Station to Station

The train passed through Amersterdam, my headphones pounding the tunes of a past century’s long-dead music. They were corrupted files downloaded off an ancient database, audio that came through perfectly clear, the only flaw in being the gibberish file names that scrolled by the LED screen of my side box as a series of garbled characters. The names had been encrypted to avoid detection on the networks. Old files were considered dangerous, regardless of their content. I had been riding the trains as it passed from station to station; to my right we glided by a patch of post-apocalypse. It was a cityscape ruined and charred, looking like a fried circuit board that had been shelved and never repaired. Everything was covered in dust, dirt, and grit. The settled dust of ancient fallout had covered everything in thin layers. It vaguely reminded me of those old black and white movies.

The buildings and skyscrapers were collapsed and ruined, resting on top of other buildings and even more skyscrapers, making it look as though a giant had played dominos with them. Retrofitted chunks of old buildings had been turned into slipshod shelters and businesses that were capped with bent and twisted metal and crumbling pieces of concrete. All over the streets there were kiosks that had set up for the days business, some of them sold bioware chips v-pak upgrades, ‘softs and OS upgrades; some even proclaimed to have “newly developed AI” available for installation, but everyone who had a brain in their head knew that was a scam and had avoided those places. A fool who walked up my be jacked into some sort of new v-stim and fried right down to the last synapse. There were, after all, a lot of unemployed scientists who needed to further their research without the testing resources of most of the high-end corporate labs. It was not uncommon to plug in some new software into your v-pak or PAN only to have a DataStream the size of the Internet flood your head. The human brain could only take so much stimulus before shutting down. These people weren’t very good at setting limits to the amount of data they could unleash with their “revolutionary” technologies, without a cap it just become a flood that spread across the mind of the user like wildfire; amateurs.

Those were the businesses I noticed primarily because they were the only ones I was genuinely interested in. Of course there were more than just the cyber technology shops. There were plenty of others as well, mostly fast food places and retail outlets. They weren’t fancy, but corporations a long time ago figured out that in some areas maintaining the whole “sleek and marketable” appearance was mere pretension. In the ruined sprawls no one gave a damn what your business looked like as long as you had what they needed.

All over the darkened city lights had been crudely fastened to almost ever-possible surface lighting the place up brighter than the great upper-networks of the Commissions super-cities. Outdated commercial-boards played their video advertisements for soda that no longer existed and computers that were outdated, several of them hanging askew amidst the ruins of the buildings they were once attached to. This particular stretch of city was filled with refugees and bohemians, beatniks of a new generation milling around in crudely made shelters under the husks of once great cities. There were tent networks illuminated by neon that ran underneath the propped up shell of what once was a great towering skyscraper that was standing askew and leaning against another large structure that looked like it might collapse at any given moment. The only thing that held it up were stripped out support columns from older structures. I briefly pondered how they got them there in the first place, but the bohemians had always been inventive.

In the cabin of the monorail I had my v-pak on and humming gently beside me. The music tracks ran out and I was about to replay the whole data disk again, but then I figured it was about time I got more. I wanted to catch up on a past that existed only in these corrupted music files. I think that at the time I felt that maybe by doing so I could avoid looking at the future. I remembered that new source I was given and decided that I might as well log on and get some new stuff before I turned in for the night. The train’s next stop wasn’t for a few more hours and I had been groggy all day. The web is nice when you want to use it but whenever you’re forced to do something as your only score of entertainment you tend to get sick of it, it’s always more enjoyable if you feel you had a choice. Though there was the small television in the cabin that received the Europan standard satellite channels; however, even the web without any real purpose of being on it was more entertaining than Eurpoan sitcoms.

I had been frequently checking the BBS systems for crackers and script-kiddies for the past few days while I had been on the westbound train that headed towards Europa and all points in between. In Singapore I was close to being nabbed, and that was something I was not intending on for a little while longer. So I was letting this train take me to who knows where. I would probably get off somewhere in Moscow and try to find some freelance work up there and if that didn’t work out I might have to attempt to crack a few bank accounts. It could be done, but it was risky and not always rewarding. Not every bank account has millions in it after all, especially not after the Commission started taking over. Money was scarce all around these days.

I put on my battered VDUs, some people preferred the holo-display monitors, but I found them hard on the eyes. The monitor glasses were much more affordable and in my opinion, better. I flipped a switch, said a password and suddenly I was immersed in the web, the whole system stretching out for miles like a cluster of stars floating in simulated space. I passed through the floating husks of thousand outdated servers, their screens dead in space from years of inactivity. These were system graveyards, and it was becoming more of a common occurrence.

I pressed a button and told the system to re-route me to the Commission’s gateway. The world blurred as I was shot through thousands of miles of pure web straight into the system, the screen floating in a patch of cyberspace that was darker than the others. It looked like an invisible wall surrounding a bubble the size of a universe, hell, maybe two. The gateways login screen took up my entire view, serious security, without access I would be shot out of the system and possibly have my ROM fried by some hot-shot system administrator just for good measure. The Commission didn’t want just anyone toying around in their chunk of cyberspace. It was like they were begging for someone to try though, the more security the more people want to know what’s inside.

