking few cared how they worked. When Glitch tried to describe the feeling for the first time, she said it was like standing firmly on the ground without having any weight. It was the absence of biological noise cluttering her mind with wants and feelings. It was seeing what needed to be done and doing it without the nuisance of waiting for your body to carry out the command. A perfect marriage of intent and action. It was like editing a piece of code and seeing the resulting change as it happened instead of waiting for the program to compile and run. Her audience hadn’t much cared and she’d never repeated the sentiment. People had long since lost their appeal anyway.

N4n0bytes’ avatar popped in alongside her. It materialized as a grown, muscular man in sleek, shiny body armor with a full, well-groomed beard and sunglasses. In another context, she could have mistaken it for the brooding protagonist of a first-person shooter. Glitch checked its signature and smirked: he’d bought it from someone named “Pixelator”. She didn’t wait for him to finish resolving. The less time spent together the better, and N4n0bytes already made time spent around him feel like an eternity without dilation’s help. With it – best to move on.

In front of them stood a barred, iron gate set into a wall that stretched for miles in both directions. To a user on the outside, in biospace, it was just a login screen, though some systems might attempt to render the gate in 3D. Inside the cyberspace of the Matrix, the wall appeared to be made of old sandstone and every inch was covered in scrolling, neon hieroglyphics.

Her avatar pawed at the heavy lock on the portal, sending a little tremor through what her brain thought was her hand. Code – rendered into 3D images for ease of handling – was a tangible thing to her when she was jacked in. The simpler it was to process, the lighter it felt; the easier it was to bypass, the softer; and the more straightforward it was for her to manipulate, the warmer. The wall felt heavy, hard and cold, but the lock came away in her hands and became a pyramid-shaped Rubix cube covered in symbols instead of colors.

The cat’s tail twitched, sending pixels flying through the air while she toyed with the puzzle. Glitch bounced the cube up and down once or twice, getting a feel for it. It was light, almost weightless, and the hardness of a soda can. It felt warm though, like a hot box of Chinese take-out on a cold day. Glitch’s fingers flew as she spun and twisted the pieces this way and that. She got it close enough to completion and then cheated by swapping two runes with one another. The gate swung open and the cat avatar bounded in, leaving N4n0bytes behind playing with his own login. No root permissions meant they had to log in separately; one of them couldn’t just open the door for the other without a lot of extra work.

The architects who had constructed this Matrix either hadn’t known or didn’t care about the historic and geographic difference between Babylon and Egypt. The world behind the wall resembled an approximation of the Hanging Gardens with a giant pyramid rising up out of its center. At its peak, a hovering Eye of Horus glowing neon-yellow spun slowly, like a weight on the end of a string. Walls and stairs patrolled by wandering sphinxes with glowing LCD eyes partitioned off the different subsystems into unique gardens. She needn’t challenge them for now – the maintenance panel had let her into the exact garden she needed. Cisterns of impossibly blue water, branching grapevines with golden leaves, and chrome aqueducts that represented the building’s climate control spread out before her. If she peered closely enough at the surface of any of them, she could see tiny lines of code running across the surface. The garden’s protector – a piece of ICE displaying as a white leopard with neon-green spots – ignored her, convinced that she was part of the normal facilities staff. Overhead hung a blank, mirroring the one she had left behind in biospace.

There was no rush. Her cyberware kept track of real-time for her, and she’d only spent a minute and seventeen seconds of her three minute benchmark.  Whatever wage-slaves had built this Matrix had poured what was left of their hearts and souls into it. The sandstone was textured and the leaves detailed on a level a biospace user would never be able to appreciate. Her cat avatar, ignoring the preferences of its kind, splashed through the canal-ways as she admired the water droplets spraying up and even rendering the light reflection of the neon around them. She walked until she found the stone tablet with glowing hieroglyphics that put the air conditioning system on standby for maintenance. Sluice gates slammed shut and the flow of water stopped. She copied an image of the physical blueprints to her deck as an afterthought. Glitch’s avatar sprang free of the water and shook itself like a dog, spraying pixels everywhere that hung awkwardly in the air for a moment before dropping to the ground. The system’s physics engine didn’t know what to do with her avatar’s conflicting signals, poor thing. She bounded back out the gate. A little timer set to twenty-five minutes inside her head started counting down. The cat vanished as it cleared the gate.

