Heterocera

Heterocera Excision (2006): Part Two

Perhaps I was overly disparaging in my introduction to part one. There are a few bits of this story that I do still like. Of course, there are also bits that are dreadfully embarrassing. I cannot believe I had a character use the word “noob”. What is he, an eleven year old boy from Kentucky playing Halo on Xbox Live?

Anyway, I hope you are enjoying the story, and if not, at least deriving some amusement from it.

 

Heterocera Excision (Part Two)

Much later I was seated in my apartment, staring at a small package Dubree had somehow had smuggled into my bedroom – lying on my pillow like a damn rose, no less. Mike had returned to his office and I was alone. A small decanter of whiskey sat beside the package and a cigarette was smouldering in my hand. I sat on my sofa, hesitant to take the next step and open the envelope, even though I’d already gone too far to turn back.

The new implants seemed very effective. It hadn’t taken me long to discover that I could shunt the expected functions between the old and new. The surgeon had been damn good, allowing me to shift between higher and lower levels of implant interaction. There were a few new tricks that I liked: a filter allowing my brain to more accurately interpret low-light visual input was one. More excitingly, I now had the ability to attempt subversion of any sufficiently advanced system I had access to. I got the impression that there was more that I was as yet unaware of, but right now I had more pressing concerns than what had been put in my head.

I took a deep breath and flicked the long finger of ash off the end of my cigarette. A hard inhalation through that, accompanied by a gulp of single malt, gave me the determination I needed to tear the end of Dubree’s package open. I shook the contents out onto the coffee table. A small disc, a disposable reader, and a cable. I flipped the reader open and powered it up, slotting the disc into the drive.

The reader OS took only seconds to boot – as had always been customary with Dubree’s organisation, even the disposables are top-notch – and began to scan the disc. It ran up against some hard encryption, but before it could even begin to try and crack it a message popped up on the screen. USE THE CABLE, it said.

I grokked it quickly. One end of the cable slotted into the reader, and the other into me. After another puff and gulp of my favoured poisons, I slid the needle into one of the smaller veins of my forearm.

DNA MATCH CONFIRMED, said the reader’s screen. Then it momentarily displayed TRANSMITTING, before that disappeared and was replaced with PUT THE CABLE IN YOUR HEAD, DICKFACE. I smirked despite myself and yanked the needle out of my arm. I wondered where exactly in my head I was supposed to put the cable, and ended up just sliding it into the nape of my neck. To my surprise something seemed to catch the end of the needle and I was intuitively aware of the presence of the reader on both mental and data levels. I okayed the handshake protocols with the new implants, and from another corner of my mind watched as TRANSMITTING re-appeared on the reader’s screen.

Within seconds it was done. The data rate of the equipment provided to me was almost incredible. After the transfer was complete the implants and my meatware rapidly assimilated the data and I simply knew more than I had before. I knew that had the program not recognised the correct DNA, a microscopic trace of lethal poison in the head of the needle would have been introduced to the bloodstream of the user. The reader would have erased all its memory as well as that of the disc, before fusing the two together in a physical meltdown. Classy security. I was also aware that Dubree had credited an advance sum of cash to my account and that the rest – along with a primer regarding the full capabilities of my new implants – would follow once my target was confirmed dead. Most importantly, I was aware of everything I needed to know in order to hit my target.

It had been learned that the Moth ambassador would be travelling, with escort, through a ceremonial palace early tomorrow afternoon. This was as part of a cultural exchange mission. That mission was cover for a meeting with EarthGov agents on a topic I was not permitted to know. Some part of me outside the datasphere rolled my eyes at that; more damn security.

The ceremonial palace was directly adjoined to a public museum, and access was possible between the two if the automated security systems in the maintenance tunnels could be circumvented. This would not prove to be a problem for my new implants.

The hardest part would be the ambassador’s escort. It was supposed to include an unknown number of golems; vat-grown men cyborged with the brains of mind-wiped criminals . They were blindly obedient and made perfect thuggish servants, but through the palace defence net that could be turned to my advantage. I almost laughed: this all seemed too easy. Before my upgrade it would have been unthinkable, of course.

I leaned back into the sofa, lighting another cigarette, and began to mull over the information provided to me. I had complete maps of the museum, the palace and the connecting tunnels, a full itinerary of the ambassador’s visit, and partial information on his escort and route. The plan was down to me, but now that I had the tools and the data my skills would take care of that.

I was feeling like I was back in the game. In fact, for an instant, I felt like I had never left. Then the sensation was gone, replaced by a reminder that I had a day and a night to plan and prepare for my infiltration of the palace and the assassination of the Moth ambassador.