I punched a series of automated commands into the hotkey panel I had plugged into the VDU. Within an age of voice commanded software, the panels were becoming less common, but they still served some functions for people who needed to do things faster than could be said aloud, like cracking a gateway before the system had pinpointed said person’s location. You could always go with the bioware chips that turned your brainwaves into commands but they were expensive and I never liked the idea of plugging machines into my body to do the legwork for me. The program I had created using a crude amalgam of ancient programs that existed on the sputtering drives of the last old servers. These programs accessed a more base level of the system’s OS and bombarded it with enough junk data to fill up a thousand terra-byte drives in a matter of seconds. I waited as crude little icons of whales, sharks, and imps pecked at the edges of the gateways screen and obliterated it, leaving a hole in the patch of cyberspace it was protecting. I passed through into the Commission’s networks and terminated my cracking program at the last minute, preventing a fatal crash of the gateway’s automated filtering system. If I allowed their systems to crash I would be found out in a matter of days, and before I know it I’d be shackled to workbench in Indochina before the week was out.

I entered an address and was shot straight down, the effect disorienting me to the point where I had to take the VDU Goggles off to remind myself I was really moving on a monorail and not rocketing down at mach five through subspace. When I put the goggles back on I was floating in front of a doorway system, the doorway that lead to the listings of the old music databases; at least the ones that still operated. I came for some tunes after all. Cracking the commission was not something you risked doing unless you had a very low profile, and though I had tried to do so when you pull tough jobs that no one else will or are too scared to, you ten to get noticed wither you want to or not.

I entered the open command and flew into the open doorway right into a massive library. The whole system suspended on columns of data that floated in space, represented by hyperlink feeds that reached up to seemingly impossible heights and held within a spectral blue column, the individual files part of the pattern work of hexes. The file names were all corrupt but then again that hardly mattered, a Ghost runner named Serra told me about this place. She was a drifter of cyberspace, a web-head who spent more time in the system than in reality, and really who could blame her? She was the one who gave me the program to smash the gateway, and who told me how to abort it at that last crucial moment. The one that kept me alive; being cared for and worried about was not something I came to be used to. I was always terrible at showing my gratitude for all she had done for me, even though we’ve never technically met.

For some reason she had seen something in me and as a result shared with me information that she had told me she kept a very closely guarded secret. In the Commission’s system everything was monitored, that is possibly because the whole government was completely paranoid. They were so utterly afraid of people undercutting them, or of stealing their property, that they had to monitor everything as a deterrent. The music was accessed on systems the Commission didn’t even know existed; they used an elaborate series of proxies to keep the network from being discovered. As far as the Commission was concerned this was little more than a corporate records system for EmuSoft, a database company out of Holland that didn’t exist. It’s title and operations were little more than organized attempts by Ghosts to find a way to share the old data that nobody seemed to wish them to have access to, a high profile record company withheld the copyrights to most of this stuff, and even though they had no intention on actually re-releasing any of it they still guarded it, business as usual I suppose. Serra had explained to me that the safest place to store this data was within their networks. They were less likely to look inside their own system when they had so much confidence in their security. Their pride alone is what allowed this place to even be allowed to exist, she had told me. I wasn’t so sure I believed that.

I grabbed a disk out of my backpack and slid it onto a slot located on my v-pak. I heard a soft click, and I entered in a few commands, within seconds I saw progress bars pop up in random intervals from one of the data columns, after a few moments of this I heard the disk click in my side box and placed another in, letting is absorb the old music files like a data sponge. After filling two disks worth, I would probably just skim through and delete the files I didn’t like or whose quality had deteriorated from years of being stored on ancient hard drives to the point where any music came through sounding like pops, crackles and high-pitch screeches. I was satisfied, and was about to yank myself out of the system completely with a soft reboot; it was the safest way out, as I was told, because the Commissions system had been set within certain error parameters and allowed for certain mistakes to written off as glitches in the system. Even though two of the same kind of attacks might seem like just a bug it still could raise some admin’s eyebrow, and that would be that. A simple inquiry into the data logs would trace the source and the user in less than a millisecond and they would hop from proxy to proxy until they found the source. It was too much of a risk, and as I moved my fingers to flip the switch on my v-pak, a burst transmission suddenly appeared in my screen, obliterating the view of the library. There was a confirmation window asking if I wished to accept the message from “Serra”. I felt like I had been suddenly impaled in the chest with an icicle. I thought it was a set-up. Commission spies catching someone in the act so that they could run a trace and catch them. It was a bit paranoid, but after being on the run for so long it was hard not to expect blind betrayal at any time. I had heard of a hacker community that lived inside the crater that used to be a Mongolian cities financial district. They were caught in a similar fashion, and even since then no one has been able to figure out where they went or what happened.

I reluctantly accepted the message; I wanted to at least see the face of the person who had set me up. Serra’s dark hair which was cut shoulder length and revealed a smooth neckline that lead up to a full pair of lips and bright green almond shaped-eyes. I was stunned by how beautiful the face floating in my vision was, it was the first time I had ever seen her face, the only other conversations I had with her being staticy voice chat on this crumby BBS service for wanna-be crackers. She spoke with mild amount of irritation; “you came right on in like an insect to a venus flytrap. If this were a set-up you would have been nailed. Run the ghost program I gave you so you won’t show up on the server logs, otherwise it will take me hours to erase your presence from the network. I like you, but I don’t like having to do boring clean-up work because you were sloppy. I don’t want that place found out about, it’s my greatest accomplishment being able to run that library for this long.” She was silent for a moment and she spoke again, her voice had returned to a more pleasant and conversational tone, “the best stuff is on the hyperlink listing in the back, it’s filled with some of my personal favorites, you might like them. How’s it over in Europa these days? You find a place to stay yet? Or have they spread too far?”

