That was all they’d ever needed. The moment the response went through, the op had begun.
In the frenzy that followed, neither was sure what was happening. Only once it was over could they have known what they were doing. It was simply too automatic: combined muscle-memory and focus.
In the moment, Aural knew only the swift motion of her body as it vaulted a concrete barrier. Her sneakers slapped asphalt, then sprinted for the doorway ahead. The building stood as any uncaring stone formation but with an undeniably sinister lean. It seemed the core of the place was so corrupt, even the very architects had found pleasure in malicious, contrarian angles, utilitarian minimalism, and drab monochromes.
Aural was different.
Like so many others in the world, AuralAgent and FitWix were fighting for their freedom. True, neither were physically chained nor bound, their lives were no less constrained. Information, like water, needed to flow cleanly and liberally. Above all, it needed to flow freely and for all.
Aural flitted through the door. Wix guided her via a comm-implant. “Seven doors to the left, there’ll be a break in the hall. Take a left.”
She did. Careful of the darkness that had stirred no-one thus far. It would soon enough. An entire building rose overhead with innumerable bodies ready to rectify any perceived problem. She rounded the corner.
“Hallway juts right.” She followed it. He continued, “At the end of the hall, take the stairwell to the fourth floor.”
She was through the stairwell door when the first signs of commotion rose behind her. Night workers were shambling from their stupor, groping, grunting their way forward: Zombies drawn to the source of their work’s interruption rather than brains.
“Thirty seconds,” Wix said.
Aural passed the third floor, doubled her speed. The hack wouldn’t last that long. She knew it. Wix knew it. Thirty-seconds was their best estimate, but too many people were onto it now. So long as she made the fourth floor though, it didn’t matter.
Her legs went double time. Suppressed mania from ten years of track and field unleashed itself. Equally as long outrunning service agents, dodging COINTEL, Mercs, Hunters, and beat-cops funneled the mania through the adrenal regulators she’d developed. The end-result was extreme capacity for focus, no matter the circumstances.
Kind of had to be, when the penance for failure was something worse than death.
Aural burst through the fourth floor just as lights flickered on overhead. Even before “Time” came through the comm, the fluorescent fixtures had regrown their strength quickly. She passed along narrow corridors broken by closed-door offices around two large, central rooms.
“You only have access to the North server-room,” Wix reminded. “Once you’re in, pull what you need, then switch the privileges to South server-access.”
By the time he’d finished, she was in. The door shut behind her on a large room cluttered with data racks and terminals. Pristine draperies of bundled cabling poured from the ceilings, tell-tales of such unholy rooms that existed as fashion statements, rather than as altars to that most holy: information.
Such power, squandered and neglected. Aural hated it. Machine-space no corp deserved.
She streaked along an outer row, down abreast lines of server racks to one in particular. A terminal flicked out and her fingers went to work. All the fury of a postdigital child at war fueled her. The stab of keys was her battle-drum, their beating savage. The terminal screen flashed white-on-black text. Commands flowered into processes and calculations. Rocket-fueled bars flashed beneath skipping text-dumps.
All at once, it stopped.
She was reading something. 4-1-8 repeating in her head. Then, movement began again: Slower. Punctuating silences with mechanical frenzy. She checked her watch, set it to twenty seconds, hit “Enter”.
The system was cycling, the authorization switching over. The system itself reset instantly, but it took time for all the checks to go through the thousands of drives, leaving a golden window of thirty-or-so seconds where her stolen ID had both Server rooms’ privileges. If the system had worked otherwise, Aural would’ve had no chance. Not even with Wix on remote.
But fools came in all shapes and sizes, con-men too. One had sold the other a security system without telling them how to run it, its pros and cons. It was equivalent to building a chain-link fence and expecting privacy and enclosure. Never gonna’ happen.
“One for the Angels,” Serling would’ve said. “Just another mark,” the con-man said.
Aural knew the type, couldn’t begrudge ‘em. “Even Hawking fucked around on his wives.” Thing was, someone like her would’ve just used that as an in to fuck Hawking’s wife. So, usually, the message of “don’t be a cock,” was lost regardless of its destination.
Someone like her. But not her.
