shock zero : project neantis

[ a System Shock/Deus Ex hybrid ]
by averroes


(chapters 0-3)



We met in a little bar down the street where I live. I know, I should have chosen a safer place, but I didn't really have time to prepare the meeting. On the phone he had said it was important. I don't have much experience, I know. But I can feel when a case is worth taking. And this one, well, it sure felt like something I couldn't refuse.

I had arrived early, and when the guy came in, I let him look around, obviously searching for a familiar face. I waited to have my beer served before calling him at last. In situations like that, it's always better to have them wait a bit before the meeting, preferably stressed and tense.

He sat on the stool, cautiously. He didn't seem to believe I was the one he had called. He probably expected something less... common, I guess. I always do my best not to get noticed. It's part of the job. He had a quick look at my drink and ordered the same thing. He was so nervous I thought he was going to break down. Good. They talk more when they're like that. It helps.

Wait. Maybe I am going too fast here; I haven't quite introduced myself properly. Which does not mean that I will, actually, but I should have put some sort of introduction, instead of abruptly beginning this story like I just did.

I work, or rather, I worked for a corporation, called Nara Pharmaceuticals. I was part of their security department, a section called Nara Security Division, or NSD. My job was to trace and recover data and files stolen by crackers and other cyber-thieves to the company, and find these individuals. The first part of the job usually is the easiest one. In this case, there would be an exception.

As I said, I'm still quite new to this job. I've only been working for Nara for a few years, and I arrived here in New Atlanta only one and a half year ago, and I'm still not accustomed to the size of the city.
The thing is, when everything is in one way or another connected to a chip, you have to learn the basics of electronics and know how to use a terminal, because otherwise you're out of the market, even if you're a rocket scientist. That's what I did, though with no such material upstairs. And I decided to become a bounty hunter, a guy who hunts pirates, cyber-thieves and all those crackers who enter everyone's computers without being invited.

Although it's not as rewarding as everyone thinks, it's a good business. You get to play with the Megacorp's Archives without having to explain why (well, most of the time), and the pay is as high as the data is confidential. It's a shadow job, people don't know we exist. More exactly, they know, but suppose we're just maintenance guys of some sort.

That's a good way to define our job. Maintenance. We clean the market of any undesirable source of problems. Sometimes we can even take their gear as a bonus... I'm starting to digress, so I'll get back to my story.

That guy.

He was nervous, and looked like a techno-junkie. One plug near the left ear, he had a mini StorImp, an implant that allowed storing up to 20 Gb in a microchip connected to his memory. Another plug in his arm, for C-space, surely. Those things cost a lot, but his clothes looked old. I assumed he had blown up his money in a super gear without having the means to exploit it afterwards...

We chatted a bit. What I learned about him (without giving much info about myself) confirmed my theory. He was an ex-employee of the Nara Broadcasting Network, Nara's Media division. And he'd been fired a few months before for reasons, well, what a surprise, that were confidential.

Since he worked on what they usually call "special projects", that is, secret material that supposedly does not even exist, he had the feeling he had seen something that should have stayed hidden. He couldn't say what, of course, and he hadn't tried to enter the Archive to find out for himself what it was all about. So he had decided to look for a partner instead, and hire someone to do the dirty job. He implied that it was related to new healing techniques, but it was very vague and when he started using medical terminology, I didn't really understand what he was talking about. I stopped him and asked him to tell me what I had to do, and leave. If he stayed too long, we could be spotted together, and from there I could be recognized, and that wasn't part of the plan.

He wanted me to enter the Archive and have a look, and find a certain file at a certain location. This kind of job was one of the easiest of the trade. Sometimes I didn't even charge it anymore.

But there was this little detail: this guy wanted me to infiltrate the network of the corporation that was hiring me. Maybe he had nothing to lose, but I on the other hand, wasn't very motivated. You see, Nara Pharmaceuticals is one of the Big Three, the three biggest megacorps that ever existed, and to attack one of them you generally need first to have a good reason, and second to have a perfect way out. This sort of corps doesn't care about trivial things like the police, they have their own security departments (like the NSD for Nara, which I was a part of) and I knew their methods.

Still, if I'm telling you this, you'll guess that I accepted eventually. I won't tell you why, because I honestly don't know exactly. The pay was good, I was tired of this company, the thrill of this kind of experience... Choose yourself, it's a bit of each.

I accepted.


chapter one

Still with me? OK.

So, I was here in that bar, with the guy in front of me. I told him I needed to think about it, but both of us knew I would do it eventually. Sometimes the challenge is just too attractive. And to be fair, I needed the money anyway.

The Nara Broadcasting Network was located in a big building, in the south of the city. Sector 71-H. We both agreed on the fact I would need a safe place to work; There were some old condos out there, and I wanted to stay physically close to the building. I chose one in the 71-G, three blocks from Nara's HQ. From a general point of view, it was quite dangerous, because if there was a problem, Nara's private militia would be knocking on the door within minutes. On the other hand, being that close allowed performing some ops and hacks that else couldn't be done, because I could connect directly to one of the mainframe's peripherals, which gave me direct access to the database. Besides, paradoxically, this apartment was quite safe, with cameras on the door and windows to look outside, and a secure phone line that guaranteed a safe access to the first section of the target network.

I guess you're wondering why it took minutes to turn me into one of those I once chased. Money wasn't a reason, it was… just an incentive. Truth is, I had discovered some dirty secrets about my corp, things I had found hard-coded in one of my target's personal HarDrImp. The HarDrImp, a HardDrive Implant, was truly a jewel. Remember the StorImp I mentioned? Well a HarDrImp was like, ten times as powerful and there was an embedded biochip inside. This thing was able to think for you, the way a computer thinks, efficiently, flawlessly, it was like having a Mind Boost, so you were sort of a genius during the few minutes it lasted.
That guy, Remora, well his problem was that as powerful as it might be, the chip didn't change anything physical, so he was still stuck by physical laws, like gravity. And contrary to the shockproof implant, he hadn't survived a 100-story fall somewhere in a little town called Cimic.
Once I connected it to the computer, the chip uploaded everything on my OD before running out of power. What I read was amazing. Money transfers, Bribes, Special Ops, Covert Ops, Secret Projects… This guy had stored enough data in there to bring down a dozen megacorps at least, and the first on the list was Nara, one of the biggest. And the one I worked for.

