Hard Lessons: Part 13

13.

Complex Problems

Crystal smeared anti-ID paint across her face as she monitored the vids for the signal. Her weapon harnesses and belt-pouches clasped with industrial clacks. She tested the fit of her clothes, re-laced her boots; she’d have only seconds, would need them all. She checked the baby Deagle at her side, flipped the safety off, just in case.

Titus reported in, “’round the corner.”

Crystal watched a figure in high-end silks enter from one side of her digital surveillance net. She turned for the door, HUD superimposing the vid-feeds on a corner of her vision. It tracked Saito, shifting cameras as recog-software cycled angles along his passage of the buildings.

Crystal slipped from the rear of the building and into the shadows amid the downpour. Rain puddled on the porous jungle of concrete, reflecting the gray behind the blare of countless, incandescent street lights. Water rebounded off sheet metal, ricocheted into the distant gurgle of street-drains suckling rainwater. Their gullet’s resonance said it they did so as dutifully as failing infrastructure could; as the prideful, final remnants of a near-ruined system might, when emblematic of the depth of its own flaws.

Dim, GPS blips tracked Titus and Saito across her HUD. The information was further resolved on the screens before her. Titus remained in place. Saito moved laterally, toward the edge of the building where his palm-pad was hidden. Beside it, the alleyway concealed the entrance to his vault as the alley outside Angela’s apartment concealed her garage.

Saito’s blip gave only the slightest moment of hesitation. Crystal watched him on the PiP-feed: He glanced over his shoulder, around. In only a beat more than usual, he continued for the side of the building, his hidden panel. He rounded a corner and disappeared behind a series of columns and overhangs.

“Go,” Crystal instructed.

Titus sped past like a shadowed freight-train. Cameras tracked him, their recog scrambled by his face-paint. He doubled his pace on the PiP view. Saito hesitated again.

“Wait!” She commanded.

Titus stopped a step before the edge of the building that would expose him to Saito, the alley, and blow the job. He back-stepped quickly, doing his best to look nonchalant despite the exposure he felt. Crystal watched Saito rubberneck the alley, then put a hand on the wall. A section of alley-floor sank into darkness, revealing only the slightest hint of stairs in the edge of its scant light.

Saito was moving again. Titus was ready. He struck with precision; the sniper’s distant bullet, there and gone for one purpose. He flashed through from obscurity and into the alley. In two steps he’d bridged half the distance. The mark stopped mid-step. He’d had just enough time to squint through the rain at his assailant.

Titus struck. Saito was down, dazed. Titus reeled back a fist. Then, Saito was out.

Crystal was too busy running to watch. She sprinted over puddles, never splashing ground, silent. The street became alley, the alley, stairwell. A moment later, groaning, mechanized hydraulics re-sealed the hatch and she found herself in the dark.

“I’m in.”

Titus strained against Saito’s unconscious weight as he carried him to their hiding spot. Crystal crossed from stairs to floor. Lights flared on in the walls, forcing her to blink against suddenly-wet eyes. Her HUD engaged her new software, readjusted the contrast. She blinked out the last of her confusion and took in her surroundings:

The staircase had deposited itself in an unceremonious foyer. One of necessity rather than form. Walls of light, as in Angela’s garage, confirmed the shared architect. The design, as much for function as form, equally complimented the post-digital-age aesthetic. A style further evident in its extra-wide, utilitarian corridor running the length of its high-strength vault.

From the layout above and below, Crystal judged the vault-proper as just below the near-edge of the warehouse. The design of Angela’s home and garage said the vault was likely built up beneath the warehouse-floor, kept as innocuous cover easily investigated.

That was a popular theme in the shadows; the sleight of hand that kept one looking in the warehouse for wrong-doing, not the property above or below it that was equally there and open to construction. It was an obvious relic of a Pre-3D age. One where the idea of everything came from notions built on paper.

Paper was flat. 2 sided. Or at least, only 3 sided after exceptions or manipulation.

The post-digital-era was different. People weren’t flat anymore. They had depth too; had gone beyond the X and Y planes to the Z, even the T. 1 and 0 was old news because it had done so much more already. It was a symbol, sure, but an old one. One that wasn’t right for the times.