I went to work.

#

It was very dark in this narrow tunnel, but when my implants filtered the signal from my eyes they easily picked out the laser grid blocking my way. It was easy enough to circumvent. There was a signal receiver box just beyond the beams, and I had the identity protocols for the various types of automated ‘bot that patrolled the area. I decided to impersonate a maintenance unit; that would get me through, but it was low-key enough that any second-order monitoring systems would be less likely to tag it as suspicious. The signal receiver accepted my transmission and okayed me to procede, but I still held my breath as I stepped through the beams. No alarms sounded and no transmissions were detected: I appeared to be safe. I gave the receiver box a quick check as I approached it, but like the others it was not advanced enough to allow me substantial access to the main security net.

I had entered the museum one and a half hours earlier, leaving a reasonable sum of money in the donation box and proceeding immediately to a lesser frequented exhibit, avoiding all security cameras. From here I had located my entry point and had made my way into the maintenance tunnels that ran between the museum and the palace. The museum was a converted wing of the palace, you see, and although the more obvious passageways between the two were blocked off or guarded, the maintenance tunnels had been left open for the roaming maintenance and security infrastructure. Some very potent systems had been put in place, but these were by now more dated than my implants and the countermeasures I had brought along.

A case in point appeared to be approaching. My monitoring systems detected an irregular patter of tiny beats, like heavy grains of sand being poured on a sheet of metal. Passive scans of local wireless traffic confirmed the approach of a swarm of tiny security drones. They were very crude and simple machines, being configured only to scan their local area for anomalies and react in a number of preconfigured ways to such presences. If I, for example, didn’t react to them, they would probably swarm me and attempt injection of either poison or sedative. I’d either be dead or incapacitated and the little drones would yell for something more sophisticated to come along and figure out what I was, and what to do with me.

It wouldn’t come to that. Moving quickly, I unzipped a pocket of my stealth suit – I had worn it beneath my civilian clothes, which I had hidden near the entrance to the tunnels – and retrieved a small pouch. This contained my own swarm of drones. They were not as numerous as the security patrol, but were easily more advanced. I unzipped the pouch and poured them onto the floor. I then sent two simultaneous transmissions, the first activating my small army and relaying my instructions to it, and the second jamming the communication capabilities of the security ‘bots.

The security swarm stopped as soon as I began jamming, frozen in momentary confusion. Then they split into two groups. The larger continued advancing, whilst the smaller began to retreat back down the tunnel, seeking to evade the jamming and send out a warning. This was a textbook reaction and I had planned for it.

My army of drones quickly flanked the larger formation, despatching a number of their own to contain the retreating group. Both swarms closed in and began to tear the security robots apart, hammering them with tiny electromagnets and powered saws. The beleagured drones never had a chance. Although some of them seemed to understand what was happening and attempted to fight back, they were few and weaker besides. Before long my swarm was consuming the debris left by their opponents, concealing evidence of the security swarm’s disappearance. I smiled. I was still kneeling down, holding the unzipped pouch open, and soon the drones began to return, hopping into the pouch and shutting back down.

I wished I had had things like this ten years ago.

When the last of the drones were back in the pouch I sealed it and returned it to my pocket. According to the maps I had been given by Dubree, I was approaching a hub through which I would be able to spoof my way into the security net. And right enough, I rounded a corner, squeezed through an open vent, and was confronted with something indistinguishable from its surroundings. A security hub, placed here to facilitate regular communication with the roaming systems.

A quick interfacing later, the hub’s protective systems were crumbling before the digital onslaught my implants flung at it. Within a minute my sniffer programs were exploring the security net, compiling a map and flagging subsystems I had indicated an interest in. I found a log of communications traffic around the palace; the ambassador would be arriving within the hour. That was more than enough time.

I checked the security net’s fire safety map, slotting another checkpoint into my plan as a result, and then turned my attention to the palace’s golem contingent. Four of them had been tagged for escort duties and were even now being powered up and system-checked. Via their link with the security network, I carefully inserted a number of sub-routines into each of the golems. I had no way of telling which order the golems would be marching in, so it was necessary to regard each as any potential piece of the strategy I was preparing. As a result, I concealed three programs in each of the golem units. I also edited the secure protocol range to permit transmissions from myself, until a counter-signal was received – at which point everything I had just altered would be scrambled, wiped and overwritten a hundred times, rendering the data irretrievable. Almost as an afterthought, I rendered the security systems between the hub and my next position – and between that position and my exit back into the museum – temporarily myopic. The effect would wear off without trace shortly after I intended to be gone, and would make my passage a whole lot easier.