I had no reason to think it was a fake. Remora was famous, a VIP among the cybercrack community. And Nara had asked me to get him by all means necessary, force allowed, lethal force allowed. I transferred everything on a secure disk, and wiped everything. I ran three checks to be sure the drive was clean, and told the Corp the implant had been too damaged and was unrecoverable. I certified the pirate had no other way to store his data, and assured them they could get some rest now the threat had been eliminated.

From that day, I had stopped hunting without discrimination. I studied the thieves' lives, their motivations, their goals. I investigated in their circles, their clubs, their gatherings.

I became one of them.

It wasn't easy, mind you. This underworld has its own rules and laws. And I wasn't exactly a newbie, I already had a reputation in certain circles. But apart from my affiliation with Nara, I had always followed and respected the rules, so the difficult thing to accept for them was that I wasn't against them anymore; every once in a while, a hunter will play nice and be friendly, only to catch everything that moves later. It doesn't happen often, as doing this is the equivalent of committing suicide, but it does, so I had to be careful.

After talking with my informant (and future employer) again a few months later, I went back to Cimic. I wanted to show the disk to a guy I knew there, a hacker called Ghiran. Ghiran was a free-lance programmer, specialized in security and data protection. He worked for anyone who could afford his skills, but had never crossed the border to do illegal stuff for his own profit. I had worked with him a few years before, undercover, as he nonetheless wanted to keep a good reputation in the C-Zone. He was clear.
At first sight, the guy who had cracked Nara's security was brilliant. Surely, his HarDrImp had helped, but the way he thought out his plan of action, the way he infiltrated the network, the way he slipped though the watchdogs, everything pointed at a mastermind. Pity he was dead. Ghiran was the only guy I knew with similar knowledge. He could retrace anything back to where the first 0s and 1s had been typed.
I found him in his "cloak", a safe-room, so to speak, that he had built in a warehouse near Cimic. It was a kind of wireless communication vault, surrounded by an intricate network of cables and wires, and hung halfway between floor and ceiling. He had explained to me once that this structure radiated some kind of waves that blocked everything in or out unless he authorized it, but the theories behind it made Quantum Physics look like a child's play.
The warehouse door, however, looked like any other door, except for…
-"Yo, Ghiran, uncloak please…"
-"One moment" answered a metallic synthesized voiced "Place you hand on the handle and look at the light."
I obeyed. A few moments later, my fingerprints and retinal scan were identified and the computer checked that I was in the "authorized" category.
-"You are Jeremiah Mallory, Nara Pharmaceuticals Security Division, ID #2-4601. Krrrrzzzbbb…"
There was a noise and Ghiran's voice replaced the robots.
-"Hey Jer, is that really you? How you doin'?"
-"I'm fine. Got something for you, can you open now?" I sighed.
-"Sure, no prob. Wait a sec…"
The red light disappeared as I heard whirling noises inside. Then a green light flickered on, and the speakers buzzed back on too.
-"Unlocked. You know the way. Check for booby traps…" He laughed.
Ghiran's paranoia was as funny as a broken leg. He had placed traps everywhere in the warehouse, and everywhere here means everywhere a man could walk, touch, or even fly to, provided he had one of those Campeda jetpack prototypes. The effects ranged from a short electrical shock to a certain death, depending how far you were from the cloak. The cloak itself had an internal security lock that prevented unauthorized entry, and if by any chance this lock was broken, there was a hydrogen cell-powered minibomb cluster inside that would vaporize all the systems (and the warehouse as well) within a tenth of a second.

Did I mention Ghiran was paranoid?

He was waiting for me besides the cloak. The thing was more or less sphere-shaped, and it was always very strange to look at, as it looked like it was floating in the air. I handed Ghiran the dead implant and the disk.

-"Here's the jewel."
He whistled.
-"Well well well… Now that's interesting." He looked back at me "Forget what you've done before, you're not in the same league now, Jer. That thing's precious, if you stole it the owner will kill to have it back. Seriously."
-"Nothing to worry about. He fell off a building last year, a few miles north from here. And I already know what's inside, Abe, what'd like to know is if there's a way to trace it back to where it was before."
He looked at me, puzzled, then looked back at the Implant, and checked the disk.
- "It's about Nara? Wait…" He read some more, frowned. "Nara and… wow, man, that's interesting; It'll take a while to read everything."
-"I know what it is, I told you. Can you trace it?"
-" Well I dunno… I… I guess I can trace it back, but why would you want to do that? Usually the info is enough. And you say the guy's dead."
-"Well, yeah, and I also say… " I lowered my voice "… that my employers don't… really know I'm here, see what I mean?"
He looked even more puzzled, then a big smile appeared on his face.
-"You gotta be kidding."
-"I'm dead serious. You find where the stuff comes from, that's all I ask. It's not illegal."
-"No, but… Geez, Jeremiah Mallory, a ghoster. Who would have thought that?" (Ghoster was the nickname given to former hunters who became crackers themselves)
-"I'm not a ghoster, Abe. I just want information."
-"Sure, man, whatever you say. Info about your Corp, and your Corp is not aware. I only have one name for that."
-"Oh, never mind… Just do it okay?"
-"Okay okay… Come back in, say… three days, alright?"
-"Good for me. Needless to say, be careful. It's very sensitive info…"
-"Hey, do you know who you're talking to?" He emphatically showed the room. "I'm the best you can find. And you know that."
-"Forget that." I smiled "I'll be back in three days. Thanks."
-"No problem."

