They say time is money, but these days the real gold is information. Juicy data. Almost any secret can be uncovered if you know what database to hack, what email system to infiltrate. Some people call that criminal but as a professional hacker, Darius called it a solid business model.
YEAH, YOU CAN TELL HIM I SAID THAT…
HAB 42, Apartment 19, Brimstone
“Yeah I’m bloody well watching it right now.” Darius griped at the voice on the Mobi while he tracked the center screen with maybe forty percent of his brain. The remainder of his attention was split among the four other panes of data that floated around the first. Multi-tasking, real no-shit parallel processing, was a gift Darius had enjoyed since childhood.
One of those screens displayed a scrolling cascade of information as a real-time decryption alogrithm chewed through INN’s site-to-station firewall. That gave Darius invisible eyes on raw feeds before they were edited or streamed to the rest of the ‘verse.
“How the fuck should I know?” Darius groused. “Some beat-to-shit dog just limped into the shot. They chased it off, and they’re starting over.” Air-tapping a series of holographic buttons he added, “Yeah, yeah, I’m pushing it to you now.”
The INN logo flashed up on the screen, along with the usual QR code, timestamp and geolocation data. A slim, well-built man stood holding a microphone, silently mouthing his opening remarks. A voice came in from off-camera. “We are live in five, four, three…”
<BROADCAST> “This is INN news correspondent DeAndre Tate, standing at what many are calling the crossroads of tragedy. Behind me is the now-infamous Nekropilis, a burned-out section of industrial arcology Leir One Bravo. It was just over three years ago that this innocuous mining center, perched on the edge of space, found itself the front line of the growing war with the Vanduul. The numerous charred buildings and carbonized human figures throughout the Nek are a persistent reminder of how abruptly war can spill over its boundaries. A sense of outrage and abandonment is prevalent among Brimstonians, many of whom tell me—“ </BROADCAST>
“Brimstonians?” Darius scoffed out loud, flecks of Guinness foam sputtering from his lips. “What the bloody hell is a fucking Brimstonian? No, I jus— Fine.” He fell silent, allowing the transmission to continue without his color commentary.
<BROADCAST> “— leader of the Xi’An delegation, has refused to be interviewed, issuing only a terse statement that Xi’An presence here is focused exclusively on humantiarian efforts and the mitigation of any persistent health hazards that might stem from the thermoplasmic event. But the lingering impact of the as-yet unresolved Co’Ral incident, now almost two months ago, leaves many people wondering where UEE officials —” </BROADCAST>
“This is shite.” Darius broke the feed, his agitated ADD jumping across to three other datapoints. “Any twat with half a brain knows it’s all a bloody Agency front.”
His fingers stopped in mid-air, brow furrowing as he listened to the voice in his ear. Darius responded, “You cannot be serious.”
The hacker facepalmed as he listened to the reply, relieved that the voice on the Mobi couldn’t see the gesture. “No— no sto— stop! Bloody hell mate, you’re hurting my brain. Liste– No, shut up and listen!”
He took a breath, thankful for the brief moment of silence. “Right. I’ll make this simple and since it’s you, I’ll use small words. The news media is chocked full of intel spooks, full-up DES operatives running under various levels of cover.”
Rapid-fire tones came from the Mobi for several moments before Darious spat back, “No, it makes perfect sense. They go everywhere, see everything. Nobody questions when they start filming shit, that’s their bloody job. Oh here, step into the picture, maybe we can interview you. What did you say your name was…?”
Darius lit up another smoke, his ire growing the longer he listened. “Conspiracy theory?? How bout Occam’s bloody razor? Given all possible explanations the… ah fuck it.”
Grimacing, Darius groaned at the insufferable stupidity with which he had to deal on a daily basis. It would be easier to explain reality to the bloody dog on the telly.
“Here, here’s an example.” Darius said, suddenly seizing on a thought. “Stormy Winters, celebrated INN journalist. We all shed a tear when she damn near got her arse blown off a couple years back, having the damnably bad luck of getting an interview with Kintasa u-Buntu on the very day that UEE Special Forces rained a missile on his head. The story goes that it was only divine providence that saw her walk outside before the missile punched through the roof.”