I relaxed and said “Oh thank god it’s you. You’re one of their admin’s aren’t you?”

She smiled, “that’s why I like you, you figure most things out without having to be told. You gonna answer my questions?”

I smiled back before realizing she couldn’t see me, not while I was wearing the VDUs, perhaps if I was at a terminal, or had enough money to afford a holo-screen or maybe a PAN. “Which ones?”

“All of them. I like to know what’s going on in the sprawls.”

“I suppose Europa is Europa, for what it’s worth. There are a few large cities that are now officially part of the Commission and I have been avoiding those places, but most of the area isn’t economically viable enough for them to care one way or the other. The whole place is just sort of left to it’s own devices; it’s a real shit-hole. Billboards and ruined cities, I just passed a genuine neon garden, that’s what the locals call the tent cities. I didn’t really believe that such places existed outside Asia.”

“Oh.” She paused and furrowed her brow for a second as if it hurt her to hear that. After a moment she asked, “so where are you headin’ to? Do you even know?”

“Nope I am just drifting for now, nowhere to stay and nowhere to go. I’ve just been hoping from train to train, riding from station to station, taking samples of life from every place I visit. Truth be told I have no idea where I even want to end up or what I am looking for. People everywhere seem dejected, as through they lost something really important and they can’t find it again. It’s really kind of a downer.”

“Well after the war a lot of people had to kind of accept the modern world, they didn’t like that too much. You know all about it, you’ve seen it. Tradition is dead, maybe they miss it.”

“I suppose so, but the Commission has spread too far. They are encroaching on a lot of territory now, it’s only a matter of time before most free people or traditionalists are confined to Europa and whatever parts of Russia that aren’t ball-shatteringly cold. I passed through Singapore a few weeks ago and they were asking anyone getting off the train to allow them to scan their hands for their Credit chips. I just pretended I was staying on the train, it was the same story every stop until Moscow.”

“Yeah, I had been meaning to warn you about Asia, but you haven’t been on any networks that I could monitor. I left you a message on our BBS, but you must have not seen it. Either way, I want you to watch out okay, I’ll send you some easy cracking jobs if I hear of them, strictly under the table of course. You having any luck finding out what happened to your family?”

I paused for a second and considered the question, feeling my rage and sadness lashing out from the cage in my mind I had confined them in. “No, no one knows anything about that. I can’t figure out who bombed that city or who gave the order, I assume it’s one of those faceless villain types, a general gone crazy, or an operation gone out of hand. I’d like to know what happened but I … I don’t know if I’ll ever figure it out. From the way people talk when I mention it I get the feeling that if anyone did know they probably wouldn’t tell anyway.”

“I know, people are scared of backlash. Knowing too much is dangerous right now. You’re lucky Julia was there to pull you out of that wreckage. Hell, you’re lucky to be alive. I think it is wise of you to give up your search, when people start looking for revenge it usually leads them down a path to their own destruction. You see it all the time in the movies.” She produced a cup from off screen and took a casual sip of what I assumed to be coffee.

I waited a while before responding; so long in fact that Serra began to ask if I was still there. When I did eventually reply my voice was shaky and I had to keep myself from choking up. “Julia’s dead, she was staying in a decommissioned scraper and the whole thing fell apart, some guys decided to haul out the supports because they thought it was abandoned, figured they could still use them for something. Maybe sell the scrap, I don’t know. Whoever gave them that information was wrong, there were quite a few people staying in that building when it collapsed. The guys who took the parts sold them, and gave the salvage money to the people who knew those in the building. I got a measly fifty bucks out of it…”

A look of overwhelming pity covered Serra’s face. “I’m so sorry, I had no idea. Look at me talking about your dead family and friends, I must seem so insensitive, I didn’t mean to upset you I’m just worried is all. Now that she’s gone you’ve got no one at all do you?”

“Pretty much, she’s the last person I know outside the web.”

Her voice was filled with concern; I had never heard her talk this way before. I thought with her cool professional tone that she was a badass code-breaker that didn’t mess around and broke all the rules. I imagined her as an amalgam of every hacker stereotype that had been floating around the web since it’s creation, and it never really occurred to me that she could be human. Over the web I viewed her more as a sentient program, an out of whack AI turning against the system it once had worked to maintain. I never expected her, or anyone else to really give a damn about some freelance data-cracker living on a train that looped through Europa to Asia and back again. When she spoke up again she sounded pissed, “why the hell didn’t you tell me? You know how I worry about you; you’re the only person in Europa still worth talking to. If there was anything I could have done all you needed to do was ask. For god’s sake, I’ve been trying to help you for years now! What the hell were you thinking not telling me? I’ve done so much to help you why would you think I’d stop now?”

She looked really pissed now; I waited a second before thinking of a reply.

I wanted to say that I didn’t want help, and that I didn’t need it. I wanted to say that I was fine and that I could handle things on my own, but I didn’t. Instead I said for the first time in my life, “I could really use some help.” Then I was crying. I had told myself that I should be strong even after Julie’s death, and I had told myself the same thing when I looked back and the charred husk of a city that had been my home as I rode an old tractor out of the ruins and down that old rail line. I had kept it all bottled on the inside for so long that at every petty backstabbing and betrayal I had encountered in my travels was just sort of compounded on top of it all like a great house of cards, and all it had taken was the sound of this woman’s voice thousands of miles away on microphone to send it tumbling down. I wept for a while and when I had managed to regain my composure I spoke again, “I could use anything.”