I took the last shuttle back to New Atlanta that night. It probably saved my life. We don't know yet what really happened, but what's certain is that nobody's left to tell us. The following morning, an explosion in one of the city's secondary mainframe grids shut down the power plant's backup generator. It happened at the time when the main generator is down, and all the systems are updated, and the consequence was a massive crash of the whole plant. This event exploited a flaw in the system, as it thought the reactor was stopped and sealed the cooling circuits one after the other. After an hour or so, the temperature inside the core reached the critical level, and the whole plant blew up. Half of Cimic was reduced to a pile of radioactive ashes. And this half included the industrial sector, and as a consequence, Ghiran's cloak.

The NSD (Nara Security Division) knew I had gone to Cimic, but not that I was back. I was talking to Ghiran when it happened. He had spent the whole night on the disk, and was all excited. The thing was so clean, it could have been an original, he said. He managed to tell me he had sent me a copy of his analysis, and was describing the structure of the Implant's data tree when he twitched, then the screen faded to black with a buzz. When I received the file a few minutes later, the News networks were starting to display images of the blast taken by one of their low orbit satellites. And I learned why the com channels had melted.

The file was just the beginning of what Ghiran could have done, but it was extremely well structured and I could analyze it without much trouble, with the help of the best of my knowledge and a bottle of cheap SyntheVodka. Most of the files on the implant had been stripped off their characteristics, cleaned and cleaned again, but Ghiran had managed to detect bits of data here and there that pointed at several facilities on Earth, the Moon, Mars and Europa. The one on the Moon seemed of particular interest to him, because officially it was only an old military base, converted to a storage facility, and ready to be decommissioned. Yet, the files with this base's ID were about several recent breakthroughs in Space Technology and BioTech, two domains Nara excelled at, and certainly not the kind of stuff you'd find in a derelict warehouse like the Moon's.

I decided not to tell Nara I was back. I hacked into the flights database, and deleted my ticket from the shuttle's log. I erased all evidence that I had ever left Cimic, and forged a new ID in order to leave New Atlanta again unnoticed. I needed to clear things up before undertaking the Nara HQ hack. Three hours later, I took a flight to Orlando. As Dr. Dennis Watts, I had booked a room in the International GraviDome Hotel. A few miles up.

I was headed to space.


chapter two

The International GraviDome is one of the first hotels ever built between Earth and the Moon, free from the Earth's gravitational field. From a shuttle or any outside viewer, it looks like a gigantic wheel, with an inner and an outer ring, and a central node with a huge glass dome in the middle. The rings are independent from each other, and each is rotating at a speed that recreates normal gravity inside. It's possible to go from one ring to the other using the node's corridors, but these are zero-G. The central node is composed of restaurants and of the main entertainment complex, but its main attraction, the dome, is zero-G as well. All in all, it's like three different rings rotating at different speeds, but fully connected to each other.
On the opposite side of the dome, on the central node, you'll find the docking platform. Contrary to what some movies of the past show, it's easier to dock at a seemingly motionless bulkhead than to follow one on the external ring until the computer says both ships are synchronized and it's okay to land.
The central docking platform is disconnected from the rest so that it keeps the same orientation no matter how fast the station rotates. And if it cost a lot of scientists' brain cells to come up with a good, perfectly synchronized solution, it saved a lot of pilots' lives. In the first four decades of private space exploration, there were about three dozen casualties a year. After Campeda Technologies developed the SynchroDocks and implemented the system into all spacecrafts, that figure dived to two casualties a decade. The International GraviDome itself opened its doors seven years ago, and never had any accident.

I arrived at the GraviDome two days after Ghiran's demise and the destruction of Cimic. I didn't really know where to go, or what to do. I had an iso image of the implant, my disk, and all the material needed to work on it, but what the hell was I going to do thousands of miles from my home planet? When I first stepped inside the GraviDome, I realized I didn't have a clue. My ID card was scanned and I was directed to my room, on the outer ring. After the door closed, I pushed the button to extend the bed, and lied down. I had to think.

The Moon Facility was built on the model of those late-20th century missile bases, which was normal, as it had been one. It was what was known as a "Titan Base", composed of two underground domes for the crew, and three underground silos for the missiles, with three sub-silos each for fuel and oxygen and the rest, and another underground vault for communications. When they had sold them to private owners (in this case, Nara Pharmaceuticals), the Military had taken out all their machinery, and Nara had refurbished the whole place. The two underground domes were now used for control and maintenance, while the silos were re-arranged for data storage. Millions of datadisks were stored in these three tubes, a priceless database, but only a fraction of what Nara had done in the last twenty years.
Nara had three facilities like this one on the Moon. They were called Lana, Frederika and Carolina. The one Ghiran had identified was Frederika, the oldest one, and officially it was only used to store old administrative records. In fact, it was scheduled for demolition the following year, and only one silo was still in use. A center like that was not supposed to store sensitive files.

But I was in a hotel tens of thousands of miles from there, or from Earth for that matter. How would I go there? I could book a flight to the moon, and decide from there, but that's what I had first thought in New Atlanta about this GraviDome hotel, and I had no idea what to do next. Extra-Vehicular activities were not encouraged, even on the Moon.
However, there was a small town south of Frederika, called Renaissance. A mining center, with several individual domes outside the main shield. I could fly there and rent a vehicle to Frederika, but then they would detect my car, and Renaissance would have my DNA on their records anyway. (DNA ID was required on the Moon for EVA, in case something happened to you.) And stealing a vehicle was out of question. There was a very good theft-deterrent system out there, Isolation. They left you with one week of food and water in the middle of nowhere, and you could try to go back to civilization by yourself. This policy had been deemed anti-constitutional by some, but a court had decided that the Moon was "a place were men face death permanently, and as a consequence, where extreme measures could be taken to preserve and protect law and order in the colonies", and so had allowed it.