It could never have been her way. She accepted that. She lived with that. Her way was confined to duality, the day and night. Shadow and not. Like a hag living as a maiden beneath a glamour. It mattered not why, when the time came to burn her alive. Just that she burn. Gods forbid if that formerly-fair-maiden, now burned-alive-hag, had been what kept the pox away.
What’d it matter? They cursed themselves no less when it came, were no less dead, no more deserving of spite for having learned of their mistakes in it.
But Aural was the Hag beneath the glamour. Deceptive, and dangerously so. Truth was, Aural was plain, but good enough looking to disguise the rot in her soul. That was what made her truly monstrous. She knew it, accepted it. Why not? Not like it was going to change. Didn’t matter all the rot came from the gangrene of guardianship. She was the product of an upbringing that fought for what felt right and it had tainted her.
She double checked her watch’s timer, grabbed a drive from bay 418 on her way out, then strolled to the next server room.
“Making good time,” Wix acknowledged.
She’d chosen him to plan the op because he’d do it right. Shift changes, lunch-breaks. That was how he thought: like a wage-slave. Former one, anyhow. He knew the ins of a corp-system, especially if that corp happened to be waging a shadow war against… well, everyone– and he knew how best to exploit those ins. Aural was simply skilled enough to risk her throat doing it.
She was under no delusions. Death would be the least of offenses against her if she were caught by anyone. A specific few would seize any opportunity to turn the public on her. Whomever was unleashed directly would be maneuvered into parading her withering bones about until growing bored and throwing her to what few wolves yet remained.
No amount of connections would change that, political or otherwise.
She found the last terminal, hacked it to locate the data-bay she sought. Moments later, she was out of the server room, door hissing shut in a huff of conditioned air. The lights were back on in the building’s corridors, along with their security cameras. Her face tilted downward, obscuring her features: her clothing the only thing out of place on security cams. Didn’t matter. By the time anyone could move against her she was out of the building, skirting darkness for the getaway.
The box-truck was running down the alleyway, steam pouring from its tail-pipe into the cold air. The door was visibly unlatched, a single strand of light glowing from a dim source within.
Aural was in, pulled up by two pairs of hands: Wix’s half-mutilated face taught with effort, the other Zu’s tight with fury. The kid looked scrawny, barely looked able to withstand a stiff wind, but was rooted when he pulled.
Such details were necessary in a good crew. You couldn’t plan ops without knowing how every operative would react. That’s why breaking up a winning team was suicide, and adding to it, worse. Principles of American Life disseminated worldwide along the worldly-pipes: what Aural’s ilk called the Net. Mostly too, disseminated by Aural’s ilk.
The truck was rolling when the doors shut again. Aural handed the drives off to Wit. His one, wrinkled eye drew up with a half-smile like Two-Face at a bank vault. A hiss of “Shit!” emanated from the truck’s cock-pit, CanUHLynn was reporting in on time.
Something was different. Spitzu’s voice was rumbling quietly. He called her forward, “Aural, man, get up here.”
She was there in an instant, reflexes and guts ready. All the same, nothing could’ve prepared her: A small tablet computer, acting as entertainment, was propped up and velcroed to a console in the dash. On it, a video replaying at the press of Zu’s finger.
A news-vid cut in, an image of a man Aural knew entirely too well. The rest of, too, through her. It would’ve been hard not to, given his associations.
The vid played again, Anchor to one side. “– to Former President Hubert Langley, whom sources say, “passed away in his sleep” last night according to his wife and former First Lady, Barbara. A press-release says–”
Mom? Dad? Her first two thoughts.
The third was the plummeting in her stomach. Weights on her shoulders and the vertiginous feeling of reality collapsing in 3D tunnel-vision accompanied it. Wix and Zu steadied her. Lynn’s hand grounded her, its grip strained on Aural’s as the other wrenched the wheel back and forth to disappear them.
“Laura?” Lynn echoed quietly.
The use of her name ripped her back. Laura Langley was AuralAgent again– at least, in part. The other part was moving slowly toward the rear of the truck.
“I have to call my mom, my dad just died.”
It was a dumb thing to say, she knew. They’d all just learned it together. Still, it seemed integral to accepting things. They let her go without word or ridicule, but each one feeling weight in their chests.
Not exactly the victory party she was hoping for.