She started down the long corridor. Immediately drawn right, into a dead-end occupied on either side of a smaller hallway.

To the right, safety-glass walls sectioned and protected computer panels controlling various, connected hardware, no doubt monitoring and linking the vault’s various systems. In addition, large breaker panels and high-voltage symbols and cabling led in, spliced from the nearby grid-work that fed the warehouse

None of that was technically illegal, but it wasn’t exactly board-approved building code either. Clearly Saito wasn’t entirely above using old connections, despite the game he supposedly wasn’t part of. Their job aside, Crystal could already tell this guy was headed the way of his old boss if he wasn’t careful.

Judging by immaculately organized patch-panels, network switches, and other routing tech more was freshly interconnected here than procurable outside his former-network. She knew what network it was, because it fed her and Titus too.

Crystal focused left, on the immensely-thick vault-door half-protruding from the wall.

The door was decidedly intimidating. More than that, it was disheartening. Vaults doors couldn’t be picked or tooled. Most couldn’t even be blown open. They had to be plasma-cut or utterly removed. Neither was an option here

Unless they contained a small key-panel to the side; a standard panel for a non-standard door. One Crystal couldn’t help but smile at.

She stepped over, producing a small, cordless drill, and started working out hex head bolts. The internall-suppression mechanisms, some self-modified, withdrew the bolts in utter silence. The panel of number-letter keys and LCD readouts came free.

She fished through the internal wiring, feeling for the connectors. A wrench and a twist freed a pair of wires from a conduit, spliced them. A spark, a whiff of burnt insulator, and the grinding clicks of a few thousand pounds of meshing gears and bolts fell open.

Then, a prolonged hiss as the door eased open within its extra-wide corridor.

Crystal never ceased to be amazed at how few whom relied on digital technology actually understood it. Whether the highest-grade, state of the art containment facility, or the lowliest car-door lock, it relied on and required one thing to work; power.

Thus, power was also its greatest weakness and vulnerability.

Crystal couldn’t help but think of what Titus had said about vulnerabilities. In context, people whom didn’t understand such basic principles of digital security were incapable of planning for its exposure. Most electronic-locks had the fail-safe of a latch lift-able in the event of a power failure. Thus, the idea was to never lose the power in the first place.

State of the art facilities with billion dollar security systems compensated for this with multiple redundancies, complimentary fail-safes to prevent total system-loss. From their own, private police forces to their own power-plants, there were back ups to the systems.

All the same, Crystal guaranteed one or more vulnerabilities existed. Even in the most powerful systems, there was some weakness to exploit. What made her job difficult were the redundancies, the layers and overlap.

All of it though, required power. If it couldn’t be cut, that meant peeling back layers until getting to the target. As mentioned, it made her job difficult.

What made her job hilarious, almost pathetically easy, was ignorant fools putting a half-mil door on a vault they never bothered to reinforce digitally or electrically. It was its own weak-link in the chain of security.

The door stood open before her. Were she not so certain of Saito’s own foolishness, she might’ve hesitated. Fortunately, the door told her all she needed to know. No matter what more lay inside, protecting the vault and its various charges, something would betray them.

“I’m in,” she said, HUD scanning for anything suspicions.

It found nothing but clear ground.

Titus’ drugs would keep Saito out for hours, but he couldn’t risk him becoming lucid. Worse, if something happened to him, Curie might hesitate with him in the future. Their relationship required knowing exactly when and where to strike, how to compliment each other therein, for the best collective effect. It wasn’t always a Grand-slam, but it was never a miss outside their control.

Meaning, mostly fielders like Crystal assigned to jobs, fucked up.

Those were the requirements of a Fixer-Middler relationship; trust and loyalty. Curie was the M to his Bond, or near enough to be indistinguishable. Shaking the foundation meant shattering the usefulness of that partnership. It would happen eventually, if they lived that long– always a question in their line, but until then it couldn’t happen.

Neither side was prepared to weather it.

“You’re looking for a workstation. Concealed. Its drives.”