And then, I thought, wait a sec…

I was thinking as Dr Watts there. But I was J. Mallory, from NSD. I started to imagine a plan to go directly to Frederika. I ran a scan on the hotel's system. They were clean. No bugs of any kind. Good. I connected a jammer to the plug, and rescanned the lines. Then I plugged my computer back into the network. Nothing. It was invisible. I cracked the station's codes and entered the administrative systems, where the communication codes were stored. A few minutes later, I entered them in my CPU and the computer sent them back to the station, twice in a row. The electronic echo created in the systems jammed the communication channels, allowing me to infiltrate the restricted networks. Once in, I disconnected the jammer and let the wireless com lead me to the Moon.
My signal was piggybacked on the hourly status report the station sent to the Earth and the Moon. Nobody could detect it. It was a flaw in the communication ports I had discovered a few years before, when I was looking for a cracker nicknamed ‘MrGibbons'. This guy almost managed to escape by sending a ghost echo in my tracking station, an echo like the one I was using now. Very clever.
Once in the Moon's mainframe, it was easy, all the bases are connected together with the CAIN, the Centralized Artificial Intelligence Network. It's not really an artificial intelligence, but it monitors all the life support systems and as such it's the perfect way in. It's composed of thousands of biochips scattered everywhere in the bases' structure. And it's connected to all the computers on the Moon, without exception.

I managed to enter in Renaissance, and scheduled a Nara priority trip from there to Frederika the following morning. Then I cracked Frederika's network and sent a fake memo about security inspections for the next month. I buried it under a few other emails, and marked it as read for every recipient. I then left the base's network before being kicked out, and once outside, I went back to Renaissance. I had to create another backup ID. I booked a room in a cheap motel under the name of a journalist I knew on Earth, Vic Matthews, and arranged a meeting between the Governor's PR representative and me in the afternoon. Then, I quickly slipped out of the system. I disconnected completely and looked at my watch. It had taken only fifteen minutes. And it was time for lunch.
Renaissance was a typical little city of the first half of the 21st century. A typical space colony, that is; domes, visible life support systems, emergency bulkheads and fire extinguishers everywhere… This colony had been created in 2035 and the mines, according to the scientists, had only given a tenth of their minerals so far. It was a little colony, but one of the richest. That's why the UN Military had decided to build a defensive compound near Renaissance and other mining stations, with three missiles inside each, and enough warheads to destroy the entire solar system. Ten years later, they had realized they had made a mistake and acknowledged there was no enemy to fire them at, and left the place. Nara had come and bought three of these bases. There were about two dozens of them on the Moon, and a few more in Europa, the first really far space terran colony. Mars, colonized in the late 2050s, had benefited from the UNM policy change, and developed its own defense system, that wasn't based on nukes. Military nukes had eventually been totally banned in 2062, but fusion was still in use to provide power.
Renaissance, with little less than 55 000 inhabitants, had its own fusion plant, actually. As a mining center, it was rich enough to afford one, and didn't belong to the MCPN, the Moon Central Power Network, a sort of guild based on power sharing used for smaller colonies. They had their own governor, and could grow their own hydroponics, which gave them the status of "dependent free-lance", so to speak, as far as Earth was concerned.
From the outside, it looked like any other colony. I landed at the R1 spaceport in the morning and proceeded to the 'personal vehicle' section. I had bought a map in the shuttle and studied my options during the five hours the flight had lasted. I could rent a lunar jeep for a day or two, and go anywhere I wanted, without being asked about it. I just had to show my NSD ID card at the desk, explain what I wanted, and voilà, DNA sampling wasn't required, privilege of the rank. I checked their registration system. Noting to worry about. Their updates (and my name) wouldn't reach Earth before at least two days.
The problem was Frederika. Nara had top-of-the-line networks and machines there, with encrypted optical transfer and quantacom dishes outside. A signal would take seconds to reach the New Atlanta HQ. A minute, if I was lucky.
I had to study the network/dish structure. Basing my work on what I knew, I started to write a virus that would keep my ID in a loop for the time I'd stay on the Moon, and if I could, for the time I'd specify in the program, even. Officially, I was dead for Nara. Turning up alive in one of their facilities where I had no right to go whatsoever, that would look slightly suspect, in my opinion.
I prepared a section of the virus to create a virtual folder coded with my ID. When my NSD card would be scanned, the folder would be filled with info and sent to the dish. But, at that moment, the dish would use another folder, the virtual one. The dish's biochip wasn't smart, it was just used for in and out queries, and so it would go back and forth between my folder and my virtual folder, trying to decide which one to send. But if I let it do that indefinitely, it would increasingly slow down the network until it crashed. A second section was set up, a countdown ending three hours after my departure would then cause a minor crash and reset the dish. After a reboot, both my folder and my virtual folder would be gone, and the virus would self-destruct. Without a trace.

Well, that was the plan anyway. The only problem was, I had to check the dish's configuration to tune the program accordingly, because otherwise the virus wouldn't even start. Fortunately, a pair of good binoculars was all I needed for that, as I already knew what kind of dish it was; I only had to see where the distro box was located, what kind of cables went in and out, what switches… No need to be close. Once the network setup entered in the virus, the program's logic would compute the rest all by itself. And of course, I didn't forget to immunize the virus against all the logic probes, watchdogs and cyberenforcers used by Nara. I used them all. I knew their weaknesses. It took me two more hours to compile the rest of the program. Exhausted, I switched off my computer, looked around, and smiled. It looked like the Jeep was waiting for me, a big white ovoid thing with four huge sphere-shaped wheels. I sat inside and programmed the GPS and autopilot.

Piece of cake.


chapter three

Lunar colonies are protected by a huge electromagnetic dome called ‘the shield', that blocks out all interference and radiation from the sun or space. Outside of the shield, you can usually count on your suit or your vehicle, but the protection's minimal. People say you can rely on a shield for three generations, but you'll be lucky if your SUV (Space Utility Vehicle) lasts three days before giving up.
Thanks to my NSD privilege, I had a stronger Jeep though. I had enough batteries, air and nutripacks to stay outside a grand total of five days and six hours. About three times as much as I needed, but you never can tell. It was also equipped with a topnotch GPS receiver, a toy I had bought at one of the Survival Stores in the Renaissance Mall. I modified the program and replaced the antenna to run this machine at the speed of the Military-grade units, and precisely enough to read the newspapers from orbit. I needed to locate the quantacom dish very accurately, otherwise the virus would not recognize the mainframe configuration.