Back in meatspace, Glitch opened her eyes. Roughly two and a half minutes had elapsed since her departure. Her eyes were level with Wingz’ wrist, and she noticed for the first time that he was wearing a holowatch, capable of projecting small doses of information, or pictures on a flat surface. Odd, she hadn’t pictured him as the sort of guy to have keepsakes or schedules on him. Glitch unplugged and her jack-in cable started auto-spooling back through her ponytail. Her counterpart twitched and N4nobytes returned to consciousness as well.

“You!” he sputtered as soon as he’d reclaimed his body. “I’ve seen you!”

Glitch frowned at him. “You got dump-shock or something?” she asked. She reached for her jack-in cable again to go pacify whatever ICE he’d upset.

“No, I saw your avatar in there!” N4n0bytes voice peaked. “You played for Infocalypse. You’re Glitch!”

Wingz stared at him like he’d taken serious brain damage. Jones turned around long enough to give him a warning growl. Glitch’s stomach did a summersault and she cursed biospace mentally. She could have sworn he said he watched trad-sports, not esports. Maybe she hadn’t been listening closely enough. Shit.

“Yeah, we exchanged handles two weeks ago, kid,” she said, getting up. “If you’re that slow, you should go wait in the chopper while the adults handle this.”

“That’s so hyped! My brother used to watch you!” N4n0bytes went on, not taking the hint and shutting up. “I thought you were just a fan!” Now he was on his feet, crowding into her space. “You know, cause you’re a girl, and stuff.”

Glitch tried to shrug him off. “I am just a fan. Names and avatars are easy to come by.”

Wait, if she were actually a fan impersonating herself, should she admit to it? Should she be claiming to be herself right now? Was it too late to act otherwise? Drek, she hated dealing with people.

“No, I recognize the cat-glitch,” N4n0bytes enthused, getting even closer. “At first I thought-”

Glitch put a hand on his chest and shoved him hard enough to make him stumble back a few steps. Before he could regain his balance, she closed the distance, getting up in his face, near enough that she could tell when he stopped breathing. Her hand found her baretta and she pushed the barrel against the soft fabric across his stomach. She had no intention of using it – the safety wasn’t even off – but she was counting on him not thinking of that in the moment.

“You thought wrong,” she said in a low voice. “So shut up and focus.”

She took a big step back, putting space between them.

“You handle security ok?” she asked more loudly, holstering her gun. Both Wingz and Jones were staring at them.

“Yeah, yeah,” N4n0bytes struggled to pull himself back together. “We, uh, we got lucky actually.”

Glitch pressed her lips together to keep from cursing him out. She was done wrangling the new kid; it was someone else’s turn now. “Lucky” was a word newbies and tenderfoots used right before they fucked up bad enough that people started dying in messy ways. This kid was going to get them all killed.

“Lucky?” Jones echoed gruffly.

“Meat-side of security got called in to deal with some sort of an irregular delivery down in the lobby,” N4n0bytes reported. “I set cameras to loop empty feed on the roof and our target – no one knows we’re here.”

The three veteran runners exchanged glances.

Luck was a lie, but sometimes a bug in someone else’s system was leverage for their own. Jones looked at Glitch.

“We good?” he asked.

Glitch nodded. “Vent fans are down till the end of the cycle. System resets in twenty-three minutes and forty-three seconds.”

She wasn’t sure if that was the question he’d been asking, but sure as betas had bugs, it was the one she was answering.

“You heard her, let’s move,” Jones ordered. “Absolute silence once we’re inside. That floor is supposed to be deserted.”

Glitch tried not to look relieved. She saw Wingz eyeing her sideways, favoring her with the look he usually reserved for N4n0bytes. She’d need to get clear of this team as soon as the job was done, maybe lie low for a bit. Or take a job without any JACKasses on it.

Focus.

Focus on today’s job, not tomorrow.

Hold it together until she could get back to the Matrix, where the sick feeling in her stomach wouldn’t matter anymore.

They found the building’s air intake and N4n0bytes produced a small tool kit. A few moments later, the vent cover was pried off and set to one side. Glitch flexed her fingers, rolled her shoulders and then climbed in after Jones, feet first. Time for the tricky part.

Jones led them through a metallic maze of crawl spaces, ladders, and the occasional, heart-stopping drop through stretches of darkness and stale, recycled air. No one noticed the temperature change, so they dropped out of the wall onto worn carpeting next to the elevator instead of being ground up by an industrial strength fan and being cleaned up by the janitor in the morning. Their choice to come by way of the roof was rewarded: the servers and the bounty of data they contained were a hundred and eighty-nine floors up, but only eleven floors down.