Serra said to me when I was done, “Your next stop is Hamburg, you are going to get off that train and take the skycart all the way back to here. I’ll pull some strings and by this time tomorrow we’ll be talking face to face. Okay?”

“How do you know where I am?”

“I tracked you. I’ve been keeping an eye on you; I told you that you’re important to me. So what do you say?”

How could I refuse after all of that? I told her that would be fine. She blinked out of my VDU and I shut my side box off. I put the VDU on the seat and began to gather my things from the overhead compartment and stuffed them into my backpack, which was resting next to my side box on the seat. I made sure to cheek under the seats and inside the tiny bathroom what was slightly bigger than a port-o-potty for anything I might have missed, then I sat back down. I had no idea what she was doing, but I didn’t care. I wanted a place to stay that wasn’t mobile for a little while and get my head straightened out. It wasn’t until now that I had realized just how miserable I really was. I had been ignoring it for so long that I thought I had forgotten all about pain and loss. I thought that if I just kept drifting that maybe the past would never catch up to me at all. I wanted to run forever and pretend it never existed, living day by day and heading down a path to nowhere. I was never scared of living like that, it was the though of being pinned down and led to do things through obligation or under duress that truly frighten me.

After that I put on my headphones and pulled a panel on the wall lowering the wall-mounted bed. I laid there and listened to one of the fresh data disks for a little while, letting one track I especially enjoyed play on a loop. Out side the window the brightly lit cityscape of the sprawl began to encroach on the ruins of Amsterdam, eventually giving way of old crumbling skyscrapers to fresh new buildings. The modern world kept growing larger and larger outside my window. Making the world that the train was passing by only minutes ago seem like a passing dream, an affront to this world of steel and chrome. If you had never seen it, you might believe it had not existed at all.

I rolled over on my side and propped my arm underneath the paper-stuffed pillow. Sanitary, cold, and uniform; it spoke of one time uses and travel. All the things I wanted to be a part of for as long as I able to.
The music played on as I drifted into sleep.

“…There are you, drive like a demon from station to station…”

* * *

I dreamed.

I was riding the atomical wavelength of some distant cold chart when the plummet became inevitable. With a sharp downturn everything collapsed into pure chaos. The systems and institutions all collapsed upon the sea of dead men which hung like kelp forests within the waters beneath the ridges of some abandoned superhighway.

When I stood, I was standing on a platform of a train station going on for miles in either direction. I heard something coming in the distance on either side and in second two trains passed and I was on both of them, I don’t know how I knew it I just did.

I knew what the dream – what my mind — was trying to tell me and I rejected it. I rejected it and I rejected the world that would spawn such a thing. I was not going to take a part in either side; I was outside the system and as such a free agent. I had no intention of letting my mind turn against me. I was no revolutionary and didn’t desire to be one. Once you began thinking that the worlds needs fixing you start a chain reaction, one of the first triggers on a fatal series of events. Maybe it’s the right thing to do, maybe not; but it won’t change anything and if you tried you would be caged and dissected, or flat-out killed. It might happen either way regardless but to take overt action against society would get you caught much quicker, and I intended on living for a little while longer. So I suppressed the thoughts. I ignored what my gut was telling be because I didn’t want to hear it.

It was how I chose to live, and I regret that.

* * *

I woke up to the sunrise. The train station and the images of the dream, however, seemed to be imprinted in memory.

I took off my headphones and laid them on the bed, my head was swimming. Outside the sprawl had passed by sometime earlier in the night and I was left to witness the sun rise over the forest, beams of light stabbing through the thick cover of green lighting up patches along the mono’s right flank. I got off the bed.

I went in the bathroom and filled my mouth with water from a paper cup and placed a tablet on my tongue. The tingling was intense and in a few seconds after swishing the foamy water around in my mouth I spat it out in the sink, the minty aftertaste leaving my mouth feeling cool. I took a disposable razor from the cabinet next to the sink and shaved off my stubble. After rinsing my face I stared in the mirror, even though I had been a drifter I didn’t look too disheveled. My brown hair needed a trim and I had the tired expression of a person who doesn’t get much sleep. My eyes were blue this morning, but they changed colors often, usually between blue, green and hazel. I looked just like any other late-teen drifter I supposed; I wore a long-sleeved red shirt with no logo and a pair of loose-fitting black jeans into which the shirt was tucked. I had a pair of black steel-toe boots on that I had purchased for a very high price, they were supposed to last a lifetime and had some sort of guarantee. If they ever got damaged I could get them replaced instantly at any one of their stores.

No, I didn’t look so bad for someone who had been dragged through the gutter a couple of times. I stepped out of the bathroom and got my backpack ready. I flipped on my side box and checked my e-mail, only one, and it was from Serra. The subject line read was “Hamburg home of the Hamburger.” The message was brief:

“I want to you to go to the air station and tell them that your name is ‘Adamus’, that’s all you need to do. I told them not to ask for ID so doesn’t worry about that. I thought Adamus was a strong name for a strong person such as you. You mentioned you didn’t have one, or couldn’t remember it so I took upon myself to name you. Hope you don’t mind.

See ya soon,

I closed out of the mail program, and took off the VDU. The mono’s automated alert system announced that it was preparing to stop at Hamburg station. I double-checked for anything I was missing, took the headphones off the bed and stuffed them into my backpack.