I left Renaissance shortly after lunchtime. After setting up the navigator and GPS, I didn't have anything to do. The autopilot drove the vehicle and avoided obstacles thanks to a radar integrated in the forward shields; Manual drive was only available for short distances and parking, not for cruise mode. I had two hours to kill, and after putting the last finishing touches to my program, I tried to come up with a good excuse to show up at Frederika like that.

Cimic seemed a good place to start. In the case my virus didn't work properly, they'd know I had been there and officially died there. Although in my last two trips I hadn't paid them a visit, I knew there was a Nara R&D building in Cimic. I could pretend that I was undercover after the blast because…

… Because traces in the network led me to believe files had been stolen on several facilities, including this one? That was corny. Let's see… The Cimic center worked on cybernetics as far as I knew. Frederika stored administrative records. What sort of missing link could I possibly find?

Or, I could play dumb and pretend I didn't really know what to look for, and just say there was a vague connection between Cimic and the Moon. But then I wouldn't stay long, they would just show me their screens and files and that's it. Not good. I needed access to the whole thing, silos included. Ghiran had been very precise on the first few references.

I just had to hope my virus was perfect. Then, I could arrive and present myself as an undercover agent, sent by the New Atlanta HQ, and keep my motives secret, which would allow me not to bother creating fake ones. I could expect an unscheduled inspection would freak them out anyway.

A short beep alerted me. We were approaching. I disconnected the cruise mode and drove carefully behind the hills and craters. They had a short-range radar to detect incoming traffic, and I didn't want to appear on their screen yet. I managed to find a good shelter from where I could see the huge quantacom dish, installed on the roof of the base's only surface building. It was a white, cubic concrete building, pressurized and shielded. Inside, a large lift connected the surface to an underground storage area, which itself would lead to the control domes, to the storage silos, or to the com vault. The latter, in fact, had only been in use when the Military owned the base. I had read a description of the Titan I bases and the way Nara had changed them, and it appeared the Com Center was located on the second floor of the main Command Dome. Nara had also added a landing pad nearby, but it was never used, or so had I heard. Apparently, it was a "just in case" procedure.

I measured the distance and calculated the dish's coordinates. I then entered them in the program with a precise description of the distro box and the way it was connected to the network, and compressed the whole thing. Finished. I took my gear, left the Jeep and walked a short distance, then deployed a short antenna, scanning the area, looking for an old maintenance network I had detected the day before, that was used for low-priority reports and day-to-day communication between Renaissance and Frederika. Once in, I dodged the active firewalls and entered the facility's network, finding my way through the system to the dish. Downloading the virus into the dish's dataloop took less than five seconds. I started the data sequencing, then left the system and closed all the (virtual) doors behind me.

Now I only had to hope it would work. I prepared my two stories, the undercover op and the Cimic investigation, and checked if there was anything in my explanations that looked wrong. Everything did. I sighed, closed my eyes for a moment, and blamed it all on the stress. It was too late to step back anyway.

Fifteen minutes later, my Jeep stopped in front of the cube's big bulkhead doors. My intercom buzzed and a small screen opened on the dashboard on front of me. A man in uniform appeared.
-"You are in a restricted area. Please, identify yourself."
-"I'm Jeremiah Mallory, from NSD. I'm here for an inspection of your facility and systems." I showed my ID to the small camera. The man, a sergeant by the name of Wilkins, checked it and typed something on the keyboard in front of him.
-"Wait a second, sir."
There were noises and I knew he had sent a request to the headquarters. That's more or less the moment when my decoy was to start functioning. It analyzed the request, kept the data in a perpetual loop inside the quantacom, and sent back a confirmation code extracted from the dish's dataloop.
The bulkhead opened silently.
-"Drive to the green area and don't step out of the vehicle until our notice, please."
-"Ten-four. Over."
-"See you inside." He cut the intercom and the car became silent. I had passed the first test. Now I could only hope the virus would hold the line long enough for me to check my stuff and leave the place. I had set up a three-hour countdown. I checked my cover one last time, and drove in. I didn't really have a choice anyway at that point. The bulkhead doors closed behind the car, and Wilkins restored the atmosphere inside while the lift was going down to the underground levels.

The door opened, and I smelled the rough, metallic atmosphere of Frederika. I was in a square room, with four pillars in each corner supporting a huge rectangular projector towards the center, which was, in that case, me and my car. High above, I heard the lift's doors close. In front of the car, there was another bulkhead door, and behind me, a smaller bulkhead, which I assumed lead to the base's discarded com vault. A dozen of dynacrates were piled up nearby, and two water containers that looked empty. Campeda's automotion Dynacrates were used to transport cargo or food. They could store up to one ton of material each, were shockproof, pressurized, and were equipped with a retractable 4WD gear allowing to remote control them. On the Moon, they were basically considered as universal storage multi-tools.
I noticed some of them were modified Medicrates, and two were visibly reinforced security crates. That was odd, but not impossible. I took it as a sign the base wasn't what it looked like, though. I was going to have a closer look when I noticed the security camera on top of one of the pillars, and stepped back. If looking around was a normal reaction, examining the crates would surely look suspicious to whoever was in charge in the control room. I was going to call them on the intercom when the big bulkhead opened, blowing dust everywhere in the storage area. So they worked under positive pressure, like a laboratory. Surely they took care of their databank. I saw Wilkins in a protective suit, followed by two men dressed the same way, but with an assault rifle too. A Mark V plasma gun, with an IR-scope. Wow. Meatspace security was no joke here.