After that it was a simple matter of following the maps I had compiled and making my way up through the tunnels and past the crippled security systems. It did not take long before I reached an air vent that was just large enough to permit me. I crawled inside, and from here I looked down on a large open space: the concourse between the main entrance of the palace and its inner areas. A long red carpet ran between opposite doors, and tall pillars reached up its three-storey height. Objets d’art lined the walls – mostly classical works, in accordance with the architecture.

I cross-checked the various chronometers on my person and in my implants. There remained seven minutes minimum estimate until the target’s arrival. There was nothing else to do but wait, so I waited.

#

There he was: the Moth, my target: an alien. I couldn’t really tell from this distance, but I was thinking that it possessed neither ethereal beauty nor stark inhumanity, as the mundanely polarised newsfeeds would have it. They didn’t really look all that much like moths, either. There was something resembling a proboscis, and perhaps those tightly moulded little pods below what should have been shoulders housed folded wings, but there was not much more to it than that. As I watched, I realised that this creature was walking awkwardly on two legs, and stretched to its full height in this manner it approached the stature of its escort. I also saw that an additional set of legs were clamped tightly to the side of its concave thorax. That explained the awkward gait: they were trying to seem that little bit more like us, perhaps to chip a little bit of our inherent xenophobia away. For aliens that professed to know little about us, they have some good ideas about our psychology – or perhaps species like us are common out there. The Moths have never said.

Then again, perhaps I’m entirely wrong about that. For all I know, they walk on two legs because some tribal custom forbids walking on four outside their own territory. Once again I questioned if my wilful ignorance of the aliens was one of my wisest decisions, six months into a first contact period. I also wonder why Dubree did not provide me with more than minimal information on the aliens. Finally, I cursed myself for being smart enough to get this far, but not smart enough to understand how I was being played – and I had no doubt that I was.

Not that it mattered. I was there, and the Moth would die soon. It and its escort were advancing down the red carpet that bisected the concourse, and it was making a pretence of passing interest in the works of art that line the walls. The party was close to the optimum area, so it was time to set things into motion.

I triggered a catastrophic current overload in the circuitry of one of the leading golems, and its tailored-to-fit suit burst into flames as an electrical fire erupted from its pores. Immediately afterwards I initiated another of my own subroutines in the unit stood next to it. Whilst the rest of the party was frozen in momentary surprise, a second golem reached for the nearby fire extinguisher I had known would be there. I activated another of the viral programmes that had wormed its way deep into the non-man’s system – deep enough to look like some trace of human personality triggered by stress. The golem hoisted and triggered the extinguisher, shouting terse bursts of fire safety training lingo as it doused its companion in CO2.

The next bit I was really proud of. I couldn’t see it happening, but I knew that the golem’s eyes were widening and the pupils dilating, and then it looked at the Moth and screamed. Synaptically enhanced combat training kicked in, and the extinguisher was pointed at the moth. Its limbs flailed as the CO² bombarded its delicate breathing apparatus. Its two spindly legs buckled as its human companions reeled away, gasping for air.

By then the other two golems had pistols in their hands and were pumping flechettes into the rogue. Vat-grown flesh disintegrated into wisps of fat and blood, and then the compromised golem was spun about, its centre of balance lost. The volleys of micro-flechettes continued, pounding the rogue relentlessly, and its features and figure were an indistinguishable mess of pulped flesh. It heaved the extinguisher, still pissing CO² into the air, directly at the spasming Moth. The sound it made when it hit the alien was audible from my hiding place: a surprisingly meaty thud. Some kind of dust puffed out from the alien where the extinguisher struck, but was quickly whisked away by the gusts of CO2. Its spasms were weakening even as the two golems with pistols stepped over it and begin to stamp on the rogue, which was lying unmoving on the floor.

The first golem was still burning. Its flesh had begun to crisp and flake away, revealing the melted circuitry and alloy support skeleton beneath. One of the human escorts was vomiting without the faintest semblence of control, one arm flung out and flailing as though for support. The other had the presence of mind to scurry to cover behind a pillar, and her eyes, widened with terror, peered around at the carnage.

It was almost all over by now. My target was down. From what Dubree’s briefing had stated, there was no way that its respiratory system could have survived even such a short burst of concentrated carbon dioxide. Best of all, the job looked like the sort of sick accident that’s utterly unexpected but bizarre enough to convince. At times of unanticipated stress, golems have been known to crack, the personalities of the mindwiped re-emerging. The electrical fire is a bit more of a stretch, but it has been known to happen. It was a shame I didn’t have the opportunity to open the non-man up and tweak some of its components – make the damage look even more convincing – but by then it was a slagged and smouldering wreck, melted inside and out.