I took my seat and looked out the window as the forest gave way to more of the sprawl. Crumbled cites filled with the destitute, slowly being re-built to new heights. Construction crews were all over destroyed skyscrapers like files on a pile of rancid meat. The view of the sprawl remained the same for several minutes, just ruined buildings, construction crews, repair vehicles, and empty lots where fresh concrete foundations were already being poured.

I realized at that point that the Commission had decided to move some of its territory out here. They were expanding again. This was the train’s final destination, before it turned around and re-routed it’s self back to Singapore, where the Commission had an ample stake as well. I couldn’t stay on the train, they had to let everyone out for cleaning and re-stocking, I could wait at the station but the Commissions police would be out there checking for hand-implanted ID chips, credit chips, and who knows what ever else implant that is required you have to have installed in order to live in their world.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when the train pulled in at the station and stopped, but whatever it was I was prepared. My body was tense and my reflexes were as on edge as they had been in Siberia. I remembered this job with great detail…

* * *

I was on a cracking job that required I be on premises to connect to their isolated PAN-enabled network. I was outside in the snow behind a building on the southern courtyard of walled-in complex. The person on the inside was supposed to provide a distraction for me while I cracked the system by installing a backdoor protocol into their server’s command list. Enabling me to bypass security for access. The distraction was a former Russian special ops solider who was supposed to go in guns blazing and take down as many people in five minutes as possible. Before the job we had left the lander together and I noticed he was drunk, he began mumbling and talking about this being his last job. I didn’t think anything of it really, I figured the guy could at least hold them off for the allotted time, I just wasn’t sure he’d make it out.

The compound was a snowy research center with a low concrete wall and a gate with a thumbprint ID system. There were not any guards present on the outside; this place was so isolated I suppose they felt they didn’t need it.

We were told to breach compound security using a piece of activeware code and transmitting it to the entrance security system VIA burst transmission from my v-pak. Activeware was a recent innovation, rather than having a user run the same series of redundant tasks over and over the activeware selects various tools and other reconfigured scripts and runs them against the target system depending on what purpose you want to achieve. You want access to the admin functions system you tell the activeware. You want to hijack automated guns the activeware can do it for you. It’s configuring the software that’s a real test of skill, you set the wrong commands, screw up a variable, and that’s it. It was better than using AI though. Sometimes an amateur cracker would find an old AI somewhere on the net — though they were all undeveloped, the few genuine AIs that were created proved unwieldy and dangerous — and attempt to use it. The result was never pretty.

I was going to do my thing, I had already run down the list of commands in my head but the Russian had a different plan entirely. From his field bag he produced some thermo-plastique explosives. It was enough to level a city block. I tired to stop him but he was having none of that. With a swipe of his burly arm I was knocked a few feet back and sent tumbling into the snow.

When I had managed to pick myself up I saw The Russian taking a full on charge at me, I put my arms around my face in an attempt to deflect a blow from him. If it was his aim to cause me harm my defense would be comparable to a deer trying to stop a freight truck by staring at it. I was lifted up, and over a snow bank into which I was pleasantly deposited headfirst. The Russian was holding a device that looked like a mechanical pencil, the top beeping with a single red LED. A detonator. He pressed a button, and sudden burst in the air reverberated across the ground like a sonic boom. There was a loud rumbling and then silence.

The wall and a large chunk of the compounds front end were in ruins, I had little time to think. I double-checked all my gear as The Russian moved in. The first few guards – who looked rather shocked – were mowed down in seconds from the phosphorus-tipped automatic rail gun rounds that The Russian had loaded. The rounds left faint blue-white trails in the air for a moment as they punched through anything that the guards attempted to use for cover.

There was no hesitation in the Russians movements, he causally turned to face me and yelled, “hurry with the extraction. Let me have these last moments to myself, do not wait for me.”

He wasn’t coming back with me, which was both good and bad. I wouldn’t have any cover, but I wouldn’t have to slow my pace to wait for him. He walked into the newly formed hole in the side of the compound. I suppose if I had known the man better I might have tried to talk him out of it; but the years showed clearly on his face, and the weariness in his voice showed that he was an old dog who was long without an owner. Maybe it was for the best.

I bolted in and immediately went to the location on the east most point of the building, I already had the activeware configured I jacked in through a small data hub located near the rear entrance that was used to regulate the environmental controls for the compound. Within seconds of being jacked in the corporate data sphere of Nakijama Robotics was my plaything. The activeware burned through the internal defenses like they were nothing, I had a good feeling the security consultant wasn’t going to be having a pleasant week when the corporate heads found out how easily their system was breached. I was to extract all test data for the experimental weapons that were being researched, but just as the data began to extract I noticed a background OP start to load itself off the disk. Blackout. I had no idea what that was but it was broadcasting itself from my intelidisk and into their corporate data sphere. It was fast too, incredibly fast; already a blacked wave of raw code began to spread itself like wildfire. I did the only thing I could do; I yanked out the disk. I had been using that activeware disk for months. Yet it had behaved like it was… no it couldn’t be. I didn’t have to time to think, I was in the network still. I replaced the disk with a fresh one, and re-initialized the transfer. I was running the system on my own now, without any digital backup. Whatever had tried to broadcast itself was slowly purged from the system as junk data.