Wilkins went closer and looked at the Jeep.
-"Nice car, Mr. Mallory."
-"… Thanks… " I pointed at the two guards. "Nice guns, too."
Why hesitate?
He laughed, and looked at them. "It's okay, lower your weapons." He turned back to me "Sorry, standard procedure here. We're not used to visitors. And to tell the truth, I don't know why the hell you're here."
Obviously, I couldn't answer that to be perfectly honest, I was wondering exactly the same.
-"It's an inspection. I'm from NSD, we have reasons to believe there may be threats against us and our network, and your base's on the list of potential targets."
-"There have been several attacks lately against Nara divisions. We are investigating the causes and goals. I'm here to have a look at your network and databank, and determine if there are reasons to be worried."
-"Sure." Strange, he didn't react. "In that case, follow me, Mr. Mallory, I'll show you the control room. Then you'll visit the facility if you want, one of my men will guide you."
-"Are you aware we have only one active silo left? This base will be destroyed and buried next year. What reasons do you have to believe it's so high on their priority list?"
I could tell he was worried, but I couldn't really see why. I decided to keep my cards hidden.
-"That's classified I'm afraid. But you know, it's just a routine check. I'm sure you'll be safe anyway."
During the conversation, we had walked inside the corridor, and the doors closed behind us. He took off his protective suit, and we went through a decontamination shower and UV sterilizer. Strange. There had never been any disease on the Moon. What were they afraid of?
We went through another corridor.
-"How long have you been here, Wilkins?"
-"Just over three years, sir. It took me a whole semester just to get accustomed to this lograv environment."
Oh yes, Indeed. I said we were walking, but to be correct, it was more like awkward jumps and dives, and after a while I couldn't help but feel I shouldn't have eaten that much at breakfast.
We finally arrived at a blast door; He typed a code and showed his eye to a retinal scan.
-"We have the Control Room right there on your left. If you keep walking that way, you'll get to the silos. Only Silo B is operational, the others are sealed and empty. We still keep them pressurized though, just in case. We have dismantled everything there, however."
His voice didn't sound normal. He sounded and looked stressed. What was happening here?
We entered the control room and went directly to the second floor. The Control Room was a huge concrete dome, able to resist a nuclear blast. The lower level was equipped with all kind of sensors and monitors, and was used to control the environment inside the silos. Quite logically, two thirds of the equipment were offline. The consoles had been disconnected and covered with large plastic sheets, apparently they were to stay here and be destroyed with the base. On the second level, the facility's crew controlled the security and communications. I noticed the com unit in a corner, but quickly focused on the bigger computer in the center of the room. It was half covered with old plastic protective sheets and dirt, too, as though it had been here for years, but I could tell it wasn't. It was a brand-new bioCPU cluster with optitronic enhancements, worth millions. This thing had been built in the last six months at the most. I did my best to hide my surprise. Only scientists and military technicians got to use this sort of computers. It had nothing to do with administrative maintenance. I looked away and glanced at the screens and walls, trying to remember when exactly I had received this mission about the HarDrImp. BioTech and Space. Frederika was more than a storage facility, now I could swear it.
I sat at a desk and asked the codes for the basic network, the same ones I had cracked an hour before to send my virus. I checked the program was still running; I had one hundred and nine minutes left. I browsed the records and libraries, and created a ghost copy of the results to be sent at the Renaissance Motel. Then I realized that contrary to what it seemed, the cameras did not work in the abandoned silos. They were displaying a constant loop of still views of the silos, stored in a parallel database. Impressive. That had to be the reason why the guy looked so tense. I asked them to leave me alone to do my work, that would be quick, don't worry, I'll be away in a sec… and forked the database to analyze its structure.

Changing the coordinates, modifying passwords, I compiled a new stream of information and retro-engineered the decoy. It was a fantastic job, and it was a real challenge to work on a program worthy of my skill, for a change. This protection was really good. I eventually managed to get into the correct database, gaining access to the real cameras. And I discovered the secret of Frederika.

Inside Silo A, I could see three levels of R&D labs, dedicated, as far as I could see, to some kind of biomechanical technology. I saw scientists (they were wearing lab coats) analyzing the motions of what looked like a robotic spider, and its reactions when it was attacked. Sensors and radars surrounded its "head", and the body and arms were covered with a sort of organic skin. I was wondering what was so special about it, when the thing attacked a dummy that was there. The dummy apparently was full of meat, to make it look or smell like a human being. The spider ripped it off and started eating it. I looked around me to see if anyone had seen the scene, then looked back at the screen. There was no mistake. The robot was absorbing the dummy. To erase all evidence, or generate power? I couldn't tell, but it left nothing behind. After that, it went in a corner and kind of fell asleep. I tried to connect to the silo's network, but the protections were set too high. Another camera showed a prosthetic arm made of the same matter as the spider. It was autonomous. It could move and grab objects. It was amazing.
Below this section, there was a collection of creatures like the spider. Robots that could move faster than anything I had seen before, and even androids. All organo-robotics. In the lower level, however, it wasn't just that. There was only one camera, in a corridor, in front of a glass door. On the other side I could see a surgical table and another couple of scientists who were apparently discussing some kind of scan.
I had enough time to see there was a body on the table, then the image froze and disappeared. Damn. Bad news for me. I checked the systems and saw a tracking bug was slowly going all the way to my computer. I looked around, Wilkins had left the room and nobody was looking. They didn't pay attention. I disconnected quickly, left the table, and walked to the lower level, in the Silo maintenance area. I had to find a way to Silo A. I recognized one of the two guards at a desk, and asked him to show me the way to Silo B. He had heard Wilkins tell me I could visit it, so he just finished his work, took a deck of opto-magnetic cards and opened the door.

I looked at my watch. One hour to go. I had to find where the files on the HardDrImp came from, and their context. And this Silo A lab was very intriguing. The guard opened a little door and we entered a small room with a big window showing the inside of silo B. It was a big white cylinder, with hundreds of disks stored in hundreds of tiny individual compartments on the walls. There were four cylinders of different sizes, one inside the other like these Russian dolls. A computer console in the room allowed selection of a specific disk, by controlling a robotic arm fixed on the cylinder's roof that extended to the disk to read it.

The room was empty, clean, empty, and equipped with independent climate-control. And empty.

The guard started talking about how to use the computer, but I had already made up my mind; I grabbed him by the neck and projected him on the door, then knocked him out. I glanced outside. Nobody had heard anything. I locked the door and ran to the console. Finding the disks took only minutes, and I quickly made a copy on my own computer.