There are just a few more tasks for me to perform, and then I could get out of there. I emitted another tiny, random-coded signal to the fake rogue, ordering it to wipe its memory banks and liquify the grey mass that remained in its skull. Again, this was explicable, and covered my back. Next I sent two more signals directly to the surviving golems. That signal wiped all trace of the sleeper programs that were my insurance, and reset their monitoring systems. Henceforth any signals I sent could be picked up by these two, which were then entirely beyond my control.

I was just in time. The doors at the far end of the hall burst open and more figures came running into the long hall. Not golems, this time – they were human agents from some agency or another. They looked scared and the handguns they carried were dwarfed by their meaty frames. One of them was pointing a transmitter at the golems, dousing them with controlled electromagnetics. The non-men shut down instantly.

It was time for me to go. Leaving the chaos behind me, I slid my way back out along the tiny air duct. The far less professional museum security teams would be initiating an evacuation or lockdown soon, and I needed to be present to ensure the validity of my alibi.

#

Much later, I was stood before Dubree in a nondescript office somewhere. It was not her office. I have never been permitted to see anything approaching a base of operations for her and her associates. I think they occupy properties halfway between bankruptcy and being seized by the state, moving in and out like ghosts over a matter of days or weeks. It was a fair indicator of how much outside agents like myself are trusted.

‘That was a stunning job, Clyde,’ Dubree told me. ‘Little has gone out on public channels, but privately they’re launching their investigations in all the wrong areas. They have techs crawling all over the “malfunctioning” golem units, and I am informed that the techs are already frustrated by how little you left them to work with. United Administration have issued a lawsuit and inquiry into the corporation that manufactured the golems. No-one seriously suspects foul play – this was just a particularly grotesque and unfortunate accident. I think UA are more worried about the Moths, anyway, because it seems their ambassador was supposed to report in some time ago. They want to know what has happened to it.’

I remained silent and kept my face expressionless as Dubree talked. A part of me felt a lot of pride that even after all this time I could pull off a job that well, but the rest of me just wanted to get the rest of my payment and never see this woman or her associates again.

‘There is, however, another problem that has more recently arisen.’

I looked askance at Dubree, and my heartbeat began to increase in frequency.

She sighed. ‘I will ask that you keep this information to yourself, although it is unlikely that you will have the opportunity to tell anyone of it. Nonetheless I am appealing to the mutual respect we share.’

What a crock of shit, I thought. I nodded to her nonetheless, and gave her a faint smile as though I had bought in to her appeal to my better nature. Internally I began to worry about what she meant by the opportunity line.

‘One hour ago I lost contact with the servants I had left at my base of operations. Not long prior to that they sent me word that a package had been delivered, which contained the head of my immediate superior, and a missive accusing me of treachery.’

Now my heart was racing. This was a lot more serious than I had thought.

‘I will admit, Clyde, that I do not know why this is happening, but I do know that my entire network, digital and live, is being eradicated. This will probably include you, and those responsible are probably on their way here now. Loyal as my servants are, one that knew of this meeting will inevitably have squealed. In fact-‘ Dubree paused then and frowned, her eyelids fluttering gently. In my growing panic I somehow found a moment to appreciate the attractiveness of this unconscious movement.

‘In fact,’ she continued a second later, ‘I have now lost contact with several of the outlying sentries I stationed around this property. It is clear that I am the ultimate target here. But we can help each other, Clyde. You will need to trust me more than you ever have before, because I am going to give you two things.’

I was mute. Sweat had begun to bead on my face.

‘The first of these is information on the full capabilities of the implants we have given to you. I hope this will allow you to understand the second, which is a bullet in the head.’

I started here, and simultaneously opened my mouth to protest and turned to run. Then Dubree’s presence forced itself into my mind, overcoming my countermeasures with ease, and squirted a large quantity of information into my consciousness. I froze at the moment of sublime understanding. Dubree unholstered a pistol and raised it to point at my head. Her hand did not shake, not even a little.

In that fragile moment of calm between storms, I wondered at how well I was taking all of this. It appeared that Dubree and I were allies of circumstance, and that I must continue to serve her in order to serve myself. Once again I was being used, because I wasn’t smart enough to figure it all out for myself. Damn it, I thought to myself, I was supposed to get out of this line of work.

But at least this way there was a chance I could survive.

And then, she fired.

[‘Heterocera Excision’, Part Two, Shaun Green, 2006. Cover image from Google Image Search.]

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