After that there was a silence that had me more than a wary. I was waiting for the files to finish coping to the data disk when I heard the sounds of approaching footsteps. I responded with a level of instinct that I did not know existed. I grabbed my side box the moment the download was finished and bolted straight in the direction I heard the approaching steps. I appeared right around the corner much to the surprise of the two armed guards that were heading my way, there was no transition, I hit that corner full speed and immediately grabbed the barrel of the first guards riffle and shoved it into the direction of the other guard as he opened fire, killing him. As he realized what he had done I leaned in close to gain more leverage and spun him around by the barrel of his gun, his body stumbling backwards and falling over in the snow. Still holing on to the gun I ran sideways towards the exit as another guard turned the corner that lead to the front of the building. I swung the gun like a club hitting him right in the solar plexus causing him to double over and gasp for air. More yells were coming from inside the building but I didn’t break my stride or look back, I was still holding the riffle when I made it to the lander. As it took off the pilot looked back and asked if the other one was with me. I told him no and he took off. As I looked out the side windows I saw that the whole front end of the building was blown open as if it were hit by a cruise missile. There was a crater located in the front end of the building, and I knew immediately what the Russian had done.

My reflexes had saved me in similar situations, jobs that had gone wrong, or when I was attempting to evade security. The finest example is still the Siberian job. Never had I made such a successful escape as that, and I hoped I would never have to attempt to do so again. Two parts reflexes and quick thinking and one part luck had saved my ass, but I wasn’t so sure my luck would hold out forever, hell maybe that’s what I wanted.

The train announced that it had arrived in Hamburg and to stay in your seats while Commission officers inspected the unregistered for ID. I saw two groups of suits pass by my window going in opposite directions both holing a handplant scanner. I waited for a second, I was either going to run or stay, and if I stayed I would be outsourced, or given the required line of credit and insurance by a hand implant and tracked till the day I died. Every activity and location I went to would be tracked and recorded, analyzed my market researchers and police forces alike. The only option I had was to run, I had no idea that this day would happen upon me so abruptly after all the years of drifting safely, I had actually begun to believe that the Commission’s expansion would never affect me. Now here it was at crunch time, but I was ready.

I waited about two minutes so that the suits we be sure to already be on the train, when I activated my side box and slipped the VDUs on. I immediately accessed the trains security systems and told them to activate. The whole operation took a mere press of the button on my hotkey pad. I had set up a contingency plan in case I needed to get off the train in a hurry. The monorails were equipped with sound-guns that were used to suppress terrorists or other hostiles who might attempt to hijack the train, the mono’s various compartments would be sealed off and then blasted with high frequency sound waves enough to deafen you if you were too close to one of them. The whole experience was supposed to be quite painful, like a shotgun going off inside your head, bouncing sound waves off your brain. I heard the mono’s doors sealing shut, and then the sound guns went off, sounding like a fire alarm that had the volume increased a hundredfold, of course the compartment I was in was unaffected, but the sound was enough to even make me grimace.

I took my backpack and put it over my shoulder so that it was hanging by one strap, I took off my VDUs and placed my side box inside. I put my other arm through the other strap and side kicked the window, causing the cheaply made plasti-glass to fall right off the side of the train. I grabbed the windowsill with my left hand and vaulted myself right out. I immediately stepped into the groove that the mono used to pass through the station and walked along it until I reached the end of the train. Once I reached the end I took off running along the tracks towards the Hamburg air station, which was located about three miles north words right alongside the track that lead to Moscow. After a mile or so I stopped running and tired to catch my breath, and got off the tracks. I followed a series of abandoned industrial complexes inhabited mostly by squatters and crazies. None of which even bothered speaking to me, probably mistaking me for one of their own.

I walked along a road that ran perpendicular to the train tracks and made sure to look to my left for the tracks to be popping into view between buildings. After walking about a mile and half along the ruined complexes I finally reached a respectable section of the city, possibly spruced up and made to cover up the ugliness of the section I had just passed through, you know, make things look good for newly arriving executives and tourists. I passed a franchise coffee shop located in a square that was made to look like something you’d have seen in the early 18th century, the authentic look marred by it’s obvious manufactured ascetics. The place looked about as authentic as an amusement park.

The path I was on lead me on towards the Air Station which I could now see rising up from behind the would-be quaint veneer of the fake authentic German town square. The searchlights would not be on at this time of day so the building looked deceivingly empty from this distance, spare the occasional take off of air shuttles. I was passing by a mall and got a little hungry so I stopped by a kiosk and bought two strips of smoked synth-beef and took two bites before tossing them out. They had the fake taste of something you knew was synthetic. It was like chewing on beef-flavored rubber. Some of the nicer restaurants had the stuff that tasted like the original animal it was supposed to have come from. It used some type of genetic cornmeal and flavoring. These cheap little kiosks and fast food places only had the disgusting tasting garbage that the lower classes loved to eat, maybe because it was all they could afford. Either way I decided that I would just ignore my hunger for the moment and just get a drink. After buying a can of lemonade from a vending machine I walked along the automated sidewalk that lead towards the Air Station. As I passed along the elevated walkway I sat on the sides and let the sidewalk to the work for me, my feet were killing me.

The Air Station looked no different from your old-style airport. Just the same, confusing terminals and all. Stretches of runway and lift-off pads for the ferries, which gave rides to some of the larger Arcologies in the area. I got down off the rail as the sidewalk lead me towards the entrance for departing flights. I walked in the door, a wall of Air Conditioning blasting me from above and startling me, I was a bit on edge.