Since I had triggered the tracking bug, five minutes had passed. I looked at the console and opened the maintenance panel. Could I re-arrange the wires? Tricky. I could start a fire, and that's not a good idea when you're miles away from the first space station. The primary board controlled the console, the secondary board controlled the silo's arm. There was a distro box under the console, but no ports. I disconnected the arm and looked at the cables. Nothing I could use. And contrary to what I had first thought, I couldn't use the vent ducts, they were too small.

Time was running, I started to feel a tad nervous. I was running out of options. I glanced through the window and looked down. The room was located about 100ft above the silo's floor. Then I had an idea. I reconnected the boards together and added a few modifications to the wires, then took the guard's intercom and earplug, went back to the door and walked as calmly as I could towards the main bulkhead. Ten minutes had passed. The com vault! How could I have forgotten it? This vault since the beginning had puzzled me. I couldn't understand why they had changed the communication center's location, when they had a perfectly valid, ready-to-use solution built on-site. Now I knew something was wrong with this base, re-affecting the vault to a different purpose made sense, although I didn't really know at that point what they were using it for.

My Jeep was still there, unguarded. It reminded me I had to keep in mind that the lift would require time to operate as well. I looked up. I was right. The camera was not filming the lift, as I had first thought. It was filming the smaller bulkhead, the one that supposedly opened the corridor to the com vault. Forty-seven minutes left. I couldn't afford to be polite anymore. I opened the Jeep and took what I called a ‘zapper'. It was one of my creations, a small device the size of a PDA, with a single button, very easy to operate. I pointed it at the camera, pushed the button, and the micro-fuel cell fired a polarized EM pulse in its direction. The camera emitted a strange noise and started to melt and smoke. A single-use device, sadly.

I walked to the bulkhead and opened it. The corridor was dark and cluttered with debris of old crates and empty boxes. Apparently it was really abandoned. I walked carefully to the other end, only to find that another bulkhead blocked the way. But this time it wasn't a standard bulkhead like the one to the Control Room. It was a High Security bulkhead, the kind you only find in jails or military bases. It was protected by a triple-layer security system, composed of voice and retinal scan, fingerprint ID, and DNA sampling. Back on Earth, with a couple of days' delay, no problem, but it was nearly impossible to crack with the material I had with me here.

I was stuck.

Stuck. I looked around, but no debris would help. I looked at my watch. Forty minutes left. I checked the guard's intercom, but detected no hostile activity. I closed my eyes and tried to think. Silo A was not an option anymore, all my plans had failed. I couldn't stay here, I had to go back and try to escape. The lift controls had to be in the control room, but going back there was risky. I didn't know how long the guard would stay unconscious.

I went back inside the corridor. There had to be something in there… I moved the crated and debris, and just as I was about to give up, I eventually uncovered an old grate hidden below the floor. It was protected too, but they had neglected to place as many locks this time. My computer could unlock it. I launched the drill and checked my watch. Thirty minutes.

I felt the hot pressurized air as the grate slowly opened. The ducts were dark and dusty. I did my best not to cough. The combination of old, recycled air and all these particles floating around almost made me choke. I ended in front of an air filter located on the ceiling of an airlock. Looked like a good place to start. I cut the filter with a pocketknife and jumped on the ground. The airlock was equipped with showers and lab suits, apparently it connected two pressurized areas… I took one of the suits and closed it hermetically. This way nobody would recognize me.

I entered the lab. I recognized some of the panels from the video I had seen earlier and concluded I was somewhere on the second floor. I was in a closed corridor, but large observation windows allowed me to watch what was happening in the labs on either side. One of them was empty, but I could see traces of some blue matter on the tables and the floor. There was a pile of discarded electronic components near the wall, a few scanners and computers. Everything was shut off. On the other side, three men were busy dissecting some kind of spider, of the same kind as the one I had seen earlier. This one was the same shade of blue as the matter on the other lab's floor, and smaller than the other one. And it didn't move at all. I looked at the corridor's door, it was ajar. That was my chance. I stepped in and took a small PDA on a table nearby, then walked inside the lab, pretending to take notes.
-"Careful. You're near the coaxial…"
-"I got it. I got it… There!"
The man took a scalpel and started cutting something.
-"Easy, Morris, you're going to kill it…"
-"Sorry… Give me more light… There. I'm near the central node. I'm… in! Okay, plug it in."
-"Plugged… now!"
The three looked up at the same time to a flat panel that flickered on and displayed different kinds of data. One of the three scientists pointed at a picture.
-"You see, that's what Bronson said. It requires too much energy to run efficiently…"
-"Yeah… We could… override the secondary DMA protocols to shunt the auxiliary power supply, and… reroute the program to the main datanode, what do you think?" He pointed a remote at the screen, and a close-up diagram of the circuits boards appeared.
-"There, we could cut this, this and… this too, and shut down this part of the body, and cook something up to activate it on demand…"
-"Yeah… I'd like to ask Fraekel first."
-"Sure. We couldn't do this on existing units anyway the shock would kill them… And about the mech, anyone got any idea?"
I didn't understand a word of what they were saying. I was looking at the spider on the surgery table, it was clearly robotic, but… The blue matter that covered it… It looked like flesh. A strange flesh, something weird that creeped me out, but flesh anyway… I walked back and forth, looking at screens, manipulating the PDA, but the three didn't pay attention to me. They were too busy studying the screen.
-"So we finally managed to combine the two… The primary unit will have to be destroyed, but this one is a beauty…"
-"Yes, the integration is complete, at last. We made it…"
I had arrived at the door. I quickly looked around, and left the room letting them congratulate themselves. I looked at my watch. I had spent ten minutes in the lab. I looked up, and saw a security camera on the wall, turning towards me. I had just enough time to hide under it, and this time I recognized the lab I had just left. It was the one I had seen from the Control Dome. I waited, then walked to this corridor's door as fast as I could. This time, no one was there. I was in a huge cylinder, like the one in Silo B, except this one was filled with hundreds of samples, not disks. It was a unique occasion. I grabbed a few Petri dishes and threw them in a sealed bag. I was about to switch the room's computer on to check the references when I heard steps and voices coming in my general direction. I hid behind a pillar, and listened.
-"It's impossible" One of them said. "Our lab is quarantined, and you know it. Even the SID can't come in…"
-"Perhaps, but there is a security breach, and it comes from your department… What's in there?"
-"It's the sample library."
-"Open it."
The door unlocked, and two men entered the room. I stopped breathing.
-"You see? There's no one here!"
-"Dr Fraekel, I know you are upset, but we are doing this for your security, and we…"
-"I know, I know… Our security! As if some group was gonna invade this base… Wait, that's unusual…"
Oh damn. What had I done?
-"I put two samples there yesterday. They should be here…"
-"So, are we still…?"
-"Wait, I didn't say they had disappeared. I said they're not there anymore. I'm gonna ask my assistants…"
-"Fine, if you want…"
The security guy sounded nervous. I looked around, but couldn't see anything that could be used as a weapon… The steps came closer. Eventually I couldn't stand it and grabbed a chair to hit the guard. He looked at me with a shocked look, opened his mouth but couldn't say anything. The chair hit him on the forehead and he fell on the floor, knocked out. I took the chair to the desk, switched the console on, and grabbed the guard to sit him in front of the screen. Then I took his keycards and left the room. As the door closed, I ripped the lock's cover and triggered a short-circuit, frying the mechanism.
I had to be fast now. I ran towards the empty lab and to the airlock. Just as the door closed, I heard steps and a voice shouting me to stop. The door closed and I disconnected this lock too. I was safe, for the time being anyway. I took off the suit, put the sealed bag with the samples in my backpack, and looked up. The duct was quite high. I hadn't thought of this little problem… I threw my bag inside, and studied the room, trying to find a way to climb to the exit. I took off my belt, climbed on a water conduit on the wall, and tied it on one of the decontamination showers. I tested the conduit's strength, and jumped. I swung back and forth, and finally managed to put my feet on the edge of the filter. After several minutes, I had one of my legs inside, and I could grab one of the borders. I untied the belt and threw it near the bag, then climbed inside. I was exhausted, but couldn't wait. I had only eighteen minutes left. I almost ran out of the duct, then to the bulkhead. My back hurt like hell, and I felt as if I had smoked all the cigarettes of the world in one shot.