A maze of cubicles stretched before them, like the labyrinths that guarded the Pharaohs of old. The dividers between desks bore an art deco Egyptian-style print instead of the normal gray-brown cloth covering. It looked like the result of a committee’s attempt to make the space feel less “corporate”, whatever that meant. Glowing posters on the wall advertised Eyes-In-the-Sky slogans:

“Watching Out for You”

“Intel from Above”

“In the Know”

They were paired with stylized falcons, the Eye of Horus, pyramids, and vast stretches of golden, glowing sand. The posters cast weird colored light across the workspace and pressed shadows under the desks and rolling office chairs. The servers they sought were entombed at the center of all this behind thick, plexi-glass walls.

 

At a gesture from Jones, they all moved forward. The big man tapped Glitch on the shoulder as they approached the server room. He pointed at the unblinking eye of a camera overhead, then at one of the cubicle computers. Glitch nodded. At least one of her crew still trusted her to do her job.

She split off from the rest of the crew and slipped into the nearest cubicle block. Inside its pseudo-walls, she pushed aside the chair and crawled under desk. It took a few moments in the darkness to find the right cords to unplug so she could jack straight into the network. Her cable was already in hand when the bark of a gun violated the silence.

Glitch froze. A second gunshot followed on the heels of the first. Glitch scrambled out from underneath the desk, drawing her gun as she went. From her knees, she peered out across the sea of cubicles as best she could. Another burst came from the direction of the elevator, followed by a return shot from Jones’ louder, heavier gun. Glitch pointed her baretta in the general direction of the elevator and squeezed the trigger, to draw security’s, or whoever it was’, fire. Make them have to watch their flanks.

Nothing happened.

Glitch dropped to the carpeting inside the cubicle again. She turned the gun over in her hands. The safety was still on. An amateur’s mistake. Fuck.

She flicked the switch and popped up again just in time to see something about the size of her fist arc through the air. The light of the posters reflected across its shiny, rounded surface. The thought flashed across Glitch’s mind that she’d never seen a real grenade before. A heartbeat later, it exploded.

The shock wave slammed through every fiber of her body, as though she’d been smashed into a wall. The sound eradicated everything but itself from her mind. Glitch realized a moment later she was on the floor, hands over her head in a useless, instinctive act. For an instant, she thought a wall had come down somewhere, and then realized it was just the cheap, cubicle siding collapsed on top of her. She pushed it off without noticing the weight. Glitch wasn’t strong, but adrenaline was a wonderful drug.

Someone was yelling nearby, but she could only catch the odd word through the ringing in her ears.

“~~~the fuck~~~a grenade?!”

“~~destroy ~~~ anyway.”

“~~~~AFTER we~~~”

Neither voice sounded familiar. Glitch raked the hair out of her eyes. She peered through the settling smoke in the direction of the blast. She couldn’t see much through the mess of overturned office space, but someone should have been screaming from injury. Jones should have been shouting orders. Or returning fire. Or… anything. But the ringing in her ears died away to silence. The smoke cleared and she saw something dripping from the ceiling. Drek, that was a lot of blood. Her heart sank. Numbness enveloped her.

She was alone.

“Stop whining,” a faint male voice said somewhere across the wreckage. “We didn’t get shot. They all got dead. It’s fine.”

“Yes, transforming the server room into a scrap yard is an absolute turn-on,” a silky, feminine voice replied. “Well fucking done.”

Not completely alone.

Not alone enough.

Glitch dropped into a low crouch against the worn carpet. Using her hands to balance herself as best she could, she hustled away. The voices were between her and the elevator, so she fled deeper into the cover of still-standing cubicles.

“I’ll set up some surprises for security when they get here,” the male voice said. “Check the server room – see if anything can be salvaged.”

“I really think we’ve had enough surprises for one outing, don’t you?”

Once Glitch had put a few rows of corporate drudgery between herself and the voices, she broke into a run. The vent shafts were in the ceiling over here, out of reach, and even if they hadn’t been, the fans were all back on by now. She was hoping for a bug in the building’s design – a fire escape or a side door that didn’t make sense.

The building made perfect sense.

Fuck.

A moment later she left the last wall of cubicles and halted in front of floor-to-ceiling windows. They provided a panoramic view of the skyscraper opposite them and the several hundred feet of empty air between the glass and the ground. Pretty, yes, but not exactly a view worth dying for.

Glitch looked left, right, and then back into the darkness.

She was trapped.

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