I approached one of the random service counters that ran along the wall next to baggage claims. The woman at the counter asked me what I she could help me with and I said ‘Adamus’. She gave me a knowing smile and handed me my ticket, a one way non-stop flight on Shuttle 15B stopping in Liberty City, North America. I thanked her and went up the stairs, which led to an open area with all flight listings and few gift shops and restaurants. It was there my trip ended. Two suits had me by both the arms before I even knew what was happening, and a third hit me right in the stomach. The world flickered black for a second and everything became a blur, I tried to g asp for breath but couldn’t seem to get enough. The suit that hit me lifted my head up to meet his gaze, he had a jagged scar on this right cheek and pulled back blonde hair. He said, “You are under arrest and I think you know why.”

I let the two others hold me up while I regained my breath. I pretended to be incapacitated. I mumbled at him, “I suppose so, but you didn’t need to hit me.”

The suit leader simply laughed right in my face and said, “By the time we’re through with you, you’ll be wishing … agh!”

I dead weighted my self while he was speaking and as the suits started to lift me up again I planted my feet on the ground and propelled my head forward smashing my forehead right into his nose bridge. I heard a satisfying crunch. He stumbled backwards and fell over, the two men that were holding me by the arms were caught off guard and I managed to surprise them so that their grip became lose enough for me to wriggle free. I stumbled forward a few steps and they moved in to get a hold of me again, already their leader was getting up, his eyes teary and his face smeared with blood. His once smooth pulled back blonde hair appeared frayed and messy. He looked extraordinarily pissed. As he began to pull himself up off the ground I kept moving right toward him raising my knee in time to collide with his already smashed in face, I stumbled sideways from the blow and kept running forward, behind me the two who had grabbed me were trying to help their fallen leader up, when I heard him scream, “forget me! Go get the little fuck!”

I turned around a corner and began to sprint towards my terminal, still hoping to make an escape, turns out I didn’t want my luck to run out after all. I heard the shots before I felt them, a high pitch whizzing sound, they were using rail guns, those handguns aren’t just given to your standard hired police, I just stomped on someone that wasn’t just a mere cop. If I got caught I was in serious trouble, it wasn’t about escape anymore it was about survival. I couldn’t stop and surrender even if they weren’t shooting at me.

My left shoulder exploded in a flare of pain that made me think that maybe someone had clubbed me with a lead pipe. I kept running clutching my shoulder when the second shot hit me in my right leg, I wasn’t sure where the bolt had hit the pain seemed to come from all over as though my blood had become shrapnel and was ripping my leg apart from the inside. As I began to fall down I put my right arm up to protect my face and rolled along the floor. The two suits were heading towards me, I could see them now, and Blondie was right behind holding a gun with one hand and the bloody remains of his nose with the other. I picked myself up off the floor and ducked into a slightly ajar door labeled “Lift Operators only”. The pain in my leg began to grow the more I tried moving it, as if it were slowly turning to stone. I reached into my backpack and pulled out the two pieces of the assault riffle I had snagged in Siberia.

I was thinking in lyrics again, I did this from time to time.

I snapped them together in half a second and limped down a stairwell that lead to the service lifts on the shuttles. I could sneak into the baggage compartment and bandage my wounds, when I got to Liberty City I could sneak away and maybe get on another flight back to Europa. As I was considering this course of action I crawled reached the midway point on the stairwell and slumped into the corner, I aimed the assault riffle at the door, I noticed the trail of blood I had led down the stairs and I remember wondering if they had it a major artery or something like that when I felt the barrel of a gun pressed to my temple. I turned slowly as saw the face of a man in his late forties, with graying black hair and a two-day old layer of stubble on his jaw line. He looked like the type of guy you didn’t fuck with.

He asked me simply, “are you going to put that gun down or not?”

I put it down.

He picked it up with an expert quickness, looked down at me, bleeding in the corner of a stairwell and said, “don’t take it too badly, I just left the door propped open with a piece of wood while I was getting a smoke. You were just a victim of bad luck. If not you would have gunned me and them down no problem, maybe even gotten away.”

The world was reeling, going into a full tilt-o-whirl. I asked him casually, as if it were an afterthought, “any chance I can still get away?”


Reality crumbled around me.

* * *

When I came to I was in a white walled transport that was most likely airborne, though there was no way to be sure. Mr. Hard-Broiled was talking to Mr. Broken Face, neither of them noticed and I was a bit more interested in the throbbing pain that was buzzing up my right leg and down my left arm.

“You were sloppy as hell. You’ve read this guy’s profile; he’s got the most ungodly twitch reflexes that we’ve seen in a while, completely off the scale. You’re lucky he didn’t manage to kill you,” Hard-Broiled way saying to Broken Face while lighting a cigar.

Broken Face responded in the semi-mumbling fashion of a junkie, I assumed this was because he had possibly taken pain killers for his smashed nose, since I had dealt with my fair share of junkies I understood him perfectly. He said, “I didn’t know how fast he really was, and you know how those people in the offices love to exaggerate. He looked like he was helpless, how was I to know?”

“You were supposed to know by the fact that he looked helpless, you think a guy like that would be taken out in a single punch? He just waited for you to get too close and let you have it. That’s sloppy; there is no excuse for it. Next time you point a gun at the guy and if he doesn’t stop you shoot him, you don’t try to act like some sort of hotshot, you got it?”