To my surprise, no one was waiting for me in the central area. They were all in Silo A, it seemed. I quickly went back to the jeep, switched on the command panel and scanned the networks around, without entering them. There had to be a weak link somewhere. I closed the Jeep's door, and went back to the console. The computer was displaying several options, but for all of them, there was a risk of casualties. I quickly looked at the files and videos again, and decided it was worth it. I had to get out of this place, no matter how. What Nara did here was not Administrative Maintenance, and I was sure they would try to prevent me from telling, well, anyone about it, just like they had told me to neutralize that cracker months before. I eventually found a weak spot and infiltrated the network for the last time. I rerouted some power to the Silo B console, and removed the machine's surge protection. I then sent a conflicting message to both the console and the silo's arm, and sent it in a perpetual loop. With this and the rewiring I had done, the console overheated and fire began to burn the circuit boards, setting up the alarm. I blocked the bulkhead and bypassed the security to send a fake report to the lift controls, triggering the emergency evacuation procedure.

The lift was supposed to wait until the entire base had evacuated to the platform before going up. I generated a signal override and made it believe everyone was there, and slowly the platform started moving. Once on my way up, I knew nothing could prevent me from reaching the upper platform and the surface building, because everything was automated and nothing could interrupt it. I made sure the damage was minimal though, and I was pretty much certain they would manage to fix the fire rapidly.
Ten minutes left before the virus switch-off. I sealed off the underground base and triggered an emergency depressurization of the surface building. The doors opened, and I was able to drive out. I was free, but not as free as I had planned. I reconnected to the virus and manually launched an offensive self-destruct sequence, which completely wiped out the dish's dataloop. It wasn't pretty, and analyzing this hack would tell them who I was, but it was my only way to delay their reaction.

I set the cruise control at maximal speed, and leaving the Jeep drive itself back to Renaissance, I started analyzing the files.

Ghiran was right. Nara was developing one or several new technologies, and they hadn't told anyone about it, even the government. Even if they were afraid of industrial espionage, they had to declare their fields of research to the authorities.
Of course, Nara Pharmaceuticals was a big international corporation, and as such had made several deals with the government and the military. I couldn't dismiss the possibility that these secret projects were part of the black ops mentioned in the HardDrImp. After reading the first paragraphs, one thing bothered me though.

One person, to be correct. My genius bird-wannabe technothief. Remora, the cracker.

Everything I was reading was classified information, the kind of stuff so secret that you shouldn't find it anywhere. Almost a "destroy before reading" kind of thing. I had been extremely lucky to just have a look at it, and there I was with iso copies of two disks. And I still didn't know how Remora had gained access to them. Besides, my informer, the angry Nara ex-employee, who wanted me to crack their Media Networks, well, he hadn't mentioned Remora or anything, but I started to wonder why he had contacted me in the first place. Nara knew I was on the Remora case. I had opened it, worked on it, found the guy, well his corpse, and closed the file.
I suspected a loyalty test. But then I discarded this possibility. If it was one, I was fucked anyway. So I'd better start thinking of a way to find more info instead of assessing the pros and cons and whys and why-nots. Okay, so I had gone to the Moon, but Ghiran's report mentioned Mars and Europa too. Going there was a no-no, for the time being anyway. I was running out of fake IDs, and the screenings for far space travels were far too advanced. I suspected my Nara NSD card wouldn't get me anywhere anymore. Even if thanks to me, Frederika was incommunicado, they would restore power soon and the dish would be their priority. No, I couldn't take the risk. I prepared my Vic Matthews persona and wrote down a few questions for the Governor, I was to meet his PR assistant in less than an hour.

The Jeep whirled and buzzed as it rolled towards Renaissance.




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