An interruption on the Mobi forced Darius to pause. His face reddened. “I know it was on live-stream dimwit, that’s my point. She didn’t ‘just happen’ to walk out in time, the bloody Reaper overhead was waiting for her to leave. Think about it. You have a high value target, maybe the supreme terrorist of the day. He’s the bloody sod who killed off that other INN reporter on Bacchus. Nobody, not DES, not the Banu M23, nobody can get eyes on this guy. But he wants to get his message out, wants to publish his manifesto, so who walks in but Stormy Winters, interviewer of the stars.”
Darius was on a roll, his energy building. He didn’t give the voice on the Mobi a chance to break his stride. “It’s the stuff of journalism legend. A reporter all alone, Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Kintasa is no idiot, there’s no way somebody sneaks in a bug or a transponder, only Stormy doesn’t need one because the drone upstairs has her 5GL bioscan. From twenty thousand meters up it can pick her out of a crowd of thousands on the unique aspects of her neuroelectric signature. Don’t you get it, she IS the beacon, she sets herself up as the target and parks herself in the same room as the Bad Man. It’s bloody brilliant.”
Darius shifted the smoke to his opposite hand, monolog running unbroken as he grabbed a drink. “Only the muppet flying the drone gets a little ancy-nancy on the trigger button and blows his load before she can get a safe distance away. Building gets leveled, Kintasa gets dead, but Winters gets injured. Ratings go thru the roof and Winters wins a Zelnik Award. You say it was some huge collection of coincidence? I say bollocks. Everything went damn near exactly as planned.”
Darius paused at last, the next couple minutes rolling his eyes as he listened. At some point the veins on the side of his head started to pulse. “Believe what you want but—“
Darius paused, taking a long drag on the cigarette while squinting at the central screen. His tone softened. “Hell-low.”
The voice in his ear rattled something but Darius gave it no more than five percent of his mental bandwidth. The rest of his capacity was focused on a waveform that played along the bottom of the screen. A signal inside a signal really, like a metallic thread invisibly woven through an intricate tapestry. His brow knit, fingers dancing across virtual screens.
The buzzing in his ear grew cranky.
“Shut yer gob for a bloody minnit willya?” Darius responded, his focus far away.
Squinting at the display, Darius peeled the layers of moving image and sound into separate streams, struggling to strip away artifacts interlaced between them. It was like trying to separate digital velcro. Then a scratchy, broken vid began to stutter in the second window. He leaned in and expanded it to full-screen.
It was an outside scene, maybe any one of a dozen industrial docks around Brimstone. Darius noted a row of heavy incinerators in the left background. His brain churned through mental references. Eastside then, third or fourth quad. That was Vane’s turf. Darius narrowed his eyes and he leaned forward.
The camera was peering over a stack of crates, furtively looking at something large. A big-ass ship. Yeah, cargo bay open, lot of guys inside, standing at attention.
“What the fuck are they holding?” Darius muttered under his breath. “Flags?”
The stream broke apart into digital snow, an explosion of pixels that fuzzed the screen. Darius cursed, rapping virtual buttons in a flurry of motion. The pixel-storm cleared just as the camera zoomed in, the hand-held jerking now made worse by the extreme magnification. Darius upped his profanity to match the stress, but countered with a stabilization routine. The picture cropped down to a smaller bounding box but what remained inside settled dramatically.
Not flags, Darius realized with a start. More like poleaxes. Halberds. Bunch of guys in green armor with…
He felt his jaw go slack. Bloody fucking hell, its them. They’re here.
Darius spoke into the Mobi with a tone that did not invite challenge or question. “Get Lazlo, get him here. Now. No I’m not fucking sending you anything over the wire. Tell him to get his pint-sized ass down here right now, I think I know what Doc’s been holding out and it ain’t just the turtles involved in this thing.”
Darius exhaled a lungful of smoke, eyes unblinking as he listened to the strident tones. “Yeah, you can tell him I said that.”