Crystal stared down rows of sleek, metal cabinets, counters, and drawers. Each was locked with a number-print bypass. Nothing beyond her skill, but the room looked to be half as wide and long as the warehouse above.

“Anything more?”

“No.”

“Titus, this place is fucking enormous.”

There was a long, deliberate quiet. Crystal was left utterly alone, just beyond the intimidating vault-door. She’d never wanted to run from a job so thoroughly. Something about the looming walls, the cold sterility of the vault; the sudden silence and aloneness. She felt trapped, imprisoned.

Something clicked. She suddenly understood the vault.

Rounding the door and heading out along the short hallway for another, her steps and HUD scanning. Lines of invisible code flickered like particle collisions in an accelerator inside her brain, processing for traps, lasers, trip-wires, pressure-plates, anything that might signal something.

There was nothing but white-light paneled walls, ceilings, and tiled floors.

Her steps remained cautious regardless; if she’d learned anything, it was that the more benign something felt, the more benign it was. Call it intuition; simple human sensory-logic, but if a room felt unused, it was.

Vaults had that feeling as a rule, most times. They were seldom used, but always contained the lingering presence of humanity. A distant, decayed hint of cologne, perfume; the last, infinite echo of a footstep; the hint of minor, animal warmth long since cooled.

That was what comprised reality. What gave an old house its musk. An old leather its feel. In simplest terms, it was life’s effect on a thing.

But Saito’s vault wasn’t merely empty. It was sterile. It didn’t reverberate. It didn’t smell. It didn’t echo. It didn’t linger or breathe. It was dead. Or rather, had never lived. It was just one more redundancy in a 2D system turned 3D. That’s how she knew it.

She found herself at the end of the hall, still awaiting Titus’ reply and knowing why he’d been silent. He didn’t want her getting dependent on him. They’d had sex. The relationship had changed. They hadn’t. She snapped back to her senses, alone but recomposed.

She found it then, another door. Expertly concealed to a human eye seeing a 2D plane, her HUD spotted it instantly. The wall panel rose imperceptibly but outside digital tolerance, decidedly out of place to the software in her HUD. In its adherence to remain innocuous, it sacrificed any further, external security.

Were the room beyond it not 3D, unlike the unliving, unbreathing vault, it might gone unnoticed. Even had the HUD missed it, Crystal knew she’d have sensed it eventually. Ultimately, this saved time. She looked about the door and scanned for any hidden method of entry. She slid her hands along its edges. They suddenly hissed, came loose, and slid into the wall to reveal the small, glass-walled entryway inside.

“Found something. Lab-like.”

“Worth a shot,” he said, tapping Saito’s phone as he squatted beside his unconscious body.

Crystal pushed forward through an inner glass door that sealed behind her. Decon fans spun-up and whirled gaseous air. She tensed up, too focused on the room beyond to notice. The sterile white made more sense now.

What didn’t was the thing lying in pieces on a steel table across the room.

The door to the lab-proper opened on something crossing an OR mid-surgery with a tech-workshop. The steel table, like a gurney, contained one-half a vaguely-human thing. It wasn’t, of course. Too much of it was open, exposed to the air; too much mechanical, robotic, to be human. All the same, Crystal couldn’t contain herself.

Jesus Christ,She breathed, eyeing the craftsmanship of the micro-joints beneath a hand. “It’s like Blade Runner in here.”

“Cee, stay focused,” he instructed. “The drive.”

Crystal swallowed, giving the creation one last, awe-inspiring look before turning for a nearby table and a computer there. Contrary to Titus’ expectations, it was not concealed. Even further contrary to Crystal’s expectations, it was also not protected in any way worthy of what likely resided within.

With a quick, few applications of her cordless driver and deft fingers, she worked the small SSDs from the computer and server cases and pocketed them. After one, last look of eerie sorority at the half-assembled creature, she hurried out and toward the stairs.

She started up, triggering an automated protocol that opened the staircase again. Top-side, Titus was stuffing Saito into his driver-less Continental, its scenic-route re-programmed. He shut the door, and it started away for the other side of town. Between that and the drugs, they’d have more than enough time to pack up and get out before anything was discovered.

The pair started through the rain to pack-up their hideaway together.

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