Broken Face said, “I don’t see what your problem is. We caught the guy didn’t we?”

Hard-Broiled threw the half-smoked cigar out of his mouth and stomped it out before responding. “My fucking problem, you little punk, is that if I hadn’t have gone on a smoking break and happened upon him all of us would be wearing toe tags tonight. You would have opened those doors in a blind rage and been shredded to pieces. Your incompetence nearly cost us both of our asses. I’ll be sure to file a full report when we get back. I’ll have you pushing papers if you don’t get your fucking act together and start doing things right. This is the last time I warn you.”

Hard-Broiled turned to face me. Broken Face leaned back in his seat and held piece of gauze to his face. His eyes were closed. Hard-Broiled said, “Mr. Adamus, I suppose you are wondering how you landed yourself in this predicament. The first thing is that you are wanted for assault, cracking secure networks both inside the Commission and out, terrorist activities, and for the use of dangerous programs across the globe as well as conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism on the Commission itself. I guess you’ll also be held accountable for that little job you pulled on the train that deafened several officers and civilians.”

I said from under a cloud of painkillers and rage, “I’d do it all over again just for another chance at defying you motherfuckers.”

Hard-Broiled raised his eyebrows but didn’t seem very surprised. “I’ll give you credit. You impressed the hell out of me today; I didn’t think we’d be able to catch you. Your name doesn’t exist at all, we just know you by whatever you put as your login on the networks. We only knew it was you because you used the same technique every time, until today we didn’t even have a name. What type of person has a first name but no last name? We noticed your presence on our server and found your inside man who had been attempting to cover your tracks. Obviously were surprised by the connections you had made. We checked all the activity that came from her workstation and found out everything. My boys were going to pick you up on the train under the guise of a handplant check but you stopped them there, and you almost did it again at the Sky Station. If we didn’t get a description from the people that were with you on the train we’d also have to idea who we would be looking for.”

He paused for a moment and lit up another cigar. I asked, “What’d you do to her?”

“Oh, you mean your little accomplice?” He asked in an off-hand fashion as if he really didn’t care either way. “Well, she never sold you out, we couldn’t get a single scrap of information out of her. We still don’t know what you were doing on our net works or why she was trying to cover it up. She was another tough cookie, made a break for it like you did. She took out two merc squads in the process. She smashed Officer Seifer’s balls before you broke his nose. Tough as nails that chick, you have good taste my friend.”

“I’m not your friend you son of a bitch,” I said softly.

Hard Broiled turned away and said over his shoulder, “I think you’ll find that I’m the best friend you’ve got right now.”

* * *

My trip ended in Liberty City, I caught a glimpse of that familiar skyline that I had always kind of known I would eventually see in person. I was lead off the landing pad strapped still strapped down to a gurney. I was guided down a hallway inside a building that looked no different from any other of the surrounding building, it was a cold and sterile as your typical corporate building. It was another testament to uniformity and professionalism.

I was led down a series of hallways that seemed to go nowhere, some felt like they were slanted downwards, while others felt they tilted to the left. I could tell I was in bad shape, I felt lightheaded and confused. I was unsure weather I was being led along to disorient me or because it was necessary. The pain in my shoulder and leg was incredible, even through painkillers I was having a difficult time ignoring it. Either way my trip ended abruptly as I was turned right into a room with a mirror running along the sidewall, there was a table covered in surgical tools, there was a large lamp, the kinds you see in hospitals, right above me. Two men in lab coats walked in, I managed to ask them what the fuck they were doing just as a third one I hadn’t noticed placed a plastic breathing mask over my mouth and nose, the gas made the world whirl about me and fade out in the encroaching blackness making it look like the last star in space suddenly blinked out of existence.

* * *

From that day on I was Adamus Coercea. The name meant adamant coercer. Serra had named me Adamus, which was a complement, the Commission tagged on the last part as a sort of testament to what they wished me to become. My arm and leg didn’t bother me when I woke up. I had no idea where I was or who I was beyond that name. Hard-Broiled came to visit me in the room that I was recovering from, he told me something I didn’t understand at the time.

He was wearing a long brown overcoat and smoking a cigar, I asked him who he was and he said he was a friend. I had no reason not to believe him.

He pulled up a chair and sat next to me, he looked me right in my eyes and said, “Ever since that monorail incident I had looked up all of your activities beforehand. You are someone I think can do a lot to change things if given a chance. It used to be back in the old days I would catch real criminals, but lately it’s become more bureaucracy and more bullshit. The police nowadays are hired hands, mercs and crooks of the highest caliber. I know that eventually someone like me will be removed. People like you and me can’t function in the world without selling our souls.”

He took a long drag off his cigar and made a smoke ring out of it before continuing.

“I know there may be a day where you realize what happened to you and you will hate me, but know that I only planted the seed. It’s up to fate weather the rain comes and lets it grow or not. I saw something in you even before I found you on that stairwell, and you may not even know that it exists in you anymore but it doesn’t matter. One day you might know, and if you do I want you to make whatever chance you have count. I can only tell you this because you don’t know who I am or what I am talking about, but one day you might.”

He stood up, dropped his cigar to the floor, and ground it out with the heel of his shoe. He started to walk out and I said, “I don’t know what happened, could you at least tell me? These doctors won’t say a word to me.”

He turned and smiled, “no, but you’ll figure it out. I consider it my last gamble.”

“Could you at least tell me your name?”

“John Harris.”

I never saw him again.

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